Pitching Logic: Destroying the NL Central | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

I think it’s in the nature of hometown fans to think in completely critical ways, or completely uncritical ways about their home teams. In a sport like baseball, it doesn’t seem like we spend that much more time with our teams than other sports; after all, even the football season runs at least six months (and that’s before camp, preseason, and fantasy football/draft considerations). Sure, diehard baseball fans might log a season that runs from pitchers/catchers reporting in February to the end of the World Series. More than the number of months we spend following our teams, the nature of our favorite sport is daily: day in, day out, we always have more evidence to consider, more performances to enjoy (and to judge); we hear about their performances day in, day out, we see their faces on TV every night, etc. Given that type of daily exposure during a season that grinds, I think baseball fans need to use extreme positions as a type of safety net against the sheer volume of games. Extreme optimism allows for hope to remain even during losing streaks, extreme criticism allows us to prepare ourselves for all those losses we foresee.

That’s where I think Brewers fans are during this offseason. Brewers fans watched a series of injuries demolish their club early in 2012, only to watch the bullpen allow a bunch of runs, and knock out the benefits from an offense that finally gained their sea legs. Doug Melvin and the Brewers’ front office can cite that their club posted the best record from Day _________ to the end of the season, but that’s not what a Brewers fan needs to hear; we need to chew on those tough months of the season. So Fastballer Mike Fiers strikes out a ton of guys and had a great three months; what about the other two? So Marco Estrada made mechanical adjustments and pitched better than Zack Greinke down the stretch; let’s see him do it over 33 starts! Chris Narveson? How’s his recovery? Yeah, Wily Peralta improved throughout the season and closed the season with authority, but what about his control?

Over, and over, and over, we replay those questions. Certainly, there is critical merit to those questions, but those questions should also lead us to dig deeper into the evidence and learn why a forward-thinking front office is leaning on this “questionable” gang of pitchers to compete in 2013. Fiers’s problems corresponded to a slight shift in his release points between his fastball and curve, as well as a move from his fastball and cutter to his curve; as discussed here, there are questions about whether this is an easy fix, a simple matter of tipping pitches or repeating deliveries. Anyway, even if one thinks that Fiers’s innings increase was difficult to handle last year, now Fiers has that workload under his belt. This isn’t a 21-year-old arm the Brewers build on, but an easy-mechanics, mid-to-late-20s starter. Even if we question Estrada’s extreme improvement, we can note that his ability to limit walks and strike batters out always seemed to be better than his actual pitching performance. If his ability to break-out as a full-time starter at this point in his career is unprecedented, he has the pitching elements to accomplish that.

And so on; our questions need not be defense mechanisms, but they can be critical mechanisms to learn more about our club, and our competition. For example, if we take our two main questions about the Brewers’ 2013 rotation and apply them to our NL Central foes, I think we can find that the Brewers’ “questionable” rotation should fare much better than expected.

Weak Pitching Opponents
This is a thought that has continuously occurred to me while preparing NL Central previews, so it’s only appropriate to begin these previews with a simple “State of the NL Central Rotations.” There are a lot of strong rotations in the National League, including the high-priced arms out in Los Angeles, the potential for improvement in San Francisco, the extremely talented gang in Washington, the up-and-coming, potentially star-studded groups in New York and Atlanta, not to mention the rebound-ace potential in Philadelphia. Certainly, we might question the Brewers’ ability to compete with those rotations on a daily basis, but that is not the standard for the Brewers’ competition.

(Side note: also, think about the potential benefits the Brewers’ bats receive by not facing ace-driven staffs on a frequent basis. There is another end to the NL Central pitching equation, too, and it will probably impact the offense in the division).

Every day of the season, during that full-time grind, the Brewers’ top three starters of Franchise Pitcher Yovani Gallardo, Fiers, and Estrada (or Peralta, take your pick) needs to be better than Wandy Rodriguez, A.J. Burnett, and maybe Jeff Locke or James McDonald in Pittsburgh; Adam Wainwright, Jake Westbrook, and Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller or Jaime Garcia in St. Louis; Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija, and Edwin Jackson in Chicago; and Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, and Bronson Arroyo in Cincinnati.

