Friday, June 09, 2006

The Slow Starters: Part IV
By Ben Valentine

This is the final segment in a series on the pitching disappointments through the first third of this season. For the first three parts, click the links at the end of this segment

In today’s final segment of the slow starters, we’ve got a mixed bag of pitchers. We have the old veteran, trying to hang on in unfriendly confines and a big money man attempting to do the same. We also have a celebrity before his time, which maybe part of the problem with his expectations/results. And that’s where we’ll start today with another young pitcher by the Bay, but this time on the other side of it.

Joe Blanton, Oakland A’s: Or, the “round man” as my friend Gray Claytor, an Oakland A’s fan, calls him. Blanton started off 2005 slow as well; he had a 4.44 ERA pre All Star Break, but rebounded to finish the year with a 3.53 ERA. This year however, things look worse as Blanton has a 5.60 ERA and 1.56 WHIP in 72.1 innings. Amazingly however, unlike most of the other struggling starters, Blanton isn’t having problems with the home run ball. In fact, considering he has a GB/FB ratio of 1.03, his .75 Hr/9 rate is exceptional.

The problem for the Moneyball legend this year has been an increase in Opp BA. Opponents are hitting .331 off Blanton this year compared to .236 clip in 2005. So since he isn’t surrendering any more home runs, then perhaps Blanton’s problem has been luck?

This is part of it. However a decline K rate cannot be construed as a good sign and that’s what’s happened to Blanton so far. His K rate in 2005 was 5.19 and that has dropped to 4.85 this year. That is a further departure from his very good 8.33 minor league K rate. Blanton’s control hasn’t improved however and his K/BB has dropped from 1.73 to 1.44. Not tremendous drops, but still, a 25 year old should be increasing his K rate, not decreasing it, especially when better control hasn’t been earned as a result.

So what we have here is a pitcher who is giving up more hits than he probably should, yet is giving up less home runs that he has in the past. Looking at the numbers, Blanton reminds me a lot of Jon Garland; not a lot of K’s, not phenomenal amount of groundouts and mediocre control. Since he is 25, there is a temptation to say he will turn it around. Those minor league K rates seem a long way away however. This will be an important second half for Blanton; if he can’t pick those K rates back up, then it might be time to consider him a marginal major league starter. I’m not willing to write him off yet, but I can’t say he’s going to turn it around when his homer rate is likely to increase and his stuff looks to have decreased from last year. Many A’s enjoy second half turnarounds, so I’ll say Blanton gets his ERA below 5.00. Don’t think he comes near that 3.53 mark of last year however.

Jon Lieber, Philadelphia Phillies: Rachel Steinberg, new host of the Cheap Seats program on WNYU radio and passionate for all things Philly, said last Monday that Lieber was supposed to be the ace of this Phillies staff this year. If that was the case, then Pat Gillick, the new G.M. of the Phillies, should be quickly relieved of his duties. Lieber hasn’t been an ace since 1999 at the latest, and in reality, never has been one in anything but the “de facto” sense of the word.

That being said, Lieber’s 5.79 ERA has been a major disappointment as has been his 1.29 WHIP. Currently on the shelf, (real surprise there!) can the Phillies hope for a turnaround when he returns? On to the peripherals, we go!

Lieber hasn’t been a strikeout pitcher since 2000 and had relied on excellent control to get by. In fact, in his last three seasons, he hasn’t walked more than 1.00 batter per nine. The problem for Lieber this year, as it was last, is that he chose the wrong ball park to pitch in. If he worked at RFK, he’d be pretty damn good. Even with a pretty good GB/FB ratio of 1.29 last year, Lieber surrendered 1.36 hr/9, a down right atrocious rate. It was no surprise however, since he pitched at Citizen’s Bank Ballpark in Philly.

This year, Lieber’s K’s are down from 6.14 to 5.79. He’s not walking anyone; his K/BB is 4.67, but his homer rate is 1.52/9. Yeech. And therein lies the problem.

Since he is 36 and has been in decline for a while, the smart money isn’t on Lieber performing much better than he is now. Remember too, this is a guy who posted a 4.21ERA last year and a 1.36 homer/9 rate. Common sense tells you he’s not going to improve on those numbers. In addition, he has a 5.00 ERA this year on the road so far.

So here’s the bad news for Rachel and all of those Phillies fans. Your “ace” is in fact no better than a #5 pitcher. If he can get his ERA to under 5.00, it should be considered a major victory. This, by the way, is the reason the Phillies will never be more than an 85 win team.

Kevin Millwood, Texas Rangers: Your 2005 AL ERA leader has fallen on hard times. But of all the pitchers I’ve looked at, Millwood’s struggles are perhaps the easiest to identify. In fact, the moderately observant baseball fan can probably guess what I’m going to say is the cause of Millwood’s woes this year. Here is all you need to know:

Home: 37.1 IP, 22/12 K/BB, .311 Opp BA, 5 Hr, 7.23 ERA

Road: 42.0, 35/1 K/BB, .269 Opp BA, 2 Hr, 2.36 ERA

The only odd number out of that set is that Millwood inexplicably has had pinpoint control on the road and mediocre control at home. Think about that; he’s walked one batter in 42 innings on the road. Yet he’s walked 12 in 37.1 innings at home (though six of those came in one start against Oakland). Millwood has a 1.29 GB/FB ratio, which is good and not all that different from his 1.33 mark of a year ago. The difference is that while Jacobs Field played like a pitcher’s park, Millwood now pitches in perhaps the best hitters park this side of Coors. (It’s either there or Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati). I’d say Ameriquest Field has gotten into his head a bit.

The good news is that there is nothing wrong with Millwood’s peripherals. His K/9 is roughly the same as it was last year and his K/BB has jumped from 2.81 to 4.39! If he continues to pitch like he has, his ERA (4.65) and his WHIP (1.34) should improve. The problem is that since it looks as though Ameriquest is already in his head, will Millwood eventually start trying to pitch more timidly to avoid contact? That remains to be seen. But if he does, the Rangers will have Chan Ho Park on their hands all over again.

Part I
Part II
Part III


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