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Thursday, March 31, 2005

PREVIEWS DEUX!! AND A LONG EXAMINATION OF JOHN LACKEY
Rob's just got the previewing bug, contributing the annual Five Questions to The Hardball Times. If you thought The Los Angeles David of Peng's preview over at BTF was on the cheery side, Rob's HBT entry should prove a counterbalance.

Rob foresees no improvement for the rotation and a regression from the bullpen, and though while it seems like the latter is due to happen at some point, it can still regress a bit and maintain effectiveness.

I do part with Rob on the pessimism about the rotation, however. I think Escobar has established a new level, and though his 2005 might be a bit worse than his 2004, it shouldn't be a remarkable difference. Jarrod Washburn is what he is, and should be about an average starter. Paul Byrd projects to be an improvement over the sickly five-spot "production" Aaron Sele and Ramon Ortiz gave the club in the rotation a year ago.

That leaves two other guys. Here's a big money free agent pitcher the year before he signed with the Angels and his first year in a Halo:

Year          IP    SO    BB    ERA+
Pre-Angel 250.0 235 112 135
Angel, Yr 1 223.0 195 104 87
But wait! That's not Bartolo Colon! It's Mark Langston.

Year         IP     SO    BB    ERA+
Angel, Yr 2 246.3 183 96 137
Which pitcher was better previous to coming into Los Angeles of Anaheim? Colon had a 116 ERA+ in 2003, and his career mark coming into 2004 was 124. Langston, as revealed above, had a mark of 135 in the season before earning his wings, and had a career mark of, um, 114. Langston kind of gets shafted because he started young and for a bad team, but if you just take the three years leading into Angel year one, Langston leads Colon 128-125, which is essentially a tie.

There are, of course, differences. Langston was three years younger than Colon when he joined the Angels, and while Mark always seemed to be in tip-top physical condition, The Big Mango seems to be, shall we say, not.

But we're talking about a guy that was throwing over 220 innings a year with an ERA 15-25% better than average; even if we allow for him being older and dropping off, I still don't see how his true talent level drops off below 210 innings at about 10% better than average. He was about 10 runs below average last season; a 110 ERA+ in as many innings would be a 20-run turnaround, good for about two extra wins in the standings. I think he's capable of it.

This brings us to John Lackey. Here's que Rob dice (the stats are projected):

John Lackey (150.0 IP, 4.85 ERA, 16.8 VORP): When the first syllable in your last name is "Lack", the epithets fly fast and hard if you lose -- as Lackey did often last year. A couple good months in July and August prevented his decline into Hooverian depths of sucktitude, but he's only shown flashes of the guy who took the ball in Game Seven of the 2002 World Series. The decline here is altogether too plausible, fueled in part by a serious loss of playing time. Whether that's due to injury or incompetence, we'll leave the audience to decide.
I don't think Lackey is incompetent; I think Lackey has been the victim of bad luck.

Now, other systems agree with me, but I wanted to take another look. But for context, Jay Jaffe's DIPS page has Lackey with a 4.16 DIPS ERA last season, while the Fielding Independent Pitching reported at the Harball Times says his ERA last year should have been 4.30. So here's my independent examination of it.

I was going to look at a few seasons here, but ESPN's awful, awful site won't let me sort the stats the way I want to, so I can only do 2004. The question I'm trying to answer is: What ERA do we expect of a pitcher with John Lackey's peripherals? I ask this because his 2003 and 2004 numbers are remarkably similar:

Year   IP    BF   SO   BB   HR   H   SO/BF  BB/BF  HR/BF  H/BF  ERA  ERA+
2003 204.0 885 151 66 31 223 .171 .075 .035 .252 4.63 92
2004 198.3 855 144 60 22 215 .168 .070 .026 .251 4.67 98
That's a solid K rate (the AL was around .160 SO/BF last year), a good K-to-walk ratio (the AL hovers in the mid-.080s on BB/BF), and he even has been cutting down on home runs. But he has not managed to have an ERA better than the league average, which seems peculiar.

So I took a look at 2004, and every pitcher that 150+ innings pitched, and estimated their batters faced (IP x 3 + BB + HBP + H). Then I looked for pitchers that:

1. had a SO/BF between .160 and .180;
2. had a BB/BF between .060 and .080; and
3. had a HR/BF between .020 and .040.

