Friday, August 18, 2006

Finding the Saviors Down the Stretch
By Ben Valentine

As usual it’s the dog days of August and around Major League baseball the critique of nearly all the contenders is the same.

“They just don’t have enough starting pitching to make you feel comfortable.”

But now we’re past the July 31st deadline and the only guys getting through waivers are overpaid and not very good. So the top teams are going to have to do battle with what they have; meaning those hurlers are going to have to step up in a big way soon.

Now it’s one thing to say “a team needs to pitch better” but it’s never as simple as that. If it were, pitchers’ wouldn’t be worth their multi million dollar contracts and guys like Rick Peterson and Leo Mazzone would be out of jobs. So instead of going team by team and saying that that group needs to turn it on, this list identifies guys who have the track record or potential to step up and be the key performer down the stretch. Since we’re going alphabetically, we start in Boston.

(Note: All pro stats are from ESPN.com and minor league stats are from the Baseball Cube. )

Boston Red Sox: LHP Jon Lester

72.2 IP, 4.09 ERA, 1.56 WHIP, 6.69 K/9, 1.50 K/BB, 1.07 GB/FB, .283 Opp BA

I know what you’re saying; wait, hasn’t Lester been a great find for the Red Sox? I thought he already was one of the things going well. Well yes and no. Yes he’s got six wins and a respectable ERA, but unless he improves soon, that’s not going to last.

The problem lies in the fact his K/BB ratio is just too low for a relative fly ball pitcher in the American league. Sure if you can get away with walking a ton if you’re Brandon Webb and induce nearly four times as many groundballs as fly balls. You’re going to get lots of double plays. But not if you’re giving up flies. So unless Lester improves on his strikeout to walk ratio, he’ll join the rest of the Sox pitchers not named Curt Schilling who are getting shelled nightly.

The good news is that his minor league numbers indicate he’ll at least get that K rate up. His career minor league strikeout rate 8.66 per nine heading into this season and he struck out 43 in 46.2 innings at AAA this year. Of course he also walked 25, which is why Red Sox fans should be hoping for an increase in his strikeouts rather than a decline in his walks. If he can do that, then he should be able to get away with an ERA around 4.00. And on the Red Sox, that’s going to be enough to keep them in just about every game they play.

Red Sox Redux: RHP Josh Beckett

152.1 IP, 5.02 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 7.44 K/9, 2.52 K/BB, 1.10 GB/FB, .246 Opp BA

Okay, you want numbers that make no sense, see Mr. Beckett. Has he declined from last year? Sure, as his K/9 was 8.36 last year. But 7.44 is still solid and his K/BB is acceptable for a guy who’s basically a fly ball pitcher. What I didn’t list here is home runs allowed. Beckett has surrendered 31, that’s right 31. That’s more than he surrendered in the last two years (30 in 335.1 IP) combined! Translated that’s a rate of 1.84/9. He’s giving up almost two home runs a game.

There is no suitable explanation for this. Yes he’s moved from a fabulous NL pitcher’s park to a neutral AL park and his GB/FB has dropped from 1.25 to 1.10 but none of that is enough to see that much of an increase in home runs allowed. I’ve just got to believe Beckett has been about as unlucky as a major league pitcher can possibly be this year. Nothing else in his stat line warrants this type of an increase, so it’s got to be an anomaly.

My bet is that Beckett will turn it around. Such a rate, even this late in a season, by all rights should not be sustained by a pitcher as good as the 26 year old righty. If Lester can continue improve his K rates as well, the Red Sox could make a serious run at finally knocking the Yankees from their AL East perch. Of course, that all starts this weekend.

By the way, Beckett has surrendered just 8 of those 31 homers at Fenway, which is acceptable. Yet despite an OPS against of .633 at home, his ERA is still 4.13 there! Really, this is one case that makes you throw up your hands and say “what the #$*^”!

