Nationals Baseball: Early season illusion

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Early season illusion

After 3 starts, Ross Detwiler has tossed roughly 20 innings and might just lead the majors in ERA.  Surely he's gotten it together and is finally going to live up to his first round draft pick status.


It's true.  After 3 games Ross had thrown 16 innings for an ERA of 0.56.  His WHIP was better (0.9375 to 1.000 this year).  His K rate was better (9.0 to 5.0).   He was getting more ground balls.  He was throwing the same amount of strikes.

What happened? His actual level of talent showed through. Ross Detwiler is a good pitcher. Ross Detwiler is a great #5.  But Ross Detwiler is not a great pitcher.

Let's go to the videotape(of fancy stats).

The Ranges - stats that can vary by pitcher but fall within a typical range. 
BABIP (ranges between .250 - .325) 
Ross Career :  .280  Last year .263. This year : .250

He's at the very bottom of the usual range and way under his usual numbers.  Now I'll grant you that he will be on the low end of the spectrum. GB pitcher, great infield D. But I think last year's number was about as low as he can go... if even that. The infield D is the same guys behind him and he can only coax so many more GBs.  .250 is not going to be sustained all year. 

HR/FB (6%-13%)
Ross Career : 8.4%  Last year 7.3%.  This year 5.7%

He's past the low end for this right now, well past his career average, and even a good deal past last year's number.  Now before you say "HE'S SHOWING IMPROVEMENT IDIOT!!!" and make a fool of yourself, please know that these things do vary.  He had a 7.0% in 2010.  He was not particularly good in 2010.  This is far more luck that skill and he's getting lucky. Still the GB emphasis will probably keep him low.  Just not this low.

LOB% (66%-80%)
Ross Career: 71.6%.  Last year 70.8%.  This year 92.2%

OMG.  The other things are a little out of whack but wouldn't explain a sub 1.00 ERA. This is it right here. Basically Ross is stranding runners at a crazy rate.  Again I'll note this is not something you can really improve. Not like that. Gio was awesome last year, right? Stranded 74% You WILL be in that range. Ross is getting super lucky in the timing of the hits he's given up.  Is he bearing down and concentrating hard? Perhaps. DOESN'T MATTER. You know who else is bearing down and concentrating hard with runners on base? EVERYONE. This won't stay this high. It won't stay 10% from here. That's a bet I'd take 10 times out of 10

The personal stats - is he getting better?
Career : 47.2%  Last Year : 50.8%  This Year : 53.8%

Yes, improved. And he might be able to keep this up which would improve his pitching a bit. A small bit, but every bit matters

K/9, BB/9
Career 5.50 / 3.08  Last Year : 5.75 / 2.85  This year : 4.95 / 1.35

Well you see what I see. A big improvement in BB/9.  Granted that's only one or so man on base per outing but that matters.  It's a few less pitches, one less run to potentially knock in. Is it real? Maybe. Though I'll warn you. Last year, 3 games in Ross was striking out people like a rock star.  Didn't last. I wouldn't be surprised to see some control improvement (especially if he sacrifices some K potential), but not to the level we've seen so far.

I don't mean to sound grim because Ross is pitching well.  The GB rate is nice, he's not walking any and he's striking out enough. He's doing what you want from the #5 spot and then some.  He's pitching like a #3, maybe better.  But he's getting the results of an elite #1.  That's not going to last and you're better off not fooling yourself thinking it will.

(Note : Ross is on my fantasy team.  I have no reason not to want him to become the best pitcher ever. But I can't deny what's in front of my face)


DezoPenguin said...

Obviously, Ross is not going to get these kind of results all year. That would be silly to expect. But, y'know, maybe we could at least admit that the guy he was last year is actually who he is (so long as he's playing in front of a superior infield defense, as with any GB-heavy pitcher) instead of expecting him to crater to Harenesque levels? He's basically been that guy for three years running now (admittedly in a small 2011 sample size).

Harper said...

DP - "crater to Haren-esque levels" Come on now. I never said that. I said a 4.00 ERA pitcher. Which is not bad unless your view of starting pitching is now completely skewed by the Nats staff.

I'll say this. If he can keep up the 50%+ GB rate I'd expect him, in front of a superior D in the average year to have a 3.75 ish ERA. Where it varies from there depends on HR and LOB luck. (now if the BB rate improvement is real that's another thing but I'm betting hard it's not - not like this)

Booyah Suckah! said...

