The Next Tier of Starting Pitching

Now that Masahiro Tanaka has agreed to terms with the New York Yankees, it appears quite likely that offseason player movement will finally be allowed to resume. In fact, the Rays and Padres kicked off the post-Tanaka era yesterday with a pretty interesting transaction of their own. Seemingly next on the docket would be negotiations for the consensus next three best starting pitchers on the market — Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Ervin Santana. Let’s take a look at those three, and most specifically their 2013 batted-ball profiles, to determine the talent gap among them, and assess the level of investment of which each is worthy.

First, let’s separate the three hurlers’ Ks and BBs from their batted balls to determine their relative dependence on each for success.

K % BB % BIP AVG BIP SLG BIP RUN BIP R:100 TOT AVG TOT OBP TOT SLG TOT RUN TOT R:100 ACT ERA ERA:100
Garza Matt 21.7% 6.7% 0.321 0.515 4.96 101 0.248 0.297 0.399 3.61 93 3.82 99
Jimenez Ubaldo 26.8% 11.0% 0.325 0.498 4.87 99 0.233 0.313 0.358 3.49 90 3.30 85
Santana Ervin 19.4% 6.1% 0.298 0.471 4.22 86 0.237 0.283 0.376 3.24 84 3.24 84
MLB AVG 19.9% 7.9% 0.323 0.505 4.90 0.253 0.318 0.396 3.87 3.87

The table above lists each pitcher’s K and BB rates, the AVG and SLG they allowed on all batted balls, and their total slash line allowed to all batters, including the K and BB data. (HBP are not included in OBP and SH and SF are counted as outs for the purposes of this exercise.) The ball in play and total run values are calculated and scaled to MLB average ERA as follows: ((1.7 * Pitcher OBP + Pitcher SLG)/(1.7 * MLB OBP + MLB SLG)) * MLB Average ERA. The estimated run values excluding and including the K and BB data are scaled to 100 in the sixth and 11th columns above. For comparative purposes, the pitchers’ actual ERAs and relative actual ERA scaled to MLB average are listed in the two rightmost columns above. None of the above are adjusted for park factors.

At first glance, there are some similarities among the three pitchers. Garza and Jimenez both allowed about league-average production on their batted balls in 2013, while Santana allowed well under league-average production on batted balls. Garza’s K and BB rates were both slightly better than league average, with his BB rate reaching a career best while his K rate declined for the second year in a row. Jimenez’ K rate reached a career high, and his BB rate, while still much worse than league average, improved greatly from 2012. Santana’s K rate was just below league average, and very consistent with career norms, while his BB rate declined to a career best. Each pitcher’s calculated ERA, based on their K and BB rates and actual batted ball production allowed (10th column above) compares fairly evenly with their actual ERA (12th column) — none of these pitchers were materially affected by sequencing last season.

Now let’s inject each pitcher’s batted-ball frequency profile into the discussion.

POP % REL POP # PCT POP FLY % REL FLY # PCT FLY LD % REL LD # PCT LD GB % REL GB # PCT GB
Garza Matt 7.8% 100 53 31.0% 109 78 23.8% 112 96 37.4% 88 12
Jimenez Ubaldo 7.5% 97 46 28.4% 101 46 20.5% 96 33 43.6% 102 59
Santana Ervin 6.4% 83 22 28.1% 99 41 20.2% 95 25 45.3% 106 83
MLB AVG 7.8% 28.3% 21.3% 42.6%

Each pitcher’s balls in play allowed are broken down by type above, and the relative frequencies of each are expressed relative to MLB average (scaled to 100) and as a percentile rank among 2013 MLB starting pitchers. Again, a number of similarities exist, particularly between Jimenez and Santana. Garza is much more of a flyball pitcher than the other two, and in 2013 allowed a very high line-drive percentage, which should be expected to regress somewhat in 2014.

Now let’s incorporate into the discussion the production allowed by these pitchers within the three major batted-ball categories (almost all popups are outs, so we’ll ignore production within that fourth category). This will yield some clues regarding the core ability of each pitcher.

