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May 19, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

Rotation Freak Shows

by Jay Jaffe

Starting pitching is supposed to be the fundamental building block of success for a ballclub. It's not rocket science to note that a good rotation depresses the opposition's scoring, keeps the lion's share of the team's innings in the hands of its better pitchers, and allows a manager to deploy his relievers to best advantage late in the game, where the outcome may turn on a single matchup. Nonetheless, for today's episode of "Pair Up in Threes," we examine a trio of teams whose place in the standings bears no resemblance to the quality of starting pitching they're receiving. Such anomalies won't last forever, but so long as the small sample freak show is in town, you might as well buy a ticket.

Diamondbacks

Team Record: 14-23 (last in NL West, 11½ games out of first)
Rotation Fair Run Average: 4.19 (second in majors)
Support-Neutral Winning Percentage (SNLVA_R + .5): .549 (fifth in majors)

What Was Supposed to Happen: The Diamondbacks were forecast to win 88 games, good enough for the National League's Wild Card if not the NL West flag. In Brandon Webb and Dan Haren, they projected to have the best one-two rotation punch of any team, with their respective SNLVAR projections (7.1 and 6.9) ranking third and fourth in the majors. With unspectacular but solid Doug Davis and Jon Garland eating innings in the middle of the rotation and promising Max Scherzer—projected to rank 11th in the majors with 5.6 SNLVAR, though that figure was based on an overly aggressive workload—at the back, this looked to be one of the league's strongest units. The staff as a whole was expected to finish sixth in the league in run prevention, no small feat given the hitter-friendly environment in which the Snakes play.

What's Happened: After lasting just four innings on Opening Day, Webb was pushed to the Disabled List due to bursitis in his shoulder. He was expected only to miss a few weeks, but since suffering a setback in late April, he's been limited to playing catch and won't be back until sometime in June. While Yusmeiro Petit has pitched poorly in his place (8.03 ERA, -0.2 SNLVAR, .367 SNWP), Haren leads the league in SNLVAR, Davis is 11th, and Scherzer is 26th.

Alas, Webb's absence has been the least of the club's problems; right now this may be the unhappiest team in the majors. Manager Bob Melvin was fired on May 8 with the team a disappointing 12-17, 8½ games out of first. They've gone just 2-6 under replacement A.J. Hinch, whose lack of managerial experience has drawn fire from the media as well as departed pitching coach Bryan Price. Last Friday, upon pulling Davis for a pinch-hitter, the pitcher—who had thrown just 80 pitches but trailed by a run in the seventh—confronted his new skipper in full view of the TV cameras, never a good sign.

The real problem isn't a lack of respect for the manager's authoritah, it's a snake-bitten offense that's scraping together just 3.9 runs per game, which ranks 15th in the league; their .236 EqA is the NL's worst. Three lineup regulars (Chad Tracy, Conor Jackson, and Chris B. Young) are below the Mendoza Line, and Stephen Drew and Eric Byrnes aren't much above it. As well as Haren and Davis have pitched, both rank in the league's bottom 10 in run support, well under three runs per game; Haren is second-to-last at 2.3. Meanwhile, the bullpen's been pretty lousy (12th in the league in WXRL and 13th in Fair Run Average), but most of the damage has been done in lower-leverage situations. Closer Chad Qualls and set-up men Tony Pena and Juan Gutierrez, the only relievers with Leverage scores above 1.00, are all in the black, WXRL-wise, while the mop-and-bucket patrol has sloshed kerosene around during their aisle nine cleanups.

What Will Fix It: Even if Webb returns at full strength, the Diamondbacks have dug themselves a huge hole. The PECOTA-based version of our Playoff Odds Report puts their chances at reaching the postseason at just 9.3 percent, down from 45.0 percent to start the year. The suspension of Manny Ramirez won't do very much to bring the Dodgers back to the pack; in fact, the Diamondbacks have lost three games in the standings since then. If they don't start scoring runs soon, it's going to be a long summer in the Arizona heat.

