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I Hate to Travel in Winter: On Gio Gonzalez and Felipe Paulino

It may or may not interest the reader to know that I’m writing these words from Aix-en-Provence. Yes, in France. No, I’m not joking. Yes, c’est totally vrai.

As to why I’m here, I can’t say exactly, on account of how unimaginably low down on the Down Low it is, but I can tell you this: My wife lives here. Is she a spy, sent here by the US government to learn more about stinky cheese and arrogance? Obviously, I’m not at liberty to answer that sort of question.

But one more thing I can tell you is this: While milady speaks the native language fluently, my own French — to put it lightly, and probably also wrongly — is pas bien. As a result, I don’t do a lot of the old “talking” here. Mostly I spend my time indoors, imbibing all manner of fermented beverage, and pruning my awesome fantasy basketball team so’s to make it even awesomer. (Actually, I should add: I also try to read L’equipe, a real-live sporting daily that, despite being a little light on quantitative analysis, appears to be a legitimately awesome paper.)

So, like I say, I don’t parle the Francais real great. Still, one thing I know for sure how to say — perhaps the first phrase I ever learned — is Je deteste voyager en hiver. For those of you following along at home, that means (en anglais), “I hate to travel in winter.” I don’t know why or how I learned such a thing, but I’m glad I did, on account of I actually do hate traveling in winter. And not just that, but there are like thirty other things I hate to do in winter — things like going outdoors and paying the gas bill and also just being awake. Cold = my worst nightmare.

As much as that might be the case, I’m quite sure the reader didn’t come here to get bummed the frig out by Carson Cistulli. Which, that’s why I’m proud to announce that there are also a number of winter activities I enjoy — activities like drinking hot toddies and drinking mulled wine and drinking hot cider.

Oh, and also sorting statistical leaderboards like a mother.

One such leaderboard to which I’m particularly looking forward is the wRC+ one. When FanGraphs Overlord David Appelman adds it to these electronic pages, I can tell you right now that I’m gonna sort the crap out of it.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. What I’m here to talk about is how today I was sorting through the tRA* leaderboard — that is, regressed tRA — over at our own Matthew Carruth’s StatCorner.

If you sort tRA* for the starting pitchers who recorded at least 150 xOuts — that is, expected outs based on the tRA outcomes — you get a lot of the usual suspects. For example, here are the top 10 finishers in tRA*, compiled in an embarrassingly sophisticated table (with tRA, so you can see the difference):

Last First tRA tRA*
Lincecum Tim 2.52 3.31
Carpenter Chris 2.77 3.45
Greinke Zack 2.35 3.48
Vazquez Javier 3.19 3.60
Haren Dan 3.25 3.67
Kuroda Hiroki 3.34 3.71
Pineiro Joel 3.42 3.74
Hernandez Felix 3.28 3.79
Jimenez Ubaldo 3.33 3.81
Wainwright Adam 3.47 3.82

There are no real surprises here, except maybe the fact that Greinke is third and not first. Having said that, among starters with at least 50 IP, xFIP has him at sixth overall — largely due to an inflated strand rate (79.3%, the highest among the top 10 xFIP-ers) and very friendly HR/FB rate (4.5%, about half his career figure of 8.7%). Still, third versus first or sixth isn’t exactly crazy city.

No, in fact there are no real surprises on this list until we get down to numbers 44 and 45, where we find Messrs Gio Gonzalez and Felipe Paulino, respectively. Regard:

Last First tRA tRA*
Gonzalez Gio 4.62 4.42
Paulino Felipe 4.63 4.42

Of course, in and of itself, that’s not unbelievable, but consider two of the other pitchers that the duo beats out (place/tRA/tRA*): the very topical John Lackey (46th/4.07/4.44) and equally topical Cliff Lee (52nd/3.72/4.50). Now, this is not to say that Gonzalez and Paulino are definitively better than either Lackey or Lee. That would be irresponsible, obviously. But it’s interesting to note that two pitchers who are widely regarded to have had disappointing seasons (Gonzalez and Paulino) finished around two other, highly sought-after veterans.

So, what’s the deal with these guys? Let’s take a look.

You probably know a little about Gio Gonzalez, and if you don’t, then RotoGraphs’ David Golebiewski can fill in the friggin blanks. The basic facts are (a) he’s a lefty with velocity, (b) he’s been traded three times already, and (c) he’s got nasty, if mercurial, stuff. Even knowing that Gonzalez has such nasty stuff, I was a little surprised to see he’d struck out 109 in only 98.2 IP. Granted, owing to his control problems, some of those are loooonng innings, but still, a strikeout is a strikeout.

In 2009, Gonzalez made 20 appearances, 17 of which were starts. He finished with a 6-7 record, 5.75 ERA, and 14 HR-allowed in just a hair under 100 IP. In short, he wasn’t exactly in line for Cy Young honors. But, as you might guess given his tRA numbers, he was the victim of Outrageous Fortune. The 13.9% HR/FB rate isn’t a huge departure from league average, nor the 67.8% LOB-rate, but together they’re significant enough to affect the bottom line. Combine that with a .369 BABIP and there’s reason to believe that Gonzalez could be better than some of his numbers indicate. Interestingly, Gonzalez only allowed BABIPs of .300, .308, and .300 in this three most recent stints in the minor leagues, where BABIPs are generally higher. Gonzalez acquits himself well in xFIP, too, finishing 35th among 183 starters with 50+ IP with a 3.85 mark.

For me, Paulino was almost a non-entity during the season. A 3-11 record, 6.27 ERA, and 20 HR-allowed across 20 appearances (17 starts, 97.2 IP) will do that for a guy. Probably playing for the Astros isn’t so great, either. In the final analysis, he looks like a young-ish (26-year-old) pitcher finding his way back after missing an entire year due to injury. And yes, that’s what he was to a certain extent: Paulino missed all of 2008 with a veritable mélange (that’s right, I said “mélange”) of injuries. But there are some things for which injury can’t account. For one, he had a .368 BABIP-against. For two, he had a slightly below-average strand rate of 67.6%. And finally, for three, Paulino got punished on fly balls, as exhibited by his 16.9% HR/FB rate.

That said, all other systems appear to be a go for the young Dominican, as R.J. Anderson noted around the end of the season. He (i.e. Paulino, not R.J.) featured a fastball that averaged 95.4 mph, struck out 8.57 per nine, and — unlike Gonzalez — kept the walks in check with a 3.41 BB/9. Paulino does well by xFIP’s standards, as well, finishing 43rd out of 183 starters with 50+ IP, with a 3.97 mark.

How well do you think Gonzalez and Paulino will perform in 2010? Enter your Fan Projection here.