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Analytics shine new light on former Mets pitcher’s career: ‘That’s crazy’

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Glendon Rusch pitched in six postseason games for the 2000 Mets, allowing just one run in 8 ⅓ innings. He started the nightcap of the infamous July 8, 2000 two-stadium doubleheader, drilling Tino Martinez in the rear end as retaliation for Roger Clemens’ beaning of Mike Piazza. He started the Mets’ 9-2 win over the Pirates on Sept. 19, 2001, the game BEFORE they hosted New York’s first professional sporting event in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks; Piazza played a significant role in that one, you might remember.

So Rusch has some stories, witnessed some history, from his time in the Big Apple.

It turns out that the amicable left-hander, now living in Kentucky, made another kind of history as a Met. It’s the kind that we paid no attention to back in 2001 but that nowadays, as our appreciation of analytics has exploded, would be a pretty significant story. In ‘01, hitters posted a .355 batting average on balls in play off Rusch, tying three others for the fifth-worst BABiP in the live-ball era (since 1920), as per the terrific book “A Fan’s Guide to Baseball Analytics” by Anthony Castrovince.

“With the breakdown analytically and everything numbers-wise that there is now, I definitely think you can find some better silver linings in some guys’ years than you could before,” Rusch said in a recent telephone conversation.

A look at the surface numbers underline what a rough year that was for Rusch, who posted an 8-12 record and 4.63 ERA in 33 starts totaling 179 innings. A look under the hood, however, shows a strikeouts-to-walks rate (3.63) a tick better than the previous season (3.57) and only a slightly worse home run rate (1.2 per nine innings, up from .8); he tallied a 4.01 ERA for the 2000 Mets. Rusch’s FIP, which “blocks out the noise” and shows what a pitcher’s ERA should be by factoring in the basics, was 3.50 in 2000 and 3.81 in 2001.

“That is crazy. If you look at those back-to-back years in New York, the walks to strikeouts were almost the exact same,” Rusch said. “That year, in ‘01, I made 33 starts. The numbers were there. I could’ve easily been 14-7.”

The biggest difference between Rusch’s ‘00 and ‘01 clearly was the BABiP, which soared from an ordinary .314 in his first full year as a Met to the historic number in his second year. Since we don’t have data for hard-hit balls and exit velocities going back 20 years, we can look to two obvious factors:

1. Mets defense. In 2000, it registered 11 total fielding runs above average, as per Baseball-Reference.com. The next season, that figure dropped to one such run below average. 

2. Sheer bad luck.

Rusch said he didn’t recall contemplating such issues during his ‘01 season. Instead, he said, “The one thing that always stuck out to me in New York was people were always telling me that they didn’t score a lot of runs for me. I didn’t have a lot of games where you get out there and the team gives you a five-spot and you can cruise through five innings and you’ve got a nice lead to work with. There wasn’t a lot of that. It always seemed like I was pitching for my life all the time there.”

Yup, the win-loss record stuck out more than it would now, in the era when Jacob deGrom has won multiple Cy Young Awards with unmemorable win-loss totals. Rusch received an average of 3.16 runs per game in ‘01, compared to 3.98 for Kevin Appier, 3.87 for Al Leiter and 3.64 for Steve Trachsel, each of whom posted 11 wins to tie for the team lead.

Two years later, with the Brewers, Rusch posted a 1-12 record and 6.42 ERA in 32 games (19 starts) totaling 123 ⅓ innings. His FIP was 3.87, a huge differential from his ERA. His BABiP was an even higher .386 (which didn’t count for history’s sake because he didn’t pitch enough innings to qualify for the ERA title). A 2021 pitcher who did that would be showered with love by the nerds (full disclosure: I am a nerd).

We know so much more now (and you’d hope, we’ll know so much more in 20 years than we do now), bet it bad history or good. Either way, the new data provides a greater appreciation for what we are watching and what we watched.

This week’s Pop Quiz question comes from the late Jan Bottone of Wellesley, Mass.: On the planet Melmac, the sport of bouillabaseball — in which participants throw and hit fish parts, rather than a spherical object — is very popular. On what 1980s sitcom did we learn this (fictional) fact?

The All-American Classic, featuring 50 elite high school baseball players and presented by the organization Perfect Game, will be held at the Padres’ Petco Park on Aug. 22. As part of the festivities, the players will be presented with an opportunity (one that, let’s hope, all will gladly accept) to raise funds for patients of Rady Children’s Hospital of the Peckham Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders. Among the current major leaguers who played in this game are Yankees Gerrit Cole and DJ LeMahieu and Mets Dellin Betances and Francisco Lindor.

Your Pop Quiz answer is “ALF.”

If you have a tidbit that connects baseball with popular culture, please send it to me at [email protected]

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