Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Slow Starters- Continued
By Ben Valentine

Yesterday, I devoted a post analyzing the Mariners’ Felix Hernandez’s slow start and arguing why he was due for a big turnaround. Today I’ll take a look at three more pitchers and whether or not I think their fortunes are due for a major reversal. With respects to David, I’ve included a Giants starter in the mix along with two AL Central guys as bookends. So then let’s hop to it. Since I watched the best baseball comedy of all time, Major League, again Monday, it’s only fair I start with a Cleveland Indian.

Cliff Lee, Cleveland Indians: I don’t know about other people but I drafted Lee in my fantasy league only because Rick Vaughn wasn’t available. Well also because the lefty broke through last year posting 17 wins and a 3.79 ERA. With Kevin Millwood’s departure and C.C. Sabathia’s inconsistencies, Lee went into 2006 as the Indians ace. This year the results have been less than encouraging, as Lee has a terrible 5.17 ERA and 1.49 WHIP. What’s the problem?

Well Lee’s homer rate is up this year from .98/9 to 1.27/9. I’m not sure that explains a run-and-a-half jump in ERA, but for argument’s sake let’s say it does. The more pressing question is whether this will keep up. A tell tale sign would be a drop in his peripherals, suggesting he had either become wild, more hittable or was allowing a lot more fly balls than in year’s past.

Lee’s K/BB is down slightly from last year; 2.48 from 2.75. But as you can see that isn’t much. In other words, he’s not being forced to “come in to hitters” because he’s behind in the count any more than last year. Lee’s K/9 is up slightly from last year, from 6.37 to 6.72. So his stuff looks to be just as good as it was in 2005. He’s getting slightly more fly ball outs, a .69 GB/FB ratio to a .78 number last year. So since his peripherals are the same, one of the two rates is the anomaly.

Lee’s minor league Hr rate/9 was an even 1.00. That fits right in line with his rate from last year, which would lead one to believe his 05’ numbers are more indicative than his '06 or '04. ('04 Lee struck out a lot of people but had awful control, explaining the homer problems. He had to come in to hitters). Therefore Lee seems poised for a nice rebound in the second half. However since he had a 3.79 ERA last year, I wouldn’t be surprised if his ERA did rise into the low 4.00’s this season. In other words, Lee should be good the rest of the way, but he don’t expect him to be an ace.

Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants: The top prospect in the Giants system and probably third in all of baseball behind Felix Hernandez and Francisco Liriano coming into the season, Matt Cain is about as mixed bag as you can get. What do I mean?

Well for starters, the righty has posted a poor 5.10 ERA. However, his 1.28 WHIP suggests he hasn’t been as bad as the ERA. What do the peripherals say? He’s posted a solid 6.90 K/9 but his K/BB is lacking at 1.92. Yet oddly enough, his Opp BA is just .231 despite the fact he is a flyball pitcher (.90 GB/FB) who has had control issues and doesn’t strike out that many.

Meanwhile, Cain’s homer rate however has been much higher than his minor league numbers. While he allowed .91 homers/9 in the minors, that’s up to 1.35 this year. Yes, his homer rate at AAA last year was 1.36, but that was in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League and now he’s pitching in a pitcher friendly ballpark. Also throw in Cain’s Opp BA, and those numbers do seem at odds with one another.

So what do we make of all of this? Well Cain had a minor league K rate of 10.13 so we would expect his K/9 to go up. Last year at AAA it was 10.87, so 6.90 seems low. His walk rate was high in his final two stops in the minors, so control probably will remain an issue for the rookie. I expect his homer rate to drop, but not down to his minor league numbers until he can improve on his control. I also think his Opp BA will go up, though an increasing K rate would keep the increase small enough to deal with. Overall, I feel Cain should continue the improvement he’s shown lately. But I expect a little less from him than I do Lee, just because his control isn’t there yet.

Jon Garland, Chicago White Sox: Like Lee, Garland broke out for an AL Central team in 2005, going 18-10 with a 3.50 ERA for the eventual World Champs. However in 2006, this good guy has gone rogue, pitching to an awful 6.04 ERA and 1.49 WHIP. Of course, since the White Sox are an offensive juggernaut, he’s incredibly 4-2. (Wow two X-Men code names in the first paragraph. It wasn’t even intended)

Unlike Lee, Garland has an extensive big league track record. However, also unlike Lee, who’s 28, Garland is just 26 and should be entering his prime. Thus one would figure he would be poised to improve on his '05 numbers rather than maintain them or worse, drop off the map as he has this year. So keep this in mind was we take a look at the stats.

Garland up until 2005 had never been anything more than a mediocre to below average starter; his 4.51 ERA in 2003 was the lowest he’d posted in any full season as a starter. In fact heading into 2005, Garland was full of bad signs; a strikeout rate that had declined into the 4.00’s, a terrible K/BB rate and a propensity to surrender the gopher ball. The only good thing about him was that he was young.

Then 2005 rolled around and the breakthrough happened. Or did it? Garland’s control certainly improved. He finally managed to get his K/BB above 2.00, all the way to 2.45. However while such a rate is passable for a guy who strikes out a fair number of batters, Garland’s K/9 rate was still poor at 4.68. The only good thing about that number was that it was not a decline from the prior year’s 4.69 mark, the first time in two seasons that hadn’t happened. However, Garland induced far more ground ball outs, 1.44 compared to 1.27 the year before and correspondingly his Hr rate dropped from 1.41 to 1.06.

What’s happened this year? Well Garland’s K/9 and K/BB are similar to what they were last year though both have declined slightly. However neither is enough to warrant this huge ERA. But his whopping 2.1 homers/9 is. Overall Garland has allowed 17 homers in 70 innings this year; just awful. But unlike Lee, who’s seen no substantial change in his GB/FB ratio, Garland has seen his drop to .96 this year. The number would be the lowest of his career, and thus it is little surprise the homer rate would be his highest.

While I have never thought much of Garland, it is hard to believe he’s the worst pitcher in baseball, and that’s exactly what his numbers to this point would lead you to believe. His homer rate just can’t stay as high as 2 homers per game; it just can’t. Since he’s never had a GB/FB rate lower than 1.14, I expect him to induce more ground outs. With that, the homer rate will fall. However, Garland’s 2005 ERA was far above his head. I think he’ll improve, but don’t expect anything lower than a 5.00 ERA. But with the way the White Sox are hitting, he’ll still probably end up winning 14 games.

Stay tuned for the rest of the week as I detail more starters who have disappointed so far in 2006.7


Blogger David Arnott said...

Finally! Your X-Men references give me an excuse to link to this very NSFW video remix of the old X-Men cartoon.

12:20 PM  

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