FanPost

The Twins have the best starters in the AL.

 

This has been discussed in some of the fine trade-deadline stuff this week, but the starting pitching staff has taken a ton of grief lately, and I thought it was time to make the case that we actually have the best pitching staff in the American League! 

*Especially* when playoff time rolls around.

World rocked yet?  If not, allow me to strip away, layer by stinking layer, the myth onion in which you are entrapped.

Myth #1: Liriano is fine, but he's no ace!

In case you haven't noticed (I'm looking at you in particular, Jim Souhan), the best pitcher in the American League pitches for your Minnesota Twins.  His name is Francisco Liriano, and his numbers look something like this (parenthetical ranking shows his place among the other 56 qualifying AL starters):

FIP: 2.18 (1st, and it’s not close)

xFIP: 2.95 (1st, and it’s not close)

% swings that do not make contact: 25.9 (1st)

% pitches out of the zone swung at: 33.7 (3rd)

K/9: 9.81 (3rd)

BB/9: 2.66 (19th)

HR/9: 0.15 (1st by a loooooong shot)

FB%: 26.9 (3rd)

GB%: 52.3 (8th)

ERA: 3.54 (18th)

IP/start: 6.4 (16th)

BABIP: .357 (56th—highest in the league)

You'll notice that Liriano suffers from a classic case of underrated-due-to-ERA.  His batting average on balls in play (BABIP)--something long-established by honest, hard-working stat nerds to be almost entirely out of a pitcher's control--is actually the highest of all qualified AL starters.  In other words, he's been the unluckiest starter in the AL.  If it were merely average (typically about .300), he'd have one of those gaudy, microscopic ERAs that make the babes go crazy.

On the other hand, his demonstrated combination of skills over which pitchers have control--striking people out, avoiding walks, and avoiding home runs and fly balls--is uniquely excellent.  This is why his FIP (measuring percentage of Ks, BBs, and HRs) and xFIP (measuring percentage of Ks, BBs, and fly balls) are tops and with room to spare.  (So suck it Cliff Lee!)

Myth #2: Carl Pavano is awesome because of his mustache.

This is actually true, but I wanted a myth theme with the headings.  The stats for everyone's all-time favorite Yankee are as follows:

FIP: 3.94 (23rd)

xFIP: 3.91 (14th)

% swings that do not make contact: 16.9 (35th)

% pitches out of the zone swung at: 36.1 (1st)

K/9: 5.15 (45th)

BB/9: 1.2 (2nd)

HR/9: 1 (31st)

FB%: 33.3 (14th)

GB%: 48.6 (17th)

ERA: 3.48 (15th)

IP/start: 7.06 (3rd)

BABIP: .259 (5th)

Not the same level of excellence there, but some real bright spots and a nice overall package (these stats are also as of June 21, so they don't include the 9-inning complete-game shutout he just threw on the 22nd).  Liriano's karmic evil Twin, Pavano has had all the good BABIP luck Liriano hasn't, and therefore probably isn't quite the pitcher his ERA suggests, but a decent #2 all the same.

Myth #3: Sure, Liriano and Pavs are fine, but our other starters couldn't pitch their way through the buffet line at a hug-therapy convention!

Wrong.  Consider the adorable Scott Baker:

FIP: 4.01 (26th)

xFIP: 3.84 (10th)

% swings that do not make contact: 18.2 (23rd)

% pitches out of the zone swung at: 35.3 (2nd)

K/9: 7.6 (15th)

BB/9: 1.74 (6th)

HR/9: 1.35 (47th)

FB%: 41 (39th)

GB%: 35.7 (48th)

ERA: 5.15 (48th)

IP/start: 5.96 (42nd)

BABIP:  .343 (52nd—5th highest in league)

If you squint your eyes right at all that, you can see that Baker's actually been a pretty elite pitcher when it comes to striking batters out and avoiding walks.  His Achilles heel is an extreme tendency to allow the long ball, which is bad, but you'll notice that even in that regard he's had pretty bad luck with the percentage of his fly balls that have left the park (another stat that pitchers really have little control over--Baker's HR/FB rate is the 10th worst in the AL).

The 5.15 ERA isn't pretty, but as with Liriano, you're dealing with extremely bad luck on balls in play.  Combine that with the unlucky HR/FB ratio and the small percentage of runners he's stranded (yet another largely luck-based stat), and you'll see that Baker actually hasn't been all that far from that entirely useful starter we've all grown to love over the last few years.  He's just been getting tough breaks (and probably needs a hug).

