Monday, December 06, 2004

Why we don't need starting pitching

Over the weekend, the Nats Blog tried to compare free agent pitchers on an even keel by looking at how "lucky" they were. The basic idea is a good one, but their methodology isn't nearly as good as it could be, and they end up drawing some bad conclusions as a result.

Baseball Prospectus does measure defense-adjusted ERA (dERA), which calculates an ERA after totally leveling the playing field, particularly from a defense perspective. An absolutely average pitcher would have a 4.50 dERA.

One of the key observations between both approaches is that, for balls put in play, the pitcher had little to no control as to what happens, unless the ball was a home run.

I thought it would be good to evaluate our current rotation and the current pool of free agents using dERA over the last two years. First, let's take a look at four starters from last year that I believe would be in the rotation were the season to start today:
Player2004 dERA2003 dERA
Livan Hernandez3.443.31
Tomo Ohka3.954.47
Zach Day3.804.10
Tony Armas, Jr.4.742.36 (31 IP)
Our fifth starter would be Jon Rauch, a tremendous power pitcher we got in the Carl Everett trade. The scouting report on him is that he has a good chance of being the staff ace next year. In the 23 1/3 innings he did pitch for Montreal, he had a WHIP under 1, a 1.54 ERA and a 1.38 dERA.

Now that we've seen our staff, let's look at the remaining free agent starters who have logged at least 70 innings in one of the past two years (a star indicates that the 70 inning mark wasn't reached):
Player2004 dERA2003 dERA
Kevin Appier*5.09
Andy Ashby*5.18
Paul Byrd4.51*
Roger Clemens2.923.79
Matt Clement3.734.24
Omar Daal*5.83
Shawn Estes4.966.11
Jeff Fassero5.944.96
John Halama4.625.26
Orlando Hernandez2.90*
Al Leiter3.224.00
Jon Lieber4.30*
Jose Lima4.484.14
Esteban Loaiza5.222.68
Derek Lowe5.744.28
Pedro Martinez3.522.01
Kevin Millwood5.004.34
Eric Milton4.78*
Matt Morris5.354.11
Terry Mulholland4.835.00
Hideo Nomo7.603.46
Darren Oliver5.984.50
Russ Ortiz4.334.29
Carl Pavano3.264.43
Odalis Perez3.704.80
Brad Radke3.274.30
Aaron Sele5.225.61
Steve Sparks5.475.05
Todd Van Poppel5.87*
David Wells4.023.79
Woody Williams4.674.26
Jamey Wright3.74*
Jaret Wright3.86*

If we're going to get someone from that list, I think it should be a substantial improvement. Our worst pitcher on that list is probably Armas, and he'll probably have an average year. If not, we have a few other people sitting around who would do about as well. So if we're going to shop around, let's say we want someone who has gotten below a 4.25 in one of the two years, and, if they pitched, didn't stink the other year (5 or above, ruling out, among others, Hideo Nomo, Derek Lowe and Esteban Loaiza, thankfully). This leaves us with the following:
  • Roger Clemens
  • Matt Clement
  • Orlando Hernandez
  • Al Leiter
  • Jose Lima
  • Pedro Martinez
  • Carl Pavano
  • Odalis Perez
  • Brad Radke
  • David Wells
  • Woody Williams
  • Jamey Wright
  • Jaret Wright
Assuming we couldn't spent more than $6M per year, we're not going to get Clemens, Clement, Martinez, Pavano or Radke. Nor are we likely to get Leiter.

Williams would be looking for the entire $6M, and his numbers don't merit it.

We've got lots of competition for several of the remaining people on the list. Jaret Wright and Odalis Perez are both in enough demand that we might not attract them within our budget (even if someone else might).

David Wells is also a hot item, and I imagine we're not even bothering, which is too bad, because he'll probably be a good deal for whoever does land him.

