I get the whole “Oh no, there’s nothing to write about” thing all the time. Particularly, after 110 games, not only does the “offense good, bullpen great, starting pitching historically great” narrative get boring, but you run out of things to argue about. It gets boring to say “the Phillies are the best team in the NL by far” over and over, particularly when sports pundits are under pressure not only to churn out new material day after day (which, by the by, is much harder than it looks, even when you do have access and time), but to make that material thought-provoking, interesting, and controversial. As a result, we get a lot of opinion pieces that take logically tenuous or contrarian positions as a result of boredom or desire to drum up readership. This is how Bobby Abreu went from being underrated to overrated and back, by my count, about six or seven times over the course of his career.
Moreover, when you’re a fan of a team that has so many obvious strengths as these Phillies, you start to freak yourself out a little bit. I know looking at “77-41″ and an 7 1/2 game lead in the standings makes me a little dizzy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great, but sometimes it’s hard to believe. What’s more, if the wheels come off in the playoffs (which are so unpredictable I wouldn’t bet against it) the disappointment will be hard to take, so perhaps we’re steeling ourselves a little against the possibility that the walls come tumbling down by selling this team short.
This, I think, is why, back in the early spring, the sexy thing to say, for baseball writers, was that the Braves either had a better pitching staff than the Phillies or that they’d win the division and the Phillies would miss the playoffs. Neither of those assertions, at the time, was absurd on its face, so for one of those two reasons, baseball writers whose work I consume and whose opinions I give attention (Jonah Keri and Eric Karabell are the two names that popped into my mind, but they were far from the only ones) were in the habit of saying either the Giants or Braves were better at run prevention than the Phillies.
But after nearly two-thirds of a season, I think the time for contrarianism for contrarianism’s sake has passed, and it’s time to face the facts: the Phillies have the best pitching staff in the game, and any attempt to argue the contrary is an intellectually bankrupt attempt to stir up readership through controversy.
Here’s how the argument usually goes, for either the Braves or the Giants, which are the two pitching staffs that seem to generate the most veneration among the against-the-grain analysts. Either one of those teams has 1) starting pitching superior to the Phillies’, or 2) the team (usually the Braves) has slightly inferior starting pitching with a bullpen that’s so much better than the Phillies’ that it makes up for the difference. Let’s take apart these assumptions.
First, let’s go to the aggregate numbers. The Phillies lead major league baseball in total pitcher fWAR, ERA, FIP, xFIP, K/BB ratio, SIERA, and WHIP. Granted, some of these numbers feed into each other, but the point is that by almost any measure of pitching effectiveness, classic or sabermetric, the Phillies stand above the Braves and Giants, if not markedly then comprehensively. And while some of these numbers take into account park effects, it’s worth mentioning that the Citizens Bank Park is roughly a run-neutral environment. It has a park factor of .965, which means it depresses scoring only slightly, and is the 17th-most hitter-friendly stadium in baseball. Turner Field is 23rd, at .926, depressing scoring by a little less than nine percent. AT&T Park in San Francisco is the most pitcher-friendly stadium in the game, with a park factor of .753, essentially meaning that it lowers scoring by almost 25 percent. This is not to say that Lincecum, Cain, Bumgarner, Romo, Wilson, etc. aren’t good pitchers, because they are, but they’re getting help from the park.
When separated into their constituent members, the difference in quality between the three pitching staffs becomes even more marked. I should have written this a month or two ago, because for a long time the Phillies had not only the best starting rotation in baseball but the three best pitchers in the National League. Since then, Clayton Kershaw, who, as a Dodger, isn’t relevant to this discussion, has gone on a Sandy Koufax tear and gummed up the works. Still, let’s look at the top seven NL starters in FIP, which is an ERA estimator accounts for batted ball luck and defense, and would eliminate such fluke cases as Jeff Karstens. Here’s the leaderboard: 1) Roy Halladay 2) Madison Bumgarner 3) Cole Hamels 4) Cliff Lee 5) Kershaw 6) Matt Cain 7) Tim Lincecum. Three Phillies, three Giants, and a Dodger. The highest Brave on that list is Tim Hudson, No. 16 with a FIP more than a run higher than Halladay’s.
