In this recent FanPost, I reviewed Bud Norris, Jordan Lyles, and Lucas Harrell and graphically showed how a few key statistical markers have changed over the course of their professional careers. As frontrunners for spots in the 2013 Astros starting rotation, that trio provides some measure of a useful reference in terms of how the other candidates for the rotation stack up statistically over the course of their careers. So now let us look at 3 other righthanded candidates who have some meaningful experience in a big league rotation: John Ely, Philip Humber, and Alex White.
These 5 stats were computed for each minor league season (if > 150 batters faced) and major league season (if > 200 batters faced) of the player:
- BB %: walks divided by plate appearances against
- K %: strikeouts divided by plate appearances against
- SLG on Batted Balls: this is slugging percentage against on non-bunted batted balls. It is being used as a measure of the loudness of contact against the pitcher.
- LD + OFFB %: the percentage of non-bunted batted balls that are classified by the official online game recaps of mlb.com and milb.com as line drives or outfield flyballs. Note that some of those line drives and flyballs are hits, some are outs, a few are both, and a few are neither (e.g., reached on error). This stat is being used as a measure of risk for louder contact, given that 93% of extrabase hits are of these batted ball types.
- OFLD + OFFB to Pull-Field %: the percentage of non-bunted batted balls that are classified as outfield line drives or outfield flyballs hit to the batter’s pull-field third of the outfield. This stat is being used as a second measure of risk for louder contact, given that roughly 66% of home runs and 45% of doubles are hit to the pull-field third of the outfield.
The player data was compiled from the MLB Advanced Media online folders or from the Retrosheet archives that reference the same. League averages were computed using Baseball Reference, unless noted otherwise. In terms of the Stat versus Level plots, players who spent time at 2 minor league levels in a season have their data plotted over the point of the x-axis that corresponds to the relative percentage of batters faced at each stop. And again the lines connecting the symbol markers move in chronological order.
Humber looks to have been better than average to average in the BB% category over most his pro career. Whether his relatively high 2012 MLB value of 9.5% is a contributor to, or effect of, his to-be-discussed poor batted ball stats from that season is worth considering. Ely’s data shows a gradual and likely rather typical slow rise in BB% along his path to AAA and the majors in 2010, peaking at 9% to 10%. But since being banished to the Dodgers’ AAA Albuquerque rotation for 2011, Ely has lowered his BB% to 7% and 5% in that and the most recent PCL season, respectively. White’s historical data paints him as a starting pitcher who figures to be subpar at BB%, save for the 4% rate that he posted in the 2011 minors while facing just 157 AA and AAA batters. Pooling the 2011 and 2012 data, White’s MLB BB% is just below 11% and rates well over the 7.4% BB% of 2012's MLB starters.
The gradual decline in Ely’s K% stats from short-season ball to his MLB debut parallels that of Norris’. Ely’s seasonal K% fell still more to 15% upon his relegation to AAA in 2011 only to shoot up an incredible 9% to 24% there in 2012. White’s 2011 MLB, 2012 AAA, and 2012 MLB K% data is remarkably similar to Lyles’ from those same years and levels (leagues, too), with White falling a bit short of Lyles at the 2012 stops and checking in now with an MLB career K% just below 15% that falls well under the 2012 MLB starting pitchers’ mark of 18.7% (AL=18.2%, NL=19.1%). Humber’ seasonal K% fell in each of his 4 consecutive AAA campaigns as a starter from 2007 through 2010, bottoming out at 16%. His K% has risen a few percentage points in each of his first 2 MLB seasons as a starter and in 2012 he rated as a virtually average AL starter at the strikeout. While not a focus here, Norris clearly stands out relative to the others in terms of his ability to strike out big league hitters.
Batted Ball Data
SLG on Batted Balls
White’s minor league slugging against data from 2010, 2011, and 2012 would cause many a prospector to project that White should be effective at suppressing power in the majors. But clearly that skill hasn’t translated over in his two less-than-full seasons as a big league starter. The 2011 MLB data is probably one of the worst seasons of slugging against in recent history for a pitcher who has faced at least that many batters (237). While White has surely been a casualty of Coors Field to some degree in both seasons (2011, especially), there have likely been elements of bad luck, bad defense, and bad pitching mixed in for good measure. Humber’s SLG on Batted Balls was remarkably consistent over his four consecutive near-full-seasons at AAA from 2007 through 2010, varying from a low of .520 to .555 as a high. Humber’s number then fell precipitously to .433 in his first full season as a big leaguer in 2011, only to spike up nearly .200 points to .617 last year. So relative to 2012 MLB pitchers who collectively posted a .516 SLG on Batted Balls (the difference between the AL and NL value was only .001), Humber has posted one very good MLB season and one very bad one, while White has rated awful to poor as a big league starter.
Like Humber, Ely posted what would seem to be an aberrantly good AA slugging against season during his ascension to the big leagues. After that 2009 season he spent pitching alongside Harrell, Ely was the traded by the White Sox to the Dodgers where his SLG on Batted Balls settled into a relatively high zone of .570 to .610 over the course of the 2010 season that he split between AAA and MLB and the 2011 AAA season that followed it. In the most recent 2012 AAA season though, Ely’s SLG on Batted Balls shot down nearly .100 to .514 which would fall just under the MLB mark for 2012.
