25 November 2016

Starting Pitching Was Not (Really) a Strength of 2016 Orioles

Joe Reisel's Archives

Jon Shepherd's recent Camden Depot article, Orioles Starting Pitching Was Not a Weak Part of 2016 Club, made a case that the 2016 Orioles starting pitching was, well, not a weak part of the 2016 team. Some commenters, including myself, observed that while the rotation as a whole might have been average, the front half (Gausman, Tillman, Bundy, and Worley (4 starts) performed well while the back half (Jimenez, Gallardo, Wilson, Wright, and Miley) performed poorly. This started a lively exchange in the comments.

I probably misunderstood what Jon was saying. Digging beyond the headline, he was seeking to correct the narrative that the 2016 Orioles starting pitching was a "train wreck" (among other narratives.) The title and the article itself contain another source of potential misinterpretation - that if starting pitching wasn't a weakness, then there is no need to improve it for 2017. Jon didn't actually say that in the article and, in subsequent comments, made it clear that he wasn't trying to imply that the starting pitching was just fine the way it was.

Nevertheless, I thought I would explore the idea that the Orioles' starting pitching was either very good or very bad in 2016, and see what (if anything) I could discover. The simplest approach was to look at each team, and count the number of games started by good, average, and poor starting pitchers. As this is an initial exploration, I decided to keep things really simple, using ERA+ as the measurement. ERA+ is a context-adjusted measurement of a pitcher's ERA, so that 100 is league-average (adjusted for context), above 100 is better than average, and below 100 is worse than average. Because starting pitchers have higher ERAs than relief pitchers, I decided to define an ERA+ of 101 or better as above average, 90-100 as average, and 89 or below as below average.

The below table shows the counts. For each team, the number of games started by a pitcher with a season ERA+ at the appropriate level for that team is counted. These values are retrieved from baseball-reference.com. Two points - this doesn't distinguish a pitcher's ERA+ as a starter as opposed to his ERA as a relief pitcher, so a few pitchers who were primarily relief pitchers but made a couple of starts would be listed in a category heavily influenced by their relief usage. And, it uses the pitcher's ERA+ with the team only, so James Shields is considered average for San Diego and below average for the Chicago White Sox.

101+
90-100
89-
 
101+
90-100
89-
BAL
78
0
84
 
ARI
38
0
124
BOS
92
54
16
 
ATL
38
32
91
CHW
87
28
47
 
CHC
160
0
2
CLE
142
0
19
 
CIN
100
4
58
DET
73
19
69
 
COL
120
3
39
HOU
29
43
90
 
LAD
84
14
64
KAN
63
46
53
 
MIA
61
33
67
LAA
57
32
73
 
MIL
52
81
29
MIN
30
0
132
 
NYM
124
0
38
NYY
66
70
26
 
PHI
74
24
64
OAK
43
43
76
 
PIT
50
30
82
SEA
60
66
36
 
STL
36
0
126
TAM
87
40
35
 
SDG
40
11
111
TEX
101
20
41
 
SFO
112
12
38
TOR
99
61
2
 
WAS
110
33
19

Regarding the 2016 Orioles, it does seem that they didn't have a truly terrible starting rotation, although it was the worst among playoff teams. Their 84 games started by poor pitchers was the 24th most among all teams and by far the most among playoff teams. The next highest-total was 64 (the Dodgers.) On the other hand, their 78 games started by good pitchers was the 17th most among all teams, and last among the playoff teams. Their starting pitching wasn't bad enough to keep them out of the playoffs.

Unlike two other contending teams. While most of the teams with bad starting rotations were bad teams, Houston and St. Louis were in wild-card contention until late in the season (the final day for St. Louis.) And most observers concluded that their lack of starting pitching is why those two teams didn't make the postseason.

To some extent, this chart understates how bad the Orioles' second-line starting pitching was. I used a cutoff ERA+ of 89 to define a "bad" starting pitcher; none of the five Orioles in that category - Jimenez, Gallardo, Wilson, Wright, and Miley - came particularly close to that level. (Wilson was the best at 84.) So the Orioles could improve their second-line starting pitching and still not have it show up in this measurement.

Although the Orioles did make the postseason in 2016, they probably need to improve their second-line starting pitching if they want to make the postseason in 2017. To make the playoffs, you have to survive the 162-game regular season - and it's very tough to do so if you have below-average pitchers starting half your games. They don't necessarily need more good starting pitching; they just need less bad starting pitching.

A few arbitrary observations:
  • There seems to be a "floor" for starts by bad pitchers, below which it doesn't seem to affect a team's chances. Almost every team seems to have a couple of guys who pitch badly before it's decided to replace them, and every team seems to have a few spot / September starts by pitchers who pitch poorly. A team should expect to have around forty games started by pitchers who don't pitch well.
  • The big surprises in a positive way were the Reds and the Phillies; I wasn't expecting them to be this good. 
  • In the 2016 American League, the Minnesota Twins were so awful at run prevention that "average" loses much of its meaning. The Twins gave up 889 runs; the next-worst team, Oakland, was closer to the best team (761 runs for Oakland, 666 for Toronto) than to the Twins. The American League average was 724 runs allowed - but if you exclude the Twins, the average shrinks to 712. The Twins themselves are responsible for five teams being above-league-average in run prevention as opposed to being below average.
  • This doesn't have anything to do with the subject, but the leader in innings pitched for the Pirates was Jeff Locke - with 127 1/3. Not only did the Pirates not have anyone who qualified for the ERA title, they didn't have anyone who would have qualified for a full-season minor-league ERA title if the minors leagues used the one-inning-per-scheduled game qualification.

6 comments:

Jon Shepherd said...

I think the question comes down to more win probabilities at various levels. In the extreme, let's say a team has an average rotation who provides a win probability of 0.5 and there is another teak who has a 0.75 probility in half their starts and 0.25 in the other half. Both clubs are effectively equal over a full season with their staffs.

Joe Reisel said...

I agree. This article is an initial, crude look. I wanted to see if (1) my understanding of the nature of the O's staff was correct and (2) how the Orioles compared to the other teams.

Roger said...

I agree with Jon and there are two specific pitchers that make this point - Jimenez and Bundy. If you separate these two into Bundy A (first half of starts) and Bundy B (second half of starts) and Jimenez A (starts through Aug 1st) and Jimenez B (starts after Aug 1st) then you might get a different picture of the O's staff - somewhat more positive. This would likely also hold true for other teams. Although I'm not sure how the Jays lost as many games as they did with the pitching performances they seemingly got and their long ball hitting ability.

Roger said...

I guess the Jays and Rockies must have had desperately bad bullpens.

Pip said...

This is a fascinating article, and it offers a natural segue into two very pertinent questions: if the new CBA includes an additional man on the roster, that would almost certainly be another bullpen arm, and are the days of the seven inning start gone?
Send a guy out for five innings, and then juggle the bullpen for four more innings.

Joe Reisel said...

@Roger - I'm not sure your line of reasoning leads us anywhere. Within a season, whether your pitchers all pitch well at the same time or they are scattered still leaves us with the same number of good and bad starts. And if your point is that if all the Orioles pitchers pitch as well as they can for the entire season, then the Orioles would have a better pitching staff, I say (1) yes, if Jimenez and Bundy were consistently at their best they Orioles would have a better pitching staff and (2) they weren't.

The Blue Jays' problem wasn't their bullpen, which had a couple of weak links but wasn't uniformly terrible. Their problem - to the extent that an 89-win team had a serious problem - was that their offense didn't do anything but draw walks and hit home runs.

The Rockies' bullpen was substantially worse than their rotation.