To The Wolves

Dave · May 16, 2005 at 10:09 am · Filed Under Mariners 

Since I wasn’t around the blog all weekend, I didn’t get to weigh in on Jason being named GM and giving Julio Mateo a start. On the surface, moving a guy who has a 0.41 ERA into a role where he can actually have an impact ono the outcome of a game rather than pitching mopup duty looks like a pretty good idea. Its pretty tough to argue with an ERA that starts with zero point anything, and Mateo was pretty outstanding in 2003 as well.

Here’s my problem, though. While the results Julio Mateo have been getting this year are obviously phenomenal, there’s almost no reason to think that he’s showing any kind of sustainable skill that we didn’t already know he possessed. In other words, he’s exactly the same pitcher now as he has been. Let’s break down his numbers a bit.

Batters faced: 83
Walks and Hit Batters – 5 (6 percent)
Strikeouts – 10 (12 percent)
Home runs – 0 (0 percent)
Balls In Play – 68 (82 percent)

Mateo has been the epitome of a successful contact pitcher to date, mixing in almost no walks with literally no home runs and not many strikeouts and getting a ton of outs by allowing the defense to make plays. Now, let’s take a slightly closer look at his ball in play results.

Balls In Play – 68
Line Drives – 7 (10 percent)
Ground Balls – 22 (32 percent)
Fly Balls – 39 (57 percent)

Mateo’s an extreme flyball pitcher. That’s not new; he’s been this way this whole career. It’s also one of the reasons he’s been so prone to giving up home runs. Ron Shandler published a study in the Baseball Forecaster that showed historically that pitchers give up a home run on about 10 percent of their flyballs, and there do not seem to be any pitchers who have consistently been able to keep giving up flyballs while keeping the ball in the yard. For example, Mateo gave up 14 homers on 128 flyballs in 2003 (11 percent) and 11 home runs on 89 flyballs in 2004 (12 percent).

Mateo is yet to give up a home run this season. Using the 10 percent guideline, he “should” have given up 4 by now. This isn’t to say he hasn’t pitched well, but in projecting him going forward, we’re better off projecting a regression to a normal home run/flyball rate rather than assuming he’s developed a mysterious ability to induce 350 foot outs.

His home run rate isn’t the only anomalous part of his balls in play stats. He’s allowed just 12 hits on 68 balls in play, a .176 batting average. The league average is .293. Now, because flyballs are turned into outs at a greater percentage than groundballs and Mateo is one of the most extreme flyball pitchers in baseball, we expect him to post a better than average BABIP. Based on his raw numbers, Mateo “should” have allowed 17 hits on balls in play to date, a .250 average. He’s only allowed 12, which, again, is a rate that we can’t expect him to sustain.

I used another statistic developed by Ron Shandler called expected ERA to “normalize” Mateo’s performance to date had he given up the extra 5 hits on balls in play and 4 of his flyballs were turned into home runs. Using the formula (found here if you’re really geeky), Mateo’s expected ERA based on his normalized components is 3.85.

Essentially, if he continues to pitch with the same groundball, flyball, and contact rates he is now, we would expect him to post an ERA just a bit below 4.00 in a neutral park with a neutral defense. Pitching in Safeco Field in front of one of the best defenses in the game will probably knock at least half a run off that, but that won’t be something we should attribute to his skills.

So, what we have is a guy whose results are far, far exceeding what you would expect based upon the style of pitching he’s adopted. Even if he pitches just as well as he has to date, his ERA is going to rise pretty dramatically over the next few months. Despite the 0.41 ERA, a look inside his numbers shows no sustainable skill that will allow him to continue outpitching his hostorical norms. It should be noted, though, that his historical norms still make him one of the best pitcher’s on the staff.

So, while I applaud the M’s effort to get one of their better pitchers into more important innings and potentially give the rotation a boost, I’m not sure sending him out to face the New York Yankees in his first start in years is a great way to set him up for success. They lead the league in runs scored, are second in EqA, and are hitting .336/.402/.591 the past week while averaging 9 runs per game.

Contact flyball pitcher making first start in years + Steamrolling offense = Yikes.

I wish I had a little more optimism about how tomorrow night’s experiment was going to go, but realistically, I think this is probably going to be a one time thing. I only hope that a poor outing tomorrow night won’t relegate Mateo to long relief for the rest of the year.


21 Responses to “To The Wolves”

  1. Basebliman on May 16th, 2005 10:28 am

    Thanks for just peeing in my Wheaties, Dave.

  2. Brett Farve on May 16th, 2005 10:31 am

    Your points are well made. However, the question that I would ask:

    Is Mateo’s “expected perfomance” better than that of any of the current starters (Sele, Franklin, AAA bound Pineiro?)

    I agree that his “actual performance” has exceeded expectations, but that should not be used as an argument against him starting; it should be used to make sure future expectations are not unreasonably high.

