Friday, October 26, 2007

Nationals Review: Starting Pitching

Repeat after me.

The starting pitching sucked.

The starting pitching sucked.

The starting pitching sucked.

Keep that in your head. You'd never know it from half the pronouncements and things written or said about the team. But it's the truth.

Would you believe that the starters' ERA was only .2 runs better than what the '06 team did? Did you realize that the Nats were 15th in the league in starter ERA?

Other "fun" facts:

-- Led the league with 1.41 homers allowed per 9 despite playing in a park that reduces homers by about 20%! If they had had a league average homer rate, they would have allowed thirty fewer homers.

-- 15th out of 16 teams with the most walks per 9. A league average walk rate would have yielded fifty fewer walks.

-- Dead last in strikeout rate. A league average rate would have yielded 100 more strikeouts.

In general, those are the only things you need to look at to evaluate a pitcher. Great pitchers do all three things well. Bad pitchers do none of them well. Good pictures can succeed by excelling at one or two even if they're not good at the others.

In the Nats case, they did none of them well. And they didn't pitch well. It's just covered up by the fact that they pitched the fewest innings in the majors, 72 innings less than the average NL rotation.

Now that's not a criticism of how Acta used him. He did tend to baby his starters, but the combination of their injury histories and ineffectiveness forced his hand. He rode them as far as he could before yielding to the strength of the team, the bullpen. Overall he got good results, and probably maximized the talent and contribution of the starting pitchers. It's just that the starting pitchers are basically talentless in the first place.

Before I ramble on, do yourself a favor and read this, the definitive take on how to evaluate pitcher talent. I've linked it a few times before, but it's worth reading again. It explains which statistics are most valuable and why things like ERA often isn't quite good enough to get a true read on a pitcher's talent. I'll use some of those ideas in the capsules below.

Thirteen different pitchers started a game for the Nats. Seven of them sucked rocks through a sippy straw. Four were meh. Two were eh. Here we go. I'll include some of those component stats from that article on evaluating pitchers, and color code the ones that are particularly good or bad.

  • Matt Chico: 4.9 K/G; 3.9 BB/G; 1.4 HR/G; 33% GB%; 47% FB%; 5.75 xFIP
    Chico led the team in innings pitched with 167 and had a decent year, all things considered. Early in the year, he rarely made it out of the fifth inning, in part, because he was walking way too many batters. He wasn't quite nibbling, but it seemed like he just couldn't throw strikes sometimes.

    After that initial struggle, he had a decent run of starts where he pitched effectively, keeping the Nats in a bunch of ballgames and working through the 6th. But then his control abandoned him again in July (perhaps also because he was facing quality offense like Philly, Cinci, and the Mets) and he struggled, putting up an ERA over 6 over five starts.

    Faced with a mini roster crunch, the Nats sent him down for a week or two, calling him back up in September and he was again excellent with a decent 19/9 K/BB ratio and a 3.38 ERA.

    There's a lot to like about how he pitches. Despite the control issues, he doesn't appear to be afraid of the opposing batters. But if he's going to succeed, he's going to need to learn how to miss some more bats. He doesn't really have a plus pitch -- neither his fastball or curve seem anything more than average -- so he's forced to use command and change of speeds to keep hitters off balance. When he's feeling it, he's successful. But when he's off, he's walking hitters and giving up long fly balls (many for homers!) when he comes in the zone.

    He was helped greatly by the dimensions of RFK. It'll be interesting to see how he adapts to the new park going forward.

  • Jason Bergmann: 7.0 K/G; 3.4 BB/G; 1.5 HR/G; 33% GB%; 50% FB%; 5.01 xFIP
    Bergmann's season could be divided into three acts. The opening act is just one game, his April 5th start against Arizona where he couldn't find the plate, walking 6 batters in 3+ innings. After that game, Bowden ripped him a new one and Randy St. Claire worked with him to alter his delivery and he was a new guy.

    The second act lasted 7 games, where he was a truly amazing pitcher. A new grip on his pitches really bumped the sharpness of his slider and he was able to harness his curve. He'd throw the hard breaking stuff low, getting swings over top, and throw the high riding fastball up in the zone, changing the plane of the swings and getting misses or harmless balls in play. Over those 7 games, he pitched 45+ innings and struck out 41 batters while walking just 15. You don't walk anyone and you strike out a bunch, and you'll have a low ERA: 2.18. Opposing batters hit just .146/ .220/ .285 against them; he turned the average batter he faced into a so-so hitting pitcher!

