Sunday, May 24, 2009

20/20 Hindsight: The Great Steve Avery Experiment

Well, it's time to turn back the clock a decade to the year 1999.

George Lucas had just started destroying the Star Wars saga with a new trilogy. Christina Aguilera was a Genie in a Bottle and Ricky Martin was living La Vida Loca. President Clinton survived an impeachment trial and the infamous blue dress. In the Queen City the Reds were still in the clutches of Jim Bowden and were just emerging from the long shadow of Marge Schott. However, Bowden was still relying on his familiar team building model, as he continued to pull reclamation projects off the scrap heap in hopes of forming a viable starting rotation. His most interesting effort during the 1999 season was former Atlanta Brave phenom Steve Avery.


Steve Avery joined the Reds in 1999 after posting ERAs of 6.42 ERA in 1997 and 5.02 in 1998 for the Boston Red Sox. Avery needed a job and Bowden, as always, needed a starting pitcher. And, in the first month of the season, it appeared to be a match made in heaven.

Avery started out white hot for the Reds. He made 5 starts in April, pitching at least 7.0 innings in all 5 games. As the calendar flipped over to May, Avery had a 2.02 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP in 35.2 innings. At that point, I was convinced. I bought into Avery hook, line, and sinker. I was convinced that he was returning to prominence, that he was back to the form that made him one of the most promising young pitchers in baseball. His velocity wasn't what it used to be, but I thought his change-up and guile were driving his success.

Unfortunately, all was not what it seemed.


Back in 1999, the wave of enlightenment created by statistical analysis had yet to reach the baseball world. At that point, most fans didn't yet have the tools to accurately evaluate the performance of players. As one of those fans, I fell under the spell of the white hot April that Avery posted.

At the time, I wasn't able to identify the luck that went into his performance, but rather bought into the team dependent stats and the small sample size that made up his performance. The 2.02 ERA and 1.07 WHIP are very impressive, but modern metrics have revealed them to be poor indicators of actual performance. Now, looking back at Avery's performance, it doesn't take long to see it for what it was and what it ultimately proved to be: good luck.

During April, Avery posted a lackluster K/BB ratio of 1.1. His strikeout rate was acceptable at 5.4 strikeouts per nine innings, but his walk rate was problematic at 4.9 walks per nine. Obviously, walking almost as many as you strike out is a red flag.

In addition, there were other red flags. Obviously, his success didn't come from limiting runners who reached base via the base on balls and it didn't come from limiting contact, and hence base hits, through a high strikeout rate. No, Avery's success came from an absurdly fortunate hit rate.

During the month of April, Avery sported a Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) of .188, which should have been roughly .100 points higher. His good fortune could also be seen in his unsustainable strand rate, as he posted an April LOB% of 82.9%. His good fortune in hit rate prevented runners from reaching base and prevented those who did reach base from scoring.

Not surprisingly, Avery's Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) was only 4.36, which was much more reflective of his actual level of performance than his paltry 2.02 ERA.


It's quite remarkable how much the way we view the game of baseball has evolved over the past decade. The new wave of statistical analysis has completely changed the way we look at the game, as it has altered the way players and performance are evaluated. It has brought a greater understanding of what is important and how all the individual events fit together to form the game.

Looking back now, it's obvious that Avery was building castles in the sky, as his component statistics simply didn't support his level of performance. Unfortunately, at the time no one knew how to properly analyze a player's performance. Instead, improper weight was placed on his team dependent statistics. Unfortunately, but inevitably, the stunning April was ultimately revealed to be nothing more than a mirage. As the sample size increased, Avery came back to earth and was soon out of baseball. The great story of Steve Avery's comeback and reemergence was not to be and Bowden was left to scour the scrap heap for another reclamation project.

Unfortunately, the great Steve Avery experiment didn't pan out, but at least now it will be easier for baseball organizations and fans to identify players whose great month of production is attributable to nothing more than good luck.

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