What was under-acknowledged before last summer’s Brandon McCarthy trade became one of baseball’s worst-kept secrets after McCarthy dominated in New York: be it rigid pitching plans, hot air, dry baseballs, or something different, Phoenix and/or the team that plays there have had as bad an effect on pitchers as has Denver and the Rockies. The D-backs’ desire and ultimate decision to trade Wade Miley makes one wonder if the new front-office-by-committee fully grasps that.
In one way, the D-backs did exactly what one should not do when you have a boatload of #4 starters with perhaps just one healthy #3: trade away the #3 without receiving someone clearly better. It’s a puzzling move in that the D-backs didn’t need to trade Miley, who did promise to help prop up the 2015 rotation, and who was going to do so at a discount price. There are very few reasons to be pessimistic about Miley going forward, especially if he’s wearing a different uniform. Results may not have matched Miley’s peripherals in 2014, but that was true for almost the entire pitching staff.
There is another way to look at the deal, however. The D-backs currently live in a land of “quantity not quality,” and when that’s the case it’s often the best move to do exactly what the D-backs actually did: acquire lottery tickets that have a chance to break through the miasma of #4s and into the lofty Arizona stratosphere of “above average.” Both Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa have been considered decent bets to be #3 starters in the past. Neither is young — Webster will turn 25 during spring training, and De La Rosa will turn 26 during it — and yet plus stuff means that the D-backs can dream on either or both at least as long or as hard as the Red Sox can on Miley.
This is a move that means taking two steps back, and somewhere between zero and four steps forward. Unless the D-backs make a follow-on trade, we may stay puzzled for a long time about why the club determined trading Miley was a good idea at all. At the same time, “between zero and four steps forward” could be exactly what the D-backs need — regardless of whether they’re retooling, or if they’re a 75-win team with self-delusions of grandeur.
The D-backs Pitching Vortex
The Red Sox have lost three starters in the last five months, and are rebuilding a rotation almost from scratch — it would not be unreasonable to wonder why they’ve cashed in two possible starters for one. But Boston may be betting on a recent phenomenon: pitchers get better when they leave Arizona, not worse. The D-backs had a significant “bad” discrepancy between its staff ERA and staff FIP last season, a 0.43 differential that was second only to the Twins. But even the Twins version tells a less compelling story; when FIP is normalized for HR rate (with xFIP), it looked like less was going on. With the D-backs, the xFIP discrepancy is even larger: a 0.63 difference between its ERA and xFIP, which is second only to the Rockies’ 0.82 differential. The Twins still had a 0.46 differential, and the Yankees were the only team to have had its ERA more than 0.25 higher than its xFIP.
It’s possible this is noise — the 2013 discrepancies were smaller. But that’s a lot less likely on a team level, and the D-backs’ team ERA has been worse than its FIP and xFIP in each of the last three seasons. What’s weird is that it’s not completely a matter of park factor.
In 2014, the D-backs’ home ERA was 4.31, its xFIP 3.47 (0.84 home differential). That’s very bad, but on the road things weren’t much better: its ERA was 4.20, its xFIP 3.80 (0.40 road differential). A 0.40 road differential was still a bigger ERA-xFIP than all but that of the Rockies and Twins, and it is itself an outlier. Park factor may have made a bad thing worse, but as is routinely the case with outliers in baseball, the best explanation is probably a combination of things.
Whatever the rest of the explanation may be, it’s likely that it’s something that the ERA-estimator stat SIERA controls for, just like park factor. The D-backs’ staff SIERA in 2014 was actually 10th-best in baseball, at 3.59 — and that’s on a scale designed to be similar to ERA. Again, the D-backs move just behind the Rockies at the head of the differential class, with a 0.67 discrepancy between ERA and SIERA. It looks like SIERA rewarded the D-backs for a fairly healthy 20.7% strikeout rate (ranked 14th) and an even healthier 7.6% walk rate (ranked 12th).
More than anything else, SIERA appears to reward the D-backs for their impressive collection of unusual pitchers. Pitchers with high ground ball rates have BABIPs on their ground balls that are lower than average; the same is true with fly ball pitchers on their fly balls. The relief crew had several pitchers on the extremes (which is a very good thing), including an extreme fly ball guy in Addison Reed and the insane-even-for-relievers ground ball rates of Brad Ziegler (63.8%) and Evan Marshall (60.7%). But the staff’s relatively high ground ball rate tells a deceptive story, because its starting pitchers were all on the extremes:
Of the 185 starting pitchers who threw at least 50 innings last season, the D-backs had 3 of the top 30 in ground ball rate, and 2 in the bottom 30 (well, almost). The team’s other two over-50 IP starters weren’t in the middle, either: Chase Anderson was pretty far on the low end (39.9%, 138th) and Trevor Cahill still got a lot of ground balls (48.7%, T-54th). The D-backs had no starting pitcher throw 50+ innings who wasn’t 70th percentile or above or 25th percentile or below in ground ball rate. As SIERA rightly calculated, the D-backs staff should have done better than its FIP for that reason, even despite park factor (FIP doesn’t include it — and ESPN calculates a 1.154 runs factor at Chase Field). Instead, the D-backs had the second-largest differential in baseball going the other way.
