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April 29, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

Bad-Start Starter Six-Pack

by Jay Jaffe

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The 2011 season is still young. Teams have played anywhere from 22 to 26 games, less than one-sixth of their schedule, and we're still in small sample territory. Nonetheless, there's no shortage of players whose slow starts are keeping their managers or fans lying awake at night. Earlier this week, Steven Goldman examined a double handful of slumping hitters, surveying both their performance and their teams' alternatives for change. Today, I turn my attention to a similarly struggling set of starting pitchers who have gotten pasted more often than not this year.

By and large, these are fairly established and well-regarded hurlers who came into the year with no real health questions, and haven't gotten hurt; I'm not going to pick on the likes of Erik Bedard, Brad Penny, Phil Hughes, or Luke Hochevar. I considered taking a look at Joe Blanton, who went on the disabled list on Thursday, and Jeff Niemann, until he no-hit the Twins for six innings. (I thought about including Ryan Dempster as well, but didn't hear about last night's one-out, seven-run debacle, which raised his ERA to 9.58, until after I filed this piece.) None of the six I chose are in immediate jeopardy of losing their rotation spots, though a look at their teams' rotation picture will put that in some context. With our 2011 sortable stats not yet serving up SIERA or Support Neutral Winning Percentage, I'll use Fielding Independent Pitching as my ERA estimator.

Francisco Liriano, Twins (9.13 ERA, 6.28 FIP)
Is there any team with less of an appreciation for what they have in a high-upside starter than the Twins with Liriano? Or less of an understanding how to deal with him? Just before pitchers and catchers reported in February, the Twins let slip that they might be open to dealing the fragile 27-year-old lefty with his value at its peak. Two and a half months later, it's fair to wonder if they missed their opportunity. With Ron Gardenhire and company suggesting that he pitch to contact rather than seek strikeouts, Liriano has gotten lost in the wilderness. His 18 walks in 23.2 innings give him the highest walk rate among ERA qualifiers. He has struck out just as many hitters as he's walked, and had some bad luck on fly balls (14.3 percent HR/FB) to boot; on the other hand, his .307 BABIP, while 24 points above the league average, isn't much to get riled about. Two of his last three starts have been seven-run disasterpieces, sandwiched around his lone quality start of the season. In his most recent outing, he threw 40 pitches in a four-run first inning, falling behind eight of the nine Rays he faced, and lasting just three innings.

Where Do We Go From Here? During the spring, the Twins made waves by exiling Kevin Slowey to the bullpen so they could fit both Brian Duensing and Nick Blackburn into their starting five. Both have been adequate thus far, but because Liriano and Carl Pavano (5.12 ERA) have struggled, the rotation's 5.19 ERA is last in the league, and the Twins are 9-15 after Thursday's doubleheader sweep by the Rays. Slowey is on the disabled list with shoulder bursitis; most recently, he made 47 pitches in an extended spring training game, and it sounds as though he's more likely to return to the team's bullpen than continue stretching out. Kyle Gibson, the team's 2009 first round pick, is off to a strong start at Triple-A, with a 21/4 K/BB ratio in 20 innings. He's already expected to force his way into the rotation, and it may be that he does so while Liriano is exiled to the bullpen or traded at a time when his value is depressed.

Edinson Volquez, Reds (6.35 ERA, 6.24 FIP)
Volquez was hit or miss during the second half of last season after returning from Tommy John surgery and a PED-related suspension. Of his 12 starts, four were awful, with 20 runs allowed in a combined 11.1 innings. Seven of his other eight turns were quality starts, and in only one of those did he allow as many as three runs. He's been more consistent this year—if only in that he has just one disaster start and one quality start in five, and that his most notable start was one in which he didn't throw a single pitch. While he has 31 strikeouts in 28.1 innings, his walk rate (6.0 per nine) is the league's highest, his homer rate (2.2 per nine) the second highest. The first inning has been a particular problem; 13 of the 20 runs Volquez has allowed have come in that frame, though at least he notched his first spotless first on Sunday night.

Where Do We Go From Here? With both Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey on the disabled list, the Reds' rotation is in no position to take any more hits, which makes it all the more disconcerting that Volquez pitched his final couple of innings on Sunday night after apparently hyperextending his knee; rather than remove him, Dusty Baker simply gnawed on his toothpick until Volquez yielded a three-run homer to Yadier Molina with two outs in the sixth for the game's only runs. There are no further reports of any injury to the pitcher, so it appears Baker will keep riding him. Caveat emptor.

Yovani Gallardo, Brewers (5.70 ERA, 4.52 FIP)
With Zack Greinke starting the year on the disabled list due to a broken rib, the Brewers' all-in bid to win the NL Central depends even more on strong work from Gallardo. In his second start of the season, he threw a two-hit shutout against the Braves, but since then he's been rocked for an 8.86 ERA, thanks in large part to a .427 BABIP over that span. More unsettling is his strikeout rate, which has fallen to 5.7 per nine from the sterling 9.4 he put up from 2007-2010. Looking at his PITCHf/x data, it's unclear why this should be so; his average fastball velocity of 91.7 mph is only down 0.9 mph, and he's getting hitters to chase more pitches out of the zone. On the other hand, the swing-and-miss percentages of both his four-seamer and his slider are down significantly from last year (from 5.4 percent to 3.2 percent for the former, from 12.3 percent to 7.9 percent for the latter), and the slider has hitters swinging less than 40 percent of the time. Furthermore, Gallardo's first-pitch strike percentage has fallen from 61.8 percent last year to 51.2 percent this year, the sixth-lowest in the majors; oddly, the five pitchers below him include not only Liriano but Jhoulys Chacin, Tim Lincecum, and Gio Gonzalez, who have otherwise succeeded, with healthier strikeout rates and ERAs around 2.70.