    Then came the injuries. His elbow. His legs. He fell apart. Save for one September start against the Marlins, he never really got his stuff back. Over his last 13 games, he pitched like the same inconsistent Jason Bergmann that we had seen over the previous two seasons: 13 homers in 66 innings with 21 walks and a 5.70 ERA. For further proof of how he'd changed, opposing batters ripped him for a .277 .336 .508 line -- basically, the average batter was Ryan Zimmerman.

    Where's the real Bergmann? The dominant second act was definitely for real. Those pitches he was throwing were untouchable and like nothing I've ever seen him throw. But it's also apparent that the torque necessary to get that zip on those breaking pitches is what led to his barking elbow. His body just won't let him do what he needs to do to succeed. After the elbow then the leg injuries, his pitches lost a lot of their crispness. He's still got the plus fastball, but he's not going to be able to succeed as anything more than a 4th starter if he can't harness those breaking pitches. And he cant' harness those breaking pitches if his arm won't hold up.

    Tough situation, huh?

    I've got a lot of faith in him, but that faith is predicated on his body holding up. And given the track record of most of these Nats' pitchers, I might as well start praying to the porcelain gods.

  • Mike Bacsik: 3.4 K/G; 2.2 BB/G; 1.95 HR/G; 41% GB%; 41% FB%; xFIP 5.43
    Did you realize he was third on the team in IP? Yikes. He demonstrates what I was talking about before. He's an excellent control pitcher, but because he doesn't control the other two huge aspects -- he strikes out nobody and allows homers like a pitching machine -- he struggles.

    It's an approach which is heavily defensive dependent, not to mention one that requires a lot of luck to work. Because he doesn't K anyone, batters are putting a lot of balls into play. If the fielders are good or those balls are hit to the right spots, he can really cruise through a game. But there are also games where the fielders aren't having a good day, or his balls are finding holes. Or those scorching liners which he seemingly gave up every third batter are rolling to the wall. When that happens, it's ugly.

    And because the quality of his stuff isn't good, when he misses spots, he gets hammered. The number of homers he gave up is jaw-dropping. He gave up three homers in a game four times. He gave up two homers in a game four times, too. He only had seven starts where he didn't give up a homer.

    With the style he has, there's really no way of him 'improving' much. He's not a completely terrible guy to have stashed at AAA in case of emergency, but if he's 3rd on your team in IP, you know you stink.

  • Shawn Hill: 6.3 K/G; 2.4 BB/G; .88 HR/G; 55% GB%; 28% FB%; xFIP 4.03
    Ah, all that green looks beautiful, doesn't it?

    Shawn Hill is about the perfect pitcher. Save for the injuries!

    All things being equal, a ground ball is better than a flyball. (mostly since it's hard to double and impossible to homer on a grounder -- it's also pretty tricky to GIDP with a flyball!) So when you've got a groundball pitcher who can strike the occasional batter out, you've got a good combo. Every strikeout he gets is one less chance for a grounder to find a hole. Sum it up, and you've got a pretty good arm.

    But, oh, those injuries. At first it was his non-throwing shoulder, an injury he suffered from a bit of loopy baserunning. The off arm prevented him from swinging the bat properly but, more importantly, it probably affected his delivery slightly since every jolt of movement probably caused it to yip a bit. He also complained of slight arm pain throughout the year, but said it wasn't anything he couldn't pitch through. Yet, he had arm surgery to decompress a nerve, similar to the type of surgery that John Patterson once had.

    But that first stretch of games, pre-injury, were magnificent, and he was easily the pitcher that I had the most fun watching. His ability to combine that hard sinking fastball with the similar motion of a much-slower changeup really upset batters' timing, keeping them out front, knocking that heavy sinker into the ground time and time again. And for good measure, he had pretty good control of a pretty nifty little breaking pitch that he'd throw outside to keep them honest if they cheated inside to nab the fastball. All around, it was good stuff.

    From the end of August to the end of the season, he wasn't quite the same. It was apparent from his performance that his arm really was acting up, and he got knocked around quite a bit.

    So much promise, but so little ability to demonstrate it. When he's healthy, he's a legitimate #2 starter, the poor man's Brandon Webb. But, as with just about everyone else, that "when" is more of an if.

  • Tim Redding: 5.0 K/9; 4.0 BB/9; 1.06 HR/9; 38% GB%; 40% FB%; 5.38 xFIP
    Redding is a perfect example of why ERA is sometimes deceiving. Yes, it's a perfect record of what he actually did, but you need to look a bit deeper, sometimes, to see whether there was a little bit of hocus pocus behind it.