Phillies

Team Record: 20-16 (tied for first in NL East)
Rotation Fair Run Average: 6.48 (last in majors)
Support-Neutral Winning Percentage: .417 (last in majors)

What Was Supposed to Happen: The defending World Champions weren't projected to win the NL East, but their 87-win forecast marked them as contenders with a solid 36.5 percent shot at the playoffs, either via the division title (27.2 percent) or the NL Wild Card (9.3 percent). Scoring didn't figure to be a problem, as the offense was projected to be the league's third most prolific, in part due to the hitter-friendly environment. On the other hand, their pitching was projected to be just 10th in the league, with Cole Hamels and Brett Myers forecast as the only starters with ERAs appreciably better than the park-adjusted league average, and neither without generating additional concern. Coming off a career-high 262 innings last year (including the playoffs)—not to mention his first injury-free season since his A-ball days in 2003—Hamels was expected to deal with some amount of a "championship hangover" which could limit his innings if not his effectiveness, while Myers was at risk to relapse into the struggles which forced him into a four-week exile to the minors last summer. Elsewhere, 46-year-old Jamie Moyer simply broke PECOTA due to a lack of age-appropriate comparables, while Joe Blanton and fifth starter Chan Ho Park figured to post ERAs around 4.50, the latter while battling J.A. Happ and Kyle Kendrick for innings.

What's Happened: Hamels experienced elbow soreness toward the end of spring training, scratching him from his Opening Day start and forcing him to debut at Coors Field amid a pile of crooked numbers. He totaled just 17 1/3 innings over his first four starts thanks to early departures due to a line drive off his shoulder and an ankle sprain. Since then, he's had two much more characteristic starts, allowing just three runs in 13 innings to lower his stratospheric ERA to 5.04, but he's just 57th in the league in SNLVAR. As for Myers, despite a 4.50 ERA and .498 SNWP, both tops among the starting five, his velocity is down, and he's returned to the gopher-friendly ways which hampered his performance in the first half of 2008:


Year  Half  HR/9   BB/9   K/9    FIP    ERA
2008   1     2.1    3.9   7.8   5.84   5.84
2008   2     0.5    2.1   7.6   2.95   3.06
2009   1     2.2    3.4   6.8   6.12   4.50

Meanwhile, Blanton, Moyer, and Park have combined for a 7.35 ERA while totaling just six quality starts out of 21. All three are getting considerably fewer ground balls than last year:


Pitcher    2008    2009
Blanton    42.4%   38.3%
Moyer      45.2%   41.0%
Park       52.6%   42.4%

With only Yankee Stadium (3.7 per game) seeing balls land over the fence more often than Citizens Bank Park (3.1 per game), those three pitchers are well over their USDA Recommended Daily Allowance for homers, with Moyer yielding a jaw-dropping 2.8 per nine. Luckily for the Phils, their offense has been as good as advertised, as they lead the league with 5.8 runs per game and are fourth in EqA. Moyer and Blanton both rank among the league's top 10 in run support, and the Phillies have improbably gone 13-8 in the back-end trio's starts despite their crapulence. It helps that they've had something of a soft schedule, playing the Nats nine times already; the projected winning percentage of their opponents thus far is .497, versus .508 the rest of the way.

What Will Fix It: Like Hamels, Myers has put together two strong starts in a row, allowing three runs in 13 innings, but the optimism regarding the other three basically involves hoping for a whole lot of regression—to their career rates for the defense-independent categories, to the league average for the defense-dependent ones. One could certainly expect the BABIPs of Hamels (.373), Blanton (.339), Moyer (.333), and Park (.321) to fall, but then Myers' (.275) should rise; it's worth noting that the Phillies are seventh in Defensive Efficiency and sixth in PADE.

Beyond that, the Phillies have at least one viable alternative for their rotation: Happ. The 26-year-old southpaw made four starts for them last year, and he's currently biding his time as a low-leverage lefty in the bullpen. Though as an extreme fly-baller he's hardly a great fit for Citizens Bandbox, he misses more bats than Park does, and manager Charlie Manuel sounds as though he's about one start away from pulling the trigger on a switch. Kendrick spent most of last year in the rotation, but was rocked for a 5.49 ERA, and makes a less appealing option, while top prospect Carlos Carrasco has been knocked around at Triple-A (0-5, 6.31 ERA), though his peripherals aren't as bad as that line suggests. With the Mets dealing with injury upon injury—Fernando Tatis played six innings of shortstop the other night—the Phillies aren't the division's only contender firing on fewer cylinders than expected.