    It should be noted, though, that his historical norms still make him one of the best pitcher’s on the staff.

    For this reason he ought to be starting…

  3. Jeff on May 16th, 2005 10:32 am

    Well-reasoned, Dave. While tempering expectations is wise, the part of your post I’d choose to highlight is that his historical norms say he’s one of the best options the M’s have.

    So sure, he’s not going to post a dominating ERA all year — in the ‘pen or the rotation — but he’ll probably give the team a better chance to win than just about any ready alternative.

  4. Dave on May 16th, 2005 10:39 am

    I probably should have made this clearer, but I wasn’t advocating leaving Mateo in long relief or not trying the experiment. I just don’t really like the situation they’re putting him in. Because of his ridiculous ERA, there are already heightened expectations on him that he almost certainly wasn’t going to live up to. Even if left alone, he was probably going to start to “struggle” because people aren’t viewing him as a solid reliever but instead as some sort of relief ace.

    So, taking a pitcher who is almost certain to disappoint (while still being as good as always) and asking them to start against the strongest offense in baseball, who are absolutely killing the ball right now? It’s why my post was titled “to the wolves”. It isn’t the lambs fault that there’s a good chance he’s going to get eaten, but it’s worth noting that he’s being asked to do something extraordinarily difficult, and he hasn’t been showing extraordinary skill.

  5. Kelly Gaffney on May 16th, 2005 10:44 am

    Just an aside. Mateo’s strike-out rate at 12% is significantly below his 19% in the MLB. I realize that this is usually viewed as a ‘skill’ with less fluctuation that BABIP, but with only 82 batters faced isn’t it likely that his strike-out rate will creap up while his BABIP and homer rate worsen? It should at least mitigate some of the decline predicted by Shandler’s widget.

  6. Brett Farve on May 16th, 2005 10:45 am

    I agree with the sentiments of your assertion … but … is it reasonable to further inflate his already inflated effectiveness by giving him his first start against, say, the A’s or Cleveland?

  7. Dave on May 16th, 2005 10:48 am

    It’s almost impossible to sustain this style of pitching for any long period of time, so yes, it’s likely that his strikeout rate will improve as his walk rate, BABIP, and HR rate worsen. He’s at the extreme end of the control pitcher spectrum right now and will most likely come back toward the middle.

    I wasn’t trying to normalize his walk and strikeout rates, though, as those are things that he has more control over, and we don’t have any really strong evidence that he certainly can’t keep performing at these levels. I’d say with 100 percent certainty that he won’t sustain the BABIP or HR rates, though, which is why they got adjusted before running xERA.

  8. Steve on May 16th, 2005 10:49 am

    IIRC correctly, Mateo did give up a home run. Ichiro! prevented the HR from showing up in Mateo’s stat line.

  9. Paul Marrott Weaver on May 16th, 2005 11:02 am

    So who’s going to be doing long relief while Mateo hopefully can last 5+ innings? Valone, I guess.

    Good luck Mateo, may your fly balls be eaten by Safeco’s expanses.

  10. chili con mateo carne on May 16th, 2005 11:07 am

    Have expectations really changed?

    At the end of spring training they put him in the bullpen because they didn’t expect him to be one of the top 5 pitchers. Has Bavasi recently said he has improved enough to start?

    It seems that they are starting him only because everyone else (except Meche) has been terrible.

  11. chili con mateo carne on May 16th, 2005 11:13 am

    I’m curious about whether our youngsters are learning the art of pitching.

    Correct me if I have the facts wrong: Last night Manny hit a HR off Meche’s 94 mph fastball and a game ago Tnix hit a fastball off Putz that was faster. Was it poor location, bad pitching strategy or are Manny and Trot simply good enough to hit that kind of heat?

  12. Basebliman on May 16th, 2005 12:21 pm

    Manny hit a pretty good pitch. The pitch to Nixon was up at the letters, and seeing 5 or 6 straight fastballs (if you include what he saw from the on deck circle), he was able to time it and the speed of the pitch provided all the power he needed. He still had to make contact though, so he deserves some credit, eckspecially (as Valle would say) on 98mph heat.

  13. urchman on May 16th, 2005 12:28 pm

    Great analysis, Dave. It’s articles like this that keep bringing me back to this site. 🙂

    And I agree with your conclusion: there’s no way Mateo can maintain his current numbers, and if/when he gets shelled by the Yankees, I hope the M’s allow him to stay in the rotation for a few more starts before deciding if it was a good or bad idea.

  14. Cliff on May 16th, 2005 12:34 pm

    Mateo is being forced to start because management spent 38 seconds and $12.49 thinking about their starting pitching for this year. When Mads went down, management was stuck praying that the other planned starters would have career years. Mateo is 28 years old and his been a long reliever for a long time. Should have brought up Campillo.