    In Redding's case, that appears to be so. Redding had a 47/38 K/BB ratio, which is hardly indicative of a strong starting pitcher. He just got a bit "lucky". (I really hate using that word; it's a BS dump for things we can't really explain). Redding had a career low in his batting average on balls in play, meaning he allowed hits at a lower rate than he had at any time in his career. And he also had a left-on-base rate of over 80%, which is quite high.

    Some of that, certainly, could be skill. We know that Livan was always excellent at turning it on when the pressure was boiling. But it also seems a bit fluky. League average is about 70% and the best pitcher in the league rarely crack 80%. It seems like he got a bit lucky in that and that if he regresses towards his career rate (which is much closer to 65%), then he's going to look worse, even if he pitches about as well in all other facets of the game.

  • Jason Simontacchi: 5.1 K/G; 2.8 BB/G; 1.6 HR/G; 34% GB%; 44% FB%; xFIP 5.41
    Simontacchi's sort of the opposite of Redding in that he looks slightly worse than he actually pitched. Some of that, I'd suspect was that the 10-run beating he took against the Tigers really screwed with his overall stats. Take that out and his actual ERA is much closer to his fielding independent one.

    Anyway, Simontacchi did the job they asked of him. Come to town, add a service year to your pension time. And get beaten like a mule because we've got no real upper-level arms. He did his job admirably, and I'd hope there's a nice shiny watch and a key to the city waiting for him in Columbus.

  • Joel Hanrahan: 6.8 K/G; 6.0 BB/G; 1.4 HR/G; 31% GB%; 44% FB%; 5.79 xFIP
    Yeesh. Hanrahan was basically about what we should've expected given his minor league track record -- a decent power arm with no ability at all to control the strike zone. He gets his K's because he's got good stuff, stuff that's good enough to make major leaguers miss. But when he's missing his spots, ouch. It's ball four or over the wall.

    He's not really someone the Nats should give up on. There's too much good stuff in that arm. But as any Daniel Cabrera fan can tell you, if you wait around too long, you'll learn to hate the guy. I can't imagine that he has any options left, which puts the Nats into quite a bind if they wanted to send him down. There might be some team willing to take a chance on him.

  • John Lannan pitches superficially well. But he's not going to be anything much more than a younger Bacsik until he starts missing some bats. In his 34 IP, he only struck out 10 batters. He offset that by keeping the ball in the park and in the ground, but it's an area he's going to need to work on. He could surprise later, and he's certainly got guile, but he doesn't scream anything other than "future 4th starter" to me yet.

  • Micah Bowie, Jerome Williams, John Patterson, Billy Traber and Levale Speigner
    What a motley crew. Here's two words on each of them:

    Ancient stopgap, broken-down has-been, potential still, check please, ye gods

  • There's POTENTIAL there for a decent staff. A healthy John Patterson, a healthy Shawn Hill and a healthy Jason Bergmann COULD be a solid 1-3 in a rotation, as good as any in the league. But if we're hoping for that, we might as well hope for something useful like World Peace or a billion dollars in my bank account.

    The rotation was held together with bailing wire last year, and Acta's efficient use of their talents made the group seem better than they really were. If the Nationals get ANY sort of improvement in their rotation, they could take a slight step forward, but here's the catch-22:

    The Nationals allowed as few runs as they did because they had a dominant bullpen that pitched a lot of innings. If next year's starting pitchers pitch more innings (even more effectively than they did this year), it's entirely possible that the team allows MORE runs than this year because you're subbing out 1 excellent relief inning a game for 1 pretty good SP inning. It's a funny balance next year, one that Acta's going to have to manage carefully.

    With him and St. Claire, at least we know we're in good hands.


    • I guess Curt, Livan, and Roger will have a lot to teach these kids next year.

      By Blogger Ironic Goat, at 10/26/2007 1:41 PM  

    • I can't think of a better way to spend $45 million, can you?

      By Blogger Chris Needham, at 10/26/2007 1:42 PM  

    • $45 million worth of Hard Times Nachos?

      By Blogger Brian, at 10/26/2007 1:49 PM  

    • What exactly is the difference between your 2 and 3 starter supposed to be?

      To take the example of a perfectly healthy Patterson, Hill, and Bergmann, how do you say which one goes where? Other than by watching them pitch and deciding who pitches better, I guess.

      By Blogger Ironic Goat, at 10/26/2007 2:14 PM  

    • Well... there's really not any difference strategically. a pitcher is a pitcher.

