Better Starting Rotation: Phillies or Braves?

ESPN ran two controversial articles yesterday: this one by Stats & Info and this one by Eno Sarris. Both mention that the Braves’ rotation, currently, has posted better results than the Phillies’. It’s a good story, essentially a David-is-beating-Goliath. However, these articles make the mistake of taking present-day results and extrapolating them further down the road, as if they will stay constant.

While the Braves have the Phillies beat in ERA by 12 points as of this writing (prior to the Sunday Night Baseball game on ESPN), the Phillies lead in the “performance” categories: K/9, BB/9, and infield fly rate. The Braves lead in ground ball rate, and not much else. The two teams tie in home run per fly ball rate.

K/9 BB/9 K/BB GB% IFFB% HR/FB%
Phillies 8.4 2.5 3.4 47.8% 13.3% 5.9%
Braves 7.7 2.6 3.0 51.0% 7.0% 5.9%

Additionally, the Braves are getting an uncharacteristic performance from Jair Jurrjens, among others. His BB/9 sits at 1.5 currently, but his career average is 3.2. While it certainly could be true that Jurrjens made an adjustment to significantly improve his control, we don’t have enough information to make that conclusion yet, especially given the small sample sizes we are dealing with (in Jurrjens’ case, 29 and two-thirds innings). It does appear that he’s become much more of a ground ball pitcher, but that wouldn’t explain the control nor does it justify an ERA at a buck and a half.

When you hear the phrase “small sample size” you are likely to hear the word “regression” as well. As an example, Jeff Francoeur is off to a great start this year. If we want to predict how the rest of his season will go, we need to ask ourselves a question: do we trust the 138 plate appearances he’s had this year, or the 3,581 he has over his career spanning seven seasons — particularly 1,787 from 2008-10? You, being a smart individual, choose the much larger sample size.

So when people use the phrases “small sample size” and “regression” in tandem, they are using shorthand to say that Francoeur will more likely end up hitting like he did in the larger sample size going forward. That doesn’t mean that it’s impossible that Francoeur vastly outperforms, but given the information we have now, the most likely occurrence is that the career numbers are more representative.

That is what we need to do with the Braves’ and Phillies’ pitchers if we’re actually going to compare them and make conclusions about which staff is better. I cracked open my spreadsheet and ran some regressions.

I selected nine pitchers: five Phillies and four Braves (because Brandon Beachy doesn’t have any legitimate Major League numbers for regression). I gathered their innings pitched, K/9, BB/9, and balls in play (BIP) for two time periods: 2011, and a 2008-10 average. For fly balls, I used their career averages found on FanGraphs. Using this information, I found the standard deviation for the rates in both periods, then used that to regress each pitchers’ K/9, BB/9, and FB%. Finally, I plugged the numbers into the xFIP equation.

2011 Season
IP K/9 BB/9 FB% BIP
Halladay 53.3 9.6 1.2 0.296 146
Lee 46.3 11.7 1.4 0.390 126
Oswalt 27.0 7.0 2.3 0.364 79
Hamels 40.7 8.9 2.2 0.330 109
Blanton 24.3 6.3 2.2 0.247 86
Hudson 50.3 4.7 1.4 0.267 161
Hanson 41.0 9.0 2.4 0.362 111
Lowe 44.7 8.3 2.8 0.289 131
Jurrjens 29.7 5.5 1.5 0.344 92

 

2008-10 Averages
IP K/9 BB/9 FB% BIP
Halladay 735.7 7.7 1.3 0.255 6082
Lee 667.3 7.2 1.3 0.417 4484
Oswalt 601.7 7.4 2.2 0.321 5601
Hamels 629.7 8.2 2.2 0.389 2743
Blanton 568.7 6.5 2.7 0.363 3999
Hudson 413.0 5.5 2.8 0.228 5541
Hanson 330.3 7.9 2.8 0.411 1035
Lowe 599.3 5.9 2.5 0.205 6053
Jurrjens 519.7 6.5 3.3 0.356 1755

The standard deviations for each rate:

2011 STDEV 2008-10 STDEV
K/9 BB/9 FB% K/9 BB/9 FB%
Halladay 1.77 0.76 0.04 0.45 0.21 0.01
Lee 1.96 0.87 0.04 0.46 0.22 0.01
Oswalt 2.28 1.46 0.05 0.49 0.30 0.01
Hamels 1.99 1.16 0.05 0.49 0.29 0.01
Blanton 2.31 1.50 0.05 0.48 0.34 0.01
Hudson 1.44 0.85 0.03 0.54 0.41 0.01
Hanson 1.99 1.20 0.05 0.68 0.45 0.02
Lowe 1.86 1.24 0.04 0.46 0.32 0.01
Jurrjens 1.99 1.14 0.05 0.51 0.39 0.01

If you’re not familiar with the standard deviation, check out the link above. The standard deviation tells us how far away from the average the data lies, assuming the data is normally distributed. Take Halladay as an example. The standard deviation of his 2008-10 K/9 is 0.45, with an average at 7.7. That means 68 percent of the time, we should expect Halladay’s K/9 to lie between 7.25 and 8.15.

If you compare the three columns on the right (2008-10), to the three columns on the left (2011), you should notice that they’re quite smaller. What that tells you is that we are more certain of the 2008-10 data because of the much larger sample size. When we regress, the larger sample size will be weighted appropriately.

Regressed
K/9 BB/9 FB% xFIP
Halladay 7.8 1.3 0.256 3.07
Lee 7.4 1.3 0.416 3.34
Oswalt 7.4 2.2 0.322 3.52
Hamels 8.2 2.2 0.387 3.51
Blanton 6.5 2.7 0.360 3.83
Hudson 5.4 2.5 0.229 3.73
Hanson 8.0 2.8 0.406 3.75
Lowe 6.0 2.5 0.206 3.61
Jurrjens 6.4 3.1 0.355 3.97

Currently, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee each have strikeouts well above their career rates. The regression brings them down quite a bit. Similarly, both Jurrjens and Tim Hudson have walk rates well below their career averages, so the regression brings those back up. Additionally, the players’ fly ball rates were regressed; Joe Blanton and Derek Lowe were the most-regressed.

Here is a graphical look at the nine pitchers’ xFIP, 2011 against the regression. (Click to enlarge.)

The big takeaway from all of this is that all of the pitchers have pitched above their norms in one way or another. However, note that after the regression, the Phillies’ “big four” is… well, the top four, all at 3.52 or below in terms of xFIP. The Braves’ best is Derek Lowe at 3.61. Their best by results, Jurrjens, ends up the worst among the nine.

Have the Braves’ starters had better results than the Phillies? Yes. Have they performed better? Absolutely not. Overall, the Braves have a staff BABIP at .269 while the Phillies are at .287. Last year, the Oakland Athletics had the lowest staff BABIP at .274. If the Braves had a staff of fly ball pitchers and played in a spacious home ballpark like Safeco Field or Petco Park, I may be inclined to believe their BABIP, but neither condition is met. Rather, the Braves have a staff of ground ball pitchers (recall that ground balls become hits more frequently than fly balls) benefiting from an individual BABIP .264 or lower. On the Phillies’ side of things, Roy Oswalt is the only one particularly low at .247. Cole Hamels is at .271, but that is close to his .285 career average. Halladay, Lee, and Joe Blanton are each above .300.

The Phillies’ staff is better, based on what we know about each of the nine pitchers studied. It could be true that one or more of the Braves’ pitchers has significantly improved, but we cannot say that with any certainty at the moment. If you’re the betting type, bet on the Phillies’ rotation being better than the Braves’ going forward.

References

This incredibly informative article by Sal Baxamusa at Athletics Nation, circa March 2008.

Leave a Reply

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29 comments

  1. Scott G

    May 09, 2011 07:18 AM

    Bill,

    Is there a possible correlation between Jurrjens walk rate and his decreased K rate? You mentioned that his BB/9 is 1.5, which you would expect to come up. However, his K/9 is down considerably too. I know it’s a small sample size, but is it a possibility that he’s pitching more toward contact than trying to overpower hitters which makes him around the plate more? Might make sense since he’s coming back from injury.

