23 August 2007

The Billingsley Comparables

by Joshua Worley

Comparisons and associations make it easier to understand things. Language is an associative tool; language makes it possible, for example, for a large number of people to associate the same class of objects with the word "tree", or the same class of events with the word "home run". Numbers are another path to basic comprehension: we might even call them a specialized kind of language. For example, Billingsley is 3.48, Tomko is 5.80. As long as the context is known, a lot is communicated by those numbers. Chad Billingsley is an effective pitcher; Brett Tomko is not. But a simple association or comparison is not a shortcut to complete comprehension. A lot of information is missing, and depending on context we will hear some very different stories. A more complete comprehension only comes from making the simplifying associations and comparisons in as many contexts as possible. It is important to judge which contexts are important and which are not.

Billingsley v Castro

Let's try to comprehend how each starting pitcher did today, beginning with the simplest, most bottom-line contexts.

Score context: Each allowed 1 run in today's game. Billingsley = Castro.

Innings pitched context: Billingsly 7, Castro 5. Billingsley > Castro.

Comparisons are straightforward in these contexts, but they leave out a lot of information. How about a more subtle context that is still oriented around the bottom line of the direct effect each pitcher had on the game?

Runs allowed and innings pitched: Billingsley 7IP, 1 run allowed; Castro 5IP, 1 run allowed.

This is the standard way of looking at pitcher performance, because it sums things up pretty well. It's harder to compare now, though. In this case we can easily say Billingsley was better, but what if Billingsley had given up 2 runs instead? Would his two extra innings cancel out his one extra run allowed?

One of the simple associations made to group good starts together is the Quality Start standard, in which a pitcher gets a quality start if he goes at least 6 innings and give up 3 or fewer runs. By that standard Billingsley gets a QS, and Castro doesn't.

There's also game score: Billingsley 70, Castro 57.

I'm not satisfied with any of these bottom line numbers as providing a comprehensive picture, though. Both pitchers actually were worse than their bottom line numbers, in my opinion.

Castro gave up 6 walks. It could have been more. If the Dodgers had sent out a better lineup and their hitters been been even more patient then they surely would have scored more than just one run off him. Castro threw 48 balls and 40 strikes on the day.

Billingsley gave up 3 very deep fly balls. Any one of them could have been a home run if the hitter was a fraction less under the ball on his swing. If two of these balls had instead been home runs, would we be calling this an effective start? So --- maybe he wasn't really all that effective. On the other hand, Billingsley wasn't especially wild, nor did he use too many pitches, as has often been his undoing. The more we comprehend of Billingsley's start, the harder it gets to say how good it really was.

I think it is safe to say that Billingsley was a bit better than Castro, but that neither pitcher was as good as his final numbers might imply. That said, I don't think either team could reasonably complain about what they got out of their starting pitcher, even if things had not been so fortunate for both of them.

The Wild Umpire

There was one huge factor in this game that is largely invisible once play if over: one won't find any indication of it in the box score, certainly. It's the home plate umpire's strike zone. I followed the first six innings of today's game in gameday from mlb.com, and if the pitch locator was even approximately accurate then this umpire was using the Eric Gregg special as his preferred strike zone today. There were no high strikes being called, nothing above the belt buckle. There were a fair number of pitches well off the plate being called strikes. This is the sort of faulty strike zone that was epidemic in the National League 12 years ago, back in the days when Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux routinely got the outside pitch called a strike. When Chad Billingsley walked on five pitches, the one pitch that was farthest away from the gameday strike zone border was the pitch that ended up being called a strike! I know it's perilous to take the gameday pitch locations too seriously, especially for just one pitch, but this faulty strike zone was a clear trend the entire game.

Who knows what kind of games the starters would have pitched if the umpire had called the proper rule-book strike zone? Castro was wild regardless of what strike zone was called, but maybe he wouldn't have walked as many. And what about Billingsley? In the sixth inning with the score tied with two on and two outs and Rowand at bat with a 2-2 count, I was begging Billingsely to throw a pitch low and outside. I took my pencil and pointed it right at the screen where I wanted him to throw it. If he hit that spot, either the umpire would incorrectly call it a strike, as he had done all day, or the batter would swing and not be able to do anything with the pitch because of the location. Well, Billingsley put it exactly where I hoped he would put it, and Rowand swung and missed. I was quite proud of my pitching coach moment. But what if the umpire wasn't calling that pitch a strike? Would Rowand have swung then? What would Billingsley have done without that escape hatch?

Not only are there many contexts in which to examine how each pitcher did, but there are unique conditions in each game that if changed might have lead to very different results. Nothing is simple.

