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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. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

24 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

BurrRutledge

Thanks, Jay and Steven, for this series of articles. Good info for the fantasy baseball readership.

This may have been covered elsewhere, and I missed it, but could somebody take a moment to explain Edwin Jackson?

Have a great weekend!

Apr 29, 2011 04:53 AM
rating: 0
 
tduren

What about Colby Lewis?

Apr 29, 2011 07:16 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Lewis flew under my radar in that my initial list was based upon ERA qualifiers, and because he missed a turn he had less than 1 IP/team game, so he he didn't show up in the stat reports. If there's a sequel, both he and Dempster would be in it. Maybe Jackson (who really is what he is, a talented guy undone by a tempestuous relationship with the strike zone) as well.

Who else would you folks like to see if I do another one of these?

Apr 29, 2011 08:02 AM
 
Peter7899

After watching Dempster last night, I am convinced this is going to be a repeat of the nightmare that was the 2006 season. Remember that? The Cubs were depending on Prior and Wood to pitch (ha!) and the club won 66 games.

Dempster looks like he's throwing grapefruits toward the plate. No sink on his sinker, elevating everything else, and Zambrano is what he has been for the past 3 years. Garza's a stud, but it's looking more and more like he should be the best pitcher available at the deadline than anything else.

Apr 29, 2011 07:41 AM
rating: 0
 
leites

Thanks, this was interesting reading.

Apr 29, 2011 07:49 AM
rating: 0
 
ttt

Mike Pelfrey?

Apr 29, 2011 09:02 AM
rating: 1
 
John Douglass

Seeing FIP citied in this column instead of SIERA makes me wonder. When will the stats page not hold a Coming Soon tag?

Apr 29, 2011 10:24 AM
rating: 3
 
evo34

Yeah, this is getting (has gotten) bizarre. Make a big splash with a new stat that is supposed to be the best pitcher evaluation metric, and then not have it working for the current season (already in May)?

Would be nice for BP to take a step back from the editorial fire hydrant and address the ongoing data issues -- from still-missing 10-year projections to missing current-season stats. Something like, "This is a black swan event. A, B and C happened. X, Y and Z are what we have done to prevent similar issues going forward." Alternatively..."This is just the way it's going to be. We'll update stats/projections whenever we can, but don't count on any predictable schedule -- now or in the future."

I think people need to have an idea which one of these two is the current policy at BP. If this was a free blog, I'd stay quiet and enjoy my erratic updates. But a pay service? At least explain what customers should be expecting. That's all we ask for.

May 01, 2011 19:49 PM
rating: 1
 
ramtax

Jay, I'm usually a big fan, but is it really necessary to dredge up the laptop thing on Buchholz? It makes you look classless, and really, let the kid put his youthful mistake behind him. (And no, I'm not a Red Sox fan nor a Buchholz owner in any fantasy leageue.)

Apr 29, 2011 11:24 AM
rating: 1
 
Erik Rupp

It's like the old joke:
"A man is sitting on his porch, complaining to friends, "Look at Bill over there. He smokes all day, and nobody calls him Bill the smoker. And Tom, all he does is drink, but nobody calls him Tom the drinker. But you shag one sheep..."

Moral: He shouldn't have stolen a laptop if he doesn't want to be called a laptop thief.

Apr 29, 2011 11:38 AM
rating: 3
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

With all due respect, the kid stole $70,000 worth of computer equipment from an intermediate school, but I'm the classless one?

Apr 29, 2011 12:13 PM
 
delatopia

It did strike me as a bit of a gratuitous comment (and I am a Buchholz owner), but what I find really interesting is the difference between Buchholz and Mike Leake in the magnitude of their offenses and the disproportionate attention paid to them. I guess the takeaways are:

-- If you're going to steal something, make it something really big, not something really small, and

-- If you're going to get caught, do it before you make your way into the spotlight.

Apr 29, 2011 12:43 PM
rating: 4
 
Jim Humdingding

I don't get the point of the reference either (not a Red Sox fan). He was 19. It was seven years ago. It felt gratuitous to see it referenced again in an article that wasn't about character. Comments like that just seem deleterious to our society's alleged goal of punishment followed by rehabilitation. If he hasn't offended again, why don't we consider him a success story (not saying fanfare is required, but forgiveness may be deserved) rather than an endless butt of pointless snide remarks?

