The best pitcher of 2009 is…

If someone asked you who the best pitcher has been this season, what would your answer be? Zack Greinke and his 0.84 ERA? Johan Santana and his rejuvenated strikeout rate? Tim Lincecum and his continued dominance? According to LIPS ERA, you’d be wrong with all three guesses. Instead, LIPS ERA would herald the name Javier Vazquez:

2009 LIPS ERA leaders through 5/30/09

| LAST     | FIRST  | GS | IP   | ERA  | LIPS ERA | K/9   | BB/9 | xGB%  |
| Vazquez  | Javier | 11 | 70.3 | 3.58 |     2.71 | 11.00 | 2.05 | 45.30 |
| Santana  | Johan  | 10 | 66.0 | 1.77 |     2.72 | 11.73 | 2.73 | 31.29 |
| Lincecum | Tim    | 10 | 65.3 | 3.03 |     2.89 | 11.57 | 2.62 | 47.24 |
| Greinke  | Zack Z | 10 | 75.0 | 0.84 |     2.90 |  9.72 | 1.44 | 43.96 |

Vazquez doesn’t beat Santana out by much, but the fact that he is on this list (and at the top, no less) says something. While some fantasy owners would view Vazquez as the answer to a “one of these things is not like the other” question, I (and faithful readers of THT Fantasy) would vehemently disagree.

Checking in

If you recall, back in January, I introduced a new method for evaluating pitchers called CAPS (Context Adjusted Pitching Statistics). CAPS focuses on strikeouts, walks, and ground balls—fundamental pieces to any analysis of a pitcher—and goes a step further by adjusting for the context under which they were produced. CAPS adjusts for the following:

  • Past home ballpark
  • 2009 home ballpark
  • Past road ballparks
  • 2009 road ballparks
  • Past quality of opponents (neutralized)
  • League switch adjustments
  • Ground balls adjusted for league average line drive rate (called xGB)

CAPS showed that Vazquez would be entering a favorable new environment and had been unlucky, not only in terms of the usual BABIP, HR/FB, and LOB%, but also in terms of his peripherals (i.e. strikeouts, walks, and ground balls). Here’s what I said about Vazquez then:

No matter how much bad luck he faces in terms of HR/FB (which will greatly improve moving away from Chicago), BABIP, or LOB%, I can’t see Vazquez’s ERA being held above 4.00 as it has four out of the last five years. In fact, his QERA hasn’t been higher than 3.35 over the past three years, and there’s a good chance his actual ERA ends up there in 2009. Plus, with the strikeout adjustments, he could strike out over 230 batters if he reaches his usual innings total. Huge fantasy value to be had here.

Vazquez’s CAPS K/9 for 2006-2008 were 9.4, 10.1, and 9.7, respectively. While 2009 is still young, here we are on June 1 and his K/9 currently sits at 11.0. This puts him on pace for 250 strikeouts, above even my seemingly high prediction (to compare, ZiPS was the most optimistic of the major projection systems at 202). He obviously won’t strike out that many batters, but he is undoubtedly the real deal. If you weren’t a reader of THT Fantasy at the time or didn’t have the opportunity to draft Vazquez, then my reason for writing today is strictly for you. Buy Javier Vazquez now!

Looking forward

Now I’d like to throw out my own “one of these things is not like the other” challenge. While Vazquez surely belongs on the above list, what makes him different from the rest? Take a look at that ERA: 3.58. That is a high ERA for a guy as talented as he is. While he might never live up to his LIPS ERA—he always seems to struggle with at least one of his luck indicators—his ERA should decrease. He’s currently experiencing a bit of bad luck with all three of the luck indicators, and once it evens out a bit, Vazquez could easily post an ERA in the low-to-mid 3.00s. (And as a side-note, his DIPS WHIP is 1.02 to go with his massive strikeout numbers).

This means that Vazquez is one of the best pitchers in baseball but won’t demand the same price tag as a guy like Greinke. This is especially true since so many owners have been burned by him before and since he’s seemed to pitch inconsistently this year.

