This week I will investigate the five pitchers in the current starting rotation. The goal is not only to evaluate how have they have performed so far, but also to predict how they will perform for the remainder of the season. To do this I will look at both their traditional stats and their more advanced underlying metrics. I will leave out Homer Bailey because he is out for the season after pitching only two games, and he will be out for most or all of next season as well. Since Raisel Iglesias has only pitched one game so far I will leave him out too, because we can not draw any meaningful conclusions based on a single game.

Let’s start with the old-fashioned stats that we see every day on the TV broadcasts. The Reds as a staff have amassed 11 Wins and 10 Losses with a 3.26 ERA in 187 innings across 29 games. The ERA is excellent. In fact, four of the five Reds starters have ERAs under 3.00! The odd man out is veteran Jason Marquis with a 5.66 ERA that drags down (or up I guess) the staff ERA quite a bit. Given the fact the staff has such a golden ERA it is rather disappointing to see they have won only one more game than they have lost. The biggest reason for that is the bullpen that has been just plain awful, blowing quite a few leads entrusted to them by the starters.

Here are the starters’ stats for the season thus far:

2015 Reds Starters Evaluation

The stats in the green columns are known as defense-independent or fielding-independent metrics. This means they separate the performance of the pitcher from the performance of the fielders. They focus exclusively on the things that only the pitcher can control. ERA is affected by factors outside a pitcher’s control and is also subject to wild swings. These FIP stats do a much better job of predicting the future than ERA does. So if you want to predict how a pitcher is going to perform over the rest of the season you should use his FIP, xFIP or SIERA rather than his ERA. For example, Mike Leake has pitched to a 2.36 ERA so far in 2015 but over the next few months he is likely to pitch to an ERA in the range of 3.89 to 4.31. In other words, Leake is not going to continue pitching as well as he has thus far.

FIP factors in a pitcher’s strikeout, walk and home run rates. xFIP substitutes a league average home run rate for the pitcher’s own home run rate because HR rates for pitchers tend to fluctuate wildly and are therefore unreliable indicators of a pitcher’s true ability to limit home runs. Studies have shown pitchers have very little influence on their own home run rates beyond their groundball/flyball tendencies. SIERA is a stat from Fangraphs that expands upon FIP by factoring in pitchers’ batted ball profile. All three of these stats are much more predictive than ERA. I prefer xFIP and SIERA over FIP as a predictive tool, but FIP does a better job of explaining what happened in the past.

The stats in the blue columns are the strikeout and walk ratios. These are the stats that explain why a pitcher is good or bad. Strikeouts and walks are the two outcomes that separate good and bad pitchers. Good pitchers almost invariably have high strikeout rates and low walk rates. Bad pitchers almost always have low strikeout rates and high walk rates. Pitching really is that simple. The art of pitching can be boiled down to strikeouts vs walks. Pitching is not as mysterious or complicated as we used to think it was. The blue columns above will tell you 90% of what you need to know about pitching.

The stats in orange are WHIP, which is simply Walks+Hits per inning pitched. WHIP is a fairly common stat that shows how many baserunners a pitcher allowed, but it is not a very useful stat for predicting future performance. BABIP is batting average on balls in play. It is a good way to tell if a pitcher has been lucky or unlucky in terms of balls falling in as hits when they could have been turned into outs by the fielders. I covered BABIP and it’s effect on the Reds pitchers in last week’s column (read it HERE).

Johnny Cueto — The ace of the staff currently has the 2nd-worst ERA, but it is not fair to associate the word “worst” in any form or fashion with a stellar 2.98 ERA. Cueto has by far the best strikeout and walk rates on the team. He is the only Reds starter with a K-BB% that is better than league average, which is important because I believe K-BB% is the most critical stat that exists for pitchers. Cueto’s 8.24 K/9 is only a little better than league average, but his walk rate is very low — less than half the league average. That results in a K/BB ratio that is more than twice as good as the league average. Cueto is one of the very rare pitchers who can consistently achieve results better than his FIP, xFIP and SIERA indicate he should. Cueto’s career ERA is 3.26, which is more than a half a run per game better than his 3.86/3.84/3.83 career FIP/xFIP/SIERA line. The reasons why would require another full article, but the short version is his ability to control his opponents’ running game by picking off runners and preventing stolen bases, his ability to field his position well and the Reds’ elite defense. Given Cueto’s proven ability to exceed his peripherals throughout his career we can safely assume that he will continue to deliver a sub-3.00 ERA into the future, but we should not expect the same level of dominance he exhibited last year during his Cy Young runner-up campaign. Prediction: 17-12 record, 2.80 ERA, 215 strikeouts at season’s end.

Mike Leake — The other impending free agent has the best ERA so far this season at 2.36, which unfortunately is much better than his 4.31/3.89/4.11 FIP/xFIP/SIERA. That means we should expect his ERA to climb steadily throughout the season. The FIP stats have done a great job of profiling Leake since he entered the league in 2010. Leake’s career 3.83 ERA is closely matched by his career 4.22 FIP, 3.79 xFIP and 3.93 SIERA. His FIP stats this year mirror his career stats, meaning he is not pitching any better this year than he always has despite his excellent ERA so far in 2015. Leake’s strikeout rate this year is well below average. His walk rate makes up for the lack of whiffs but his K-BB% and K/BB ratio are still below league average. That means we should expect his ERA to be worse than the 3.97 league average as well. The Reds’ great defense may help him beat that by a small margin but we are likely to see reduced effectiveness from Leake as the season rolls on. Prediction: 10-12 record, 3.75 ERA, 130 strikeouts at season’s end.

