Joba Chamberlain Part II!

Last week I did a little piece on Joba Chamberlain that elicited a wide range of reactions. While I’m not a Yankees fan and I don’t own a single Joba Chamberlain card, I had to admit that Joba is generally worth the hype. Others, especially those that frequent the Beckett baseball forums, took my views as simply another sheep following the herd and falling for the Yankees hype machine. While I appreciate most of the opinions that I read and try to keep a level head about the prospecting side of card collecting, I am sometimes shocked at the lack of perspective that some prospectors seem to have at times. For instance, one individual questioned the hype surrounding Chamberlain, while in the same post mentioning something about Ian Kennedy having a chance to be a real solid starter for the Yankees. Another individual posted a comment saying that the only reason that Chamberlain did so well in the majors this year was because he had a BABIP of .229 and that if Andy Pettitte had had similar BABIP then we would be singing his praises and not Chamberlain’s.

In the interest of clarifying some of the mystique surrounding pitching prospects and to give the average fan a little more perspective, I’d like to give a quick breakdown on statistical pitching factors:

These numbers were pulled from an article written by James Click titled Baseball Prospectus Basics. The article ran February 20, 2004 and can be found here.

In simple terms, the Metric side of the table is a list of statistics kept on pitchers. The R-Squared column is the measurement of correlation, or the amount of importance the stat has in projecting a pitcher’s career. The closer the stat is to 1.000, the more likely it is that the stat will be a determining factor in predicting the future success of a player. The third column under Standard Deviation is the amount of variance you will likely see in each statistical category over time from player to player. The higher the standard deviation, the more variable the value of each stat is likely to be.

According to Click’s article, the most important statistics in predicting a pitcher’s future success are K/9 (R-squared = 0.5627) and GB/FB (R-squared = 0.5591). K/BB ratios (0.361) and BB/9 ratios (0.3413) are also of some importance, but generally speaking the more batters a pitcher strikes out per 9 innings and the more ground balls a pitcher can induce, the more successful they will be. This should make sense to even the casual baseball fan since the goal of a pitcher is to record as many outs as quickly as possible and the 2 most efficient means of recording outs is via the strikeout or groundout. To help put this information in perspective, I’ll give you a few comparisons from the 2007 season:

In general, all 4 of these pitchers had the same defensive players behind them and pitched against the same offensive line-ups throughout the season. Though ERA is based off or many variable factors, I think this short list illustrates the basic importance of the K/9 stat and the GB/FB stat. Carmona and Westbrook had similar K/9 rates, but Carmona had a much higher GB% and thus had a considerably lower ERA. If we compare Carmona with Sabathia, we can get a feel for the comparable values of the K/9 and GB/FB stats since their ERAs were both in the low 3.00 area. Sabathia averaged 2 more strikeouts per 9 innings pitched, while Carmona averaged about a 20% higher GB%. This breaks down to a 10% increase in GB% equaling an extra strikeout per 9 innings. To test this theory, let’s take a look at another pitching staff:

In this instance, Ted Lilly seems to be an outlier as the 3 other pitchers statistics neatly follow the basic formula of correlation between the K/9 and GB% statistics. You can see that Rich Hill and Carlos Zambrano have virtually the exact same ERA while Hill averages an extra strikeout per 9 innings and Zambrano averages 10% more in GB%.

I could go on and on with stats like these, but the important thing to take from all these numbers is the correlation between a player’s K/9 ratio, GB/FB ratio and his success as a big league pitcher. There are always a few pitchers that don’t fit neatly into these correlation formulas, but generally all pitchers do and those that don’t probably succeed for other reasons that are rarely consistent and usually don’t have much to do with the pitcher.

To get back to the debate surrounding Joba Chamberlain, let’s take a quick look at his numbers compared to a few more established pitchers:

Though Chamberlain’s GB% wasn’t very high, his K/9 ratio was so high that he effectively pitched better than every pitcher we have looked at thus far. I am fully aware that Chamberlain’s numbers are based off of a small sample size and his ERA will not stay at 0.38, but his K/9 ratio is very consistent with his minor league stats and his GB% is actually much lower than his minor league average. I expect that his K/9 ratio will remain above 10 and his GB% will likely reach 50% next year, meaning that he could easily outperform 95% of American League pitchers, including Johan Santana. Many collector’s will say that it’s too early to make predictions like that since Chamberlain is so young and inexperienced, but history has shown that pitchers only get better as they age into their late-20’s, and that means Chamberlain will only become more dominant. (On a side note, I threw in Pettitte’s and Kennedy’s stats to counter the posts I mentioned earlier)

I hope this post had put a little more perspective into the “hype” surrounding Chamberlain. As I said earlier, I’m not a Yankees fan nor do I own any Joba cards, but it is my intent to help other collectors refine their prospecting approach. Baseball is not a perfect science, and I don’t expect anyone to place their prospecting faith 100% on statistical analysis, but if you don’t understand the stat side of baseball, you are severely missing out both as a fan and a collector. I hope I have shed a little more light on this subject and hopefully I can move on to other players besides Chamberlain. I look forward to your comments and hope you’re as excited about Spring Training as I am.

-Adam G.