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Is Joe Saunders this good?

From the mailbag, an issue that I wanted to address in today's SportsNation chat but didn't have the space ... Saunders

    Rob, I don't know if you caught it, but Joe Saunders and Zack Greinke pitched one of the best games I've ever seen last Saturday. Greinke has (deservedly) gotten plenty of ink, but what is your opinion of Saunders? He's thrown 432 innings of 116 ERA+ ball. His K/9 ratio is actually decreasing, and his GB/FB ratio is less than 1. Has Joe figured something out or is this just an incredibly long lucky streak? He certainly looks like he knows what he's doing, but I'm no scout. I'd love it if he could maintain the success, but I'm a little worried the other shoe may drop at any moment.
    Daniel
    Anaheim, Cal.

1. I'm sure that Saunders knows what he's doing.
The most striking thing about Saunders is that while his strikeout rate goes down, so does his (or rather, the opposing hitters') batting average on balls in play (batted balls less home runs). To wit:

Two things we know about pitching in the major leagues:

1. It's extraordinarily difficult to thrive while striking out fewer than five batters per nine innings, and;

2. It's essentially impossible to limit batters, year in and year out, to much lower than .290 on balls in play.

Johan Santana's career mark is .286. CC Sabathia's is .297, Roy Halladay's .298, Greg Maddux's .289. The only real exception to the rule seems to be knuckleballers, the best of whom -- Tim Wakefield, of course -- has given up just a .280 average on balls in play in his long career.

Last time I checked, Saunders is not a knuckleballer. Last season's .267 BABiP was a fluke. This season's .249 is a super-fluke, and there will be a correction soon. I don't believe Saunders is going to collapse or anything similarly dramatic. But his underlying performance simply can't sustain this season's 2.66 ERA, and it probably can't sustain last season's 3.41 mark, either.

The general assumption, I think, is that the Angels are going to run away and hide in the AL West when John Lackey and Ervin Santana return to the rotation. But Matthew Carruth has his doubts, and I agree with him. The Angels may need Lackey and Santana merely to balance the probably inevitable slides of guys like Saunders, Shane Loux and Matt Palmer.