Saturday, July 05, 2008

Hey Neukom! My Giants Business Plan: At Least 2 Aces, If Not More

As I went over in my last post, you need a great starting rotation to have a competitive advantage over the other team. However, how does a team achieve that? By having at least two Aces in their rotation, if not more.

True (and Only) Dominance in Baseball

A pitcher on his game will have his way with the opposing team. That happens regularly with good pitchers, but even average (or sometimes worse) pitchers can just dominate the other team on the right day. For an extreme example of this, look at all the pitchers who have ever had a no-hitter: obviously some were greats, but there are a lot of unsuccessful, not even good pitchers who, on one blissful day, was the best pitcher on the planet and keeps the other team down with no hits. Obviously, having a pitcher who can dominate a game increases the odds of winning any game.

That is not true with hitters. You can have the most dominant hitter ever, but if the rest of the offense is not up to the task, you lose that game, as he can only hit so many homeruns. You can even have the most dominant lineups ever, but if the opposing pitcher is up to the task, it is rendered inert, benign. You will have a monk's row instead of a murderer's row, if you will, as the offense will be silent.

However, if a pitcher is a dominant pitcher, one with a high percentage of dominating PQS 4 and 5 starts, your offense doesn't need to do as much to win. And if you have two of them, it particularly increases the odds of winning in a short playoff series, where every game's results can have a wide swing of your team's fortunes.

PQS and DOMinating Starts

The best pitchers have dominating starters at least 50% of the time, the elite pitchers 70%+ of the time. This has been confirmed in the latest Baseball Forecaster (which created the Pure Quality Start methodology as the sabermetric version of the Quality Start; it uses peripherals to qualify a start as a quality start or not), they list above 50% DOM as the best pitchers and below 20% DIS as the best pitchers. Here are some old data they collected on cumulative pitching stats when the game is Dominating (PQS 4 and 5), Neutral (PQS 2 and 3) and Disaster (PQS 0 and 1)

DOM: 2.39 ERA, WHIP 1.00, K/9 7.8, BB/9 2.1, K/BB 3.6, HR/9 0.6, OOB 0.255

NEU: 4.58 ERA, WHIP 1.47, K/9 5.0, BB/9 3.4, K/BB 1.5, HR/9 1.3, OOB 0.335

DIS: 11.19 ERA, WHIP 2.37, K/9 5.2, BB/9 5.3, K/BB 1.0, HR/9 2.5, OOB 0.448

Obviously, the data is skewed because all the good performances are put together, as well as all the bad ones too. What is important to know is that when a pitcher is dominating, his ERA is down in the low 2's and the WHIP is down low as well (ideally want WHIP under 1.4), as it is hard for a team to score when they cannot get on base (Opponent OBP of only 0.255, WHIP of 1.00 for DOM starts). Thus, basically by definition, anytime a pitcher throws a DOM start, they are doing really well. And the key thing here is if the pitcher can regularly throw DOM starts, the starts on average will have stats similar to that pitching line.

Also interesting is that in DOM performances the K/9 is so high, 7.8 (of course, having a high strikeout rate is essentially a perequisite for a DOM start, due to the definition for it; see my past posts for description of the PQS methodology, for those who don't know what I'm talking about). That means that your odds of having a top DOM pitcher is better when the pitcher can strike out batters regularly at a high rate (which I will get to later in my business plan).

Low DIS Also Important

And it is not just having DOM starts, but it is the avoidance of DIS starts as well. Obviously, if you have a very high DOM rate, the DIS is naturally lower since it all adds up to 100%. As you can see above, if you don't have a DOM, it is either a NEU or DIS, and there is a world of difference between the two. A DIS start basically means that your team has almost no chance of winning that game, while a NEU start gives your team a fighting chance to win, as that is basically giving up 3 runs in 6 innings, after that if your bullpen is good enough to come through with zeros, the offense can try to pick it up for the starter.

If your starters in your playoff rotation as a group can keep their DIS down below the 20% that marks a good performance while keeping their DOM above 50%, that means that in the playoffs, there is only 1 game in 5 or 7 that you have no chance in, 2-3 where you have a very good chance to win, and the rest are coin tosses. That is no guarantee of playoff or World Series victory, but I like and would take those odds.

Consistency of DOM

Few pitchers can be consistently throwing DOM starts. That is why the ones who can are part of the elite in all of baseball. As noted, the elites can have a DOM start in at least 50% of their starts, which is over half of his starts. And the best in all the majors can do it over 70% of the time.

Doing it once in a whole season, though, is a fluke. The ones who can do it regularly and for a long time are special. Only the best and the healthiest are able to do it every season, year in, year out. Greats like Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson. Clearly, if you can build your rotation with starters who can consistently dominate at least 50% of the time, and ideally 70%+ of the time, you greatly increase the chances of getting DOM performances in the playoffs and greatly increase your chances of winning in a short series.

Playoff Dominance

Clearly, having a dominating pitcher is good, and if you got two pitchers even better. With two who can do that regularly at 50+%, the odds are good in a short 5 game series where you are starting four, that at least one of them will be DOM starts, with good odds that two of them will be DOM; if you go with three starters (2 DOM, one not), then you are looking at definitely two starts, and possibly three starts. There's your winning series margin. It works out just as well in a seven game series. With two ace pitchers, you are likely to have at least two DOM starts, perhaps three, when going with a four man rotation. If you go with a three man rotation, 4 of 5 starts, 5 of 7, are DOM starts from your two aces.

