Pitching to the Corners; Links

At The Hardball Times, Lucas Apostoleris (@DBITLefty) did some data mining to find the pitchers who frequently hit the corners of the strike zone.

The information was quite interesting and confirmed a lot of what we already knew about the Phillies:

  • J.C. Romero loves to pitch inside to left-handers (11.7%)
  • Jamie Moyer loves to throw inside to right-handers (8.1%)
  • Roy Halladay works the inside corner to all hitters (6.3%)

More links from the Internets after the jump. Continue reading…

Bullpen Misuse Leads to Another Loss

Game is tied 1-1 going into the bottom of the ninth inning. You have the following relievers left:

That was the situation the Phillies faced tonight against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Charlie Manuel went with Baez to start the inning. Baez, who has not shown the ability to strike out Major League hitters at an acceptable rate. The first three Cardinals made contact, reaching on three singles to load the bases, something that happens against pitchers that can’t miss bats. If Manuel had not intended to use Madson to start the inning, he should have at least considered using Madson as a fire extinguisher — he should have been warming before Baez threw his first pitch to Ryan Theriot. In a situation where you’re pitching to the home team in the bottom of the ninth inning with runners on first and second with no outs, you want to achieve one of two goals: A) get a strikeout, or B) get a double play. Madson, with his elite strikeout and ground ball rates, can accomplish both better than nearly anyone in baseball, let alone on his own pitching staff.

Baez breathed a sigh of relief when he had the fortune of generating a ground ball from Matt Holliday that was hit directly at Jimmy Rollins, who threw to home for the force out. Lance Berkman, a switch-hitter, was due up next, so of course Manuel went with the most logical option: Ryan Madson J.C. Romero. Romero, who struggles mightily against right-handed hitters. Against Berkman, who has an OPS approaching 1.100 against lefties this season. Naturally, Berkman hit a screaming line drive to center field that went over Michael Martinez‘s head to end the game.

This isn’t just Monday-morning quarterbacking. Matt Swartz (@Matt_Swa) was doling out the strategy on Twitter before the inning even started:

With Pujols due up 3rd, Madson should be pitching the bottom of the 9th regardless of what happens in the top

Manuel’s misuse of the bullpen has been noted previously here, but to add a cherry to the dessert of analysis, check out this graph from Chasing Utley (@Phylan) from last week (click to enlarge):

If Madson is the best reliever in the bullpen (and he is, there is no counter-argument), he certainly isn’t being used as such.

I realize that it’s easy to pick on the manager and it’s even cliche at this point, but these are objective reasons why Manuel’s in-game decision-making has been unsatisfactory. His affable personality and clubhouse management are certainly great attributes to have in a manager; if Charlie would be a bit more discerning with his strategy, he could be a great manager.

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Charlie Manuel Unnecessarily Taxing His Pitchers’ Arms

The Phillies played their 40th game of the season last night against the St. Louis Cardinals. Cliff Lee threw 122 pitches, marking the 11th time a Phillies starter has thrown 110 or more pitches in a game thus far in 2011. For those of you keeping score, that’s 27.5 percent. Only the Houston Astros have been more taxing of their starters’ arms. The average Major League team has six 110+ pitch performances on record; the Phillies are at nearly twice that total.

