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Pitching by the Numbers: Leading off

Michael Salfino
Yahoo Sports

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:

Rank Name Team AB H BB OBP
1 Dustin Moseley(notes) SD 101 14 3 0.163
2 Jason Vargas(notes) Sea 120 20 5 0.200
3 Michael Pineda(notes) Sea 105 16 10 0.226
4 Jair Jurrjens(notes) Atl 110 22 5 0.235
5 Justin Verlander(notes) Det 137 27 7 0.236
6 Cole Hamels(notes) Phi 120 24 5 0.238
6 Tommy Hanson(notes) Atl 99 19 6 0.238
8 Josh Beckett(notes) Bos 104 18 8 0.239
9 Jered Weaver(notes) LAA 132 24 9 0.239
10 Jeremy Hellickson(notes) TB 100 18 7 0.241
11 Hiroki Kuroda(notes) LAD 116 26 2 0.244
12 Chris Carpenter StL 125 27 5 0.246
13 David Price(notes) TB 127 27 4 0.248
14 Jhoulys Chacin(notes) Col 101 18 9 0.252
14 Philip Humber(notes) CWS 105 22 4 0.252
16 Ervin Santana(notes) LAA 121 25 7 0.256
17 Jordan Zimmermann(notes) Was 109 25 4 0.257
18 Tim Hudson(notes) Atl 109 23 4 0.259
19 James Shields(notes) TB 129 26 7 0.259
20 Josh Tomlin(notes) Cle 116 28 3 0.261

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

Rank Name Team AB H BB OBP
1 Edwin Jackson(notes) CWS 102 40 8 0.436
2 Charlie Morton(notes) Pit 92 33 10 0.422
3 Jo-Jo Reyes(notes) Tor 94 32 11 0.421
4 Max Scherzer(notes) Det 104 36 10 0.409
5 Edinson Volquez(notes) Cin 77 24 11 0.404
6 John Lackey(notes) Bos 75 25 7 0.398
7 James McDonald(notes) Pit 85 22 17 0.388
8 Jason Marquis(notes) Was 105 35 8 0.386
9 Jonathan Sanchez(notes) SF 79 21 13 0.383
10 Nick Blackburn(notes) Min 105 33 8 0.379
10 Derek Holland(notes) Tex 101 29 12 0.379
12 Johnny Cueto(notes) Cin 74 21 10 0.376
13 Aaron Harang(notes) SD 78 23 9 0.375
14 Brett Myers(notes) Hou 114 36 9 0.366
15 Ivan Nova(notes) NYY 90 27 7 0.364
16 Jonathon Niese(notes) NYM 105 31 9 0.362
17 Tyler Chatwood(notes) LAA 92 25 12 0.362
18 Fausto Carmona(notes) Cle 96 27 11 0.361
19 Jake Arrieta(notes) Bal 86 22 14 0.36
19 Kyle McClellan(notes) StL 93 29 7 0.36

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.

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