Dissecting pitcher “truths”
"We hold these truths to be self-evident ..."
We have a lot of very intelligent subscribers, so I'm guessing a large percentage of you know that is the opening line of the Declaration of Independence. It's also something that applies to my take on pitcher analysis. We "know" that strikeouts are good, walks and home runs are bad and a faster fastball is better than the one Jamie Moyer has lobbed up there in recent years.
This week we'll look at a handful of these "truths." As my editor would not like me turning in a 10,000 word article this week [Editor's note: Thank you], we are not able to dive too deeply into each area, but hopefully this will be something entertaining at least.
More Velocity Equals Better Results
I have to admit that generally, I'm a velocity-chaser. Pitchers who throw hard but haven't shown the best results are often (in my view) buy-low candidates. Others who show an uptick in fastball velocity year-over-year are pitchers I want on my roster. Now, of course, velocity isn't everything. Henderson Alvarez is one of only 12 starting pitchers (qualified for the ERA title) averaging in excess of 93 mph, but the lack of a quality changeup has allowed Alvarez to post just a 3.4 K/9IP. The Jays would probably be better off moving him to the bullpen, as he has a decent slider, and he's probably average 94-plus mph in shorter stints.
To see the effect of increased or decrease velocity, let's look at a handful of pitchers this year compared to last year. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive analysis, so bear with me. The table below takes the entire population of big league starting pitchers that have qualified for the ERA title in each of the last two seasons. We will look 2011 vs. 2012 in terms of average fastball velocity and see how the increase has affected or not affected the pitcher's overall performance.
Here are the nine pitchers who have seen at least a half-mph jump over last year:
|PITCHER||FBv 2011||FBv 2012||INCR/DECR||2012 vs. 2011|
|James Shields||91.0||92.0||91.0||Slightly Worse|
|David Price||94.8||95.6||0.8||Slightly Better|
|Jake Westbrook||90.0||90.7||0.7||Much Better|
|C.J. Wilson||91.0||91.7||0.7||Slightly Worse|
Nothing significant to glean from these results. I've soured on Porcello, but I am surprised to see how much harder he's throwing this year. Still, it's only led to a K/9IP increase from 5.1 to 5.3. I think we probably need to extend the sample to cover multiple years and use a metric such as xFIP to draw a conclusion as to whether an increase in velocity is all that meaningful.
Now here are the pitchers who have declined in velocity. There were a lot more in this sample than in the previous table, so the threshold at -1.0 mph.
|PITCHER||FBv 2011||FBv 2012||INCR/DECR||2012 vs. 2011|
|R.A. Dickey||84.4||83.4||-1.0||Much better|
|Jered Weaver||89.1||88.0||-1.1||Slightly worse|
|Justin Masterson||92.7||91.4||-1.3||Much worse|
|Dan Haren||90.0||88.6||-1.4||Much worse|
|Josh Beckett||93.1||91.6||-1.5||Much worse|
|Tim Hudson||90.5||88.9||-1.6||Slightly worse|
|CC Sabathia||93.8||92.2||-1.6||Slightly worse|
|Tim Lincecum||92.3||90.4||-1.9||Much worse|
Pretty interesting results. I think we see enough here to conclude that a drop in velocity is much more likely to affect results in a negative way than an increase will affect results in a positive way. R.A. Dickey is in a class by himself, so really the only pitcher in the above table that is the outlier here is Felix Hernandez. He's maintained his strikeout rate while improving his control and driving down his ERA by nearly a full run. Oh, and he also tossed a perfect game. Somehow Colon has managed to decrease his velocity while also being popped for excessive testosterone, so perhaps PED usage doesn't always make a pitcher throw harder. Masterson, Haren, Beckett and Lincecum all have had disappointing seasons, and while velocity isn't the sole reason, it's more than likely one of the factors.
A Low Walk Rate Always Translates to a Better ERA
Being able to command and control one's pitches is clearly important, but before we even look at any data, we know that control guys aren't always able to deliver results. I could probably take my 60 mph fastball and get it over the plate pretty often, but I'm confident that my ERA would be beyond astronomical. Here are the top 10 control artists this year:
As a Dodgers fan, I had a feeling I'd see Blanton on this list. He's been really the only mediocre pitcher of this group of control artists, as despite very good control and an above average 7.8 K/9IP, Blanton's ERA sits at 5.02 versus an xFIP of 3.48. The long ball (1.5 HR/9IP) has been Blanton's downfall.
All in all, from what we can see with the data, good control appears to correlate with a solid ERA.