  2. Bill Baer

    May 09, 2011 07:39 AM

    Scott, that’s certainly a plausible theory, especially since we have also seen a change in his batted ball profile.

  3. Sloth

    May 09, 2011 09:01 AM

    I think the best theory on Jurrjens is that his velocity is down (expected coming back from injury), so he is using his two-seam fastball more frequently (it seems), which might explain the control problems and the higher GB%.

  4. bill

    May 09, 2011 10:23 AM

    Yeah Jurrjens is kind of due for some regression. 87.8% LOB right now, and 3.0% HR/FB.

    Lowe also has been pretty lucky on HRs so far.

    Cliff Lee however, has actually been somewhat unlucky, given his excellent peripheral stats, but high BABIP.

  5. Cutter

    May 09, 2011 11:05 AM

    ESPN seems determined to run as many “Phillies are vulnerable” articles as possible. I’m guessing this is because you can only run so many “Phillies rotation is awesome, they’re gonna win!” articles before people tune out.

    People want to read about how the heavy favorite can be brought down.

  6. Philfan87

    May 09, 2011 11:29 AM

    I dont think this much work, or even the article all together, was neccesary to prove our staff is better. Stats, whether early or late in the season, dont lie. Thanks for the cool charts, they are fun to look at.

  7. hk

    May 09, 2011 11:48 AM

    Bill,

    Lee’s Friday night outing produced a BABIP of .643 over 7 innings, which makes me wonder if it was some sort of record high BABIP for a 7 inning outing. When you look at the particulars…31 batters faced, 16 K’s, 1 BB, 0 HR’s and 9 of the 14 batters putting the ball in play getting hits…it is hard to imagine many starters lasting 7 innings with the same or a higher BABIP. Is there anywhere to check this?

    On a separate note and totally unrelated note, can you explain why the calculation for wOBA would include different weights for a HBP and a non-intentional BB or why it gives the batter credit for reaching base on an error?

  8. hunterfan

    May 09, 2011 12:01 PM

    The Braves being better than the Phillies Four is a better story. How dare you bring facts to this discussion.

  9. Bill Baer

    May 09, 2011 12:02 PM

    hk,

    First question: I would try Baseball Reference’s Play Index, though you may have to import the data and do some manual calculations yourself.

    Second question: I don’t think the specifics of the weights are that big of a deal, but Tango would be able to tell you a lot better than I:

    tangotiger.net/mailbag/

  10. Scott G

    May 09, 2011 12:31 PM

    HK,

    I’d be really interested in that answer as well, so if you could post it here or on my site when you hear back, I’d appreciate it.

    Bill has mentioned HBP being somewhat of a skill, so maybe that’s why it’s weighted differently. I also agree that ROE gives the batter a nod. I don’t have an opinion on the specific weight, but I think it probably speaks to the batter’s abilities somewhat.

  11. sean

    May 09, 2011 12:57 PM

    what’s the best lineup for when utley comes back? i keep seeing people say put utley 5 to “protect” howard. for me i think this works best

    rollins (s)
    utley (l)
    polanco (r)
    howard (l)
    victorino (s)/benny fresh (r)
    benny fresh (r)/victorino (s)
    the corspe of raul (l)
    ruiz (r)
    pitcher

    if francisco keeps getting as unlucky as he has been with a .244 babip when his peripherals are the same as last year, if not better with more line drives + walks, then move him down a spot. the curious case of ben francisco continues.

    anyway why give less at bats to your best players, i don’t get why people want to move polanco or utley to the 5, that doesn’t solve the problems because then people don’t get on ahead of them

  12. Richard

    May 09, 2011 01:05 PM

    I agree with that lineup, Scott, except I’d definitely have Victorino 5th, followed by Francisco…. Victorino’s good at driving in runners who remain after Howard, and it’s also a good place for his speed, so he can put himself in scoring position for the bottom of the order, such as it is.

  13. hk

    May 09, 2011 01:36 PM

    Bill,

    Thanks. I couldn’t make it work using the Play Index in the 2 minutes that I had to mess with it.

    Scott G,

    I will post Tango’s response if and when I get one.

