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St. Louis Cardinals' NLDS Game 1 starter: John Lackey or Jaime Garcia?

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Let's stipulate that Michael Wacha should not start NLDS Game 1. Joe delved into his second-half struggles last week. As Aaron and I discussed on the VEB Podcast NLDS preview, Lance Lynn has had troubles of his own since coming off the disabled list with an elbow injury. St. Louis shut Carlos Martinez down for the season due to a shoulder strain over a week ago. So our NLDS Game 1 starter choice is between two pitchers: John Lackey or Jaime Garcia.

2015:  Lackey vs. Garcia

SP

IP

K%

BB%

K-BB%

HR/FB

HR/9

LOB%

GB%

ERA

FIP

xFIP

SIERA

Lackey

218

19.5

5.9

13.6

9.8

0.87

82.6

46.0

2.77

3.57

3.77

3.93*

Garcia

129.2

19.0

5.9

13.1

7.1

0.42

78.1

61.2

2.43

3.01

3.36

3.39

*Because Fangraphs does not update SIERA live during games and I am writing this on Sunday, Lackey's 3.93 SIERA does not include his final four innings pitched on Sunday. All other Lackey stats include those innings.

Workload

After Sunday's abbreviated NLDS tuneup, Lackey has notched 218 innings this season, nine fewer than Adam Wainwright tossed last year. That total leads the Cards in 2015 and places Lackey ninth in MLB. Lackey is the workhorse of the St. Louis staff. After getting a late start the year because of his oft-injured shoulder and missing a stretch due to a groin strain, Garcia has tallied 129 2/3 innings this year.

Garcia's 129 2/3 innings over 20 starts works out to 6.48 IP per start. That's not too far off Lackey's 6.6 IP per start (which is artificially lowered thanks to his pre-planned four-inning NLDS tuneup on Sunday against the Braves). Nonetheless, Lackey has been the superior innings-eater.

Earned Run Average (ERA)

Garcia led the St. Louis starters with a 2.43 ERA. Lackey was the rotation's second-best run suppressor, at least as measured by ERA at 2.77. (Garcia's IP total means he has not qualified for the ERA title, which brings us back to the uniqueness of being both a workhorse and elite run-suppressor.) Lackey's 2.77 ERA ranks 10th in the majors among qualified starters. Both pitchers posted ERAs lower than Wainwright's 2013 ERA of 2.98 and higher than his 2.38 of a year ago. Lackey and Garcia's ERAs were actually lower than the 2015 preseason ZiPS and PECOTA projections for Waino of 2.92.

Of course, Garcia having the lower ERA does not automatically make him the more deserving NLDS Game 1 starter. ERA is volatile. It is based in part on how the defense fields behind a pitchers. Another component is the judgment of the official scorekeeper. ERA is a murky measure of an individual pitcher's performance. It's fine as a starting point, but when deciding who is the Cards' best choice to start NLDS Game 1, we need to dig a bit deeper.

Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)

Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) is a stat that casts a wider net than ERA. Rather than use solely those runs allowed that qualify as "earned" based on the official scorer's rulings (a problem unto itself), FIP looks at those events on the field over which a pitcher has the most control: strikeouts, walks, hit batsmen, and homers. It also uses innings pitched as the denominator. The FIP formula strips away sequencing and batted-ball vagaries. The formula for FIP is:

FIP = ((13*HR)+(3*(BB+HBP))-(2*K))/IP + constant

The constant places FIP on the ERA scale. That makes it easier for we lifelong baseball fans to assess how good or bad a pitcher's FIP is. You can read more about FIP at its Fangraphs glossary page.

Lackey and Garcia's strikeout and walk rates are strikingly similar with the righty having the slight edge. Not shown on this chart are hit batsmen. Lackey plunked four to Garcia's three. When it comes to homers, Garcia has an advantage. That's the difference between the two players' respective FIPs.

Garcia's FIP is lower than Lackey's because the lefty has allowed fewer homers. This isn't surprising because opposing batsmen have had a hard lifting the sinkerballer's pitches out of the yard throughout his career when he has been healthy. And this year, thankfully, Garcia has been healthy.

Skill-Interactive ERA (SIERA)

The primary criticism of FIP is that its focus is too narrow. Because the results of a ball in play are not entirely within a pitcher's control, FIP ignores them. FIP doesn't want to take into account how fielders might have impacted a pitcher's results. The exclusion of all batted balls is at once a feature and a glitch.

Partially in response to FIP's narrow focus, SIERA was created. SIERA takes into account a pitcher's batted-ball profile as well as as his strikeouts, walks, hit batsmen, and homers. SIERA is more complex and more predictive than FIP or xFIP when it comes to predicting a pitcher's future ERA. SIERA has also revealed some interesting truths about pitching performance. The Fangraphs SIERA glossary page relays SIERA tells us that strikeouts are better than FIP gives them credit for, walks are bad (but tend to be less bad for pitchers who allow fewer of them), and batted balls are tricky. On that last point:

In general, groundballs go for hits more often than flyballs (although they don’t result in extra base hits as often). But the higher a pitcher’s groundball rate, the easier it is for their defense to turn those ground balls into outs. In other words, a pitcher with a 55% groundball rate will have a lower BABIP on grounders than a pitcher with a 45% groundball rate. And if a pitcher walks a large number of batters and also has a high groundball rate, their double-play rate will be higher as well.

As for flyballs, pitchers with a high flyball rate will have a lower Homerun Per Flyball rate than other pitchers.

Garcia's 3.39 SIERA is good but not great. However, it's a heck of a lot better than Lackey's 3.93. That's not to say that Lackey's SIERA is bad—not at all. In 2015, MLB starters posted a 4.07 SIERA (through play on Saturday). Both pitchers have been above average by SIERA. Garcia has been better.

#

Whether one uses the good ol' fashioned ERA or advanced metrics like FIP and SIERA, both Lackey and Garcia have pitched well in 2015. But Garcia has pitched better, if over fewer innings due to health issues earlier in the year that are hopefully behind the portsider. Consequently, it would be best for the Cards to give the ball to Garcia to start NLDS Game 1.