Saturday, June 16, 2012


Jayson Stark is getting all googly-eyed over starting pitching over at ESPN. Nothing wrong with that, generally speaking: we've all become aware that the balance has shifted in the past several years and that a bumper crop of successful young starters has been making its mark.

What Jayson seems to be overlooking, however, is that much of this is a National League phenomenon.  (We pointed this out a little while ago, when we looked at the monthly ERA figures.)

Jayson's excitement over sub-3.00 ERAs for starters should be directed to a breakdown by league--where it's clear that nearly three-fourths of those currently fashioning sub-3.00 ERAs are pitching for NL teams. (Not that it's helping them against the AL that much in the interleague phase, however...the AL relievers are still setting a blistering pace, and some of that could be due to their ability to dominate NL hitters.)

What we have for you today, kiddies, is a QMAX snapshot of thirteen NL pitchers--most of them young, but several who aren't--as a way of getting a bit further into the matter. There are one or two omissions here (Cole Hamels comes to mind) that will probably vex someone, but most of 'em are here, particularly the ones who've broken through in the past year or so. All of these pitchers are currently in the Top 15 in the NL for either ERA or ERA+.

As always, we start with the QMAX matrix chart, which shows the distribution of the starts as they grade out in the method. For first-timers, understand that upper left (1,1) is best, producing an aggregate ERA of 0.87; lower right (7,7) is worst, producing an aggregate ERA of 17.40. We're going to list and discuss them in alphabetical order, as it's premature to take the overall QMAX averages too seriously at this stage of the year.

The general consensus is that a sub-6 total  ("T" score) signifies what people in other contexts like to call a "rotation ace." All-time great seasons are those that drop below 5 (a good look at that region, and some of the more memorable seasonal achievements in baseball history, can be found back in last year's essays...simply search for Justin Verlander).

That "orange range" at the bottom of the QMAX diagram is what's called the "hit hard" region. Top-flight pitchers find a way to avoid this region: so far, three NL starters have managed to avoid it altogether in 2012: the Braves' Brandon Beachy, the Pirates' James McDonald (whom we wrote about earlier...) and the Giants' Ryan Vogelsong.

The average for "hit hard" (HH) games was over 35% in 2006; it's dropped to 29% thus far in 2012. Most of these guys are well below that: only the Reds' Johnny Cueto (23%), the Mets' knuckleballer R.A. Dickey (23%), the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw (21%, a high figure for him), and the Diamondbacks' Wade Miley (20%) are anywhere close to the league average.

Of course, there are some nuances in the "HH" region that you should assimilate. It's not a monolithic zone: the "6" region is less toxic than the "7" region. A pitcher hurts his team's chances to win about twice as much by "rolling" a 7 than is the case when he winds up in the 6 zone. That will make a noticeable difference when we compute the QMAX Winning Percentages, which are calculated from the actual won-loss records recorded in each "matrix zone" (1,1; 1,2...1.7; 2,1; 2,2...2,7; and so on to 7,1; 7,2...7,7).

All of the pitchers here (with one exception) have upwards of 60% of their their starts land in the "Success Square" (the region includes the yellow square at the upper left of the chart out through the area outlined in blue: it's not actually a square, but you need to remember who you're dealing with here).  The regions outlined below and to the right of the "success square" are also areas where it's possible to pitch successfully, via extremes of finesse pitching (plentiful hits, virtually no walks) or sheer stuff (few hits, but often more walks than hits).

Of the pitchers here, only young Beachy is showing signs of trying to live in that latter region, which we call the "power precipice." And only Matt Cain, the pitcher here with the best and most consistent control, is showing any pronounced tendency toward the other region, which is named after Tommy John.
Some tendencies in the chart that demonstrate that pitchers are working at the limits of their achievement abilities are visible here. For example: Ryan Vogelsong, who's been a terrific reclamation project for the Giants (and they've needed him to stay on track in '12 as they try to get Tim Lincecum straightened out). Ryan is showing some tendency now toward what QMAX identifies as "Jekyll-and-Hyde" performance--he's either on or he's off. Fortunately, this has yet to manifest itself into the more extreme "hit hard" region on the lower performance end, but it's close to a red flag. (For the sake of our nostalgic allegiance to the "art-punk" movement, let's call it a pink flag.)

A similar potential problem should be noted for Wade Miley. When he's good, he's really good; but when he's not, he's trending toward the other extreme. He may not have enough "juice" to consistently dominate, which means he's likelier to regress than just about everyone else here.

Here is the summary data for the NL thirteen. Ten of these guys are currently operating at a sub-6 level; one of the ones who's not--the Nats' Gio Gonzalez--is extremely accomplished at hit prevention, so his overall effectiveness shows up better than the "T' score would tend to indicate. "Backwards" pitchers like Gonzalez and Beachy (and possibly Lance Lynn) are living in a more dangerous and fragile realm, however: if they don't make some kind of leftward shift on the chart after 2-4 years, it's another flag, closer to red than pink.

The basic data does not have much predictive tendency, but whenever a QWIP is close to or below 10% of a "T" score, it's an indicator that the pitcher's performance is being augmented by some amount of good fortune. Cueto, Vogelsong, Miley and Jackson are the guys with the lowest such ratios on this list: they are the guys who figure to regress. That's two indicators for Miley.

The range data fills out the rest of the picture. We have no one pitching at anything remotely resembling  an historic level; for that, you need 50% in the "Elite Square" (the yellow region at the upper left of the matrix box--no one's doing that so far this year) and upwards of 80% in the "Success Square." Only McDonald and Stephen Strasburg are above 80%.

Despite the downturn in hitting, we're not really seeing any truly startling demonstrations of hit prevention from these pitchers. These are all very good numbers, but much of what the best are doing here is bringing enough to each outing to avoid being hit hard. (In the case of Strasburg and Beachy, we believe that unflinchingly; we're becoming more convinced that McDonald's adjustments have made him more consistent, but probably haven't produced a total transformation into a truly dominant pitcher; and we think Vogelsong is probably living on borrowed time, with an ERA that will be sliding upward toward 3.50 or so by the end of the year.)

At the moment, our money on who'll be the top three guys in the NL when the season's over would be Strasburg, Kershaw, and Cain. The reasoning is only partly based on QMAX (there, we said it!) but much of it is informed from what the range data conveys.

Cain is currently demonstrating an ability to pitch all across the left side of the QMAX chart; amongst all these pitchers, only he and Kershaw have demonstrated a consistent ability to push toward 50% of their games in the Elite Square. It looks as though he's now a complete pitcher, with superb control to go with an ability to dominate.

Strasburg is only one more refinement away from moving toward the realm of Pedro or Clemens.

Kershaw has had a patch of inconsistency in the past month, but he's the only other pitcher who can live in the C1 zone consistently over a ten-start period. Odds are high that he'll won't be far off his 2011 performance level when the 2012 season comes to a close.