Behind the numbers: Cal’s 2020 pitching staff

Infographic depicting Cal baseball's fielding independent pitching in 2020, by Aasha Turner
Aasha Turner/Staff

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In between the ode to head coach Mike Neu and the memorials to the Cal alumni who saved the program, way back above the left-center gap, sit six numbers. After every game, those six numbers tell a story.

Those numbers, representing the hits, runs and errors of the home and visiting teams, can show so much, from the game’s winner to how each pitcher fared. Yet, they are also severely limiting, often failing to accurately portray the successes of teams and the players who field them. 

Over the past few decades, baseball fanatics and previously doubtful baseball franchises have embraced new statistics that go into extreme depth to show the value of individual player and team performances. These new stats (the analysis of which has been dubbed sabermetrics) are not found on any normal box score or game day program. 

And while many of these stats are easily accessible for major league clubs and fans, they still remain elusive for the average college baseball follower. 

Cal baseball’s 2020 season wasn’t exactly going according to plan before the campaign was canceled. Heading into their first conference series, the Bears sat at 5-11, having lost all four of their weekend series. The underclassman-dependent team struggled to stay consistent on both sides of the ball but still showed flashes of promise when clicking right. 

While the team’s .226 batting average and 4.89 ERA can write part of the narrative for its 2020 season, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. For that, we have to look deeper — behind the numbers. 

A young pitcher’s paradise

While the 2020 season might not have been a paradise for pitchers looking for wins on their stat sheets, it did provide an opportunity for many young pitchers to eat up some quality innings. 

More than 86% of Cal’s innings were thrown by underclassmen, including more than a quarter by freshmen. Despite its lack of experience, the pitching core posted decent numbers, with 8.33 strikeouts per nine innings, a .257 batting average against and only eight home runs allowed. 

Perhaps the most unsightly number was the team’s 4.89 total ERA — the worst in the Pac-12. However, Cal’s ERA doesn’t tell the whole story; in fact, it can be quite misleading. 

The Bears’ fielding independent pitching, or FIP, was just 3.58, nearly 1.5 points lower than their ERA. FIP, a pitching stat introduced in just the last few decades, measures only the outcomes in a pitcher’s “control”: home runs, strikeouts and walks. This stat attempts to standardize any differences in defensive play, luck and the sequence of events.

The difference between Cal’s ERA and FIP tells a story, one that wrongly characterizes the Bears’ pitching staff. The lower FIP shows that the team seemingly didn’t deserve its high ERA, and it experienced its fair share of unluckiness on the mound. 

Then-sophomore Grant Holman may have earned the dubious honor of being Cal’s unluckiest pitcher. The standout utility player started four games in the 2020 season, posting a 2.21 FIP (3.28 ERA), 0.973 walks and hits per inning pitched, or WHIP, and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 5 in a team-high 24.67 innings. Despite the terrific peripherals, Holman commanded just a 1-3 record, partly a result of receiving an average of only 1.75 runs of support in his starts.

Holman wasn’t the only Bear to boast a successful shortened 2020 campaign, however. The breakout of the dynamic duo between Nick Proctor and Joseph King in Cal’s bullpen dramatically improved its pitching outlook moving into the future. Proctor (11 games, 1.75 FIP, 12.2 strikeouts per nine innings) and King (seven games, 1.16 FIP, 13.5 strikeouts per nine innings) were both stalwart relievers and quickly became Neu’s go-to pitchers in tough situations. King’s overpowering statistics and strong intangibles earned him a place on Collegiate Baseball’s freshman All-American team. 

Cal’s high batting average on balls in play, or BABIP, was another sign that its pitchers performed better than their top-line stats indicated. BABIP measures exactly what it sounds like it would: non-home-run hits divided by the number of balls hit into play. Like FIP, BABIP can reveal how much luck or defensive skill plays a role in a pitcher’s statline.

According to FanGraphs, the league average for BABIP hovers around .300. In other words, 30% of balls in play fall for hits. As a team, Cal boasted an incredible .319 BABIP, way above the normal distribution of players, who usually fall between .290 and .310. 

