The Pitching Staff is Good, But Not This Good

Maholm has been good this year, but he's not this good.

One of the big concerns I’ve had with the makeup of the 2011 Pittsburgh Pirates has been the starting pitching.  The rotation has been the strong point of the team this year.  Pirates’ starters have the 8th best ERA in the league, at a combined 3.58.  Four of their five starters have ERAs of 3.80 or better.  The leaders are Jeff Karstens, with a 2.55 ERA, and Paul Maholm, with a 3.08 ERA.  Since the end of April, three Pirates starters have ERAs under 3.00.  Those starters are Jeff Karstens (2.29), Paul Maholm (2.79), and James McDonald (2.95).  In that same time period, Kevin Correia has a 3.86 ERA, and Charlie Morton has a 3.99 ERA.

The above shows that the Pirates pitching staff has been tremendous.  The pitching is a big reason they have been 35-30 since that last week in April.  The problem is, ERA isn’t the best indicator of future success.  It shows how good a pitcher has been in the past, but it doesn’t show two important things: why they had this success, and whether they can continue at this rate.

There are several factors I use to evaluate pitchers.  The big factors are the battles between the batter and pitcher, which remove the fielders from the equation.  Those are strikeouts, walks, and home runs.  I also focus on three big ratios to determine the “luck” factor.  Those ratios are Batting Average Per Balls in Play (BABIP), Strand Ratio, and Home runs per Fly Ball (HR/FB).  Here is a quick rundown of each stat:

BABIP - This calculates how many balls hit in to play (not counting home runs) fell in for hits.  The league average for starters is usually in the .300 range.

Strand - This shows how many runners a pitcher stranded on the base paths.  The league average for starters is usually around 70%.

HR/FB - This shows the percentage of fly balls that went for home runs.  The league average for starters is usually around 10%.  Since this is a ratio of homers to fly balls, it doesn’t matter whether a pitcher is a fly ball pitcher, or a ground ball pitcher.

I’ve talked about how the pitching staff could be due for a regression, due to some of these numbers.  I’ve taken some heat for that.  Maybe it’s because people want to believe that the pitching staff can continue looking like one of the best groups in baseball.  Maybe it’s because people just don’t trust the stats.  The fact is, the stats have a great track record, and are great indicators of future performance.  So I went through, pitcher by pitcher, to illustrate who could be in line for a regression, and how much they might regress.

Before we begin, let me point out that there’s no hyperbole here.  Saying a guy will regress doesn’t mean the guy is bad.  Look at the numbers above.  Three pitchers have ERAs under 3.00 since the end of April.  The other two are under 4.00.  Does anyone really think this group of pitchers can continue with those types of results?  At the same time, even if they aren’t a group of five aces, that doesn’t mean they can’t be a group of five effective pitchers.  So let’s take a look at how good the pitching staff really is.

Paul Maholm

ERA: 3.08 (Career: 4.33)

K/9: 5.29 (Career: 5.55)

BB/9: 3.32 (Career: 3.07)

HR/9: 0.55 (Career: 0.82)

BABIP: .253 (Career: .307)

Strand: 74.5% (Career: 70.6%)

HR/FB: 6.3% (Career: 9.8%)

Analysis: The big thing to focus on are the last three categories.  Maholm’s BABIP is way down from his career totals.  He is stranding an above-average amount of runners.  He’s also getting lucky on his home run per fly ball ratio, which has led to a decrease in homers.  None of these figures are sustainable.  The problem here is that Maholm’s ground ball ratio is down this year, at 47.4%.  That’s the first time in his career that he’s been under 50.9%.  So when his HR/FB ratio goes back to normal, he will start allowing more homers than normal, due to the increase in fly balls.

xFIP: 4.15

Jeff Karstens

ERA: 2.55 (Career: 4.50)

K/9: 5.29 (Career: 4.64)

BB/9: 1.64 (Career: 2.53)

HR/9: 1.55 (Career: 1.38)

BABIP: .240 (Career: .280)

Strand: 88.0% (Career: 70.2%)

HR/FB: 14.4% (Career: 10.7%)

Analysis: Karstens is a good example of a guy who has shown legit improvements.  He’s striking out more batters, and walking fewer batters.  However, he is a candidate for regression.  His .240 BABIP is certain to go up.  He’s also not going to continue stranding 88% of runners he puts on base.  That’s just an unreal number.  At the same time, he should see a regression in his home runs, as he’s been unlucky with his HR/FB category.  Karstens obviously isn’t this good, but his improvements should allow him to maintain a good pace.

xFIP: 3.81

Charlie Morton

ERA: 3.80 (Career: 5.37)

K/9: 5.29 (Career: 5.84)

