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Projecting the 2011 Division Race: Phillies vs. Braves (Run Prevention)

[Programming note: As PhillyFriar is currently attending to real-life duties, TGP's Top 30 Prospects series will resume on Monday, February 14.]

On Tuesday, I compared the Phillies' and Braves' projected offenses and reached the conclusion that the Braves' offense will probably be somewhat better at scoring runs in 2011 than the Phillies' offense will. Now I'd like to take a look at the other half of the equation: which team is more likely to be better at preventing runs?

Well, the answer's going to be the Phillies. That's kind of a no-brainer. But that alone isn't sufficient cause for celebration. Since the Braves will probably have the better offense, the Phillies will need to be more than just a little bit better at run prevention in order to be the better team overall. The crucial question is: How much better will the Phillies be?

There are three components to run prevention: (1) defense, (2) relief pitching, and (3) starting pitching. I would posit that the Phils have a big edge on defense and that the Braves have a less-big edge on relief pitching. But I'm not going to spend too much time talking about these two components. It's not that I don't think they're important. For instance, being better at defense can give you a substantial advantage. It's just that defensive stats are so volatile. Plus, I don't want this post to end up being 5000 words long. Suffice it to say that, reputationally, the Phillies have three great fielders (Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Placido Polanco), one good fielder (Shane Victorino), and three bad fielders (Ryan Howard, Raul Ibanez, Domonic Brown); while the Braves have zero great fielders, three good fielders (Freddie Freeman, Alex Gonzalez, Jason Heyward), three bad fielders (Dan Uggla, Chipper Jones, Nate McLouth), and one mediocre 2B whom they intend to play in LF for some reason (Martin Prado). If you agree with those general impressions, then the Phillies should have a siginficant advantage in this area. But I'm not going to attempt to quantify that advantage.

(I didn't mention the two teams' catchers because, really, who the heck knows how to evaluate catcher fielding? But the reputations of both guys - Carlos Ruiz and Brian McCann - are of roughly equal strength, so let's just assume they cancel each other out.)

I'm also not going to get too deep into discussing the bullpens, because reliever stats, like defensive stats, tend to be very volatile and unpredictable. Last year, the two teams' five most often-used relievers posted the following numbers:

Phillies IP ERA xFIP Braves IP ERA xFIP
Chad Durbin 68.2 3.80 4.19 Jonny Venters 83.0 1.95 3.10
Jose Contreras 56.2 3.34 3.43 Billy Wagner 69.1 2.10 2.34
Ryan Madson 53.0 2.55 2.89 Peter Moylan 63.2 2.97 4.08
David Herndon 52.1 4.30 4.31 Takashi Saito 54.0 2.83 2.83
Danys Baez 47.2 5.48 4.94 Eric O'Flaherty 44.0 2.45 3.61

Um, okay, time out... Say what? Chad Durbin was the Phillies' #1 reliever? Herndon and Baez were in the Top 5, but Brad Lidge wasn't? That's just crazy. I'm seriously pretty surprised myself.

Well anyway... so, the Phils' pen as a whole posted a 4.02 ERA over 421.0 innings in 2010, while the Braves' pen clocked in at a superior 3.11 over 474.1 IP. But these numbers are pretty useless in predicting what will happen in 2011. For the Phillies, Durbin is gone, Herndon will probably go to AAA, and Baez isn't assured of a spot on the team either. Contreras was great last year, but he's 39 years old. Lidge is just about the most unpredictable pitcher from year to year on the face of the earth, and J.C. Romero isn't far behind. I have no idea how well these guys are going to do this season, and neither do any of you. (Although I do know that Madson will probably be very good and that he'll probably pitch more than 53.0 innings this year.)

For the Braves, Wagner and Saito are gone, Moylan, O'Flaherty, and Venters all had huge xFIP-ERA differentials, and their main new face will be Craig Kimbrel, a rookie, who's apparently going to be their closer. Like Venters, Kimbrel is a serious talent with serious stuff, but he wouldn't be the first serious talent to have trouble adjusting to pitching in high-leverage situations as a rookie. So again, I don't know what to think here.

So I'm just going to pretend that the Phillies' likely defense advantage will cancel out the Braves' likely bullpen advantage and leave it at that. (I'm also going to ignore the fact that of the two teams, the Phils will probably allocate a much greater share of their innings to their rotation than to their pen.)