Although the sample size is small, this means that nearly 32% of balls hit against Cal pitchers fell for a hit in the team’s first 16 games. This could be caused by multiple factors, including poor defensive play (e.g., defenders having little range) or just flat-out unluckiness, with many bloop swings resulting in hits. Whatever the case, many more balls in plays were landing for hits, therefore leading to more base runners and, in turn, more runs against. Cal’s BABIP of .319 could itself have been one of the main causes of the stark difference between its ERA and FIP. 

The squad’s high BABIP couldn’t be explained by a few outliers, either. Nearly 60% of Cal’s pitchers had a BABIP of more than .300, showing that most of Cal’s staff was truly pitching better than most of the numbers implied. 

Pitch counts count

The importance of throwing strikes, and balls outside the strike zone in certain cases, has been a well-acknowledged tool for pitchers for a long time. The use of advanced analytics and statistics has revealed even more about the role command plays in different situations. 

This remains the case when looking at Cal baseball’s 2020 stats. Of the 14 games with pitch count data, the Bears threw a first-pitch strike 60.5% of the time. Yet, there were stark differences between different players and their abilities to throw first-pitch strikes, a trend that appeared to correlate with their overall success.

King and Proctor led the team in first-pitch strike percentages, both getting ahead in the count more than 70% of the time. Starters Holman, Sean Sullivan and Sam Stoutenborough rounded out the top five on the squad with percentages hovering around 65. Not surprisingly, these five players boasted some of the lowest ERAs on the team, pointing to the considerable significance of first-pitch command.

Interestingly, however, a 0-0 count may not have been the most important count to throw a strike on for the Bears. Below lies a breakdown of the percentage of times a positive pitching event (out, strikeout, fielder’s choice, error, etc.) occurred in specific counts. 

1-0+: 0.6875         1-1+: 0.680         1-1+: 0.680

0-1+: 0.6842         2-0+: 0.625         0-2+: 0.885

As seen above, the difference in positive outcomes between throwing a strike and throwing a ball on the first pitch (therefore creating a 1-0 or 0-1 count) is negligible. However, there seems to be greater importance on throwing a strike on a 1-0 count, as there is nearly a 6% difference in positive outcomes between 1-1 and 2-0 counts. 

Above all, getting the opposing batter into a two-strike hole produced the best results, netting nearly a 20 percentage point difference in positive outcomes over a 1-1 count. Although these results are somewhat expected, as an 0-2 count clearly puts the batter at a disadvantage, the stats only reinforce the advantages that arise in different counts. 

Cal pitchers were only able to turn a good situation into a great situation (0-1 to 0-2) in 57.7% of one-strike situations. Following the trends of throwing first-pitch strikes, Stoutenborough and Holman also led the team in strike percentage in 0-1 counts, at 65.6 and 63.6, respectively. Holman also had the ability to dig himself out of a hole, leading the Bears with an 83.3 strike percentage on 1-0 counts.

Given the small sample size of just 14 games, these trends may not completely hold over an entire season. Yet, they can still provide a window into the underlying factors of the success and shortcomings of Cal pitchers.

A strong return

Despite the hype around Cal’s strong lineup, the pitching staff proved to be the strength of the 2020 squad. Now, with nearly the whole staff returning for this upcoming season, all eyes have shifted to Neu’s pitchers to lead the charge in 2021.

Amazingly, Cal returns 98% of its innings — all but three — from last year’s team. The staff’s one-two-three punch of juniors Stoutenborough, Holman and Sullivan will make up the weekend rotation, which figures to be one of the strongest and deepest on the West Coast. 

King and Proctor will return as the two-headed monster out of the bullpen, assisted by budding stars Vaughn Mauterer, Josh White and Ian Villers. With the addition of incoming freshmen and players coming back from injuries, the 2021 pitching staff may be Neu’s very best yet.

The lack of a full preseason will most likely heavily affect Cal’s bats, most of whom haven’t seen live pitching in nearly a year. This will place a lot of pressure on the Bears to produce on the mound, especially early in the season. Yet, Cal’s pitchers will be up for the challenge and ready to stuff the stat sheet — both on the scoreboard and behind the numbers.

Noah Parker covers baseball. Contact him at [email protected].