Thursday, October 16, 2008

The 2008 Starting Rotation: Analyzing By Game Score

    Game Scores, invented by Bill James, is a measuring stick of a pitcher's performance on any given day.  The advance statistic accounts for all of the events a pitcher can produce in a start (walks, hits, strikeouts, home runs, innings pitched, etc) and provides a tidy number in which to gauge a pitcher's effectiveness.  According to the formula they follow is as such:
Start with 50 points. Add 1 point for each out recorded, (or 3 points per inning). Add 2 points for each inning completed after the 4th. Add 1 point for each strikeout. Subtract 2 points for each hit allowed. Subtract 4 points for each earned run allowed. Subtract 2 points for each unearned run allowed. Subtract 1 point for each walk.
    Finishing with a Game Score of 50 is roughly the equivalent of tossing a quality start.  If your pitcher achieves a Game Score 50 or above, he has provided his team with a good opportunity to win the game - provided that the offense and bullpen comply.  For instance, in 2007, Scott Baker pitched eight innings against the Detroit Tigers while striking out seven but was tagged with the loss following a Marcus Thames home run to defeat the Twins, 1-0.  Baker's offense apparently had not made the trip with him to Comerica.  For his efforts, Baker was credited with throwing a Game Score of 76.  These are what are known as "tough losses": losing despite unbelievable pitching.  
    These also occur when a starting pitcher is victim of a shaky bullpen.  On August 10th of this past season, Scott Baker was lifted after seven innings of work in which he surrendered only two earned runs and posted seven strikeouts leading to a Game Score of 61 against the Kansas City Royals.   With a 4-2 lead, Ron Gardenhire gave the ball to Matt Guerrier who gave up two singles before Dennys Reyes allowed those two to come home to tie the game at four.  Later in the 12th, Craig Breslow would allow a Tony Pena single to score  Mark Teahan from second to end the game 5-4 Royals. 
    The opposite of "tough losses" are "lucky wins", those wins in which a pitcher fails to crest 50 on the Game Score meter yet secures a victory due to an glutton of offense.   while if you throw a Game Score below 50 you are hurting your team's chances of victory.
Nick Blackburn - 11-11 (4-7 in no-decisions)

GS > 50: 8-4 (3-1)

GS < 50: 3-7 (2-5)

Average Game Score = 48

High Game Score = 74 (7/2 vs. Detroit)

Low Game Score = 15 (9/17 at Tampa Bay)
    What will remain crisp in most Twins fans' minds was Nick Blackburn's performance on September 30th, 2008 for game #163.  The right-hander had spent his previous five September starts struggling, averaging a Game Score of 40, and being hammered by opponents.  In 24 innings, opposing teams clubbed seven home runs off of him and scored 18 earned runs in 24 innings.  Despite pitching well into uncharted territory for Blackburn late in the season, he was asked to toe the rubber on the final night of the year.  Over the course of six innings of work set to a background of a swirling black mass of humanity, Blackburn stymied the Chicago White Sox, deploying his fastball, cutter and slider to keep the sluggers off-balance.  Unfortunately one bad pitch to Jim Thome would be the difference as Blackburn was pegged with the loss, one in which he finished with a Game Score of 61.  The offense, unable to conjure up anything more than two hits - let alone a run - failed to adequately support Blackburn's masterful game, leaving him with the hardest "tough loss" to accept all season.          
GS > 90 = 0
GS 80-89 = 0
GS 70-79 =  2
GS 60-69 = 9
GS < 40 = 10
    In 33% of his starts he gave his team all the necessary pitching to claim victory, but only on four of those eleven occasions did he do so away from the 612 area code.  Aside from his gem in Chicago (who were 88-74 on 9/30), Blackburn's opponents that had a Game Score over 60 were well under .500 (the Rockies (15-27 on 5/16), Royals (21-31 on 5/27) and the Indians (45-58 on 7/27)).  This shows the bipolar pitcher that Blackburn is when he was asked to pitch outside the Dome.  Seven of his 33 starts in which his Game Scores were below 40 were on the road as he went 3-8 in 19 starts with a 4.97 ERA.  But before I get to carried away denouncing his appearances away from home, I should put his performance into context.  The Twins staff as a whole was miserable outside of Minnesota, posting a 5.12 ERA, and so Blackburn's 4.97 ERA wasn't too far removed from the league which posted 4.67 ERAs on average during away games.  But we should not allow his travel indiscretions to mire his contributions that he made at home where he was every bit as good as the number 1 prospect ranked by Baseball America. At the Dome, he threw two games in the 70s and posted a 2.95 ERA while going 8-3 in 14 starts.  Even though he lead the team in innings pitched and starts, he is most suited to be a fourth or fifth pitcher behind Baker, Liriano and Slowey in 2009.



