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Monday, March 28, 2005

2005 Season Preview: Pitching 

As I noted in Part I of this series, the Phillies pitching in recent years hasn’t been the best. Those who watched Eric Milton serve up 43 home runs last year are reading this and nodding their heads vigorously. Bad pitching was what sank the 2004 Phillies. But think of it this way: it could have been worse: thanks to the Phillies fielders, the pitching staff has managed to outperform their actual Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) ERAs and lodge ERAs lower than what they actually deserve. Check out the Phillies actual ERA / FIP ERAs over the last five seasons:

ERA / FIP* (FIP Increase)
2000: 4.79 / 4.79 (0.00)
2001: 4.16 / 4.32 (+0.16)
2002: 4.17 / 4.27 (+0.10)
2003: 4.06 / 4.12 (+0.06)
2004: 4.47 / 4.67 (+0.20)

* FIP – Fielding Independent Pitching: (13*HR+3*BB-2*K / IP) + League Factor [I’ve used 3.20 as a league factor here, but it actually varies each year. Last year’s team FIP was actually 4.54 …] FIP evaluates a pitcher by how he would have done with an average defense behind him by keeping track of things that a pitcher can control (walks, strikeouts, home runs allowed) as opposed to things he cannot (hits allowed, runs allowed).

Some other stats I use…
WHIP – Walks plus hits by innings pitched: (BB + H) / IP = WHIP
ERA – Earned Run Average: (Earned Runs * 9) / IP = ERA
DER – 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.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.

To give you an idea about how poorly the 2004 Phillies pitchers fared, check out the league rank in Fielding Independent Pitching:

Team FIP:
1. Chicago: 3.85
2. Houston: 3.96
3. Milwaukee: 4.01
4. St. Louis: 4.06
5. Florida: 4.09
6. San Diego: 4.12
7. Atlanta: 4.13
8. Pittsburgh: 4.13
9. San Francisco: 4.24
10. Los Angeles: 4.28
11. New York: 4.35
12. Philadelphia: 4.55
13. Montreal: 4.57
14. Arizona: 4.65
15. Colorado: 5.01
16. Cincinnati: 5.02
NL Average: 4.31

So let’s talk about the Phillis 2005 pitching staff and what we can expect:

I. The Rotation

The bullpen out-pitched the starting rotation in 2004. Just look at the numbers:

Rotation / Bullpen (Bullpen Advantage)
ERA: 4.84 / 3.90 (0.96)
WHIP: 1.39 / 1.31 (0.08)
HR/9: 1.44 / 1.13 (0.31)
BB/9: 3.15 / 3.01 (0.14)
K/9: 6.41 / 6.86 (0.45)

I don’t expect that to happen again in 2005, because the Phillies did a smart job revamping their starting rotation. Here is what the new lineup looks like:

Jon Lieber (new addition)
Vicente Padilla
Randy Wolf
Cory Lidle (new addition)
Brett Myers

Recently Departed: Eric Milton / Kevin Millwood
Waiting for a shot: Gavin Floyd / Ryan Madson (?)

Before we go any further, I’m going to lay out the 2004 stats for the Phillies 2005 starters:

Lieber: 1.32 / 4.33 / 1.13
Wolf: 1.32 / 4.28 / 1.32
Padilla: 1.34 / 4.53 / 1.25
Myers: 1.47 / 5.52 / 1.59
Lidle: 1.14 / 3.90 / 0.43
Team: 1.36 / 4.47 / 1.32

FIP / BB-9 / K-9
Lieber: 3.94 / 0.92 / 5.21
Wolf: 4.58 / 2.36 / 5.85
Padilla: 4.65 / 2.82 / 6.41
Myers: 5.21 / 3.17 / 5.93
Lidle: 3.70 / 2.46 / 4.79
Team: 4.54 / 3.09 / 6.59

I want you to pay close attention to Lieber’s numbers for later.

As a point of comparison, check out how Eric Milton and Kevin Millwood, the Phillies departed No. 1 & 2 starters did in 2004:

Milton: 1.35 / 4.75 / 1.93
Millwood: 1.46 / 4.85 / 0.89

FIP / BB-9 / K-9
Milton: 5.39 / 3.36 / 7.21
Millwood: 3.83 / 3.26 / 7.98

Note that the Phillies are losing their strikeout artists. The new rotation appears to be stacked with players accustomed to getting groundballs rather than K’s.