Anthony DeSclafani — Disco started the season hot but has cooled off since then. His 2.50 ERA is far better than the realistic level of performance we should expect to see moving forward. His FIP stats are actually worse this year than they were last year when he had a 6.27 ERA. Last year he had a 3.77 FIP , 3.80 xFIP and 3.70 SIERA that were much, much better than his ERA. This year his 4.06 FIP, 4.56 xFIP and 4.59 SIERA are worse than last year and about two full runs per game higher than his current ERA. That is not good. His strikeout and walk rates are both subpar, leading to a poor 8.10 K-BB% that is well below the 12.02% league average in that key metric. DeSclafani has been very lucky with his .216 BABIP that is due to rise drastically, leading to a lot more base hits. Anthony’s peripherals show a pitcher who needs to improve quite a bit if he wants to stay in the major leagues for long. Prediction: 8-14 record, 4.25 ERA, 135 strikeouts at season’s end.

Jason Marquis — Most people expected Jason Marquis to be a tire fire this season after missing all of 2014 due to injury. So far they have not been wrong. His 5.66 ERA has been dreadful, yet somehow he has a winning record at 3-2. The Reds have scored an absolute ton of runs in his starts. He has already given up 7 home runs, which is a pace to challenge Bronson Arroyo’s 46 HRs allowed in 2011. The good news is that Marquis’ predilection for the longball is not likely to continue at that rate. The high home run rate is the reason why his 5.09 FIP is so much higher than his 4.00 xFIP and 4.01 SIERA. Marquis’ strikeout and walk rates are near league average, leading to an 11.80 K-BB% that is the second best among Reds starters. Marquis is the one Reds starter who has not been lucky on his BABIP, which should see a nice drop in the right direction. Marquis should continue to do what he was brought in here to do: eat innings and keep the team in most of the games he pitches. He won’t win any awards but he should help stabilize the rotation as a decent back-end starter this year. Prediction: 10-12 record, 4.50 ERA, 140 strikeouts at season’s end.

Michael Lorenzen — The former college outfielder was one of the Reds’ top three minor league prospects coming into this season. In his minor league career he has consistently delivered excellent ERAs, but his strikeout and walk numbers have been quite worrisome. He has only pitched 16 innings for the Reds so far, but the whiffs and walks are still a big problem. His walk rate is way too high. His 4.10 K-BB% is very, very poor. It is so bad that he has zero chance of being an effective major league pitcher unless he makes huge strides in improving that deficiency. His 1.38 K/BB ratio would have been the worst in the major leagues last year. The worst K/BB in the majors last year was 1.44 by Roberto Hernandez and only 10 pitchers were less than 2.00 (the best was 11.63 K/BB by Phil Hughes of the Twins). Here is a weird stat for you: Lorenzen has allowed a whopping 23 base runners in his 16 innings, but only one of those runners has scored. That 96% strand rate is obviously unsustainable. In addition to the lone base runner who came around to score, Lorenzen has already allowed four solo homers in his three games, but home runs were not a problem for him in the minors. I believe Lorenzen will eventually be a good pitcher, but he has been rushed to the majors before he is ready because the Reds needed a replacement for Homer Bailey and had no other alternatives ready to step in. Lorenzen is still learning how to pitch and he is going to have to do it in the majors. That is a tough situation for any young pitcher, especially so for a guy who was still an outfielder a couple years ago. He has a very strong arm and a lot of athletic ability. I think he will succeed but there will be a lot of bumps in the road along the way. Prediction: 7-15 record, 5.00 ERA, 125 strikeouts at season’s end if he remains in the rotation.

The starting staff as a whole  has been very effective through the first 33 games. Their 3.26 ERA is likely to rise a bit after Leake, DeSclafani and Lorenzen see their ERAs rise. But Cueto and Marquis should stem the tide as their ERAs drop. I think the final ERA for the season will be about 3.75, which is comfortably better than the current league average 3.97 ERA. The Reds starters as a unit suffer from a lack of strikeouts. They are effective at limiting walks. They have been BABIP-lucky but should still benefit from the excellent team defense. The bullpen is probably going to be a major problem all year long and will cost the starters quite a few more wins. The final numbers may also suffer big blows if Cueto and/or Leake are traded away after the Reds fall out of contention.

The Reds’ options to fill a vacancy in the rotation are grim. Raisel Iglesias will start today and is really the only interesting starting candidate the Reds have who is ready to step in. Iglesias is another youngster like Lorenzen who still has a lot of developing left to do and an innings limit to face. The Reds have a few minor league journeymen struggling to remain viable at Louisville. There are several young pitchers who can be considered true prospects in the low and middle minors. Amir Garret, Jon Moscot, Nick Travieso, Nick Howard, Sal Romano, and Jonathan Crawford offer good potential. I will stay positive and look for steady growth from Lorenzen and Iglesias along with acceptable if mediocre innings from Marquis and DeSclafani. I also hope the Reds will remain in contention and keep Cueto and Leake through the full season unless they can get a real haul in a trade.