True, he most likely won't sustain these stats over the long haul of the season, but a great stretch here and a great stretch there are how great pitchers are made. We've had a very similar argument about the Braves and their team-wide hot start. Yes, it's a long season and yes, they'll have times when they lose 5 or 6 in a row or stop scoring runs for games at a time. But every win they notch now is one they don't have to notch later. Same thing with Detwiler. Every inning-ending DP ball or quality start now is one that makes up for a stinker later in the year. Every pitcher's season is a conglomeration of good and bad.

Of course, after all that, I agree, he won't finish out the season at this level. But I wouldn't be at all surprised for the numbers to be better than last year.

Ric Nickerson said...

Is this Randy Quaid from Major League 2 writing this blog. Your argument is based on last year's stats in comparison to 3 games worth of current stats, and the supposition that Detwiler's ability is static. Zimmermann improved last year after his surgery, the expectation is that Strasburg will do the same. This is anticipated improvement. There is a Cy Young winner in the number TWO (see I can write in capital letters, too) slot and a general consensus that the Nationals will be as good as their pitching, let Detwiler pitch a few more games and see if pitching on such a stacked staff doesn't impact his season. I'm sure he got a ribbing from his colleagues after giving up that run in his first start after the two guys before him posted shutouts. There is a palpable "keeping-up-with-the-Joneses" effect among pitchers. And if you're right (and if you're a Nationals fan), is this really something you want to be able to brag about calling from the beginning? How about we let Detwiler pitch to settle this disagreement, but I'm honestly rooting for him to be able to issue the same invitation Vaughn did to Quaid's character as he left the bullpen in the final scene.

WiredHK said...

One thing I think is only fair to note on the flipside -- Ross has done this against two very good teams (Reds and Braves) and one poor team (Marlins). It's not like he got two starts vs Miami and one vs Chicago. That said, of course he won't be THIS good all year (if he is, just hand him the CY now). Do we need the fancy stats to tell us that? Nah.

But it makes me feel pretty good that he's opened up right where he left off in the Fall (the best SP on the staff in the StL ALDS, right?)...

Donald said...

I think you might be looking at this the wrong way. Detwiler is a lefty who hits the mid 90's on his fastball and has good control. He's got two very good pitches (2 and 4 seam fastballs). His fastballs are as good as anyone's on the team outside of Strasburg. If he can develop a third pitch he can be very good. I don't see why he couldn't be as good as Gio or Znn in terms of ability and 'stuff'. He just needs that offspeed option.

Mark Patterson said...

I'd agree with an ERA around 3.75 - 4.00. Looking at his pitch selection his change-up has been used less and less since 2010 and has been replaced with more sinkers. I'm curious if he can maintain his performance against RHH without it since his sinker gets no whiffs.

Anonymous said...

... but do the Nats really have a superior defense? I mean... look at that left side of the infield (at least with the way they are currently playing).

Wally said...

Seems reasonable. He has a 4.00 FIP over his last ~250 IPs, so it seems like a reasonable conclusion that he is a league average starter, maybe a little better. That is a good pitcher, especially through his arb years.

My Q: can he keep this up throwing 80+% fastballs, even lumping the 2 seamer and 4 seamer together? That just seems incredibly one dimensional, and bound to get figured out over time. Has this been sustainable before? I know Masterson is similar in % FB, but he has been up and down over his career.

Froggy said...

The only think I take exception to is " Ross Detwiler is a great #5". Correction, Ross Detwiler is a great #4.

And I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that as long as he gets run support he will continue to pitch like he is, but will probably end up in the mid 3.50's ER.

Anonymous said...

3.75 ERA for the season? 3.50's? He had a 3.21 ERA in his starts in 2011. He had a 3.40 ERA for the regular season in 2012. He had a 3.36 ERA after the All-Star break last year. He allowed no earned runs in his only start of the playoffs. He pitched 4 scoreless innings of relief in his only appearance in the WBC this spring. He has three consecutive excellent starts this season.

As for the stats you cite, the only one that would make a considerable difference in his ERA is the LOB one. (If his BABIP were at his career average, for instance it would add less than half a run to his ERA.) Concerning the LOB stat, if Detwiler was allowing runners to score at his career average, his ERA would still only be 2.70.

I can understand saying his ERA at the end of the season will be around 3.40 depending on HR and LOB luck. But how can you conclude that a pitcher who was very good over the last half of last season, excellent in the postseason, excellent in the preseason, and now excellent in his first three starts of the regular season, is going to wind up with a worse ERA than in his last two years? It seems more likely that he will improve on the last two years than that he will do worse. I don't get it.

