It would seem that our favourite pitcher here at 3-D Baseball is Javier Vazquez. We do, after all, have a tracker (and by tracker I mean I go in and manually update it when I think about it) devoted to monitoring his quest for 3000 strikeouts at the top of the margin. We've written one article about him already and are now featuring another Javy Vazquez piece, and we don't have that many player exclusive articles. To be perfectly honest, though, he's not really a favourite of anyone here. Personal favourites of our writers include Greg Maddux, Satchel Paige, Bob Gibson, even Barry Zito; Vazquez is just another pitcher, most notable to us for being another in the hilarious pattern of high-profile moves that for whatever reason never seemed to pan out for the Yankees. Vazquez, however, is among the most illustrative players in the gap between common sense baseball perception and sabrmetric digging into the depths of player values, one of the more difficult puzzles in the enigmatic endeavor of relating player production to the printed standings laying across your lap as you sip your morning coffee. As such, he's the perfect subject for someone such as me who is interested in those sorts of things.
So the question before us today: how can a pitcher as good as statisticians claim Vazquez is be struggling to crack .500 this far into his career?
To try to answer this, I want to take a look at Vazquez' teams' W-L record when he pitches and see just how many of those wins they should have had with an average starter instead of Vazquez. Common sense says that a good pitcher should win games, but what if we don't know how many games his team could have won without him? We need to establish a baseline that tells us how good Vazquez' teams were without him before we can say his mediocre record is not adding wins. Once we do that, we should have an idea of what kind of real-life value Vazquez added in the standings which we can then compare to his credited statistical value.
I guess this would be a good time to detail how good statisticians claim Vazquez is. I would, after all, like to try to reconcile that with the actual wins and losses for his teams, so it would be a good starting point to know what kind of value we're talking about for Vazquez beyond just good K:BB ratios, FIPs, tRAs, etc. Sean Smith of BaseballProjection.com has Vazquez rated as 32 wins above replacement through 2008. Fangraphs, which bases its win values on FIP and innings pitched, has him at about 31 WAR from 2002-2008 (this would be higher if it included his whole career, as BaseballProjection does). StatCorner.com, the home of tRA, likes him even better, crediting him with about 31 WAR from 2003-2008.
If you aren't familiar with the concept of replacement level, don't worry. It seems like an ambiguous concept and can be hard to guage at first since it's not inherently defined and it's up to each statistician to figure what replacement level he or she will work with. For this article, we will be dealing with the simpler and more rigidly defined practice of comparing to the league average, so you'll only need to have a basic idea of what the abover WAR numbers mean. Replacement level is generally considered to be somewhere around 2 wins per year below average, so a full season's worth of average production is worth somewhere around 2 WAR. StatCorner's runs above average stat would have Vazquez' 31 WAR worth about 16-17 wins above average over the years it covers, if that is a more comfortable baseline. Additionally, it would be helpful to have some context as to how good Vazquez' WAR figures are. Adding in Vazquez' whole career to the FIP and tRA estimates of win value would likely put him into the 40s, but since they only go back so far, it's hard to get historical comparisons. Instead, you can get a good idea of Vazquez' career value by seeing who he compares to in Sean Smith's database. His 32 wins are already right around the career production of notables Preacher Roe, John Tudor, and Sal Maglie. Sabathia, in a few years fewer than Vazquez, has accumulated 33 wins. Keeping in mind that WAR adds about 2 wins for every year of average production and thus tend to keep accumulating throughout a player's career, the company Javy is already in at his age is pretty good, and certainly better than his record would suggest.
This brings us to the primary issue. Are the statistical metrics missing the mark on Vazquez? While this could bring up a discussion of the merits of those metrics and the validity of their methodology, I want to keep the technicality to a minimum here. I don't want to use this article to call for us to ignore what we see in the standings and take the metrics as gospel; rather, I want to simply look at the actual wins and losses and see if they add up.