Player Date Tm Opp Rslt App,Dec IP H R ER BB SO HR Pit GSc aLI
Roy Halladay 2011-04-24 PHI SDP W 3-1 GS-9 ,W 8.2 5 1 1 1 14 0 130 83 .852
Cole Hamels 2011-04-22 PHI SDP W 2-0 GS-8 ,W 8.0 4 0 0 3 8 0 126 79 1.245
Roy Halladay 2011-04-13 PHI WSN W 3-2 CG 9 ,W 9.0 6 2 2 2 9 0 123 74 1.553
Roy Halladay 2011-05-15 PHI ATL L 2-3 CG 8 ,L 8.0 8 3 3 2 7 1 119 59 1.339
Cliff Lee 2011-05-06 PHI ATL L 0-5 GS-7 ,L 7.0 9 3 3 1 16 0 117 62 .724
Roy Halladay 2011-05-10 PHI FLA L 1-2 CG 8 ,L 8.0 5 2 1 2 9 0 115 73 1.225
Cliff Lee 2011-05-01 PHI NYM L 1-2 GS-7 7.0 8 1 1 2 5 0 113 60 1.203
Roy Halladay 2011-04-07 PHI NYM W 11-0 GS-7 ,W 7.0 6 0 0 1 7 0 113 71 1.016
Cliff Lee 2011-05-16 PHI STL L 1-3 GS-7 ,L 6.1 6 3 3 6 4 0 112 53 1.416
Roy Halladay 2011-04-19 PHI MIL L 0-9 GS-7 ,L 6.2 10 6 6 2 3 1 112 31 .790
Cliff Lee 2011-04-02 PHI HOU W 9-4 GS-7 ,W 7.0 4 3 3 0 11 1 111 68 .710
Roy Halladay 2011-05-05 PHI WSN W 7-3 GS-7 ,W 7.0 6 2 2 0 10 0 110 67 .757
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/17/2011.

The pitch count debate is anything but finished. Current information is limited in scope and conclusions are very hazy. Some pitchers, like Roy Halladay, seem to be well-conditioned to throw as many pitches as necessary while others are gasping for air before they ever reach 100. And, of course, the 100-pitch marker is itself arbitrary. Why 100? Why not 103 or 98 or 112? You get the point.

Still, I think we can all agree that each pitch is riskier than its precedent. By exactly how much is anyone’s guess, but it is non-zero. If a manager has the opportunity to allow his starter to throw fewer pitches, he should take it, generally speaking.

That was very clear yesterday when Lee was having a lot of trouble locating his pitches, setting a career-high with six walks in six and one-third innings. Lee, of course, is known for his pinpoint control, leading the Majors in strikeout-to-walk ratio last year at 10.3, and led the Majors for this season, going into last night’s game at 9.1.

Lee needed 25 pitches to escape the first inning, and was at 86 pitches through four innings, at which point he had allowed five of his six walks. He should not have taken the mound for the fifth inning. Baseball purists and macho men reading this should experience heightened blood pressure after reading that sentence. Taking out your $100 million starter after 86 pitches and four innings?!

Yes. Eliminate risk. As it turns out, Lee had fairly easy fifth and sixth innings, allowing him to pitch into the seventh, but situations like that are why you have arms in the bullpen capable of pitching multiple innings. It is exactly the reason why the Phillies still carry Kyle Kendrick on the roster. If you are not comfortable using your relievers in that situation, then when are you comfortable using them? Why are they taking up a roster spot, instead of a more useful bench player?

One need only go to this page and search for “(P)” to get an idea of the risk involved. Is getting an extra two or three innings out of Lee, rather than the rarely-used bullpen, worth risking losing him to injury? Even if the risk of injury is one percent rather than, say, 40 percent, the answer is still a resounding “no”.

In the fifth inning until he was pulled in the seventh inning, Lee faced sub-1.00 leverage index situations with seven of ten batters, and of course the other three situations were his own doing — a result of his lack of stuff. Going into the seventh, the Phillies were facing four-to-one odds to win the game. Manuel either has a remarkable lack of confidence in his bullpen or was not cognizant of how much he was asking from his starting pitcher.

The average leverage index, for the games in which Phillies starters accrued 110 or more pitches, was 1.04. As the FanGraphs Saber Library explains, an average LI is 1.00, so it isn’t as if these starters are in super-important situations. And, lest we forget, it is May — we are just now arriving at the one-quarter mark.

Even when we look at the peak leverage index, the decision-making isn’t justified. The average max-LI for the 11 110-plus-pitch games is 3.07, with a max of 7.13 in Halladay’s start against the Washington Nationals on April 13. The rest fell under 4.00, with four registering under 2.00. The two most egregious over-uses both involved Halladay: on April 7 against the Mets, when Halladay pitched seven innings as the Phillies won 11-0; and April 19 against the Milwaukee Brewers, when Halladay went six and two-thirds innings as the Phillies lost 9-0.

