Tonight in St. Petersburg, Jeremy Guthrie is going to toe the rubber as the Orioles open up their 2011 season against the Rays. It will be Guthrie's third Opening Day start for the Orioles and the start of his fifth season in Baltimore. On a day that is baseball's equivalent to the torch-lighting ceremony that opens the Olympics, Guthrie is a guy who, well, feels a little out of place representing the Orioles.
He's not one of the young arms that the Orioles' future is hinged on. He's not one of the all-time great Orioles (his innings pitched for the Orioles are on par with Robin Roberts, and nobody even remembers that Roberts played for the Orioles). Guthrie's also not even the best pitcher in the Orioles rotation (and perhaps not even the hypothetical best pitcher on the Norfolk Tides). Most descriptions of Guthrie will say something along the lines of "A solid #2 or 3 starter, unfortunately pressed into being the ace of a fledgling Orioles rotation". He comes off, in a lot of ways, as not very special.
In short, what I'm saying here is that Jeremy Guthrie is terribly, terribly underrated. In fact, Jeremy Guthrie is one of the most underrated players in baseball. Did you know that in 2010, only 9 pitchers in all of baseball had a lower on-base percentage against than Guthrie? Or that during his stay in Baltimore, he's 9th in baseball in that category (Very large hat tip to Dempsey's Army for that factoid)? Jeremy Guthrie gets batters out at the same pace as Justin Verlander, but without the accolades!
But the fact that this is probably Guthrie's last Opening Day start for the Orioles, and could very well be the beginning of his last year in Baltimore makes this the perfect time to recognize the man. Today, let's salute Jeremy Guthrie: Baltimore Oriole.
"Luck" is a concept that we humans struggle with. Our brains aren't wired to think in terms of randomness and probability. We find patterns and storylines perhaps too easily, and we downplay or ignore the overwhelming (and scary) amount that luck affects our lives. Baseball of course is no different.
Jeremy Guthrie has a record of 38-48, all of those decisions coming for the Orioles. The über-traditionalist will tell you that that is a miserably bad record, and therefore Jeremy Guthrie is a miserably bad pitcher. The savvy baseball fan will correct that traditionalist and say that Guthrie, in terms of wins and losses, is simply unlucky. He's unlucky that he's pitched in front of bad defensive teams and bad offensive teams and bad bullpens. His ERA is, after all, 4.15, better than many respected pitchers (like, say, 200 game winner Kenny Rogers), and don't forget the on-base percentage against!
The more advanced stat-leaning baseball fan will then jump in and say that Guthrie is lucky to have such a low ERA, that his "peripherals" indicate that he's a much more mediocre pitcher, closer to Pat Hentgen or Paul Byrd or (gulp) Adam Eaton.
I can already feel Jim Palmer's eyes rolling at the idea that any pitcher's success can be cast aside as "lucky".
The "peripherals" bit points to one of the central tenets of sabrmetrics: defense independent pitching. Basically, any baseball play that requires the defense to step reduces the pitcher's role in the outcome dramatically. The stat in question is Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP), and the idea is that the overwhelming majority of pitchers will have ball in play averages around .300. For example: Zack Greinke and Mark Hendrickson have the exact same career BABIP.
I can hear your sarcastic thoughts: "Oh, ANOTHER sabrmetrics lesson from stupid old Andrew". But wait, because what makes Jeremy Guthrie good, what makes him supremely interesting is that he thumbs his nose at the statisticians. Guthrie only allowed a ball in play average of .255 last year, 2nd in the AL. For his career it's a still remarkable .271. That's a far cry from the supposed standard of .300.
Is Jeremy Guthrie simply very lucky year after year after year? It's possible to flip a coin 20 times and get 20 heads, but after 15 or so, you're probably checking to make sure it's not a trick coin, right? Jeremy Guthrie's big secret is actually one of the first things about him that caught my eye: his fastball. I can remember sitting in a bar in upstate New York watching a younger Guthrie throw that fastball and being fascinated with the late life on the pitch. Nowadays, he doesn't get a whole lot of swings and misses with any of his pitches (a 5.3% swinging strike rate is below average), but batters simply can't make strong contact on the fastball. In 2010, the fastball induced a .246 ball in play average while the other pitches checked in at .294. Jeremy Guthrie throws a deadball-era fastball.
I'm fascinated all over again. What is it about Jeremy Guthrie's fastball that makes it so much more special than the combined repertoires of any other starting pitcher in baseball? I have no idea, but the fact that it is that special - that he is that special - has me all the more stoked to go out and watch him pitch Opening Day for the Orioles tonight.
Jeremy Guthrie is the only pitcher starting on Opening Day 2011 that was acquired by his team off the waiver wire. He's also the only pitcher starting on Opening Day 2011 who spent two of his most important years (in athletic terms) not even touching a baseball because he was on a Mormon mission in Spain. He's traveled an odd path to get to this point, and he's gone very much under the radar even on his own team, where he's played very well on terrible teams and is now being overshadowed by the arrival of "the cavalry".
A lot of people don't appreciate luck. We're very lucky to have Jeremy Guthrie, and today - of all days - is a day to remember that.