Let’s take strikeout-to-walk ratio. Halladay is No. 1, with a 7.41 ratio, the 11th-best mark in baseball since integration. Lee is second and Hamels third. Bumgarner has the best ratio among Giants, 4.06. Tommy Hanson, the top Brave, is 14th, at 3.09.
Both of those numbers, however, are rate stats, and the job of a starting pitcher is to pitch not only well but a lot. Halladay leads the NL in innings pitched, and Hamels and Lee are tied for second. Matt Cain has made one more start more than Halladay and Lee, but he’s still thrown an entire start’s worth of innings fewer than Big Roy and Cliff over the course of the season. How about Bumgarner, the guy whose rate stats are actually close enough to the Phillies’ holy troika to warrant a qualitative argument about who is better? Bumgarner has, in the same number of starts as Halladay, thrown 30 1/3 fewer innings. Keep that number in the back of your head, but that’s four or five strong starts’ worth of pitching.
As a result, in terms of fWAR, i.e., how much value they’ve added to the team (and isn’t that what we’re really all about here?), Halladay has 6.1, Hamels 5.0, and Lee 4.9. Bumgarner, again tops among Giants, is at 4.3, with Cain and Lincecum decimal points behind him. Tim Hudson, the top Atlanta starter, has 2.9 fWAR, two full wins less than Cliff Lee and just over a win less than Lincecum.
You’ve no doubt been wondering why I haven’t mentioned Jair Jurrjens and Ryan Vogelsong yet. The reason for that is that they have been riding unsustainable waves of batted ball luck and defensive help. These factors are, for all intents and purposes, the reason that Cole Hamels went from toast of the town in 2008 to petulant surfer weirdo in 2009 and back in 2010, then to “My name Ozymandias, King of Kings: look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!” in 2011. They are what differentiates a pitcher’s results (as expressed by ERA) from what results he deserves (FIP and other ERA estimators).
I say this because Ryan Vogelsong, a Lehigh Valley Iron Pig last year, has a 2.48 ERA (better than Lincecum’s) but a FIP more than a run higher. When Jair Jurrjens had that sub-2 ERA around the all-star break, his FIP and xFIP were more than double his actual ERA. From a certain standpoint, what’s done is done and if a ballplayer is playing over his head, bully for him. But let’s be honest, the whole reason we’re having this argument is because of the looming spectre of a Phillies-Giants or Phillies-Braves NLCS, and we want to predict the future.
(aside) If you’re going to play the Sabermetric Drinking Game, you might want to pour out a couple shots, because in the next paragraph I’m going to reference some of the most common hobbyhorses for statnerds when discussing pitching. I’m pretty sure we’ll get to everything except for “missing bats.” Oh, and by the way, you owe two shots for the instances of “batted ball luck” earlier in this post.
Vogelsong and Jurrjens (and Vance Worley, by the way) are primed for regression to the mean (do shot). What this means is that their ERA–or any other stat–will, over a big enough sample size (do shot), reflect what’s known as true talent level (do shot). If you flip a coin five times, it’s possible that you’ll come up heads all five times. This doesn’t mean the coin is uneven–it just means that you don’t have enough information to make that determination yet. If you flip it 1,000 times, you’ll almost certainly not wind up with 500 heads and 500 tails, but you’ll be close, and the odds of getting, say 650/350 over 1,000 flips are minuscule.
Because of the random variance (do shot) inherent to batted balls, and because, frankly, even bad players get hot and perform well in short spurts from time to time, we should expect Jurrjens, Worley, and Vogelsong to eventually reach an equilibrium. This is true not only for pitchers, but for hitters and entire teams. This doesn’t have to happen all at once, though in some cases (Zach Britton, Dan Uggla, the Seattle Mariners) it seems to. Of course, this works both ways, so Derek Lowe, who’s had relatively bad batted ball luck this season (ERA a run higher than FIP), ought to get better, based on his batted ball profile (do shot) and ability to miss bats (I know I promised I wouldn’t use that one, but at this point I’m on a roll, so do shot).
If anything, this component helps the Braves’ argument, not only because of Lowe but because of Mike Minor, who in spot duty has underperformed his xFIP by a full run and his FIP by two, and because Vance Worley is just like Jurrjens and Vogelsong: a pitcher whose ERA is in the mid-2′s and ought to be closer to 4. Even so, once everyone regresses, Hamels, Halladay, and Lee will stand out even more than they do already, and Vance Worley and Roy Oswalt will be able to stand on level pegging with Brandon Beachy, Barry Zito, Jonathan Sanchez, Jurrjens, and Vogelsong, if not better.