Apr 29, 2011 13:20 PM
rating: 2
 
ramtax

Yes, it's classless to bring it up 7 years later when there's been no recidivism, he paid his debt to society and he seems to have grown from the incident. You should, too.

Apr 29, 2011 13:33 PM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Did he really pay his debt to society? I wonder if he would have gotten off so cleanly had he not been a star athlete. And white.

That said, yes, it's old news, and if you really feel as though my attempt to inject some color into this piece was somehow devalued by referring to his past as a not-so-petty thief, well, I plead guilty to rehashing old news, but nothing more than that.

Apr 29, 2011 14:24 PM
 
Matt Kory

What I don't understand is why everyone who has been disagreeing (respectfully) with Jay's reference has been getting minused. If someone was insulting Jay personally I could easily understand and endorse it. But nobody is doing that. As long as it remains respectful, let people have their say without minusing them.

Apr 30, 2011 10:03 AM
rating: 3
 
ramtax

Would you be happy if he did 6 months in the cage? It seems to me that if you look at the statistics, first-time offenders who express sincere remorse given the type of punishment Clay and his cohort received. You bring up race as if that's something that especially enlightened people should understand to mean that he *must* have gotten off lightly and therefore it's OK to dredge this up for the duration of his career.

What I don't understand is why you're so defensive about it. The comment was gratuitous; it added nothing in terms of substance or entertainment value. It plus your reaction to my questioning of it has detracted from your credibility. Admit it was unnecessary and callous, remove it from the article and move on.

May 02, 2011 20:02 PM
rating: 1
 
map2history

not a Red Sox fan? really? you've responded 3 times to this thread and you want the reference expunged from the record. You're right, Mr Jaffe could have probably gotten his point across without the "Laptop Thief" reference. But his "Laptop Thief" reference is 1) accurate, 2) doesn't detract from his point, and 3) provides a creative alternative to either repeating his name or using a pronoun. My suggestion is that if you don't like the "Laptop Thief" reference, don't read the "Laptop Thief" part of the "Laptop Thief's" refrencer's article. Hold your thumb up to the computer monitor, blocking out the "Laptop Thief" text and simply read around the offending (read: "Laptop Thief") words.

May 03, 2011 11:29 AM
rating: 0
 
tonygartner

Possibly Jeff Niemann??

Apr 29, 2011 12:31 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

I did mention him in graf 2 - I planned to include him but wasn't going to write him up until after he pitched last night. When he took a no-hitter into the seventh, I figured he should be spared.

Apr 29, 2011 14:28 PM
 
jtdude0

Jay, I'm not sure I understand this comment -- "Is there any team with less of an appreciation for what they have in a high-upside starter than the Twins with Liriano?"

While I agree with you in that they've done a crappy job with providing a ground ball pitcher like him a good (or even average) up the middle defense, what more can they do other than let him take his turn in the rotation, let Rick Anderson work with him and see what happens?

Apr 30, 2011 12:19 PM
rating: 0
 
irussma

That's not exactly what they've done, though. The Twins have encouraged Liriano to pitch to contact more (there was an article on this a few days ago), they kept him down in AAA while he was clearly ready to come back the big leagues a couple of years ago (granted, they had 5 strong starters at the time) and as recounted in this article, they tried to trade him a few months ago. Not saying that this necessarily proves Jay's point, but he certainly hasn't just been left alone.

Apr 30, 2011 21:30 PM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

What he said, plus - as I wrote about in the linked February article - they have had an ongoing litany of communication problems with him related to his elbow woes. Some of that is on Liriano, and some of that may be language barrier-related, but at the end of the day, it's the team's job to get the most out of his talent, and they haven't been all that successful at doing that.

May 01, 2011 10:07 AM
 
Lou Doench

", which makes it all the more disconcerting that Volquez pitched his final couple of innings on Sunday night after apparently hyperextending his knee;"
I was watching that game and I was floored when Voltron came out to pitch the next inning. The sad thing is that he was cruising that game, he really looked like he'd turned a corner. And the pitch that Molina jerked wasn't bad pitch, Molina just ran into it.

Apr 30, 2011 13:42 PM
rating: 0
 
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