So it all comes down to prognosticating starting pitching performance. Below is a chart containing what I think are the most important stats in coming up with these projections. Obviously, you have to include 2010 xFIP and SIERA. There's also Fangraphs WAR (which is based on regular FIP and thus is slightly less predictive), ERA, K rate, BB rate, BABIP, and age.

I also included three "trend" stats. I totally just made these up and I'm not claiming that they're very statistically rigorous. All I did was take weighted averages of each guy's K rate, fastball speed, and xFIP from 2007-2008, and compare them to weighted averages of the same three stats from 2009-2010. The intent, obviously, was to try to get a very rough idea of which guys have been improving during the current stages of their careers (both performance-wise and also physically, with Speed Trend being a proxy for the latter).

Oh, and before I post the chart, one more aside. So the chart includes nine pitchers (I omitted Mike Minor since he's a rookie), and I calculated "Trend" stats for eight of them (I omitted Tommy Hanson since he wasn't in the majors yet in 2007-2008). Of those eight pitchers, exactly five of them improved in all three "Trend" categories. They were: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels, and Joe Blanton. Pretty badass, huh?

Hanson 8-28-86 202.2 7.68/2.49 N/A 92.7 N/A .286 .282 3.33 3.74 4.3 4.04 N/A
Hudson 7-14-75 228.2 5.47/2.91 +0.27 91.2 +0.4 .249 .280 2.83 3.70 2.7 3.87 +0.02
Jurrjens 1-29-86 116.1 6.65/3.25 +0.22 91.1 -0.8 .300 .283 4.64 4.38 1.2 4.47 +0.21
Lowe 6-01-73 193.2 6.32/2.83 -0.73 88.5 -0.6 .307 .293 4.00 3.74 2.7 3.65 +0.51

Halladay 5-14-77 250.2 7.86/1.08 +1.26 92.6 +0.7 .290 .292 2.44 2.93 6.6 2.92 -0.55
Lee 8-30-78 212.1 7.84/0.76 +0.80 91.3 +1.2 .287 .295 3.18 3.03 7.1 3.23 -0.68
Oswalt 8-29-77 211.2 8.21/2.34 +0.75 92.6 +0.2 .253 .295 2.76 3.33 4.7 3.45 -0.17
Hamels 12-27-83 208.2 9.10/2.63 +0.30 92.0 +0.7 .289 .286 3.06 3.19 3.8 3.43 -0.02
Blanton 12-11-80 175.2 6.87/2.20 +1.92 89.4 +0.2 .321 .297 4.82 4.01 1.9 4.06 -0.28

So here are the projections. First, the Braves.

Hanson: Bigtime talent who had a very good 2010 at the age of only 23. His 3.33 ERA looks like it was lucky though, as his SIERA and xFIP were both significantly higher and his BABIP-against was only .286. (Yeah, his career BABIP is .282, but his career is only two years long, so I don't think you can put much stock in that number at this point.) On the other hand, this is his age 24 season so he has a good chance to improve by leaps and bounds. I think it would be a fair to project him to repeat at around 3.3 in 2011, except this time legitimately.

Hudson: Posted an unbelievable 2.83 ERA in 2010, but his DIPS were roughly a full point higher. So the key to Hudson is figuring out how much of his ERA was luck. Clearly, some of it was luck, as his BABIP-against was a totally implausible .249. At the same time, Hudson's career BABIP-vs. is only .280, so if you're of the school of thought that believes that some guys (like Matt Cain) actually possess an ability to suppress BABIP, then maybe his DIPS aren't the greatest starting point for a projection either. I don't know what to think on that, so I'll just give Hudson the benefit of the doubt for purposes of this post. If his DIPS assumed a BABIP of .300 and his "real" luck-neutral BABIP is .280, then logically, his real 2010 performance was probably somewhere in between his ERA and his DIPS (falling a little bit closer to the latter than the former). Let's say 3.4. Now you also have to think about age regression, as Hudson's the second-oldest SP on either team, at 35. I wouldn't assume a ton of regression, as he hasn't declined much in recent years - in fact, he's throwing harder now than he did in 2007-2008. But 35 is still 35 so you've got to assume at least a little bit. I'll put him at 3.5.