Strasburger said...

Harp- Nice article here. I agree, we won't see him pitch like an elite #1, but if he can continue this improvement in walk rate and at least make a nice improvement in that stranding rate, his improvement will eat up an assumption that Haren has a bad season... I concur that he could end this season on Par with the majority if not better than most #3 pitchers....I like ZNN in line with #1 pitchers as far as stats go this season, I expect a regression from GIO.. especially in HR given up. Strasburg worries me so little it is laughable. He has too much raw talent, even convert some of it into results would make him an elite pitcher.

There is something to be said for (IMO) the observation that Ross doesn't seem easily rattled.

DezoPenguin said...

Yes, the last Anon sums up my feelings well. A 3.75-4.00 ERA would be a regression over the previous two seasons of work, and I just don't see why he would necessarily get worse than what he's been unless he starts giving up more HRs (whether by fluke or mistake) or the infield defense regresses, causing his BABIP to rise.

@#1 Anon--so far as it affects Detwiler's BABIP and ERA, yes, it's still a superior defense. Zim and Ian are still getting to balls, and even if Ian iron-gloves one or Zim flings the ball into the dugout, those generate errors and unearned runs, not hits. Derek Jeter would be the kind of guy who hurts Det's numbers--sure hands but limited range that creates more hits. (Mind you, I'm not saying that errors aren't a problem for the team--just not for Det's pitching stats.)

Harper said...

BS - True but does that mean you think other stretches of 3 games - 2 runs are coming? I'm not so sure. But yes, it does set him up for stats better than last year (of course so did his first three games last year)

RN - Major League II? Ouch.

I don't think you have it quite right. My argument is not based on just last years stats - it's based on his career stats and uses last year to show that he is indeed moving in the right direction in some aspects. (which is obviously not thinking he's static.) Detwiler is young enough and has limited pitching enough to not assume he can't make improvements.

However, the history, not of Det, but of baseball, tells us he can't keep some of these numbers. Do I want to brag about this? No. I want to tell you what I see and then see what happens. Maybe he does end up pitching really well all season long. But I want to know why beyond "all the other guys in the rotation are good and motivated him" I'm not going to not talk about something just because it's not a positive for the Nats.

WHK - Yes. The quality of the teams does show something. Though the fast start last year makes me curious about whether early season matters

Donald - The problem is Gio and ZNN both developed at earlier points in their career. It's not det's fault as much as injury but it's harder to put it together the later in the career you get. Not impossible but harder.

MP - I'm interested to see what he does in the summer time when batters tend to have the advantage and toward season's end (the 160 IP last year were the most of his career).

Anon - better Q than you might think. It's not just the errors. Zimm is no longer the rangy beast he was 3 years ago and Desmond's D #'s last year might be fluky. He's not keeping it up (though it is early). Not that they are a negative but they may not be a positive.

Wally - I doubt he can but we'll see. If a pitch works it works. Ask Rivera.

Froggy - I'll grant you that. He's an awesome #5. I think your estimate is fair. I feel a contest coming on.

Anon - I'll give you 2011 and 2012 combined. The other stuff is too minimal

You are right if all luck were equal BABIP, LOB, HR% he'd still be possibly under a 3.00 ERA. So the improvement is there (in the BB rate mainly) but is that sustainable. As I noted he had an improved K rate start last year that didn't last.

The problem with using ERAs from the last two years (really just one year of data though 220 IP) is it seems out of whack. I will grant you some guys seem able to beat FIP all the time (LANNAN!) but I have to see it over the course of 2-3 full seasons before I buy it. Det is roughly a month through season 2 by IP.

So if I'm not buying the ERAs just yet I have to use the FIPs (with a nod to the fact he's beaten them) FIPs say 4.00. I'll say 3.75.

Stras - Yeah if he can keep not walking people (and his K rate doesn't drop much further) there's no reason he can't be a low 3.00 ERA pitcher. I'm not sure I see it though. The nothing but fastballs must help with that but can he keep just mixing two pitches?

DP - to rehash some responses above - really last 2 years is closer to one year of IP so you have to watch out for flukiness - infield D is not as good as we (including me) might have thought - it's not really a regression if you look at the fancy stats, sometime you can improve but end up with worse stats because of good breaks before or bad breaks now.