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Starting Rotation: Backe or Chacon?

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The Astros decided to call up veteran pitcher Runelvys Hernandez from Round Rock to start in Friday's game against the Red Sox.  This means someone is knocked out of the rotation, and that someone turns out to be Shawn Chacon.  Shawn wasn't too happy about it.  He called the decision horse-feathers or, at least, something close to that term.  Chacon's public reaction to Cooper's decision seemed pretty blunt.   But it's hard for the Astros to hold that against him, considering that Cooper just finished telling the world a week or so ago that players should be allowed to say whatever they want.  Coop's support for players' first amendment rights followed public criticism of his lineup decisions by Roy Oswalt during the last homestand.

Cooper seemed to frame this decision as the only one available to him.  However, my immediate reaction was that an equally good case could be made for moving Backe out of the rotation instead.  Backe made the decision look good in Sunday's game at Tampa Bay by pitching very well.  However, since the decision was made prior to that start, I will compare Chacon and Backe based on the information available prior to Sunday's game.  As I look at their stats, it turns out that Backe and Chacon are having a remarkably similar season, though neither pitcher has performed well, overall, this season.

If I'm making the decision, one of the more important stats would be Fielding Independent Pitching, because it removes some luck factors from the runs allowed per game.  FIP focuses on what the pitcher can control.  And, here, Chacon has been better than Backe. According to the Hardball Times, Chacon's FIP is 5.60 and Backe's is 6.02.  In terms of RA/G, Chacon is 5.46 and Backe is 5.20.  Neither number is anything to write home about.

As it turns out, Backe's and Chacon's stats on the year are very similar.  Backe gives up more HRs and hits, while Chacon gives up more walks.  Chacon had a slightly higher ERA going into Sunday's game.  As for similarity, here's what I mean (again, stats don't include Sunday's game):

                                                              Backe                      Chacon

ERA                                                        4.99                          5.04

WHIP                                                      1.58                          1.51

HR/9                                                       2.06                          1.68

BB/9                                                        4.01                          4.31

K/G                                                           5.9                            5.5

GB %                                                       37.7                          36.6

BABIP                                                      .290                          .282

 

One significant difference between the two is that Brandon Backe has been better with Runners in Scoring Position.  Backe has allowed a .238 BA and .769 OPS with RISP.  Chacon has allowed a .333 BA and 1.093 OPS with RISP.  This is a significant difference which undeniably affected the outcome of games.  However, there is a line of thinking that a significant difference between RISP and regular hitting stats is mostly attributable to luck, and that Backe and Chacon are likely to experience a regression to the mean (in opposite directions), in terms of RISP stats.  Then, again, the question of  "clutch pitching" hasn't been studied very much.

Given that Chacon and Backe have pitched similarly this year, another factor which weighs in Backe's favor is that Brandon has been a much better starter than relief pitcher during his career.  Backe's career ERA as a reliever is a full run higher (5.51 vs. 4.51) than as a starter.  Chacon on the other hand has a history of significant relief roles (both as closer and 8th inning set up reliever).  Chacon had a good 3.52 ERA for the Pirates last year when he pitched in relief.  So, if one of the two has to go to the bullpen, Chacon might be the better choice.

Hernandez, who is also the same age as Chacon and Backe, had a 3.75 ERA as a starter at Round Rock.  Reportedly his velocity was in the 95 mph range.  He has pitched excellent ball in the last month.  I like the idea of fitting a hard throwing pitcher into the rotation in the middle of all of the lower velocity starters.  Oswalt is the only other Astros' starter who consistently throws above 90.  However, given Hernandez's checkered history in the major leagues, putting him in the rotation is a long shot.  But the Astros have to take long shots now.  It is very possible that Hernandez will fail in this role.  So, Shawn don't give up on being a starter, you might end up in the rotation later on.