Sunday, January 27, 2008

Pitcher's Command: Giants Starters

The Hardball Times have an article on what's important when looking at a pitchers' K/BB ratio. The standard is that you want starters with K/BB over 2.0 and ideally over 2.4. But are there other factors that should guide your opinion on which pitcher is better?

Walks Not Always Bad

What the study by Derek Carty does is separate starting pitchers into three categories: low strikeout pitchers, solid in both, and high walk. Low strikeout pitchers was categorized as having: 2.00+ K/BB, 5.00- K/9, 50+ IP. Solid in both pitchers had: 2.00+ K/BB, 2.75+ BB/9, 7.00- K/9, 50+ IP. And High walk pitchers had: 2.00+ K/BB, 3.50+ BB/9, 50+ IP.

When the pitchers were split in those three categories, what he found was that pitchers with high walks had the best ERAs. In the NL, the High Walk pitchers had an ERA of 3.85, while the other two had 4.21 and 4.28 ERAs. The split was even wider in the AL, the High Walk pitchers had a 3.75 ERA, while the other two had 4.40 and 4.48 ERAs. How can that be when it has been drummed into us that high walk pitchers are to be avoided or at least strongly admonished?

What he concluded is that: "All K/BB rates should not be treated equally." Which, as he noted, is pretty obvious from the data. He also noted:

"Pitchers who achieve their K/BB rates using pinpoint control and poor strikeout rates are not nearly as good of a bet as those who achieve their K/BB rates by getting a high number of strikeouts, even if they have below-average control."
Leave Them Young Giants Starters Alone

Of course, what a lot of Giants fans have been saying, me included, is that Lincecum and Cain need to get their walks under control if they are to become elite pitchers. But as this study shows, even if you walk a lot (over 3.5 BB/9), as long as you strike out a lot as well, that mitigates the danger inherent in walking batters and adding runners, as a lot of strikeouts means less balls in play, and less BIP means less hits, and less hits means less run scoring hits, even if you happen to walk more than is usually prudent.

All in all, they are not just another brick in the wall, they are clearly among the elite in the majors and we have the privilege of getting to see two of them pitch for our beloved team, the Giants. Just another piece of evidence that keeping them is better than trading them away for even very good players like Rios. As the table shows, there are only 17 of them like that in the NL, and we got two of them.

That is a strength, that is a competitive advantage. An advantage throughout the season, an advantage any season we make the playoffs. Now Sabean has to build us a lineup that is capable of scoring enough runs for the pitchers to win more often than not.

Strong Starting Rotation IS Competitive Minimum Now In NL West

I think that it should be noted that while it is a competitive advantage in general, it is the competitive minimum in the NL West starting in 2008 (in order of finish):
  • D-backs: Arizona upped the ante with their bold trade for Dan Haren to pair with Brandon Webb. They also have The Big Unit, Randy Johnson, contributing as well, plus Micah Owings and Doug Davis. Still, Johnson is a big question mark with no established or up-coming starter in the wings other than untested Yusmeiro Petit and while Owings had a great season and a better second half, curiously, he was much worse on the road than at home - 3.81 ERA at home vs. 4.96 ERA on the road - suggesting that his home numbers was the fluke and thus he should suffer a sophomore slump in 2008. Other negatives: despite low groundballs%, his BABIP was a strong .280, suggesting that he should suffer a regression to the mean and see his BABIP rise to the .300 area; his K/9 is a relatively weak 6.25; his BB/9 is borderline at 2.95 (3.0 is max you want to see it at); he pitched more games at home, where he did well, than on the road, and this should even out in 2008. He falls into the Solid in Both category, which had the worse ERA among the three categories. Even with Haren, too many question marks to be top rotation, but still strong and led by two ace-type starters in Webb and Haren (though as I had cautioned previously, Haren probably will not pitch as well as last year, despite moving to NL, he was lucky in a number of ways).
  • D-Rocks: Colorado has a nice set of starters who could be comparable to the Giants rotation: Jeff Francis, Aaron Cook, Jason Hirsh, and Ubaldo Jimenez, with Franklin Morales waiting in the wings. However, while Francis and Cook are solid, they are not as good as any other team's top two starters. Hirsh still needs to put things together and pitch to his potential, though since he's in the back of the rotation, he did OK last season. Jimenez needs to show that he can pitch like he did in 2007 for a full MLB season, when batters get another chance to figure him out. He did do a lot (LOT) worse in September than he did in August (with low BABIP too, though he does get a significant amount of groundballs and give up less line drives). Same for Morales, whenever he gets a chance to start, D'Rocks have Kip Wells in the rotation at the moment.
  • D-Dres: San Diego has Jake Peavy and Chris Young heading their rotation, and a year ago, they were probably the elite of the NL West, but now the other teams have caught up and perhaps even passed them up. The rest of their rotation includes the incomparable Greg Maddux (but very old now), Mark Prior (who hasn't been healthy in ages), and Randy Wolf (who hasn't been healthy AND good for ages now, and will be 31 in 2008; you don't get healthier with age).
  • D-gers: LA has Brad Penny, Derek Lowe, and Chad Billingsley heading their rotation, plus Hiroki Kuroda and Esteban Loaiza, and Jason Schmidt lurking around, saying he's feeling better and probably competing with Loaiza for the last spot in the rotation.
So why trade one off now to build up the rotation? Because if we do, we would just have to get another one somehow once the lineup is fixed. And the Giants right now - with Cain, Lincecum, Zito, Lowry, and Correia - is probably comparable with the rotations above, based on past performances and expected performances in 2008. Why break up that strength (and probably make it a weakness) by trading off one of the top two guys in Cain and Lincecum? To me, that would be like covering up a hole in the dam by removing your finger from another hole in the dam: either way, the dam is leaking and you are no better off overall. And in this case, even worse now, you don't have twin aces like the rest of the division.