Right now, he should be at the top of anyone’s trade target list who doesn’t already own him. The only pitchers I prefer to Vazquez at this point are Santana and Lincecum and maybe Jake Peavy. One could make a case for Greinke and maybe Dan Haren, but I’d probably take Vazquez if push came to shove. Own C.C. Sabathia? Roy Halladay? Cliff Lee? Josh Johnson? If you do, I wouldn’t hesitate to make a one-for-one trade for Vazquez. You’ll likely be able to get him for less than that, but if it comes right down to it I’d make the deal and expect an upgrade.

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  1. Joel S. said...

    As a White Sox fan, it’s a little hard for me to swallow the idea that Vazquez has been unlucky.  He’s almost always had great peripherals, and he’s almost always been very inconsistent.  Can I believe that, over the course of a season, a pitcher can be unlucky if his great peripherals result in a not-so-great ERA and/or win-loss record?  Sure.  But over the course of multiple years, or an entire career?  If you look at Vazquez over the past few years, it seems like he’s an ace 1/4th to 1/3rd of the time, and a league average pitcher the rest of the time.

  2. Mark said...

    Vazquez has a reputation as a “1 bad inning” guy. Now, I have yet to find anyone who has actually studied his game lines to see if he’s prone to clumping his hits and walks together (producing more runs than expected for that numbers of hits/walks), but it’s at least logically possible, and given his reputation, it’s worth investigating.

    Suppose that we found out that Vazquez does in fact consistently group hits and walks together more than the average pitcher. It would require re-evaluating his skill set (assuming that we believed the ability to spread out hits and walks, or conversely the “ability” to clump them together, was a repeateable skill and not just luck) and adjusting his projections.

    Given that there are some pitchers who have acquired a reputation as “1 bad inning” pitchers, it’s worth investigating whether or not this ability actually exists. It may be a key to identifying pitchers who tend to underperform or overperform their projections.

  3. Derek Carty said...

    Thanks for the comments guys.  Mark, I have heard that argument before, but I haven’t seen anyone look into it for Vazquez specifically.  That’ll be the plan for Wednesday’s article if I have enough time to run the study before then.

  4. Mark said...

    Thanks David for the link—there’s so much in the THT archives, but some it can be hard to find just by searching.

    Looking forward to the follow-up Derek.

  5. Andrew said...

    Good stuff, Derek. If possible, I’d really appreciate a longer list of the leaders in LIPS ERA thus far. I can’t seem to find that stat on any other sites. I know DIPS ERA is similar, but you seem to prefer LIPS ERA.

  6. James said...

    Wouldn’t ERA with RISP and Runners On suffice? I understand that ERA isn’t always the best indicator, but I am not sure if LIPs ERA in this microcosm is available. For example, Vazquez, for his career, has an ERA of 2.11 when the bases are empty and an ERA of 7.38 and 10.07 in Runners On and RISP respectively. Wouldn’t that sufficiently explain that Vazquez is prone to these situations, and we shouldn’t expect him to materialize into an ace this year?

  7. Derek Carty said...

    Unfortunately, I can’t provide a CAPS leaderboard yet.  Because so much goes into it, and because some of the data sources I use aren’t available mid-season (i.e. Retrosheet), I don’t yet have in-season CAPS available.  This is definitely something I’d like to hook up at some point in the future, though.

  8. Derek Carty said...

    Andrew, I’ll put up a longer list tomorrow.

    James, you could look at that, although it is a little simplistic and actually doesn’t match up with my preliminary findings so far.

    Mark and whoever else is interested: Running some preliminary numbers, it’s not looking like this argument holds much weight for Vazquez.  Look for more on Wednesday.

  9. Derek Carty said...

    Joel S,
    I completely forgot to address you.  I understand how it can be tough to take in that a guy has been unlucky for so long (although it has only been from 4 years from 2005-2008, and 2007 had only a smidge of bad luck).  What I’m talking about for Vazquez, though, isn’t all bad luck.

    1) As good as his peripherals were, they should have been *better* due to bad luck with the peripherals themselves (and not the usual BABIP bad luck or such)
    2) He entered a much more favorable league and park for his peripherals in 2009, meaning that they should increase for no other reason than because he is changing his environment.

    The combination of the two is what made Vazquez look so appealing this year.  It wasn’t just pouring bad luck for 4 straight years (though there was more bad luck for Vazquez than for most pitchers.  Still, using the simple statistical principle of the standard deviation, this was bound to happen to *someone*.  It just happened to be Vazquez).

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