So who pitched well in 2004 and who didn’t? There are a lot of numbers up there and it is difficult to judge how each player did. Luckily, there is one stat that can give us a bottom-line: DIPS.

What is DIPS? DIPS is a much, much more complicated version of FIP. As I noted above, FIP tracks stats that pitchers control (K’s, BB’s, HR’s), DIPS does the same but the formula is much more complex and it takes into account things like park factors. Futility Infielder was kind enough to provide the 2004 DIPS stats for every MLB player. Here are the Phillies:

DIPS (vs. actual ERA)
Wolf: 4.50 (-0.22)
Padilla: 4.46 (+0.07)
Myers: 5.02 (+0.50)
Lidle: 4.47 (+0.43)
Lieber: 3.77 (+0.56)

Milton: 5.18 (-0.43)
Millwood: 3.75 (+1.10)

(A negative number means they pitched worse than indicated by their actual ERAs, a positive number indicates they pitched better than their actual ERAs indicate.)

It is interesting to note that aside from Eric Milton and Randy Wolf, the Phillies starters generally pitched slightly better than their ERAs indicate. The thing that jumps out at me as I read is what a tremendous season Jon Lieber had for the Yankees in 2004. Lieber had one of the top thirty DIPS ERAs in 2004. He out-pitched his ERA by a half run. Phillies fans don’t understand what a tremendous decision management made in bringing him aboard.

I’m sad to see Kevin Millwood leave. Just five players had DIPS ERAs that much lower than their actual ERAs. (The Reds Acevedo had a DIPS ERA 1.30 lower than his actual ERA, the biggest variance in the MLB.) Millwood was a very unlucky pitcher in 2004.

Eric Milton, in contrast, was one lucky duck: while having an astronomical ERA of 4.75 already, he actually threw worse. Milton is the reason why stats guys don’t pay attention to win-loss records: Milton’s 14-6 win-loss record obscured he fact that he was one of the worst pitchers in the MLB in 2004. Milton led the majors in allowing flyballs: his 0.57 groundball-flyball ratio was worst in the majors, as were the 43 home runs he allowed. Milton probably wouldn’t have pitched as badly had he played in Petco Park, but note that he surrendered 23 of his 43 homers on the road, despite hurling more innings at Citizens:

Home Runs per 9 innings:
Home: 1.73
Road: 2.16

That’s pretty remarkable. A performance that awful is inexcusable, and management’s decision to let Milton walk in the off-season was savvy. (Hilariously, Milton signed with the Reds, so he’ll be pitching in Great American Ballpark in ’05, one of the friendliest confines for home runs in the MLB. Good luck Reds fans. This is a major reason why I picked you to finish last.) Lieber and Milton couldn’t be more different: Lieber was cheaper and a groundball hurler who outperformed his ERA. Milton was more expensive and was a flyball pitcher who got lucky in 2004.

As I noted in Part I of this series, there are big, big changes afoot for the Phillies defensive alignment. Pitching and defense have a symbiotic relationship with one another so those changes will have a ripple effect on each other. The Phillies have stocked up on ground-ball oriented pitchers, so the infield is likely to see a lot more action.

Note that Milton surrendered a ton of flyballs and that Milton and Millwood got many of their outs via strikeouts. They kept Mike Lieberthal and the outfield busy in 2004. With so many groundballers on staff for 2005, the quality of the Phillies infield defense is paramount. Here are how the Phillies hurlers did in 2004 with keeping the ball on the ground and how the defenses behind them did:

G/F ratio / DER
Lieber: 1.43 / .677
Wolf: 0.81 / .713
Padilla: 1.16 / .713
Myers: 1.39 / .707
Lidle: 1.48 / .741
Milton: 0.57 / .737
Millwood: 1.12 / .673
Team: 1.09 / .703

The Phils starters, Kevin Millwood being a notable exception, benefited from above-average defense in 2004. What should have Phillies fans excited is Lieber: the Yankees are below-average defensively and generally provided Lieber with very poor defense in 2004. Playing with a tremendous infield, Lieber should find that a lot of the groundballs Derek Jeter missed in ’04 are going to be scooped up by Jimmy Rollins and converted into outs. Again, Phillies fans don’t realize what a tremendous addition Lieber will be for the team.

