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March 26, 2012

Pebble Hunting

Let's Play "Pick an Old or Injury-Prone Pitcher"

by Sam Miller

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On Aug. 23, 2004, Scott Kazmir made his major-league debut. He was 20 and one of the dozen best prospects in baseball. Three days later, Mark Prior struck out eight and beat the Astros. He was 23 and one of the half-dozen best pitchers in baseball. The same day that Prior won his game, Jamie Moyer gave up six runs to the Royals and lost his seventh decision in a row, a streak that would eventually stretch to 10 losses and push his ERA over 5.00. He was 41 years old.

And here we are in 2012, and each is attempting his own comeback. Moyer is pitching well in the Cactus League; Kazmir threw for scouts last month; Prior’s audition for major-league teams could come in the next few weeks. Based on what we knew through 2004, it is a surprise that all three are still pitching. Based on what we knew through 2004, it is a surprise that none of the three is on a major-league roster. Based on what we knew through 2004, it is a surprise that the band Bush is still releasing new music. Life is surprising, man. But the question before us is this:

If you had to bet on Jamie Moyer, Mark Prior or Scott Kazmir to win more games from today until the end of the world, on which pitcher would you bet?

Your First Answer
Your first answer is Scott Kazmir. Scott Kazmir is just 27 years old. He was born the same year as Clay Buchholz and Max Scherzer and Ian Kennedy. PECOTA projects him to have a 4.19 ERA in 2012. The man who ultimately took Scott Kazmir’s spot in the Angels’ rotation last year was Jerome Williams, who was out of the majors for four years before getting back to the American League. After seeing a Jerome Williams comeback, a Scott Kazmir comeback doesn’t even seem challenging enough, like watching Rudy on a Saturday afternoon and getting inspired to unload the dishwasher. Scott Kazmir is a totally reasonable guess when all three possible answers are unreasonable. Scott Kazmir is the wrong answer.

You are underestimating how bad Scott Kazmir was. Scott Kazmir had a 5.94 ERA in his last full season, which you think gives you a good idea of how bad Scott Kazmir was, and you know that pitchers come back from 5.94 ERAs to win more games all the time. But Kazmir got far, far worse in 2011:

MLB: One start, 27.00 ERA
Triple-A: Five starts, 17.02 ERA
Dominican winter league: One start, 108.00 ERA

He threw 17 1/3 innings in 2011 and allowed 39 runs. He faced 113 batters, and 61 of them reached base. He hit eight batters. You know Steve Blass? Steve Blass had an ERA of 9.85 in the majors, walked a batter per inning, hit a batter every seven innings, and got a disease named after him. Kazmir had an ERA of 19.73, walked a batter and a half per inning, and hit a batter every two innings, against mostly minor-league hitters.

And still you might be smart to bet on Kazmir, given the Dontrelle Willis precedent. Willis walked 35 batters in 24 innings in his age-26 season and hasn’t been good since, yet has been given chances in four more organizations. Kazmir could probably have that if he’s intent on it, but I’m not sure Kazmir wants to pitch all that much. Maybe he does. Probably he does. He tried the comeback in winter ball, and he threw for scouts a few weeks ago. But if Kazmir’s unverified (but apparently real) Twitter account is accurate, he’s got an amazing life as a non-pitcher, working for a Hollywood production company, hanging out with starlets and prize fighters, eating amazing hamburgers, etc. This isn’t to cast aspersions on Kazmir’s drive and determination, but to point out that the transition to civilian life is sometimes the hardest part of walking away from the game. Kazmir has done it beautifully.

Your Second Answer
Your second answer is Jamie Moyer. Here’s a snippet of Jamie Moyer’s player capsule in the Baseball Prospectus Annual:

“The end is near.”

That’s actually a snippet from 11 years ago, in the 2001 Annual. That’s some pre-9/11 thinking about Jamie Moyer right there.

