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April 6, 2011
Will Erik Bedard Be Valuable Again?
The Erik Bedard Comeback Show got off to a mediocre start on Monday against the Texas Rangers. In his first start since July 25 of 2009, the Bedard went five innings and gave up just four hits—although two of them left the yard. No one expected him to immediately return to the form that made him a top fantasy starting pitcher all those years ago in Baltimore, and even though it’s just the small sample size of one start, it’s not too early to see how far along the Mariners left-hander is on his road to recovery.
It shouldn’t be difficult to recall that Bedard’s fantasy strength was built upon a foundation of strikeouts. In 2007—his last season before he was seriously bitten by the injury bug—he punched out 221 batters in 182 innings. That’s a spiffy 10.9 K/9, which paced all AL starters that summer. As you would expect, that year Bedard fooled a plethora of hitters into offering at pitches they had no chance at making contact with: of all his strikes, 11 percent were swing-and-misses.
On Monday, that old swing-and-miss magic was missing. Bedard ultimately threw a total of 95 pitches, but just four times did a Ranger fail to make contact when he swung the lumber.
When Bedard was racking up the strikeouts four summers ago, he was doing so on the back of a solid four-seam fastball, a strong cut fastball and a plus curve. Our own Mike Fast has detailed how Bedard dominated in 2007. In those glory days of a few years ago, his four-seam fastball averaged around 93 mph and was known to touch 95 on occasion. As the shoulder injuries have piled up, his velocity has gone down: in his abbreviated 2009 campaign, Bedard’s four-seam fastball averaged around 91 mph. Obviously, it’s not ideal when a pitcher loses a couple of mph off his fastball when he’s on the doorstep of his 30s. Given his injury history to that point, it’s impressive that he can still bring it in the 90s.
That may be changing. In his start on Monday, Bedard offered his four-seam fastball a quarter of the time and his cut fastball for another 25 percent of his pitches. Both pitches clocked in at roughly 89.7 mph on average. His maximum velocity was 91 mph (or, a couple of mph slower than his average fastball in 2007). It was pretty clear he lacked the strength to dial the velocity up to where he used to be.
While Bedard’s average speed was down, we can also see that he started to lose some gas around pitch number 65, which he delivered in the fourth inning. Three pitches later, he closed out the frame, but when he returned to the mound for the bottom of the fifth, he was able to recover some of his lost velocity (although it was still down a tick or two from earlier in the game). Courtesy of Brooks Baseball, here is Bedard’s velocity chart from his start on Monday.
Again, the loss in velocity and the lack of stamina is certainly understandable—it's impressive that he’s out there at all.
The middling fastball could be the reason Bedard couldn’t entice a single hitter to miss. Not a single hitter missed his four-seam fastball, and only one hitter swung and missed at his cut fastball.
One other interesting note about Bedard’s start was his reliance on his change-up—it's a pitch he rarely featured in the past. According to Pitch f/x data, he’s thrown it on average about four percent of the time in the last three seasons he’s pitched. The reason he threw the change so infrequently was twofold: First, his fastballs (both the four-seam and cutter) and his curve were extremely effective. The trio of pitches didn’t warrant a fourth pitch. Second, his change just has never been a very good pitch. In the past, it was something that was nice to have in his bag of tricks, if only to keep hitters guessing—that it was rarely unveiled didn’t effect Bedard's performance at all.
On Monday, he moved away from his past modus operandi and threw a change 24 percent of the time. According to data collected by Brooks Baseball, that change was by far his least effective pitch, generating a linear weight of 1.22.
It’s possible all three issues with Bedard (lack of velocity, lack of stamina and his over reliance on a below-average change) are just the result of rust. However, with his injury history, there is always the possibility these problems are the new reality. Baseball is littered with power starters who reinvented their game because of injury—Frank Tanana leaps to my old school mind. It is possible Bedard will someday fall into this category (maybe). He’s just not a fantasy asset at this time, though, and it’s possible he will never be one again.