Given Gallardo’s performance in the division over the last four years, he has established himself as one of the most consistent arms in the NL Central. While it might not have been the case five years ago, Gallardo could be better than everyone other than Latos and Cueto; if one of the other clubs’ young arms breaks loose (I’m looking in Miller’s direction, or at Aroldis Chapman), that would certainly change that picture. But, if we’re penalizing our own starters for their lack of experience at the MLB level, or upholding their flaws instead of their strengths, it’s difficult to simply allow that each youngster around the division could accomplish something that Fiers, Estrada, and/or Peralta can’t. That’s not to say that Miller and Chapman aren’t better than the Brewers’ pitchers; they’re both high-ceiling prospects in ways that the Brewers’ starters are not. Yet, if we’re judging experience, judging potential workloads, and using those aspects to form our opinions about performance, pitchers like Chapman or Miller might end up in the same boat of question marks that plague the minds of Brewers fans:

(1) How will previous workloads in the minor leagues, and limited MLB experience, translate over a full season?
(2) Can limited success at the MLB level be projected forward?

These are our two major questions about Brewers arms, I gather. If we want to question established starters, too, we might argue about expected runs allowed compared to actual runs allowed, or analyze starters’ K/BB/HR profiles over time. We could add, “Can we expect quality veteran performances to continue over time?,” as a third question.

Locke / McDonald / Karstens
I have been strong on James McDonald for a couple of years now; he seems to have the type of pitching profile that could translate into dependable, mid-rotation performances. While 2011 and 2012 full-season performances are approximately 13 total runs below his NL and PNC Park environments, McDonald’s fielding-independent pitching profile is also shifting over those seasons.

2011 (754 BF): .189 K / .103 BB / .032 HR
2012 (713 BF): .212 K / .097 BB / .029 HR

If McDonald continues his trends of limiting home runs and walks, while increasing his strike outs, he has a good chance of breaking the league-average barrier in 2013. Here’s a projection that continues his positive trends, alongside his decreased batters-faced:

2013? (674 BF):
Fielding-independent: .238 K / .091 BB / .026 HR (160 K / 61 BB / 18 HR/6 HBP;
Batted-ball-in-play: 429 BIP, 299 BIPOuts; 5 errors, 125 BIPH;
Overall: 153 IP, 143 H, 70 R; 160 K/61 BB/18 HR; approximately 72 FIPRuns)

This is the type of performance that the Pirates need from McDonald if they are going to compete deep into the season.

Meanwhile, Jeff Locke increased his batters-faced at the big league level in 2012, while also continuing to improve his strike outs and walks; his home run rate needs to be the next element of improvement:

2011: 649 BF (AA+AAA); .214 K / .085 BB / .015 HR
2011: 78 BF (NL): .064 K / .128 BB / .038 HR

2012: 585 BF (AAA); .224 K / .074 BB / .015 HR (league .192 K / .089 BB / .021 HR)
2012: 148 BF (NL): .230 K / .074 BB / .041 HR (allowed 3 more runs than expected)

If we build on Locke’s 2013 workload, and account for a moderate improvement in his home run rate (reflecting, in part, his ability to limit the long ball in the minors), Locke’s line might look like this:

2013? 739 BF:
Fielding-independent: 168 K / 56 BB / 24 HR (168 K/56 BB/24 HR/5 HBP;
Batted-ball-in-play: 486 BIP, 339 BIPOuts; 6 errors, 141 BIPH;
Overall: 169 IP, 165 H, 82 R; 168 K/56 BB/24 HR; approximately 83 FIPruns

At the end of the Pirates’ rotation, Jeff Karstens is the biggest wild card. Karstens is a tough pitcher to judge because his strike out rate is low, which means that he relies on his ability to limit home runs and convert batted-balls-in-play into outs. Yet, prior to his injury-plagued 2012 campaign, Karsten’s workload and strike out improvements suggested a pitcher that might be on the verge of producing a strong season:

2009 (471 BF): .110 K / .096 BB / .025 HR
2010 (525 BF): .137 K / .051 BB / .040 HR
2011 (668 BF): .144 K / .049 BB / .033 HR
2012 (372 BF): .177 K / .040 BB / .022 HR

Given Karsten’s injury, we might treat his ability to return to a full-season of work in the same way that we’d scrutinize Jaime Garcia from the Cardinals.

Chapman’s Extreme Profile
If we look at two of the most recent conversions from reliver-to-starter (C.J. Wilson and Adam Wainwright), we might present the following hypothesis:

While Chapman’s move from the bullpen to the rotation might not affect his HR and BB rate too much, that move could impact his strike out rate.