I wish I had a satisfying answer for this. Trust me, Jeff and I have been trying. The fact that Miguel Montero‘s framing numbers are so good makes this phenomenon even more extreme, not less. So extreme, in fact, that we probably should suspect if not conclude that something extreme has been happening to Arizona pitchers, just like Gerardo Parra‘s “tied for best Defensive Runs Saved total” season in 2013 was so good that we could conclude that he was at least well above average.
The possible explanations for this fall into universes: it’s either something about the players, or it’s something about the team. It could be the players — it’s possible that the team’s evaluators, Kevin Towers included, targeted pitchers who tended to do worse than they were “supposed” to. That seems unlikely, meaning the explanation is probably something about the team. I strongly suspect that it had to do with predictable pitching plans. If that’s the case, than Wade Miley has a really good chance to do significantly better next season. It also means that there’s a good chance that pitchers added by the D-backs — including Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa, as well as Jeremy Hellickson — might do worse.
The Return: Tools Over Results
My worst-kept secret is that I live in Boston. The feel here among Red Sox fans, at least based on my interactions, is that Allen Webster and to a lesser extent Rubby De La Rosa have stalled out as promising pitchers, and that they had started to get in the way of improvement. I’ll admit that my initial reaction to the news of this deal was very negative, and that’s the reason. Even as lottery tickets, Webster and De La Rosa no longer feel like winners to me.
But it was improper to jump to conclusions. I have my doubts that pitchers can come to Arizona and improve, but if Miguel Montero was somehow part of the problem, he can’t be part of the problem anymore. Who knows: maybe the team will actually install a humidor, which could make everything they’ve done thus far seem genius. But the point is: let’s try to forget that Webster and De La Rosa may have stalled out in Boston, and approach them on their own merits.
Like De La Rosa, Allen Webster was shipped to Boston in the massive Dodgers trade that sent Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett to Los Angeles. He’ll be 25 at the outset of the 2015 season, and he’s already seen time in the majors: 30.1 innings (8 G, 7 starts) in 2013, and 59 innings (11 starts) in 2014. He may have been exposed a little too early, as his 6.25 career ERA and 5.08 FIP attest. His career ground ball rate of 45% is middle of the road; it would have ranked him 88th on that list of 185 pitchers from last year, making him less likely than most pitchers to get an unusually low on grounders or fly balls.
Webster’s minor league numbers provide some cause for optimism. Although he’s had a walks+hits per inning (WHIP) around or above 1.50 in the majors and several stops in the minors, his walk rate has dipped below 4 per 9 innings in both of his Triple-A seasons. His career minor league strikeout rate of 8.54 K/9 is strong, and would make him something of a strikeout pitcher in the majors if he kept hit up; so far in the majors, his stuff hasn’t translated, as he has just a 5.94 K/9, which slips below “very good” and into “weakness” territory.
But stuff he has. Webster throws five pitches, four of which have at least flashed plus. Per Brooks Baseball, his average four-seam velocity in 2014 93.13 mph, which would grade slightly above average; his sinker averaged 91.83 mph, which is very strong for that type of pitch. Both were down from their average velocities in 2013 (95.42 mph for the four-seam, 94.32 mph for the sinker), but with no injury question marks and given Webster’s age, that’s less of a question mark and more of a good thing, as we could see some of that velocity return. He’s had a healthy 9-mph differential between the four-seam and the changeup that he throws about 20% of the time; his slider matches the change in velocity, breaking in the opposite direction horizontally.
Major league hitters haven’t missed much when swinging at the four-seam, but he’s managed an unusually high whiff rate on his sinker (11.3% in 2014) and a whiff rate on the change (mid 20s) that is good for that type of pitch. It’s command that has burned Webster so far in the majors, as he pitches out of the zone more often than most (59.3% career, versus 55.2% for all starters in 2014), and he’s been known to groove pitches. From ESPN Stats & Info: middle-middle pitches have a .312 BABIP, a .236 hard-hit average and a .418 soft-hit average. For Webster, middle-middle pitches had a .414 BABIP, which is ridiculous, and a .281 hard-hit average, which was one of the highest marks on the Red Sox.
That’s about as big a command problem as he can have; he can’t try for the corners more because he’s already got the bloated out-of-zone percentage, and where things stand, he can’t really work on the out-of-zone percentage without a big risk of grooving even more pitches. Still, the thought in Red Sox Nation is that a lot of this is psychological for Webster. If that’s the case, getting out of the Boston fishbowl can only help his success. If you’re going to bet, bet on raw talent and good tools, and Webster does have those.