A. A Quick word about Citizen’s Bank Ballpark:

A lot of ink was spilled and a small forest of trees were cut down in discussing the effect Citizen’s Bank Ballpark had on pitching in 2004. I’ve spoken on this subject often and I won’t rehash what I’ve said except to say:

1. Citizen’s was friendly to home run hitters in 2004: it had a home run factor of 123. (i.e. it was 23% easier to hit a home run there than at a neutral park.) That means Citizens was the third easiest park in the NL to hit a home run in.

2. Citizen’s wasn’t much of a boon to hitters other wise: it had a Run Factor of 109 (9%), a Hit Factor of 101 (1%) and a Doubles Factor of 90 (10% harder). A true hitters park like Coors Field was friendly to hitters across the board (HR: 123, Run: 144, Hit: 126). I still maintain that much of the caterwauling on the subject was the stunned reaction of the Phillies coming from a pitchers park like the Vet (2002-2003: 85 Run Factor, 92 HR Factor, 89 Hit Factor).

3. I expect those numbers to flatten out a little in year two.

4. For the Phillies to be successful at Citizen’s they need to stock the pitching staff with groundball hurlers and keep the middle defense solid. Now check out Lieber’s stats and I dare you to disagree with me when I say that he is going to be a great addition to the Phillies.

B. Here are some quick synopsis for what we can expect from each starter in 2005:
Lieber – as I said, Lieber is a tremendous talent. Note that he surrendered just 18 walks in 176 innings pitched, less than one per nine innings. That is tremendous.

Here are some more stats that should get Phillies fans excited: Lieber was second in the AL in pitches in the strike-zone in 2004 (59.8%). Lieber had the second fewest pitches per batter in the AL. Lieber had the seventh lowest OBP against a leadoff batter in the AL (.283). Lieber had the second best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the AL (5.67). Lieber had the ninth best groundball-to-flyball ratio in the AL.

Padilla – Padilla will have his shot to lay his claim to being the Phillies No. 2 starter in 2005. He’s pitched three solid years for the team and though he didn’t turn the corner to become a dominant starter the way the Phillies expected, he could still be very good. Padilla could fare well at Citizens, notice that he did better than the team average in allowing home runs (1.25 vs. 1.32).

Wolf – Randy Wolf could have a difficult year in 2005. He’s the Phillies sole pitcher who relied on flyballs more than grounders in 2004, so he is not ideally suited for pitching at Citizen’s Bank. This is his sixth year pitching for the team, so I think the Phillies have a pretty good idea about what he can and cannot do. He gets a good number of strikeouts and doesn’t allow too many base-runners, but his propensity for flyballs makes him a bit of a risk. If the Phillies are going to deal someone to make room for Gavin Floyd, expect it to be Wolf.

Lidle – I think Cory Lidle is a big risk for the Phillies, but he could be a tremendous signing in the end. Again, I think Lidle is an example of management making shrewd decisions that most of baseball scoffed at. Check out Lidle’s most important stat with the Reds in 2004:

G/F: 1.70

He actually had the tenth highest G/F ratio in the NL. Lidle really didn’t pitch that well in 2004 (or 2003 for that matter), but if there is a pitcher who could prosper with a talented infield like the Phillies supporting him, I think it’s Lidle. At a minimum, he’s a risk that might be a tremendous reward to the Phillies. Lidle could go 6-14 or 14-6. We’ll see.

Myers – Brett Myers is a developing talent who surprised a lot of us by surrendering 31 home runs in 2004.

2003: 0.93
2004: 1.59

Especially given Myers propensity for throwing groundball outs, I’m honestly stunned by that stat. It makes little sense, so I’m going to assume 2004 was a fluke for Myers. I refuse to believe that he’ll serve up that many home runs in 2004. As awful as he pitched (and there is no nice way to dress up a 5.52 ERA), I take solace from the fact that his DIPS ERA was a half a run lower. Big question mark.

Floyd – As I noted there are two pitchers waiting in the wings: Gavin Floyd and Ryan Madson. Madson had one start with the Phillies in 2004, a horrific outing which saw him surrender three home runs, six runs, six hits and a walk in just a third of an inning. He’ll likely remain in the Phillies bullpen as the emergency closer and setup guy. I’ll talk about him in a moment.

