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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Pitching Week, Part III: Moyer & Lieber 

What a night for offense in baseball. First Brandon Webb's consecutive scoreless innings streak comes to an end, then the Dodgers hang 15 runs on the Phillies, and finally the Rangers score 30 runs, a modern-era record, in a 30-3 win over the Orioles. Bad night for pitchers, but despite that we continue with our discussion of the Phillies pitching with a look at two of the Phillies soft-throwing hurlers, Jon Lieber and Jamie Moyer.

Guys like Cole Hamels get a lot of the headlines because of their high rate of strikeouts, but I have a lot of respect for pitchers who make their living not by blowing 95 mph fastballs by batters, but who throw at slower speeds, mixing in sliders, changeups and curveballs, relying on skill and guile more than brute force. I suppose my respect for non-fireballers comes from my analysis of Robin Roberts, the great Phillies hurler who was the team’s first member to be inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame. (Click here for Baseball Reference's page on Robin Roberts.) (And click here for my focus on Roberts for my series on the 1950 Phillies, The Wiz Kids, which I posted on this blog last fall.) Roberts had a great fastball, but he didn’t rely on strikeouts to get the job done. He threw right in the strike-zone and dared hitters to swing. As a result Roberts gave up a lot of home runs, but he didn’t allow many walks and gave his fielders great opportunities to convert balls put into play into outs.

I think Roberts is long-over due for recognition as one of the great pitchers of all-time. He was easily the most dominant pitcher in the N.L. between 1950-1955, and began to slip just when he should have been recognized for his talents with a Cy Young Award, an award that didn’t exist until 1956. Had Roberts won the Cy Young two or three times between ’50 – ’55, he’d be mentioned in the same breath as Greg Maddux or Roger Clemens or Steve Carlton or Sandy Koufax. However he didn’t, so he isn’t. Pitchers that relied on guile don’t capture the imagination of fans and writers the way the fireballers do. Which is a shame, because the soft-tossing pitchers are just as skilled and just as effective.

I’m discussing Moyer & Lieber together today because they have a long pedigree as “finesse”-type pitchers. Trying to pigeon-hole someone as a “finesse” or “power” pitcher is difficult because it is a judgment call that defies a rigorous statistical analysis. ESPN.com has tried and categorizes a pitcher as a “power” pitcher vs. a “finesse” pitcher by looking at (BB + K) / IP over a five year period. 0.93 and below is finesse, 0.94 and above is a power pitcher. It's kind of an arbitrary line of division, but it makes a nice starting point. Moyer rates a 0.86 for 2003-2007, while Lieber is even more of a finesse guy at 0.78. Roberts, if you look at the years 1950 – 1955, rates as a finesse pitcher: 0.68, although pitchers numbers for the '50s probably have to be adjusted.

Let’s look at Jon Lieber:

Jon Lieber. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Lieber’s career with the Phillies is basically over. The team inked a three-year deal with Lieber in ’04 and this was his walk year. With all of the young arms in the Phillies system coming up, along with the performance Kyle Kendrick turned in, don’t expect the Phillies to offer anything more than a one-year deal for Lieber, who will likely be looking for a little more.

I thought, when the Phillies signed Lieber, that he’d be a great acquisition for the team. Lieber was a control-freak pitcher who threw lots of sliders and got lots of groundball outs. The slider, the combination between a curveball and a fastball, is a heavy pitch that is difficult to lift for a home run. Lieber was 29-30 with a 4.55 ERA as a Phillie. At first glance, Lieber’s career in the red pinstripes was a total failure. Not so. I actually think that Lieber pitched rather well:

ERA / FIP / FIP diff.
2004: 4.20 / 4.13 / -0.07
2005: 4.93 / 4.60 / -0.33
2006: 4.73 / 3.79 / -0.94
Confused about what I’m talking about? Here are the stats I refer to defined:
ERA – Earned Run Average: (Earned Runs * 9) / IP = ERA
FIP – Fielding Independent Pitching: (13*HR+3*BB-2*K / IP) + League Factor Evaluates a pitching 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).
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.
HR/9 – Home Runs allowed per nine innings: (HR * 9) / IP
BB/9 – Walks per nine innings: (BB * 9) / IP
K/9 – Strikeouts per nine innings: (K * 9) / IP

Consistently, Lieber under-pitched his “real” ERA if you look at his FIP. The problem was that the Phillies never provided Lieber with much help defensively. If you look at things like strikeouts, home runs allowed, and walks allowed, Lieber stacks up pretty well. He had good control, threw lots of tough pitches to jam for home runs, and got a good number of strikeouts. Lieber kept the ball on the ground, as he has done his entire career:

G/F ratio:
2007 (PHI): 1.52
2006 (PHI): 1.23
2005 (PHI): 1.29
2004 (NYY): 1.43
2002 (CHC): 1.23
2001 (CHC): 1.34
2000 (CHC): 1.69
1999 (CHC): 1.33

The problem for Lieber has been that the teams he plays for rarely provide him good defense. This season, for example, the Phillies DER behind Lieber was just .672, well off the team average (.689) and the league average (.693). Imagine if the Phillies gave him good defense. He'd be a twenty game winner.

That slider is a big part of Lieber's success. The last three seasons Lieber led his league in percentage of pitches that were sliders:

2004: 29.8% (as Yankee)
2005: 34.4%
2006: 35.4%

Walks, or avoiding them, were Lieber’s specialty. Few were better than Lieber at locating pitches inside of the strike-zone. In 2006 Lieber was fourth in the N.L. in pitches in the strikezone, with 54.5% (leader: Roy Oswalt at 57.7%). Lieber ranked fourth in K/BB ratio in 2006 at 4.17. He had finished ninth in K/BB in 2005.

