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April 11, 2012

Overthinking It

The Best Pitcher in Baseball?

by Ben Lindbergh

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Last season, the Phillies had it easy in the NL East. Only in the AL Central, where the Tigers were the lone .500 team and finished 15 games ahead of the second-place Indians, did a division winner enjoy a wider margin of victory than the 13 games that separated the Phillies from the Braves. However, the defending division winners appear vulnerable this season, and no NL East team can expect to cruise to a title.

Baseball Prospectus projects the division’s first- and last-place teams to be separated by just nine games, the second-smallest range after the NL West’s eight-game differential. Things look even tighter at the top, where the Phillies and Marlins are currently projected to tie, with the Braves behind by a game. In no other division is a third-place team projected to finish fewer than four games behind the leader.

The NL East is the only division aside from the perpetual powerhouse AL East to feature three teams that have at least a 25 percent chance of making the playoffs.  With such a small spread between teams, the performance of a single player could mean the difference between third place and a playoff berth. Each contender is depending on at least one prominent position player with a spotty health history—Chase Utley for the Phillies, Jose Reyes for the Marlins, Chipper Jones and Jason Heyward for the Braves—but a pitcher, Miami’s Josh Johnson, might play the most pivotal role. Four of the NL’s seven best projected starting rotations hail from the East, and the Marlins’ continued membership in that group hinges on keeping Johnson healthy.

Top NL teams by projected SP TAv against

Team

Projected SP TAv against

Phillies

.251

Dodgers

.256

Braves

.260

Giants

.262

Brewers

.262

Nationals

.264

Marlins

.265

Since Johnson has played in a sparsely attended stadium and shares a division with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Stephen Strasburg, three of the game’s most-mentioned aces, he has largely avoided the spotlight, but he has been as effective as any starter in recent years. From 2009-2011, the best starting pitcher in baseball was Justin Verlander, who totaled 17.1 WARP over that span. But the best starter on a per-batter basis was Josh Johnson. Johnson contributed 11.4 WARP from 2009-11, almost six wins fewer than Verlander did, but he also held opposing batters to a .218 TAv, the best mark among pitchers who threw at least 400 innings.

Top 10 starters by TAv against, 2009-2011 (min. 400 IP)

Name

TAv against

Josh Johnson

.218

Clayton Kershaw

.219

Roy Halladay

.223

Justin Verlander

.224

Adam Wainwright

.225

Cliff Lee

.227

Tim Lincecum

.228

Ubaldo Jimenez

.230

Matt Cain

.230

Felix Hernandez

.232

Last year, a historically awful Adam Dunn had a .218 TAv. Over the last three years, Johnson made the league hit like Adam Dunn hit last season. Since 2001, only two pitchers have had more effective three-year stretches, neither of them still active: Roger Clemens from 2005-2007 (.209) and Curt Schilling from 2001-2003 (.212).

There’s a catch, of course. Johnson might be the best pitcher on the planet, but he can’t help the Marlins if he’s not on the mound. All too often, he hasn’t been: Johnson has made multiple trips to the 60-day DL, the longest for Tommy John surgery in late 2007 and the latest for shoulder inflammation that ended his season last May. According to BP’s injury database, Johnson has spent 470 days either disabled or unavailable due to a day-to-day injury since 2006.

If Johnson has a healthy season, he’ll make a run at the five-WARP mark, which he surpassed in 2009 and came close to reaching in 2010. That’s the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is that he gets hurt and gives way to a combination of Wade LeBlanc and Alex Sanabia, who could be expected to muster at most one WARP between them from the same spot in the rotation. Right now, our projection calls for 154 innings and 3.1 WARP from Johnson. Boost that by a couple wins, and the Marlins would become division favorites. Dock it by a couple, and they’d be ticketed for third.

So which Johnson should the Marlins  and their NL East competitors expect: the one who tosses 200 innings, or the one who spends the season on the DL? Some outcome in the middle is the most likely, but Johnson’s history of elbow and shoulder problems—either one of which can curtail a pitcher’s career—offers ample cause for concern.

The right-hander didn’t pitch poorly in spring training or on Opening Day, but he did struggle with command and seemed to suffer from diminished stuff. In Johnson’s first two outings last season, his four-seam fastball averaged 94.4 miles per hour, right in line with its 94.7 average from 2010. In his last start before succumbing to injury, though, the pitch’s pace plummeted to 92.0. The Marlins must have hoped that 11 months of rest and rehabilitation would restore that lost velocity, but in his first regular-season start of 2012, his heater had come only part of the way back, clocking in at 92.8.
 
The Phillies and Marlins will square off tonight at Citizens Bank Park, with Halladay taking the hill for Philadelphia and Johnson—4-0 with a 1.87 ERA in five career starts in Philly—making the start for Miami. Banking on the more durable Halladay is the better bet, but if Johnson is at full strength, it may be the Phillies who’ll have the harder assignment, both tonight and for the rest of the season.

Dan Turkenkopf provided research assistance for this story. 

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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

Related Content:  Justin Verlander,  Roy Halladay,  Josh Johnson

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