If the starters being overworked were Joe Blanton and Roy Oswalt, to whom Phillies owe nothing in the long term, that would be somewhat justifiable. But the Phillies owe Halladay as much as $60 million from 2012-14, and Lee as much as $124 million from 2012-16. Winning regular season games in May is nice, but protecting long-term investments is more important.

Going into last night’s game, the Phillies led the league in average innings pitched per start by starting pitchers at 6.5 (roughly six and two-thirds innings). As a result, the Phillies had also called upon the bullpen the least, at 100 and one-third innings, beating the Los Angeles Dodgers by about eight innings.

We expected this situation to occur, given the hype around the starting rotation going into the season. When you have four legitimate aces, the bullpen will end up used less and less. There is, however, the smart way to ration innings and there is the dumb way. Thus far, I’m not so sure Manuel’s use of his starting rotation falls under the former category. Oswalt has his own health problems (recently, his back), while Halladay and Lee have not had the cleanest bills of health over their respective careers — both heading into their mid-30’s as well.

There’s a reason why you keep your Porsche(s!) in the garage and your Toyota parked on the street. One represents an investment; the other, convenience. You use the Porsche only on special occasions, not for everyday driving. Manuel should use his rotation and bullpen accordingly.

Statistical Odds and Ends

The Phillies mustered just two runs in yesterday’s loss to the Atlanta Braves, marking the 21st time this season that the Phillies have scored three or fewer runs in a game this season. As they have played 39 games, that comes out to 54 percent. There is a lot to blame for the lack of offense:

  • A league-wide drop in offense. The average NL team scores 4.18 runs per game, down from 4.33 last year and way below the 4.70-ish average for much of the 2000’s.
  • Injuries. The Phillies have been without Chase Utley and Domonic Brown all year, but have also had to endure injuries to Carlos Ruiz, Brian Schneider, and Shane Victorino as well. Their replacements have been unspectacular.
  • Bad luck. As explained here, the Phillies have been hitting the ball hard, but haven’t been able to find the open areas on the field. We should expect that fortune to even out somewhat going forward, but it hasn’t yet.
  • Opposing pitching. The Phillies have played the Braves nine times (23 percent of their schedule thus far), who have had the best pitching in the Majors thus far. The Marlins have the NL’s fourth-best pitching staff and have played five games against the Phillies (13 percent) while the Nationals are sixth and have played the Phillies six times (15 percent).
  • Bottom-third of the lineup. The 7-8-9 hitters (counting pinch-hitters but not pitchers) have collectively posted a .611 OPS, which is the second-worst in the league. The league average is .675. The Phillies’ 1-2 hitters have the best OPS in the league at .850 but have no one ahead of them to help advance around the bases either because it is the start of an inning or the bottom of the lineup did not produce.

To get an idea where the Phillies compare to the league average relative to past seasons, I used a formula very much like OPS+, only for the runs per game average. Simply put, I divided the Phillies’ average by the league average and then multiplied by 100. Above 100 is above-average; below 100 is below-average.

Year PHI RPG NL RPG RPG+
2001 4.60 4.70 98
2002 4.41 4.45 99
2003 4.88 4.61 106
2004 5.19 4.64 112
2005 4.98 4.45 112
2006 5.34 4.76 112
2007 5.51 4.71 117
2008 4.93 4.54 109
2009 5.06 4.43 114
2010 4.77 4.33 110
2011 4.26 4.18 102

This essentially accounts for the overall decline in offense. Relatively speaking, the 2011 Phillies offense is the franchise’s worst since 2002, just two percent better than the league average. Thankfully, the lack of offense is somewhat nullified by the great pitching staff.

Base Running

One factor that hasn’t contributed to the Phillies’ decline in offense is their base running. While their overall stolen base total (25) ranks eighth in the league and their 78 percent success rate is below that of previous years, the Phillies have actually improved in nearly all facets of base running. Using Equivalent Base Running Runs (EQBRR) and its components from Baseball Prospectus, we can see exactly how the Phillies have fared on the bases.

