Atlanta Braves’ pitcher Jair Jurrjens is enjoying a career year. The 25-year-old right-hander leads the majors with a minuscule 1.75 ERA (min. 70 innings) through 10 starts this season.
Despite this, his advanced statistics tell a very different story…
Or do they?
Jurrjens became the first Curacao native to pitch in the majors when he debuted withthe Detroit Tigers in 2007. He was later traded with Gorkys Hernandez to the Braves for Edgar Renteria.
Prior to the 2008 season, Baseball America ranked Jurrjens as the Braves’ No. 3 prospect, one spot behind Jason Heyward, and ahead of Tommy Hanson (nine), Julio Teheran (10) and Freddie Freeman (19). BA projected him as a No. 3 starter with No. 2 upside, but cited durability as his primary concern.
Of course a lot has changed since then, but it’s worth noting how highly scouts thought of him more than three years ago.
Jurrjens appeared to make great improvements from his rookie 2008 season to 2009, lowering his ERA from 3.68 (in 188.1 innings ) to 2.60 (in 215 innings). Despite this, many of his peripheral numbers were essentially replicated:
- Strikeout Rate: 6.64 (’08), 6.36 (’09)
- Walk Rate: 3.35 (’08), 3.14 (’09)
- FIP: 3.59 (’08), 3.68 (’09)
Jurrjens’ 2009 BABIP (.268) suggested he was the beneficiary of some good luck. His xFIP (4.28)—in comparison to his 2.60 ERA—pointed to a major regression in 2010.
His numbers on the surface did regress in 2010 (4.64 ERA), though he missed all of May and June with a hamstring injury. As expected, Jurrjens’ BABIP rose to the norm (.300). However, His xFIP (4.29), strikeout rate (6.65) and walk rate (3.25) were nearly identical to his 2009 totals.
So despite nearly identical strikeout and walk rates to go along with similar FIP and xFIP totals, Jurrjens’ ERA fluctuated quite a bit from 2008-2010.
- 2008: 3.68 ERA, 3.59 FIP, 3.92 xFIP
- 2009: 2.60 ERA, 3.68 FIP, 4.28 xFIP
- 2010: 4.64 ERA, 4.19 FIP, 4.29 xFIP
Following the 2010 season, Jurrjens sported a career ERA of 3.52. His stellar 2009 campaign could easily be explained by luck, and was therefore an outlier. Assuming he was healthy, it appeared he was entering the 2011 season as a 3.50 ERA pitcher—at best—with a below-average strikeout rate.
Instead, he’s leading the majors in ERA through 72 innings this season, while posting mind-numbing peripherals.
Jurrjens’ BABIP is .266, well-below the league average and almost identical to his 2009 mark of .268. This number is especially shocking considering his current line-drive rate of 20.9 percent.
The similarities between 2009 and 2011 stop there, however. His strikeout and walk rates have both dropped considerably, to 5.50 and 1.38, respectively.
His fastball—which ranked as the majors’ 18th-best in 2009 at 0.69 runs above average per 100 pitches with an average velocity of 91.2 mph—is currently baseball’s sixth-best at 1.70 runs above average per 100 pitches, despite a significant drop in average velocity, to 89.5 mph.
His changeup has actually gained velocity (82.5 mph in ’09, 83.3 in ’11), and has become a more effective pitch. After posting a runs above average total of 6.1 in 2009, his changeup is already 3.2 runs above average this season.
And, opposing batters are making better-than-average contact against Jurrjens, connecting on 85 percent of his pitches they swing at (compared to 81.7 percent in ’09).
So, to sum up: Jurrjens’ average fastball velocity has decreased from 2009 by nearly two mph, but the pitch has become more effective. His strikeout rate has dropped to well-below the MLB average, while his contact rate has increased by more than three percent. Yet his walk rate is third-best among qualified starters.
This combination hardly begins to describe his 1.75 ERA.
But wait, it gets better.
Jurrjens’ FIP (2.80) and xFIP (3.45) scream fluke to his major league-leading ERA.
Or do they?
One season of out-of-whack ERA/FIP/xFIP totals can happen, but two? I’m reminded of Matt Cain, one of the few starters who has consistently defied these advanced statistics.
Like Cain, Jurrjens has a well-below average career BABIP (.281). While he’s not the extreme fly-ball pitcher than Cain is, Jurrjens has a proven track record of allowing very few home runs. In 622.1 career innings, Jurrjens’ HR/FB rate is just 6.9 percent (Cain’s is 7.0 percent).
Because xFIP is a statistic that normalizes home run totals, it’s likely to be a poor indicator of future ERA in pitchers who have a history of allowing very few or a lot of home runs. For this reason, Jurrjens’ xFIP is essentially useless.
If we turn to his FIP as an indication of how good he’s actually been this season, we’re left with a number (2.80) that is very similar to his actual 2009 ERA of 2.60.
To say that Jurrjens is a good sell-high candidate because his 1.75 ERA is unsustainable is a weak statement to make. He’s not Pedro Martinez, so of course he’s going to regress to the mean.
The real question is: How far will he regress?
If you’re willing to believe there are exceptions to the advanced statistics, you could make a strong case for Jurrjens being a sub-3.00 ERA pitcher. Given his current FIP (2.80), 2009 ERA (2.60) and career ERA (3.31), the 25-year-old may wind up proving all the stat heads (myself included) wrong.
From a fantasy value standpoint, his standard stats (7-2, 1.75 ERA, 1.01 WHIP) probably won’t get much better. If you can steal top-five, or even top-10 pitcher value out of him, pull the trigger. Remember, his strikeout rate is pathetic. In fact, a few elite relievers may record more strikeouts than Jurrjens this season.
However, it’s becoming more clear that his injury-riddled 2010 season—not 2009—was his outlier. Consider Jurrjens no worse than a top-20 starting pitcher from here on out.
Image courtesy of: Matthew Wilder via Flickr
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