Of course, Chapman’s strike out rate has always been so high that it’s difficult to determine what a “lower” strike out rate would mean for Chapman. If Chapman strikes out 26% of the batters he faces in 2013, for instance, that would be an exceptionally low total in his career, and yet he’d boast a strike out rate approximately 30% better than the National League.

The last time Chapman worked regularly as a starter was in 2010, as a swingman in the International League:

2010 (AAA): 412 BF; .303 K / .126 BB / .017 HR; .189 K / .084 BB / .023 HR league

Not surprisingly, Chapman was basically the same type of pitcher in those circumstances as he was in Cincinnati: extremely high strike outs and walks, solid home run rate.

Chapman is a pitcher of extremes. His physical profile is extreme, which should leave no question about his ability to handle a strong workload. His fastball is extreme. Again, even if we suggest that Chapman might throw at a lower velocity from the starting rotation, does that mean bottoming-out to something like a 90 MPH fastball, or easing in to a 95 MPH fastball?

We could slam Chapman with our critical questions, but his physical make-up and overall pitching profile suggest that his move to the rotation should be successful. In this case, we should use similar judgments in the case of Estrada and Fiers over full seasons. If we judge those pitchers by their mechanical elements, we might not find anything nearly as impressive as Chapman’s 98 MPH fastball, but who cares when you can strike out more than 20% of the batters you face while throwing slow. (In that regard, I can’t wait to see the very first Fiers/Chapman show down in 2013. If both pitchers work past the 6th, there’s a good chance to see approximately 15 aggregate strike outs, and that’s before the 8th inning. Oh, to hear the indignant little leaguers in the stands yelling, “87!?” at Fiers’ radar readings…).

Shelby Miller is a top-rated prospect, and his pitching profile is worth the hype. Given the current state of the Cardinals’ rotation after the Chris Carpenter injury, Miller should be slated to work the vast majority of his season at MLB level.

There’s really not a lot of room to question Miller’s ability to work a full season, given his track record. The Cardinals steadily built Miller’s batters-faced over his last two seasons, and he built those foundations for his workload at advanced minor league levels. One of the only questions concerns his ability to limit the home run, but moving from the Pacific Coast League to friendly Busch Stadium should help him with that.

2011 (AA): 355 BF (574 total); .251 K / .093 BB / .006 HR (.187 K / .087 BB / .024 HR league)
2012 (AAA): 599 BF (653 total); .267 K / .083 BB / .040 HR (.180 K / .086 BB / .024 HR league)

Given Miller’s steady increases in batters faced, a jump of as many 120 batters faced should not be a problem for the young righty. Here’s how his profile might look in the weaker run environment of Busch Stadium (the only remaining question there is the quality of the Cardinals’ defense, which was inefficient in 2011 and 2012):

2013? 773 BF
Fielding-Independent: .240 K/.084 BB/.028 HR; 186 K/65 BB/22 HR/7 HBP;
Batted-ball-in-play: 493 BIP, 340 BIPOuts, 8 errors, 145 BIPH
Overall: 177 IP, 167 H, 85 R, 186 K/65 BB/22 HR; approximately 83 FIPruns

Alongside these new rotation faces, there are numerous questions we can ask about the veterans in the NL Central:

(1) How reliable is Bronson Arroyo’s shift to a notably above-average pitching performance?
(2) Can A.J. Burnett maintain his walk and home run improvements in Pittsburgh?
(3) Is Wandy Rodriguez’s decline likely to continue, or will he be able to regain his 2011 performance?
(4) Can Yovani Gallardo continue his trend of consistently above average seasons?
(5) Was Adam Wainwright’s poor defensive support an anomaly in 2012?
(6) How will Matt Garza perform after his injury?

We could go on and on; the point is that if we apply our questions to the Brewers’ divisional opponents, we should learn to feel better about our rotation’s chances of competing for the Division Title. The two strongest starters in the division work in Cincinnati, and their 1-2 punch should give the Reds an advantage over other clubs. Yet, after that, the division’s rotational rankings are up for grabs. We know how Brewers fans would feel if Gallardo/Fiers/Estrada had to constantly match up against Zimmermann/Gonzalez/Strasburg or Cain/Vogelsong/Bumgarner; but, what of Wainwright/Westbrook/Garcia, or Burnett/Rodriguez/McDonald? On any given day in the NL Central, the Brewers have a better chance of having the better pitcher on the mound than their fans credit. Hopefully we can use our lessons about the other NL Central youngsters, their mechanics, their fielding-independent performances, and their workloads, and use those lessons to feel more confident about the Brewers’ rotation

