Monday, July 17, 2006

A Return to Earth
By Ben Valentine

There was a lot of talk a week ago about who was deserving of the All Star game and who was snubbed. One of the people who frequently popped up in the snubbed category was Tigers’ righty Justin Verlander.

A phenom last year who shot through the Tigers system with overpowering stuff and excellent strike out numbers, it looks as though he’s adjusted pretty well the bigs so far. The 23 year old has an 11-4 record with an even more impressive 2.83 ERA. Compared to someone like Mark Buehrle, Verlander had a compelling case for the All Star game.

But in reality, that’s just because Buehrle didn’t deserve to be anywhere near Pittsburgh. Verlander did not either as no matter what the wins and ERA say, his peripherals suggest that he’s a solid big league pitcher and nothing more:

2.83 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 5.73 K/9, 2.14 K/BB, 1.26 GB/FB, .247 Opp BA.

Again, the ERA is great, but the rest of his peripherals look like those of a guy who should be pitching to an ERA around 4.00, especially in the American League. He ranks 26th in K/9, 28th in K/BB and 14th in GB/FB. While the fact he’s a neutral groundball/fly ball pitcher helps, looking at the people near Verlander in that department reveal how lucky he’s been. Of the nine pitchers who are within a tenth of Verlander in GB/FB, five have better K/9 and better K/BB. The list:

Kevin Millwood: 4.66 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 6.09 K/BB, 3.12 K/BB, 1.33 GB/FB, .297 Opp BA

CC Sabathia: 3.59 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 8.11 K/9, 3.83 K/BB, 1.26 GB/FB, .278 Opp BA

Kelvim Escobar: 3.88 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 6.67 K/9, 2.47 K/BB, 1.28 GB/FB, .245 Opp BA

Jose Contreras: 3.48 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 6.19 K/9, 2.29 K/BB, 1.22 GB/FB, .239 Opp BA

Dan Haren: 3.73 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 6.85 K/9, 3.61 K/BB, 1.17 GB/FB, .247 Opp BA

Looking at those peripherals, one sees that outside of Millwood, who is clearly victimized by playing at Ameriquest Field in Texas, none of Verlander’s numbers are better than those of the remaining four. Yet despite having worse K/9 and K/BB numbers, they all have ERAs much higher. The closest, Contrares (who ironically enough has the worst peripherals of the bunch), is still .65 points higher than Verlander.

So could Comerica actually be just a new pitcher’s haven? After all, every Tigers pitcher not named Jeremy Bonderman is outpitching their peripherals it seems. Maybe Comerica is just becoming the new Dodger Stadium.

The problem with that, at least in Verlander’s case, is that his ERA has actually fared worse away from Detroit, 3.45 compared to 2.13. It isn’t as if his peripherals have changed that much; his K/BB is 35/17 at home and 40/18 on the road. Yet opponents are hitting .217 off him away from Comerica and .251 there. Since defense should not fluctuate, and definitely should not it get worse on the road, since fielders should be more familiar with their own park, this suggests Verlander has been very lucky away this year.

The biggest difference between Verlander and the others actually is two fold; first, the percentage of runners left on base this year. The Tigers’ righty has stranded an astounding 80.9 percent of runners this year, second only to Francisco Liriano’s 85.9%. But Liriano’s stuff has been loads better than Verlander’s as indicated by his K/9 (10.41), K/BB (4.15) and GB/FB (2.28). The closest guy on that list of four, is Danny Haren at 76.3%. The bottom guy is Kelvim Escobar at 66.3 %. Sabathia and Contrares fall in the middle at 72.1% and 76.0 % respectively.

The second factor, and the one why despite having solid numbers across the board Haren has an ERA .90 points higher, is HR/9. Verlander’s is .85/9. Haren meanwhile has one of 1.19/9. Contrares is very good at .88/9, Sabathia is fine at .99/9 and Escobar is just around there at 1.01/9. This looks like luck on Verlander’s part as evidenced by the other Tigers pitchers. While Jeremy Bonderman is at .60, he’s also inducing over two times more ground ball outs than fly ball, so it stands to reason he’s giving up less long balls. However Nate Robertson, who has a higher GB/FB than Verlander, has a hr rate of 1.03 per nine, while Kenny Rogers, who has an even higher GB/FB at 1.50, has a Hr/9 of 1.34!

Therefore if we take into consideration that it doesn’t seem as if Tigers pitchers are getting that much of an edge from homers, Verlander’s homer rate seems to be more the result of luck than anything else. His K/9 indicates his stuff isn’t better than the other four pitchers with similar GB/FB, and his control has been worse. So, there stands to be no legitimate reason for either his homer rate or LOB % to be this good.

Everything here points to him coming back down to Earth hard in the second half. Expect him to have an ERA in the 4.00’s in the second half as things balance out a bit. Overall a mark in the high 3.00’s seems like it is realistic and that is still good for a rookie.

Justin Verlander will still probably be a top pitcher in this league as one figures his K/9 will eventually increase again. But he’s not anywhere near the elite yet.


Blogger David Arnott said...

