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Two Steps Back

The Mets managed very little against Johan Santana and the Twins last night, and it's not clear if it has something to do with my new tale of the tape formatting. The local papers say that Jorge Sosa has lost his magic touch, though the reality may just be that the clock has struck midnight and he is turning back into the pumpkin he always was. Last night wasn't completely his fault: his defense kicked the ball around to the tune of four errors, which was about eight games worth of gaffes at their previous pace.

Sosa's ERA is up above 4.00 for the first time as a Met, and I hate to say that it may not dip back under any time soon. The defense stunk and the Twins got more lucky pokes and bounces than I can remember from a single game, but Sosa was the one who lost his composure and issued a walk to an American League pitcher who gets about a dozen plate appearances each year. Sosa has been something of an enigma this season. Of his nine starts, six have been good or great and three have been miserable. Here are his game scores:

58, 59, 73, 31, 52, 63, 77, 29, 19

AP Photo/Kathy Willens
He has had no games with a score between 32 and 51, which are generally considered "mediore-to-decent". With all of the seeing-eye base hits he allowed last night, Sosa, formerly a DIPS darling, saw his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) jump from .211 to .248. DIPS postulates that, in a general sense, pitchers have little control over what happens to a baseball once it is put into play by a batter. In other words, historically great pitchers (Johan Santana) as well as historically lousy pitchers (Jorge Sosa) vary little in their ability to prevent said balls in play from becoming base hits.

The upshot of this somewhat counter-intuitive principle is that the better job a pitcher can do on outcomes that he *can* control (walks, strikeouts, homeruns), the more successful he is going to be overall. As a result, the pitchers who strike out the most, walk the fewest, and keep the ball in the park are typically the most successful. There are contradictions to every rule, and some pitchers consistently outperform their DIPS (or FIP), but most pitchers do not and probability is not likely to work in Sosa's favor. Despite a low-nineties fastball and a very nice slider, Sosa has struck out only 4.89 batters per nine innings, which is just more than one every two innings. His walk rate of 3.04 per nine innings is pretty decent, though not altogether spectacular. Coupled with his pedestrian strikeout rate, Sosa's magic K/BB ratio is just 1.61. Santana's ratio is 4.08, a delightful combination of many strikeouts and few walks that leaves few to wonder why he is one of the best pitchers in baseball every year.

If Jorge Sosa can manage to keep his ERA around the 4.00 mark while eating innings then he certainly has plenty of value to this team, and would still be better than whomever most teams trot out there as their fifth starter. If he is going to alternate great starts with putrid ones, I would just as soon have a pitcher who could just be consistently mediocre (Brian Lawrence anyone?). Sosa has surprised many this season, including myself, with his knack for not being completely awful all of the time. Is it just a coincidence that his last two starts have been his worst as a Met, or is regression to the mean the nasty bitch we heard she was? While it's true that these recent poor showings came against two good teams, the Dodgers and the Twins are hardly offensive juggernauts.

I'm not writing Sosa off just yet, and I'm grateful that he has been able to give the team a number of strong showings where Mike Pelfrey was not.