Friday, December 31, 2010

A True Ace

Things I'm Not Worried About, Part 2

The Twins' early exit from the 2010 postseason prompted a lot of fans to jump to conclusions about the reasons they failed to advance (or even win a game). One idea I heard a lot was that the Twins can't compete in the playoffs because they don't have a True Ace, somebody who always shuts down the opposition whenever he gets the ball. (You know, like Cliff Lee was for the Rangers in the World Series. Wait... whoops!)

I have some questions about that supposition. First, is that really a bigger reason the Twins lost than the 8 R they scored in 3 games or the bullpen's inability to put up zeroes? A lot of pitchers will fail to win when the rest of their team performs like that. Second, and more importantly, do the Twins really lack a True Ace? What exactly constitutes a True Ace, anyway?

An Ace is basically a #1 starter, the guy who gets the ball on opening day. Each of the 30 teams has one of those. Of course, some of those guys would be #2 or #3 guys on bigger payroll teams (or #5 on the Phillies). So we're not looking for the best guy on each of the 30 teams, but rather one of the best 30 pitchers in all of baseball.

How do we determine who those guys are? WAR(P) for pitchers is determined in incompatibly different (and flawed) ways depending on which site you reference. Rather than have someone else try to formulate pitcher value for me, I'm more inclined to look for a convergence of desirable qualities: dependability, stuff, command. An ace takes pressure off his teammates by taking his turn every 5th day, pitching deep into the game, limiting baserunners, getting strikeouts and keeping the score close. So I want to find guys who made the top 30 in IP, WHIP, BB/9, K/9 and HR/9.

Cole Hamels came in 30th in IP with 208.2. The 30th best WHIP in the Majors last year was Ian Kennedy's 1.20. Rodrigo Lopez checked in at #30 in BB/9 with 2.52. 30 guys were able to rack up at least 7.68 K/9, ending with Tommy Hanson. And there were 29 guys ahead of Mark Buerhle's 0.73 HR/9.

Anybody who was on all 5 of those lists must be a True Ace, right? Right, but it's an incredibly short list:

Cliff Lee, Felix Hernandez, Adam Wainwright

Any criteria by which Roy Halladay doesn't emerge as a True Ace must be a little flawed. So I'll loosen things up just a bit. How about guys who pitched at least 200 IP, with at least 7.5 K/9, WHIPs under 1.25, BB/9 below 3.0 and HR/9 under 0.9? That got me 4 more names:

Halladay, Roy Oswalt (yikes, that's a good Phillies rotation!), Justin Verlander and Hanson.

Several other very worthy guys just missed in one of the categories: CC Sabathia and Zach Greinke came up a little short with 7.4x K/9, Tim Lincecum and Ubaldo Jiminez had a few too many walks, Dan Haren and Hamels (seriously, Philadelphia!) had HR/9 over 1.0, Josh Johnson and Mat Latos didn't have enough IP. It's still exclusive enough - I'm satisfied that anyone who can meet 4 of the 5 criteria is an Ace, and anybody who can hit all 5 is a True Ace.

The Twins didn't have anyone meet 4 out of 5. Carl Pavano wasn't close in K/9, and just missed with 0.98 HR/9. And Francisco Liriano didn't have enough IP (191.2) and came up just short with a 1.26 WHIP.

About that, though. I followed Liriano particularly closely this season. I made him a high pick for my fantasy team, and I made a bold assertion that he would pitch about as well as Jon Lester in 2010 (Lester hit 4/5 lists). My big takeaway from observing his 2010 is that he gave up an absolutely mind-blowing number of crappy hits. Bloopers just over the IF, slow choppers over the mound, swinging bunts, actual bunts. The number of rallies against him that actually came from a series of well-hit balls was pretty tiny.

His BABIP numbers bear that out. The average BABIP of all Major League pitchers in 2010 was .297. Liriano's was .335. That was 3rd worst in all of baseball among qualified starters. That's some exceptionally bad luck. In spite of that, Liriano still managed to finish 31st in MLB in OPS against, 37th in ERA and 43rd in WHIP. He was elite in a couple of important categories: 5th in K/9 with 9.44 and 4th in HR/9 with 0.42 (he was 1st until his final GS of the season). Do you put any stock in DIPS? (I don't think they give a complete picture, but they're certainly useful.) Liriano was 3rd in FIP (2.66), 2nd in xFIP (3.06) and 3rd in SIERA (3.02).

