May 5, 2006
BASEBALL: Is Darren Oliver For Real?
Darren Oliver's ERAs from 1998 through 2004 (he didn't pitch in the majors in 2005): 5.73, 4.26, 7.42, 6.02, 4.66, 5.04, 5.94. Oliver has proven, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that he is a bad major league pitcher; this is a fact as well-established as the fact that Albert Pujols is a good major league hitter.
Or is it?
Now, I've been relentlessly critical of the Mets for employing Oliver, but he has pitched quite well thus far this season in relief, which leads me to wonder: is it possible that the Mets are on to something? Noticing some patterns in his numbers, I decided to dig up Oliver's career stats just as a reliever. What I got here, here and here was interesting.
You see, Oliver pitched fairly well, mainly in relief, in 1993 and 1994 at the start of his career. Early in 1995, struggling in the bullpen, Oliver got moved to the rotation and ran off a few respectable starts. After that, he was used exclusively as a starter from 1996 through 2001, with severely diminishing returns. Let's break out his career numbers in relief, in three parts:
Now, even when you take out that disastrous stretch in April-May of 1995, those still aren't earth-shakingly good numbers, with 4.5 walks/9 IP being a particular concern, although the ratio since 2002 has been better than that (2.96 BB/9 and a 2:1 K/BB ratio). But the point is, Oliver over the course of his career has been merely a mediocre reliever, as compared to a really horrible starting pitcher. I'm still deeply skeptical of him (I'd rather have Royce Ring in the lefty role), and will be even moreso if he gets thrown into the rotation at any point, but kudos at least to Minaya and Randolph for putting Oliver into the situation where he has at least a change of succeeding.
Off the topic but in a way related to bad ERAs. Does it seem like guys are just killing it right now? I read today that Mike Lowell is one of the hottest hitters in baseball, hitting .393 since April 18th. Pretty good. I went and checked. He's not even in the top-10 over that period and there are 31 guys with more than 25 ABs hitting over .350! I realize it is an isolated sample but that is a lot of guys with not insignificant ABs getting a lot of hits. I was too lazy to check overall ERAs and BAs but this seems like a lot more offense across the board than in the past year or two. Or am I just way off?
Good work. And I agree with your conclusions.
Perhaps any crack down on steroids has affected pitchers, who may not recover from prior starts/relief appearences as easily. But who knows, really?
I agree Jim. And its not just that so many are hitting over 350, there are a lot of guys hitting 300+ that don't seem to fit in that category too.
On the Astros for example we've got Biggio, Ensberg, Lamb Ausmus(!), Berkman and Burke all over .300 with well over 25 AB's, and Burke is at .400 fgs. SLG is Berkman .716, Burke .657, Ensberg .701, and Biggio .495 although that's not out of character for him. Heck Willie Taveres is hitting .296.
Seems like a lot more offense this season across the board.
None of which explains Wandy Rodriguez, though.
Ignore the individual numbers - remember, it's early.
League-wide, AL ERA is 4.73 compared to 4.35 in 2005, so it's definitely up. But it was 4.63 in 2004, 4.52 in 2003, so last year was more of the fluke. And scoring's still way down from 1999-2000, when the ERAs were 4.85 and 4.91, and the 1996 high-water mark of 4.99.
NL ERA is 4.32 compared to 4.22 last year, so the difference is less dramatic - except for a low year (4.10) in 2002, the NL ERA has been between 4.22 and 4.36 since 2001. The NL is also down from its high-water marks of 4.56 and 4.63 in 1999-2000.
It seems like the issue (aside from the steroid use) especially in 1999-2000 was utter lack of starting pitching. There seemed to be more bad overall rotations even just a few years ago than there are at this point. Without really delving into it that certainly seems like the way it was. Until Derek Lowe came out of the bullpen and won 20 games the #2 starter on the Sox in consecutve years was broken down Bret Saberhagen (two years running), broken down Ramon Martinez and broken down David Cone (Hideo Nomo was the #1 guy that year since Pedro was hurt). I think a lot of teams operated that way.