Progressive Projections:
Using similar logic to judge the workloads and previous performances of Fiers, Estrada, and Peralta, we can present specific judgments about their abilities on the mound. Here are a few key assumptions:

(1) In each case, these pitchers will be presented with the potential of an inefficient defense. Since the Brewers’ organization does employ shifting (see The Fielding Bible III), there is a good chance that the organization will make an effort to place their fielders in the best possible positions. However, based on their 2011 to 2012 progressions (as well as some career progressions), we might assume a below-average defense for the 2013 Brewers. In this case, Fiers, Estrada, and Peralta will each be likely to allow approximately 5 more runs than one might expect.

Peralta BF:
2010: 644
2011: 618
2012: 765

2010-2011 (AA): 686 BF, .213 K /.105 BB / .020 HR
2011-2012 (AAA): 774 BF, .237 K / .115 BB/.012 HR
2012 (NL): 113 BF, .204 K / .097 BB / .000 HR;

2013? 885 BF
Fielding Independent: .201 K / .095 BB / .023 HR; 178 K / 84 BB / 20 HR/10 HBP;
Batted-ball-in-play: 593 BIP, 403 BIPOuts, 10 errors, 180 BIPH
Overall: 193.7 IP, 200 H, 100 R, 178 K/84 BB/20 HR; approximately 95 FIPruns

(2) In each case, these pitchers’ strike out totals have declined upon entering the National League, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Their minor league strike out rates, in some cases, were so high that some decline would be expected at a higher level of competition. Nevertheless, the worst likely strike out rate belongs to Peralta, and his is average.

Estrada BF:
2008: 658
2009: 593
2010: 216
2011: 381
2012: 597

2008-2012 (AAA): 1034 BF, .182 K/.068 BB/.014 HR
2010-2012 (MIL): 1001 BF, .244 K/.064 BB/.032 HR
2012 after injury: 417 BF, .261 K / .053 BB / .022 HR

2013? 778 BF
Fielding Independent: .250 K/.060 BB/.030 HR; 195 K/47 BB/23 HR/5 HBP
Batted Ball In Play: 508 BIP, 340 BIPOuts, 8 errors, 160 BIPH
Overall: 178.3 IP, 183 H, 85 R, 195 K/47 BB/23 HR; approximately 77 FIPruns

(3) While it’s popular to think about the innings pitched by these starters, in order to judge their workloads, we can also use their batters faced to judge them. This is especially important because these pitchers do strike out a strong number of batters. In this regard, we might be inclined to expect more efficient increases in workload, if these pitchers can continue their career strike out records.

Since Fiers’s workload increase is the most extreme, I have adjusted his progressions with two models. One for the workload skeptics, another one that continues to increase his workload (slightly).

Mike Fiers:
2010-2011 (AA): 374 BF, .265 BB / .061 BB / .027 HR
2011-2012 (AAA): 492 BF, .240 K / .081 BB / .020 HR
2011-2012 MLB: 549 BF, .250 K / .071 BB / .022 HR

2010: 511 BF
2011: 514 BF
2012: 768 BF

2013? 598 BF
Fielding Independent: .235 K / .080 BB / .022 HR; 141 K / 48 BB / 13 HR / 6 HBP
Batted-Ball-In-Play: 390 BIP, 262 BIPOuts, 8 errors, 120 BIPH
Overall: 134.3 IP, 133 H, 64 R, 141 K/48 BB/13 HR; approximately 57 FIPruns; or:

2013? 828 BF
Fielding Independent: .235 K / .079 BB / .025 HR; 195 K/65 BB/21 HR / 9 HBP
Batted-Ball-In-Play: 538 BIP, 366 BIPOuts, 10 errors, 162 BIPH
Overall: 187 IP, 183 H, 90 R, 195 K/65 BB/21 HR; approximately 83 FIPruns

It should go without saying that these are progressive models that build from these pitchers’ previous mechanical bases and previous performance trends. Obviously, there’s a ton that could happen in the course of the season. Yet, if we’re thinking critically about the division, we need to think critically about our own staff, too.

2011-2012 NL Rotations w/ Runs Prevented
Fielding Independent Pitching Chart

IMAGE (Getty): http://www.sbnation.com/mlb/players/126231/wily-peralta#stories_tab

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