FLY AVG FLY SLG R FLY PRD ADJ FLY LD AVG LD SLG R LD PRD ADJ LD GB AVG GB SLG R GB PRD ADJ GB ALL AVG ALL SLG R ALL PRD ADJ ALL TRU ERA
Garza Matt 0.252 0.683 82 89 0.645 0.879 100 96 0.232 0.262 99 114 0.321 0.515 101 105 3.72
Jimenez Ubaldo 0.318 0.767 114 85 0.645 0.871 99 96 0.222 0.237 87 86 0.325 0.498 99 91 3.24
Santana Ervin 0.287 0.793 109 156 0.576 0.704 72 94 0.221 0.238 86 104 0.298 0.471 86 113 4.13
MLB AVG 0.284 0.743 0.657 0.863 0.237 0.257 0.323 0.505

The third, seventh and 11th columns above represent the relative run value for each batted ball type, relative to MLB average, scaled to 100, while the fourth, eighth and 12th include estimated adjustments for team defense, ballpark, luck, etc. The 15th and 16th columns do the same for all batted balls combined.

This is where the differences among the pitchers jump out. First and foremost, let’s talk about Santana. In the first table, we saw that Santana allowed the lowest actual production on batted balls of the three pitchers, and had the lowest calculated and actual ERA of the three last season. In each of the three major batted ball categories, however, Santana was helped significantly by his home park and defense. While he cut his homers allowed from 39 to 26 in 2013, much of this was due to the flyball-stifling nature of his home park. The actual production allowed by Santana on line drives last season was way out of line with MLB norms, thanks both to random luck and exemplary team defense. The same was true to a lesser extent with his groundballs. Put the whole package together, and Santana’s ERA should have been 0.89 higher than it actually was based on the batted ball mix he allowed.

There is nothing quite as earth-shattering in Garza’s profile. The flyball contact he allowed in 2013 yielded less production than the MLB average, even when adjusted for ballpark, defense, etc. If you’re going to allows a lot of flyballs, you absolutely need to control their authority well, and Garza did just that. He did play in front of some exceptional infield defenders in both Chicago and Texas last season, and would have allowed greater production on groundballs in a neutral environment. All in all, however, Garza’s batted-ball profile should have yielded slightly better than league-average production. His ERA adjusted for batted ball authority is 0.10 below his actual 2013 ERA, and just about the same amount higher than his calculated ERA from Table 1. In other words, his 2013 ERA roughly approximates his true-talent level.

As for Jimenez, his line drive and groundball production allowed was about exactly what it should have been, but he was quite unfortunate with regard to flyball production allowed. Adjusting his flyball production allowed for defense, ballpark, etc., moves his overall batted-ball production from almost exactly MLB average to quite a bit better than that. His ERA adjusted for batted-ball authority is very close to his actual 2013 ERA, and 0.25 better than his calculated ERA from Table 1.

This exercise, therefore, gives us a clear pecking order: 1) Jimenez, 2) Garza, and 3) Santana. Obviously, there are other factors to be considered, including the following:

  • 2014 Age – Garza = 30; Jimenez = 30; Santana = 31
  • Health – Garza = lost half season in 2012 (elbow), first month and a half of 2013 (lat muscle); Jimenez = never missed a start in MLB; Santana = healthy since 09 (elbow/triceps)
  • Splits – Garza = minimal reverse split for career; Jimenez = minimal normal split for career; Santana = significant normal split for career
  • Repertoire Trends – Garza = FB much less effective in 2013, though velocity stable; Jimenez = FB velocity trending down for several years, has learned to effectively use FB at lower velocity; Santana = lots of damage done to FB over years, velocity stable

Obviously, there is an awful lot more to consider when making a sizable investment in a pitcher. Physical stature, delivery, arm action, as well as personality/makeup all come into play. Based upon the subject matter discussed above, however, one has to conclude that Ubaldo Jimenez is the best of this group of three, the one most worthy of a significant investment. His profile is somewhat unusual for a 30-year-old — especially the elevated walk rate — and there is a history of inconsistency, but there is No. 2 starter upside here, coupled with an ongoing clean bill of health.

Matt Garza is a mid-rotation starter with health questions and negative creep in some key trend areas. If you’re sold on his health, a significant annual salary can be justified, if you can restrain yourself on the number of contract years. Ervin Santana is an innings guy with significant downside risk due to his acute vulnerability to hard flyball contact. If you play your home games in a big park and possess strong outfield defense, he’s worthy of a modest financial outlay, both in terms of dollars and years.




