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October 19, 2010

Playoff Prospectus

Tuesday LCS Pitching Matchups

by Matt Swartz

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Giants vs. Phillies
Cole Hamels: 3.06 ERA,3.19 SIERA
Hamels was dominant in his 2010 post-season debut, pitching a shutout to give the Phillies a clinching Game Three win over the Reds in the NLDS. Hamels struck out nine, walked none, and scattered five hits. It was a great example of the difference between the Hamels that the Giants go up against Tuesda and the Hamels of the past couple years. As explained below, the outlier year in the last three is not 2009, but 2010. His pitching skill in 2008 and 2009 was exactly the same when you dig into the numbers, but in 2010, he added a cutter and more importantly added a couple ticks to his fastball. His fastball was geared up in the NLDS, as Hamels mowed down Reds hitters, giving him the opportunity to surprise hitters with the changeup while they were preparing for a fastball that even touched 96 mph a few times. The norm for Hamels is 92, but when his fastball is coming in hard and he is keeping his pitches down in the zone, he is all but unhittable. The Giants have their work cut out for them in Game Three.

From the NLDS: In 2008, after Hamels finished the regular season with a 3.09 ERA and followed it with NLCS and World Series MVPs, every journalist had his story—the 24-year-old was mature beyond his years, he was a perfectionist and a hard worker, he had fire in his belly, and he did not let things get to him. In 2009, after Hamels finished the regular season with a 4.32 ERA and followed with disappointing performances in the playoffs, every journalist had a new story—the 25-year-old was immature, had let the pressure get to him, and had become complacent in his preparation. Of course, I wrote on multiple occasions how Hamels was the same pitcher. Not only did he match his strikeout rate, walk rate, and ground-ball rate almost perfectly in 2008 and 2009, but he also was similar in an impossible other number of ways: his line drive rate, home run rate, rate of balls hit to the outfield, rate of batted balls pulled, rate of foul balls, swinging strikes, rate of striking out hitters with two strikes, rate of infield pop-ups, and so on. He was simply lucky in 2008 and very unlucky in 2009. In 2010, Hamels now has a 3.06 ERA and every journalist has a new story on how Hamels got his groove back—you know, stopped letting things get to him, matured, and started working harder. The reality is that Hamels is now a better pitcher in 2010 than he was in both 2008 and 2009. He has had some success with a cutter he has developed, but more importantly has added two mph to his fastball, making it harder for hitters to tell his superb changeup from his heater as both arrive at the plate sooner than they did when he was the toast of the town and the goat of the town. The result is that Hamels has increased his strikeout rate from 21 percent in 2008 and 2009 to almost 25 percent in 2010, while also increasing his ground-ball rate from 44 to 47 percent. His SIERA of 3.19 is 10th among major-league starters, and fifth among those in the playoffs, giving the Phillies three of the top six SIERAs in the postseason.

Matt Cain: 3.14 ERA, 3.90 SIERA
Even with only five grounders among 20 balls in play in Game Two of the NLDS against the Braves, Cain still allowed no home runs. As discussed below, Cain is a pitcher who SIERA and other DIPS metrics will underrate. For whatever reason, he keeps fly balls from becoming home runs and puts up ERAs regularly below his SIERAs. Cain actually only generated one popup among his nine fly balls in Game Two, but the remaining eight stayed in the yard as well. He struck out six and walked two in 6 2/3 innings, though again kept runs for scoring, with only one unearned run crossing the plate while he was in the game. While the bullpen let it get away, Cain’s .220 Win Percentage Added demonstrates his contribution to the Giants’ efforts. He will face a Phillies lineup in Game Three that was stronger than the Braves lineup, but if he can keep generating popups and shallow fly balls, he could give the Giants a big win at home.