 Scott Baker - 11-4 (6-7 in no-decisions)
GS > 50: 9-3 (5-5)
GS < 50: 2-1 (2-1)
Average Game Score = 55
High Game Score = 81 (7/20 vs. Texas)
Low Game Score = 28 (8/5 at Seattle) 
    Look at that again: 22 of his 28 starts were above a Game Score of 50.  In 78.5% of his starts, he pitched well enough to give his team the opportunity to win those games.  That is the definition of an ace.  In just about every way Scott Baker improved.  In 2007, he was striking out 16% of batters faced.  In 2008, he upped it to 20%.  In 2007 he finished the year with a 3.89 FIP.  This past season, he dropped that to 3.79.  The most remarkable this about Baker is that he did this while squaring off against some of the best number one pitchers in the league.  In three separate starts, Baker matched up against C.C. Sabathia (2.70 ERA), Daisuke Matsuzaka (2.90 ERA) and John Lackey (3.75 ERA) only to throw three of his best games of the year with Game Scores of 70, 72 and 71, respectively.
GS > 90 = 0
GS 80-89 = 1
GS 70-79 =  4
GS 60-69 = 4
GS < 40 = 3
    In only three of his 28 starts did Scott Baker take the mound and fail to deliver an outing that placed the Twins with a win's reach.  In Arlington on April 26th, Scott Baker left the game trailing 4-2 after 4 1/3 innings but did not factor into the decision in a game the Twins ultimately won 12-6.  On August 5th in Seattle, Scott Baker matched up against RA Dickey.  Baker went 5 1/3 inning but allowed six runs - three by way of a Raul Ibanez home run - and despite the Twins efforts to score against the weak Mariner bullpen, they came up short 8-7.  The next came on August 16th at the Metrodome when he was knocked around by the last place Mariners for four runs in just 5 1/3 innings but once again Baker, along with the Twins, eluded a loss and won in the bottom of the ninth on a Brian Buscher sacrifice fly to score Joe Mauer from third.   So where Baker faltered in those three starts, the offense and bullpen provided backup as the team actually went two out of three of those outings. 

 Kevin Slowey - 12-11 (4-1 in no-decisions)

GS > 50: 11-3 (2-0)
GS < 50: 1-8 (2-1)
Average Game Score = 53
High Game Score = 89 (7/29 vs. Milwaukee)
Low Game Score = 10 (6/8 at Chicago) 
    Here's one thing you can say about Kevin Slowey: he doesn't get cheated in his starts.  In only three occasions did he get stuck with "tough losses".  It is easy to gain a victory if you provide an offense with a quality start and in return they average 5.20 runs per game when you are on the hill.  On the other side of the coin, Slowey was not particularly lucky either.  Just once did he manage to acquire a "lucky win" in a start in which he wasn't his sharpest. His season's best on June 29th against the visiting Milwaukee Brewers.  The Brewers were sending the 9-1 Ben Sheets to the mound.  Both Sheets and Slowey faced the minimum before JJ Hardy hit a one-out double in the fourth.  Slowey would allow two more hits the rest of the night and not allow a baserunner past following the Hardy double.  The offense, meanwhile, was boosted by Delmon Young's second home run of the year and rallied for five runs off the hard-throwing righty. Slowey pitched a complete game and finished with eight strikeouts and no walks for the team's highest Game Score of the season at 89.   
GS > 90 = 0
GS 80-89 = 1
GS 70-79 =  4
GS 60-69 = 5
GS < 40 = 4
    In 27 starts Slowey gave the team an ample opportunity (Game Score of 60 or above) to win 10 times.  The Twins did win each of those 10 games as well something that cannot be said about Baker's nine (7-2) or Blackburn's eleven (9-2) of the same caliber. 
Glen Perkins - 12-4 (4-6 in no-decisions)
GS > 50: 8-0 (0-3)
GS < 50: 4-4 (4-3)
Average Game Score = 46
High Game Score = 75 (8/11 vs. New York Yankees)
Low Game Score = 20 (5/30 vs. New York Yankees)

