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July 14, 2011

Painting the Black

Mid-season Heroes and Goats, Part 2

by R.J. Anderson

To recap my methodology, here is what I wrote in the positional players’ piece earlier this week:

In the numerical sense, the halfway point of the season arrived about a week ago. However, the All-Star break marks the arbitrary end point of the first half, bringing a few days of festivities and vacations to the forefront. That period of inactivity in games that matter offers a window into the frozen stats for each team, allowing us to see who is leading the charge and who is failing the team so far. 

In order to determine who’s been naughty and who’s been nice, I’ll enlist the aid of the Wins Above Replacement metric.

And here are the pitchers, as promised:

Arizona: Daniel Hudson (3.0)/Armando Galarraga (-0.7)
While the dissension levels ran high when Arizona traded Dan Haren to the Angels (probably in part because Joe Saunders’ ability to win without being good was portrayed as a key to the trade), the acquisition of Hudson for Edwin Jackson has been treated like a masterstroke. Not only has Hudson outpitched Jackson since, but he’s cheaper and will be under team control for longer. You can’t ask for a much better outcome than that in a one-for-one trade.

The D’backs continued a weird 12 months of dealing and acquiring pitchers over the offseason by adding Galarraga. Galarraga has never been particularly good, so agreeing to pay him $2.3 million in order to find out if he could survive in the National League West seemed pointless. The Snakes demoted Galarraga after 42 2/3 innings pitched, as he allowed 13 home runs, walked 22, and struck out 28.

Atlanta: Derek Lowe (4.2)/Scott Proctor (-0.3)
Atlanta is loaded with starting pitching, so much so that you have to wonder if they won’t flip an arm for a center fielder. Lowe seems like the logical candidate to be traded, but even considering his strong season thus far, will any team take on his remaining salary (a little under $7.5 million this season and $15 million next year) while still giving up an offensive asset? Kevin Goldstein mentioned Texas and Boston as potential suitors during the All-Star Game Roundtable.

Baltimore: Zach Britton (1.4)/Brian Matusz and Josh Rupe (-0.6)
Britton is not only the team leader with the lowest WARP score, but the only leader currently in the minors. The O’s optioned him to Triple-A last week in order to limit his innings, with the additional perk being a delay in his free agency date. Britton figures to return sometime soon, but for now, the Orioles’ best pitching performer in the majors is Jeremy Guthrie.

Matusz is spending his days in the minors as well, after struggling mightily in six starts. He is one of the league’s promising young left-handers, and the O’s need to figure out what—if anything—is physically wrong with him. Absent an injury, it would be tough to explain away 51 baserunners and nine home runs in 25 2/3 innings pitched.

Boston: Josh Beckett (1.6)/Tim Wakefield, Dan Wheeler, and Felix Doubront (-0.2)
For the second straight season, the Red Sox are dealing with the injury bug. Exiting the break, three of their starters are on the disabled list, including Jon Lester, which leaves Beckett as the rotation’s redeeming quality. Give Beckett credit for his resiliency after a disaster of a 2010 season and realize that this has been one of his better seasons so far. As it stands, Beckett has recorded quality starts in 71 percent of his games. That would be a career-high rate, surpassing the 69 percent he achieved with Florida in 2005—his final season before moving to Boston. 

Chicago (A): Edwin Jackson (2.5)/Brian Bruney and Tony Pena (0.0)
It appears that in the modern era, Jackson is the only pitcher to have 150-plus starts and five organizations under his belt by the age of 28.  In all likelihood, Jackson will relocate again at some point in the next six months, giving him a sixth major-league stadium to call home. Jackson’s nomad act has garnered him a reputation as a tease. His stuff is good, and maybe that’s the problem, as it seems there is a general feel that he will be a free-agent bust.

Perhaps a team will pay him for potential rather than production, but this isn’t an Oliver Perez situation waiting to happen, as Jackson is in the midst of recording his fourth two-plus WARP season in his last five tries. Perez, for comparison, has three such seasons in his career.

Chicago (N): Matt Garza (2.1)/Scott Maine (-0.5)
Another former Ray with big stuff, Garza has surfaced again in trade rumors, this time with the interest stemming from Boston. That’s not a huge surprise, as Jonah Keri quoted Jed Hoyer (now with San Diego) in The Extra 2% as saying that the Red Sox were “pissed” when the Rays acquired Garza (and Jason Bartlett, whom Hoyer confirmed the Red Sox had attempted to grab for themselves before). The Cubs do not seem likely to deal Garza, and they probably should resist the urge. With Garza’s career-high strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio intact, it’s hard to imagine the Red Sox giving up fair value, since the Cubs may ask for even more than they gave up in January.