Substituting the league average BABIP into his numbers, it quickly becomes apparent how awesome Liriano was in 2010. He allowed 522 BIP (730 AB - 201 K - 9 HR + 2 SF). A .297 BA for those 522 AB results in 155 H. That's 20 fewer than he actually allowed. Add those together with his 9 HR and 58 BB and his WHIP drops to 1.16, comfortably within the top 30 in that category. But it's actually even better than that, because those 20 fewer hits would have been converted into at least 20 more outs. Assuming no DP, that adds 6.2 IP to bring his season total to 198.1 IP - just 5 outs short of 200. That larger denominator drops his WHIP to 1.12 - good for 12th in baseball.

If you assume that all 20 of those subtracted H were singles (hardly a fair assumption, but let's be conservative), his TB allowed would be reduced to 239. That makes his new SLG% against .327 - 9th overall. His OBP allowed would drop to .290 (14th). His new opponents' OPS would be .617 (9th).

Those adjustments show that Liriano, given ordinary luck, would have been easily one of the the top 30 pitchers in baseball last year, a legitimate Ace. As for his IP total, the only other category in which he comes up just short of True Ace criteria, that can be rather easily accounted for by his position as the Twins' #5 starter at the beginning of the season. There was enough doubt about his ability after 2009 that some were even calling for him to move the bullpen in spring training, particularly after the season-ending injury to Joe Nathan. Had Liriano been given the #1 or #2 spot in the rotation that we now clearly see that he deserved, he would have certainly made at least one more start in 2010, and passed the 200 IP threshold with only 1.2 IP in that 32nd GS.

It would be fair to question at this point whether Liriano really deserves a discount based on his poor BABIP. I'd be the first to admit that DIPS are missing something crucial about pitcher ability. For example, Johan Santana nearly always outperforms his FIP and xFIP (I think this is because he's exceptionally good at getting himself out of jams - as evidenced by his higher than average strand rates). And, for me, Nick Blackburn's summer troubles had less to do with some inevitable regression of BABIP than they did with him simply pitching like ass. Was something like that dogging Liriano last year? Did he deserve to give up all those hits?

Permit me to slice and dice his season. His first 5 GS were stupendous, particularly after the 5 BB grind in his 1st appearance in Chicago. He combined to go 4-0 with 36 IP, 26 H, 6 ER, 0 HR, 13 BB and 36 K while winning the AL Pitcher of the Month award for April despite pitching in just 4 games. His BABIP over that stretch was an only slightly better than league average .289.

From there to the All Star Break, he made 12 starts, totaling 71.1 IP, 81 H, 40 ER, 2 HR, 17 BB and 81 K. Even if you add in his 6 HBP, that's still fewer free passes per 9 IP than in the earlier stretch, and the K/9 is better. Both HR came in the same lousy start in Boston on May 20th. Despite improved peripherals, Liriano's ERA over these 12 GS was more than 3 times worse than his 1st 5 starts, thanks to an absurdly high .391 BABIP, and he went 2-7.