Here are those pitchers, minus John Lackey (remember that the BFP is estimated):

Pitcher            IP    BF   SO   BB   HR   SO/BF  BB/BF  HR/BF  ER   ERA
Rodrigo Lopez 170.7 732 121 54 21 .165 .074 .029 68 3.59
Livan Hernandez 255.0 1092 186 83 26 .170 .076 .024 102 3.60
Dontrelle Willis 197.0 870 139 61 20 .160 .070 .023 88 4.02
Adam Eaton 199.3 864 153 52 28 .177 .060 .032 102 4.61
Aaron Harang 161.0 718 125 53 26 .174 .074 .036 87 4.86
Nate Robertson 196.7 870 155 66 30 .178 .076 .034 107 4.90
Javier Vazquez 198.0 860 150 60 33 .174 .070 .038 108 4.91
TOTALS: 1377.7 6006 1029 429 184 .171 .071 .031 662 4.32
Looking at the peripherals, it seems like Lackey's ERA should be about .30 lower, which jibes with the FIP mark; over the course of roughly 200 innings, that's a difference of around 8 runs, which is nearly a win.

Of course, the one factor I did not control for above was hit rate. The H/BF for the list above was .233; Lackey allowed .251 hits per batter faced, so if we take the above list and only take the guys who allowed between .240 and .260 hits per batter faced, we get:

Pitcher            IP    BF   SO   BB   HR   SO/BF  BB/BF  HR/BF  ER   ERA
Dontrelle Willis 197.0 870 139 61 20 .160 .070 .023 88 4.02
Aaron Harang 161.0 718 125 53 26 .174 .074 .036 87 4.86
Nate Robertson 196.7 870 155 66 30 .178 .076 .034 107 4.90
TOTALS: 554.7 2458 419 180 76 .170 .073 .031 282 4.58
Given the hits allowed, Lackey's ERA seems about right, though this is obviously a very small sample, and I'm not sure how much we should rely on it.

As you can see above, Lackey has been very consistent in giving up hits over the last two years; one in four men he faces will get a hit. Some of those are home runs, of course, so how often does he give up a hit on a ball in play?

Year   HR/BF  H/BF  HOBIP/BF
2003 .035 .252 .217
2004 .026 .251 .225
This figure is a bit high in the context of the league, which is an indication that he has received poor defensive support; again, this confirms what DIPS and FIP have to say.

The BTF numbers also demonstrate that Lackey is not giving up hits because he's giving up line drives; his percentage of line drives allowed is only 16.1, where the AL was at 17.7. Lackey may be suffering a bit in that few of his flyballs allowed (10.5%) are infield pops, which are caught 97% of the time, but as he's a fairly neutral groundball/flyball pitcher to begin with, it doesn't seem like that would be a big factor.

I would like to include other years in determining what peripherals lead to what ERA, but I'm confident in saying that Lackey can improve by .30 points of ERA just by having some better defensive support.

Seeing as we can expect to pick up two wins from Colon and another from Lackey, plus the expected Byrd improvement, we might get another three or four wins from the rotation in 2005 than in 2004. That would of course be a big boon, and I don't see any reason to expect Colon and Lackey not to improve. It's true that Lackey is a bit of an inconsistent pitcher, which I have not mentioned here, but I think some of that is due to random fluctuation, and is due for a correction.

Comments:
Rob puts far too much faith in PECOTA's ability to predict injries. You'll notice that even when he goes optimistic in predicting Escobar (3.76 ERA), he still has him working only 180 innings (which I take to mean Escobar will miss 4-5 starts). He does the same with Lackey here.

Even with Escobar's arm problem this spring, I see no reason to believe that either is an injury risk.
 
Rob doesn't put too much faith in PECOTA's ability to predict injuries as he does think the players' overall quality is likely to be down. You may be right in that Esky is a mite undervalued (I have thought as much) but it seems to me taking a huge bet in that direction is tempting fate, especially with a guy who lost time in ST due to injuries.

Matt might be right about Lackey, but I want to be convinced. Let him have a whole good season instead of good individual games. And the same goes for Wash, too. As far as Lack's peripherals are concerned, last year convinced me that while K/9 and K/BB are very good things to look at, they aren't the only things; Lackey gave up 22 taters last year, and 31 in 2003. His 2004 WHIP was about a half point above his 2002 half-season numbers. In short, when a pitcher's struggling, look at the other stuff. The pattern established by looking at his 2003 to 2004 seasons is positive (WHIP and HRs tending down), but again, let's see him do that over a whole year.
 
Oh, and one other comment: when ERA-dERA is positive, the pitcher seldom gets a chance to show why, because he frequently doesn't get asked to throw in the majors anymore. Either that, or he's got a horrible WHIP rate. That was the fate of Ramon Ortiz, who had acceptable strikeout rates but horrible WHIP.
 
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