Paulino Makes me Uneasy


Is everyone having a good time riding the optimism train? Good, now let me be the one to crash it. Just kidding; I like optimism. It allows fans of perennial losers a way to continually reconnect with the team that repeatedly breaks their hearts.

Obviously, optimism is like smack to Royals fans right now. We just can’t get enough of it, and it will probably claim more than a few victims if those pie-in-the sky expectations aren’t met. Oh well, O-T-S-S (Only the Strong Survive).

I was thinking yesterday about regression, since it’s one of the things that may sneak up and ruin the current state of optimism. Bob Dutton wrote a piece about Alex Gordon and Jeff Francoeur and the likelihood that they regress. In a tremendous shock, the hitting coach Kevin Seitzer thinks they won’t—or at least that’s what he told Dutton.

There is one candidate who few are mentioning as a regression candidate who I believe may regress in a big way. In fact, many are talking about him as a breakout candidate, a potential driving force behind the Royals rotation: Felipe Paulino.

It’s interesting to me that few are mentioning him as a regression candidate. I say few because I did read one piece from John J. Parent at Call to the Pen that mentions the possibility of Paulino, who turned 28 in October, regressing. But many, many, many more are on the “Paulino takes a step forward” bandwagon including but not limited to Rany Jazayerli and Michael Engel. Me? I move between the two, but for this piece I want to talk about why he might fail and why no one is seeing it.

Paulino is a sabrmetricians pitcher. Why? Because he strikes people out, he has swing and miss stuff, and seemingly the only knock on him is when hitters put the ball in play against him, it drops for a hit more than one would expect. Sabermetricians call this “bad luck.” For the last two seasons Paulino has had an FIP and xFIP lower than his ERA—in 2011 much lower. Sabermatricians love these pitchers because other people undervalue them, and perhaps Paulino is undervalued.*

*I would like to note that I am neither a sabermetrician (the math’s too hard) nor an enemy of sabermetics. I like sabrmetrics and think it is an extremely effective means of evaluation in many cases … but not all.

But sometimes, and this is not a stance in opposition of sabermetrics or statistics in general, there are elements that we as observers cannot or do not understand based on our perspective. Sometimes we’re too deep into the trees to see the forest. Sometimes we can see the forest but no trees. Sometimes we’re at a beach where there are no trees.

To me, Paulino seems to be a candidate who may defy the principle sabrmetrics is really built on—inductive reasoning.* Sabermetricians use slices of a pitchers performance that exist entirely within his control (strikeouts, walks, home runs allowed) and attempt to use those numbers to project overall performance. I’ve often written articles that champion a player as undervalued and ready to breakout because I saw something in his peripheral numbers that I thought gave hope to his overall performance. And often times, it works … but not always (For our purposes, I’ll use ERA for overall performance of pitchers because to me the overall objective of a pitcher is to not give up runs).

*For all the logicians reading, if I’ve misused this phrase I apologize, but it seemed to fit my point at the time.

Paulino is an example of how we may be seeing trees and missing forests. Here are some interesting facts. 1) Paulino has never had an ERA under 4 in the major leagues. 2) Before last season, he had never had an ERA under 5.11. And most importantly 3) His career ERA is 5.28 while his career FIP is 4.18. Of course, some could say that he’s moving toward his career FIP now that he has a good defense behind him. His ERA with the Royals was 4.11 so maybe he has figured something out and will begin to meet the potential many stat hounds see in him on a consistent basis. But he never has before.

And that’s the crux of why I’m uncertain about Paulino and why I see him as a candidate for regression. Throughout the entirety of his career, he’s never been a consistent performer. Yes, he strikes guys out. But if he’s going to strike out eight hitters a game and give up five runs doing it, I’d rather he not be pitching. Sometimes, and I know it’s hard to read, there are things that get lost in the translation between the small slices of stats and the overall performance. Sometimes, pitchers give up runs for reasons we can’t fully predict or understand, not immediately anyway. Sometimes, pitchers are successful for reasons we can’t fully understand. Paulino may be that guy who should have always been consistently good but never was. I feel like that might be the case looking at his overall track record of mediocrity.

There have been a few guys, even in the era of sabermetrics, who for some reason, never fulfilled their potential, never lived up to the hype. Why? Because they had something about them or their game that eluded analysts, statistical or otherwise. When hitters put balls in play against Paulino, the get hits at a high rate. Many statisticians call this “luck,” but some pitchers have consistently high BABIPs. You can’t call it “luck” if it happens all the time. This could be the thing about Paulino’s game that doesn’t match the dogma so we don’t understand it. Or maybe it’s something else.

OR he may breakout and help the Royals win the World Series. This is the scenario I’m hoping for. I’m just open to the possibility that it may not occur. I know a lot of people are driving the Paulino bandwagon because so many have claimed to like him for so long (Right, just like you liked that band before everyone else. I got it). But don’t be surprised if he takes a step backward this season.

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