Red Sox

Team Record: 22-16 (second in AL East, 3½ games out of first)
Rotation Fair Run Average: 6.11 (26th in majors)
Support Neutral Winning Percentage: .449 (27th in majors)

What Was Supposed to Happen: The Red Sox were forecast to win 95 games, with a 26 percent chance at winning the division, and a 23.7 percent chance at the American League's Wild Card. Backed by an offense which PECOTA picked to lead the league in scoring, the pitching staff projected to be the league's third-best run-prevention unit despite toiling in a pretty serious hitters' park. The rotation offered unparalleled depth, with Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Tim Wakefield filling the first four spots, free agent Brad Penny competing with 2008 flop Clay Buchholz for the fifth, and swingman Justin Masterson, top pitching prospect Michael Bowden, and rehabbing John Smoltz also available to take the ball if necessary at some point during the season.

What's Happened: While the Red Sox would make the cut if the playoffs were to start today, they would do so in spite of their rotation, not because of it. Forty-two-year-old knuckleballer Tim Wakefield (4.03 ERA, .568 SNWP) has been the only reliable starter, as Beckett, Lester, and Penny have combined for a 6.32 ERA, and Matsuzaka has been limited to two starts due to a mild shoulder strain that may be linked to fatigue brought on by his work in the World Baseball Classic. Masterson (4.57 ERA, .515 SNWP) has been a functional fill-in; without him, the Sox might be looking up at the Yankees in the AL East standings.

First and foremost, the Sox have been hampered by their defense. They're 12th in the AL in Defensive Efficiency, 19 points below the league average, a result partly linked to the injury stacking that's led them to start utilityman Nick Green at shortstop 22 times in place of Jed Lowrie or Julio Lugo, and one that's not helped by their having lost Kevin Youkilis to the DL. Lester (.385) and Beckett (.352) have both been particularly seared, with the former's home-run problems (1.9 per nine) and the latter's swollen walk rate (4.3 per nine) exacerbating the situation considerably.

Like Hamels, Lester may be feeling the effects of a career-high workload (237 innings) and a shorter than usual recovery time. He's averaging less than six innings per start, and his splits show that he's been extremely vulnerable after the fourth inning, yielding a .362/.385/.662 line to hitters in the fifth through seventh innings. Looking at it from a slightly different vantage, batters are hitting .338/.348/.646 when facing him for the third time in a game; he's yielding a homer for every 11 PA in those situations, compared to one every 36.3 in the first two go-rounds. Like Hamels, he's serving up far too many line drives (22.1 percent, where 18.6 percent is league average in our data set; Hamels is at 26.1). Beckett, at 25.3 percent, is even higher.

Luckily for the Sox, their deep bullpen has been the majors' best, and their lineup is producing a robust 5.5 runs per game. While that's only fifth in the league, it's enough to outscore opponents by nearly half a run per game, though their rate has dipped to 5.1 per game without Youkilis, who's hitting an insane .393/.505/.719. Neither he nor Jason Bay (.295/.434/.629) can carry the offense forever, but at some point hitters like David Ortiz (.208/.318/.300 without a homer) and Dustin Pedroia (one homer and .414 SLG) should start holding up their ends of the deal.

What Will Fix It: Matsuzaka has now made three rehab starts at Triple-A Pawtucket, and he's expected to return to the Red Sox on Friday, providing them much more flexibility. Initially, they'll push Masterson back to the bullpen, but between him and Buchholz, who as Kevin Goldstein pointed out last week is making mincemeat out of Triple-A hitters (1.03 ERA and just 6.3 baserunners per nine through six starts), they have two easy upgrade paths available to replace Penny, who's pitching a lot more like the cranky 2008 Dodger model than the 2007 Cy Young-caliber hurler:


Year   GB%   HR/9   K/9    ERA
2007  50.6%   0.4   5.8   3.03
2008  51.4%   1.2   5.0   6.28
2009  40.2%   1.2   5.0   6.69

With such a surplus of starters, they could take a page from the playbooks of the two New York teams and find a minor injury to give Lester a breather on the DL à la Chien-Ming Wang and Oliver Perez. Additionally, at some point later next month Smoltz should be finished rehabbing from shoulder surgery. However it sorts out, it's clear that the Red Sox won't need to sit on their hands and simply hope everything falls into place.

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

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<< Previous Article
Premium Article Prospectus Today: Texa... (05/19)
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Premium Article Prospectus Hit and Run... (06/03)
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