Cincinnati: Mike Leake (1.8)/Chad Reineke (-0.2)
Despite spending some time in the minors, Leake has the third-most innings as a starter on the Reds, behind Bronson Arroyo and Travis Wood, neither of whom has pitched quite as well. The Reds rotation is in a weird place, as everyone expected it to be better than it has been.  Because of that, Cincinnati’s interest in Ubaldo Jimenez makes sense.

Cleveland: Justin Masterson (2.8)/Tony Sipp (-0.5)
There was never a question as to whether Masterson could get right-handed batters out, but this season, he has taken steps—statistically, at least—to improve his results versus lefties, turning in an improved strikeout-to-walk ratio and an opponent batting line highlighted by a decline in on-base percentage against from .370 to .329. Whether that’s a sustainable change remains to be seen, and it’s still possible that he’ll have to slide into a relief role due to the southpaw threat. Through the first half, though, the Indians are getting the performance from Masterson that they dreamed of when they made him the centerpiece of the Victor Martinez trade.

Colorado: Jhoulys Chacin (2)/Clay Mortensen (-0.2)
Whenever Chacin last faced the Dodgers, someone—possibly our own Mike Petriello or Jay Jaffe—referenced his ownage of the True Blue Crew. In nine career appearances (eight of them starts) and 53 innings pitched against LA, Chacin has allowed just 12 earned runs. That works out to a 2.04 earned run average. It’s not just the Dodgers that Chacin has pitched well against, but the Diamondbacks (2.82 ERA in six starts) and Giants, too (2.00 ERA in four starts). Those numbers aren’t particularly predictive, but Chacin is still a well-kept west coast secret at a sneakily young age (23).

Detroit: Justin Verlander (3.3)/Daniel Schlereth (-0.5)
Here is a crazy stat for you: Verlander has made 20 starts this season. Guess how many were quality starts. You were probably thinking 15, maybe 16, but the answer is 19. That’s right, Verlander has 19 quality starts in 20 attempts. Outside of a six-earned-run outing against the Rays, Verlander has put offenses in a sarcophagus. The most impressive thing about Verlander might be his durability, as this would mark the fifth-straight season in which he’s surpassed 200 innings pitched. Verlander is a proponent of pacing himself during starts, often sitting in the low-90s until he needs the extra gas, and you can’t help but develop some curiosity about the benefits of taking it slow after observing his and Livan Hernandez’s sturdiness.

Florida: Anibal Sanchez (1.8)/Brad Hand (-0.6)
Sanchez came over as part of the Hanley Ramirez-Josh Beckett trade, and until last season he had been a bit of an afterthought. Consider that 5.6 of his 8.8 career WARP have come in 2010 and 2011 and recall the countless injuries he endured between 2006 and 2009, and it’s easy to understand why. Possessor of a no-hitter and two one-hitters, Sanchez feels like a legitimate threat to pull off the feat whenever he takes the mound.

Houston: Bud Norris (2.7)/Fernando Abad (-0.4)
A friend in the industry threw me this comparison to Norris a few weeks ago, and I like it quite a bit, so I’m going to put it out there. I’ll reveal the identity of the other pitcher in a few sentences, but first, a blind taste test:

Norris’ career numbers: 56 games, 4.34 earned run average, 23.3 percent strikeouts, 10.5 percent walks, and 5.4 Wins Above Replacement Player.

The mystery hurler’s numbers through his first three seasons: 64 games, 3.73 earned run average, 23.9 percent strikeouts, 11 percent walks, and 8.1 Wins Above Replacement Player.

I don’t expect anyone to have guessed this, but the mystery fellow is Scott Kazmir. The comparison falls apart beyond the numbers, as Norris is both a righty and more chunky than the young Kazmir was, but it sort of works stylistically, in that both were hard-throwing aspiring aces for cellar dwellers.