New York Mets: RHP John Maine

50.1 IP, 2.68 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 7.33 K/9, 2.93 K/BB, .92 GB/FB, .242 Opp BA

Until last month, the 25 year old Maine was nothing more than the “minor leaguer” acquired in the Kris Benson trade to many Mets fans. He had also been quickly forgotten about, seeing as many wrote the trade off as being a disaster after just one month of Jorge Julio. But given an opportunity by chance recently, Maine made the best of it, pitching a complete game shut out over the Houston Astros. Since then the numbers speak for themselves as he’s pitched himself into a permanent rotation spot. The question is, can keep this up long enough to make an impact for the Mets come October?

Maine’s K rate has been excellent so far and his minor league numbers suggest they’re no fluke. He averaged 9.56 K/9 in the minors, though I’m more inclined to look at his two AAA seasons where he averaged 7.90 and 7.78 strikeouts per nine. His home run rate so far is 1.25, which I think is a little high, though he is a fly ball pitcher. In the minors the highest rate he had was at AAA at .91/9, so his homers allowed should come down a little. His Opp BA has been solid and he hasn’t walked many which is why his ERA has survived such a high homer rate, but his WHIP will increase some.

The Mets don’t need John Maine to be an ace to get to the World Series. If he can be a solid #3, with an ERA in the mid to high 3.00’s, and then give them six innings allowing two or three runs in the playoffs, that should be good enough for the Mets to win his start. Considering the other options for game three involve the hit or miss Orlando Hernandez and the just plain awful Steve Trachsel, Maine is the best hope for the Mets in their quest to stabilize the rotation.

Philadelphia Phillies: LHP Cole Hamels

84.0 IP, 4.50 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 10.29 K/9, 3.00 K/BB, .90 GB/FB, .238 Opp BA

The mucho hyped Phillies pitching prospect struggled initially after his promotion to the bigs. Pre All Star Break, Hamels had worked 44.2 innings and while there was nothing wrong with his K rate (44 Ks), he walked far too many (24). As a fly ball pitcher, even with his stuff, striking out less than twice the numbers of batters you walk is a recipe for trouble.

But since the break, Hamels has been one of the best pitchers in the game. He’s thrown 39.1 innings and struck out a whopping 52. Even more impressive is the fact he’s walked just 8! That translates to an 11.90 K/9 and 6.50 K/BB. Like I said, one of the best in the game.

Hamels is just 22, and had just 42 innings of ball at any level above A ball before his promotion to Philadelphia this year. Another issue is fatigue; Hamels has never pitched more than 101 innings in any year, and that was back in 2003. But it’s hard not to like his stuff and his success to this point.

Brent Myers is a decent second starter. Jon Lieber at this point is probably a high end four. Cole Hamels can be an ace. He’ll need to be if the Phillies want to make the postseason.

San Diego Padres: RHP Jake Peavy

150.1 IP, 4.55 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 9.70 K/9, 3.52 K/BB, .94 GB/FB, .259 Opp BA

The Padres have survived this far because Chris Young has pitched beyond expectations. But for them to catch the Dodgers and make the playoffs they need the 25 year old Peavy to return to form. But from the looks of it, that isn’t far off.

Jake Peavy’s beenone of the best pitchers in the league peripherally and yet is the owner of a 4.55 ERA in a pitcher’s haven. For some reason Peavy’s surrendered 19 homers this year, one more than he gave up in 203 innings last year! Injuries could have been an excuse, if his K/9 wasn’t the best it’s ever been in his career. He’s walking more batters this year but a 3.52 strikeout to walk ratio is still excellent. Heck it’s better than what it was two years ago when he posted a 2.27 ERA. So like Beckett, figure that home rate will drop.

It looks like that the turnaround has started; he’s allowed nine runs in 33.1 innings over his last five starts. It may not be enough to get the Padres into the postseason as they’ll still need their offense to kick it into gear, but it all starts with Peavy. If he continues his improvement, then a division crown is possible. If he begins to struggle anew, the Padres can start looking ahead to 2007.

San Francisco Giants: RHP Matt Cain

136.0 IP, 4.70 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 8.47 K/9, 1.86 K/BB, .90 GB/FB, .236 Opp Ba

It’s a lot to ask a 21 year old rookie to be the backbone of your playoff drive, but behind Jason Schmidt, Cain is the most talented member of the Giants staff. Noah Lowry looked to be an emerging pitcher last year, but back injuries have stemmed his development, at least this season.

