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The Underappreciated Zach Greinke

This afternoon, with their entire season hanging in the balance, the Milwaukee Brewers will send Zach Greinke to the mound on their home filed, Miller Park, where they won more home games than any other team in baseball in 2011.  While I feel they may have overpaid in terms of weakening themselves in previous games to set-up Greinke starting a do-or-die game at home, Milwaukee and their fans will hear none of it – this is exactly what they wanted and to them, the end result justified the cost of getting there.

For the first time in three starts, Zach Greinke will be taking the mound on a full four days rest.  This is absolutely crucial and one of the reasons I was so critical of the Brewers’ frantic maneuvers to effect this very set up.  I didn’t feel they should have done anything that would possibly reduce the effectiveness of Zach Greinke – and he wasn’t particularly effective in either start on short rest.  The reason for my concern will almost certainly surprise anyone who follows the game, but it’s an opinion I’ve held since mid-June.

Zach Greinke is the best pitcher in baseball.

That seems like such an indefensible, nay idiotic, position that you'd demand a beer or two as the cost of listening to my lunacy.  To continue this conversation it really seems like we should be in a bar doesn’t it?  So pull up a metaphorical Corona, Bass (you know who you are), or cucumbertini (so do you!)  and let me defend myself.  Fittingly, given the logic involved and the current popularity of the movie adaptation, it helps to go back to Moneyball for an explanation.

In terms of how the Oakland A’s constructed their roster based on the financial constraints they faced, the baseball takeaway from Moneyball was that On-Base Percentage, especially when driven by base-on-balls, was an undervalued metric in terms of assessing player value.  The fact that it was undervalued in terms of player salaries may have been a revelation but the disclosure that walks are important shouldn’t have surprised even a casual fan.  “A walk is as good as a hit” has been a staple of Little League advice from the time kids turn ten and start facing live pitching.

From a statistical standpoint however, there was one true revelation in the book.  One that made even the most hard-core fans of the game react the same way:  They set the book down and muttered, “There is no freaking way that’s right.”  This was the revelation:

A pitcher has no effect on the result of an at-bat once the ball has been hit into the field of play.

In other words, it doesn’t matter who threw the pitch, (say, AJ Burnett or CC Sabathia) if it is hit into the field of play, the odds of it being a hit or converted into an out are exactly the same.  This finding was truly revolutionary because it went against everything fans thought they knew about baseball.  We believed certain pitchers induced weak contact and had the ability to make hitters hit the ball at fielders.  As hard to believe as it may have been, it was fairly easy to prove.  A statistic named Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) was created to measure the result of at bats that didn’t end in a walk, strikeout, or home run.  What researchers found was that the results were completely random.  Pitchers who led the league one year sometimes found themselves at the bottom the next year, and vice versa.  Far and away the best predictor of what a specific pitcher’s BABIP results would be from one year to the next was the league mean, not what he did the year before (classic mean reversion behavior.)  Pitchers on the same team, who therefore play with the same defenders behind them all season, were ranked in an order that made no sense.  For a quick example of that let’s take a look at the Philadelphia Phillies pitching staff this year.  The Phillies, as you probably know easily had the best staff in baseball anchored by three starters (Halladay, Lee, and Hamels) who had Cy Young-caliber season.  Rookie Vance Worley went 11-3 with a 3.02 ERA and perennial All-Star Roy Oswalt also started 23 games.  So which Phillie pitcher do you think had the lowest BABIP against him?  Take a look:


Pitcher                         BABIP

Kyle Kendrick               .253

Cole Hamels                  .254

Vance Worley               .281

Cliff Lee                       .291

Roy Halladay                .298

Roy Oswalt                   .316

Joe Blanton                   .366


Anyone think Kyle Kendrick is the Phillies best pitcher or that Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay are below league-average in any skill-based pitching metric?  (And yes, AJ Burnett, .294, was better than CC Sabathia, .318 in 2011.)

This mind boggling discovery was made before the 2002 season by a gentleman named Voros McCracken, a complete unknown in baseball research circles and brought to the greater public's attention by Moneyball, and it created an entirely new way to evaluate pitchers.  It became quickly accepted that pitchers were only in control of three results in an at-bat: strikeouts, walks, and home-runs allowed.  (Later it was discovered that measuring the rate at which pitchers induce ground balls is a better measure than home runs allowed because pitchers exhibit some control over their ground ball/fly ball ratio.)

Which brings us back to Zach Greinke.  Among starting pitchers (minimum10 starts) in 2011, Zach Greinke had the second highest strikeout rate (10.54 per 9 innings) in all of baseball (Atlanta’s Brandon Beachy at 10.74 was first).  Of the pitchers you would cite to counter my argument that Greinke is the best pitcher in baseball only Clayton Kershaw (9.57 per 9) and Cliff Lee (9.21 per 9) are above 9 – still a material distance from Greinke.  Despite this display of power pitching, Greinke walks a below average amount of batters (2.36 per 9 innings) and induces ground balls at an above average rate.  Researchers have run a regression analysis on these three factors and determined strikeout rate is by far the most important determinant in preventing runs from scoring.  This makes sense because if results are random once the ball is in the field of play, preventing it from ever getting there, via strikeouts, would be of paramount value.

Put every starting pitcher’s three inputs into the regression analysis and the result is that Zach Greinke’s mix of inputs would be expected to result in the least amount of runs allowed vs. any other pitcher.  (The stat is called Skill Interactive ERA, or SIERA for short, and it can be found at  Any deviation from that result is simply due to random factors or the quality of defense behind any particular pitcher.

Since run prevention is what you want from a pitcher, I think Greinke was the best pitcher in baseball in 2011.  Not the most valuable; he didn’t start as many games, by about five as the other elite pitchers, and he doesn’t go quite as deep into games as Verlander, Halladay, and Lee which is quite valuable.  But when he is on the mound, Greinke’s skill set is the most optimal for preventing runs over the long run.

This afternoon we’ll get a chance to see if Greinke can overcome the effects of two straight 3-day rest starts (as mentioned, he wasn’t particularly sharp in either one) and fulfill, in the short run, the promise that I think he holds.  Oddsmakers make the Brewers about a 60% favorite to win tonight, which, subject to starting line-up changes, seems low by a few percent to me. (Follow @MagicRatSF on Twitter for final model projections near game-time.) 

St. Louis at Philadelphia

In the last of the Game 5 match-ups the Cardinals will be in Philadelphia where their aces will face-off.  Chris Carpenter will take the mound for the visitors vs. Roy Halladay.  Oddsmakers have the Phillies listed as a 64% favorite which seems just a little too high to me.  So far in the playoffs, the home team has won 9 out of 16 games, just one game above 50%.  We’ll see if the Phillies and Brewers can take advantage of their familiar surroundings today.


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