October 8, 2010
Warning Track Power
As the Padres fell short of both the NL West and wild-card crowns on the last day of the regular season, Friars fans may have taken notice of a relatively bright performance during their dark demise. Tim Stauffer, winner of the second game of the final series against the Giants, proved to be a half-starting, half-relieving batter’s nightmare in every capacity he pitched in during the 2010 season. He posted an impressive 1.85 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, and 61 strikeouts in his 82
However, before we start jumping for joy and proclaiming Stauff to be the next Hoff (or the next stellar and underpaid Padres pitcher, at least), let's take a look at what merits his 2010 performance truly deserved by considering some of Baseball Prospectus’ best pitcher evaluation statistics. Below, we can see what Stauffer (really) did in his total innings of work this past season.
Through this lens, we can see that Stauffer was not quite as impressive as his traditional statistics would indicate. One thing that sticks out is the righty’s BABIP, which is much lower than a pitcher could ever hope to sustain. This subterranean rate clearly deflated the number of baserunners Stauffer incurred, thus giving him almost impossibly good numbers for a guy who relieved most of the season before being needed to prop up a shaky rotation in September. We should also take note of Stauffer’s SIERA, which was good for 45th in the majors among pitchers with 80+ IP during 2010. Though the discrepancy between Stauffer’s ERA and SIERA is quite large, neither number is anything to sneeze at and will be more than acceptable in any of the possible roles he'll end up in.
Speaking of roles, one has to believe that Stauffer has pitched himself into some sort of permanent spot on the Padres' 2011 roster, whether it is in the rotation or as a part of the relief corps (not to be confused with a Relief Corpse, mind you). The only question that remains is what role Stauffer will be the most effective in. Let’s take a look at his starter/reliever splits for 2010:
By traditional measures, Stauffer seemed to pitch almost equally effective as both a starter and as a member of the ‘pen. This fact becomes impressive when one takes into account that Stauffer, who began the season exclusively as a reliever, was only granted an opportunity to make recording his firststart of 2010 after Kevin Correia left the team due to a family tragedy, leaving the Padres with no one to start on May 9. Stauffer was told about his assignment late the night before that start and just two days after he threw 48 pitches in relief. He threw five scoreless innings that day. The day after, Stauffer correctly diagnosed himself with appendicitis after looking up a match for his symptoms on the internet and was placed on the disabled list. With all of this in mind, it seems clear that, if he hasn’t proven his worthiness as a pitcher, this member of the Friar Men will have a spot on the Padres’ medical staff in 2011. Or, at the very least, we can all agree that his GORP (Grittiness Over Replacement-level Player) has earned him the name Mr. Emergency. But I digress. As we can see, Tim Stauf—ahem—Mr. Emergency was clearly aided by the fact that balls that were kept in play rarely resulted in anything but an out, especially in his starts. As a reliever, on the other hand, Stauffer seems to have had a more luck-neutral and skill-indicative string of performances, which is further supported by his relatively low ERA-SIERA differential.
Clearly, this set of circumstances puts the Padres and GM Jed Hoyer in an interesting position. Will the San Diego brass choose to keep Stauffer in the bullpen where he has shown an impressive ability to not allow runs or will they opt to keep him in the rotation, relying on Petco Park’s magic and hoping his good luck continues? One thing that may sway organizational votes toward the latter option is that Stauffer is due to receive a significant raise as he enters his first year of arbitration eligibility. While he won't be breaking Jeff Moorad’s bank, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him get something just short of seven figures next season. Still, this addition to the payroll may pressure Hoyer into getting more bang (or, in this case, innings) for his buck, thus giving Stauffer a gig at the back end of the rotation. Furthermore, the recent declination of Chris Young’s $8.5 option and pending expiration of Correia’s one-year deal may open the door for Stauffer to earn starterhood in spring training.
Of course, from what we’ve seen in his starter/reliever splits, the Friars may be better off keeping Stauffer in the bullpen. Yes, the Padres already have one of the most talented and cost-effective bullpens in the league, but it seems that Stauffer may be at his best when he's coming into a game in relief, especially when one considers his peripherals. Which peripherals, you say? I'm glad you asked.
While Stauffer hasn't been quite as effective at inducing ground balls in relief, he certainly seemed to let his stuff play up when he emerges from the 'pen, given he struck out over two more batters and walked nearly one less every nine innings relative to his rotation work this season. The increase in worm killing rate seems to be a product of a new and improved fastball that is getting more movement and sink than his previous offering. However, if I'm a betting man, I'm putting my money on the hunch that a modest four percent increase in grounder rate as a reliever is going to be more sustainable than the 15 percent increase he showed as a starter, relative to the 46 percent rate he showed last year with his flatter fastball. While a slight regression in LD% is bound to occur in both roles, Mr. Emergency's relief fly-ball rate shouldn't scare anyone considering that he will be pitching half of his games at Petco. All of this, combined with his relatively lower SIERA and some rumblings about Heath Bell's potential departure via trade, leaves it in San Diego's best interest to keep Hot Stauff in the 'pen.
In the end, the Padres need not consider if Stauffer will regress next season, but how dramatic the regression will be relative to this season given the particular role he is assigned. If Hoyer and company are hoping for Stauffer's numbers to resemble anything close to what he posted this season, only disappointment will follow. However, if the Padres are looking to Stauffer for some above-average relief innings or perhaps a starter who can contribute around 150 innings with an ERA in the mid-fours, their expectations should be met.
Personally, I would hope San Diego does not make Stauffer a member of the rotation next season, if only to avoid finding out what happens to a starter with a low strikeout rate and a BABIP that regresses from the .240s. I can envision plenty of scenarios in which Hoyer goes out and spends Chris Young and Correia's 2010 money effectively on a bat or a starter looking for refuge at Petco, allowing Stauffer to further develop in the bullpen. Depth in the 'pen is almost always needed, and this move could help ensure that the Padres remain near the top of the league in terms of relief effectiveness, especially if the Bell trade rumors prove true.