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May 15, 2007

Newberg Report Special: Checking In On Omar Poveda

I wrote the following about Clinton pitcher Omar Poveda on April 5th:

“I expect wonderful things from him in 2007. Now 19, he already has a full-length season under his belt when most players his age are still in extended Spring Training. He also pitched much better last season than his 4-13 record and 4.88 ERA would suggest, as his peripheral stats were very solid. Perhaps his defense let him down: 31% of grounders against him ended up hits, compared to only 25% for the Midwest League as a whole.?

Omar Poveda has lowered his ERA from 4.88 in 2006 to a sparkling 2.51 this season. Interestingly, his three basic peripherals (homers, walks and strikeouts) indicate little to no improvement. His strikeout rate has increased very slightly (21% in ’07 versus 20% in ‘06), but he’s walking more batters (8% vs. 6%) and is on pace to allow nine more homers than last year. What explains his huge decrease in ERA? I have some ideas:

1. Better Defense

In 2006, Clinton allowed opposing batters to hit .331 on balls in play (homers and strikeouts excluded) compared to .310 for the Midwest League. This year, Clinton’s hit rate has plummeted to .304. The difference equates to about 25 hits in 34 games this season. That’s huge.

Likewise, the LumberKings have improved greatly at leaving runners on base. 44 pitchers qualified for the Midwest League’s ERA title in 2006. The three worst at stranding runners were Jake Rasner, Zachary Phillips, and Poveda, all L-Kings. In 2007, Poveda ranks 7th best among 55 qualifiers, and every starter but Michael Ballard is among the top 25%.

Strand rates and hit rates on balls in play don’t hinge entirely on defense. The quality of the pitchers, their ground/fly tendencies, and plain old luck also play roles. But I believe it’s safe to conclude that Clinton’s defense is turning more batted balls into outs this season.

2. Luck

Poveda currently holds a hit rate on balls in play of .188, lowest in the Midwest League. No MWL qualifier finished last season under .257, and Poveda’s was .355. Numerous studies have shown that pitchers have far less influence over this rate than strikeouts, walks and homers. Thus, Poveda’s huge decline in hit rate on balls in play may be partially due to improved performance but is largely a function of luck. He almost certainly can’t maintain such a low hit rate in the long run.

With a hit rate on balls in play of .304 (the team rate) instead of his .188, I estimate Poveda would have an ERA of 3.40, still good, but well above his actual ERA of 2.51.

3. Bizarre Batted-Ball Patterns (i.e., More Luck)

Poveda has exhibited a pronounced fly ball tendency this season. Fly-prone pitchers can and do succeed in the Majors, but, other factors being equal, pitchers who induce more grounders are preferable (especially considering Texas prospects’ final destination of Rangers Ballpark, where fly balls reach the seats with alarming frequency).

In Poveda’s case, the simple ground/fly ratio hides some strange and significant information. As you know, popups are an ideal result for a pitcher since they almost never land safely. In the Midwest League, approximately 20% of fly balls are popups caught by an infielder. The Major League rate is about 22%. As noted by Lone Star Ball’s Adam Morris, fly-prone Barry Zito has a special talent for inducing popups. In 2006, 32% of his fly balls failed to reach the outfield.

Poveda’s popup rate as a percentage of all fly balls is an astounding 47%.

Poveda also has an extraordinarily low line drive rate of 6%, compared to 14% in 2006. Typical for the MWL is between 12%-13%. About 75% of line drives are base hits, often as doubles and triples, so minimizing them is key.

The vital question is: Do Poveda’s high popup rate and low line-drive rate indicate skill or luck?

To provide an answer, or at least some context, I reviewed last year’s top five in ERA plus two others in the top five in Run Average (which includes unearned runs). The average pop/fly ratio was 22%, and none was higher than 27%. Poveda’s is 47%. No pitcher had a line drive rate below 11%, while Poveda’s is a miniscule 6%.

That doesn’t absolutely prove that Poveda can’t maintain his current rates, but he is definitely bucking some very long odds.

I’m not foretelling Poveda’s imminent meltdown. I’m not even suggesting that Poveda isn’t pitching well, for he most certainly is. He’s just not pitching quite as well as his 2.51 ERA suggests. I’m hopeful that he can maintain his strong performance even as the flukiness of some of his peripherals dissipates.

Poveda takes the mound at noon today.

Posted by Lucas at May 15, 2007 10:42 AM