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Two Pitching Metrics (Including A Junk Stat -- At No Additional Cost!)

Last season, I tracked a couple of figures I considered important. Okay, one of the figures I thought was important; the other was just a lark with a dumb name. But I reckon I better start tracking them again before it gets to August 24, which was the date on which I lost interest in tracking these figures last year.

The Innings Gap

The first is the average innings pitched per game started. The reason for tracking this statistic is rather self-explanatory: starters who pitch deep into games tend to make friends with their relievers, who tend not to appreciate having to rub down with Icy Hot for six straight months. Consider a nice IP/GS figure akin to Isotoner Gloves, Meat -- take care of the hands that take care of you.

In the ridiculously neglected sidebar on the right, I will provide weekly updates of what I will continue to call Operation: Innings. I will list the average innings per Nats start, as compared to the NL average as well as Washington's average last season. In our first installment, it will look like this:

WASH    5.22
NLAV    5.86
WS06    5.43

What this means is that the Nats are trailing the NL average by about two-thirds of an inning per game started -- which, believe you me, really adds up over the course of a season. I would expect that difference to flatten a bit as the season progresses. Heck, even last year's pathetic rotation pulled to within about a tenth of an inning of league average last June before falling back to a large degree. Speaking of last season, we can also see the current starting five trails the '06 figure pretty clearly at this point. It's hard to adjust for John "Four-Inning Nasty" Patterson at the moment, but I'm sure Jason Simontacchi will gobble up some massive innings when he returns from that tweaky groin.

Well, I expect the figure to improve somehow . . .

The Junk Stat

The second measure is, as I have indicated, a junk stat. It is Fielding-Unassisted Precisionlessness, or F-UP, a lamely blatant homage to other, more serious metrics employed to isolate pitching performance without a defense-assisted (or unassisted) gloss. The most noteworthy of these metrics is classified under the banner Defense Independent Pitching Statistics, or DIPS; its Walmart version is Fielding Independent Pitching Statistics, or FIP, and can be found at the Hardball Times website.

So F-UP is in that line of statistics but, like I've said, take it for what it's worth. As the name hints, it's a measure of purely pitching eff-ups -- more specifically, the stuff that happens before a batter puts the ball in play. It is a simple addition of Walks, Hit By Pitches, and Wild Pitches, expressed per nine innings. Last season, the Nationals outpaced the NL average in such occurrences -- which isn't necessarily a good thing, obviously -- and the retooled Nats staff is right back at it:

WASH    5.46
NLAV    4.33

I'll let you in on a trade secret, though. Unless your favorite team employs the love child of Nuke LaLoosh and Wild Thing Vaughn, or is trapped in an alternate video game reality controlled by a drunk, headhunting frat boy, F-UP is pretty much a measure of the team's walks per nine innings. This is putting things a bit too simply, but I've found there aren't enough HBP and WP over the course of a season to counteract the walk rate's influence, or else the first two numbers sort of cancel themselves out as compared to the league average. Take the Nats' pitching staff (please!), for instance. They have plunked the fewest batters in the NL (three, whereas Charlie Manuel's thugs already reached double-digits), but they have thrown the most wild pitches. So, reducing F-UP down to its flimsy, tautological core, we're essentially looking at a walk rate.

Not unsurprisingly, Washington's walk rate is pretty bad, much worse than the league average, and that's what drives its bloated F-UP value. As of early Friday morning, here are the respective rates per nine innings pitched:

WASH    4.71
NLAV    3.68

The Nationals actually haven't walked the most batters in the NL; they're second to Arizona, which has also pitched the most innings in the league. (Arizona's the only NL team to have played 17 games.) Furthermore, the Nats actually haven't walked the most batters per nine innings in the NL; they're second to Florida, which has a rate of 4.72. So yes, the Nats have pretty much the worst control record in the NL thus far, give or take a significant digit.

Different managers order intentional walks at different rates, so a more sophisticated version, A F-UP, adjusts for the really free pass. This adjustment does the Nats no service at this point, as they have issued only two intentional walks. (Arizona and Florida have issue five and six, respectively.) Now, A F-UP doesn't account for unintentional-intentional walks or intentional-unintentional walks, or any other combination using the prefix un. But the moral of the story is the Nats as a staff haven't thrown strikes reliably, which might come as a shock unless you've watched the games.

* * * *

A quick perusal of the team's individual pitcher statistics shows three or so guys with excellent control records so far (Shawn Hill, Micah Bowie, and Jon Rauch) and the rest who've lost their control worse than Marlon Byrd lost his Escalade. While I hyperbolize, of course, it seems notable that four-fifths of the rotation has a walk rate that, over the course of a full season, would likely prove a killer. Chico has walked eight guys in 13.2 innings; Williams has walked eight in 16 innings, a rate just bordering on viable; Bergmann has walked 11 in 16 innings (though with 15 strikeouts).

