Joe Biagini very well could be the Toronto Blue Jays 5th starter, and that’s not a bad thing
Following the Curtis Granderson addition (of which I am a big fan), the Toronto Blue Jays find themselves in an interesting position: spend the remaining $15 million on a starting pitcher, splurge on another outfielder or spread the wealth. [Well, maybe it’s the same position they were in before, just with $5 million less to spend.]
Splitting the cash between the two positions seems like the worst option—though it would help raise the floor, they’re due a ceiling-raiser. For $7.5 million (or so), you’re in the market for a Jaime Garcia (Steamer projection of 2.2 WAR) or a Jason Vargas (1.2 WAR), guys who could be useful, but not instrumental.
Similarly, the outfield is already stacked with solid (if limited) players, which is what $7.5 million-ish gets you—guys like Jarrod Dyson (1.6 WAR), CarGom (1.1 WAR) and CarGon (0.9 WAR), if you’re lucky. More likely, Cameron Maybin (0.5 WAR). Adding another isn’t going to change the outfield’s overall production very much.
Better starting pitching is always a good idea, but the weirdness of the starter’s market complicates things. There are the very expensive guys (Darvish, Arrieta), the regular expensive guys (Cobb and Lynn) and everyone else. Signing either Cobb or Lynn means going ahead with the outfield as is. Signing one from the latter group doesn’t move the needle very much, though minor-league deals are always welcome.
Increasingly, it seems that the team is fine with giving Joe Biagini the inside track for the job heading into Spring Training. This works for me. For one thing, it allows the team to throw the remaining funds at Lorenzo Cain—projected to produce 3.3 WAR (12th highest among OF) by way of the kind balanced skill-set that the Blue Jays are in dire need of. [Even if he was stuck in RF, Cain would still be projected to produce 2.8 WAR or so. The move to RF would cost him one win, but the data suggests that a CF produces an extra five defensive runs above average when moved to RF, which is worth an extra half win. In his career, Cain has produced an average of nearly 10 UZR (and 7.5 DRS) more per season when playing RF compared to CF.]
And, just as importantly, I’m pretty bullish on Joe’s ability to be a big league starter. Joe Biagini’s performances as a starting pitcher fascinated me throughout 2017. Watching the games and looking at his top-line stats, I couldn’t help but feel like he was better suited for the bullpen, where he has proven to be excellent and reliable. But whenever I looked at (my beloved) fancy stats, I saw plenty of optimism. So, what was the deal? This post focuses on one key factor: his results with runners in scoring position. They were atrocious and seemed to be the main difference between success and failure for him as a starter.
While I think these results are more noise than signal, it’s worth noting the possibility that Joe will continue to struggle as a starter. Maybe the gap between his top-line results (especially that 5.73 ERA) and his underlying stats is driven by something real. Maybe there’s an important flaw in his game that will keep allowing him to produce pretty good underlying stats, but pretty bad results, when starting. Ultimately, my read is that Joe caught a ton of bad breaks in his debut season as a starter and, as a result, we should cut him some slack and give him another chance or two to prove himself.
The table above captures Joe’s season as a starter in a nutshell. He gave up plenty of runs, leading to one of the worst ERA in the league. He also surrendered a worse-than-average wOBA, suggesting that batters produced pretty well against him. However, he ranked much higher in terms of wOBA than ERA, which implies that he was a bit unlucky as to when he gave up that production. We can see this graphically below.
A starter’s wOBA and ERA are highly correlated—giving up lots of walks, singles and extra-base hits will lead to more earned runs. As you can see above, Joe Biagini was an outlier in this regard. His ERA was much worse than his wOBA would have predicted (around 4.75). In fact, there were only four pitchers who had larger gaps between their actual ERA and the ERA predicted by their wOBA.
His better-than-average FIP points to two areas he did well in as a starter last season—he maintained slightly better-than-average home run and total walk rates (while posting an only slightly worse-than-average strikeout rate). With his decent FIP and poor ERA, it’s not surprising that Joe had the 6th largest ERA-FIP gap among starters.
In terms of xwOBA, his performance was even stronger, suggesting that the kind of exit velocity-launch angle combos he was giving up weren’t particularly dangerous, on average. Unsurprisingly, the gap between his actual ERA and the ERA predicted by his xwOBA is very large as well. The kind of contact he allowed, combined with his strikeout and walk rates, generally results in an ERA closer to four.
These points are very relevant to the point of this post as FIP and xwOBA have something in common: they aren’t particularly influenced by the number of runners on base. At the very least, they’re influenced by the number of base runners much, much, much less than ERA is.
A pitcher’s LOB% tells us whether or not a pitcher is stranding their base runners. Joe Biagini had the worst LOB% (59.2%) among all starters with 50+ IP last season. In fact, it was the 35th lowest mark among 6908 pitcher-seasons since 1967 (minimum 80+ IP). As per Fangraphs, “if you see a pitcher with a 60 LOB%, they are letting lots of runners score so their ERA will be high, but the odds are that they will strand more runners in the future and lower their ERA”.
Using the aforementioned group of pitcher-seasons, I compared a pitcher’s change in ERA from one season to the next with their LOB% in the previous year. Joe would be projected to see his ERA fall by 1.28 runs. (Coincidentally, the difference between Joe’s 2017 SP ERA and his Steamer projection for 2018 is 1.17.) So, again, the issue seems to be his results with runners on base.
Splitting his stats confirms these suspicions. With the bases empty, Starter Joe was better than the league average starter in terms of ERA, wOBA, FIP and xwOBA. With runners in scoring position, his numbers were downright frightful.
Moreover, when we plot starting pitchers’ wOBA and ERA separately (first when the bases are empty, then when there are runners in scoring position), Joe is no longer an outlier. That suggests that the gap he displayed in the previous graph was driven mainly by his poor results with RISP. It didn’t help that Joe faced a relatively high number of batters with RISP—he had the 20th highest percentage of batters faced with RISP (27.4%).
Did reliever Joe have similar issues? Nope. In fact, he actually posted better wOBA, FIP and xwOBA with RISP when coming out of the bullpen.
Together, these numbers paint an interesting picture of Joe’s first season as a big league starter. First and foremost, he grades out as an above-average pitcher in terms of FIP. While imperfect, FIP is a very good indicator of how effective a pitcher actually was, much more so than ERA. He grades out even better in terms of xwOBA. While new and mysterious, xwOBA is particularly useful for pitchers who induce weak contact, like Joe.
Importantly, the numbers help explain why Joe’s performance as a starter seemed so much worse than it probably was. On average, major league starters produce fairly similar FIP, wOBA and xwOBA regardless of the number of base runners. In Joe’s case, each stat was significantly worse with RISP.
The million dollar question going into 2018 is whether all that was a fluke or not. Does he get a little nervous when he allows base runners? Do they affect his approach in some way? Or, was it just bad luck? That’s hard to say right now, though he certainly seemed capable with RISP as a reliever. His xwOBA and LOB% certainly suggest some degree of bad luck was involved. Presumably, the front office has been examining similar data and coming up with similar conclusions. That would certainly explain the optimism we share regarding Joe Biagini’s talent as a starting pitcher.
*Featured Image Credit: Bliss Noguiera
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.