Kansas City: Jeff Francis (1.8)/Vin Mazzaro (-0.4)
Francis seemed like a decent gamble for a team with little to offer in the major-league rotation, and the results are better than they look. Never much one for ERA—Francis’ ERA+ has been better than league average just twice—he is enjoying a career-high quality start rate. Sure, Francis is going to have some poor starts, but otherwise, he is a safe bet to suck up innings without sucking himself, and that represents value for a number of teams.

Los Angeles of Anaheim: Jered Weaver (3.4)/Michael Kohn (-0.4)
Pitcher heights are only noticeable at the extremes, so it’s always a little startling that Weaver is listed at 6-foot-7—the same height as Michael Pineda, whose mimicking of a tower next to Felix Hernandez and Brandon League drew oohs and ahs from the All-Star Game crowd. Weaver has arrived as a starting pitcher; one of the ways you can tell is that he is referred to less and less often as Jeff Weaver’s young brother. We all know Google search hits are the ultimate arbiter of cultural significance, and just look at the evidence:

Los Angeles: Clayton Kershaw (4.3)/Lance Cormier (-0.5)
Kershaw is only 23 years old. I mentioned the quick expiration date on age consideration with Justin Upton, and I wonder if it applies to Kershaw, too. Here are just a few of the pitchers older than Kershaw:

Mat Latos
Mike Leake
Jeremy Hellickson
Jaime Garcia
Tommy Hanson
Derek Holland
Brandon Beachy

Meanwhile, shiny new toys like Michael Pineda, Rubby De La Rosa, and Danny Duffy were all born within a year of Kershaw, and none of those guys has his major-league experience. It’s easy to lose sight of Kershaw and the other worthwhile players on the Dodgers’ roster given the ownership zoo, but at worst, their stars might make them the best video game team in the league.

Milwaukee:  Zack Greinke (2.4)/Daniel Ray Herrera (-0.2)
When folks aren’t writing about Greinke’s social anxiety issues or comparing him to characters from The Wire, they’re often perusing history for other examples of disproportionate dominance mixed with utter hittability. During Greinke’s fantastic 2009 season, he gave up two multi-run home runs all season. So far this season, Greinke has given up home runs with a combined eight runners on base. His home run rate is slightly up from before, but sometimes when you give them up is almost as important as how many you allow.

Minnesota: Scott Baker (2.0)/Jim Hoey (-0.6)
Ever so quietly, Baker is having perhaps the best season of his career. Meanwhile, the Twins are having a hellacious time finding worthwhile bullpen contributions. Matt Capps (0.1 WARP) has blown six saves in 21 opportunities, and Alex Burnett (-0.3), Joe Nathan (-0.2), Jose Mijares (-0.2), and Phil Dumatrait (-0.5) have struggled, leaving Glen Perkins (1.0) as one of the few bright spots. Everyone was worried about how the Rays’ bullpen would hold up after losing multiple parts, but the losses of Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, and Jon Rauch have left the Twins with few reliable options.

New York (A): CC Sabathia (3.1)/Lance Pendleton (-0.4)
Writers are legally required to describe Sabathia as a horse whenever he comes up, so here goes nothing: Sabathia is the Secretariat of the Yankees rotation, as he’s running away from the pack. The next-best Yankees starter is Bartolo Colon, at 1.2 WARP, followed by Ivan Nova at 0.8. In fact, if you add up the WARP from the four other Yankees with the most starts, the total is 3.4—or barely more than Sabathia’s figure alone. Add in Phil Hughes, who has the sixth-most starts, and it’s back to 3.1. Sabathia has been that good, and according to non-ERA metrics, the rest of the Yankees’ rotation has been that suspect.

New York (N): Jonathon Niese (3.9)/Blaine Boyer, Manny Acosta, and D.J. Carrasco (-0.2)
I wrote about the pitchers who are most willing to throw their fastballs inside to opposite-handed batters during spring training. My thought process was intuitive: if a pitcher throws inside a lot, then he must not get hammered when doing so, which implies that he has good stuff, good placement, and/or good deception. Niese was one of the lefties most likely to throw his heater in on a righty, and while I would like to think his improvements as a pitcher stem from this tendency, in reality, his ability to be a king versus lefties (595 OPS this season) has overshadowed his less-royal status against righties (767 OPS). Still, Niese’s emergence as the Mets’ best starter is a double-edged sword. Yes, he has improved, but that also means that Johan Santana has not pitched and that Mike Pelfrey still hasn’t find an out pitch.