And the other starter(s) should not be that bad either, he'll be your middle of rotation, #3/4 starter, and most likely will be able to contribute a DOM start himself. That's potentially 3-4 DOM starts in a 5 game series and 3-6 DOM starts in a 7 game series, depending on the size of your playoff rotation. That's a lot of low runs allowed games for a series, giving your team a great chance to win in the playoffs.

History of Two Aces

In addition, history has shown that this can work. Teams have won with two dominating starters leading the way. The D-gers during the 60's with Koufax and Drysdale was a good example of that, particularly since the only playoffs back then was the World Series, giving them a great advantage in the short series. The D-backs with Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, winning the 2001 World Series is another, more recent, example.

Some might note how one of the best pitching rotations in the history of baseball - the Brave's Maddux, Smoltz, and Glavine - were not that successful during their long run together. Other might mention the A's with Hudson, Mulder, Zito. I will get to this in greater detail later, but as noted above, it takes high strike out ability to deliver a DOM start regularly. Smoltz is the only fireballer in this bunch.

If you cannot really strike out a lot of batters, the only way you can deliver a DOM start of 4 is by doing all of the following:

  • Pitch six or more innings
  • Allow equal to less hits than innings pitched
  • Allow one or less homers
  • At least strike out twice the batters you walk

Thus, you have to be a pitcher much like Greg Maddux, ironman reliable, able to eat innings, keep hits down, and, just as important, keep walks very down. As that is the only way you can make up for the fact that you cannot strike out that many, is by walking a heck of lot less than most other pitchers. However, because he has few batters who don't put balls into play, he is often up against the fates in the big games because his success will rest on BABIP, which is out of his control for the most part, except for extreme circumstances. As it is those hits that result in runs.

In addition, a study that was on The Hardball Times earlier this season showed the importance of the strikeout. The study looked at pitchers who were able to keep their K/BB at or above the 2.0 mark, which most good pitchers are able to do. The study's author then categorized them into a number of groups, one being pitchers who don't strike out a lot (and therefore must walk very low), another being pitchers who strike out a lot but also walk a lot. What he found was that the ERA was lower for the pitchers who were able to strikeout a lot while also walking a lot.
And that makes sense when you analyze it. The more strikeouts and walks there are, the less balls in play there is, the less hits there are overall. Hits drive in runs, while walks don't normally do, unless the bases are loaded, and obviously not with a strikeout. Heck, you can even drive in a run with a sac fly or a well-placed grounder.

That is why it is not enough to have good or even a great pitcher like Maddux if you want to maximize your chances of winning in the playoffs. You need pitchers who can dominate a game like Maddux, but ones who can dominate using the all-mighty, all-American mid-90's+ fastball. And if you can get two of them, all the better for making it easier on your team to win in the playoffs.

Giants Set to Dominate in Future

That is why the Giants look to be set for the future in the starting rotation. Cain has been over 50% each season of his career, and overall is at 54% for his career up to this season. His main problem has been keeping his DIS% under 20%, and this has continued into this season. Lincecum last season had a 67% DOM, 21% DOM. He appears to be making the leap to the top this season by limiting his DIS% under 10%, while keeping his DOM% at around 70%. Only the best of the best - Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez - can run up 70% DOM, <10%dis>And that is why the Giants look to be set for the future to do well in the playoffs. With Cain and Lincecum regularly contributing DOM starts, the team will have an excellent chance in the playoffs. The key now is to keep them healthy enough so that they can do this long-term (and of course, sign them up long-term so that they are around when we reach the playoffs again).

And now Sanchez is also contributing as well, he has been putting up a string of DOM starts. If he can consistently do this, then we could have a three-man ace rotation. Which would be that much more dominating during the playoffs and World Series.

Scenario

Basically you can treat these as probabilities that are additive across a series. If you have the rotation set (estimated DOM/DIS) with Lincecum (70% DOM, 10% DIS), Cain (50% DOM, 20% DIS), Sanchez (50% DOM, 20% DIS) , Zito (30% DOM, 30% DIS):

  • by the end of three games, you have 1.7 DOM, 0.8 NEU, 0.5 DIS
  • by the end of four games, you have 2.0 DOM, 1.2 NEU 0.8 DIS
  • by the end of the five game series, you have 2.7 DOM, 1.4 NEU, 0.9 DIS

Thus, roughly, you would have 3 DOM starts, 1 NEU (or flip a coin start) and 1 DIS start. THe other team having roughly 50/40/30/30 DOM would have 2 DOM starts, 2 NEU and 1 DIS. Better odds, eh? Especially when you need to win 3 games.

For a seven game series:

  • by the end of three games, you have 1.7 DOM, 0.8 NEU, 0.5 DIS
  • by the end of four games, you have 2.0 DOM, 1.2 NEU 0.8 DIS
  • by the end of five games , you have 2.7 DOM, 1.4 NEU, 0.9 DIS
  • by the end of six games, you have 3.2 DOM, 1.7 NEU, 1.1 DIS
  • by the end of the seven game series, you have 3.7 DOM, 2.0 NEU, 1.3 DIS

Again, roughly 4 DOM starts, 2 NEU, 1 DIS, that is a difference vs. 3 DOM, 2 NEU, 2 DIS. Not a great difference, but when you are dealing with the playoffs, you should want every edge that you can get.

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