    Re: #12. Watched the super slo mo on FSN featuring the Trot homer. I think it was a case in which the first three rules of fastballs are the same as the first three rules of real estate. 2 more inches inside and Trot either misses completely or breaks his bat. Argh.

  15. Ralph Malph on May 16th, 2005 1:36 pm

    So Mateo’s not going to be able to maintain his 0.41 ERA. Is that news?

    I’d think the M’s would be pretty happy to have a starter with a 3.85 ERA. If they have a guy who can put that kind of an ERA up he should be starting.

  16. chaney on May 16th, 2005 1:39 pm

    I came out against this move in the other thread. I was assuming that Sele would be released or otherwise blasted into space to make room for Mateo in the rotation, which I didn’t agree with (I’d prefer Campillo or Felix if we were talking about a long term stay in the rotation). The Joel move came as a complete surprise.

    Now, if what we’re looking for in Mateo is a pitcher already on the 25-man roster who can give us a few decent starts and hold Joel’s place for a while, then I actually agree with this move. The only other real options on our staff would appear to be Thornton and Villone. Thornton hasn’t been consistent enough to warrant a 5 inning appearance, and Villone… well, I just prefer Villone on the mound for as few innings as possible. There’s no reason that one or two spot starts should hurt Mateo’s arm, so long as he’s pulled quickly if he begins to labor, and is kept on a reasonable pitch count.

    At least Mateo’s start will make for a more interesting ballgame than watching Joel’s sad puppy face as he tries to battle the Yanks without his best stuff… It would have been rather brutal to allow him to face Boston, Boston, and then NYY consecutively when he’s struggling like this, wouldn’t it?

  17. Jon Helfgott on May 16th, 2005 2:22 pm

    If the conclusion of this post is that the result of Mateo’s struggles will likely be an ERA around 3.5, this sounds like a win-win situation. Given that 10 AL starters finished last season with an ERA under 4.0 last year, I’ll take that kind of struggling any day.

  18. Tim Madison on May 16th, 2005 3:12 pm

    The MLB has become a home-run hitting contest, unfortunately, and focusing on a pitcher’s tendencies to give them up makes a lot of sense. Balls are flying out faster than ever it seems. With 10% of all flyballs going completely out its getting a little silly. Teams are built around the homer. They don’t bother with hit & run, steals, squeezes, or even taking the extra base…. they just sit and wait for the 3 run dinger. *yawn* So if the measure of success for a pitcher is giving up 25 homers per year instead of 30 it becomes very much more difficult to actually spot a good pitcher. I’m not sure how this applies to Mateo who seems to be bucking the odds at the moment. But I’m making note that Mateo is probably pitching to the other teams lineup only once, up to this point in the season. The real test is pitching through their lineup a SECOND time in the same game, anticipating their adjustments and keeping them wrong-footed. It takes a pitcher, not a thrower, to be able to pull that off. From what I’ve seen, Mateo has a ways to go to be able to make that happen. I could be pleasantly surprised but he figures to struggle from about the third inning on.

  19. PositivePaul on May 16th, 2005 3:25 pm

    With his current ERA of 0.41, it would not in the least bit surprise me to see it slightly above 3.50 by the time he leaves the game. It’s entirely possible for him to give up 10 earned runs in 5 innings (or 9 ERs in 4), if Hargrove leaves him in that long.

    It’s an interesting experiment, to say the least.

  20. TypicalIdiotFan on May 16th, 2005 4:05 pm

    I only hope that a poor outing tomorrow night won’t relegate Mateo to long relief for the rest of the year.

    From what I read, Mateo will get at least two starts to show the staff something. He’s also on an 80 pitch count for his first start. The basic idea being that his first start probably wont mean too much even if he performs really well or really badly. His true test will be his second or third start where he’ll be allowed to go deeper into the ballgame to see if his arm can handle it.

    On another note about pitchers and arms, how about Dusty Baker? 136 pitch outting for Zambrano last week and he hurts himself yesterday. Tsk tsk tsk.

  21. LB on May 16th, 2005 5:34 pm

    #11: Against a RH fastball pitcher, yes, Trot Nixon is that good. Especially when he’s looking for the fastball.

    I have a tape of him winning 2003 ALDS Game #3 with a walkoff pinch-hit HR in the 11th inning off of Rich Harden. In a postgame interview, Trot said it was actuall Jesus Christ who hit that HR, but it looked like Trot holding the bat to me.

    He said something to the effect that he’d heard that young man (Harden) had a great fastball, and if he (Nixon) had that kind of pitch, he’d sure throw it. He hit that thing over the deepest wall in Fenway, straightaway center field.

    It brings me great joy to watch that tape in the cold wet months of the offseason.

    “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” –Rogers Hornsby (who sadly did not have a VCR)