Scouting the Starters

added 11/13/2005 by Scott Barzilla

This is an area where the Astros are not necessarily in the market, but we don't know what Roger Clemens is going to do yet, and we never know what is in the mind of Tim Purpura, Tal Smith, and Drayton McLane. I am going to use what is called DIPS (defense independent pitching statistics) to evaluate the pitchers. Even if everyone comes back the Astros will need to decide between Wandy Rodriguez and Ezequiel Astacio for the fifth starter slot.

DIPS has been accepted in the sabermetric world as the best way to predict future performance. ERAs fluctuate from season to season based on how many balls put in play turn into hits. The Voros McCracken theory states that pitchers have very little control over how many of those balls turn into hits. Research is being done on how fielding interacts with those numbers, but at the moment we have nothing concrete. I want to focus on what is concrete and that is DIPS.

                    SO/9   BB/9  Ratio   HR/9
Roger Clemens       7.88   2.64   2.98   0.47 
Andy Pettitte       6.92   1.66   4.17   0.69 
Roy Oswalt          6.85   1.79   3.83   0.67
Brandon Backe       5.85   4.04   1.45   1.15
Ezequiel Astacio    7.33   2.78   2.64   2.56
Wandy Rodriguez     5.60   3.71   1.51   1.33

Before I go too far it would be instructive to take a look at league average for these four categories. The league average for strikeouts per nine innings was 6.57, so four of the six starting pitchers were above that mark. The league average for walks per nine innings was 3.29 and we have four starters better than that. The league ratio is exactly 2.00. The same four pitchers are above average.

The league average for home runs per nine innings is 1.02. I want everyone to notice that Brandon Backe is below the league average in every category. This seriously worries me. Usually, strikeout rates don't increase, so the hope for him is that he can cut into his walks considerably. His home run rate is not significantly above average, so that might be enough to get Backe to make a significant jump. The interesting debate will be between Rodriguez and Astacio.

The conventional wisdom says Rodriguez is the better bet, but judging by these numbers it might actually be Astacio. He already has an excellent strikeout rate and SO/BB ratio. We have to hope the home run rate won't be as high as last season. Rodriguez was below average in every category like Backe. This does not bode well for the future. He had the lowest strikeout rate which means he's the most hittable. Interestingly enough, Clemens may have been the third best starter on the team last year according to DIPS. Interesting indeed. It's possible that Clemens could fall to Oswalt levels even if he pitches exactly like last season.

The Free Agent Game

If we look at the free agency list we see a few big names that might end up switching teams. A.J. Burnett is the biggest name, but there are also interesting names like Kevin Millwood and Matt Morris. Others out there like Jeff Weaver, Jarrod Washburn, Esteban Loiaza, and Kenny Rogers are available. DIPS can help us find the imposters and when we go back three seasons we get more concrete evidence.

                    SO/9   BB/9  Ratio   HR/9
A.J. Burnett        8.49   3.45   2.46   0.59
Kevin Millwood      7.14   2.57   2.78   0.86
Matt Morris         5.84   2.10   2.78   1.22	
Jeff Weaver         6.01   2.34   2.57   1.04
Jarrod Washburn     5.02   2.44   2.06   1.23	  
Esteban Loaiza      7.14   2.62   2.73   0.96	 	
Kenny Rogers        4.92   2.53   1.94   0.91

Of course, none of these guys are on our current radar, so I have no bounds about analyzing them. The teams that signs Kenny Rogers is going to be in for a rude awakening. He has been doing it with smoke and mirrors for a couple of seasons and that will probably come crashing down. The source of the problem is that he is extremely hittable.

The best bargain of the pitchers listed is probably Kevin Millwood. He is coming off of a sub-par season in terms of won-loss record, but it was a terrific season otherwise. A.J. Burnett is the prize that everyone wants and his strikeout rate shows he is hard to hit, but he also walked nearly one more hitter an inning more than everyone else. As for the Morris's, Weaver's, and Washburn's, buyers need to be careful not to overspend. The home run rates make them end of the rotation type pitchers. If they get front of the rotation money it will be money wasted.

Where do the Astros go?

Starting pitching happens to be one of the key areas where the Astros have depth in their farm system. Jason Hirsh seems to be the newest stud on the horizon, but we should never forget Taylor Bucholz. Hirsh might not be ready in 2006 (at least in April), but he could become a factor by mid-season. So, Rodriguez and Astacio might not have as long as leash as we might think.

These young pitchers also make it harder for the Astros to sign a veteran pitcher to any kind of long-term contract. If the club wants to make a trade they may have some options with these young pitchers, but Purpura has more of a proprietary attitude towards those young players than Hunsicker did. The odds are very long that we will see any kind of additional veteran presence in the rotation. The bullpen might be a different concern, but we'll get to that next time.