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.

 

Tim Williams

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 AccuScore.com, 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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  • Anonymous

    The Pirates have a much higher percentage of QS this season. The fact that they’re not allowing 4,5,6 runs in the first or 2nd innings allows the defense to play better, knowing that they’re not out of a game sometimes before getting their first AB. The Bucs pitching and defense also have benefited from being among the leaders in 1st inning runs scored.

    The 6+ innings starters have given Hurdle have also kept the pen fresh. And having one of the game’s top closers to hand their leads over to and has been great.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6KEYHS3XWH74U3LRIHGWL7XPBA Nate

    Salempriate makes some good points.  I would also point out that the while the odds of regressing may be high, I’m not sure if there is any evidence to suggest that this regression will happen THIS season.  Using a pitchers career numbers has little impact on the year-to-year variation.  Sure, having all five of your starting pitchers perform better than their career averages, or what their performances should be based on peripheral stats (BABIP, strand, HR/FB), may SEEM unlikely, or may SEEM like a rare occurrence, but our fan-based intuition doesn’t make it impossible.

    Also, if the standard metrics aren’t “explaining” the performance – perhaps there are other variables missing from the equation?  In the Pirates case, the error term may be larger than we’re assuming.  What’s all that noise?  What other variables can act as determinants?  Can we quantify a new manager?  Do metrics like xFIP tell a completely different story that we’re seeing in standard stats?  Not from what I can tell.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      You are correct that there’s no guarantee the starters will regress this year.  The big issues I see:

      BABIP – Maholm (.253), Karstens (.240)
      Strand – Karstens (88%), McDonald (83.8% since May)
      HR/FB – Maholm (6.3), Morton (5.5)

      The HR/FB can’t really be controlled, as the pitcher has little control over whether a ball stays in the park on a fly ball.

      As for the other numbers, I’d give credit to an outside factor (Hurdle? Defense?), except an outside factor would impact the whole team.  You have to ask, why is it just Maholm and Karstens with low BABIPs?  Why is it just Karstens and McDonald with ridiculously high strand rates?

      All five pitchers play on the same team.  The fact that only 1-2 are getting lucky numbers in each category indicates luck, rather than an outside factor.  That also means an eventual regression.  Like you said, that might not happen this year.  And for the record, a regression doesn’t mean they’ll be horrible from here on out.  It just means they probably won’t be good every single night, which is what we’ve been seeing since April ended.

  • Lee Young

    I’m just gonna enjoy it while it is happening. Why ruin it by (showing stats)  and waiting for it to end?

  • http://twitter.com/millec311 Chris M

    I don’t really like some of these statistics like HR/FB because it really oversimplifies things to assume all fly balls have an equal chance of being home runs.  I’d be more interested in a stat that said what percent of his hanging curveballs/fastballs left over the middle of the plate are home runs.  That would be more indicative of luck.  A lot of fly balls are not struck very well, and that can often be due to the quality and location of the pitch by the pitcher.  It can be argued that it isn’t just blind luck that is preventing Maholm from giving up more home runs.  

    A similar argument can be made for BABIP.  Maholm and Karstens don’t have overwhelming stuff like McDonald and Morton have shown, but maybe they are both better students of the game than the rest of the rotation.  There was just a bit on Inside Pirates Baseball about how Karstens is one of the best at making on-the-fly adjustments based on what he discerns from the hitters swing.  He’s gonna let hitters put the ball in play but if he locates the ball well they will not hit the ball with authority and get on base.  

    All these pitchers are relatively young and still making adjustments and learning.  Maholm apparently changed his approach quite a bit after Hurdle told him the scouting report the Rangers had on him.  I’d be more willing to believe he would “regress to the mean” if he didn’t have 120 ip with a 2.96 ERA.  That isn’t that small of a sample size, he has really only had 2 BAD starts out 19.

    • Anonymous

      Not even then would your HR idea totally indicate luck because some guys have more pitches/movement than others. A guy with 5 different pitches the hitter has to worry about is much more likely to get away with a down the middle FB than a reliever with a 90% fastball arsenal. Of course that is an extreme example but yeah..

  • Anonymous

    Tim, you yourself sayeveryone is a 3.70-4.20 guy. It’s definitely possible to go a full season on the low end of your projection as a player. It’s also possible that if you put a good defense (which we have) behind a pitch to contact pitcher (which we have) that that could shave a couple tenths off your ERA. Offense is also down throughout the majors this year.

    All leads to our 3.58 SP ERA to be completely legit as a group and although individuals might fluctuate, no need for any “regression” whatsoever.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_3G6S3MLR7RKSHPBY62TA5KKR4A michael

    I appreciate the comment and the research and all; but am not a buyer of the theories: “his past stats have been ‘this’, so his future stats will be ‘this’ ” ; or even worse: ” based on past stats, he getting lucky; and is due to regress”.  If this is true, then Bautista is hitting .256 with 9 HRs right now.  Players will ALWAYS either improve, stay the same, or regress; and no stats will predict it.  My predictions are more based on watching them pitch; their mental approach; their ability to maintain velocity & “stuff” 7 IPs and beyond, and yes, gut feel:
    Correia: he’ll continue to keep the Bucs in a game through 5-7 innings; won’t be dominant; but OK (2nd half : 5-4)
    Maholm:  He’ll continue to eat innings, with a few more K’s/9; maybe 1 really bad start, but overall pretty good (2nd half:  6-3)
    Karstens:  He’ll maintain the solid , inexplicable start;  mixing speeds and location; and will start to get national press.  Bucs press won’t give him credit until Sept.  (2nd half: 7-3)
    Morton:  He’ll regress quite a bit, as the changes he made in the off season have faded a bit.  He’s really not releasing the ball the same as then.  (2nd half : 3-8)
    McDonald:  the toughest to call; at times he looks dominant; and then a mental struggle.  It’ll be a mixed bag the rest of the season (2nd half: 5-5)
      I do think the Bucs will need another solid starter from somewhere to step up at some point; either Ohllie; Lincoln; G Olson; or someone by trade.
    Whatever happens; the starting pitching is going to determine if the Buccos are in the race at the end or not.  Hope so !