Last week I took a look at the ZIPS Rest of Season projections for the primary Jays’ hitters, concluding that while some players are due for a positive performance bump, the net gains would be about zero since the team’s run scoring output was already surpassing what one would expect from their slash lines (AVG/OBP/SLG). I promised to take a look at pitchers as well, and the story here is less positive – while I’d expect the hitters to continue to produce roughly the same amount of runs per game, the team’s run prevention may be in trouble according to some fielding-independent metrics.
I should note here, however, that according to Defensive Runs Saved, the Blue Jays grade out as one of, if not THE best defensive team in baseball so far. What that means is that Jays pitchers would be expected to outperform their DIPS rates (Defense Independent Pitching Stats) relative to the league average, sporting slightly below average BABIP and therefore, maybe, ERA. But there are two factors to consider along with this information: for one, the impact of team defense on starter ERA is difficult to predict and may not be consistent or uniform; and two, the sample size for this year’s defensive metrics is still relatively small, so it’s not yet clear how far above average the Jays’ defense is.
With those caveats outlined, I created the chart below based on numbers from Fangraphs, showing each of the Jays’ starting pitchers. The chart shows K/9, BB/9, and GB% as a means of displaying each pitcher’s primary skills (or “pitcher type” if you prefer). I also displayed their current ERA, their ZIPS projection for Rest of Season ERA, as well as three different DIPS metrics – FIP, xFIP, and SIERA, as explained in extremely basic terms in the chart. Finally, I showed the MLB median rate among qualified starters (116 players) rather than average, hoping to weed out spot starters, although I realize this maybe should have been an AL-only experiment as the lower run scoring environment of the NL would skew these rates downward (e.g. NL median starter’s ERA is 3.71 vs. 3.95 for the AL). Alas, here is the chart – you can ignore the heat mapping.
Obviously, this doesn’t look good. What we would hope to see is pitchers who are underperforming their DIPS rates, indicating any expected regression would be the positive kind. Instead, we see that every Jays’ starter except Hutchison has outperformed what the metrics would expect, meaning the mathematicians would expect Toronto to be in for a slide in run-prevention results.
Ricky Romero, the Jays’ de facto ace, has struggled with command a great deal so far this season. You would expect the command to improve closer to 2010-11 levels (roughly 3.5 BB/9), while his K-rate and GB% are both in line with what we’ve come to expect from him. His high groundball rate is a nice sign if the Jays do in fact boast an elite defense, helping turn groundballs into outs at a rate better than the league average. This would explain part of his .238 BABIP, a number that was also extremely low (.242) last year, while some chunk of it would be chalked up to random variance (luck). The big issue with Romero isn’t really the low BABIP though, it’s the troublesome walk rate. He walked just one batter in his last turn, so maybe he’s fixed a mechanical issue of some sort. The metrics see Ricky as more of a #3 starter (as they did last year) than a true ace, but if he can curb the walks he may be able to avoid some of the regression that we’d expect to be headed his way.
Brandon Morrow has been the best Jays’ starter, even if you wince at the memory of his 2/3 IP outing against the Rangers a few weeks back. Morrow’s strikeouts are down but his walks are also down and he’s keeping the ball on the ground more. This all adds up to see Morrow finally realizing the potential that DIPS rates always thought he had – he’s been a constant underperformer in terms of ERA vs DIPS, so maybe the slight edge his ERA has this year is just the baseball universe correcting for prior years. Morrow looks to be a much different pitcher this year, and if he can bring his SwStr% (8.3%) back into the double-digit range we’re accustomed to, there’s no reason to think Morrow hasn’t finally “arrived.”
I provided a warning about Henderson Alvarez a few weeks back, and since then his ERA has risen from 2.61 to 3.75. DIPS still thinks he’s in line for more regression as his miniscule K/9 nearly negates his great control and high groundball rate. Basically, the metrics think that even with an elite defense, allowing almost every batter to put the ball in play is a recipe for disaster. With that said, SIERA (which accounts for batted ball data) and xFIP (which normalizes his ridiculous HR/FB rate of 18.8%) see him as a serviceable 5th starter, so it’s not like he’s minor league fodder. If he can somehow get back to his 2011 level of just 5.65 K/9, his outlook would improve significantly, though I’m not confident in the league’s worst swinging strike rate (4.0%).
Kyle Drabek, as we know, is an enigma wrapped in a puzzle of a mystery, or something stupid like that. Basically, he has the stuff to be successful but not the results, and his career path kind of reminds me of Nuke LaLoosh in Bull Durham – not the wild control and crazy heater, but the “million dollar arm/five cent head” tag that he gets labeled with. I think maybe Drabek just hasn’t learned to pitch yet and is still more of a thrower, if you know your scout-speak. Drabek misses bats at an average rate but he also walks just about everybody, meaning his high groundball rate isn’t a luxury, it’s a life-and-death necessity. At 24, it’s not out of the question that Drabek needs more seasoning, but the Jays don’t exactly have major-league ready arms knocking at the door (most of their top pitching prospects are a year or more away, and Brett Cecil hasn’t been anything special at New Hampshire). As it is, Drabek continues to learn on the job in the Majors, an opportunity the team can only really afford him in the short-term while the expectations are somewhere just south of “playoffs.”
And finally we get to Drew Hutchison, he of the six starts above A-ball before his Major League debut. Hutch had a rough start but has been a revelation over his last five outings, allowing just 9 runs over 30 innings. His K/9 is league-average, and while he’s had some high-walk games, his control overall is strong and flashes even better potential. He doesn’t keep the ball on the ground as much as the other youngsters, but because he whiffs more guys than Alvarez and walks far fewer than Drabek, the DIPS rates like him as the team’s #3 starter right now, suggesting he’s performed exactly as his peripherals would suggest. On top of this promising statistical review, keep in mind that Hutch is just 21 years old and, again, had pitched 31 innings above A-ball before his call-up. Most scouting profiles didn’t see Hutchison as more than a #3, but I don’t think anybody realistically expected to get to that level already.
So overall things don’t look great for the staff, as two pitchers are performing right around their peripherals while the other three have been the beneficiaries of huge doses of “luck.” I guess you could expect Drabek to improve as he matures, Romero to figure out his control problem, and Alvarez to accidentally strikeout more than a better every three innings, but if we’re trying to do a neutral analysis, you have to expect the Jays’ rotation statistics to slide at least a bit. The Jays already lack a bit as a pitching staff, with the league’s 20th best ERA of 4.15, though some of this is expected playing in the AL East and at Rogers Centre. The excuses have to be put aside at some point though, as all of the AL East teams face the same schedule and park obstacles, but the Jays find themselves 4th in the division in run prevention (they’re 2nd in run scoring, just FYI).
Are the Jays prime candidates to try and acquire an arm between now and the trade deadline, as a lot of rumors have suggested? It’s certainly possible, but it’s only really logical if management sees this as a playoff team immediately, which might be a calendar year too optimistic.