Even so, he delivered QS in 7 of the 12 games. Of the 5 he didn't, 2 (May 20th and July 9th) were bad days - even great pitchers will have a couple of games when they get lit up. The other 3 merit special attention:
  • First there was the May 8th game against Baltimore, in which Liriano gave up a season-high 10 H in 6 IP. All of the 5 ER he allowed came with 2 outs. Does he have trouble finishing off innings? Did he lose his focus? See for yourself. Flip through those O's highlights. You only get to see the RBI hits, but notice how their announcers keep saying things like, "Consistent with their other hits in the inning: a dying quail!" and, "...another hit that did not go out of the infield," and "This is a seeing-eye ball here!" Also notice who's playing SS for the Twins: Brendan Harris. This was the 3rd game after JJ Hardy's wrist injury put him on the shelf for several weeks.
  • Let's look at June 23rd in Milwaukee. Liriano lasted just 5 IP, but that was only because Gardy elected to lift him for a PH in the top of the 6th. Liriano was at just 77 pitches and surely would have come out for the 6th in an AL park. And, as for the 2 RBI hits he allowed, check them out. One is about a 4-hopper up the middle, and the other is a groundball double past Michael Cuddyer at 3rd, which was subsequently butchered in the LF corner by Delmon Young, allowing Rickie Weeks to score easily from 1B. Neither ball looked like it was particularly squared up by the hitter.
  • Liriano's next start was June 28th against the Tigers. The first 6 batters reached on about 15 pitches: a HBP and 5 straight hits (the first of which was a bunt single) led to 4 quick ER. He gave up 2 more hits in the 2nd, including a slow roller to SS that moved the lead runner to 3rd where he could score on the ensuing groundout. A lousy start, yet Liriano lasted into the 7th inning, where he was chased by 2 straight 1st-pitch bunts - one a single, the 2nd a Sac that didn't result in an out when Orlando Hudson dropped Justin Morneau's throw (there's at least one of the 5 outs Liriano needed to get to 200 IP). At the end of the day, Liriano had given up 6 ER on 9 H and 2 BB with 6 K in 6 IP. He wasn't sharp at the beginning of the game, he had a little bad luck, the Tigers were hot. But he still hung around, kept the team in the game (it was 5-4 Tigers when he was pulled) and saved the bullpen until the 7th.

From the 1st series after the All-Star Break to the 3-game sweep in Chicago that effectively sealed the division title for the Twins, Liriano went 8-0 in 11 GS. His combined line was 71 IP, 60 H, 19 ER, 2 HR, 25 BB, 72 K. His BABIP over that stretch was .304, again reasonably close to the league average. He failed to deliver a QS in just 3 of those 11 GS:
  • August 6th in Cleveland. I had a nice rant about this one at the time. Superficially resembled the Tigers game I just described in that he allowed 7 of the first 11 batters to reach, resulting in 4 ER. But it was really more like the Orioles game, because just about all the hits he gave up were on seeing-eye grounders.
  • His next start in Chicago featured another 1st inning jam. 4 straight Sox reached after 2 were out, culminating in this impressive RBI single from AJ Pierzynski. He had to battle in the 5th and 6th, and was pulled 1 out shy of a QS. 7 H, 2 BB, 2 HBP, but only 1 run allowed.
  • The next was also against Chicago on August 18th. Liriano wasn't very good in this one, allowing 5 ER on 6 H (including the first HR he'd allowed in 3 months, a 3-run jack on the heels of 2 BB) and 4 BB in just 5 IP. The only thing I could say in his defense is that the 5th run came home as a result of consecutive missed GIDP opportunities.
His final 3 GS make their own little section. He lasted just 13.1 IP combined over those 3 games, though the shortest of those was the result of an illness that came on after 3 IP. But what really makes these games stand out is the fact the Liriano allowed 5 HR in them, one more than he'd given up in his previous 28 GS, a span of 178.1 IP. The whole team lost focus after they vanquished the White Sox, and I think he was guilty of that, too. He also was probably worn out after a full season workload that exceeded anything he'd achieved previously, especially if you consider the 48.2 IP he added in winter ball in December and January. Whatever the reason, those last 3 games are so far out of character with the rest of his 2010, I don't think they're terribly indicative of what we can expect from him going forward.

If we add the two stretches in which Liriano was himself and enjoying basically league average BABIP, he went 12-0 over 16 GS (the Twins won 15 of those games). He amassed 107 IP (6.2 IP/GS) with a 2.10 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 0.2 HR/9, 3.2 BB/9 and 9.1 K/9. Definitely an Ace, and only 3 BB from being a True Ace.

If he can more or less repeat his 2010 peripherals next year, I expect Liriano to deliver those kinds of numbers over 33-34 GS. (That's especially since he won't have any winter ball to extend his workload this time around.) 200+ IP of awesome stuff and command, plus merely ordinary luck on balls in play, should easily land him in the discussion of who's the best pitcher in baseball. And if he should enjoy better than average luck, we could be in store for something very special.

Either way, I'd confidently hand him the ball on opening day, and for the 1st game of the postseason if the Twins should make it there again. Liriano pitched well enough last season to belong among the best in the game. Going into his age 27 season in 2011, what should be his prime, I don't see any reason to expect less from him.

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