Boyer, Acosta, and Carrasco were attempts to find suitable bullpen arms on the cheap, and while the trio hasn’t produced, the Mets have been able to get some decent relief work out of Pedro Beato (acquired through the Rule 5 draft), Taylor Buchholz (a cheap free-agent signing), Tim Byrdak (ditto), and Jason Isringhausen (once more, with vigor). When it comes to cheap relievers, sometimes quantity is quality. Should the Mets deal one of the older, less controllable arms for anything interesting, you’d really have to applaud them for getting a good return on meager investments. Frugality in Flushing: it’s a beautiful thing.

Oakland: Gio Gonzalez (2.1)/Guillermo Moscoso (-0.6)
Observers were split about the identity of the A’s ace entering the season. The sabermetric community backed Brett Anderson, while the more traditional purveyors of analysis looked Trevor Cahill’s way. Thus far, neither has been the correct answer, as Gonzalez leads the rotation in earned and fair run average alike.

As for Moscoso, this WARP value might cause some confusion given his tidy 2.16 earned run average in 50 innings pitched. Keep in mind, though, that Fair Run Average takes Moscoso’s high flyball rate into account, and it seems very unlikely that Moscoso will continue to yield so many balls in the air yet only allow a home run every 10 innings, even though he pitches in Oakland.

Philadelphia: Cliff Lee (3.9)/Dave Herndon and Danys Baez (-0.3)
The Phillies certainly don’t lack options for the top spot. Lee, like Roy Halladay, has one of the five highest pitcher WARP scores in the league, although the sinister southpaw edges out his right-handed teammate because of his bat. It’s almost too bad that the pair didn’t have a few more complete games along the way, as combining for 300 innings pitched at the break would have been quite the statement in durability and efficiency, not to mention style.

Pittsburgh: Paul Maholm (1.8)/Tim Wood, Michael Crotta, Joe Beimel, and Ross Ohlendorf (-0.2)
It really is the middle of July and the Pirates really do have not one, but two starters with 15-plus starts and sub-3.00 earned run averages. Maholm is one, and Jeff Karstens is the other. Same ol’ Pirates, getting better results than their peripherals would suggest over extended stretches of time as they fight for first place into the second half.

It’s also worth noting that the Pirates have gotten useful contributions from a number of cost-effective relievers, in spite of a few failures.

San Diego: Tim Stauffer (2.2)/Pat Neshek (-0.4)
You have to appreciate Stauffer’s career arc. The Padres drafted him with the fourth pick in 2003, as his fastball could comfortably shoot into the mid-90s. The wee 6-foot-1 righty found himself with reduced velocity and a bum shoulder early in his professional career, no doubt thanks to a heavy workload at Richmond, and as recently as 2007 had 94 2/3 major league innings and a 6.37 earned run average to his credit.

Stauffer has tinkered with his approach and stuff and has averaged 91 innings for the Padres since 2009 with a 2.80 earned run average, shifting between the rotation and the bullpen. He might not have the ace stuff you dream about from a fourth overall pick, but then again, so far, he has been the ace of this Padres team.

Seattle:  Felix Hernandez (2.8)/Jamey Wright (-0.3)
At this point, nothing Hernandez does is surprising. Barring an injury or a reduction in his workload, he will finish with four-plus WARP for the fourth straight season. Since breaking into the league, Hernandez hasn’t finished with less than 1.8 WARP in a season, and that total came during 2005, when he threw only 84 1/3 innings in the majors. Just for comparison’s sake, that 1.8 mark would put him at the top of a few team’s leaderboards right now—and he did that as a 19-year-old.

There is nothing bad to write about Hernandez, but somewhat interestingly, Eric Wedge and the Mariners are riding him a little more aggressively this season than they have before. Prior to this season, Hernandez had thrown 120 or more pitches only five times in his career (a testament to his efficiency and the Mariners’ proactive approach to keeping him healthy), yet halfway through the 2011 campaign, Hernandez has gone over the 120-pitch mark five times.

San Francisco: Madison Bumgarner (3.6)/Santiago Casilla and Barry Zito (0.1)
A few weeks ago, the Giants were on Sunday Night Baseball and someone who works for ESPN tweeted about how his team, the Giants’ opponent, was being shut down by a mediocre pitcher—in this case, Bumgarner. If you don’t know any better, it’s an easy mistake to make. Bumgarner has a 4-9 win-loss record and a 3.87 earned run average—that’s about a run higher than the 2.84 runs the Giants tend to score for him.