It’s prudent to say such things about Jamie Moyer, even now, especially now. But I remember reading somewhere—and, like a lot of things I read somewhere, I don’t remember where, I can’t link to it, and I might be misremembering badly—that the older a house is (or a piece of furniture, or whatever), the longer it is expected to survive going forward. That is, an average house built in 1910 that is still standing has more years left in it now than a house built in 1960, which has more years left in it now than a house built in 2010. I think this has something to do with changes in building materials over the past century, but also because a house that survives 100 years has shown it has the particular characteristics that make it age well. It’s in a nice neighborhood. It’s not in a flood zone. Good architecture. Jamie Moyer has survived this long because Jamie Moyer pitches like Jamie Moyer, and Jamie Moyer keeps being Jamie Moyer.

And what’s another year, or even another two years? A few years ago, when Vladimir Guerrero’s birthday was adjusted, I checked all the projection systems to see what sort of hit his forecasts would take. The answer was not that much. The aging curve accelerates somewhat as a player gets older, but not drastically; in the short term, recent performance, not age, is the most predictive datum. Going from 47 to 48 just isn’t all that different than going from 37 to 38. Going from 47 to 49, as Moyer must do because of last year’s Tommy John surgery, is a bigger test. But  PECOTA—as daunted as it is by the task of finding comps for Moyer—doesn’t really treat his age any differently now than it did when he was 43. Moyer’s projected ERAs since 2005:

2005: 4.65
2006: 5.08
2007: 5.40
2008: 4.25
2009: 5.14
2010: 5.25
2011: 4.96

And this year: 4.75.

(With a breakout rate of 0 percent, and a collapse rate of 100 percent. Jamie Moyer’s 10-year PECOTA forecast: “No matching records found.”)

Your Third Answer
And, finally, there’s Mark Prior. I’m not really qualified to give a psychological assessment of Scott Kazmir, or a scouting assessment of Jamie Moyer, but I’m particularly unqualified to play orthopedic surgeon regarding Mark Prior. He’ll be healthy someday or he won’t. (A call to his agent wasn’t returned.)

Since WWII, four major-league starters (minimum 50 career starts) have gone at least five years without pitching in the majors, then come back to appear in a major-league game: Justin Thompson, Jose Rijo, Mike Norris, and Jim Bouton. Thompson did continue pitching in the minors during his absence, and his return to the majors was only 1 2/3 innings (and no wins). Bouton was off starring in Robert Altman movies and is no use as a comp.

So that leaves two players in six decades who have done what Prior is trying to do. Norris won one game. Rijo won five.

But Prior, unlike Kazmir and to a lesser degree Moyer, has done well against the batters he has faced recently. Batters in independent leagues, and batters in rookie ball, but batters:

2010-2011: 24 innings, three earned runs allowed, 39 strikeouts, 10 walks.

His arm mostly held up (a bit of shoulder soreness late) in a dozen innings last year, though he still had health problems (groin, sports hernia). But Prior has been intent on doing it. He’s spent five years doing the painful rehabs, playing at the lowest levels, being cut up, being humbled by setbacks. If he wants to spend 10 more years doing this, why not imagine that in the course of those 10 years he’ll be healthy for one or two or three. Months.

I’m betting on Prior before Kazmir. But I’m betting on Moyer before Prior. The career paths of Moyer, Prior, and Kazmir are all extreme outliers, but they also reflect something very fundamental about pitching: the most important thing is showing up, and the second-most-important thing is throwing at least some strikes. Missing bats only matters once those two obstacles are cleared.

Moyer has had three credible spring starts—seven strikeouts, no walks, and a ton of grounders in nine innings—and faces lackluster competition for the fifth spot in the Rockies’ rotation. On Thursday, he threw four perfect innings by fooling the Giants with a fastball that rarely breaks 80 mph on the radar gun. That might sound unsustainable, except I basically just copied the bulk of that sentence from an article written in October 2001. Jamie Moyer is still Jamie Moyer: the worst bet of the three to win 50 more games in the majors, but the best bet to win one.

Keeper league managers: you’ve been alerted. 

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

Related Content:  Mark Prior,  Jamie Moyer,  Scott Kazmir

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