Teams are setting their Opening Day rosters, another page is about to flipped on the wall calendar, heralding the dawn of the regular season. Never mind those pesky Opening Day temperature forecasts of sub-40 degrees in my neck of the woods. Today, we’ll open the second half of our ball-in-play-based analysis of 2015 starting pitcher performance. Most recently, we examined the NL West. We begin our look at the junior circuit with the AL East.
First, some ground rules. To come up with an overall player population roughly equal to one starting rotation per team, the minimum number of batted balls allowed with Statcast readings was set at 243. Pitchers are listed with their 2015 division mates; those who were traded during the season will appear in the division in which they compiled the most innings. Pitchers are listed in “tru” ERA order. For those who have not read my previous articles on the topic, “tru” ERA is the ERA pitchers “should” have compiled based on the actual BIP frequency and authority they allowed relative to the league. Here we go:
|AVG MPH||FB/LD MPH||GB MPH||POP %||FLY %||LD %||GB %||CON||K %||BB %||ERA –||FIP –||TRU –|
Most of the column headers are self-explanatory, including average BIP speed (overall and by BIP type), BIP type frequency, K and BB rates, and traditional ERA-, FIP-, and “tru” ERA-. Each pitchers’ Adjusted Contact Score (ADJ C) is also listed. Again, for those of you who have not read my articles on the topic, Unadjusted Contact Score is derived by removing Ks and BBs from opposing hitters’ batting lines, assigning run values to all other events, and comparing them to a league average of 100. Adjusted Contact Score applies league-average production to each pitchers’ individual actual BIP type and velocity mix, and compares it to league average of 100.
Cells are also color coded. If a pitcher’s value is two standard deviations or more higher than average (the average of all players in the league, not just at the player’s position), the field is shaded red. If it’s one to two STD higher than average, it’s shaded orange. If it’s one-half to one STD higher than average, it’s shaded dark yellow. If it’s one-half to one STD less than average, it’s shaded blue. If it’s over one STD less than average, it’s shaded black. Ran out of colors at that point. On the rare occasions that a value is over two STD lower than average, we’ll mention it if necessary in the text.
Before we get to the pitchers, a couple words regarding year-to-year correlation of pitchers’ plate-appearance frequencies and BIP authority allowed. From 2013 to -15, ERA qualifiers’ K and BB rates and all BIP frequencies except for liner rate (.14 correlation coefficient) correlated very closely from year to year. The correlation coefficients for K% (.81), BB% (.66), and pop-up (.53), fly-ball (.76) and grounder (.86) rates are extremely high. While BIP authority correlates somewhat from year to year — FLY/LD authority is .37, grounder authority is .25 — it doesn’t correlate nearly as closely as frequency. Keep these relationships in mind as we move on to some random player comments.
First of all, the “tru” ERA ranking of the AL East hurlers is quite interesting. How many of you had your money on Marco Estrada for the top spot? Well, if you read some of my previous work on him, you’re probably not that surprised. FIP doesn’t give him enough credit for his very high pop-up rate or the relatively weak, high-exit-angle fly balls he allows. He’s very difficult to square the ball up against; his liner rate was over two standard deviations below league average last season, way down in the second percentile. This wasn’t a one-year blip in that very volatile category: his liner rate hasn’t been higher than the 16th percentile in any of the last three seasons. Is there risk here? Sure. He allows so many fly balls that if the exit angles creep downward and the exit velocities increase, the damage could be stark and sudden. For now, though, the 2015 AL Contact Manager of the Year rates as a safely above-average starter, albeit one likely to regress a bit this season.
Michael Pineda likely also rates as a surprise in the #2 slot. Since his arrival on the scene, he has been known for his injuries, his impeccable K and BB rates, and the loud contact he often allows. Very quietly, he diverged from his past with regard to his BIP profile in 2015. A pop-up and fly-ball generator in past years, Pineda became a ground-ball guy in 2015, with a grounder-rate percentile rank of 75, way above his previous high of 35. His Adjusted Contact Score was worse than league average at 103, but that was largely due to his somewhat elevated liner rate (66th percentile) which has a solid chance to regress moving forward. With a BB rate over two STD better than league average to fall back on, even league-average contact-management performance makes him an 80 “tru” ERA- guy. That’s a weapon.