* 2011 numbers are prorated

GAR: Ground advancement runs; SBR: Stolen Base Runs; AAR: Air Advancement Runs; HAR: Hit Advancement Runs; OAR: Other Advancement Runs

Believe it or not, the best base runner on the team thus far has been Wilson Valdez. He has contributed 2.6 EQBRR thus far, ahead of Rollins at 2.3 and Victorino at 1.9. Due to his lack of playing time, Valdez has had less opportunities than the other two — 32 to Rollins’ 51 and Victorino’s 62. While Valdez’s base running has been nice, it isn’t nearly enough to make up for his other offensive shortcomings.

J.C. Romero and Kyle Kendrick

During the winter, I pointed out that Romero should be used strictly as a LOOGY — a left-handed, one-out guy:

Here are the facts, using Romero’s career splits:

  • vs. RHB: 6.8 K/9, 6.9 BB/9, .292 BABIP, 5.34 xFIP
  • vs. LHB: 8.2 K/9, 3.9 BB/9, .266 BABIP, 3.61 xFIP

Unfortunately, Charlie Manuel has not obliged, giving Romero the platoon advantage (LHP vs. LHB) in only 39 percent of his match-ups. While Romero hasn’t been abysmal, he has been anything but flawless. His walk and strikeout rates are equivalent at 4.8 per nine innings. Against the 16 lefties he has faced, his peripherals lead to a 2.39 xFIP. Against the 25 right-handers, his peripherals lead to a 6.20 xFIP.

Kendrick is in a similar situation. Despite his 1.83 ERA, he has not pitched well. His 6.40 SIERA is dead last among all Major League pitchers with at least 19 innings pitched. The handedness of the batter hasn’t mattered much this season, but for his career, Kendrick has a 4.11 xFIP against right-handed batters and a 5.46 xFIP against lefties. If Kendrick is to be used, it should be only against right-handed batters, even though the Phillies seem to value his ability to pitch multiple-innings.

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Phillies Prospects Q&A with Kevin Goldstein

One of the perks writing at Baseball Prospectus given me is access to Kevin Goldstein. There are a lot of prospect gurus on the Internet, but few are as widely respected as Goldstein. I asked Kevin if he could fit some time into his hectic schedule to answer a few questions about some Phillies prospects and he was more than willing to oblige. Enjoy the Q&A below, then do yourself a favor and check out Kevin’s writing and podcasting at Baseball Prospectus.

. . .

1. Dom Brown is on his way back from a hamate bone injury. I’ve been quoting Keith Law, who said that it generally takes 12-18 months to regain power after such an injury. However, Brown hit 2 home runs immediately in Clearwater before jumping up to Lehigh Valley. Should Phillies fans be optimistic or pessimistic about Brown’s power?

I’d be quite optimistic, as he’s been driving balls consistently during his rehab. Keith is right, that’s generally the range, but there are players who got the power back right away, and unfortunately, there are some for whom it never returned. I still like Brown a ton, and think his big league struggles last year were more a result of an inability to adjust as a bench player than any sort of talent issue.

2. Vance Worley impressed a lot of people while filling in for Joe Blanton recently. Personally, I was impressed by his two-seam fastball, but did notice that his secondary stuff seemed lackluster. Is that an accurate portrayal of what he has to offer? Does he project any better than a back-of-the-rotaiton starter?

That’s dead on, what else can I say? He’s going to go 88-93 mph with his fastball, but he spots it very, very well and works both sides of the plate. He has a solid slider, and a slower, more slurvy version of it. His changeup is ok. More than anything, he’s a strike thrower and a battler and no more than an 4-5 starter.

3. Although his chances have been limited thanks to a hefty starting rotation, Michael Stutes has shown some moxie in his brief time up in the Majors. He was brought up as a starter, but made the transition to the bullpen last year with mixed results — lots of strikeouts, but lots of walks. Do you see him conquering the control issues? He seems like he could be a late-innings weapon if he manages to harness that control.

His control has never exactly been good in the minors, but it’s usually been manageable due to his ability to miss bats, and I think he’ll settle back into his four or so walks per nine rate of the past. That said, I think it’s more seventh-inning stuff than eighth or ninth.

