Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Oliver Perez Will Be Our #2 Starter In 2010

You heard it here first, folks: Oliver Perez is going to be our #2 this season.

I know that Ollie is not popular around Met circles. I know that he is overpaid and that he was awful last year. I know that everyone is constantly getting indigestion because of Ollie's inconsistent performances. But forget all of that for a moment.

An impartial look at the facts points at one inevitable conclusion: between Perez, Pelfrey, and Maine, Oliver Perez is the best bet to deliver a great pitching performance in 2010.

Nobody was as surprised about this conclusion as I was when I came to it. However, there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about Perez:

Why Be Optimistic?

It is no secret that Ollie had a tough year last year. He was injured and out of shape. From time to time, this will happen. If it were not Oliver Perez, I am sure that people would be a lot more patient.

A lot of pitchers with track records of success experience a major speed bump at some point in their careers before readjusting and doing just fine. Sometimes they are injured, sometimes not. The year before he won his Cy Young award, Pat Hentgen posted a 5.11 ERA (at age 26). A young Chris Carpenter posted ERA’s of 6.26 and 5.28 before putting his injury woes behind him and dominating the National League in 2005, 2006 and 2009. Dennis Eckersley posted a 5.61 ERA at the age of 28. Kevin Brown had an injury plagued season with a 4.81 ERA sandwiched between two years with ERA’s below 2.90.

More than likely, 2009 was simply a lost season for Ollie. Luckily, his injury was not to his elbow, or to his shoulder, so there is reason to believe that if fully healthy, he will be able to pitch to his maximum effectiveness this year.[2]

One major data point which indicates that his struggles were entirely injury-related was discussed in the media recently - his loss in fastball velocity. We chimed in earlier this week with even more evidence to support that conclusion:

In addition to having the slowest average fastball of his career (90.0, down from 91.2 the year before) his changeup velocity was UP almost five MPH. His average changeup went from 80.1 to 84.9. At that speed, there is only 5 MPH separating the changeup from the fastball – an almost useless gap.

In order to be effective, a changeup has to be at least 8 to 10 miles per hour slower than the fastball. For reference, the gap between Johan Santana's fastball and changeup was 11.2 MPH in his 2008 season. Oliver Perez had a 9.4 MPH gap in his successful 2007 season.
If Oliver Perez was as injured and out of shape last season as 1) the Mets claim, 2) he looked, and 3) his performance would indicate[3], then we need to go back to 2008 and 2007 to make a real prediction about his performance going forward.

Who Is The The Real Oliver Perez?

Although he posted a 3.56 ERA in 2007 and a 4.22 ERA in 2008, a closer look reveals that he was much closer to the same pitcher in both years than we think.

In 2007, he allowed 90 runs in 177 innings for a RA of 4.57. In 2008, he allowed 100 runs but in 194 innings. That's an RA of 4.63 --- nearly identical. A metric called Fielding Independent Pitching (which looks at a pitchers secondary statistics to make a rough estimate of what their ERA should have been if not for fielding and luck) has Ollie at 4.35 in 2007 and 4.68 in 2008.

Outperforming his FIP, however, has been a trend that Ollie has followed his entire career. In his best year, 2004, he posted a 2.98 ERA despite a 3.45 FIP. James took a look at those who over- and under-perform their FIP in a great article here. This is all to say that he is likely to continue to do better than his FIP would indicate, as we have over a thousand innings telling us that he will.

How To Project Oliver for 2010?

We start with what we know - or what we assume to be true.

1. He was injured in 2009, so he is not going to be that bad again.
2. His best year, in 2004, was way too long ago, and there is no reason to think he’ll be that good again.
3. In 2007 and 2008, spanning 371 innings, he pitched as well as the average #2 starter.
4. He is lefthanded, and has a fastball and a slider which both grade out as above-average pitches.
5. He will only be 28 this year.

That last fact is probably the most surprising -- who would have guessed that Oliver Perez was only 28? Doesn't it seem like he has been around forever?

As for fact #3, like it or not, Oliver Perez ALREADY has pitched like a #2 starter for us in the past. According to some really great research over at the Hardball Times from a few years back, the AVERAGE #2 starter in the National League posts an ERA somewhere between 3.87 and 4.36. Here is the link to the research.

His past performance as a Met, both his on field performance and via analysis of his peripheral statistics, suggest a pitcher who can post an ERA between 3.80 and 4.20 without getting any better.

But Better Than Maine or Pelfrey?

Probably. We discussed Maine earlier this week, coming up with this nifty chart:
2006: 3.60 ERA -- 4.90 FIP, 1.13 WHIP, .228 BABIP
2007: 3.91 ERA -- 4.18 FIP, 1.27 WHIP, .288 BABIP
2008: 4.18 ERA -- 4.40 FIP, 1.35 WHIP, .280 BABIP
2009: 4.43 ERA -- 4.57 FIP, 1.29 WHIP, .253 BABIP
As far as Maine goes, I see a pitcher whose FIP appears to be within around 4.30 or 4.50. In terms of age, he is actually older than Perez and probably less likely to take a significant step forward. As far as injuries go, Maine has missed time in both of the last two seasons, and (far more importantly) his injury was to his shoulder and it is unclear whether it has been satisfactorily fixed.