Chris Archer follows the lead of similar, somewhat older aces such as Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg; his success is almost solely based on his massive K rate. Contact management, at least at this stage of his career, is an afterthought. His frequency profile is unremarkable: he’s unlikely to develop a go-to pop-up or grounder tendency that would ever make him materially above average in that department. There’s no reason, however, that Archer should be allowing the second hardest grounder contact in the division. He’s a student of the game, and I’m betting on him making the necessary adjustments over time to become an average contact manager, which Scherzer has become, and Strasburg is becoming. Coupled with continued decline in his BB rate, Archer’s upside is more than substantial, and should be fun to watch.
Kevin Gausman’s 2016 will begin with what is hopefully a short DL stint, but I’m still optimistic about the totality of his campaign. His traditional ERA was deceptively high in 2015, thanks to awful luck on fly balls/liners. Hitters produced a .487 AVG and 1.062 SLG, but “should” have recorded a .461 AVG and .896 SLG on them based on their exit velocities. His authority allowed was weaker than average across the board, and Gausman appears to be establishing a solid pop-up tendency (72nd percentile) that should stick moving forward. His liner rate was unsustainably low, however, and should regress against him moving forward. A healthy Gausman should combined above-average K and BB rates with average to slightly above-average contact-management skills and continue to post “tru” ERA- figures in the 80s.
Erasmo Ramirez is slated to open the season in the Rays’ pen, and then join the rotation once a fifth starter is needed. The Rays know exactly what they have in Ramirez, and have optimized his performance. He’s not going to walk many, will post a near league-average whiff rate, and if you don’t allow hitters to see him too much, he’ll limit contact at a near league-average clip. He pulled off the neat combo of posting above-average pop-up (67th percentile) and grounder (74th) rates last season; that’s isn’t likely to happen again. Look for slight overall regression from Ramirez this time around; expect a “tru” ERA in the 90s rather than the 80s.
It’s natural to compare Masahiro Tanaka to previous Japanese hurlers, particularly those with AL East experience, such as Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hiroki Kuroda. Kuroda was a superior contact manager; Matsuzaka, and now Tanaka, don’t measure up in that department. Tanaka allowed the loudest contact in the air of any pitcher listed above, a no-no in Yankee Stadium. Like Michael Pineda, Tanaka’s K/BB ratio offer a strong foundation that allows for some contact-management margin for error. Tanaka, unfortunately, uses most of it. Though he does induces grounders at a solid clip (71st and 70th percentiles the last two seasons), there is no reason to believe that Tanaka will become even an average contact manager. In fact, his Adjusted Contact Score could climb higher in 2016, as his low 2015 liner rate (21st percentile) regresses to the mean.
Wei-Yin Chen exits the AL East, moving to the Marlins as a free agent. While his new club did pay quite dearly in terms of years and dollars, they did get one of the more predictable starters in the game in return. Chen will not walk hitters, will strike them out at around a league-average rate, and has a strong, reliable pop-up tendency (percentile ranks in the 80s in three of the last four seasons, peaking at 89 last season) in his arsenal. His Adjusted Contact Scores don’t often exceed average, as he allows lots of fly balls, and manages their authority at a near league-average level. The Marlins fences are coming in, so there is some risk, but “tru” ERA- figures in the 90 range should continue to be within reach.
Nate Karns is also on the move in 2016, heading westward to Seattle. As they did with Ramirez, the Rays expertly optimized the performance of Karns, a 27-year-old then-rookie who has essentially been a five-inning pitcher his entire professional career. His frequency profile is totally unremarkable, with no clear strengths upon which to build. His best friend with regard to contact management, in fact, will be his spacious home park. Karns’ future will largely be shaped by his K and BB rate trends; both were well higher than average in 2015. Karns looks like a low-quantity, average-quality starter, a reasonable asset in the fifth-starter role, but likely no better.