A BABIP that Deviates Significantly from .300 will Lead to an ERA Correction
Perhaps I'm in the minority here, but I don't put a lot of stock in a pitcher's BABIP unless it is varying significantly compared to his career norms. For instance, Jered Weaver, Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw and Matt Cain comprise four of the top-10 lowest BABIPs this year:
Jered Weaver Jason Vargas Ervin Santana Ryan Dempster Edwin Jackson Madison Bumgarner Jeremy Hellickson Justin Verlander Clayton Kershaw Matt Cain
I'm guessing zero of you are rushing to sell Kershaw because he has a .261 BABIP. Kershaw, in fact, has a .275 career mark, so I guess he's been "lucky" his entire career, right? A more interesting case would be Weaver, who is trending as follows:
Weaver's strikeout rate and BABIPs are trending downward, yet he's still maintains a stellar 2.74 ERA that looked even better before his last outing (nine runs). Weaver does a good job changing speeds and inducing weakly hit balls, but he's not as dominant these days, leaving him more susceptible to the occasional blow-up. His .233 BABIP is likely indicative of his becoming more of a control artist/deceptive pitcher rather than someone who blows hitters away.
This Pitcher is a Sleeper Because his xFIP is Quite a Bit Lower than his Real ERA
I often use the xFIP-ERA number to point out undervalued and overvalued pitchers, but that's more for pure conversation rather than a general rule. The aforementioned Jered Weaver has significantly outperformed his xFIP each of the last four years. For me, though, the most frustrating pitcher has been Ricky Nolasco:
For his career, Nolasco has a 7.4 K/9IP and 2.2 BB/9IP, so that would seemingly lead to the conclusion that he's among the better pitchers in the game. The results, though, show he's below average despite his ability to miss bats and pound the strike zone. We won't dig too deep here, but will leave you with this statement - "if a pitcher shows this sort of multi-year pattern, then what you see is what you get". Meaning? Let's say that we're seeing this trend:
That's a fairly consistent spread between this pitcher's ERA and xFIP, making it likely that his 2012 ERA of 2.88 isn't going to last.
Great Setup Men Make Great Closers
I am open to the idea that being a closer takes a certain "mentality," but to me it's more about a reliever's ability to throw hard, miss bats, induce ground balls and minimize free passes that leads to success, rather than a "mentality." Rafael Betancourt comes to mind here. He was probably baseball's top setup man from 2010-2011, but whether he had the "makeup" to make the conversion to the ninth inning was always a question it seemed. This year, however, Betancourt has been solid for the most part with a 2.58 ERA, 8.1 K/9IP, 2.2 BB/9IP and 24 saves.
I guess we'll never know about a setup man's closer ability until he actually gets a shot at save situations, but I still think the following relievers would make excellent closers: Vinnie Pestano, Jason Grilli and David Hernandez.
Flyball Tendencies will Eventually Lead to Poor Results
The average team's rotation puts up close to a 34-percent flyball rate, so it's fair to say that pitchers clocking in at greater than 40 percent are "flyball pitchers." We have 12 such pitchers this year, and I would slot their seasons to date as follows:
Excellent: Matt Cain, Jered Weaver
Good: Jake Peavy, Max Scherzer (more for the K's than the ERA)
Mediocre: Bruce Chen
As you can see, quite a bit of variance, so while this probably is no surprise, flyball tendencies don't necessarily lead to poor results an overwhelming amount of the time. Pitchers like Cain and Weaver may generate fewer ground balls than others, but they also miss bats and pound the corners, mitigating the damage that a few extra flyballs could potentially do.
Joe Saunders and other soft-tossing lefties cannot be relied upon. Before I even checked on Saunders' velocity, I set the "soft-tossing" definition as "any pitcher with an average fastball less than 89 mph this year." Saunders clocked in at 89.1, so he just misses the cut, but these pitchers didn't:
Along with his strikeout rate, Zito's velocity continues to plummet, though he's still a serviceable fifth starter for the Giants. That said, this isn't a bad group of pitchers. Sure, they aren't going to help you all that much in the strikeouts category, but with the exceptions of Wolf and Chen, they won't hurt you too much in AL/NL only formats either. The things to watch, though, are their home/road splits and their opponents. If Tommy Milone is pitching on the road against a team that hits left-handers well and you put him in your lineup, good luck.
Bottom line with all of this: don't wed yourself to a certain metric or theory. Take in all the available information and make the most informed decision you possibly can, realizing that some of the time, even that won't be enough. Depressing, huh?
Regan, a five-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner, was named the 2010 Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year.
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