Thursday, February 22, 2007

Don't Grumble Give A Whistle

If it's Thursday, it means that Tom Boswell has changed his tune. Instead of whistling past the graveyard, as he did as little as 30 days ago, he's now singing and stomping along to a bright military march. It must be the gamma rays of the hot, Florida sun.

Boz tackles the pitching staff, and sees the bright side. There's certainly a lot of merit to his argument. As I've done those interminable Gang of 13 looks at the scrubs in camp, I've seen glimmers of optimism here and there. Boz' central argument is that the pitching staff can't be any worse than last year's collection of ghouls; and, he argues, that it could even be better.
The surprise of camp so far is the growing realization that the mocked Washington rotation will be better than it was last year. In fact, the case for a better rotation in '07 is so obvious after a real analysis that it's actually closer to a promise than a prediction.

The other central point of his column is something I argued the other day. Since the pitchers are one giant blob of humanity, you can basically take them in any combo without losing effectiveness. That's to say that you can ride the hot hand -- arm, if you will -- to take advantage of who's healthy and throwing well.

But there's a little bit of statistical dishonesty with Boz' first contention. This paragraph sort of hits at it:
Last season, the four gentlemen cited above started 104 games with an ERA of 5.43. How incredibly bad is that? Excluding Washington pitchers, only two men in the entire NL who qualified for the ERA title had a mark above 4.98.

I guess it's fair on a gross comparison level. Nothing in that statement is incorrect. But it is misleading. The reason that nobody who qualified for the ERA title pitched as badly is because teams are smart enough not to give 162 innings to pitchers that terrible.

Last year, even the Nats had their limits, pulling Jay Bergmann after 6 starts with a near-7 ERA. Traber had just 8 starts with a 7.75 ERA. Even the Mets, who had the best record in baseball gave 7 starts to Oliver Perez who put up a 6+ ERA.

It's not that last year's Nats starters were unusually terrible. They were just given an unusually long leash.

And this year, with as much pitching depth (that should have scare quotes) as Boz talks about in his second main point, there's no reason that anyone will have a leash that long. But all that means is that we're going to get a number of performances like Traber's and Bergmann's from last year, where the starter goes out for 4-5 starts, crapping the bed every time, until the team realizes that he can't cut it as a MLB starter. And that's an improvement?

Putting up a 5 ERA isn't "easy." Of course we shouldn't celebrate it as an accomplishment. But to assume that the Nats are going to find the right combo in a short amount of time -- and further, labeling it as a "promise" -- can only be done when wearing a giant "NATS #1!" Foam Finger.

I have no doubts that the Nats, barring a bunch of injuries, will have a better set of starters at the end of the season than they had mid-season last year. But overall, when you include what's likely to be an even greater number of disaster starts, the pitching staff as a whole is likely to be worse.

Sure, we'll be able to cherry pick the Nats' best 4 or 5 starters in October and compare them to the stiffs Frank Robinson trotted out there every night in '06. But in doing so, you can't ignore all those Joel Hanrahan 2.1 inning, 6-run performances.