What’s the Blueprint? - pt. 4

added 6/16/2005 by Scott Barzilla

Columnist note: Last time we looked at great rotations in history. This time we are going to apply those principles to the Astros. This is the last edition of this series and the last such series for quite some time.

When you’re ten games or more under .500 there is usually a lot keeping you from being a championship club. Ironically, one of the major things people look at is pitching, but the Astros starting pitching is far and away the one positive keeping them afloat this year. During the second game of the Orioles series, the radio team mentioned that the Astros starters lead the league in “quality starts” with 40.

For those of you wondering, a quality start is defined as a start where you surrender three runs or fewer for six innings or more. The notion of a quality start is humorous to those that remember frequent complete games and low ERAs. However, it is comforting to know that the Astros are leading the league in a positive category this season. When you consider the fact that the fifth starters have a combined total of one quality start, you have to give it up to the top four guys. As of June 15th, here were the numbers for the Astros starters.

                  W  L    INN    ER   SO  BB  HR    ERA
Roger Clemens     4  3    88.0   16   87  25   4   1.64	
Roy Oswalt        7  7    98.0   31   70  23   7   2.85
Andy Pettitte     3  7    83.2   35   58  17   7   3.76
Brandon Backe     6  4    83.0   45   52  31   9   4.88	
Fifth Starters    2  7    61.0   66   45  21  19   9.74

If we were taking the SAT we could answer a question like, “which one of these doesn’t belong?” It is obvious that the Astros fifth starters aren’t holding up their end of the bargain. Yet, you can’t complain at all about the top four guys. When you have a limited number of innings as these guys do, it is easy to see a bad game of two (in the case of Backe) hijack the ERAs. The idea is to look at the peripherals (SO, BB, HR) and measure those rates against the league average. In fact, we’ll do that against the NL average from last season.

                SO/9  BB/9  HR/9   ERA+  SO/9+ BB/9+ HR/9+
Roger Clemens    8.9   2.6   0.4    263    133   124   275	 
Roy Oswalt       6.4   2.1   0.6    153     96   162   183	
Andy Pettitte    6.2   1.8   0.8    115     92   189   138	
Brandon Backe    5.6   3.4   1.0     88     84   100   110 	
Fifth Starters   6.6   3.1   2.8     45     99   110    39

When you look at these numbers (particularly the comparisons with the league average) you see why pitchers succeed and pitchers fail. When you look at ERA+ you see that HR/9+ is the closest correlation on three out of the five categories and the second best correlation on another. In this day and age you gotta keep the ball in park to have a shot. Keep these numbers in mind because we will reference them later.

What Now?

This is going to seem like a broken record, but the club needs to see what it has before breaking into trade discussions and free agent possibilities. Wandy Rodriguez has had a rough time early on, but he has two victories and has pitched decently in most of his starts. Ezekiel Astacio has looked very good in Round Rock and has had a good strikeout to walk ratio at both levels.

Brandon Duckworth is not worth a whole lot at this point. In fact, I’m still trying to figure out what he is doing in the organization, but that’s a different discussion for a different day. The point is that Rodriguez and Astacio are still viable fifth starter candidates and should be watched closely for the rest of the season. Additionally, we should continue to monitor Backe as well. Backe certainly doesn’t need to be replaced, but accurately pinpointing his place among the league will help determine what to do next year.

We have to run on the assumption that Roger Clemens will not be back. I know we did that this off-season too (or at least WE did), but the signs point towards a retirement for Clemens. In that case we have to determine whether Backe is a number three starter or a number four or five starter. That decision will affect what we do on the trade market or free agent market.

Scouting the Free Agents

On another site, I did some primers for several teams. I also did a scouting report for free agent pitchers for my SABR chapter. In both of those items I used a three year benchmark for pitching numbers. There is nothing magical about three years except that it gives us more data than one season. The Yankees continue to pay the price for basing signings on one season. Certainly, they are regretting signing Jaret Wright and could be regretting signing Carl Pavano for as much money as they did. The Astros need to avoid the same mistake when they look at the next generation of free agents.

Since Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt seem to have the top two spots ironed out, I will divide our possible free agents in three categories: potential threes, potential fours, and potential fives. We will use the same numbers as above (walks, strikeouts, and home runs).

Potential Threes

                  INN   SO/9   BB/9   HR/9
A.J. Burnett      347   8.73   3.78   0.60
Brad Penny        468   6.99   2.90   0.98
Kevin Millwood    580   7.32   2.86   0.76 
Jeff Weaver       579   5.88   2.33   0.79
Jarrod Washburn   562   5.49   2.45   1.17
Tom Glavine       620   4.61   3.10   0.90

Some of these guys will re-sign before the season starts (there are rumors that the Dodgers will sign Weaver and Penny to extensions). However, you can see that all but one have strikeout to walk ratios better than two and all but one surrendered fewer than one homer per nine innings. Essentially, each of the top four guys are good options there. You can bet your boots that Burnett will get huge money from someone because he has electric stuff. That’s okay, Penny, Millwood, and Weaver are just as good.

Potential Fours

                  INN   SO/9   BB/9   HR/9
Pedro Astacio     237   6.76   3.27   1.59 
Esteban Loaiza    560   6.60   2.65   1.08	
Brett Tomko       601   5.21   2.71   1.27
Shawn Estes       515   5.75   4.74   1.10	
Ted Lilly         475   7.42   3.37   1.23
Jason Johnson     517   5.91   3.15   1.10

Notice that only half of these pitchers have two to one strikeout to walk ratios and none of them have home run rates lower than one. Esteban Loaiza is the only one with an ERA below the league average. He also has a two to one strikeout ratio, so he is probably the class of this group. Since Astacio has so few innings, we need to watch him closely this season. All of these pitchers have serious flaws so we should resist temptation to throw a lot of money at them. Given our other needs this off-season, the cheapest option might be the most appropriate option.

Potential Fives

                  INN   SO/9   BB/9   HR/9
Paul Byrd         342   5.46   1.50   1.42	
Scott Elarton     210   5.26   3.51   1.97	
Aaron Sele        413   4.05   3.44   1.17
Steve Trachsel    581   5.16   3.36   1.04
Woody Williams    513   6.31   2.42   0.88	
Kazu Ishii        473   7.27   5.80   1.08

All of these pitchers have major warts so you have to look at them and compare them critically with Astacio and Rodriguez. Trachsel and Williams look like the best bets, but they are both aging and are injured. The rest are healthy and a big part of their rotations, but they still have the warts.

Summing it up

The moment Ben Sheets signed a long-term deal, all of the big time free agent pitchers were off the market. This year, Burnett shapes up to be the November darling. The Astros must remember that two solid pitchers will be better than one good one. Plus, Burnett hasn’t lived up to that massive potential yet. If I were targeting a pitcher from each of these lists I would target Woody Williams, Ted Lilly, and Kevin Millwood. You probably will only need one of those three, but if a number five starter doesn’t step up you might need two.

Scott Barzilla is the author of “Checks and Imbalances” and “The State of Baseball Management.”