Which Pitcher is King?
OK, class. While finals are still a week or two away for many colleges, we're going to hit you up with a pop quiz.
The stat lines for two active starting pitchers are presented below. Which pitcher would you take? Hint: One pitcher is an "innings eater" and the other is a "franchise player."
While there is no right or wrong answer, the stat lines are virtually indistinguishable in my view. Without more information, I would have a tough time choosing between the two. Feel free to dismiss the W-L records if you'd like. With the foregoing in mind, the main difference is that Pitcher A has thrown over 200 additional innings. Pitcher A also has superior strikeout and home run rates while Pitcher B has lower walk and hit rates.
After you pass your answers to the end of the row, we will reveal the names of the two pitchers. [pause] Thank you for your participation.
Pitcher A is none other than Felix Hernandez. Pitcher B is Jered Weaver.
Are you surprised? Well, you're not the Lone Ranger. I was surprised, too. But perhaps no one is — or should be — as befuddled as Dave Cameron, the co-founder of the U.S.S. Mariner and managing editor of Fangraphs who has labeled Hernandez as a "franchise player" and Weaver as an "innings eater." I like Dave personally and respect his work greatly, but he and I have seen Weaver differently for years.
In fairness to Dave, he actually labeled Weaver "more innings eater than ace" in a Two on Two AL West preview two years ago. He expanded upon his comments in a Baseball Think Factory comments thread last summer (emphasis is mine).
In case anyone is wondering, this misquote comes from an article at Baseball Analysts last year, where I stated Weaver was "more of an innings eater than an ace", which is entirely true. Really, if we're going to talk about the Jered Weaver debate, I think it's pretty obvious that my stance on his abilities is closer to reality than Rich's. He's the exact same guy he's always been, just with varying degrees of luck - he's never been a frontline starter, and he never will be. That doesn't mean he sucks - I even put him in my list of the 50 most valuable trade chips in baseball. He's a solid mid-rotation starter. He's just not more than that, and the only people who thought he was were ones who put way too much stock into the value of BABIP-driven ERA.
Cameron then downgraded Weaver to a "mid-rotation starter" and "innings eater" in a discussion with Patrick Sullivan in our Stakeholders series three months ago.
Look, the purpose of this article is not to make Dave look bad as much as it is to bring clarity to the subject. Either Weaver is not an "innings eater" or Hernandez is not a "franchise player." Or either Weaver and Hernandez are both more innings eaters than aces, both more aces than innings eaters, or perhaps both are more franchise players than not. (Note: I have never called Weaver an innings eater, an ace, or a franchise player. Instead, I started writing about him when he was a junior at Long Beach State and compared his collegiate record to Mark Prior's.)
Cameron is far from the only baseball analyst who has underestimated Weaver. Four years ago, Kevin Goldstein cautioned Baseball Prospectus readers "Don’t Believe The Hype." The hype was directed at me. Goldstein concluded:
In the end, if he hits his ceiling, he's basically his brother.
Did Goldstein mean "ceiling" or "floor?" To wit, older brother Jeff has a career ERA+ of 94 (with a seasonal high and low of 134 and 71, respectively) while younger brother Jered has a career ERA+ of 123 (with a seasonal high and low of 179 and 103).
Importantly, the above table is designed to compare actual performance. One can look at other variables (such as age, velocity, and batted ball info) to make projections.
As it relates to Hernandez and Weaver, Felix (24) is younger than Jered (27). While most would give the edge to Felix, even Cameron believes young starting pitchers "defy conventional growth curves" and notes that the normal career trajectory "heads downward" as opposed to an "arc-shaped career path" for hitters. Let's call the age factor a push.
Hernandez (94-95 mph) throws harder than Weaver (89-90), although the latter can dial it up to the mid-90s on occasion in the early innings. Edge to Felix. Mike Fast has studied the correlation between fastball velocity and run average and concluded that "starting pitchers improve by about one run allowed per nine innings for every gain of 4 mph" (or 0.25 R/9 per 1 mph).
With respect to batted ball types, Hernandez induces more groundballs than Weaver. Over the course of their careers, Felix has generated a GB rate of 57% vs. 33% for Jered. As I and others have noted, "pitchers with above-average GB rates outperform those with below-average GB rates" due to the fact that they tend to give up fewer home runs than their counterparts.
Based on age, velocity, and batted ball info, maybe Hernandez projects as a better pitcher than Weaver. But the reality is that Felix has not outpitched Jered to this point. Or, if he has, the difference between the two has been miniscule.
Interestingly, Hernandez and Weaver squared off last Friday night. While one game does not a season or career make, Felix was knocked out of the game in the fourth inning having allowed five hits, four walks, and eight runs while Jered tossed a no-hitter for 6 2/3 innings and combined with Scot Shields for a shutout.
Rotowire added the following comment on Saturday:
Weaver continued his impressive 2010, allowing just two hits over 7.1 scoreless innings Friday against the Mariners.
Spin: Weaver now sits at 4-1 with a 2.66 ERA. A 47:10 K:BB in 44 innings is also quite good. Weaver is nearing elite starter status.
After Weaver's last outing, ESPN posted the following rankings on his player card:
• Ranks 2nd in AL in W (4)
• Ranks 7th in AL in W% (.800)
• Ranks 6th in AL in IP (44.0)
• Ranks 1st in AL in SO (47)
• Ranks 7th in AL in WHIP (1.05)
The 2010 season is less than a quarter completed. Weaver may regress toward his career stats (and rankings) before the year is out. In the meantime, he is the ace of the Angels' staff and has been one of the best 30 starting pitchers as measured by ERA and FIP over the past two and three calendar years.
No matter how you slice it, Weaver is much more than an innings eater, a mid-rotation starter, or his brother Jeff. Heck, he just may be King Jered.