When a pitcher allows the leadoff man to get on base, you can safely wager that the scoreboard is going to change. But when he sends him back dejected into the dugout, odds are good that a zero will be posted for that frame. So this week, we'll note leaders and trailers in on-base percentage allowed to the first batter faced in every inning.
But first, I must note the overwhelming response to last week's column on run support where I opined that quality starts – though admittedly flawed – is a better category for our game than wins. In following the many comments, the strong consensus seemed to be agreement. But a fair number said that the best solution is to devalue wins some by keeping it as a category while also adding Quality Starts. But then we need another hitting category. (My suggestion – on-base percentage.)
Now on to this week. With help from our friends at Baseball Prospectus, I note that if you retire the first batter this year, the expectation is 0.251 enemy runs (ERA of 2.26). But should that first batter get on even by only reaching first base, that run expectancy jump to 0.8375 runs (ERA of 7.54). Of course, it's more if he reaches second (9.43 ERA) or third (11.70 ERA) to lead off an inning.
Here are the best pitchers this year at putting that leadoff batter away, ranked by OBP.
Best qualifying starters at retiring the leadoff hitter:
Moseley actually has a worse ERA at home (3.64) than on the road (2.83). His Yahoo! ownership is just 4 percent because his K-rate is so poor. I can't advocate skimming a Padres pitchers by pitching him on the road. He has two wins, but wins – as we established last week – are largely random/luck. So if you're not owning him because you need Ks, that's justifiable. But if it's because of the lack of wins, you need to rethink that.
Vargas is a similar pitcher. He's owned in 26 percent of Yahoo! leagues. He's even on pace for 150 Ks, which is about the floor for leagues with innings caps. His ownership rate should be doubled. Vargas is a professional pitcher with the skills we seek in many of these columns.
Humber is a surprise to me. He's owned in 69 percent of leagues. Why? He should be owned right in-line with Vargas at best. So either Vargas is very undervalued or Humber is very overvalued. I think it's a little of both. Humber is a new flavor, which if anything is a negative (smaller sample). The market never sees it that way though.
Worst OBP vs. leadoff hitters
Well, here we have Jackson's problem. It's leadoff hitters, period. If he was average here, he'd have an ERA in the mid-to-low 3.00s. Your willingness to pick up Jackson should be equal to your belief that this stat is descriptive (why pitchers have performed as they have) as opposed to predictive (how pitchers will perform going forward). I'm not sure. There can be complicated psychological factors involved where some pitchers just lose focus with the first batter and only lock in when they are in a jam. Of course, this is a very tough way to make a living no matter how talented you are.
Scherzer is sort of the rich man's Jackson. He's owned in 91 percent of leagues (vs. 36 percent for Jackson). Scherzer makes too many of these columns in a bad way to be owned at that rate.
Niese and Arrieta are guys who would be really interesting if they could work this out. Given their relative experience, Arrieta seems to be the better bet to do that. But Niese has far more upside given that he's been better despite being pretty bad in this very important measure. Of course, Niese has the much better pitching environment plus the advantage of being left handed.
Michael Salfino writes and edits the SNYWhyGuys blog that projects player and team performance for New Yorkers. He's also a quantative sports analyst whose writing regularly appears in the Wall Street Journal.