Your hero and mine, Rob Neyer, makes some interesting points with regards to the relative qualities of two candidates vying for the title of “Best Fifth Starter in the Majors.” However, like most of us, Neyer appears be guilty of seeing what he wants to see in the numbers and ignoring what doesn’t agree with the argument he’s trying to construct. Maybe he's been spending too much time hanging out with Jayson Stark.
In an article he wrote last week, he indicated that with the addition of Mark Redman to their staff, the Oakland A’s probably have the best starting five in the majors, and Neyer’s probably right about that. He also indicated that Rich Harden is therefore the Best Fifth Starter in the Majors, which seems to be a more debatable issue. In particular, a few of Neyer’s readers posited Brett Myers as a better option for said title.
His (Harden’s) ERA in the majors last season was essentially the same as Myers' and his peripheral numbers are better. Looking at all of Harden's professional innings in 2003 – roughly half of them in Triple-A -- he struck out nine hitters per nine innings, and his control was decent. Myers, meanwhile, struck out seven batters per nine innings. Granted, Myers spent all season in the majors (Harden didn't), but Myers, a National Leaguer, also faced a lot of pitchers (Harden didn't). [italics added]
Let’s look at the pieces of the argument one-at-a-time, shall we, just like the great philosopher, Nuke Laloosh, tells us we should.
1) Similar ERA with better peripherals = better pitcher? Generally this is true, but the quality of the hitters they faced can influence those peripherals significantly. At the major league level, Harden and Myers faces roughly the same quality of batters overall (.744 OPS vs. .735, respectively), but they didn’t only face major leaguers. But I’ll get back to that… Rob's statement also begs the question of which peripherals, exactly, were better? Look at them (Harden's numbers were projected over the same number of at-bats):
AB R H 2B RBI BB SO SB CS AVG OBP SLG OPS
Myers 754 99 205 43 88 76 143 16 5 .272 .342 .424 .766
Harden 731 100 189 32 87 105 176 24 5 .259 .349 .363 .712
Was Harden better? Sure, but marginally.
That ~50-point difference is nothing at which to sneeze, but most of the disparity rests in the difference in their hits allowed, which is hard to predict from year to year, and a few more extra-bases given up by Myers. Those numbers could easily flip-flop next year, especially since both pitchers' home ballparks behaved out-of-character last season. (Veterans Stadium, usually a pretty neutral park, was a better pitcher's park than Dodger Stadium in 2003, and Oakland/Network Associates/Grace L. Ferguson Airline & Stormdoor Co. Coliseum, usually a pretty good pitcher's park, was a slight hitters' park in 2003. Nobody knows what the Phillies' new Stadium will do to offense in 2004, and, similarly, no one knows what the Athletics' stadium will be named next year.)
2) Harden had decent control. I’m not sure what Rob uses as the benchmark for “decent” control, but according to my (admittedly limited) analysis, Harden walked 40 batters in less than 75 innings at the major league level in 2003. That walk rate (4.82 per 9 IP) would rank him in the worst ten in the majors if he had pitched enough to qualify for the ERA title. Of course, you can still succeed as a pitcher walking a batter every other inning if you get enough strikeouts (just ask Kerry Wood) or if your teammates score six and a half runs every time you go out there to pitch (just ask Russ Ortiz). But neither of those means you qualify for “decent” control. And of course, Myers’ control was much better (about 3.5 walks per nine innings.)
3) Harden spent about half of his season in AAA, but Myers spent the whole season in the NL, where you have to face pitchers, so it evens out? Rob may not have said this explicitly, but he does seem to imply that we can somehow just glaze over those differences as we analyze them. Personally, I don’t see how you can equate facing roughly 75 pitchers a season (out of almost 850 batters faced) with facing 400 hitters who aren’t even good enough to make it to the majors (out of about 700 to 750 batters). I’m not totally sure how to compensate for this difference, but I’m pretty sure we shouldn’t just call it a wash.
And besides, if you’re looking for the Best #5 Starter in the Majors, he’s probably in the Yankees’ rotation anyway. The Yanks’ 1-3 starters are Kevin Brown, Mike Mussina and Javier Vasquez, with their #4 and #5 slots taken by some combination of …
…David Wells - owner of 200 career wins, career *ERA+ of 110 (i.e. 10% better than average)
…Jon Lieber (LAIM, perhaps, but still capable of posting 200 innings of 10% better than average work when healthy)
…Jose Contreras (purportedly one of the best Cuban pitchers ever, even though he’s probably 32 going on 40)
Seems to me that not only was Rob making a shaky argument, he was making the wrong shaky argument.