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What to make of the Astros starters' strong start?

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The Astros 2010 season is just over 10% of the way through, and for a stat guy that means that we are approaching the threshold of relevancy in the numbers.  We are not quite there yet, though. I, however, would still like to take a look at our starters' numbers and see what we can interpret from them given what we know to be true about the factors which influence them. 

The starters have been one clear bright spot on a team that has garnered much derision through 18 games this season. This does not come as much a shock to a lot of us, I’m sure, because we knew that there was reason for optimism coming into 2010 when it came to the Astros starters. Through Sunday’s action, the Astros starters were ranked sixth in the league in xFIP, posting a 3.94 xFIP. That’s a fairly sterling mark. But should we trust it?

As I stated at the outset, these numbers are not meaningful in the statistical sense, but they can serve as launching point towards meaningful analysis—I hope. The majority of the numbers that I will be pulling from are neatly grouped here:

Bud Norris 12.2 12.08 6.39 1.89 0% 26.5% 35.4% 0.41 63.60% 4.26 2.48 1.79 4.2
Brett Myers 26 6.23 1.38 4.5 9.10% 51.1% 47.4% 0.374 74.60% 3.81 3.11 0.7 3.26
Roy Oswalt 26 7.27 1.73 4.2 9.40% 40.8% 47.6% 0.256 82.60% 2.42 3.49 -1.07 3.67
Felipe Paulino 16.2 5.94 5.4 1.1 0% 45.1% 43.7% 0.308 48.20% 5.94 3.69 2.25 5.08
Wandy Rodriguez 24.2 5.11 2.92 1.75 9.50% 50.0% 43.7% 0.293 72.90% 3.65 3.92 -0.27 4.03

I’m just gonna break it down pitcher by pitcher, starting with Bud Norris:

The thing about Norris that obviously jumps out is that man loves three true outcomes. He’s been really, really good in two of the three outcomes, but dismal in one. It really is hard to fathom how a pitcher with a 12.1 K/9 could have a K:BB below 2, but Norris is getting the job done. I suspect it is because Norris has done so much in the three true outcomes aspect of the game that he has the lowest FIP of an Astros starter.  His ridiculous luck in terms of homeruns is reflected in his xFIP of 4.2, though. How anyone can have as low of a GB% as he does and have kept the ball in the park is astounding.

I am not sure if I can recall looking at a pitcher with such a wide FIP-xFIP—insanity.

Observations aside, I think the numbers tell us something about Norris early on. In spite of an enormous BABIP and lower than to be expected LOB%, Norris is probably due to regress enough to inflate his ERA. With as many free passes as he offers, and his near inability to keep the on ball the ground, bad things are sure to happen.

The one silver lining that can be drawn out of young Mr. Norris’ stat line is that perhaps the decrease in BABIP and LOB% might just keep things neutral. His xFIP and ERA are pretty much the same, so there’s a chance that we don’t see any real change for Norris. I think is especially possible given the Astros strong defense (at least in terms of turning DP, the advanced stats hate us, but the advanced stats are übermeaningless right now), but I won’t bet the farm on it. I think we are quickly seeing Norris become the National League iteration of Dice-K, and that scares me.

Brett Myers

I need to get one thing out of the way. Every time I type Brett Myers, I type Bretty Myers. For instance, when I just typed Brett Myers a ten words ago, I typed Bretty. I was cognizant of what I was doing, but couldn’t stop myself. I need to know: am I alone in this?

Myers has made a lot of us nervous thus far, but his statline, to me at least, is comforting. The man is not missing bats like he used to, but one has to assume that his BABIP of .374 will drop down, making his tight rope act less daunting. His low BB/9 isn’t aberrational, just not something we’ve seen out of Myers in awhile. My hope is that whatever was ailing him, isn’t anymore.

Although I expect to see a slight drop in his GB% over the course of the season, his LOB% is in line with his career norm, so it feels safe to assume that he won’t be getting nickled and dimed for runs for the rest of the season. The looming question with Myers will be what happens to his HR/FB because the Astros defense can’t help him with that. 9.1% is low for Myers, so we should brace ourselves. The hope is just that with his BABIP going down there will be fewer men circling the bases when it happens.

Roy Oswalt

This is vintage Roy Oswalt and I like it—a lot. The only thing that looks like is a misnomer about Roy’s early 2010 returns is his LOB%. It’s high, which makes sense given his low BABIP. My guess is that his ERA rises as that comes back in line, but with the Astros defense vacuuming balls in the infield, hopefully an uptick in his GB% could offset whatever damage may come.

Felipe Paulino

Paulino is like that friend you had in highschool that was insanely talented at something—far more talented that yourself—but for whatever the reason, could never sustain success. With as stalwart as the Astros defense seems to be thus far, it is mind-bogling to imagine that Paulino could post a LOB% of 48.2%. Mind-bogling I tell you. 

Like his young rotation-mate, Norris, Paulino’s free passes are disconcerting. Combine that with a normal BABIP and a HR/FB rate that has to climb, and I am not sure what to make of Paulino’s numbers. My guess is whatever negative comes from the coupled due to increase HR/FB + frightening walk rate should be offset by a reasonable strand rate, but I don’t know. My gut tells me it will depend on whether he figures out a way to get strikeouts again, but I just don’t think there is anyway to make anything reasonable about his numbers (damn the bullpen for allowing all of those inherited runners score…).

Wandy Rodriguezor where have all the strikeouts gone?

I’ll tell you where they went: where ever the decrease of two inches on the vertical break of his curve ball went. 12-6 action is one of the highest correlates with success on a curveball, and Wandy’s curve ball has lost a lot of that action through three starts this year. We’ve heard reports that Arnsberg has asked him to induce more GB’s, which is working, but I don’t see how this is paying off for Wandy. His BABIP and strand rate are league average-ish enough to not warrant speculation...So Brad Arnsberg, if you are reading this, stop trying to reinvent the wheel with Wandy.

So what do we make of the Astros starters' strong start? On the whole, I think we have to expect some regression in the wrong direction. But nothing that is going to break the bank either. Again, all of this is just my interpretation of what the numbers are likely pointing us to when we dig beyond just typical regression to the mean. Feel free to correct, refute, or even agree with anything of I have written. In fact, I think we will be a lot better off if you do.

[Note: all of the stats I have cited have come from Fangraphs. Rather than linking to every stat that is not listed in the table i will point you to this great jumping off point to dig around yourself. I figure this serves two purposes: 1) I don't have to create about thirty links in this post. 2) It forces you to look at all the numbers I didn't cite and maybe catch things that I missed when I was looking everything over. So depart, go forth.]