      But, in general, when all three are at the top of their games, Patterson is probably the best of the bunch. His '05 season was amazing. Hill's not quite as dominant as Patterson, but still effective... picture him as Loaiza from '05.

      By Blogger Chris Needham, at 10/26/2007 2:18 PM  

    • Excellent analysis. Think about how many inherited runners were retired by the Nats bullpen in the 6th inning this year, and then consider how much higher the starters' ERAs could have been.

      Watching the playoffs has been a sobering reminder of how far the Nationals' rotation has to come before the the team becomes a contender.

      But it's not hard to think a few years out, and dream about a devastating 1-2 punch that includes a more seasoned Hill (or a recovered Patterson) plus one of the recent draft picks (you know, the one that didn't turn out to be a bust...).

      Add a free agent at the right time, and fill out the rotation with one of the six #4 pitchers we already have...

      By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10/26/2007 2:39 PM  

    • Not a popular sentiment I know but, we all need to stop factoring Patterson in. He is permanently injured. At best he is a pleasant surprise if he happens to be healthy but, what we need is to build a rotation without him, and then if (and I really mean 'if') he is healthy evaluate a spot for him. My guess, he starts at most two games in '08, and is gone by '09.

      By Blogger Unknown, at 10/26/2007 3:40 PM  

    • There is practically no chance that either Shawn Hill or John Patterson will ever remain healthy enough to make a positive contribution.

      By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10/26/2007 4:56 PM  

    • Who is going to pitch the 300+ innings from last year that are no longer on the 40 man roster?

      Do not say Hill and Patterson unless you are smiling. How can this team progress without some starting pitching added....not more of the throw away types that were just cut, please Livo come back, we were wrong to trade you for Chico (and Mock) neither which will start 2009 on the MLB roster....

      By Blogger JayB, at 10/27/2007 8:59 AM  

    • JayB,
      I don't think the trade was bad; it wouldn't have affected this season anyways.
      But we should definitely bring Livo back, cuz he can eat up some innings and give our 'pen a break.
      Hernandez, Hill, Bergmann, Patterson, and Chico sounds pretty good, if unrealistic. We've got some decent young guys working their way up, but I still think we need Livan and one more FA SP.

      By Blogger Rob B, at 10/28/2007 10:34 AM  

    • OK, No Livo in 2007 did not "hurt" too bad but it did not help either. Chico is not going to fool anyone with his stuff and Patterson and Hill will not pitch more than 150 innings between them (sorry history does count and history does not lie). Livo+ another legit free agent is needed or we are looking at more bull pen calls in the 4th inning and Mike Basic types again....not really the progress that the Plan calls for.....Time to spend some cash....

      By Blogger JayB, at 10/28/2007 11:59 AM  

    • Jay,

      Trading Livan not only didn't hurt - it did help, long-term. I agree, Chico's not fooling many with his stuff - 4.9 K/9 is nothing to write home about. Livan's in 2007 was 3.9 K/9, so Livan's not fooling anyone, either. Livan gave up HRs at a lessened rate, but he and Chico were pretty comparable - Livan's ERA at 4.93, Chico at 4.63 - Chico's ERA+ at 91, Livan's at 95. They were both slightly worse than league-average. So Chico basically replaced what Livan would have given the Nats in the rotation, for I don't know how many $$ million less. Chico's 24, and Livo is 32 (or so the Cubans would have you believe). One has potential to improve, the other is facing the twilight of his career. So, they're roughly a wash, in 2007. Beyond that, even if you factor in Mock's long-term benefit as 0, I don't see why Chico can't continue to provide the "production" that Livan does now.

      But I agree with you on the need to bring in some starting pitching - the Bacsik/Simontacchi/Williams mess was ok, but unless they're looking for a group discount on bullpen guys to get TJ surgery, they need to get more innings out of the starters.

      By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10/29/2007 9:16 AM  

    • Completely agreed! I loved Livo. Incredibly entertaining pitcher, and he chewed up innings. But he's no ace, and as it has been pointed out, the team didn't lose much by not having him in '07. Plus does anybody think he wouldn't have been dealt before the season ended? Now he's a free agent and if Bowden really wants him he'll have another chance anyway. Of course it ain't going to happen because he's not the old Livo anymore.

      By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10/29/2007 7:16 PM  

    • You could make the argument that because he's not the old Livo, he'll be heading back to Washington.

      He's largely been a flop in the AL, but what about Jeff Weaver?

      By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10/31/2007 2:36 PM  

    • By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10/26/2009 9:31 PM  

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