It’s easy to look at Jeremy Hefner’s 5.09 ERA and 4-7 record and conclude that it was not a very good year and that the Mets might look to upgrade his spot for 2013. But Hefner did a fine job in his role and not only should he be back next year, there are legitimate reasons to think he was undervalued by most fans and analysts out there.
One of the difficulties in evaluating pitchers is coming to an agreement on terms and definitions. Coming into the 2012 season, most people would have considered Tim Lincecum an ace. Yet Lincecum turned in a season with 15 losses and a 5.18 ERA. So, the first thing we are going to do is throw out preconceived notions. No one is an ace or SP1 on reputation alone. Instead we are going to look at actual results and rank pitchers based on where they fell among their peers.
This study is limited to National League pitchers and will consider only what they did as starters. There were 95 pitchers who threw at least 50 innings as a starter last year. The Mets had seven pitchers meet this threshold. Here are their numbers:
Based purely on IP, the Mets did not have a SP3 in 2012. But they did have two SP5s and two SP6s. These rankings are based on the 16 teams in the league. Pitchers 1-16 in a category would be an SP1, Pitchers 17-32 would be SP2, Pitchers 33-48 would be SP3, Pitchers 49-64 would be SP4, Pitchers 64-80 would be SP5 and Pitchers 80+ (since we only have 95 here) would be SP6. In terms of innings, Santana would be a bottom-tier SP4, while Young and Gee would be upper-tier SP5s.
Innings pitched are very important but they are not the only way to rank starters. We need to look at quality, too. Unfortunately, quality is not as easy to measure, with perhaps the biggest issue being how to account for innings while we also look at quality. Leaving aside innings for the moment, let’s look at how the Mets’ pitchers did compared to our 95 NL pitchers when we rank them by ERA:
Based strictly on ERA, Harvey gets classified as an SP1 but in reality it’s impossible to consider a guy who threw just 59.1 IP as a number-one pitcher.
As for Hefner, we see him as an SP6 in both innings and ERA. His rankings are solidly in the middle for both categories, suggesting that he is a league-average sixth starter. You may have noticed his ERA was listed at 5.02 early in the piece and 5.32 above in the ERA chart. That 5.32 is what he did as a starter. All numbers listed in these charts apply only to what the player did in his role as a SP.
But ERA is only one measure of quality. A better one is xFIP, which measures what a player’s ERA should have looked like assuming that performance on balls in play, timing and HR rate were league average. Here’s the next chart:
From this quality standpoint, it’s easy to get excited about the Mets’ SP for 2013. Two SP1s, Two SP2s and the very best SP4 would make for an outstanding rotation. As for Hefner, we see him jump in this quality ranking from a middle of the pack SP6 to one of the best SP4 in the NL. Hefner was hurt last year by an elevated BABIP (.319) and a depressed strand rate (63.9) – two things that we would expect to regress in his favor in 2013. We should also note that Young finished dead last in this category.
Let’s look at one more quality metric, this one fWAR:
WAR does the best job of trying to balance durability and quality. We see Dickey and Niese – the two pitchers who by far threw the most innings – comfortably ahead of everyone else. Yet Gee threw nearly twice as many innings as Hefner and they were nearly identical in fWAR. This is another stat that suggests that Hefner was quite good as a SP in 2012, one worthy of being in a team’s starting rotation.
Hefner produced his stats last year while bouncing back and forth between Triple-A and the majors and as a starter and a reliever. It’s hardly the ideal way to put up good stats. Instead of comparing him to SP, let’s compare him to pitchers who pitched in his role.
Since 2000, there have been 107 seasons in the National League where a pitcher both started and relieved in at least 10 games. Last year Hefner made 13 starts and had 13 relief appearances. His 5.09 overall ERA is tied for 66th-best, a pedestrian mark. But Hefner got that ERA with an interesting combination. He was very good in the majority of his starts and awful in a handful. He had 8 Quality Starts and three outings where he posted a Game Score of 22 or below.
If we sort our list of 107 seasons by QS percentage, we see Hefner’s .615 mark is the fifth-best percentage in our sample. The four pitchers ahead of him in this ranking went a combined 31-19. If we look at just 2012, Hefner’s QS% is tied for 28th among pitchers with 50 IP, making him an SP2.
When we rank Hefner by IP and ERA, he was a solid SP6 in the National League in 2012. But there are reasons to think that he performed much better than that last year. Hefner’s xFIP, fWAR and QS% all indicate a pitcher far superior to a sixth starter.
Of course, Hefner’s 2012 season could certainly be a fluke. That’s true of any pitcher and there’s no reason to exempt Hefner. Perhaps if he took a regular turn in the rotation, scouting reports would allow batters to tee of on him. Yet judging solely on what he produced in the majors last year, Hefner is an excellent guy to have for SP depth and he would be an upgrade for more than a few teams as a member of their starting five.