From the NLDS: It’s finally time to admit that DIPS metrics like SIERA do not work well for Cain. They are bound to work for the vast majority of pitchers, but some will be the exception to the rule. However, one must be careful not to stick a feather in the cap of every rookie who beats his SIERA, and then not fall victim to confirmation bias for those who have a second year of beating their peripherals. There will be a handful of pitchers that are lucky two years in a row and appear to have SIERA-beating skills but really do not. However, it is now four years in a row with Cain. After posting a 4.15 ERA in 2006, just above his 4.03 SIERA, Cain has transformed into a pitcher that pitches ahead of his peripherals by quite a large margin. In 2007, he had a 3.65 ERA and a 4.20 SIERA; in 2008, he had a 3.76 ERA and a 4.23 SIERA; in 2009, he had a 2.89 ERA and a 4.09 SIERA; and in 2010, he had a 3.14 ERA and a 3.90 SIERA. None of these are bad SIERAs. Cain strikes out 20 percent of hitters and walks only 6.8 percent. He is by no means a ground-ball wizard, but he induces pop-ups pretty regularly (11.4 percent of balls in play in 2010) suppressing his BABIP. His BABIP in his career is .270, and his HR/OFB is just 9.6 percent. Chances are that Cain has been a little bit lucky in this string of SIERA-beating ERAs, if for no other reason than it seems almost impossible that he was unlucky. However, Cain is one of the better pitchers in the postseason and gives the Giants a solid one-two punch with Tim Lincecum with which to compete against the NL’s best. 

Yankees vs. Rangers
Tommy Hunter: 3.73 ERA, 4.78 SIERA
When I challenged Hunter’s 2010 numbers and cited his high SIERA going into Game Four of the ALDS against the Rays, I did think an early exit was a strong possibility. However, Hunter actually dominated the strike zone but simply fell victim to hits on balls in play. Seven strikeouts and no walks in the first two trips through the lineup is almost always good enough for a win, and even more frequently is enough for more than 12 outs. However, six of 11 batted balls found grass, and Hunter was left with three runs (two earned) and a game that forced the Rangers to spend Cliff Lee on a Game Five two days later. While three doubles in six hitters during the fourth inning looks poor, keep in mind that Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena, and B.J. Upton are all great hitters and sometimes a pitcher can do his job and get beat. He struck out Matt Joyce, Dan Johnson, and Reid Brignac in the same inning, limiting the damage. However, that does not mean that Hunter has turned over a new leaf. Whether this is small sample size SIERA or small sample size ERA that we are looking at, we are better off discussing the full-season performance of Hunter which was poor. The Yankees may have a chance for a decisive win in Game Four if they can take advantage of his contact-pitching ways.

From the ALDS: Hunter’s ERA makes him appear to be an intimidating Game Four matchup for the Rays as they try to even the series, but his SIERA demonstrates that he is quite beatable. Hunter struggles particularly with striking people out, his strikeout rate declined from 13.5 percent last year to 12.7 percent this year. His batted ball rates are decidedly average as well, with 39 percent ground balls in 2009 and 42 percent in 2010. His pop-up rate was 10.0 percent in 2009, but fell to league average of 7.5 percent in 2010. The reason for Hunter’s low ERA is his BABIP of just .257, even lower than his .277 in 2009. Some of that is the Rangers' overall defense is strong with a .283 team BABIP in 2010 and .289 in 2009. In any situation where a pitcher puts up two low BABIPs in a row, you need to snoop around for a cause even if the explanation could easily still be luck, and in Hunter’s case, luck remains the most plausible reason. While some pitchers do keep their BABIPs low, those pitchers typically dominate the strike zone or induce a lot of popups and fly balls. This is not the case with Hunter who clearly does not have either of these skills in bulk. Hunter has gotten by with just a .196 BABIP on ground balls this year, and has reasonably low BABIPs on outfield fly balls and line drives too (.146 and .699). Chances are that this is luck that is unlikely to persist, and the Rays certainly have to be hoping his luck runs out quickly.

A.J. Burnett: 5.33 ERA, 4.42 SIERA
Burnett gets his first start of the 2010 playoffs, as the Yankees begrudgingly have given him a shot in Game Four of the ALCS. It certainly has been an ugly looking year for Burnett, though he has not fallen all that far from his 4.02 SIERA in 2009. The most concerning part is that his strikeout rate has fallen from 21.8 to 17.5 percent. However, most of the discrepancy in between the two seasons is his BABIP jumping from .297 to .323. Although his second half appears to be a far cry from his first half, his K/BB actually increased from 1.8 to 2.0, while his BABIP increased from .310 to .344, creating most of the difference in his performance that led to his 6.19 ERA after the All-Star break. The reality is that Burnett is probably just an average pitcher at this point, but he is not going to implode in the playoffs any more often than the Yankees’ other alternatives, and may be a safer bet in Game Four than pushing CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, and Andy Pettitte into short-rest starts for the remaining four games of the series.  

Matt Swartz is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matt's other articles. You can contact Matt by clicking here

Related Content:  A.J. Burnett,  The Who,  Two Strikes

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