    Here's a guy who was not handed one "tough loss" and he owes his offense a debt of gratitude for that.  Glen Perkins's record (12-4) significantly outperformed what would have been expect with someone posting a 5.14 FIP thanks to an extra run per start over the team's average (6.23 runs per game).  His season outside of that solid winning percentage was of mixed results.  He led the staff in home runs allowed (25) and was drilled for 12 home runs over the span of seven starts from August 22nd to September 27th.  Those seven games were ugly: 35 1/3 innings pitched, 23 earned runs, 14/10 K/BB ratio, a 5.86 ERA and a .333/.373/.647 opponent batting line with an average Game Score of 40 per start.  This could be indicative of several things.  The first of which being the total amount of innings pitched.  He threw 184 innings split between Rochester and Minnesota, well above his previous high.  The second ties the aforementioned inning count which was that Perkins was a year removed for a severe left shoulder injury that forced him to sit out the majority of the 2007 season.  Pitching in this territory certainly could have led to a tired arm, one that was throwing a fastball 2-mph slower than in 2007. What we should focus on were his eight games between June 9th and July 18th were Perkins did not allow more than 3 earned runs in any of those starts, averaging Game Scores of 52.  In that span, Perkins threw 50 1/3 innings, allowed 19 earned runs, posted a 26/14 K/BB ratio, a 3.40 ERA with an opponent average of .267/.318/.405.  This Perkins is more in tune with his minor league track record, where he had a 380/144 K/BB ratio with a 3.50 ERA in 367 2/3 innings pitched.  Another offseason of restrengthening his shoulder could result in a sustained performace in 2009 like his June-July stretch.   

GS > 90 = 0
GS 80-89 = 0
GS 70-79 =  2
GS 60-69 = 2
GS < 40 = 8
    Nothing spectacular here.  He spun two really good gems and a pair of solid ones but for the most part he posted Game Scores between 59-41 (46% of starts were winnable).  Four of his eight starts that falls under the category of "detrimental" in the month of September with Game Scores under 40.  Subtract those from the mix and he resembles someone that could provide a number three starter production in the fourth or fifth spot in the rotation.  Assuming that the shoulder has time to heal further this offseason, he will likely accomplish that in 2009 as well.
 Francisco Liriano - 6-4 (0-4 in no-decisions)
GS > 50: 5-0 (0-3)
GS < 50: 1-4 (0-1)
Average Game Score = 51
High Game Score = 72 (8/15 vs. Seattle)
Low Game Score = 15 (5/24 at Oakland) 
    Let's throw out the first three starts which includes his low Game Score of 15 against Oakland, m'kay?  That was a Liriano that was just regaining a feel for the ball and the strike zone.  Outside of those, Liriano pitched very well, averaging a Game Score of 56 in those 11 starts.  What is worth mentioning about that stretch of starts is that Liriano faced just one team that was above .500 - Tampa Bay Rays September 21st. Except for the Rays Liriano would face the Royals three times, the Mariners twice, the A's twice, the Indians twice and the Tigers once.  These are not exactly high quality lineups that would present a true test of his acehood.  Nevertheless he made highly productive contributions in the rotation and twice he was denied a victory by his bullpen and lack of run support (just 4.11 per start) after pitching well at Seattle and Oakland in back-to-back starts. 
GS > 90 = 0
GS 80-89 = 0
GS 70-79 =  2
GS 60-69 = 5
GS < 40 = 4
    Keep in mind that two of the four starts that were under a Game Score of 40 were of the first three starts of the year for Liriano - the others, unfortunately, came in September during a period when the team could have really used a win to avoid a one-game playoff.  A full offseason and spring training will certainly go a long ways to shifting these number back towards the 70s and 80s that he was twirling in 2006.