  14. theghostwiththemost

    May 09, 2011 01:49 PM

    So you included Jurrjens’ 2010 numbers when he was hurt for most of the year?

    The Eno article focused on depth more so than stuff from the front five. Would you say the Phillies matchup just as well 1-7? 1-8? This of course is only important if injuries come into play, but how often does the five man rotation from day one make it through the season intact?

    Also, here are the Braves pitchers and their career BABIP compared to this year’s with career on the left.

    Hudson: .244 | .279
    Lowe: .293 | .313
    Hanson: .262 | .280
    JJ : .278 | .283

    Brandon Beachy is excluded for reasons that you stated (though we can expect him to become somewhat more human soon). Besides, any combination of Beachy, Minor, or Teheran would outperform the Phillies fifth starter (whether it be Blanton, Kendrick, or Worley) anyday of the week.

    Jurrjens might as well be even. He is due for slight regression in walks as you said, but now that he’s finally healthy something between his ’08 and ’09 numbers would be reasonable to expect. This is only his third healthy year in the majors, you can expect a 26 y/o such as him to continue to develop and get better.

    Derek Lowe has made adjustments including adding an effective slider (more like a cutter) and his success extends through the back end of last year. Otherwise his BABIP this year is above career average while his strikeouts will come down.

    Hudson seems to be very lucky this year, however his BABIP last year was .249. Just like Ichiro is able to sustain a BABIP well above league average because of his speed and ability to place the ball, Hudson may very well be able to do the same thing as some other “finese” pitchers who can consistently post BABIP rates below league average. He has shown the ability to post similarly low numbers for BABIP (’00 ’03 ’08) so it wouldnt be unworldly to see him do it again.

    A career BABIP is not an anchor that he MUST regress to by the end of the year. If Hudson were to post a .250 BABIP in the first half it would not be assumed that he would post a .310 for the second half to get to his career .279, but rather that he would post somthing closer to the .279 and end up around .265

    Hanson is performing below career norms but he’s only in his third year so you really cant take much from that. Like Jurrjens he’s a young pitcher who you can only expect to get better. If you’re speaking strictly in terms of overperforming career BABIP then him and Derek Lowe would cancel each other out as they are missing by equal amounts.

    I know the Phillies spent 50 million more on their rotation this year. That is a large investment but it is not a guarantee.

  15. hk

    May 09, 2011 02:15 PM

    To Scott G:

    By Tangotiger, 02:46 PM

    1. IBB, NIBB, HBP: why the different coefficient values for each?

    Hit batters occur more randomly than NIBB. IBB occur in a very non-random fashion. So, because a hit batter occurs more often when it can actually move a runner from 1B to 2B, it gets a slightly higher weight.

    The implicit coefficient value of the IBB is around 0.33. (It’s actually dynamic, according to the performance of the player, and a player with a .400 wOBA overall has an implicit coefficient of .40 for the IBB.) If you ignore the IBB in both the numerator and denominator, you’d get the implicit coefficient for the IBB: it’s the batter’s wOBA.

    2. Why errors for batters?

    When hitters reach base on error, they actually reached base safely. This is a good thing. In terms of IMPACT, reaching base on error is a bit more valuable than reaching base on a single (because of multi-base errors). As for the “cause” of the error: yes, the batter’s identity is more reflective of the single than of reaching on error. But, we don’t care about that. We only care about the results of events, not the reason for the events. If we cared for the reasons, we’d overweight the HR and BB and underweight the single and double (because the identity of the player is more important for HR and BB, and SO).

    3. What about steals?

    If you need it, give SB a .25 and CS a -.50, in the numerator. Don’t touch the denominator. If you don’t need it, don’t put it in.

  16. Peter J

    May 09, 2011 02:15 PM

    @theghost

    Great post.

    The mean age of Phillies starters is 31, with little variation. The mean age of Braves starters is 29, but Jurrjens, Hanson, and Beachy are 24/5 while Lowe and Hudson are old.

    The Phillies pitchers are being regressed against three years in the prime of their career, Jurrjens and Hanson are being regressed against their first three years in the league. This undermines the validity of your conclusions.