Nevertheless, Bumgarner has improved his peripherals, generates groundballs, throws lefty, can up his velo into the mid-90s when needed, and started drinking legally last August. The Giants are blessed with pitching talent, and while it would be easy to think of Bumgarner as a mediocre asset next to Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, it wouldn’t be accurate. 

Oh, and the worst pitchers on the Giants are still above replacement level—as if the fan base didn’t have enough reason to be smug about their pitching staff.

St. Louis: Jake Westbrook (2.6)/ Ryan Franklin (-0.5)
Another one of those confusing WARP situations, as Westbrook has not pitched as well as Chris Carpenter this season. That isn’t a knock on Westbrook—he just hasn’t. Now, Westbrook’s 5.34 earned run average is overstating things, as he isn’t that far back of Carpenter and his 3.85 earned run average. The gap is a little more subtle, in line with what Fair Run Average says—3.80 for Westbrook, 3.75 for Carpenter. The difference in WARP comes because Westbrook has been better offensively with fewer opportunities. As such, he finishes the first half with 2.6 WARP, and Carpenter finishes with 2.5 WARP. When it comes to pitching-only value, though, Carpenter is the man.

Tampa Bay: James Shields (3.0)/Andy Sonnanstine (-0.7)
During the Rays’ 2008 run, their best starting pitchers were Shields and Sonnanstine. Shields has rebounded from what looked like a miserable 2010 season (despite his quality start rate remaining the same as it was in 2009), and his value is soaring near an all-time high. Sonnanstine, though, is trending in the opposite direction.

Sonnanstine refers to himself as a professional gentleman of leisure sports, and for a time there, his baseball career fit the bill. Despite being up all season, Sonnanstine appeared in only 14 games. He made four appearances in April—three within the first week and a half of the season—then went without an appearance for 16 days. Sonnanstine replaced Jeff Niemann in the rotation in May and made a spot start in June, but after the allotted rest period for a starter (four days following a start), he made three appearances from June 8 through his demotion on July 9.

That’s not to say that the Rays were upset about keeping him out of the game, as he allowed as many home runs (10) as batters fanned (10) and had 12 walks in 34 2/3 innings pitched.

Texas: C.J. Wilson (2.7)/Neftali Feliz and Brett Tomko (-0.4)
Raise your hand if you had Feliz and Tomko with the same WARP at the midway point. Feliz’s poor peripherals have a lot to do with his score. In 34 innings in 2011, Feliz has walked as many as he did in 69 1/3 innings pitched, but he has only 23 strikeouts. For comparison’s sake, Feliz had 25 strikeouts through May of 2010. There isn’t an obvious reason for why Feliz is struggling more this season than in years past, as his fastball is still chugging hard, but PITCHf/x data does show a reduction in its horizontal movement.

Toronto: Brandon Morrow (2.1)/Kyle Drabek and David Purcey (-0.1)
Drabek entered the season in the Jays rotation without having thrown a pitch in Triple-A. Things started off well enough, as he allowed just four runs over his first three starts, but he then walked at least as many batters as he struck out in 10 of his next 12 starts. A demotion to Triple-A led to a seven-walk start, and Drabek exited June having walked 10 batters and fanned seven. In one July start, Drabek managed six innings, striking out eight and walking one while showing good stuff. Drabek’s failure to take to the majors has to be the biggest disappointment of the Jays’ first half, at least on the pitching side of things. 

Washington: Jordan Zimmerman (3.1)/Collin Balester (-0.2)
After missing most of the 2010 season recovering from Tommy John surgery, Zimmerman has shown few residual effects. In late April, Zimmerman had two poor starts, one against the Cardinals in which he allowed five earned runs in six innings and another against the Mets in which he gave up another five earned runs in 5 1/3 innings. In 13 starts thereafter, Zimmerman has allowed 19 earned runs in 85 1/3 innings pitched—that’s good for a 2.00 earned run average. His strikeout-to-walk ratio during that stretch is over 4.2. 

With that factoid in mind, it should come as no surprise that Zimmerman has recorded a quality start in more than three-fourths of his starts this season. That will be a difficult pace to keep up going forward, but if Washington can get Stephen Strasburg and Zimmerman in the same rotation for any length of time, watch out.

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

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