I think there are a number of strengths to having Cain and Lincecum together. Both Cain and Lincecum ranked among the leaders in a number of the leaderboards for starting NL pitchers in the Bill James 2008 Handbook and in THT 2008 Annual. If one should falter, the other should be good, there should always be one pitching like an ace - if you only have one ace, like when we only had Schmidt on top, when he did poorly, there was no one else around to pick up the slack, and the team suffered. Their high K/9 pitching will help us in the playoffs. And in short series, like the playoffs, they can pretty much take over them as a tandem.

The rest of the rotation is pretty good too. Zito is comparable to the other teams' #3 starters, given that others have injury history, short history of success, and/or are old. Only the D-gers appear to be comparable, or even superior, to our top 3.

However, Lowry pushes us above other rotations. I think Lowry is head and shoulders above any other teams' #4 starter. None can really match his performance and experience. And while he has had health problems, the others' #4 had worse injuries or has less successful experiences which put them much below him.

Given Bochy's history of protecting pitchers, I see him not letting Lowry go as deep into games as he did in 2007, in terms of number of pitches. He let him go to 100 or more pitches in half his starts (13 out of 26) and he went 105 or more pitches 6 times, over 110 pitches 3 times, and he reached 125 pitches one time. Though he still only averaged 98.5 pitches per game in 2007 and the number of starts over 100 is much much less than what Alou put him through, I think Bochy's going to restrict him even further in 2008. I think he will continue to target him at about 100 pitches, but will not let him go beyond 105 pitches anymore, and perhaps could even try to keep him under 100 each game. I could also see the Giants try to rearrange the rotation in the second half to give him less starts overall.

Lastly, Correia is about as questionable and potentially good as any other #5. This can go either way in wide swings, but generally, a team's #5 starter should not affect the top 4 overall competency much, unless he has a totally breakout or totally disastrous season.

Lots of Groundballs Are Good Too: Sign Lincecum Soon

He also noted a table he put together that showed that pitchers who can get more than 50% groundballs are also able to keep their ERAs low. So that's a way a pitcher can get away with poorer K/9 and/or BB/9 rates. Still, while Lincecum is a high K/9 pitcher, he also gets a lot of groundballs in his balls-in-play too, a great combination to have in a pitcher. And hence another reason why he should not be traded.

The only reason he should be traded is if the Giants medicos decide that his arm really is ready to fall off. Otherwise, we should sign him soon and buy out all his pre-free agency years plus get an option on his first free agent year, if not try to get his second year as well.


  1. Have you seen the recent notes on the comparison of velocity to ERA? It's an interesting study that I'm sure we'll be hearing more about in the future. There's a separate link for the same issue in the post-season:

  2. Where were you when I was posting about how you need high K/9 starters in the playoffs?!? :^)

    Great articles, thanks for pointing them out to me! And there was a recent article on how a pitching staff that strikes out a lot allows fewer runs.

    First, about the first article, I think that intuitively it makes a lot of sense that the harder a thrower a pitcher is, the more likely he is to get outs and thus allow less runs, but it is good to see that the data confirms that.

    It is also especially gratifying to see that those with an average fastball over 95 MPH had the lowest ERA by a large margin, as 92-95 appears to basically be one group to me, and 91 and below si about the same group too.

    It is especially gratifying because of something I noted in an earlier post: Tim Lincecum had the second most pitches 95+ MPH in the NL, behind only Jorge Julio - Tim probably would have led had he pitched a full season, he was only 103 pitches away - at 8 more starts, that's 1/3 more starts, or about 215 more 95+ MPH fastballs.

    With 2387 total pitches, 27% of his pitches were 95+ MPH. Hmm, he won't quite be over 95 then, I guess, so maybe not so gratifying, though I guess it doesn't help that I don't know what the percentage of total fastballs are 95+ MPH, so nevermind...

    Matt Cain had the 2nd highest average fastball with 93.2%, just behind Brad Penny. (unfortunately, to qualify for the list, you had to have 162 IP and Tim came up short).

    The second link was interesting too, as the higher the velocity you have above 90 MPH, the more likely you are to have a lower ERA and even lower ERA in the playoffs. Cain was just short of the 94 MPH needed to take the big drop in ERA and I imagine that Lincecum probably was right around there if not higher.

    Again, makes my point again about not trading away either Cain or Lincecum, it pays off greatly, particularly if the pitcher can throw 94+ MPH.

    Lastly, the article I saw (Jan 168th), the more a team strikes out hitters, the lower their ERA, though, honestly, there's not much difference in ERA between the Top 10 and the Middle 10, you only really suffered once you got to the Bottom 10 in strikeouts. Hence why we should be trading away Lowry if he isn't able to return to his former early form when he struck out 7+ per 9 IP.

    Thanks again Roger.



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