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On Pat Neshek and sustainability

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Neshek's incredibly low BABIP has fueled some brilliant seasons. However, can he sustain it?

Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

When I was working on my article on 'how many games will the Houston Astros win', I spent a lot of time looking at ZiPS and Steamer projections. One of the things that surprised me the most, was how low they both were on Pat Neshek. Neshek has had several great years and is coming off of a career year. In all four years - if we count his season with the Padres - he has massively outperformed his FIP and xFIP, more likely than not down to his incredibly low BABIP.

Returning to the aforementioned projections. ZiPS project an ERA of 3.51 and Steamer project an ERA of 3.45 for Neshek, both well north of the ERA of 1.87 he posted last season. Naturally, I looked into it a little more. The answer was rather obvious. ZiPS project a BABIP of .290 and Steamer project a BABIP of .283 next season. Both, again, well north of the .233 BABIP he posted last season. Typically, projection systems assume that pitchers will see their BABIP gravitate towards the league average. But, can Neshek sustain his incredibly low BABIP? First, let's look at his BABIP, year by year.

2011 2012 2013 2014 Career
.231 .137 .268 .233 .232

To make a rather simple inference: Neshek has consistently posted a low BABIP. Year, after year, Neshek has yielded a minimal amount of hits on balls in play. But, we all knew that. Has he been getting lucky? Or, does he actually have a talent for maintaining it? Let's look into it a little more. The first thing to consider is: with a career BABIP of .232, it wouldn't be too off base to assume that he can sustain it next season. His 2014 season - largely helped by his low BABIP - wasn't a fluke, or anything similar.

More likely than not, Neshek's IFFB% has something to do with it. Last season, of the 92 fly balls Neshek allowed, a whopping 17.4% were in the infield - ranking him eighth among all relievers. That's a lot of balls in play which were easy outs. Secondly, Neshek had a FB% of 54.1 - ranking him second among all relievers. It's a well documented fact that flyballs result in hits less often than ground balls. Neshek sports a modest GB% of 35 - less ground balls means less hits on balls in play, right? Typically, yes, fly balls will do more damage, but, when 17.4% of them are in the infield, the damage will be limited.

The most dangerous, and undeniably the worst type of batted ball is a line drive. In allowing a mere LD% of 11.2, Neshek was, once more, second best in all of baseball - second to only Jonathan Broxton. So, to infer something meaningful from all that batted ball data: Neshek has a pretty solid case for sustaining a low BABIP. He has a really high IFFB%, a miniscule LD%, and allows a lot more fly balls than ground balls. All in all, Neshek shouldn't be giving up too many hits on balls in play. Note: 18th lowest GB%, and the highest % for the rest.

Batted ball Rank among relievers
IFFB% 8th
FB% 2nd
GB% 18th
LD% 2nd

While his batted ball numbers are impressive, there's something rather special about Neshek. Anybody who has any form of appreciation for baseball has to love Neshek's delivery. His quirky, sidearm, submarine-esque delivery - in fact, I can't really describe it, it's so bizarre - is really a work of art. There's nothing quite like it in the game right now. It's so difficult to describe, I'll let the Baseball Think Factory describe it for me, who, for the record have loved Neshek and his delivery since 2007, when this was written. I've also, at the end, added in a comment from a reader which I felt was interesting:

He doesn't exactly follow the "book" on what you're supposed to do mechanically. No kidding.

1) He doesn't keep his posture well. Notice how his torso is up, then he bends down like he's going WAY low, and then pops back up and delivers completely sidearm.

2) Doesn't exactly close his hips up does he? No leg kick either.

3) His elbow ends up a little lower than his shoulder. Also note the unusual finish. I cut out the final few frames (I shouldn't have), but when you see him pitch next time, notice the Shooter McGavin finger point at the end of his delivery. It's hilarious and intimidating at the same time.

"Thanks for the great breakdown. I have always liked pitchers that try things a bit different. I think there is something to be said for taking the hitters out of their comfort zone. One of the cases that springs to mind is Sid Fernandez and his crazy low BABIP."

As you can tell, his mechanics and his delivery are certainly quirky. But, more importantly, they are extremely effective. And, regarding the comment, the latter statement is what appealed to me: Sid Fernandez and his "crazy low BABIP." Sid, who was also the owner of a quirky delivery, had a career BABIP of .247 - which, I'm assuming, had a lot to do with his unique mechanics. The same could hold true for Neshek. His delivery, surely, must make it hard for hitters to get a good read on the ball, and hence make good, hard contact.

Another interesting thing to note: changing speeds is a pivotal part of the game for any pitcher. Changing speeds often, makes it hard to make solid contact - unless the hitter gets the pitch he was sitting on. Neshek throws a fastball in the mid-to-low nineties, yet often throws his changeup under seventy miles per hour. A huge difference. Regarding soft contact, it's another well documented fact that strikeout pitchers generate softer contact. Neshek posted a K/9 of 9.09 last season, and has a career K/9 of 9.07 - also, an IFFB is essentially a strikeout. So, of the few ground balls, for example, that he yields, it's quite probable that the contact that has been made was soft contact. Soft contact equals fewer hits on balls in play.

Considering all facets of the game: Neshek can legitimately sustain an extremely low BABIP. From the batted ball numbers, to the quirky mechanics, to the inevitable soft contact. His low BABIP may be extremely atypical, it may scream regression - like the projection systems do - but it's here to stay. And, if his low BABIP is sustained, like I expect it to, Neshek should be in line for another great year. The new look bullpen, featuring Neshek, will go a long way to helping the Astros reach the playoffs, after all.