Unexpected Aces | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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Unexpected Aces

By on October 16, 2012

In 2012, the Milwaukee Brewers’ starting rotation featured one notably below average pitcher. While Chris Narveson was not effective in his extremely brief stint prior to (during?) his season-ending injury, it was another notorious southpaw that served as the Brewers’ sole below average arm. Randy Wolf allowed approximately 23 more runs than expected Miller Park/National League rates in 142.3 IP. Otherwise, the Brewers strung together a gang of effective, if surprising, starters.

Right-handers Marco Estrada and Fastballer Mike Fiers must be the most surprising of the Brewers’ above average arms. While the duo were not quite as good as franchise pitcher Yovani Gallardo or trading chip Zack Greinke, both were good enough to land in or around the top rotation pitchers of the 2012 National League.

I am currently working on completing my 2012 NL 100+ IP rankings, complete with 3-year FIP performances and some other goodies. However, the basic rankings according to runs prevented against league average are complete, and the Brewers’ rotation performed quite well. Prior to the middle rotation starters, I found four logical divisions between the Top 34 starters in the National League. Those four divisions are based on percentage shifts between certain pitchers’ runs prevented. For example, although Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann were great starters in 2012, their 25-26 runs prevented were approximately 16% to 32% less valuable than the performances of R.A. Dickey, Clayton Kershaw, and Johnny Cueto. You might call that nitpicking, but if we’re looking for a ranking system that has some value, we should draw distinctions between specific classes of pitchers.

While pitching six or eight runs above average over 125 IP-140 IP does not seem great, in the context of MLB’s leagues, those performances are actually quite valuable. Consider that approximately 39 of 73 2012 NL starters with 100+ IP were either one run above average or worse, and 33 of those starters were below average. While the idea of an average starter suggests a middle of the road starter, the middle of the road in MLB rotations frequently consists of below average pitchers. Furthermore, even though only 73 starters worked 100+ IP in the 2012 NL (Kris Medlen and Nate Eovaldi are strange cases of swingmen and replacement starters, due to the way their teams handled them), nearly 160 pitchers started a game in the 2012 NL. Given that the gang of replacement starters, swingmen, and emergency starters is larger than the group of regular starters in the National League, having a player that can work between 125-140 IP of above average starts is rather valuable.

With that said, here are the top classes of 2012 NL starters, ranked by runs prevented against park and league.

As you can see, several Brewers starters performed very well. Gallardo was one of the league’s top 15 starters; Greinke finally landed in the top 20 of his league for the first time since his exceptional 2009 campaign. Meanwhile, Fiers’ performance landed just outside the top 20, while Estrada and even injury-plagued righty Shaun Marcum landed in the top 30. However you want to divide their runs prevented, this group of starters performed extremely well, and undoubtedly the hot performances by Fiers, Estrada, and Gallardo at various points of the season helped to keep the Brewers afloat as a ballclub.

Looking Forward
Of course, even if pitchers that work between 125-140 innings are quite good in one season, they’re not always good the next season (although, I suppose we can say that about most MLB pitchers in just about any class). Last year’s group of 20-25 games started, ~110-140 IP range pitchers included some players that made exceptional contributions to their respective clubs. Specifically, Josh Collmenter, Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson and Brandon Beachy were particularly good for the Diamondbacks and Braves. Meanwhile, Roy Oswalt and Vance Worley provided valuable contributions behind the Phillies’ Big Three, and the Reds received a great season from Johnny Cueto. Other pitchers that worked between 20-25 GS and pitched between ~100-140 IP ranged from Edinson Volquez, Carlos Zambrano, and Jason Marquis, to Dustin Moseley, Homer Bailey, and Randy Wells. Ubaldo Jimenez also fell into this group of starters because the Rockies traded him to the Indians.

Undoubtedly, many of those pitchers were plagued with ineffectiveness or injuries during the 2012 season. Collmenter, Moseley, Worley, Beachy, Hanson, and Jurrjens did not return to form, or were subjected to shortened seasons. Volquez and Zambrano were largely ineffective, and Oswalt could not return to his previous form with the Texas Rangers (the same can be said for Jimenez in Cleveland). Really, this looks like quite a doomed group of pitchers. However, there were some bright spots, including Cueto’s rise to acehood, and Bailey’s first notably above average season as a starter.

Homer Bailey
Between 2011 and 2012, Bailey focused on throwing his fastballs slightly more frequently, which resulted in fewer selections between his slider and curve. Alongside his fastballs, he increased his change up selection, and his velocity increased across the board.

It’s interesting to note that Bailey’s fielding independent ratios remained extremely similar between 2011 and 2012. In fact, his 4.34 FIP (runs average scale) is only a few ticks better than his 2011 4.37 FIP. The only significant shift occurred with his groundball rate, which increased from 39.5% to nearly 45%, and his left-on-base percentage, which increased to 73.6% from 71.2%. Perhaps these shifts help to explain his increased performance against his FIP; in 2011, Bailey’s runs average was higher than 4.60, but this year that figure dropped to 4.20.

Johnny Cueto
Cueto was extremely valuable to the Reds in 2011, even in his injury-shortened campaign. Of course, his 3.03 runs average in 2012 is worse than his 2011 mark of 2.94, but that’s simply saying that Cueto was less-exceptional; his increased workload allowed the Reds to squeeze every ounce out of that runs average, and Cueto was arguably the best starter in the 2012 National League.

Whereas things largely stayed the same for his teammate, Cueto’s fielding independent ratios improved significantly in 2012. Last year, Cueto outperformed a 3.69 FIP; this year, his 3.60 FIP this year betrays his increased K% and decreased BB%. Most of that 3.60 FIP in 2012 can be accounted for by the decrease in defensive efficiency across the board in the 2012 NL.

The Reds’ ace is known for his change up, and in 2012, he finally let that pitch loose. After relying heavily on his slider during previous seasons, Cueto selected that pitch nearly 24% of his offerings (a steady decline from 2010 and 2011), whereas his change up appeared in 19% of his deliveries. In previous years, Cueto never threw that pitch more than 12% of his selections. These selections helped Cueto become a balanced pitcher between his primary and secondary fastballs, slider, and change; not one of his pitches appeared in more than 30% of his deliveries. (If Cueto keeps this up, his selections might look rather similar to those of Marcum).

I know these are two extremely brief looks at two pitchers, but I wanted to take a look at what changes when a pitcher improves from a ~100-to-~140 IP campaign. While we have more than a handful of starters that give us reason to curb our optimism for the 2013 performances by Fastballer Fiers and Estrada, I thought it would be instructive to show that pitchers can improve from their injury-shortened or replacement campaigns. While one could certainly argue that Cueto was already on his way to becoming an ace, and was much better than Fiers and Estrada during his shortened season, the performance of Bailey should give us reason to be optimistic for 2013.

Namely, that a pitcher can move from a smaller pitching workload to a full season and perform well without changing too much.

Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2012.

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