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Evaluating the Pitchers

Publication Date: October 16, 2001

The Other Side of the Game

Having discussed who had the best important raw hitting stats and how to make adjustments to those stats in order to get a clearer picture of who performed well last year, I want to move on to a look at the pitchers.

In doing serious evaluation of pitchers, the situation is both a little worse and a little better than it is for the hitters. It's worse because the best-known pitching statistic, won-loss record, is utterly useless in ways that batting average can only dream of being bad. So much of a pitcher's won-loss record is dependent on his teammates, both his offense and his bullpen, that there's just almost no information to be had from looking at a pitcher's W-L record.

The good news, though, is that the best easy-to-figure statistic for pitchers is much more well-known than the equivalent for the hitters -- ERA is usually the second stat given about a pitcher. ERA has its flaws, most of them involving the subjectivity of scoring leading to questions about earned runs versus unearned runs and the fact that a pitcher can be hurt by subpar relief, and it's a bit less precise than a good hitting stat simply because you get fewer data points and, because run counts are by definition integers, those points are less precise, but for a first-glance approximation of how good a pitcher was, ERA's quite good.

Now, before I promise too much, I do need to point out that ERA is only a good stat for starting pitchers. Because of problems with how inherited runners are handled, it really doesn't work well for relievers. There are a couple of good stats for relievers (see Michael Wolverton's work over on the Baseball Prospectus for the best of them), but they require more information to generate than anyone tracks for college ball.

To begin, then, here are the top 25 full-time starting pitchers in ERA for 2001. In order to define what I meant by "full-time starting pitcher", I set an arbitrary minimum of 10 starts.

Team                      Player                   ERA

Southeast Missouri State  Todd Pennington          1.33
Middle Tennessee State    Dewon Brazelton          1.42
Central Florida           Justin Pope              1.68
Southern California       Mark Prior               1.69
Pepperdine                Noah Lowry               1.71
Notre Dame                Aaron Heilman            1.74
St. Bonaventure           Kyle Johnson             1.88
Pittsburgh                Joe Engel                1.92
East Carolina             Jason Mandryk            1.95
Central Florida           Jason Arnold             1.97
The Citadel               Eric Talbert             2.06
Delaware State            John Sterling            2.08
Rice                      Kenny Baugh              2.17
Cal State Fullerton       Kirk Saarloos            2.18
Pepperdine                Daniel Haren             2.22
Southwest Missouri State  John Rheinecker          2.27
Delaware State            Tim Vaillancourt         2.27
Alabama                   Lance Cormier            2.30
Rutgers                   Bobby Brownlie           2.36
Oral Roberts              Michael Rogers           2.37
Clemson                   Steve Reba               2.38
Fairfield                 Ryan Holsten             2.45
Florida Atlantic          Benjamin Petersen        2.48
Northern Iowa             Nic Ungs                 2.48
Southern California       Rik Currier              2.59

Now, unlike the OPS list, you'll notice that this is more balanced between the smaller schools and the big boys. Nonetheless, there is a difference in the degree of difficulty faced by, for example, Prior and Brazelton, so it's worth looking at an Adjusted ERA (AERA) similar to the AOPS I introduced last week.

Now, all the caveats I suggested last week still apply, with the addition of the fact that top pitchers don't get to face a cross-section of their team's schedule -- by definition, the staff ace is going to go against the toughest competition a team faces. Still, that's true for most of the guys on this list (and there's not much sign that the really good second bananas like Currier and whichever of Pope or Arnold you want to consider second in line faced much easier competition than their ace), and for the most part, it'll even out.

Team                      Player                   AERA  ERA

Southeast Missouri State  Todd Pennington          1.32  1.33
Middle Tennessee State    Dewon Brazelton          1.37  1.42
Southern California       Mark Prior               1.46  1.69
Pepperdine                Noah Lowry               1.54  1.71
Central Florida           Justin Pope              1.67  1.68
Notre Dame                Aaron Heilman            1.73  1.74
Cal State Fullerton       Kirk Saarloos            1.87  2.18
East Carolina             Jason Mandryk            1.87  1.95
Rice                      Kenny Baugh              1.94  2.17
Central Florida           Jason Arnold             1.96  1.97
Pepperdine                Daniel Haren             2.00  2.22
The Citadel               Eric Talbert             2.04  2.06
Pittsburgh                Joe Engel                2.04  1.92
Alabama                   Lance Cormier            2.08  2.30
St. Bonaventure           Kyle Johnson             2.13  1.88
Southwest Missouri State  John Rheinecker          2.18  2.27
Clemson                   Steve Reba               2.23  2.38
Southern California       Rik Currier              2.23  2.59
Rutgers                   Bobby Brownlie           2.36  2.36
Rice                      Jon Skaggs               2.37  2.65
Texas                     Albert Montes            2.40  2.67
Northern Iowa             Nic Ungs                 2.41  2.48
Stanford                  Jeremy Guthrie           2.44  2.82
Oral Roberts              Michael Rogers           2.44  2.37
Florida Atlantic          Benjamin Petersen        2.45  2.48

Interestingly, the top two guys on this list are from mid-level conferences, and I'm frankly unsure about one of them. Pennington had a great year, but he's not considered a top prospect (he was drafted in the 46th round and put up good but not inspiring numbers in the short-season minors this year), and I'm not sure that I fully trust a metric that leaves him at the top. I'm not willing to throw a measure out just because I don't like the way it looks, but there is a reasonableness test that applies.

Brazelton, on the other hand, appears to be the real deal, although I would have one concern, which also points out the problem with being able to only deal in whole runs, since one or two of them can drastically change the numbers. Brazelton gave up 20 earned runs last year, for a 1.42 ERA. On the other hand, he also gave up 14 unearned runs, an unusually high number, which pushes his RA (run average) up to 2.41. I've never been to an MTSU game and don't have any idea whether there was anything amiss (none of the other MTSU pitchers show a similar split), but I'd love to see a breakdown on how many of those unearned runs were at home and how many were on the road; a few favorable calls here and there can really change the way a guy's numbers look.

Finally, I guess, we hit the point that concerns me. I think it's quite possible that Mark Prior had the greatest season any college pitcher's ever had last year, so it worries me that he doesn't end up on top. Still and all, though, I think AERA is a reasonable place to start looking, and I'll see where I can take it from here.

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