Craig Breslow Relies on Sabermetrics to Maintain Poise on Mound, Overcome Adversity

Craig Breslow Relies on Sabermetrics to Maintain Poise on Mound, Overcome AdversityBOSTON — Midway through the 2011 season, Craig Breslow was stumped.

Then a reliever for the Athletics, Breslow was experiencing the worst season of his career. His ERA was seesawing over and under four — unusual considering he had a reputation for consistently putting up strong numbers.

So, as a Yale grad with a molecular biophysics degree, Breslow looked to statistical analysis for answers. He assessed his percentages for swing and misses, ground balls, line drives, fly balls and batting average on balls in play (BABIP).

"It wasn't so much as looking at the numbers and making an adjustment," he said. "It was looking at the numbers and seeing I don't need to make an adjustment."

BABIP measures the percentage of batted balls that fall safely for
hits, excluding home runs, and determines how much opponents' success is
attributed to luck. After one glance at the overall numbers, Breslow's
discovery was striking.

"Last year, I know it seemed like every time a ball was put in play, it seemed like it was a hit," he said. "You can't help but think it was bad luck, but you can actually look at it and say, 'Well, actually, my batting average on balls in play is 100 points higher than it's been at any point in my career, but strikeout rates are the same, walks are the same, line drive percentages are the same, so that in fact is some bad luck."

In other words, Breslow is your modern-day
sabermetrics aficionado. Now with the Red Sox, the 32-year-old remains known for evaluating stats and educating himself about the trajectory of his season.

The interest in sabermetrics first started when he read Moneyball – the book that documented the Athletics' approach to assembling teams based on statistical data — back in the minor leagues. With a math background, Breslow always had a soft spot for numbers.

But Breslow didn't actually delve into the intricacies of sabermetrics until 2009, when the Athletics plucked him off waivers. At the mecca of Moneyball, Breslow quickly developed into a disciple.

"It just became the natural transition," Breslow said of mastering the philosophy in Oakland. "I'd come to the notion that there was more to this game than batting averages, and the most simple statistic was something that always made sense to me. And so, I just liked to do a little digging and see what was out there."

Cursory curiosity in sabermetrics soon evolved into passionate interest. Having spent three years sitting next to Breslow in Oakland's bullpen, closer Andrew Bailey recalled the times his good friend attempted to teach him the fundamentals of sabermetrics.

"We'll be talking, and I'd be like, 'Dude, how about the year this guy is having?'," Bailey said. "And he'll be like, 'Well, look at his balls put in play average,' and I'll be like 'Um, what the heck?'

"To me, an out is an out and a base hit is a base hit, and there's isn't another way to look at it. I'm more result-oriented than percentage, and if I give up a couple runs, it's on me — not the law of averages."

To each their own, Breslow says. But the reliever cites statistical data for helping him persevere through a tough 2011 season.

After noticing that his ground ball, line drives and fly ball percentages were nearly identical to his career averages, Breslow came away reassured despite midseason struggles. He was convinced adjustments weren't necessary.

"If I was walking more guys, wasn't striking guys out as much and guys were putting the ball in play with better line drive rates, then I would say, 'There's a reason that every time I feel I'm giving up a ball in play, it's becoming a hit,' " Breslow said. "So I would need to see if it's an issue of location, pitch selection or mechanics."

Instead of fidgeting with his form, Breslow stayed the course. Before long, his numbers balanced out, and he eventually finished with a 3.79 ERA and 44 strikeouts in 67 games for the Athletics.

Now in 60 games with the Diamondbacks and Red Sox this season, he's compiled a 3-0 record with a 2.82 ERA and a career-high 58 strikeouts. Ironically, he's achieved the feat without once scanning the sabermetrics.

There's a reason behind that, of course.

"I can appreciate that there's a lot of information available, but if things are going well, I have no reason to either confirm that they're going well or think about why they should be going better or worse," Breslow said.

When the season ends, however, Breslow plans to analyze his statistics thoroughly. It's become his annual routine in the offseason, since he's determined to sharpen every facet of his game.

Breslow, though, understands that sabermetrics is often
taboo in clubhouses Most big league players — like Bailey — tend to rely on their physical skills to overcome adversity and avoid over-thinking themselves.

At the end of the day, though, both sides can agree on one aspect.

"You can have the most unlucky season and, if you give up eight runs every time you're out there, you're going to be out of a job," Breslow said. "Regardless of who decides you have bad luck and it wasn't your fault."

Have a question for Didier Morais? Send it to him via Twitter at @DidierMorais or send it here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week for his mailbag.

Photo via Facebook/Craig Breslow

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