Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The 2012 Blue Jays, part III: Pitching

Note: This discussion uses the "Wins Above Replacement," or WAR, stat extensively.  Every statistical website that uses this (or something similar) has its own way of calculating it.  In the baseball blogosphere, Fangraphs WAR is abbreviated as fWAR and BaseballReference WAR is abbreviated as rWAR.  Those are the two primary calculations that I'll be using here.

Toronto's team pitching season went into the tank around the time that three of the five starters went on the DL with extended injuries (two requiring Tommy John surgery) within four days of each other (June 12-15).  These events triggered a chain reaction of injuries, premature promotions, waiver claims, and other transactional fun that involved the Jays carrying a thirteen man pitching staff for most of the season, and using THIRTY-FOUR pitchers to fill those twelve to thirteen ML roster spots throughout the season.*

Needless to say, with a staff being held together by enough duct tape to give Red Green a full-on woody, the Jays pitching was bad.  The Jays gave up the fourth most number of runs in the AL, the most home runs, the most walks, had the fourth fewest strikeouts, and had the third worst WHIP (Walks plus Hits per Inning Pitched).  

Clearly, depth was a problem.  Major league teams just do not have thirty-three major league calibre pitchers (plus Jeff Mathis) available to step in when injuries decimate a staff.  In fact, this is the perfect scenario in which to discuss the concept of "Wins above Replacement" (WAR). 

For 2012, the "Wins above Replacement" (WAR) statistic is an important one to look at.  According to Baseball Reference, the Jays pitchers contributed just 5 wins above replacement (rWAR) good for fifth worst in the league, while Fangraphs pegged their pitching fWAR at 7.6 -- 2nd worst in the league.  When we talk about some of the individual players, it is important to understand that this stat is cumulative.  Players who play more will have more opportunity to contribute to the team winning and thus will be able to accumulate a higher WAR.  Additionally, if a player is REALLY bad, but still plays a lot, he has the opportunity to accumulate negative WAR. 

Of the Jays' starters, Brandon Morrow led the way with 2.4 fWAR in only 124.1 innings pitched.  Had he been able to throw 200 innings last season, Morrow could have single-handedly contributed almost 4 wins to the Blue Jays season above a replacement level player.  To compare, both Henderson Alvarez and Ricky Romero, the team's leaders in innings pitched, only contributed 0.5 fWAR each.   Over at Baseball Reference, they calculate the numbers a little differently for their version (rWAR) and in that calculation, Morrow compiled a 3.2 while Alvarez had a 0.1 figure, and Romero detracted from the team with a -1.7 rWAR.  Basically, the two pitchers who had the opportunity to log the most innings contributed a grand total of either 1 win above what replacement level players could contribute, or -1.6 wins (depending on which calculation you want to use).  Even before getting injured, Kyle Drabek was not contributing much to the success of the team (-0.1 fWAR, 0.0 rWAR).  

When I rank the Blue Jays top 6 pitchers in terms of fWAR in 2012, only one (Brandon Morrow) made more than 6 starts.**  Pitchers ranked 7-10 in fWAR were all starters with their contributions ranging from 0.5 to 0.6 fWAR. 

In an ideal world, a team's five starters would contribute about 1000 innings of work.  Last season, the Jays pitchers threw 1443 2/3 innings, meaning that, again ideally, the starters will be in the game a little over 2/3 of the time.  So basically, most of the contributions that the Blue Jays were getting from their starting pitching in 2012 was barely above what could be expected from "replacement players," who (until the bullpen was stabilized through trades) comprised much of the 2012 pitching staff.The lack of production that the Blue Jays got from the pitchers who have the most control of the team's overall success was a gigantic ouchie for the Blue Jays chances to succeed in 2012.

Now, let's turn to some of those "replacement" players. What are "replacement players?"  These players are basically theoretical players who would make the major league minimum and who are only in the majors due to injuries or failure of the big-leaguers to perform.  Among these kinds of players are what some people call AAAA (or 4A) players -- those who dominate at the AAA level, but for some reason, can't perform in the majors.   

