Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Slow Starters- Part III
By Ben Valentine

(Today is part III in a series on the pitching disappointments through the first third of the season. The first segment dealt with the Mariners' Felix Hernandez and Part II featured Cliff Lee, Matt Cain and Jon Garland.)

In today’s edition of the slow starters we take a look at three veteran pitchers who used to be counted on as frontline type starters. All three have been anything but this year and the question is; has age finally caught up with them? How about high pitch counts? Both? To start we head to the place formerly known as Enron Field.

Andy Pettitte, Houston Astros: Maybe the return of longtime friend Roger Clemens can spark Pettitte back to respectability because after a stellar 2005, he’s been anything but in 2006.

Where to begin? Well for starters, let’s take a look at his WHIP; 1.65. Only the Marlins’ Brian Moehler and the Pirates rookie Pat Maholm are worse in the NL. One peek at that ugly number tells you the ERA won’t be pretty. And at 6.03 in the National League, that’s about as bad as can be. Again, only the aforementioned Moehler and Pettitte’s teammate, rookie Tyler Buchholz have been worse in the NL. Pettitte has surrendered 13 homers in 78.2 innings this season (1.49/9) having given up just 17 in 221.1 innings last year. (.69/9) Opponents are hitting .322 off him and OPSing .917 after going .230 and .613 in those two categories last year.

Why the collapse? Well part of the reason might be control. Pettitte had a 6.92 K/9 last year to go along with a phenomenal 4.17 K/BB mark. This season the K/9 has dropped slightly to 6.49 but the real problem is in the K/BB, which is halved to 2.07. That suggests Pettitte is falling behind hitters more this year than he did last year and is therefore being forced to come into hitters a bit more.

Interestingly however, Pettitte’s GB/FB ratio is nearly identical to last year, 1.67 to 1.62. We haven’t seen a switch in ball parks, so what’s the problem this year? Could it be age?

Well the problem with that theory is that Pettitte’s K/9, while is not at his career high, is both solid and not really down from his 2005. Sure he’s walking more batters, but that alone should not account for a more than doubling of his home rate. Considering Pettitte’s never has had a season where his homer rate was above 1.00, this has to be seen as an anomaly, especially when you factor in the fact he’s not become anymore of a flyball pitcher than in years past.

Andy Pettitte may well be in a decline at 33. But considering how he’s pitched so far and throughout his career, he should be poised for a big turnaround as the season progresses.

Randy Johnson, New York Yankees: The Big Unit was the victim of some bad press in 2005. Despite being one of the best pitchers in baseball last year, foolish sportswriters in New York continually insisted that the Yankees were being bolstered by the likes of Aaron Small and Chein Ming Wang. Yes, Johnson wasn’t the Randy Johnson of 1993-2004, but with a K/9 of 8.42, a K/BB of 4.49 and a solid GB/FB of 1.13, it should have been easy to look past the 3.79 ERA.

This season, things are a bit different. Johnson has a nice W/L record, 7-4. But everything else is, well, about as pretty as the Unit himself. The ERA stands at 5.33 and the WHIP at 1.34. The strikeouts are down further, to 7.22 and the K/BB has declined as well to 2.35. The home run rate is higher, up to 1.42 from 1.28 a year ago. The GB/FB is still similar at 1.07.

Johnson’s decline therefore is really easy to pinpoint. It’s age catching up to him. The declining strikeout rate means his stuff just isn’t as good as it used to be and as a result, he’s getting taken out of the park more than he has been in the past. And also as a result, it makes it harder to suggest a turnaround is in order. While yes, his GB/FB isn’t much different than last year, he’s just not missing bats like he used to.

Will Randy Johnson improve? His K/9 and K/BB are still solid enough that he should be able to lower the ERA some. On the other hand, the Yankees’ defense isn’t very good and his stuff is in a definite decline. Those factors might well cancel each other out, leaving him in the purgatory he’s in currently. Right now the Yankees would sign on for the Unit of 2005. Unfortunately for them however, even that pitcher seems to be long gone.

Livan Hernandez, Washington Nationals: Livan Large has been quite small this year but it should be a surprise to no one. After seemingly rejuvenating his career over the two year period from 2003-2004, Hernandez showed signs of decline last year. His K/9 dropped back into the 5.00’s, something it had not done since his years in San Francisco. His K/BB dropped below 2.00, again, something that hadn’t happened since his Giants days.

However thanks to the homer depressing effects of RFK Stadium in Washington Hernandez’s ERA was a respectable 3.98 in 2005. Of course the fact he had declining peripherals and had raised his ERA at RFK rather than lowering it, as teammates Esteban Loiaza and John Patterson had done, should have been a definite red flag.

Sure he’s just 31, but there are a couple of problems with that. First, we don’t know if he’s actually that age, since he is a Cuban defector. Secondly, even if he is 31, he’s probably thrown more pitches than a lot of 40 year olds have. Couple that with his numbers from last year, and things were not looking for this year.

Ironically, however, his peripherals are oddly similar to last year. He’s K/9 is almost the exact same, 5.38 to 5.37 and his K/BB is very similar as well (1.67 from 1.75). Opponents hit .284 with an OPS of .770 off Hernandez in 2005. In 06’ they’re hitting .283 with an OPS of .811. It aien’t good, but it isn’t all that different from last year. Yet Hernandez’ ERA is up to 5.16.

The culprit the home run ball as his Hr/9 is up to 1.49 Hr/9 from .91 last year. Hernandez has also seen his GB/FB rate drop from 1.07 to .90 which explains how more of his pitches are leaving the yard. Conventional wisdom says that he picked the right place to be a fly ball pitcher in, but it hasn’t held up that way so far. You might expect he’s been much worse on the road, however, that isn’t the case. Hernandez has a 4.15 ERA on the road and a whopping 6.19 mark in Washington.

Because of Hernandez’s peripherals last year it’s hard to believe he could collapse this badly without seeing some real decline in those numbers. But since his 2005 season really wasn’t very good, perhaps this is closer to the Hernandez that we should expect from now on. He’ll probably get better, but don’t expect an ERA lower than 4.50.

Coming up, I’ll take a look at a couple of more pitchers to round out the disappointments through first third of the baseball season.

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