Myth #4: As a group, our starters just don't match up against the big dogs...EXPESHELLY 4 DA PLEYOFFZ!!1!

Alright, we've already established that we have the best #1 starter: Liriano.  At least, he's been the best so far this year.  I'll grant that year-to-date performance is not the same as a projection for performance going forward, but with pitchers, this is much less so than for position players, especially with the healthy sample size we have for the 56 qualified AL starters (all have at least 96 IP). 

So let's go with it.  Let's say every AL starter will be for the rest of 2010 and the playoffs what they have been so far, in that they'll each continue to display the luck-independent pitching skill that they've demonstrated so far this year.  So we'll measure pitcher quality in FIP and xFIP (we'll just average the two since, while they're largely similar, they each give you a slightly different angle on home-run prevention).  Based on that criteria, here's the list of the AL's "aces":

Team

ERA

FIP

xFIP

(FIP+xFIP)/2

Rank

WAR

Francisco Liriano

Twins

3.54

2.18

2.95

2.565

1

4.7

Cliff Lee

Rangers

2.59

2.55

3.37

2.96

2

4.1

Jon Lester

Red Sox

2.81

2.96

3.4

3.18

3

3.9

Jered Weaver

Angels

3.16

3.08

3.32

3.2

4

3.5

Felix Hernandez

Mariners

2.75

3.05

3.38

3.215

5

4.1

Gavin Floyd

White Sox

3.87

3.19

3.69

3.44

6

3.4

Ricky Romero

Blue Jays

3.5

3.4

3.51

3.455

7

2.8

Justin Verlander

Tigers

3.86

3.09

3.91

3.5

8

3.3

Zack Greinke

Royals

3.59

3.37

3.64

3.505

9

3.2

CC Sabathia

Yankees

3.13

3.72

3.89

3.805

10

2.6

David Price

Rays

2.84

3.63

4.08

3.855

11

2.4

Dallas Braden

Athletics

3.74

3.72

4.02

3.87

12

1.8

Justin Masterson

Indians

5.25

3.99

3.99

3.99

13

1.7

Brian Matusz

Orioles

5.21

4.43

4.74

4.585

14

1.2

 

Again, for all this hemming and hawing about lacking a "true ace," the Twins are actually sitting pretty with Liriano.  The mighty Yankees and Rays on the other hand?  Their aces have been decidedly mediocre so far this year.  I don't know, maybe they're saving themselves for the playoffs?

Alright, so that's the ace matchup; Game 1 in the bag.  On to the pitchers for Game 2 and each team's next-best pitcher:

Team

ERA

FIP

xFIP

(FIP+xFIP)/2

Rank

WAR

Brandon Morrow

Blue Jays

4.71

3.32

3.92

3.62

1

2.6

John Danks

White Sox

3.37

3.34

4.12

3.73

2

3.2

Colby Lewis

Rangers

3.52

3.69

3.98

3.835

3

2.6

Joel Pineiro

Angels

4.18

3.9

3.89

3.895

4

2.2

Carl Pavano

Twins

3.48

3.94

3.91

3.925

5

2.2

Doug Fister

Mariners

3.56

3.58

4.27

3.925

5

1.9

Phil Hughes

Yankees

3.99

3.86

4.09

3.975

7

1.8

James Shields

Rays

4.9

4.35

3.73

4.04

8

1.5

Clay Buchholz

Red Sox

2.81

3.77

4.34

4.055

9

1.9

Trevor Cahill

Athletics

3.19

4.29

4.11

4.2

10

1.2

Max Scherzer

Tigers

4.43

4.31

4.11

4.21

11

1.4

Fausto Carmona

Indians

3.65

4.13

4.65

4.39

12

1.7

Kevin Millwood

Orioles

5.77

5.03

4.33

4.68

13

0.5

Kyle Davies

Royals

5.45

4.72

5.09

4.905

14

0.9

 

Here, Pavano slides in at #5.  Not quite the cat-bird's seat we had in Game 1, but not too shabby, especially when you consider that we almost surely won't face three of the four superior #2 pitchers in the playoffs.  On to Game 3:

Team

ERA

FIP

xFIP

(FIP+xFIP)/2

Rank

WAR

Shaun Marcum

Blue Jays

3.36

3.67

4

3.835

1

2.2

Scott Baker

Twins

5.15

4.01

3.84

3.925

2

1.7

Andy Pettitte

Yankees

2.88

3.98

4.07

4.025

3

1.8

Jake Peavy

White Sox

4.63

4.05

4.12

4.085

4

1.8

Jason Vargas

Mariners

2.97

3.58

4.71

4.145

5

2.3

Gio Gonzalez

Athletics

3.75

4.04

4.41

4.225

6

1.7

Ervin Santana

Angels

3.63

4.09

4.4

4.245

7

1.9

Jeff Niemann

Rays

2.92

4.37

4.26

4.315

8

1.4

C.J. Wilson

Rangers

3.23

4.05

4.63

4.34

9

2

Jeremy Bonderman

Tigers

4.98

4.36

4.55

4.455

10

1.3

Jake Westbrook

Indians

4.74

4.6

4.45

4.525

11

1

John Lackey

Red Sox

4.65

4.32

4.92

4.62

12

1.7

Jeremy Guthrie

Orioles

4.58

4.91

5.1

5.005

13

0.7

Brian Bannister

Royals

5.65

5.54

4.85

5.195

14

0.1

 

That's right.  So far this year by FIP and xFIP, the only team in the AL with a better #3 starter than Baker is the Toronto Freaking Blue Jays, who are, needless to say, a team we will not have to worry about in the playoffs.

So who has the best overall 1-3?  Let's add up the ranks of each team's starters in each of the 3 groups.

Starter #

Starter

Rank among like starters

WAR

Twins

1

Francisco Liriano

1

4.7

2

Carl Pavano

5

2.2

3

Scott Baker

2

1.7

Score

8

8.6

Blue Jays

1

Ricky Romero

7

2.8

2

Brandon Morrow

1

2.6

3

Shaun Marcum

1

2.2

Score

9

7.6

White Sox

1

Gavin Floyd

6

3.4

2

John Danks

2

3.2

3

Jake Peavy*

4

1.8

Score

12

8.4

Rangers

1

Cliff Lee

2

4.1

2

Colby Lewis

3

2.6

3

C.J. Wilson

9

2

Score

14

8.7

Angels

1

Jered Weaver

4

3.5

2

Joel Pineiro

4

2.2

3

Ervin Santana

7

1.9

Score

15

7.6

Mariners

1

Felix Hernandez

5

4.1

2

Doug Fister

5

1.9

3

Jason Vargas

5

2.3

Score

15

8.3

Yankees

1

CC Sabathia

10

2.6

2

Phil Hughes

7

1.8

3

Andy Pettitte

3

1.8

Score

20

6.2

Red Sox

1

Jon Lester

3

3.9

2

Clay Buchholz

9

1.9

3

John Lackey

12

1.7

Score

24

7.5

Rays

1

David Price

11

2.4

2

James Shields

8

1.5

3

Jeff Niemann

8

1.4

Score

27

5.3

Athletics

1

Dallas Braden

12

1.8

2

Trevor Cahill

10

1.2

3

Gio Gonzalez

6

1.7

Score

28

4.7

Tigers

1

Justin Verlander

8

3.3

2

Max Scherzer

11

1.4

3

Jeremy Bonderman

10

1.3

Score

29

6

Indians

1

Justin Masterson

13

1.7

2

Fausto Carmona

12

1.7

3

Jake Westbrook

11

1

Score

36

4.4

Royals

1

Zack Greinke

9

3.2

2

Kyle Davies

14

0.9

3

Brian Bannister

14

0.1

Score

37

4.2

Orioles

1

Brian Matusz

14

1.2

2

Kevin Millwood

13

0.5

3

Jeremy Guthrie

13

0.7

Score

40

2.4

 

You can do the same thing by WAR, but this doesn't change things a whole lot (the Rangers get a very slight edge over the Twins this way).  Either way, the Twins are in as good a shape as anyone with their three best starters.

Myth #5: Please, at least grant me that Kevin Slowey sucks.

Sorry, he's actually the 2nd best #4 starter by FIP and xFIP in the AL (behind the Blue Jays' Brett Cecil).  Similar story to Liriano and Baker: he's had the 7th-worst BABIP luck in the league.

So there you go.  Ka-blam-o!  Myths broken.

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