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16 Responses to “The Next Tier of Starting Pitching”

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  1. JohnMel says:

    The Jays have been linked to Jimenez and I think his profile would best fit with the team & environment. The walk rate is a little concerning since the Jays have had a BB issue on its staff. However he has a strong k% and has shown good health. They really need heath, innings & a guy who can strike out some tough AL East teams.

    Really hoping they can get it done. They have 2 protected 1st round picks so that should not be the issue.

    Santana might let 40 HR at the Rogers Center and I think they will get outbid on Garza since he has no draft compensation attached.

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  2. AR says:

    BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

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  3. hotfoot150 says:

    Love reading your Work Tony. Makes it obvious that Santana won’t work in Seattle, with their outfield. They need another groundball pitcher.

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  4. LaLoosh says:

    If the Cubs were a finalist for Tanaka I don’t see why they wouldn’t have interest in Ubaldo. I’d say Jays or Cubs for Ubaldo. Halos or O’s or Braves for Garza. Santana to M’s. Arroyo to Tribe.

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    • Pirates Hurdles says:

      Age.

      Tanaka is 25, Ubaldo is 30. Tanaka fits any rebuilding plan.

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    • NatsFan73 says:

      Because Tanaka is only 25 and a potential superstar. Ubaldo is just a guy. He’s a fine pitcher who can probably help a team win a few ball games, but he’s not the sort that a non-contender like CHC should be paying a premium for.

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      • LaLoosh says:

        But the Cubs can be good in a hurry and if they can’t hang on to Shark, they do need arms to slot in after Wood. EdJax will be there but after that it’s wide open. There will be a couple of arms available next winter if they don’t get extended by then – Scherzer, Shields, Bailey and Masterson look like the top of the class. Can’t really count on scoring one of those guys tho it would obviously be nice.

        Either way, Ubaldo at what now looks to be a reasonable price (and protected draft pick) will still help the Cubs get where they’re going.

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  5. bjsguess says:

    Solid article. In a vacuum I would take Jiminez but that draft pick and anticipated higher salary would most likely push me to Garza.

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  6. Crash37 says:

    Isn’t basing a pitcher’s value on one year of numbers kind of going against what Fangraphs is all about? I wouldn’t touch Jimenez with a 10′ pole, even if it was Eno Sarris’. Both Steamer and Oliver have his FIP jumping back up next year with his K% going down, and subsequently have his R/9 at over 4, with about 188-192 IP which all seem spot on to me. That is #3-#4 starter type performance. His diminishing velocity, his overall performance for the past 3 seasons, the fact that Cleveland needs a starter and have yet to resign him (what do they know?) and the fact my personal “pitching for a contract” alarm is at Defcon 5 for this guy makes me think paying him $17+ mill/year is a huge mistake.

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    • novaether says:

      Yes and no, Crash37.

      Tony is only using K%, B%, and batted ball rates here. According to Buhlmann credibility theory, you can be >90% sure that you’re within 10% of a pitchers true FB and GB rates with just 100 innings pitched. You’d need the full season to be equally as sure with LD% and K%, but most people don’t require that degree of credibility.

      That being said, there is definitely a risk that Ubaldo won’t be the same pitcher in 2014 as he was in 2013. That’s not to say that he didn’t earn his 2013 stats – just that there’s a risk he won’t repeat. Throw in the draft pick compensation and I’d definitely take Garza over Ubaldo.

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  7. JR Ewing says:

    Good article to get me thinking about FBB again. I agree with previous posts discussing Jiminez and higher BB rate. That’s not covered enough here along with the fact that he had a 76.5% LOB% in 2013. A guy with his control issues and a career LOB% of 71% makes it hard for me to believe there wasn’t some luck there. If you bring that back down around 71% or so for his 2013 season, all other things being equal – he would have had an ERA just over 4. I’d consider that more likely than him to have an elevated (matching career high) LOB% again. That along with his 1.3-ish WHIP (both 2013 and career) put him below Garza for me.

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  8. Ruki Motomiya says:

    Should we put any stock into Ervin Santana’s career .282 BABIP and that the highest BABIP he has had in the last 4 years is .288?

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  9. jim fetterolf says:

    Looks like Santana’s best bet is to come back to the Royals at around 4/50 or so.

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