Vazquez' W-L record through 2008 was 127-129. Taking that a step further, we can look at what his team did whenever he started, regardless of whether he was credited with a decision, and see that his teams went 175-178. That's not so great. I'd say it's downright average, if not a little worse. Baseball is a team sport, though, and going 175-178 for otherwise bad teams can be pretty good. To see how good that 175-178 is in Vazquez' case, I considered 3 primary factors relating to the quality of the team outside (for the most part) of Vazquez' influence: the offense, the bullpen, and the defense. In doing so, I tried to find an estimate of how the same teams would have done in those same games with a league average pitcher starting instead of Vazquez.
The first factor I addressed was the offense. In Vazquez' 353 starts through 2008, his teams scored an average of 4.44 runs per game. Assuming average run prevention (basically, ignoring the effects of Vazquez, the bullpen, and the defense), we can take the average R/G for the league Vazquez pitched in each year, park adjust it to his home park, and use that as our runs allowed to get a Pythagorean record to see how good the offenses were.
If that sounds like I'm not keeping the technicality to a minimum, let us step back for a moment. Basically, all it means is that I'm comparing what Vazquez' offenses did in games he pitched to what an average offense would have done. It turns out that based on the strength of the offense alone, an otherwise average team would have been expected to win about 162 of those 353 games. So Vazquez has worked in front of well below average offensive support over his career to date.
Moving on to the bullpen, I took Vazquez' innings out of every game he pitched and replaced them with the same number of innings by the average starting pitcher in the league he was pitching in at the time (once again adjusted to Vazquez' park, of course). The innings pitched by the bullpen were left intact. This allowed me to get an estimate of how many runs these teams would have allowed with an average starter based on how good or bad their bullpens were. As it turns out, the bullpens, on the whole, were bad as well. Their runs allowed per 9 innings of 4.96 (this is higher than their ERA since it includes unearned runs) was nearly as bad as the average starter's mark, adjusted to Vazquez' parks, of 5.03. Generally speaking, bullpens should have better run prevention than the average starter, and it's a bad sign if they don't. Divvying the innings appropriately and combining the bullpen's mark with that of the average starter's mark gives us a new runs allowed figure for our teams and lets us recalculate their record with the effects of the bullpen as well as the offense. This drops the number of expected wins to 158.
Finally, I looked at defense. From 2002 on, I used team UZR to measure defensive value. Before 2002, I used Total Zone, as UZR is not currently available for those years. This final adjustment was as simple as converting the fielding runs measurements to a per-game figure and prorating it to the number of games Vazquez started, and then adding or subtracting those runs from the average starter in our previous adjustment. The runs allowed by the bullpen need no adjustment since the runs they gave up were already in front of the defenses we are measuring. Once again, Vazquez' defenses were substandard, adding .02 runs per game to the expected runs allowed. This modest adjustment takes off 1 further win from our previous total.
That brings us to a final total of 157 wins if we remove Javier Vazquez from the 353 games he started and replace his innings with a league average starting pitcher. Remember that the actual record of these teams in front of Vazquez is 175-178. Considering that these teams generally sucked and were expected to go somewhere around 157-196 in those games without Javy's influence, 175-178 is pretty good. It's about 18 wins above average, meaning that if he were pitching on an mostly average teams, it would be reasonable to expect them to be close to 36 games over .500 instead of 3 games below. It's not hard to imagine the implications for Vazquez' W-L record.
The 18 wins above average matches up reasonably well with the statistical estimates of Vazquez' win value. In this case, despite the surface tension between the stats and the record, the metrics are in fact in harmony with common sense perception that they need to translate to real life wins that show up in the W-L columns. They do just that; they just don't start with a baseline value of .500. Vazquez was not pitching for otherwise average teams, so comparing his record to the record of an average team clearly understates his value. Just as common sense dictates, it takes a very good pitcher to bring otherwise substantially below-average teams up to average performance, which is exactly what we're seeing with Vazquez.