Thursday, July 13, 2006

A Less Talked About Pitcher

I’ll be honest: of all the trade rumors I’ve heard over the past few weeks, none has made me happier than the mention of Jon Lieber. True, there’s personal bias mixed in there; but when you look at what’s available and the speculative price, no pitcher provide more value.

Of course, plenty of people out there will say, “but Joe! Leiber has been injured this year and he looks a lot worse. I mean, he has a 5.48 ERA in the National League.” Being of the confrontational sort, I’ll take a stab at rebutting such an argument.

You all know I’m big on peripherals. And why not? With all the luck involved in baseball, it seems logical to point to events over which the pitchers have the most control. To this point, Lieber has 5.48 K/9 and a 4.40 K/BB ratio, both of which are within reasonable range of his career averages. And yes, you read that 4.40 figure correctly; he strikes out nearly four and a half times the number of batters he walks, and he only strikes out five and a half per nine. You have to hand it to a guy who has walked only 10 men in 72.1 innings (1.25 per nine).

With these rather impressive peripherals, I’d immediately draw the conclusion that he simply has an inflated batting average on balls in play. Baseball Prospectus, however, has stamped “rejected” on my forehead. His average stands at .301, which is only slightly above the accepted norm of .290. A look to the left in his stats column, however, provides part of the answer: .465 Slg. against.

Ouch. I mean, really ouch. But then it dawned on me that he pitches in quite possibly the worst pitchers park in baseball. That led to a glance at the GB/FB rate, which is an untidy 1.24. Well, it wouldn’t be untidy if he was pitching in Chavez Ravine. But at Citizens Bank Park, it’s a death warrant. And sure enough, his propensity to give up the fly ball has led to his surrendering of 11 home runs, one more than the number of walks he’s issued.

Not surprisingly, eight of his 12 starts have been at home. Of the remaining four, one was at Coors Field, and another at the Great American Ballpark. Ten starts in complete hitters parks. This is reflected in his OPS against at home – .807 – versus his OPS against on the road – .729. Piling on more, he’s given up a homer once every 22.5 at bats at home, and every 34.67 on the road.

Further benefiting the Yankees, he has averaged roughly 6.5 innings per start over his career. The number is lower this year because the increased home runs have forced him out of games earlier, and the fact that he’s been injured. But if this ailment is behind him and he can return to his ways of keeping the ball in the park, I would imagine his innings per start would increase.

It’s most obvious that he needs to get out of that park. In a more pitcher friendly park like, oh, say Yankee Stadium, he could pass with a 1.24 GB/FB ratio. He’d also be the beneficiary of a wholly better defense, as the Yankees convert 71 percent of balls in play into outs, while the Phillies convert 68 percent – good for a tie for fifth place and 28th place, respectively.