August 24, 2011
Painting the Black
Jerome Wasn't Built in a Day
When you break it down to the base level, Jerome Williams’ story isn’t unusual. “Former top prospect attempting to return to his peak” is a tried-and-true story that teeters from precocity to failure to redemptive triumph in heart-warming fashion. Maybe that’s why the first step in Williams’ return to a major-league rotation felt scripted and even a little predictable—as if the baseball gods conspired to have him face the less-than-full strength Orioles, whose six-through-nine slots went Andino-Pie-Tatum-Davis. Williams succeeded, of course, going seven innings, striking out six batters, walking none, and allowing just one run (that coming on a Matt Wieters homer).
Prior to that outing, Williams’ most recent major-league start had come in May 2007 with the Nationals. He faced the Braves, who batted Kelly Johnson, Willie Harris, Edgar Renteria, Andruw Jones one-through-four, then Jeff Francoeur, Scott Thorman, and Pete Orr six-through-eight, and left after two innings after allowing five runs. Micah Bowie, Winston Abreu, Ray King, and Chad Cordero appeared in relief for Williams on that day. If the date and those names don’t give you an indication of how long it’s been since Williams last started, consider that Derek Jeter had 2,204 hits, Jim Thome had 477 home runs, and Tim Wakefield had 155 wins.
In the four-plus years between major-league starts, Williams has pitched in the minors, in the indie leagues, and overseas in hopes of returning to the majors one day. The familiarity of Williams’ story makes it feel like maybe this could—maybe this will—happen. “This” being a permanent spot in some team’s rotation for as long as it takes until we forget that Williams just wasn’t around during a large chunk of his career. Some of the blame for this false sense of optimism falls at the feet of the Prospectus staff. Read Mike Fast’s PITCHf/x onslaught or Sam Miller’s post-game interview with the man of the hour, and try to avoid developing a sense of déjà vu. You can’t, because Williams’ story is the Voltron of rejuvenated pitcher stories. Here are the four branches, by my count:
Run through the checklist, and you get an improved changeup, a lower arm angle, higher velocity, and a new attack-first mentality. It’s a total makeover for the guy who had enough Greg Maddux comparisons thrown his way as a prospect to warrant a mention in his Baseball Prospectus 2005 player profile. The funny thing about that comparison is that it almost works if you restrict it to their first 78 appearances on a mainstream stat level:
The next Maddux he isn’t, but Williams has shown that the new him is an improvement over the old him during his time in Triple-A this season. On its face, a 3.91 earned run average is unimpressive, but Williams did manage a career-high strikeout-to-walk ratio of four. During the 11 seasons that Williams appeared in the minors, only once did he have a full season strikeout-to-walk ratio over three, and that came during his first exposure to professional baseball. Even in the parts of six major-league seasons he pitched in, he never recorded a strikeout-to-walk ratio better than two.
That factoid may sound unimpressive for a number of reasons—for one thing, there should be a healthy coat of skepticism applied to any 29-year-old pitcher’s performance in Triple-A—but consider that Williams’ helium once lifted him to the 19th position on Baseball America’s 2002 prospect list. It isn’t totally outlandish to suggest that Williams is pitching better now than he did back then, and if his stuff truly is better, then maybe he can retroactively make good on that ranking—a tall order, sure, but not an implausibility.
Back in those days, Williams trailed only Josh Beckett, Mark Prior, Juan Cruz, Ryan Anderson, Dennis Tankersley, and Nick Neugebauer on the list among pitchers. Williams ranked ahead of Jake Peavy, Gavin Floyd, Erik Bedard, Carlos Zambrano, Adam Wainwright, Rafael Soriano, and a few others that have had more celebrated major-league careers. Arguing over whether Williams was deserving of his placement back then is futile, but using the wonders of modern analysis, Williams’ major-league accomplishments can be stacked up against the rest of his erstwhile peers to see how well, or poorly, the list has aged.
Some of those pitchers are older and thus stand to have more major-league experience, so comparing counting stats isn’t the most accurate portrayal of their performance, but it works in place of a rate stat when equal opportunity isn’t on the menu. With that in mind, here are the pitchers from the list and their career Wins Above Replacement Player values to date:
Williams, who ranked seventh amongst pitchers on the original list, has the 22nd-best WARP score now. That ranking looks modest when compared only to those 39 pitchers who reached the majors and better when compared to all of the 46 pitchers who made the list. Worth noting is that Williams actually has a higher WARP score than some active positional players (namely Casey Kotchman and Wily Mo Pena), so while he is mostly a bust as a prospect, he did some good in the majors before fizzling out the first time.
And who knows, maybe Williams will do some more good. It wouldn’t even be the most unusual comeback story from that 2002 prospect list: Colby Lewis returned to the majors last season with 1.1 WARP to his name and has compiled 5.2 wins over his last 57 starts.