BB/9: 3.53 (Career: 3.75)

HR/9: 0.28 (Career: 0.88)

BABIP: .318 (Career: .319)

Strand: 70.2% (Career: 64.4%)

HR/FB: 5.5% (Career: 10.8%)

Analysis: Morton has made some obvious changes this year.  The biggest change has come as a result of his sinker, taking his ground ball ratio up to 61.3%, from a career 52.1%.  His current ERA actually reflects his talent level.  He should see a regression in home runs, as his HR/FB ratio is unsustainable, although that shouldn’t hurt him as much, since he’s giving up fewer fly balls.  His BABIP is almost in line with his career numbers, although those numbers are unreliable, since they’re heavily skewed by his 2010 season.  He could see improvement, getting towards the league average of around .300.

xFIP: 3.71

Kevin Correia

ERA: 3.74 (Career: 4.46)

K/9: 4.54 (Career: 6.35)

BB/9: 1.99 (Career: 3.38)

HR/9: 1.04 (Career: 1.05)

BABIP: .272 (Career: .295)

Strand: 70.9% (Career: 71.9%)

HR/FB: 9.0% (Career: 10.0%)

Analysis: The big change for Correia has been a decrease in walks.  However, he’s not striking out as many batters, which is a problem, because it forces him to rely on his defense more often, putting more balls in play.  Right now he’s getting by with a .272 BABIP, although that should regress, which will hurt him.  He’s about a 4.15 ERA guy, which is in the range of where I always thought he belonged (4.00-4.20).  He can help himself out by getting his strikeout numbers back up, thus limiting the balls in play.

xFIP: 4.15

James McDonald

ERA: 4.40 (Career: 4.06)

K/9: 7.24 (Career: 7.66)

BB/9: 4.60 (Career: 4.29)

HR/9: 1.17 (Career: 0.85)

BABIP: .316 (Career: .311)

Strand: 76.4% (Career: 74.2%)

HR/FB: 10.0% (Career: 7.4%)

Analysis: The career numbers for McDonald aren’t the best thing to go by.  This year almost makes up half of his career totals.  Prior to this year, he spent as much time in the bullpen as he did in the rotation.  The big concern is his walk rate.  That looked good last year, but has been an issue this year, especially in the last month.  His homers are up, but that’s an issue that reflects his first few starts, where he allowed five homers in 18.2 innings, compared to seven homers in his next 73.1 innings (which is a 0.85 HR/9 ratio, in line with his career numbers).  In fact, let’s look at McDonald, outside of his first four starts…

xFIP: 4.50

James McDonald (Minus 1st Four Starts)

ERA: 2.95 (Career: 4.06)

K/9: 7.61 (Career: 7.66)

BB/9: 4.30 (Career: 4.29)

HR/9: 0.86 (Career: 0.85)

BABIP: .317 (Career: .311)

Strand: 83.8% (Career: 74.2%)

HR/FB: 7.5% (Career: 7.4%)

Analysis: McDonald has been about the same as his career numbers when you remove his first four starts.  The big difference is the high strand rate, which has led to his lower ERA.  That won’t be sustainable.  It’s more likely that he regresses, and ends up in the 4.00 ERA range, rather than continuing to pitch in the 2.95 ERA range that we’ve seen since his 5th start of the year.

How Good is the Pitching Staff

I don’t think we needed this analysis to point out that the pitching staff isn’t as good as what we’ve seen so far.  The Pirates starters as a group have the 4th best combined ERA since the end of April.  They’re in the same category as teams like the Phillies and Giants.  But the difference is the Pirates don’t have a rotation full of aces like Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels, or Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain.

Looking at the above, the Pirates do have some good pitchers.  All of their guys have been performing in the 3.70-4.20 ERA range.  Having five pitchers who can do that every night is huge.  The problem for the Pirates going forward is their offense.  They have been winning games because their pitchers have been putting up unreal numbers, which has made up for their lack of hitting at times.  When the pitching staff starts to regress, they will need the hitting to pick up the slack.  Based on the above analysis, the Pirates can expect 6-7 innings and three earned runs allowed per start.  Unfortunately, that might be too much for the offense on some nights.

Odds are that the pitching staff will regress.  We’ve seen some of that already with struggles from Morton and Correia in June.  The idea of regression is that these guys aren’t going to go out and have a great start every time.  We’re not going to see them allow two or fewer runs in each start.  Eventually they’re going to get lit up for a start or two.  That’s why it’s so important for the Pirates to address their hitting needs.  They can’t count on the pitching staff to put up great numbers every start, which is what we’ve been seeing all year.  Therefore, the offense needs to show some improvements, so that they can take advantage when their starters do put up good numbers.


Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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