Jake Odorizzi always seems to be one step away from becoming a really good starting pitcher. He, more than any other Rays’ starter, benefits from the presence of Kevin Kiermaier. His fly-ball percentile ranks were way up there at 97 and 86 the past two seasons; that strong outfield defense is the biggest reason his traditional ERA was quite a bit better than his FIP or “tru” ERA. He has a strong pop-up tendency, though his liner rate has been high (74th and 68th percentiles) in both 2015 and 2016. With an average or better liner rate, the ingredients are there to become an above-average contact manager, which would make Odorizzi a strong #2 starter behind Archer.
Don’t write off CC Sabathia just yet. No, the huge K rate isn’t ever coming back, but his grounder rate bounced up closer to early career levels, to the 65th percentile, and he squelched authority across the board, actually posting the lowest average FLY/LD velocity among AL East qualifiers in 2015. Now, in Yankee Stadium, he still allowed some damage in the air down the short lines in both directions, obscuring his strength in this area. The expectations are much lower for Sabathia these days, and he should be able to meet or exceed them. He’s a league-average starting pitcher; if healthy, he can chew up a ton of valuable innings.
Eduardo Rodriguez will start the season on the DL, but remains a huge part of the Red Sox’ present and future. He is starting from a very high baseline, at a very young age. He’s already an average K/BB guy and contact manager, and should only get better from here, if healthy. His pop-up tendency (80th percentile) is a key asset, and regression, in his favor, of his high liner rate (85th) should be expected. Rodriguez also managed authority of all types quite well, avoiding excessive damage in the air, a huge plus in Fenway Park.
Wade Miley leaves Fenway for the much friendlier environs of Safeco Field this season. Miley is a reliable ground-ball generator, posting grounder-rate percentile ranks of 84, 81 and 78 the past three seasons. Many of those grounders were weak ones; his average grounder authority was the second lowest in the above table. A chief weakness of Miley’s has been his maddeningly high BB rate, which is hard to explain. A continued elevated BB rate marks him as a league-average starter; improvement in that regard along with the switch to Safeco could make him quite a bit better than that.
Ubaldo Jimenez is a somewhat exaggerated, less consistent version of Miley. His BB rate is even higher, and his grounder tendency matches Miley’s in his best years. His superior K rate gives him a higher upside, but every few years, he struggles to miss bats for one reason or another. We have likely already seen the best of Jimenez; the K rate trend is down, his command will never be average, and he is at best a 95 Adjusted Contact Score guy. League-average performance is a reasonable expectation.
Rick Porcello’s first year in Boston didn’t go all that well. Amazingly, he’s still just 27 years old, so there is at least some ongoing hope for a breakout. I’m not counting on it, however. Though his 2015 grounder rate (61st percentile) was still above average, it’s been trending down since his rookie season. In addition, his liner rate was in the 65th percentile in 2015, his fifth straight year higher than average. Yes, he can be relied upon for innings each and every year, but he remains pretty easy to make solid contact against. He’s better than his 2015 performance, and has some above-average seasons ahead of him, but innings volume will remain his primary calling card.
It’s likely a bit surprising for Yankee fans to see Nathan Eovaldi this low on the list. Don’t sweat it: a strong upward move should be expected. His always solid grounder tendency intensified in 2015, jumping into the 91st percentile. His overall contact-management performance was marred by a relatively high liner rate (63rd percentile). In addition, his Adjusted Contact Score was negatively impacted by the good fortune he received on FLY/LD; hitters batted only .473 AVG-.686 SLG, but “should” have hit .480 AVG-.870 SLG based on the actual BIP exit-velocity mix. His K rate has been slowly trending into the average range, and he projects as a 90ish contact manager; that’s an above-average starter.
All of Chris Tillman’s numbers, traditional and advanced, have been moving in the wrong direction. His K rate has trended down, his BB rate has moved up. On the contact-management front, only a solid pop-up tendency (percentile ranks of 70 and 78 the last two seasons) rates as a positive. Tillman allowed, by far, the hardest grounders among AL East qualifiers. That’s certainly preferable to allowing the hardest fly balls, I guess, but it makes it pretty tough to be a better than average overall contact manager. Tillman will give you innings, but it’s an uphill battle for him to be considered even an average starter quality-wise.