As for Pelfrey, even throwing out his poor 2006, Pelfrey has still only gone 23-23 with a 4.35 ERA for us over the last two seasons. As with Perez and Maine, his ERA does not tell the whole story about Pelfrey.

Although his ERA was a sparkling 3.72 in 2008 and an ugly 5.03 in 2009, the truth lies somewhere between. His FIP was 3.96 in 2008 and 4.39 in 2009, so he appears to be establishing a true level of talent somewhere around 4.20 as well. Pelfrey actually has the best chance of improving next season, but he is no spring chicken at 26 and the Mets infield defense is not getting any better.

Is This News Good or Bad?

I see this as good news. Although Maine and Pelfrey would both seem to be much safer bets to perform near our expectations for them next year, neither would seem to have much potential to exceed those expecations. Maine and Pelfrey should both post ERA’s in the neighborhood of 4.00 and above. And don’t get me wrong – those are valuable assets. A pitcher who can give us 200 innings at that rate is worth a lot (around $10 million dollars in free agency, according to fangraphs).

Oliver Perez, however, although there is a chance that he may not be fully healthy, or that he may not recover his 2007 and 2008 form, has a very good chance of exceeding expectations. Dan Szymborski, of Baseball Think Factory, recently did an interview where he said just that:
Question: Subjectively, who [out of Perez, Pelfrey, Maine, and Jon Niese] has the best chance of posting an ERA under 4.00?

Szymborski: Perez does. Perez also has the best chance, in my book, of posting some insanely bad Brad Pennington-esque ERA. Considering I have ridiculously bad acid reflex(sic), I’m not sure I would want Perez on my team, but it would be wrong to pretend he still didn’t have some of the tools to be a solid pitcher, even if it’s not exactly the best bet.
And I would agree with that assessment. Looking at the numbers alone – the cold hard facts surrounding his career – I believe that it is the only conclusion one can draw. Despite all the gnashing of teeth that surrounds Ollie’s starts, neither Maine nor Pelfrey has posted a season as good as either of Ollie’s two best.
I am confident that he will put 2009 behind him – and if he does, I think that he is our best bet to deliver a great pitching performance in 2010.

Want one more reason to be optimistic before we go? Courtesy of ESPN’s Rick Coutinho:
Met ace Johan Santana said recently, "I see a different Ollie--he is hungry and I expect a lot from him. He stills needs to be his fun-loving self but I see him more positive than last year. Remember he was hurt last year and there were times his knee hurt so bad he wasn't even able to walk on it."

This coming from the Mets ace and #1 competitor himself. I don't ordinarily give much weight to spring training quotes, but this one caught my eye based on who it came from. Either way, I’ll have my fingers crossed every fifth day.

[1] Now, I must admit that I like Oliver Perez. When he was signed, I wrote a big article about how, although overpaid, he was a good bet to perform well over the life of the contract. I looked at his baseball-reference similar players, and agreed that he was likely to carve out a career for himself similar to that of two very good pitchers, Mark Langston and Frank Viola. You will see that through age 26, he compared favorably to the two.

"Interestingly enough, Perez seems to split the difference between Viola and Langston on a variety of metrics...Both men, Viola and Langston, both saw their careers progress from there and posted great ratios for ages 26-31, just as you would expect them to. Hopefully, Perez sees the same kind of incremental improvement.

Obviously, baseball-reference comparisons are far from an exact science, but it reminds us of some important things. (Lower ranked comps included Livan Hernandez, Sidney Ponson, Randy Wolf, Ryan Dempster, Melido Perez). Young pitchers with the success of Oliver Perez, even if they do not go on to become Cy Young winners, can at least hang around this league. Just as importantly, pitchers like Perez can, but don't always, harness their control."

For what it is worth, the league average for walks per nine innings is about 3.5 for a 25 year old and decreasing, finally crossing 3.0 for a 38 year old.

[2] Here is the Rotowire report from the day Oliver succumbed to knee surgery:

Analysis: Perez has been bothered by the knee nearly all season, which has hampered his velocity and adversely impacted his already questinable control. Perez has been able to throw strikes early in games, but the tendinitis has prevented him from having the delay in his delivery, impacting the control. In addition, at around 40-50 pitches, a drop in velocity occurred due to the tendinitis in knee really affecting the delivery.

[3] There is actually empirical evidence supporting the conclusion drawn by the Rotowire report above. Ollie posted a very interesting split last year:

In innings 1-3 of his starts, his K-BB ratio was 41-29. From inning 4 onward, it was an ugly 21-29. This was not the norm for him in his career -- his splits from 2007 showed him maintaining his K-BB ratio or even getting stronger as he worked deeper into games. In 2009, and only 2009, he fell apart as the game progressed.

This corroborates the report above that Ollie really began to labor with his velocity around 40 or 50 pitches.


Tommy2cat said...

Can't thank you enough for a solid, realistic and thorough baseball analysis supported by empirical data.

I have listened to a number of interviews with Oliver Perez. He's much more intelligent and insightful than the mainstream media credits him. I believe alot of baseball people will be surprised his performance this year.

The Icon said...

If Ollie's our #2 we're in deep trouble. He sucks.