4. Jonathan Singleton burst onto the scene last year, mashing 14 homers and 25 doubles as an 18-year-old in Clearwater. He came in playing first base, but after the Phillies extended Ryan Howard through at least 2016, he moved to the outfield. Can he play the outfield at a passable level? Even if he doesn’t, can his bat justify it?

I think he can become an acceptable left fielder, but let’s face it, that’s a very low bar. He’s a big dude, but he’s a good athlete for his size, and I think he’ll figure it out. I do think he got a little too much hype as a hitter, and still has some things to work out. He struggled down the stretch last year, and the Florida State League isn’t exactly helping his power, but we are not talking about a guy who hit 10 home runs in his first 41 games of the 2010 season and has hit five in 86 since. Pitchers have made adjustments on him, and now he has to adjust to the adjustments.

5. Recently, I wrote about the Phillies signing Jimmy Rollins to an extension, citing the dearth of depth at shortstop in the Phillies’ organization. The only name on anyone’s radar right now is Freddy Galvis. We all know he can field, but what are the odds he learns how to hit? Are there any other names out there in the Phillies’ organization we should be keeping an eye on when it comes to shortstop?

We have 420 games to evaluate Galvis, and we have a .234/.282/.300 line to show for it. He’s been consistently young for the level, but even with that mitigating factor I think it’s fair to say there are doubts as to him ever hitting enough to play every day. That said, he’s crazy good defensively, and if he ended up with some kind of Rey Sanchez career, I can’t say I’d be shocked. As for other shortstops in the organization, if you can’t say something nice . . .

6. In your opinion, who is the most underrated player in the Phillies’ system right now? The most overrated?

I’m not sure I want to go with Singleton here for the over-rated pick, but I do think it’s fair to say there are concerns and I do think people got way too excited about a two-month run and he still has plenty to prove. I also have questions about Sebastian Valle‘s long-term future until he gets an approach and improves his defense, but I do like his tools question a bit. As for under-rated, right-hander Julio Rodriguez continues to impress. Good frame, good fastball, good feel for his craft. I think he’s gone from a guy who a lot of people saw a s a future reliever to a possible starter.

. . .

For players and topics that were not covered in our little Q&A, check out his take on the top-11 Phillies prospects from February as they may have been covered there.

Thanks again to Kevin for setting aside time to help shine some light on the Phillies Minor League system. Remember, Kevin covers the Minors extensively at Baseball Prospectus and also hosts the best baseball podcast around. Those are instant bookmarks for me, I’d suggest the same for you.

Graph of the Intermittent Time Period

This one is very self-explanatory. The Phillies offense, runs be damned, have hit a lot of line drives. Presently, they rank third in all of Major League Baseball with an aggregate 20.6 percent line drive rate. Only the Los Angeles Dodgers (22.3 percent) and Chicago Cubs (21 percent) are better, and all three exceed the 18.6 percent National League average.

(Click to enlarge)

Pete Orr, last night’s hero, is crushing the ball despite a paltry .287 wOBA. Given Wilson Valdez‘s uninspiring 2011 season, Orr has made a case to remain on the roster once Chase Utley returns. Of course, Valdez has job security, so Michael Martinez should be the one worrying about his job status, even as a Rule-5 selection.

Another surprise is Jimmy Rollins. Everybody has been marveling over his walk rate (12 percent compared to his 7.5 percent career average), but he has been hitting the ball well — his .090 ISO is a liar!

Despite the plethora of line drives, the Phillies remain near the middle of the pack with a .298 BABIP. As a group, they have a .679 BABIP on line drives, which is 14th-worst in the NL and more than three percent lower than the NL average. If there is reason for optimism with regard to the Phillies offense, this is it. It is unlikely that the Phillies will be this unlucky on line drives over the course of an entire season, given how well they have been making contact.

