Friday, May 12, 2006

The Underrated Rotation: The Ace
By Ben Valentine

This is the final part in a series on the pitchers I considered to be the most underrated in the game. #5 was Brewers' lefty Chris Capuano, #4 was Reds' righty Aaron Harang, #3 was Nationals' righty John Patterson and #2 was Angels' righty John Lackey. Today, I unveil my ace.

Back in 2003, me and my friend Gray trekked out to Shea Stadium to catch a doubleheader. The guy we really wanted to see was starting game two. Randy Johnson was coming off the D/L for the Diamondbacks, and since I had never seen the Big Unit in person, I was anxious to get the chance to do so. Before the start of that second game, the Diamondbacks needed to make room for Johnson. To do so, they sent down the game one starter, whom neither myself nor Gray had ever heard of.

But today I can proudly say I attended Brandon Webb’s first ever major league start. And now I don’t feel as bad that the Mets struck out 10 times in seven innings, managing just one fly ball out in the process. They were just the first in a long line of teams Webb would do that to over the course of his now three plus years in the majors; three plus years which have gone largely unnoticed by the mainstream media.

Webb has been underrated since that April 27th 2003 date against the Mets. His rookie season was exceptional; he struck out 8.57 batters per nine, had a 2.53 K/BB ratio, a 2.84 ERA and of course, that ridiculous GB/FB ratio which he has become renown for, 3.44. He gave up .60 homers per nine innings! That should have been good for Rookie of the Year. But it wasn’t.

He lost out to a funky motion, hype and the postseason.

That isn’t to say Dontrelle Willis wasn’t very good in 2003; he just wasn’t as good as Webb. Willis had a K/9 of 7.95, a K/BB of 2.45, an ERA of 3.31 and a GB/FB ratio of 1.12. Again good, but inferior to Webb in every category. And remember, Willis pitched in a much better pitcher’s park than Webb does, though of course Webb being an extreme ground ball pitcher cuts the effect somewhat. But unfortunately for Webb, he played for a terrible Diamondbacks team which not only caused him to end up with just 10 wins, but cost him in the inevitable “success of the team” catagory. Basically because Willis was part of a contender, people were willing to overlook his statistical inferiority. Of course, it also let Willis gain a greater notoriety, as people cared far more about the exploits of the contending Marlins than the middling Diamondbacks.

Webb regressed peripherally in 2004, but still ended up posting a respectable season because his ridiculous sinker. His K/9 dropped to 7.10 and his walks flew up, increasing from 3.39 per nine to a whopping 5.15 per nine. Incredibly, his ERA only increased to 3.59, mainly because of that sinker. His home run rate went up slightly to .74, but that was still more than good enough. Amazingly, he lost 16 games that season. When you think about it, in this era of baseball (no pun intended) that mark is a statistical anomaly and the epitome of bad luck. How can a pitcher who has an ERA of 3.59 lose 16 games? But strangely enough, that season should prove more than anything else how meaningless W/L record is. The number two and three pitchers in the 2004 NL ERA race, Randy Johnson (2.60) and Ben Sheets (2.70), each lost 14 games that season. Sheets couldn’t even finish with over a .500 record; he went 12-14! Webb finished fifteenth and right behind him with a 3.60 mark were Livan Hernandez and Tom Glavine, who lost 15 and 14 games respectively.

Webb’s numbers improved in 2005. While his strikeouts again declined, his walks also did and did so dramatically. He posted a 6.76 K/9, 2.32 walks per nine and a very nice 2.92 K/BB ratio. Meanwhile his GB/FB ratio reached new heights at an incredible 4.34. Ironically, his ERA didn’t get much better, only dropping to 3.54. Also unfortunately for Webb’s notoriety, his luck with W/L didn’t get much better either. He went 14-12 for the D’Backs in 05’, which was still of course a career best.

However, the pendulum may finally be swinging in the other direction. Webb is off to a fast start this season, largely due to impeccable control. While his strikeout rate is again declining, to 5.52 and his GB/FB ratio is back to a more normal (at least for him) 3.75, he’s walked just six in 59.2 innings. That translates to .90 batters per nine and a 6.00 K/BB ratio over all. His ERA stands at 2.30 and most surprisingly, he already has six wins! Of course, it is highly doubtful Webb could go from a guy who walked over five batters a game to a pitcher who walks only one in just two seasons, so we can expect that figure to rise. It is difficult to guess whether Webb’s K rate will increase again however, since it has declined every season.

This brings up a point worth mentioning; normally declining strikeout rates are a big red flag with a pitcher. They are less so in Webb’s case. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be some concern, but because Webb is so good at getting the ground ball, it is less important, provided he is still posting K/BB in at least the 2.00’s. While his 2004 season suggests he could survive even if it dipped below that mark, it’s not something that one would feel comfortable with. When you walk batters and don’t strike a lot of people out, you become reliant on your defense. And since Webb is being backed up by the same D-Backs teams that have cost him wins for three seasons now, that probably is not a good idea.

But that is all hypothetical. In the here and now, Brandon Webb is one of the best pitchers in baseball. He was in 2003, and was again in 2005. He has been so far in 2006.

And with six wins already in the bag, people are finally noticing.


Blogger David Arnott said...

Not just 'cause I'm a Giants fan, but Noah Lowry is possibly the least-heralded first round pick starting pitcher in the majors today. An improving K/9 rate and excellent ERA in front of a decrepit defense bodes well for a future rotation headed by Lowry and Matt Cain.

2:57 AM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

I like Lowry too David. He and Capuano were close, but the latter's start to this season put him over the edge. They're both lefties that had good strike outs and mediocre control last year (Lowry 2.24 K/BB, Capuano 1.93) It is sort of 5A and 5B in this ranking; Lowry doesn't rank ahead of the other guys on the list but he compares very favorably with Capuano.

1:43 PM  

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