Now, since the Phillies’ rotation is better, let’s attack the argument that the Braves’ and Giants’ bullpens are better. First of all, it’s absolutely true. Jonny Venters has been unreal, though he’s due for some regression, if not a catastrophic arm injury due to how much he’s been used. Craig Kimbrel has been just as good, and his peripheral stats support his low ERA. Sergio Romo of the Giants has quietly been even better than Kimbrel.
For the purposes of this argument, let’s limit ourselves to the last three pitchers in the bullpen. Frankly, World Series are rarely won and lost on the performances of your sixth bullpen guy, so how Guillermo Mota, Scott Proctor, and David Herndon do relative to one another should not matter, because if anyone other than Bastardo/Stutes/Madson, O’Flaherty/Venters/Kimbrel, or Romo/Lopez/Wilson enters a 9-inning game, it represents a failure, somewhere along the line, of your pitching staff anyway. Introducing the bullpens in their entirety would be akin to judging two NHL playoff teams on their backup goalies, and for the same reason I have largely ignored the contributions of back-end starters, except insofar as their contributions have contributed to the total team stats mentioned earlier.
Mike Stutes is by far the weakest pitcher in that group of nine, because his 3.43 ERA, while perfectly acceptable for a middle reliever, is hardly indicative of dominance to begin with, and his .236 BABIP illustrates that he’s getting kind of lucky anyway. But honestly, it doesn’t matter a whole lot, and here’s why. As good as Romo has been, relative to his counterpart Stutes, the sheer dominance of Tony No-Dad and Ryan Madson, both of whom have been markedly better than Lopez and Wilson. Even if the Giants’ top relievers are better than the Phillies’, the difference is not that great.
The difference between the Braves’ top relievers and their red-pinstriped counterparts actually is that great, but it ultimately doesn’t matter. Kimbrel, Venters, and O’Flaherty have compiled, between them, 5.4 fWAR, while Madson, Stutes, and Bastardo have 2.4. That sounds like a lot, but it’s the difference in quality between Halladay (the Phillies’ top starter by fWAR) and Tim Hudson. Or between Cole Hamels and Derek Lowe. Or between Cliff Lee and Tommy Hanson. Even a bullpen that pitches an unbelievable number of innings at an unbelievable quality, as the Atlanta bullpen has, is only as valuable as a single true top-of-the-line top starting pitcher, of which the Phillies have three and the Braves have none. If Kimbrel, Venters, and O’Flaherty were taken together as one entity, they’d be the No. 2 starter on the Phillies. But if Madson and Bastardo (Stutes is exactly at replacement level, so he’s not changing the fWAR numbers at all) were taken as one guy, they’d be the second-most-valuable starter on the Braves.
Remember that number I told you to remember before, 30 1/3 innings pitched? Sergio Romo, for all his dominant pitching, has pitched 37 2/3 innings all season. This forces, rhetorically, anyone arguing that the Giants’ staff is better than the Phillies’ to concede one of two points: 30-odd innings is not a lot in the grad scheme of things, or that it is. If it’s not, then Romo’s contributions are minimized. If it is, then Romo’s contributions count a lot, but the difference in innings pitched between Halladay and Bumgarner is very nearly as significant. Even someone who has pitched as well and as much as Kimbrel barely makes up for the quantity difference between Hamels and Hanson. Then you have to worry about accounting for the difference in the quality of those innings. It simply can’t be done.
(aside) I’ve been arguing against Tommy Hanson and his teammates a lot, but if you’re on Twitter and you’re not following @CyborgHanson48, you’re missing out. That’s all I’ll say for now.
Here’s the point, in short: it might be useful from a standpoint of narrative to pit the Phillies’ pitchers against the Braves and Giants as equals, particularly considering how much hype has been (deservedly) lavished on those teams over the past 12 months. And don’t misunderstand, the Braves and Giants are both possessed of truly formidable pitching staffs, and I hope I haven’t demeaned their accomplishments here. But the assertion that they are somehow equal, by any measure, to the Phillies’, simply does not hold qualitative muster. It’s the cool thing to say, but it simply is not true.