Using Baseball Reference's figures, 18 of the 34 pitchers that the Blue Jays used contributed either no rWAR or contributed negatively.  According to Fangraphs, that number is 20.  To be fair, many of these pitchers, like David Pauley, Ryota Igarashi, Sam Dyson, and Jeff Mathis, only threw a few innings for the Jays.  If we consider pitchers who threw more than 20 innings for the Jays in 2012, we're left with 7 pitchers who contributed negative numbers in both fWAR and rWAR (although there are slight differences in who these pitchers were and how much they contributed).  So, by either measure, 7 pitchers who pitched more than 20 innings were worse than the proverbial "Replacement Player."  In addition, several pitchers who racked up much larger innings totals contributed very little to the team's success (according to this measure of overall value).  

Some of these "replacement players" filled in admirably (or as well as could be expected) like Aaron Laffey eating up just over 100 innings without being too bad (0.2 rWAR, -0.3 fWAR), while others just couldn't get major leaguers out, like Joel Carreno (-0.5 fWAR, -0.2 rWAR in only 22 innings).  But the main reason that the Blue Jays had to use thirty-four pitchers in 2012 was that they  had too few "replacement level" pitchers available to step in.  Oh, and the until his trade on July 20th, Francisco Cordero was just horrible. 

While many replacement level players will come from teams' AAA affiliates, several of the pitchers who joined the bullpen parade for the Jays also came from AA.  As many other bloggers have written, with the AAA affiliate in Las Vegas (a notoriously horrendous place to pitch), the Blue Jays stashed most of their prime pitching prospects in the much more forgiving environment in Manchester, NH.***  However, it became clear that these pitchers were just not ready for the major leagues, all except for Aaron Loup who, with an excellent rookie season (5th on the team in fWAR, 6th in rWAR), stands a great chance of being the main lefty specialist in the bullpen in 2013. 

While some of these AA pitchers were successful, or at least able to put up replacement-level numbers, they were put in a difficult situation due to injury/depth issues as well as the very strange situation that the Jays were in -- having their pitching prospects avoid AAA like the plague.  Therefore, the Vegas pitching staff was filled with organizational guys (who the team thinks will never significantly contribute at the major league level), major/minor league retreads signed as minor league free agents, or claimed off of waivers from other organizations (although this will change in 2013).

What does this tell us?   Alex Anthopoulos had a really difficult job last year.  It's extremely hard to pick up freely available players who can positively contribute.  The ones that the Jays managed to find mid-way through the year in 2012 were the ones that required them to give something up.  Steve Delabar, Brandon Lyon,  and J.A. Happ all came to the Jays in trades and contributed greatly to stabilizing the bullpen in the second half of the season, but were not cheap.  Delabar cost the Jays Eric Thames while Lyon and Happ came to the Jays in a trade that sent a whole pile of prospects to Houston.  Brad Lincoln came to the Jays (from Pittsburgh in exchange for Travis Snider) and didn't pitch particularly well.  The only other mid-season addition that turned out to be a big-time contributor was Aaron Loup, showing that it is possible to make the jump from AA to the majors, but it's easier when you're being used as a left-handed specialist coming out of the bullpen.  Almost all of the pitchers that the Jays picked up on waivers or in deals that they did not need to give up much of anything proved to be ineffective in the major leagues.

If the Jays want to be able to cope with inevitable injuries and still succeed against a tough AL East division, the players stocked in the minor leagues will need to be able to contribute more than what a "replacement player" would, and the starting pitchers who are expected to be major league regulars need to step up and make their innings count for more. Which means that Alex Anthopoulos has his work cut out for him this off-season.

*Ok.  Thirty-three if we don't count backup catcher Jeff Mathis, who threw 2 innings in 2012.

** J.A. Happ (who made 6 starts) had a 1.1 fWAR for the Jays in his 40.1 innings but only a 0.2 rWAR.

*** Indicative of this, of course, is when the Jays demoted Brett Cecil.  They asked him if he'd like to be sent to Vegas or New Hampshire, and he chose New Hampshire, despite it being a lower level.

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