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Everything I Know, I Learned At Sky Harbor Airport

"WHAT WAS THAT SOUND? IS THAT THE ENGINE???? Oh it was you, ma'am? No prob."
"WHAT WAS THAT SOUND? IS THAT THE ENGINE???? Oh it was you, ma'am? No prob."
Mark Nolan

If you want to visit Bizarro-world, just travel through any airport. For this year's trip to spring training, I carefully packed containers of shaving cream, saline solution, and toothpaste that did not exceed 3 ounces. Yet my exhaustive research (and by "exhaustive research" I mean "typing this sentence") has not been able to unearth any news of flights which were sabotaged because a passenger stormed the cabin and brushed the pilot's and the co-pilot's teeth -- twice!

I believe it was last year that my unopened bottle of Honey Bear's BBQ sauce was confiscated. That one makes sense, given the recent epidemic of pilots being "slathered and grilled to perfection". Did you know that you can buy a cigarette lighter in the gift shop in the gate area? That's correct: You can board the plane with the ability to start a fire, just not with more than 3 ounces of saline solution.

I am not a happy flier in general. I'm the guy who jumps every time there's a sound or bump I can't explain -- which happens often on a flight carrying several dozen people. This last flight, after the flight attendant made a second admonishment that all electronic devices needed to be off, I noticed the gentleman across the aisle from me still playing around on his smart phone (a phone that was clearly smarter than he was). Should I scream at him "Turn it off you're going to crash the plane!!!!!!!"? Should I just leap across the aisle, grab the phone and start stomping on it until it goes dark? Should I begin wailing at the top of my lungs and scribble out a quick will on the seat cushion? I won't tell you which one I opted for, but suffice it to say I'm no longer welcome to fly US Airways.

In any event, today I wish to introduce you to my new favorite phrase, one I made up. It is "subject to influence". The BABIP arguments drive me crazy, because the notion that a pitcher has little control over what happens to a pitch if it is put in play seems counter-intuitive to me, as well as just flat out incorrect. If you haven't seen this article by Mike Fast, do check it out. It goes a long way to vindicating those of us who insist that pitchers do actually exercise a fair amount of control over balls in play.

Certainly, balls in play are subject to some flat out "luck" -- liners right at someone, bloops that fall in the "bermuda triangle" -- but I do not believe that "luck" is the best way to characterize balls in play. The reason pitchers don't control BABIP more, the reason BABIP tends to regress to the small range of .280-.320, is that balls in play are highly subject to influence.

A good defense, or a bad defense, can strongly influence BABIP. An especially lucky or unlucky run of balls in play can too, though more so in a smaller sample and less so as the sample grows. Park factors also impact balls in play, with Oakland's park turning many "balls in the stands" into "foulouts" and knocking down many fly balls hit at night, and with Fenway Park making singles and doubles out of lazy fly balls lofted to left field.

So while pitchers do control many factors that affect BABIP, most notably GO/AO ratios, what Fast calls "launch angles," line drive rates and especially rates of "solid contact" (whether classified as "line drives" or not), there are also multiple factors that are interfering -- perhaps none so impactful as the defense behind the pitcher.

To me, it's not that pitchers don't control BABIP, or that BABIP is mostly about luck or chance. It's that BABIP is highly subject to influence and needs to be considered within that context. The pitcher brings plenty to that party -- and other factors bring plenty as well.

Bloops and "at 'em balls" will almost certainly regress on their own, whereas BABIPs influenced by a terrific or porous defense might endure if the same defense is trotted out there -- and a pitcher's BABIP might adjust itself quickly if he changes teams and subsequently has a much better or worse defense behind him. And so on. Context is everything and the more factors you're willing to at least consider, the more accurate your analysis is likely to be.

The A's take on the Angels at 1pm today, with Travis "don't mind my 21.21 ERA" facing off against Jered Weaver.