The problem with Cain so far is simple; walks. There’s nothing wrong with his K rate, Opp Ba or homer rate (.99). However, he’s the pitcher on this list I’m the least optimistic about in the short term. (Long term he’s the best talent outside of Jake Peavy. Yes even better than Hamels) Cain never has had good control in the minors; his career BB/9 was 3.74 with rates over 4.00 at AA and AAA. Power pitchers can turn it around and become studs, just look at Scott Kazmir. But consistency is hard to find.

Still, hot streaks are possible, so if Cain can start hitting the strike zone a bit more frequently, the Giants will be primed for a run of their own. And considering September is the time when divisional foes beat up on each other, they could make up plenty of ground in a short period of time.

St. Louis Cardinals: RHP Anthony Reyes

64.2 IP, 4.73 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 6.12 K/9, 1.63 K/BB, .72 GB/FB, .246 Opp Ba

While the Cardinals might boast one of the best starters in the game come postseason in Chris Carpenter, the rest of their rotation leaves a lot to be desired. Mark Mulder has continued his decline into mediocrity (and worse), Jeff Suppan isn’t any good and Jason Marquis has been the worst starter in the National League this year. Angels’ castaway and perennial disappointment Jeff Weaver isn’t the answer. With Adam Wainwright stuck in the pen, the burden of saving the Cardinals’ staff falls upon young Anthony Reyes.

Things haven’t gotten off to the greatest of starts so far for the 24 year old as his 4.73 ERA does suggest. ERA isn’t always the best indicator, but in Reyes’ case, it’s a fair assessment. He’s strike out rate is okay while he’s walking far too many. He’s an extreme fly ball pitcher which has resulted in 12 Hrs.

Now it’s possible that Reyes continues to perform below average. But there is reason to believe he could turn it around. First of all even for an extreme flyball pitcher, his 1.67 Hr/9 rate is way too high. At AAA this year, his K rate was 8.24/9 while his K/BB was an exceptional 8.13! He posted a homer rate of 1.14 and a WHIP of .97. This isn’t to say his stats should translate exactly, but at the very least his control should improve. Combine that with a likely decrease in home runs surrendered and Reyes could become a solid pitcher very soon.

Right now Reyes still probably is the Cardinals second best starter, though not by much. If they have dreams of getting back to the World Series in St. Louis, Reyes needs to raise his game well above mediocrity of the rest of the Cardinals rotation.

(Update: The Cardinals signed Preston Wilson Friday and then proceeded to send Reyes down. This is is a move St.Louis will regret. Their pitching staff is atrocious and Reyes currently is at least as good as Suppan or Marquis. The fact is he could be better than them and at this point has nothing to gain from gettin AAA hitters out. Honestly, I'm not sure what the deal with Tony LaRussa's love affair with Jason Marquis is. Does Marquis have incriminating photos of him or something?)

So to fans of playoff teams, yes your rotation isn’t as deep as you want it to be. But help could be on the way. Will Josh Beckett find himself and become the pitcher that carried the Marlins to a WS crown in 2003? Could Matt Cain spark a Giants run akin to Jaret Wright with the Indians back in 1997?

Remember these names. These question marks now could be heroes in just a few short months.

(Note: Think I've missed someone? Feel I've shortchanged your favorite player? Let me know.)

11 Comments:

Anonymous jason said...

with maddux as the #3 behind penny & lowe, chad billingsley may not be as important in the playoffs, but he's someone to watch down the stretch. lights out in one start, 6 walks the next, after impeccable control in the minors.

for the diamondbacks, enrique gonzalez has been good to very good and will have a big say for their NL west/wildcard chances. his K rate is a little disappointing, but he's keeping the walks down.

1:19 PM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

I thought of Billingsley but held off because I figured he'd be bounced from the rotation in the postseason. Overall, I didn't think he'd make a huge impact. But if he catches fire you're right, he could be real good for the Dodgers down the stretch and help them seal up the division.