Floyd is a terrific talent the Phillies are developing. If the team bombs out and falls out of contention I expect Floyd to get some starts. I’m curious about how well he’ll do: I note that he surrendered just one home run in 28 innings during his September call-up.

II. The ‘Pen

While Pat Burrell’s foibles and David Bell’s balky back were the main topics of conversation in 2003, the biggest factor that impacted the Phillies inability to get into the playoffs was the poor play of the bullpen. When your closer has an ERA of 6.52 (as Jose Mesa did in 2003) you won’t win much. The Phillies did a great job repairing the damage done, signing Billy Wagner, Tim Worrell and promoting Ryan Madson to the pen.

Here’s how the Phillies bullpen did last year:

FIP ; K/9 ; BB/9
Wagner: 2.48 / 11.06 / 1.13
Worrell: 3.98 / 7.38 / 2.42
Madson: 3.60 / 6.43 / 2.22
Geary: 5.34 / 6.28 / 3.35
Telemaco: 5.82 / 5.33 / 3.17
Cormier: 4.21 / 5.11 / 2.89
Hernandez: 5.18 / 6.94 / 4.57

G/F ; DER; HR/9
Wagner: 1.11 / .764 / 1.13
Worrell: 1.20 / .717 / 1.15
Madson: 1.92 / .727 / 0.70
Geary: 0.89 / .692 / 1.60
Telemaco: 0.90 / .759 / 2.0
Cormier: 1.76 / .744 / 0.78
Hernandez: 1.71 / .678 / 1.44

I’d categorize the Phillies relievers into three groups. The Good: Wagner, Worrell, Madson and Cormier … the Bad: Hernandez and Geary … and the Ugly: Telemaco.

Madson had a tremendous season in 2004. Nearly twice as many groundballs as flyballs, and despite surrendering three home runs against the White Sox in his sole start of the season, Madson had a ridiculously low home run number. (Throw out Madson’s start and his home runs per nine innings falls to just 0.35 …) He is a tremendous pitcher and a major reason why the Phillies bullpen was as good as it was in 2004.

Telemaco, however, continues to amaze and disappoint. Note that he and Geary both had higher flyball than groundball ratios. He and Geary also had higher home run numbers. Again, the ability to keep the ball down and get groundball outs is paramount to the survival and success of the Phillies pitching staff.

The Phillies pen is pretty solid: Wagner got 59 strikeouts to six walks in 2004. That’s the sort of performance the Phillies expected from him when they traded with the Astros in the ’04 off-season. Wagner had a good season in 2004 and can hopefully turn in the sort of season the Phillies want from him (40+ saves) in 2005.

Worrell I am less impressed by. I think Madson has replaced him as the Phillies favored setup man and No. 2 closer. Worrell gave up many more home runs and doesn’t quite have Madson’s skill at getting batters to groundout. I think we’ll see less of him in 2005, which I’m not sad to see.

III. Conclusions

So what to expect from the Phillies pitching in 2005? I expect dramatic improvements from the staff in 2005. They shed Eric Milton, added tremendous groundball pitchers (Lieber and Lidle), and kept the core of a successful bullpen. Those are all good moves. I also expect some improved performances from guys like Padilla and Myers. Their performances in 2004 simply didn’t match what they are capable of.

I like this pitching staff. Maybe it isn’t as good as the Cubs power pitching, or the Braves fearsome twosome of Tim Hudson and John Smoltz, or the Cardinals deep staff, but this is a good unit. Better than the Nats, better than the Mets, and maybe as good as the Marlins. I think the Phillies will do better statistically in 2005: at least they’ll finish in the middle in things like runs allowed and strikeouts, if their home runs are always going to be a little high.

But the key to the Phillies season rests on the arm of Jon Lieber. The interplay between Lieber, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins is going to be critical to the Phillies success: can Lieber force hitters to groundout to Rollins and Utley and force lots of 6-3 and 4-3 (and 6-4-3) groundouts? I said that the Phillies season is going to be won or lost based on how the Phillies fielders perform. Maybe I should amend that to include the Phillies pitching staff. The interplay between pitching and defense has will never be illustrated more than here. To be successful the Phillies need groundball outs. Guys like Lieber, Madson and Lidle can help get them.

Thursday (tenative): Season Preview, Part III, Batting.

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