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Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Player Profile: Jon Lieber 

The Phillies marquee free agent signing this offseason was ex-Pirates, ex-Cubs and ex-Yankees hurler Jon Lieber. Lieber, who missed the 2003 season with an arm injury, is the Phillies big attempt to close the pitching gap with the Atlanta Braves and Florida Marlins. Many fans greeted the decision to pursue Lieber with quiet derision, but I think the Phillies deal with Lieber is a sign that the team’s management is much smarter and craftier than it is given credit for.

What do we know about Lieber?:

He had a good, but not great, year on paper for the Yankees in 2004, going 14-8 with a 4.33 ERA (lower than the team average of 4.69). Lieber won twenty games, that benchmark for pitching greatness, in 2001 with the Cubs, but most teams were put-off by his Tommy John surgery in 2003, which sidelined him for the year. The Yankees signed him for the ’04 campaign but were willing to let him go in their efforts to spend their way to the pennant with Jared Wright and Randy Johnson. The market didn’t clamor for a 34-year old pitcher with a suspect arm, so Lieber wasn’t as sought after as Wright or Russ Ortiz. The Phillies rolled the dice and have gambled on Lieber. If his arm holds up, the results could be tremendous:

Let’s start with Lieber’s sabremetric stats:

FIP ERA: 3.94 (-0.39)
DIPS ERA: 3.77 (-0.56)
DER: .677 (team: .686; -.009)
G/F: 1.58
K/9: 5.2
BB/9: 0.9
HR/9: 1.0

Glossary:
FIP – Fielding Independent Pitching: ((13*HR+3*BB-2*K) / IP) + “league factor”) How a pitcher does absent the fielders behind him. Developed by the staff of The Hardball Times.
DIPS – Defense Independent Pitching Statistic: Basically the same thing as FIP, but a little more complex a mathematical formula and more accurate because it is park-adjusted. More on both later.
DER – Defense Efficiency Ratio: % of balls put into play fielders turn into outs. Don’t worry, I’ll explain it later.
G/F – Groundball-to-Flyball ratio.
Hr/9 – Home Runs allowed per nine innings.
K/9 – Strikeouts per nine innings.
BB/9 – Walks per nine innings.

A few things jump out:

-In 2004 Lieber surrendered 18 walks in 176 & 2/3 innings pitched. That’s just 0.92 walks per nine innings. Stop and let that sink in for a moment. The Phillies 2004 pitching staff allowed 3.09 walks per nine innings. Lieber have up a third fewer walks on average than the Phillies staff did. Lieber did much better than the man he’s replacing as the Phillies ace pitcher, Eric Milton, who surrendered 3.36 walks per nine innings. Lieber’s impact on the Phillies starting pitching should be dramatic: the Phillies five principal 2004 starters – Eric Milton, Kevin Millwood, Greg Myers, Vicente Padilla and Randy Wolf – gave up 3.04 walks per nine innings.

Lieber’s control is phenomenal. Few pitchers are as deadly accurate as he. In fact, according to Bill James, Lieber was second in the AL in getting pitches into the strike-zone: 59.8%. Lieber also had the AL’s second-best strikeout-to-walk ratio: 5.67. Not bad from a pitcher who isn’t exactly a strikeout artist. Why on earth did MLB teams pass on him?

A key to pitching in Citizen’s Bank Ballpark is to neutralize the pain of surrendering a home run by keeping the opposition off the base paths. You give up a solo shot in a 3-1 game and you are still winning. Give up a bomb with two on and you are behind. Lieber’s ability to avoid walking batters will come in handy, and you also have to assume that he’ll do better than what he did with the Yankees because he won’t be seeing a DH in the NL.

-Lieber did a good job preventing teams from hitting home runs off of him. The Yankees as a team allowed an average of 1.1 home runs per nine innings. (Yankees Stadium’s Home Run rating for 2004 was 105, by the way, meaning it was 5% easier to hit a home run at Yankee Stadium than a neutral park.) Given that Lieber is going to be playing in a park friendly to sluggers, this is an important stat to pay attention to. Eric Milton, Lieber’s predecessor, gave up a whopping 43 home runs in 2004, 1.9 per nine innings. (Good luck, Cincinnati.)

-Lieber’s 1.58 groundball per fly-ball ratio is tremendous. In fact, according to Bill James, it is one of the ten best in the American League in 2004. Milton, in contrast, had the MLB’s worst groundball / flyball ratio in 2004: 0.57. Not to belabor an obvious point, but groundball pitchers don’t serve up home runs.

-Lieber was a somewhat unlucky pitcher in 2004: he out-performed his FIP and DIPS ERAs. FIP and DIPS are (for those not in the know) statistics designed to separate a pitcher’s performance from his team by keeping track of how a pitcher does with things he can control (strikeouts, walks and home runs) as opposed to things he cannot control (hits allowed by his fielders). I trust DIPS a bit more because it is a sophisticated formula that takes into account the park the pitcher is pitching in, but FIPs has the virtue of a simple mathematical formula: ((13*HR+3*BB-2*K) / IP) + “league factor”)

Having an ERA larger than your DIPS and FIP ERAs indicates that the pitcher didn’t get much help from his teammates. You can see that Lieber’s Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER)* is .009 lower than the team’s average DER. Simply put, Yankees fielders didn’t play as well behind Lieber than they usually did (which wasn’t that good). Yankee fielders allowed too many balls put into play to fall in for hits: Lieber’s .323 batting average with balls put into play was one of the worst in the major leagues in 2004 (the absolute worst in the MLB was .338)

* Defense Efficiency Ratio: (Batters Faced – (Hits + Walks + Hit By Pitch + Strikeouts)) / (Batters Faced – (Home Runs, Walks + Hit By Pitch + Strikeouts)) How often fielders convert balls put into play into outs.)

Lieber probably won’t have that problem playing with the Phillies. The Yankees ranked tenth of fourteen AL teams in DER in 2005 (their .686 was .004 below the AL average). The Phillies ranked third of sixteen NL teams. The Phillies .703 DER is .008 better than the NL average of .695. The Phillies are a team whose defensive alignment is in flux, but they are a team of strong fielders. I think Lieber will benefit from the Phillies defense in a big way.

-Run support will be a wash for Lieber: he’s leaving one of the best offenses in the AL and joining one of the NL’s best attacks. That shouldn’t impact his win-loss record.

So what do I project for Mr. Lieber? I see 16 or 17 wins, maybe 8 or 9 losses, and an ERA somewhere between 3.50 and 3.70. Could Lieber challenge for the Cy Young Award? Honestly, I can’t see it because his ERA will always be a little higher than the rest of the NL pitching at Citizen’s. But I think Lieber could go to the All-Star game. And more importantly, I think he could be the money pitcher the Phillies are looking for.

Good signing.

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