Jurrjens: Injured for nearly half of 2010 and did nothing special when he was on the mound. He should be better in 2011 if he's healthy. But you can't count on him to revert to the 2.60 ERA he posted in 2009. That was BABIP-fueled horse crap - his xFIP that year was 4.34. In 2008, he had a 3.96 xFIP at age 22. I'm going to project him at 3.8.

Lowe: According to DIPS, Lowe actually had the best season of any Braves starter last year. Both his SIERA and his xFIP were below his 4.00 ERA. He's turning 38 on June 1 though. That's old. (It also makes him an injury risk.) I'm going to guess that his luck-regression and age-regression cancel each other out, and that he posts a 4.0 again.

Minor: I hope PF has the time to chime in in the comments, because I have no idea what to say here. Minor's a really good prospect who could very well turn into an excellent pitcher, but even excellent pitchers can struggle when they're rookies. I'll just go with his Marcel projection and say 4.4.

And now the Phillies.

Halladay: Obviously, he's awesome. Good at everything. Zero signs of slowing down at age 33 (turning 34 in May). In fact, he seems to be improving. His ERA was a half-point below his DIPS last year, but his DIPS were still great. I'm going to guess that he'll repeat those DIPS in 2011 and say 2.9.

Lee: Fangraphs WAR actually liked him better than Halladay last year. Also shows no sign of slowing down at age 32. His xFIP and ERA were a tad higher than his SIERA in 2010. I'll predict that he repeats the higher numbers in 2011 and say 3.2.

Oswalt: On one hand, he was BABIP-lucky in 2010. There's no way Oswalt sustains .253 going forward. On the other hand, his DIPS were still very good (hovering around 3.4), and like Halladay and Lee, he has shown no signs of slowing down. I'm going to assume only a slight tick of age regression and project 3.5.

Hamels: Had a great 2010. Threw a harder fastball than ever. He's now 27 years old - right in his prime years. Can still get better. I'm going to tab him to outdo Oswalt at 3.4.

Blanton: Had very bad BABIP luck last year. That is not something he's suffered from during his career as a whole, so there's no reason to expect that bad luck to recur. His K rate, which jumped up dramatically in 2009, stayed up in 2010, which was a great sign. He just turned 30, so if he's not still in his prime, he's only barely out of it. I think he'll be right where his 2010 DIPS were, at 4.0.

Here's a chart of everyone's James and Marcel projections. I promise I did not look at these numbers while I was writing the above, except for Hanson's and Minor's. There are some differences, but I think I ended up in the same ballpark as James and Marcel, for the most part.

Hanson 219 3.42 174 3.35 Halladay 245 3.19 209 3.11
Hudson 226 3.89 178 4.03 Lee 216 3.41 189 2.99
Jurrjens 172 3.82 140 3.73 Oswalt 221 3.48 183 3.57
Lowe 193 3.82 176 3.90 Hamels 219 3.70 184 3.58
Minor N/A N/A 76 4.44 Blanton 192 4.29 167 4.21

So here's the final analysis. An unweighted average of my projections for the Braves' starting five comes out to around 3.8. For the Phillies, the unweighted average comes out to around 3.4. That's pretty significant. You're talking about a differential of 50 runs or so over the course of the season. Even if the Phillies' offense is somewhat inferior to the Braves' offense in 2011, a 50-run pitching advantage would probably swamp that disadvantage.

This is not to say that it would be impossible for the Braves to stay even with or even outdo the Phillies in run prevention. For instance, this could get flip-turned upside down if some of the Phils' starters get hurt while all of the Braves' starters remain healthy. That scenario is extremely improbable, but nothing's impossible - Roy Halladay once had his leg broken by a line drive and Cliff Lee was ineffective all year in 2007 because of a groin injury, so crazy stuff does happen in this game from time to time. Also, Minor could be awesome in 2011 (or Hanson could have a breakout season that's even bigger than the breakout I guessed he'd have, above). It wouldn't be the first time a young talented pitcher peaked very suddenly, sooner than anyone expected.

But the odds that the 2011 Braves will match the 2011 Phillies in run prevention, while not nonexistent, are small. In fact, those odds are a lot smaller than the odds that the 2011 Phillies will match the 2011 Braves in run scoring. So, while it may not exactly be a new, mindblowing insight to say this, the bottom line is that the Phils' rotation is a lot better than the Braves' rotation, and it is for that reason that the Phils have a clear edge in this year's race.