Here was how good Lieber was at not allowing people bases on balls:

BB/9: Lieber / N.L.
2004: 1.69 / 3.38
2005: 1.28 / 3.29
2006: 2.53 / 3.39

Lieber allowed nearly as many home runs (67) as walks (87) as a Phillie. Not too shabby.
It is a pity, with all of the new arms in the Phillies system, that Lieber won't be back. Alas, quality arms will go at a premium on the free agency market, so even if the Phillies were interested, look for Jon Lieber to be wearing the uniform of the New York Mets or the Chicago Cubs in 2008. We'll miss you, Jon.

Jamie Moyer. Jamie Moyer is a wonder. 44-years old and still hurling with the best in the major leagues. Moyer's 11-9, 4.97 ERA might not blow you away to look at, but there is a beauty to Moyer's work on the mound that is very underappreciated. He pitches far, far better than his stats indicate. Moyer , for example, is in a seven-way tie for tenth in the N.L. in Quality Starts, that is, starts where the pitcher goes at least six innings and allows three runs or fewer.
Moyer is the ultimate finesse pitcher. How finesse? In 2004 and 2005 Jamie Moyer had the second-slowest fastball in the American League after Tim Wakefield. (I am sure the same holds true for 2006, but I don’t have the data, and I am certain that Moyer will own the slowest fastball in the N.L. in 2007 as well.) Moyer’s fastball clocked in at 81.6 mph in 2004 and 81.8 in 2005. Wakefield was 75.9 and 76.1 respectively. Both seasons Moyer finished behind Wakefield in number of pitches under 80 mph thrown.

Moyer relied on his changeup to get outs. Moyer was second in the A.L. in percentage of pitches as changeups with 29.2% in 2004, and led the A.L. in 2005 with 31.0%. In 2005, only Wakefield … who is kind of a freakshow of a case, being a knuckleballer … relied on his fastball less than Moyer, who threw fastballs just 40.1% of the time. (Wakefield: 11.9%)

The interesting thing is that Moyer shouldn’t have any success at Citizens Bank Ballpark. In 2004 he ranked tenth in the A.L. for the lowest G/F ratio at 0.91. In 2005, he was seventh at 0.90. However, the rules don't apply to Jamie Moyer. His slow fastballs and changeups are typically hit into the air for flyouts to the outfield. Remember our discussion of how pitchers can't influence the fielders behind them? Well, according to the Baseball Prospectus book Baseball Between the Numbers (see, page 92) soft-tossing lefties like Jamie Moyer are some of the rare types of pitchers who demonstrate an ability to influence balls put into play.

A cursory look at the quality of the defense played behind Moyer reveals this truth:

DER: Moyer w/ Seattle Mariners
2004: .732
2005: .704
2006: .710

DER: Moyer w/ Philadelphia Phillies
2006: .753
2007: .711

That is how well the defense played behind Jamie Moyer these last four seasons. Compare that with how those teams played defensively generally during that time period:

DER: Seattle Mariners
2004: .699 / +.033 Moyer advantage
2005: .701 / +.003 Moyer advantage
2006: .690 / +.020 Moyer advantage

DER: Philadelphia Phillies
2006: .681/ +.072 Moyer advantage
2007: .693/ +.018 Moyer advantage

Those are significant variances. Very significant. Significant to the point where you have to consider the fact that Moyer really does help his teammates and make the defense play significantly better than it typically does. All of those changeups and slow fastballs result in batters launching soft pop-ups and weakly hit grounders. Generally speaking most of those are fly balls. Moyer is a fly ball pitcher, which at first glance ought to be the kiss of death for a Phillies pitcher, but it isn’t. The velocity of Moyer’s pitches keep them in the park. Check out how few of Moyer’s flies become home runs, especially compared with his teammates:

Moyer: 1.42 HR/9 @ Citizens Bank Ballpark
Phillies: 1.56 HR/9 @ Citizens Bank Ballpark

That despite being a definite fly ball oriented pitcher:

G/F ratio: (Mariners)
1999: 1.07
2000: 1.16
2001: 0.90
2002: 0.84
2003: 0.85
2004: 0.91
2005: 0.87
2006: 0.90

Perhaps Moyer has reworked his delivery, but he’s a little more oriented towards grounders than in the past:

G/F ratio: (Phillies)
2006: 1.63
2007: 1.05
Think about all of the that Friday when Moyer goes against the Padres.
Tomorrow, Brett Myers, relief ace.

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Hi. I just wanted to leave a comment here to let you know that of all the Phillies blogs I read on a daily basis, yours is the one I find myself most interested in. I appreciate your analytical approach and the historical context that you place everything in.

All in all, your blog is a very good and thought provoking read.

On a different, but Phillies related note, I thought I'd get your opinion on the Mets/Padres series. Since I'm a displaced Phillies fan living in Northern Jersey, I only get to watch the Phils when they play the Mets. Last night I found myself watching the Mets/Padres game unsure of who to root for. Given that the Phillies are vying for the top spot in either the wild card or the division, I wasn't sure if I preferred a Met win or a Padre win. I rationalized rooting for the Padres (after seeing that the Phils were more than likely going to lose to the Dodgers) by thinking that it would be easier for the Phils to overcome the 1 game deficit that would occur in the wild card race. Meanwhile they'd still remain 5 behind the Mets. Ideally, a nice little win streak during this homestand would put the Phillies in good shape, but I don't think that our injuries will allow that to happen.

What's your perspective on this?
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