  17. hk

    May 09, 2011 02:27 PM

    Bill,

    How, if at all, do you factor into the equation that Halladay is being regressed against 2 years in the AL and 1 in the NL and Lee is being regressed against 2 2/3 years in the AL and 2 months in the NL?

  18. Peter J

    May 09, 2011 02:34 PM

    Bill,

    Yes, that’s true. There was a post on talking chop today about JJs BB/9 being substantially lower than any previous month in the majors. It seems that he’s trying to throw strikes and pitch to contact more.

    I think this is a adjustment that many good pitchers make to become successful in the majors, including Cliff Lee (walking 81 in his first full season in 2004) and Roy Halladay (walked 62 in 2002 in his first full season back from his disaster 2000 season, but cut that to 31 in 2003). That number has continued to trend lower for both pitchers since. Control is a sign of maturity.

  19. eno

    May 09, 2011 03:28 PM

    I did not write that the Braves rotation was better than the Phillies rotation. I don’t believe that is the case even if teh ERAZ say it’s so for this one minute in time. I’m comfortable with the idea of regression and how that will effect Derek Lowe and Jair Jurrjens, obviously.

    What I did say is that there will be 620 non-big-four innings this season and that the Braves will have the advantage in those innings.

    Would you have as much beef with that statement? Because that was the point of the article, even if the headline was unfortunate.

    The peripherals say that the Braves pen is better, and I take Beachy, Minor and Teheran over Blanton, Worley and Kendrick.

  20. Bill Baer

    May 09, 2011 03:31 PM

    Eno,

    I recognize that you’re not in charge of the headlines, but you can understand that Braves’ staff is better than Phillies’ might not imply that you think the Phillies’ rotation is better.

    I agree with you on depth.

  21. eno

    May 09, 2011 03:36 PM

    Yeah, not the headline I chose. Mine had something to do with Depth Matters. Just wanted to make sure you knew I didn’t choose that one Bill! Nice post.

  22. Bill Baer

    May 09, 2011 03:38 PM

    Yeah, I saw you have to clarify that a few times on Twitter. I could have done better to clarify that myself, as I’m sure you’ve been getting wrongfully flamed over the headline.

  23. E

    May 09, 2011 11:51 PM

    A’s rotation> All.

    but i’ll take the phillies over the braves.

  24. Catch 22

    May 10, 2011 07:46 AM

    And the next ESPN article will be about how Jose Bautista is going to hit 83 home runs this year and is now a far, far better player than Albert Pujols.

    Is Ricardo Montalban’s character once said “welcome to Fantasy Island!”

  25. Undocorkscrew

    May 10, 2011 04:10 PM

    Agreed on the Phillies rotation being better. However, since we’re talking small sample sizes here, I do think the Braves will have the better offense. However much the Braves have been lucky on the pitching end, they’ve been unlucky offensively.

    Enjoyed the article. Hopefully you can do this with the offense at some point in the next couple of weeks.

  26. Mike

    May 20, 2011 08:21 PM

    As far as using xFIP of course the Phillies rotation is going to be better. Braves pitchers are built to have hitters put the ball in play. Look at the K/9 rate.

    @Scott G solid point about JJ’s K rate. Rumor has it that He adopted Johnny Venters’ 2-seam fastball grip. He does not have the power Venters has but he still has the solid movement to increase his GB%. As well JJ is finally healthy again.

    @Undocorkscrew how have the Braves been lucky on the pitching end? For the most part they have been relatively unlucky. Beachy has a 3.45 ERA and 1 win. JJ lost a game last night 2-1. Of their 21 losses 6 have been allowing 3 runs or less. On top of that 4 BS by Kimbrel alone and 6 more on top of that. Philly has 6 losses also when allowing 3 runs or less and 1 BS.

  27. George

    July 13, 2011 02:42 AM

    Actually, the mean age of the Phillies “fab 4″ is 32.25, with the youngest being 28 and the oldest (tie) 34 this year. Clearly, time is not on the Phillies side, and to compare them to the 1993 Braves when their starters were MUCH younger than 34 is ridiculous.

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