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Is Ernesto Frieri poised for a rebound?

It depends on the value of a fly ball.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Rays have signed former closer Ernesto Frieri to an incentive-laden major league contract, making him the next in a long line of talented but flawed pitchers that the Rays have brought on as reclamation projects. Many, but not all, of these pitchers have been successfully reclaimed. Will Frieri be the next? What makes the Rays think it's worth looking past his 7.34 ERA from last season?

Home Run per Fly Ball Regression

This part is simple, but it still has to be said. Last season, fly balls became home runs at a rate of around 9.5%. The league's HR/FB rate is always somewhere around there. Here is Frieri's major league career.

2009 2.0 0.0%
2010 31.2 4.7%
2011 63.0 3.6%
2012 66.0 12.9%
2013 68.2 11.8%
2014 41.2 19.3%
Total 273.0 10.3%

One of those things is not like the others, and the Rays probably think that the 2014 mark is an aberration, or at least the manifestation of both poor luck and a correctable problem. That's not an uncommon bet for sabermetrically inclined teams to make. When a pitcher posts a HR/FB rate much different than the average (not to mention his average) in a sample size too small to draw firm conclusions from, chances are that he'll regress toward that average rate going forward.

So many fly balls!

Over his career, Frieri has struck out 31.4% of the batters he faced while walking 10.9%. That's a lot of strikeouts but it's too many walks. That means that his fielding-independent-pitching metrics are good but mostly not great. Even if you believe the home runs will stabilize, a 3.72 xFIP isn't much to get excited about.

In the table below, I've shown each year's basic fielding-independent metrics, FIP and xFIP, but have put them next to SIERA, which is a more complex (and more accurate) ERA estimator than FIP or xFIP.

2009 2.0 0.00 2.60 4.57 4.51
2010 31.2 1.71 2.92 3.76 3.12
2011 63.0 2.71 3.28 4.34 3.39
2012 66.0 2.32 3.58 3.36 2.48
2013 68.2 3.80 3.72 3.49 2.63
2014 41.2 7.34 5.41 3.67 2.96
Total 273.0 3.46 3.74 3.72 2.87

Now usually, SIERA and xFIP mirror each other pretty closely, but Frieri is one of those few unusual cases where they do not. While xFIP thinks of him as a decent pitcher, SIERA views Frieri as a dominating bullpen stopper. Why the disagreement?

It's all about the extremes. You can think of SIERA as a version of xFIP that, rather than throwing out balls in play, attempts to learn something from them. Whereas xFIP simply looks at strikeouts and walks and then assumes a league average HR/FB rate and a league average BABIP, SIERA tries to guess what those numbers should be based on all of the data available (strikeouts, walks, and batted ball data mainly). The most interesting finding is that extremes matter:

  • Pitchers who strike out an extreme percentage of batters are also better at creating weak contact, so they often enjoy a better BABIP and a better HR/FB. This makes intuitive sense because the same skills that allow a pitcher to fool hitters into striking out allow him to fool them into not making solid contact.
  • Pitchers who produce an extreme number of ground balls tend to also produce weaker ground balls overall, so they often enjoy a better BABIP. This makes intuitive sense because if batters are consistently swinging over the pitch, they're also likely swinging over it by a greater amount (choppers pounded into the turf).
  • Pitchers who produce an extreme number of fly balls tend to also produce weak fly balls overall, so they often enjoy a better BABIP and smaller HR/FB. This makes intuitive sense because if batters are consistently swinging under the pitch, they're also likely swinging under it by a greater amount (sky-high fly balls coming down in the short outfield).

And now back to Ernesto Frieri. Over the 273 innings of his career, he's posted a 54.9% fly ball rate. Last season, the average was 34.4%. When I limit the FanGraphs leaderboards to pitchers with only 30 innings pitched last season, I see that there were only three pitchers who had a higher mark: Sean Dolittle, Chris Young, and our own Juan Carlos Oviedo. If I try to do away with the small sample size issue and look at players who have logged at least 250 innings since 2009, we get the same result. There are only two players on the list ahead of Frieri (Chris Young and Tyler Clippard -- with Joel Peralta a few spots down on the list).

Extreme groundball pitchers have long been recognized as a valuable commodity, and that means that they're not really undervalued. Extreme fly ball pitchers, on the other hand, are less highly prized, although by linear weights, a fly ball and a ground ball are roughly equal in value (fly balls go for hits less often, but for extra base hits more often than ground balls).

Frieri is basically the most extreme fly ball pitcher in all of baseball, and if you believe that being an extreme fly ball pitcher is a good thing (particularly when pitching in a park that suppresses home runs, in front of an outfield patrolled by both Desmond Jennings and Kevin Kiermaier), then he's a prime candidate for a rebound.

All statistics from FanGraphs.