On Monday, Randy Wolf had what is becoming a typical start for him. He struck out five, walked the same number, and had runners on every inning, but threw eight shutout frames on the strength of a triple play, four twin killlings, and two outfield assists by Jerry Hairston. Nights like these have played a big role in Wolf posting a 3.30 ERA despite an xFIP over a run higher.
It's hard to pinpoint Wolf's unlikely success on a single cause. Assuming Wolf is doing something that allows for success in spite of his peripherals, be it his big-league experience, some type of clutch ability, or satanic dealings, is lazy and shortsighted, while attributing everything to luck and pegging him to regress at an undefined later date is equally wrong. (Stop if you've heard this before) The answer inevitably lies somewhere in between, and today, we'll look at the random variation, defense, clutch, grittiness, and plushdamentals that are combining to currently make Wolfie something better than his usual self.
Better pitching, as a cause, can be ruled out rather quickly. There is no real evidence that Wolf is pitching any better than he has his whole career. In 13 seasons which includes the high-offense late-90's and aughties, the league has allowed runs at a rate about 4% higher than Wolf has. This season, a pitching-dominated league has allowed 20% more runs than Wolf. (In other words, his career ERA+ is 104 and his 2011 ERA+ is 120. If that last sentence was confusing, this will help.) However, his shining ERA currently stands on less than solid ground, as Wolf's strikeout rate has declined to a career low and his walk rate is in lockstep with his career norms. Something doesn't add up, and it appears that whatever is fueling his big, bad numbers probably is not Wolf's own skill.
An idea that holds more weight, though not in the way it initially appears, is that Wolf is getting a lot of help from Milwaukee's defense. (Yes, that Brewer defense.) A low/high batting average on balls in play is sometimes used to explain away every variation in a pitcher's performance, but doesn't look like a factor here, despite Wolf's below average .287 mark. However, this looks less anomalous when you consider he managed BABIPs of .256 and .279 the last two seasons, and is at .289 for his career. A lot of the balls in play Wolf allows are fly balls, so opponents have a much harder time hitting 'em where they ain't. This doesn't mean Wolf isn't getting a good deal of help from his leather-wielding freinds. Wolf's opponent's extra base hit percentage, which now stands at 6.9% of all batted balls (down from a career rate of 8.4%.) Wolf's home-run rate hasn't really changed over the past few seasons, so the change is mainly a result of fewer doubles and triples being hit. There are a few ways to interpret this. The outfielders/corner infielders behind him could be doing a better job of cutting off balls in the gap, the new coaching staff could be doing a better job positioning them, or line drives could simply be falling in such a way that they die in front of outfielders. (Alternatively, Nyjer Morgan could be such a defensive force that the entire difference can be attributed to him.) Some combination of the former two appears to account for most of this, given that Wolf has a BABIP on fly balls of .092 on fly balls, compared to the league average of .138.
If this is true, it actually is a very good thing. Though Wolf has no control over this, there's no reason that Brewers outfielders can't continue to snag/cut off balls at an above-average rate, providing at least some sustainability to his success, but doesn't mean it's not part of a high-wire act that could collapse at any time.
Another facet of Wolf's unlikely performance has been his dominance in high-leverage situations. Quite simply, Wolf either is making pitches or getting very lucky when it's most important, and the second choice looks like the correct one. To bastardize an Abe Lincoln quote, "you cannot fool all the hitters in all of the most important times", especially when your fooling them on luck-based smoke and mirrors. Wolf's BABIP is 51 points lower with men on than with the bases empty, and hitters are hitting just .205 off him with runners in scoring position.
It should be noted that I don't know enough about HTML to make the double-play column flash and change colors, so you'll need to just look at them yourself. It's also important to note that Wolf hasn't performed discernably better than normal in these situations over the course of his career, and his current success doesn't look like the result of better situational pitching, as his unintentional walk and strikeout rates both go in the wrong directions both during runners on and RISP situations. There are all kinds of different causes you could attach to this and his season as a whole, and pretty much none of them involve repeatable skill. Without trying to sound like too much of a pessimist, the only thing seperating another eight shutout innings from something less than a quality start is a couple ill-timed singles. You've been warned.