LD + OFFB%
White has consistently beat the 2012 average for MLB starters when it comes to avoiding line drives and outfield in his career, and again he looks remarkably similar to Lyles in terms of what each of them did at the AAA and MLB levels in 2012. Humber for the most part seems to have been either average or much worse than league average at avoiding these two batted ball types, and he very much struggled at this in 2012 posting a 58% rate for the Sox. Ely’s seasonal rate gradually rose from High A through his return to AAA in 2011 where it topped out at 50%, but it then fell sharply down to 43% in his strong 2012 season for the Dodgers’ AAA affiliate. Relative to the 47.5% LD+OFFB% that MLB starters posted in 2012 (AL=47.4% and NL=47.7%, per Statcorner), White should be good but not great, Humber should be average to poor, and Ely should be average to possibly a bit better than average.
Fitting a regression line to a plot of the pitchers’ SLG on Batted Balls versus their LD+OFFB% suggests that Humber’s .433 SLG on batted balls from 2011 should have been closer to .500 while his 2012 .617 value was about what it should have been given a 58% LD+OFFB%. White seems to be a pitcher of polar extremes as he has bettered his predicted SLG on Batted Balls in every minor league season (by .015, .135, and .060 from 2010 through 2012) but has been well over it in both of his big league seasons (by a whopping .220 in 2011 and by .080 in 2012). Just to contrast White’s and Humber’s 2011 MLB batted ball outcomes still further, notice that although both posted an identical 45% LD+OFFB%, White’s SLG on Batted Balls exceeded Humber’s by almost 300 points. Ely’s 2012 AAA figure was about .030 higher than it should have been and that is in keeping with his prior history of posting a SLG on Batted Balls mark that exceeds what would be predicted per his LD+OFFB%.
OFLD + OFFB to Pull-Field %
A key reason why Ely tends to post a slugging percentage figure that exceeds what his LD+OFFB% would predict is that he is easy to pull in the air. About 40% of his outfield liners and flies wind up going to the pull-field third, which is about as high of a figure at that stat as you’ll find in the professional ranks (the best are around 20%). In 2012, Ely managed to decrease his percentage of batted balls that were liners or flies to the pull-field by 3% simply by lowering his LD+OFFB% 7%; his OFLD and OFFB went to the pull-field at the same elevated rate in 2012 as 2011. Curiously, Norris, Lyles, White, and Humber each had 12.6% to 12.8% of their batted balls go as line drives or flyballs to the pull-field third of the outfield in their first seasons as a major league starter, a figure which would likely be near league average. Humber’s 2012 season saw that value increase considerably to 17.6%, while White’s 2012 MLB percentage went down a hair. On this stat, Harrell really stands out as superior to the rest.
Plotting SLG on Batted Balls versus this stat again shows Humber’s 2011 MLB slugging figure to be about .075 lower than one would predict, but this regression suggests that his 2012 SLG on Batted Balls was higher than it should have been. Not much changes in terms of White’s analysis, as he remains a pitcher who has clearly beaten his predicted slugging values as a minor leaguer but has been beaten up much more than he should have as a major leaguer. The analysis of Ely changes considerably as this paints him as being .050 under his predicted AAA SLG on Batted Balls in 2012; factoring in that Albuquerque's park has rated at the top of the PCL of late in terms of surrendering of doubles and homers to hitters would stand to further skew Ely’s 2012 slugging data in the positive direction and cause some to question whether he may have benefited from a heavy dose of good fortune in his batted ball outcomes.
Ely resurrected his prospects as a big league starter by improving in every evaluated metric from the 2011 to 2012 AAA seasons: by 2% in BB% , by 9% in K%, by .100 in SLG on Batted Balls, by 7% in LD+OFFB%, and so on. Just how he achieved the contradictory results of substantially lowering his line drive and outfield flyball rate on batted balls while dramatically increasing his strikeout rate remains a mystery at present. While the documented across-the-board improvements at AAA are promising, the big red flag that is that his sub-90-mph average fastball velocity renders him extremely susceptible to getting pulled in the air and that could be problematic for him as an Astro given that MinuteMaid Park tends to reward hitters when they pull the ball in the air.
Humber would appear to be a roughly average MLB starter in terms of each of the two non-batted ball metrics evaluated here (BB%, K%) but seems to lag behind the average MLB starter in the examined batted ball categories. His 2011 debut season as a full-time starter for the White Sox looks to be a rather fortunate one in hindsight as his slugging percentage on batted balls should have been considerably worse than it was given his line drive and outfield fly ball percentage and/or his percentage of batted balls that were liners or flies to the pull-field third of the outfield. While Humber seems unlikely to approach of better his 2011 performance as a major league starter, he should be able to post better batted ball outcomes than he did in 2012 provided that he can get his line drive and outfield flyball rate down closer towards league average.
White comes to Houston with the reputation of being a groundballer and while that label does seem to fit, he clearly falls short of where Harrell sits in that regard. Statistically, White would stand to be very similar to the current iteration of Jordan Lyles but with a higher walk rate. Like Lyles, White should rate below MLB average at the strikeout while being better than average at most batted ball stats. Not having to pitch half his games a mile above sea level should do wonders for White’s slugging percentage against on batted balls, a stat that clearly has been aberrantly high during his one and then some years as a major league Rockie. That he projects to be no worse than average as an MLB starter in terms of getting pulled in the air should also help reduce his slugging numbers.
The Trio, as a Group
These three are more like Lyles than either Harrell or Norris from the standpoint that each has a relatively small margin for error. None appears to have the luxury of possessing the elite groundball-inducing and power-stifling stuff of Harrell or a bat-missing put-away pitch comparable to Norris’ slider. As such, their capacity to escape trouble when it presents would stand to be more limited. And those limitations would raise the importance of the caliber of infield and outfield play behind them.
So which of these three will have the best 2013 as an Astro? Cast your vote in the poll below.