De La Rosa
Remember how I said Webster’s hard-hit average on middle-middle balls was “one of the highest”? Rubby De La Rosa’s mark was .293 on middle-middle, highest on the Red Sox except for Alex Wilson, who only faced a handful of batters. 10% percentile in the league is .288 according to ESPN Stats & Info, so… yeah. That’s just one of several ways in which the two pitchers are similar. For all pitches, the two had an almost identical hard-hit average (.156 for De La Rosa, .152 for Webster), but De La Rosa’s overall BABIP of .330 suggests that while Webster’s struggles were very real, De La Rosa may also have been stung by some bad luck.
He’s also been better than Webster, with a 4.34 career ERA and 4.27 FIP. His best major league season was back in 2011 (he’s going to be 26 next year, remember), when he racked up a 3.71 ERA backed by similar peripherals in 13 games, 10 starts for the Dodgers. His 101.2 innings with the Red Sox in 2014 was much closer to his career numbers, but for the Red Sox, that’s not so shabby that a pitcher would wash out (and I don’t think that’s what this is). His 4.10 career SIERA suggests he’s actually been a little bit better than those numbers, and he didn’t seem particularly effected by Fenway, facing over 200 batters both at home and away, and pitching without a significant home/road split (4.23 FIP home, 4.37 FIP away).
It truly is amazing how similar Rubby De La Rosa is to Webster, though. His ground ball rate in 2014 was 45.7%. He humps a four-seam into the 94 mph range consistently, and started throwing a power sinker in the 92 mph range. He throws a slider without relying on it as does Webster, and leans on a changeup about as much, although his has a tighter mph differential of about 7 mph (that’s something to watch). De La Rosa lives off of his four-seam quite a bit more than Webster does, and he also seems to have somewhat better command, with slightly lower BB/9 rates in the majors (but not in the minors). Another thing Rubby has managed to do that Webster has not: actually strike guys out in the majors, as his 7.23 K/9 attests. Even then, his minor league K/9 of 8.92 is very similar to Webster’s.
Another big difference between Webster and De La Rosa is the Times Through the Order Penalty (TTOP) that we’ve observed in their major league time. Webster has been pretty flat in whiff rate and results as he’s gotten deep into games, which may or may not have something to do with being quite bad early in games. But De La Rosa has seen his line drive rate skyrocket on his four-seam as games progress: it’s a good-but-slightly-above-average 19.72% the first time through, 21.65% the second time through, but a horrendous 28.79% the third time through the order.
Line drives fall for hits about 70% of the time, and 12%-20% on other types of batted balls. Just the line drives on his four-seam the third time through the order would make for a .200 BABIP; toss in the other types of batted balls, and you’re in .350+ range on BABIP. That’s bad. From the D-backs’ perspective, though, maybe that’s good.
Good because there’s reason to think that if De La Rosa eventually ends up in the bullpen, his stuff will play up there. He can shelve either the change or the slider and still excel, with his four-seam that gets a crazy 8 inches of horizontal movement and should eat right-handed hitters alive. That’s a pretty good floor to have, because it helps make the “zero steps forward” outcome a lot less likely. The D-backs have plenty of relievers, enough to fill two above-average bullpens. But that doesn’t mean De La Rosa wouldn’t still be quite valuable in relief.
Evaluating the Trade
We still don’t know what minor leaguers, if any, are coming along with Webster and De La Rosa when this deal gets consummated on Saturday. If there are any vaguely legitimate prospects in the package, the value in this deal tips in the D-backs’ direction, even despite how good Wade Miley really is. Value for value, this looks really good for the D-backs, who have a possible outcome of two #3 starters with something extra, and a floor of wasting time on Webster and getting a good reliever out of De La Rosa.
But it’s not necessarily a value for value question; maybe it’s a philosophy question. It’s alarming that the D-backs may not appreciate what pitching for them has done to pitchers in the recent past; it’s also a puzzling move in that the D-backs seem to be retooling for 2015, and yet trading away Miley without receiving a sure thing back does lessen their odds of success next season. There’s a method to their madness, as we’ve just seen with the Rule 5 selection of catcher Oscar Hernandez as a follow-on move to the Montero trade. You can’t say a trade of Miley was needed, because his impact on the 2015 payroll is minimal, barely greater than that of Cliff Pennington.
And in the end, we need to support calculated risks and taking chances. The last D-backs regime refused to do that, which resulted in the dealing away of players like Adam Eaton and Tyler Skaggs for cents on the dollar. It’s a little terrifying to see the team bet on fixing pitchers when it’s had so little recent success doing so — and yet we rightly castigated Kevin Towers when he refused to take on projects like Trevor Bauer and possibly Julio Teheran. The main takeaway is that this is not the end. Not only are more moves coming, but a development and coaching shakeup is also undoubtedly in the works. That’s a good thing. This Miley deal is probably a good thing too.
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