Billingsley v Tomko

This is a joke, right? Billingsley is an exciting young pitcher, with electric stuff. Sure, he sometimes throws too many pitches and can't go as deep into a game as we'd like, but he gives the team a chance to win more often then not, and he figures to only get better. Tomko, on the other hand, is widely regarded as a bum. He's routinely booed at Dodger Stadium, and derisively called "Bombko". Doesn't the ERA comparison of 3.48 with 5.80 say it all?

Brett Daniel Tomko -- 104 -- 79 -- 42 -- 13
Chad Ryan Billingsley -- 108.2 -- 103 -- 48 -- 13

What are these numbers? They are innings pitched, strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed in 2007 for each pitcher. These are the fielding independent lines of each pitcher. This raw data for each pitcher than has nothing to do with how well the fielders behind them perform, or how many hits fall in, or how many liners are hit at people. Funny thing is --- these lines aren't so different.

Indeed, the fielding independent ERA (FIP) for the two pitchers according to hardballtimes.com are 4.41 for Billingsley and 4.60 for Tomko. ( Does not include today's game for Billingsley. ) Billingsley has a somewhat better strikeout rate, and a slightly worse walk rate, and basically an identical home run rate, and the upshot is that he should be a marginally better pitcher than Tomko. Instead he's leaps and heaps better. More than two runs of ERA better, rather than the predicted two tenths of a run better.

So which context of comparison is the correct one? FIP? --- which has been shown to correlate better to ERA in future seasons than even current ERA; or ERA? --- which is after all the bottom line of what each pitcher has allowed to happen on his watch.

It's been shown statistically that pitchers have very little control over the batting average on balls in play that they allow. Not zero control, but not as much as traditional pitching theory would lead one to believe. That said, I don't think it's a just luck that has Billingsley giving up a 0.274 BA on balls in play ( BABIP ) to 0.327 for Tomko.

Look, we all know how Tomko pitches when everything isn't clicking. He's a little wild. He falls behind in the count. And then he pours a pitch right over the heart of the plate and the batter rips a double to the gap, or a double down the line, or whatever beat-down base hit he gets lined up. It's my subjective opinion that Tomko is a give-up pitcher. He gives up on trying to hit his spots, because walks do suck, and then he gives up a hard hit ball on his meat offering over the heart of the plate.

Billingsley has truly wicked pitches. His weakness is location --- when he's not on he's wild and throws way too many pitches, but the movement and zip is nearly always there. He doesn't often pour a pitch over the heart of the plate. It's rarely easy to hit his pitches hard.

The difference of 53 points in BABIP between the two pitchers helps explain their differing fates, but there is more. Tomko has allowed 31 doubles to just 17 for Billingsley. I believe the reason is simple; again, Tomko is just much more likely to give up a hard hit ball than Billingsley. Finally, one can compare the pitchers in pressure situations, when one mistake will ruin a day. Here are their AVE--OBP--SLG lines allowed with runners in scoring position:

Bills -- 0.253 -- 0.359 -- 0.347
Tomko -- 0.319 -- 0.392 -- 0.509

Bills rarely gives up a hard hit ball with runners in scoring position. Tomko does so routinely. Even if we ignoring the difference in batting average and call it luck, Bilingsley gives up an isolated power ( SLG minus AVE ) of about 0.100 to 0.200 for Tomko. We've all seen these two pitch; this isn't surprising. When it comes time to make a big pitch, Billingsley often succeeds, while Tomko usually fails.

Looking at FIP ( which is more or less the same as looking at IP, SO, BB, and HR ) is a good way of seeing how good a pitcher really is. But not always. Sometimes there really is no substitute for watching a pitcher, seeing how he pitches.

Which context tells the story on Billingsley? Is it ERA, or FIP, or pitch count, or something else? The obvious truth is that no one number that can sum up Billingsley. He is a young pitcher with tremendous stuff who seems poised to just get better. He often stuggles with his pitch location and builds up a high pitch count alarmingly fast. It's not hard to imagine him winning multiple Cy Young awards. It's also not that hard to imagine him never improving and taking the Tomko career route, of being a pitcher with flashes of good stuff but on the whole maddening results. I have to confess he is at times uncomfortably close to being another Tomko. The traditional sabremetric numbers say that Billingsley really isn't that good, yet. And that has to be given due respect. But I think he has a poise, and yes, a clutch factor well beyond his years. Billingsley is well on his way to his second season of an ERA below 4 with rather middling peripheral numbers. I don't think this is an accident. He has good stuff and great poise. He knows how to pitch. If he ever masters his pitch location, watch out.

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