And then there's yesterday's starter, John Patterson, who labored again under the stress of a half-full deck and poor command:

Patterson's best fastball yesterday was 89 mph, not the 93 or 94 he throws when he's at his best. His outing barely lasted into the fifth inning, by which time he had loaded the bases with nobody out. He threw just 55 percent of his pitches for strikes, and started nine of 22 hitters with ball one. He has not completed six innings in any of his four starts, and has lost three of them. His most recent win came a year ago last Sunday.

With Patterson, the problem hasn't by any stretch been only the walk rate, but that is one of the manifestations thereof. He has walked 14 batters in 18 innings, which isn't close to viable. During Patterson's breakout 2005 campaign, he walked 65 batters in almost 200 innings. Even during his frustrating, injury-shortened season last year, he walked only nine batters in 40.2 innings and showed flashes of that "ace" ability. I am, of course, referring to his performance last April 12, when he struck out 13 Marlins against only one walk in a dominating eight-inning outing. That stuff just hasn't been there so far in 2007.

In a diary thread here, NTP Nate posits three Pattersonian possibilities:

1. He's still recovering from last season's forearm injury/surgery.

2. He's developed a new (possibly related) injury and just hasn't acknowledged it yet.

3. His mechanics are completely gone and the team is just unwilling to admit it.

Patterson appears to indicate his problems are most in line with the first possibility. He insists the problem is arm strength, not a problem with mechanics, and he hasn't hinted at any injury other than the one from which he is still recovering. According to Patterson, this recovery is responsible for his lack of velocity, the sapped life on his breaking ball, and the wall he hits around the fifth inning. Additionally, OMG, in a very reasoned post, contends the data suggests Patterson's lack of a full-strength repetoire does him in at the start of games. So, in sum, we're only seeing the "real" Patterson for about twenty or thirty pitches per game?

I guess so. I hope so. Because if that's the case, then there's an expectation down the road that the "real" Patterson will emerge more and more conspicuously with subsequent outings. But it also begs the question of whether the "real" Patterson -- in other words, top of the rotation quality starter -- will reemerge. I'm not saying that John Patterson won't reemerge, but if he doesn't then needless to say it wouldn't be the first such occurrence in the history of the game.

I quote Bill James a lot here not necessarily because I'm a dork (though I suppose I am), and not necessarily because I'm good at math (I'm not), but because he has the ability to express cogent thoughts about the game . . . . well, cogently and thoughtfully. On more than one occasion, James has opined that most major league pitchers would be good major league pitchers if not for injury. He means this as a principle, not as a falsifiable proposition, by the way.

James reasons that it is the specter and reality of injury that: (a) puts a pitcher on the shelf, or (b) causes the pitcher to go back on the shelf by begetting subsequent injury, or (c) deprives a pitcher of his full arsenal, or (d) prohibits a pitcher from steadily building up the mastery of his craft and learning the tricks of the trade at the highest level over an uninterrupted two- or three-year period. All of these points could apply to Patterson in the long-term, or he could defeat all of them and turn into one of the individuals who becomes a very good major league pitcher.

But for now -- with the possible exception of (b), upon which I cannot speculate -- they seem applicable. Injury has (a) kept Patterson out of action, while (c) severely limiting his stuff, and (d), as echoed in some of the morning's game stories, depriving Patterson of the opportunity to learn to pitch when he doesn't have it all there, to win based on a mastery of the craft rather than a top fastball and a real snapper of a curve. (All of this leads to an easy contrast with his opponent yesterday, Jamie Moyer. He's been pitching forever with the most limited of arsenals, and conceivably he could do so forever -- just eventually spirited away to pitching heaven at some point, not unlike Enoch.)

* * * *

Well, you can see how the two measures above -- IP/GS and Glorified BB/9IP -- interract and affect the staff as a whole. Pitchers who struggle and labor are probably those who have poor walk rates, who inflate their pitch counts, and who leave the game early. By consistently leaving the game early, they leave the game in the hands of a bullpen who, over the course of the season, becomes fatigued and with fatigue comes a loss of command, which drives up the bullpen's walk rate (and other rates). Fortunately, several relievers (Bowie and especially Rauch, cited above) have been sharp for the most part, as has been Saul Rivera since his recall. And Shawn Hill has been an absolute staff-saver early on.

But, the season's second week surge aside, the rest of the starters will have to work more efficiently and deeper into games. I don't want to get ahead of things, but depth (or a lack thereof) will come into play in the weeks and months to come. Given Patterson's early struggles, Joel Hanrahan has to be on stand-by in Columbus. Jason Simontacchi is looking like May at this point.

But the Nats beat on, boats against the current, with the guys they have at present. The next stop is lovely South Florida, where the Nats might catch a break. According to Fishstripes, Miguel Cabrera is 50/50 for tonight's game owing to an oblique tweak.

Rest up, Miguel!