Where Do We Go From Here? Gallardo says he's completely healthy, but his average velocity has fallen with every start, as has the frequency with which he's thrown his four-seamer (from 66 percent to 62, 57, 51, 44, and 42), which doesn't exactly bespeak a pitcher who's feeling 100 percent. But with Mark Rogers getting lit up at Triple-A, Sergio Mitre is the best alternative on hand. With Greinke only about a week away from a return, it appears that the Brewers will keep handing the ball to Gallardo and hope he rediscovers his form.

Clay Buchholz, Red Sox (5.33 ERA, 6.64 FIP)
Buchholz isn't carrying the highest ERA among Sox starters; that honor belongs to John Lackey, though the big mouthbreather has yielded just one run over his last two starts after surrendering 15 in his first two, so at least he's trending in the right direction. The Laptop Thief has been more consistent—consistently bad, that is—in that he doesn't have a single quality start thus far, and has lasted six innings in just two of his five outings. Very little has gone right: he has been tagged for 2.0 homers per nine—putting him two-thirds of the way to last season's total of nine—and not only has his already pedestrian strikeout rate fallen to 5.0 per nine, it's been surpassed by his walk rate (5.3 per nine). Add to that a BABIP that's risen from .263 last year to .308 this year, and you've got a whole host of problems. As to the root cause, his average fastball velocity is down 2.0 mph (94.1 to 92.1), which could just be typical early-season pokiness, and he's getting fewer swings and misses. His location is off as well. "His fastball has been left up a bit higher in the zone, and he isn’t attacking that lower, outside quadrant nearly as often," observed Marc Normandin over at Red Sox Beacon. As a result, Buchholz's groundball-to-flyball ratio has plunged from 1.61 last year to 0.95 this year.

Where Do We Go From Here? Through their first 11 games, the Red Sox went 2-9 as their starters were lit up for a 6.83 ERA, with just three quality starts and four disaster starts. Since then, the team is 8-4, with the starters posting a 1.94 ERA with eight quality starts and no disaster starts. In other words, the rest of the rotation is picking up the slack for Buchholz. With Daisuke Matsuzaka getting the ball every fifth day, and Josh Beckett never more than a muscle spasm away from a rough stretch, there's always the potential for a bigger crisis to break out in the Sox rotation, and you can expect that Buchholz's 2010 performance—including a 2.33 ERA, second in the league—will buy him time to turn things around before the team turns to Tim Wakefield or Alfredo Aceves as a solution.

Daniel Hudson, Diamondbacks (5.64 ERA, 3.23 FIP)
Acquired from the White Sox in late July last year, Hudson was one of the few bright spots for the Diamondbacks over the season's final two months, posting a 1.69 ERA in 11 starts thanks to a .217 BABIP atop strong peripherals. He was bound to regress, and he has, but he hasn't pitched nearly as badly as his ERA would suggest. The potential hits that the Diamondback defense got to last year are falling in this time around; his .337 BABIP is extreme even on a staff with the league's third highest mark (.318). While his strikeout rate has risen from 7.9 per nine to 9.5, his walk rate has risen more substantially, from 2.5 per nine last year to 3.6 this year.

Where Do We Go From Here? Given his FIP, it's clear that aside from his walk rate, there's really nothing wrong with the way Hudson's pitching that more help from his defense couldn't cure, and no reason to overreact. With three Snake starters carrying ERAs even higher than Hudson's, not to mention much worse peripherals, the Diamondbacks aren't likely to do anything rash; once Zach Duke works his way back from a pair of broken bones in his hand, it will be Barry Enright and Armando Galarraga who will be on notice.

Ervin Santana (5.51 ERA, 3.41 FIP)
The enigmatic righty has always been prone to violent swings in his ERA: since 2006, his average year-to-year change is 1.60 runs per nine, and he's been above 5.00 in the previous two odd-numbered years, sort of a mirror image of Bret Saberhagen. After last year's strong showing (3.92 ERA in 222.2 innings), it might appear as though Santana is settling in for another biennial suckathon, but the reality is that he's just been unlucky: his .350 BABIP is the league's fourth-highest. His walk and home run rates are down from last year, and his strikeout rate is higher; his 3.5 K/BB ratio ranks 11th in the league, and would be the second-best of his career.

Where Do We Go From Here? This is a serious case of Nothing To See Here, Folks, Please Move Along. The Angels have the league's best Defensive Efficiency (.739) and lowest BABIP (.252), and while you can expect those numbers to regress towards the mean, Santana's should regress toward respectability as well.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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Collateral Damage: Tho... (04/29)
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