That leaves El Duque, Lima and Jamey Wright. El Duque isn't the innings eater that Bowden wants (dERA clearly isn't measuring durability), but I suspect he's the best value of the bunch. Wrightmight be worth taking a chance on... he had a huge WHIP last year (1.61), but much of that is probably the Coors effect. I'm sure he'll be largely overlooked for that reason, which means he might end up a good deal. And while Lima's numbers don't bowl me over compared to anyone we already have, there's no denying that he's an entertainer that will draw fans. Though we'll probably end up overpaying anyone we sign, these three guys look like our best fits, considering the constraints. I think El Duque clearly has the biggest upside here, but probably also the most risk.

I think looking at pitchers independent of defense demonstrates that we don't really have a huge need for starting pitching. All of our starters are better than average, except maybe Armas, who will still be about average at worst, I suspect. And we actually have one or two people in reserve that will hold their own if need be.

If we stand pat here, I won't complain at all. Basically, as far as a free agent signing goes, I think we only really can feel that we made a move that is likely to improve the team if we grab one of the guys on that short list. It's a really short list, and it'd be amazing if we could afford someone who is going to make a substantial improvement over what we've already got.


At 1:04 PM, Blogger ExpatriatedNEGuy said...


It shows how thin the available pitching really is. Someone like Perez would be a nice pick-up, but would he come??? It's a tough sell...

At 4:29 PM, Blogger SuperNoVa said...

Ummm, what conclusions did I draw?

I was just trying to rank the free agent starting pitchers by ERA+ and BABIP, trying to point out some of their performances were fluky. I didn't draw any conclusions with regard to Nationals pitchers, whom I did not analyze. I thought Derek Lowe was better than his numbers indicated (he was) and Al Leiter was worse (he was). I only believe in pitcher's luck when the BABIP is far from the mean.

Where is dERA on the BP web site? I can't find it under the statistics heading. I think dERA is fine, but the whole based on 4.50 thing I find a little confusing. I'd rather have it scaled to 100 so as to not confuse it with real ERA.

What's wrong with ERA+? It's park adjusted, league-based and sound methodologically, IMHO. ERA+ shows that David Wells was only a little bit (8%) better than a league-average pitcher.

At 9:56 PM, Blogger John said...

What I really thought needed to be better quantified was how much luck factored into the ERA+. So even though Lowe was clearly unlucky and Leiter was lucky, Lowe still had a bad year and Leiter looked reasonably good, yet your article left me thinking otherwise. I also think it's worth looking at more than a year of data.

dERA is on Baseball Prospectus DT cards, and are available adjusted for the year, or adjusted for all time (I used year adjustments). There's a brief explaination at BP.

Scaling to 100 seems somewhat arbitrary. I don't prefer it either way. The purpose behind scaling to 4.50 is that a good dERA maps to a good ERA, and a bad dERA maps to a bad ERA. That is, you can look at a dERA number and know whether it is good or not intuitively. If you're not used to reading an ERA+, you don't need to learn a new scale.

Fundamentally, nothing is "wrong" with ERA+, but the point of your article and mine was to examine the pitcher as independently of defense as possible. The dERA stat does that quite well, and is also park adjusted, etc.

At 9:58 PM, Blogger John said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 7:03 PM, Blogger tmk67 said...

Good post! Personally, I would like to see them bring in Jamey Wright, given that we cannot count on Armas and Day to give us full seasons.

One question -- anyone aware of any research as to whether RFK will be a "pitcher's park", and to what extent? I suspect that given the large foul-ball territory, enclosed bowl-nature, it will favor pitchers, perhaps not as much as Shea, but reasonably close. Anyone seen anything?

At 4:22 AM, Blogger John said...

Yes.. It's probably a pitcher's park, and there's been a tiny bit of question on that one due to the swampy heat (which matters more than the humidity, as the guys at Coors field figured out when they humidified the balls in a warm humidor instead of a cold one, and didn't improve the park factor). So expect it to play as a slight pitcher's park, maybe neutral. If you want to dig up links, I think I've posted about this a couple of times so far.


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