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October 30, 2010

Player Profile

Colby Lewis

by Marc Normandin

Whereas C.J. Wilson pitched his way back into a starting gig while in the Texas bullpen, Colby Lewis had to work out the kinks in a different country after failing to stick in the major leagues. Lewis nearly doubled his career major-league innings total as the Rangers’ third-best starter this year and brought that success with him into the postseason, where he has thrown 18 2/3 innings with an ERA of just 1.45. With the Rangers down two games to none in the World Series against the Giants, Lewis will need to throw another quality start tonight to keep Texas afloat.

Despite Lewis' success in the regular season, many fans are not aware of just how productive he was for Texas this year, or what his back-story is. A look around Twitter during Game Six of the ALCS, when Lewis helped to eliminate the Yankees in an eight-inning performance where he struck out seven, walked three, and allowed just the one run to score, showed that fans of the Bombers weren't aware—something along the lines of, "How is Colby freaking Lewis beating us?!?" could be found coming from the frustrated fingers of many a New Yorker.

Lewis seems like he came out of nowhere, but that's just not true. The right-hander was the fourth-ranked prospect in the Rangers' system via Baseball America in 2002, behind Hank Blalock, Mark Teixeira, Mario Ramos (okay, so nobody bats 1.000 on these things), and ahead of Ryan Ludwick.

Lewis was their first pick in the 1999 draft at a sandwich slot, as an attempt to add a power arm to their system. He certainly had the power, as he could dial it up to 97 and had a hard curve as well, but it was thought he needed an off-speed pitch to help him mix it up, or to keep him in games where his power approach didn't work.

He had already had Tommy John surgery in high school, and dealt with occasional shoulder soreness in the minors, which the Rangers believed had to do with his pitching 353 innings over two years following serious elbow injury—even a decade ago, baseball was different in many ways. In 2009, a Boston prospect named Drake Britton had TJ surgery performed, and when he returned this year he threw 22 starts, but totaled just 78 2/3 innings, or fewer than four innings per start. One wonders if Lewis' career path would have been any different had his own team exhibited the same kind of caution with his young and tender arm—shoulder problems are the main reason the pitcher you see today no longer touches the high 90s with his fastball.

To the Rangers' credit, they were careful in 1999, when Lewis racked up just 64 2/3 frames in 14 games pitched, but they took the reins off after that, hence the 353 innings over two years on a 20- and 21-year-old arm.

Lewis made the major-league team out of spring training in 2002 when injuries to the bullpen made adding another arm necessary, and while the righty continued to blow it by hitters with 28 strikeouts in 34 1/3 innings, he also handed out 26 free passes, just two of them intentional. Adjusted ERA figures will tell you that Lewis was unlucky to a degree, as he had a .356 BABIP, but when you struggle to put the ball in the strike zone and are forced to pitch in counts favoring the batter all of the time, high BABIPs can happen. Even if you assume the adjustments are right, this was a terrible debut. His 106 2/3 frames in his Triple-A debut went much smoother, with a 3.63 ERA, 8.4 punchouts per nine, and a much more impressive 3.5 K/BB ratio.

Most of 2003 was spent in the majors, and the results were just as poor (unless you look at his won-loss record, which somehow came to 10-9 despite an ERA of 7.30). Lewis's fastball was in the low 90s and he still could not locate, as he walked almost five batters per nine while also giving up 1.6 homers per nine. He still lacked an off-speed pitch he could throw consistently for strikes, and his curve, while promising, wasn't quite the weapon it needed to be against major-league hitters yet. The drop in velocity was troublesome, as Lewis wasn't much of a power pitcher without a power pitch, and thanks to a rotator cuff injury in 2004 that required surgery, that velocity wasn't coming back either.

The Tigers claimed Lewis off of waivers and stuck him in Triple-A Toledo, where he spent the bulk of his time with Detroit. Between 2004 and 2006, Lewis tossed just 18 1/3 innings in the majors. He became a free agent following 2006 and signed with the Nationals, who released him before he threw a regular season pitch with them during spring training of 2007. The A's swooped in and picked him up, which lasted for all of one start (3 1/3 innings, 10 runs, a pair of homers and walks with zero strikeouts) and 23 relief appearances.

The strangest part of this Lewis saga is that he did regain his prior fantastic minor-league form before he headed to Japan. In 95 2/3 innings with the A's Triple-A affiliate, Lewis had his first stretch of quality pitching in years: 9.1 K/9, 2.2 BB/9 (4.2 K/BB), and 0.8 homers allowed. It was the first time he had sustained success with a 90 mph fastball, and while he was 27 at the time, he was also in the hitter-friendly PCL. Oakland brought him back up in September, and he threw 12 innings with a 3.00 ERA, 10 strikeouts, and four walks in relief, which dropped his ERA for the season from 7.76 to 6.45.

Two teams—the Royals claimed Lewis on waivers after the 2007 season, but released him a month later—had a pitcher in their possession whose strikeout rate climbed by almost three whole strikeouts, at the same level, in the course of a year. Not just any pitcher, but a former top prospect who had struggled through arm injuries. There is a very real chance that the A's and Royals missed being the beneficiary of the Colby Lewis Returns story because they didn't exhibit enough patience with him.

The success found in a small dose in the United States carried over to Japan, where Lewis pitched for the Hiroshima Carp of the Japanese Central League. He finished second in the league in ERA and first in strikeouts in 2008 in 179 innings pitched, and then whiffed 186 batters in 2009 in 176 innings. His K/BB from his two-year stint in Japan was 8.0, which is ridiculous and wouldn't translate directly to MLB, but was enough to convince the current Rangers' regime that Lewis had indeed found his way despite his lessened velocity.

PECOTA thought there was something to his 2007-2009 numbers. On the depth charts, which included Lewis as one of the five starters for Texas, he was projected for a 3.80 ERA, 150 strikeouts in 161 innings (8.4), and a K/BB of 3.9. In reality, Lewis posted an ERA of 3.72 with 8.8 strikeouts per nine, and a K/BB of 3.0, which is more than close enough. In this year's AL starting pitcher rankings, Lewis was alongside more established hurlers like John Danks, Francisco Liriano, and Gavin Floyd because of this projection.

 The Texas Rangers are in the World Series partially because they accepted the risk surrounding Lewis when other clubs did not. They believed in their scouts, who thought Lewis' success would translate back in the United States, and gave Lewis a contract and a slot in the rotation. Now, Lewis is starting in his fourth post-season game and first World Series game, something that, when looking back on his early days as a Ranger, never seemed possible. The Yankees know it's possible though, after losing to him twice in the ALCS, and Texas fans hope the Giants come to the same realization before tonight is over.  

Related Content:  Colby Lewis,  Year Of The Injury

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