Gonzalez minor league numbers from 05 are impressive but he had a K/9 of 5.22 in 60.1 innings at AAA this year. His K/BB was 2.50. His ERA stands 4.98 currently in the majors as his K/9 is 6.03 and his K/BB is 2.00. Overall the best thing about him so far is his GB/FB at 1.37, which is solid. His minor league numbers suggest he could be a factor down the road, but I don't think he'll put it together this year. Another good suggestion though.

2:27 PM  
Blogger June said...

HOW DARE YOU MARQUIS HAS POSTSEASON EXPERIENCE WITH PROVEN WINNERS oh forget it... i'm too tired

5:19 PM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

Exactly June; see my reference to "veteran obstinance" disaese in Free Baseball III. LaRussa, Guillen, Hargrove... who will be next? Will it be Grady Little? Willie Randolph? Joe Torre? My money's on Jim Leyland giving the first start of the postseason to Kenny Rogers over Jeremy Bonderman.

Seriously though I have no idea why LaRussa loves Marquis so much. Pretty much every stat says he's the worst pitcher in the NL. And if he's getting bumped from the rotation anyway come postseason, why not see what you've got in Reyes?

If I were a Cardinals fan, I'd be furious. But I'm a Mets fan, so I'm looking forward to seeing the Mets lineup pound Mulder/Suppan/Weaver in October.

1:33 AM  
Blogger June said...

october? I'm worrying about this WEEK. won't get to see Carp {sigh}

12:54 PM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

But there's always Pujols. I should go out to Shea one day this week, since I've never seen him play in person. I should get a look at the best hitter in the game.

4:09 PM  
Blogger June said...

he's stupefying... he and Mo are probably the ones i'll be nattering about having seen play many, many times when i'm in my YEEEEEEEAAAAHHHHHH EAT *THAT* SCHILL! rocking chair

10:17 PM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

See I've seen players pass on through; McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, Maddux, Glavine, Pedro... but never enough I could ever say "yeah I saw him play and so something amazing."

I'm hoping Wright/Reyes/Milledge can be that for the Mets, especially since I was at Wright's first game. But if I'm gonna gamble on either of those three it's Reyes. He's the only one I've ever said "wow" for.

In his rookie season, they were playing the Cardinals I believe in a Saturday afternoon game and were getting killed. In the ninth they put on a big rally and Reyes came up with two outs. (I think Ray King was pitching) Well the pitcher blew two fastball by Reyes. Believe me he looked completely overmatched. I shook my head and figured he was toast. So the pitcher delivers another fastball high in the zone and this time Reyes rips it into right field for a hit. I'd never seen a guy get beaten so badly with a pitch come back and hit the same pitch in the same location on the very next pitch. After that moment I was convinced he was going to be a star.

Wow I just had an "old man scout moment." Quick, somebody call the LA Dodgers.

12:18 AM  
Blogger June said...

I was at that game! It wasn't Ray King though - he didn't come over til the JD Drew trade 03-04... I think it was Esteban Yan aka SIEVE aka the cause of much hair loss to yours truly that year (along with his equally useless fellow relievers). But I'm pretty sure the cards hung on to win that one. That whole series was like that iirc: huge cards lead, cards relievers give it up like {insert vulgar simile of your choice}, and somehow pull it out in the end.

I've spent a bit of time with Wright - don't know what's wrong with him at the moment but if half of MLB were as good a guy, lemme tell you it'd be a different world

6:38 PM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

You're right, it couldn't have been King, especially since Reyes was batting lefty at the time. You're also right in that the Cardinals hung on to win. If I remember correctly, Joe McEwing made the last out for the Mets. I think the final score was either 9-7 or 9-8. And they pulled it out because the Mets sucked.

Wright will be fine. He's had mini slumps like this over the course of the season. He's still a solid .300 average, .500+ slugging guy. But the 1.000 OPS people probably were a bit premature. He is just 23.

So, I have to ask; How did you manage to spend time with Wright?

11:02 PM  
Blogger June said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:59 PM  

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