I looked at a couple of teams this year: the Red Sox and the Mets (I probably should have picked a different team as the Mets overall ERA is so low at this point the situation is not as glaring).
For the Red Sox: Top 4 starters (Burkett, Schilling, Wakefield and Clement): 172.1 innings, 71 ER, 4.08 ERA; top 3 relievers (Papelbon, Timlin, Foulke): 47.2 innings, 12 ER, 2.28 ERA. Combined numbers of those 7 pitchers: 220 innings, 83 ER, 3.39 ERA.
REST OF THE STAFF: 47.1 innings, 67 ER, 12.77 ERA. Top 7 pitchers represent 88.63% of all innings pitched.
Mets top 4 starters (Pedro, Glavine, Tracshel, Bannister): 140.2 innings, 45 ER, 2.89 ERA. Top 3 relievers (Sanchez, Wagner, Heilman): 49.2 innnings, 7 ER, 1.28 ERA. Combined numbers of top 7: 190.1 innings, 52 ER, 2.46 ERA.
REST OF STAFF: 68.2 innings, 38 ER, 5.01 ERA. Top 7 pitchers represent 73.4% of all innings.
I would certainly expect your top 7 guys to have better numbers than the rest of the staff. In the case of these 2 teams the top 7 are pitching, as a unit, extremely effectively. Especially in the case of the Red Sox in just 10% of innings pitched the rest of the staff raises the overall ERA by 1.3. For the Mets in 27% innings it is a raise of .67.
It seems that whereas in years past hitters were getting it done against pretty much everyone except the ace and a couple of guys out of the bullpen nowadays the bulk of the staff controls hitters relatively well. It is the guys coming in to get one guy or hold a 5 run lead in the 7th or the 5th starter that are just getting abused and abused badly. Does it seem odd that the tops of staffs are now better but the bottoms are, seemingly, far worse than in years past?
Maybe what's happening is that we are getting our first real look at what the newer, smaller ballparks are going to do to the game, in the absence of steroids. My conjecture: At the end of the season, home runs are going to be down, but batting averages and total runs scored are going to be up. Also, I think we might see a resurgence in pitchers who primarily throw sinkers or similar, and get lots of ground ball outs. If my theory is true, strikeouts will go down and double plays will go up.
I'm not sure I follow how smaller parks will depress HR totals, while raisng BAs. Seems the opposite should happen. Look to Coors Field, for instance, which seems to elevate BAs because of the expansive outfield, more than it increases HRs with the thin air.
Or are you suggesting that the changes will come once the pitching style changes (i.e., fewer Ks means higher BA)?
OK, I meant Beckett, good lord, not Burkett as one of this year's Sox top starters. John Burkett. Brings back memories of waking up screaming in a cold sweat.
If you look here and compare the league-wide numbers for 2000 vs. 2004, you'll see that the bigger change was away from the frontline starting rotations - the ERAs of top-4 starters dropped 4.7%, compared to 8.2% for top-2 relievers and 7.7% for the rest of the staff.
I remember reading that analyis when it was originally posted. Certainly starting pitchers' innings are down meaning more pitchers overall are going to get some time on the mound whether they are qualified to be run out there or not. In the case of the Red Sox their starting 4 are generally pitching well (Wakefield is the victim of a million passed balls and Clement had one horrid outing) and the 3 guys who get the ball in close games are pitching very well to preternaturally well. It is a small sub-section of guys who are only pitching 11% of the innings that are KILLING their ERA as a team. The Mets were the same, though to a lesser extents, much of which could be explained by the NL/AL differences. It seems that this year there are stronger cores and weaker back ends. It will be interesting to see how the numbers play out over the season.
Just imagine Crank, Darren Oliver and Jose Lima in the same rotation. It could happen and as soon as next week (shudder).