Ben, normally I'm with you in spirit, though we may quibble over details. I'm going to write a column about this someday, fleshing out more details, but for now I just want to say that I think you're missing some key points. First, Verlander's RA is SECOND in the AL behind Johan. In other words, even accounting for unearned runs, he's been second best at preventing runs, which is the name of the whole game. At some point, you have to give him credit for that. Second, according to Hardball Times, he's twentieth in the league in FIP, Fielding Independent Pitching, sandwiched between Danny Haren and Felix Hernandez, behind such luminaries as Vicente Padilla and ahead of Randy Johnson, Barry Zito, Mark Buehrle, and others. In other words, he's firmly in the middle of all qualifiers for FIP. Considering that there are only about 40 qualifiers in the league, that's damn impressive for a guy in his first full season. Third, there is a flawed premise in your reasoning: "Since defense should not fluctuate, and definitely should not get worse on the road..." is statistically unproven, and anecdotally false. A left fielder in Fenway Park will have very different raw numbers from the same left fielder in Yankee Stadium. Ballpark dimensions have an effect on defense, let alone the differences from ballpark to ballpark in how the ball reacts to environmental factors such as thin mountain air or prevailing wind currents or the field surface. This might show up in the numbers (I haven't examined Zone Rating closely enough to know off the top of my head but I think it and most other defensive stats are ballpark-adjusted), but I couldn't find defensive splits. Fourth, the Tigers have the best DER in baseball, so their defense is good. Period. As far as Verlander, you could put two and two together and say the DER coupled with FIP tells us exactly what you told us: he's good, but not great. However, their home park greatly depresses HR, slightly depresses 2B and 3B, encourages singles, and plays as 22nd in MLB for runs, a better "hitter's park" than Yankee Stadium, Miller Park, and Angel Stadium, to name a few. With all that knowledge, we'd expect his home numbers to be better than on the road, right? You'd be mistaken. He's been decent enough at home, with a 724 OppOPS, but absolutely filthy on the road, with an OppOPS of 586! Additionally, in 227 at bats in Comerica, he's given up 7 jacks, while only giving up 4 in 199 road at bats. His eight road starts were at Texas, Oakland, Seattle, Baltimore, Kansas City, Chicago(AL), Chicago(NL), and Oakland again. That's a mixed bag; it's not like he made three starts at Petco. My fifth point is that he while may actuallly be lucky, you can show it with evidence instead of absence of evidence. How? 19.8% of the balls put in play off of him have been line drives. If we add .12 to LD%, you get predicted BABIP, which would be .308 (.198+.12=.308). His actualy BABIP is .255. However, what I think is happening is my sixth point, which is that we don't know. It's tempting when we don't know to say that it must be luck, but, as with other pitchers who have had crazy success despite less than stellar basic peripherals, he could be capitalizing on some advantage that isn't currently quantified. In the end, I think it'd kind of crazy to hold Verlander to a Liriano standard. He's clearly better than most anyone else his age or younger, so nitpicking about a season that if it nosedives will still end up easily better than average seems like overkill. If he HAD been pitching to an ERA of 4.00, he'd still be a major success story, and I think downplaying that means your bar is ridiculously high for what constitutes "success".

2:59 PM  
Blogger David Arnott said...

Stupid math... .198+.12=.318

3:02 PM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

My point wasn't to say Verlander isn't a good pitcher, just that isn't anywhere near the pitcher his ERA indicates he is.

The runs against is fine, except that what I'm trying to do here is form a prediction on what he will do in the future. I've seen pitchers buck the trends for short periods of time before, but in the end, usually a pitcher's peripherals catch up with them.

One of my favorite cases for this is Glendon Rusch from 2000-2001 with the Mets. Look at these splits:

2000- 190.2 IP, 7.41 K/9, 3.57 K/BB, 1.09 GB/FB

2001- 179.0 IP, 7.84 K/9, 3.63 K/BB, 1.11 GB/FB

His ERA in 2000 was 4.01; in 2001 it was 4.63. That was despite by all acounts being a better pitcher in 2001. The difference? Opp BA: .267 in 2000, .301 in 2001.

My point with defense is that a defender should play better in his own park. Yes Fenway is difficult to play, but even a defensive joke like Manny probably plays better there than in any other ball park in the league.

In any case, I addressed the fact his numbers are better on the road, which makes no sense honestly. I tend to think his Comerica numbers are what to expect, which is a solid pitcher who's ERA is made to look better by ballpark. He's pitching the same in both parks (unlike someone like Kevin Millwood, who's got drastically different K/BB totals on the road), so I have to think for whatever reason he's been lucky on the road. Maybe by some fluke he's had his good stuff in places like Texas and his junk at Safeco. I'd have to break down each start individually to see that.

Again, my point wasn't to say Verlander stinks, but that he's not nearly as good as his ERA says he is. If you gave me the choice of him or the four guys I mentioned, Sabathia, Haren, Escobar and Contreras for the rest of the year, the only guy I'd take Verlander ahead of is Contreras because I don't love his peripherals either and Verlander has upside. But right now, ERA and sheer luck that is HR/9 be damned, he's been out pitched by those four guys. None are considered elite by any stretch of the imagination.

We've got to turn the Buehrle debate into something by the way.

11:53 PM  

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