Frenchcoeur: Citizens Bank Park “a bandbox”

Via FanNation:

“Poor David [Wright] hits the ball to right-center so well and there it’s an out,” Francoeur said. … Francoeur didn’t waste time knocking his former home field after signing with the Royals in the offseason, and even though it’s no longer his problem, the right fielder remains adamant the Mets need to make changes — to the field, not the team. “They’ve gotta shorten the park up,” Francoeur said. “It’s huge. I’m not saying make it a bandbox like Philadelphia, but they have to do something.”

Two things:

1. Citizens Bank Park is not and has not been “a bandbox”.

At The Good Phight, Schmenkman wrote a detailed article explaining why CBP actually plays rather fair. He included this slick chart:

2. David Wright doesn’t hit many balls to right-center.

This spray chart comes from Texas Leaguers:

I’m not seeing too many marks that are both A) deep enough in right-center where they should be falling in for hits, and B) outs. I see one, and I could generously see three.

Considering Francoeur is the same guy who once said, “If on-base percentage is so important, then why don’t they put it up on the scoreboard?”, I’m not surprised to see him wrong on both counts. Still, with his .928 OPS and winning smile, he has carte blanche with most sportswriters.

Tuesday Links and Miscellany

No time to throw up a post today, so I’m going to post a couple of miscellaneous items and then some links to good stuff around the blogosphere.

Tune into Phillies 24/7 HD radio today at 2 PM ET or tomorrow at 3 PM ET for the latest edition of “Stathead” with myself and my co-host Jeff Sottolano. We’ll talk about the last week in Phillies baseball.

I’m legitimately awful at Facebook, so for the longest time, I was using an account for the blog as if it were an actual person. As such, people needed confirmation in order to see the blog information. I finally made the switch to a fan page. If you are so inclined, click here and mash the “Like” button. Pretend it says “dislike” if necessary.

You can also follow me on Twitter @CrashburnAlley. I’m usually there during Phillies games, so join the conversation if you’d like some company while the Phillies kick some National League tail.

I mentioned when I asked readers to fill out a survey that I am interested in doing live chats. The survey results revealed that the best time for a chat is during an actual game, and that the chats occur between once a series and once a week. I’ll aim for once a week for now. Once I get a laptop and wireless Internet situated, look for the live chats. Hopefully before the month is out.

Links

Brotherly Glove: Corey Seidman praises Charlie Manuel and counts down the days until the Marlins designate Javier Vazquez for assignment. [Link]

Philled In: David Hale has a video of Joe Blanton talking about his start after last night’s game. [Link]

Phillies Zone: Matt Gelb explains why Manuel left Vance Worley in to pitch the eighth inning. [Link]

High Cheese: David Murphy has notes on all of the injured Phillies, including Roy Oswalt. [Link]

The Fightins: Holy hell. You have to read this. Just another example why it’s The Fightins’ world and we’re just blogging in it. [Link]

Phillies Nation: Remember Phillippe Aumont? He doesn’t suck anymore. Jay Floyd interviews him about his newfound success and more. [Link]

Baseball Prospectus: Jason Parks posted the first two parts of a four-part series on scouting. [Link 1, Link 2]

ESPN SweetSpot: David Schoenfield discusses the increased value of bullpens in baseball now that run-scoring has deflated. [Link]

Capitol Avenue: Kevin Orris goes in-depth on Jair Jurrjens’ new approach to pitching, sans injury. [Link]

Mets Today: Roland Agni wonders if Kevin Millwood is a good fit for the Mets. *snicker* [Link]

River Ave Blues: Hannah Ehrlich has the dos and don’ts of ballpark attire. [Link]

The Book Blog: A Crashburn Alley reader picked Tango’s mind about wOBA. [Link]

Baseball Musings: David Pinto wonders if the current decline in BABIP is a fluke or trend. [Link]

The Hardball Times: Harry Pavlidis provides the latest benchmarks for pitch types (Pitch F/X). [Link]

Amazin’ Avenue: Which Phillie is the least favorite among Mets fans? [Link]

Hardball Talk: Craig Calcaterra points out the silliness in curbing baseball players’ pre-game fraternization. [Link]

Finally, to steal a gimmick from Aaron Gleeman’s Link-O-Rama, here’s a music YouTube.

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.