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December 8, 2005
The old "pitching wins championships" adage is tired, but for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, pitching did carry home the AL West crown. Now that the staff has emerged as a legit force to be reckoned with, it's already facing some significant changes.
The rotation was tops in the league according to our SNLVAR metric. The top two horses, Bartolo Colon and John Lackey, will stay put. Which raises an interesting question: was Colon actually the best pitcher on his own team?
IP H/BF HR/BF BB/BF SO/BF GB/FB SNLVAR VORP Colon 222.7 .237 .029 .047 .173 1.27 6.7 51.1 Lackey 209.0 .233 .015 .080 .223 1.63 5.5 50.3It's pretty close. Lackey, of course, did not appear on any ballot, while Colon took home the hardware. But there's some turbulence after these two. Paul Byrd (37.3 VORP, 20th in AL) signed with Cleveland on Sunday, and if Jarrod Washburn (48.8 VORP, eighth in AL) follows suit and leaves, the Angels are left a bit short-handed. The good news is that they're better poised to absorb the losses than most teams would be. The promotion of Ervin Santana--originally to replace the injured Kelvim Escobar--turned into much more than a cup of coffee. Santana stuck for the rest of the year, starting 23 games. When Colon went down in October, Santana stepped up to start Game 4 of the ALCS. It didn't go well. However, Santana's emergence afforded the Angels the luxury of slotting Escobar and his touchy arm in the pen--where he was not only unhittable, but was also desperately needed as the suddenly human arms of Scot Shields and Francisco Rodriguez began to tire down the stretch and in the playoffs, respectively. As reported by MLB.com, Escobar will rejoin the rotation in 2006 to help compensate for the free agent departures. So long as Santana isn't dealt away for Manny Ramirez, he'll stay in the rotation.
Just last week the Angels flew under the radar by signing Hector Carrasco away from Washington. The two-year deal guarantees $6.1 million and includes an optional third year at $3 million (when he will be 38). The Carrasco situation is loaded with subplots. He spent 2004 as the swingman for the Kintetsu Buffaloes. There he pitched 76 innings with 74 hits, 12 home runs, 37 walks and 70 strikeouts--and a 5.57 ERA (thanks to JapaneseBaseballDaily.com for the stats). That was all the Hector Carrasco the Buffaloes could stomach, so they released him after the season.
The mediocrity dates back much further. He was a so-so stopgap for the Orioles in 2003, missed all of 2002 with rotator cuff surgery, and posted VORPs between 7.8 and 13.5 every year between 1995 and 2001. Not since 1994 had Carrasco done anything noteworthy, and even that year was mostly the creation of a somewhat fluky 2.24 ERA. Over the span of his career, he did show consistent groundball tendencies and avoided home runs. But poor command always plagued Carrasco (482/299 K/BB in 605 innings entering 2005).
It's doubtful the Nats expected much of their 35-year-old non-roster invitee. If he couldn't cut it for a moribund Japanese team, he'd probably be lucky to pitch anywhere, at any level, in 2005. But Carrasco had a secret weapon--a new cutter. He lasted through Spring Training and reported to Triple-A Ottawa, where he started with eight spotless innings. The Nationals needed help when T.J. Tucker got hurt, and promoted Carrasco in late April. Chad Cordero got all the attention in the pen, but Carrasco's VORP was 10 points higher. He stuck in the bullpen until September, having thrown 61 2/3 innings at a 2.04 clip--when the Nationals caved in to Carrasco's desire to start. He blanked his opponents in three of his five starts, posting an even better 2.02 ERA.
Also interesting, his groundball/flyball ratio of 1.05 was a career low. A .236 average on balls in play (BABIP) suggests he was quite hit-lucky, but 2005 was still Carrasco's career year. This establishes the high points of his career curve at 1994 (age 24, 18.3 VORP as a rookie) and 2005 (35, 31.3)--not exactly the typical career progression. In fact, James Click informs us that only two other pitchers since 1972 have pitched zero innings one year and enjoyed their career-high VORP the next, at the age of 35 or older (minimum 500 innings before career year). Oddly, they did it the same year for the same team, as pupils of Leo Mazzone:
YEAR TEAM PITCHER AGE VORP IP 2002 ATL Chris Hammond 36 30.4 842.7 2002 ATL Darren Holmes 36 20.7 583.3 2005 WAS Hector Carrasco 35 31.3 605.3The Angels plan to give Carrasco a fair shake as a starter, although he will compete with several younger pitchers this spring. At the very least, Carrasco should provide some flexibility if Escobar's arm flares up again. With those two plus Chris Bootcheck and Kevin Gregg, the Angels have plenty of swingman types. That's not enough to withstand the losses of Byrd and Washburn and still be the league's best rotation. But GM Bill Stoneman has a wealth of options this winter, and deep pockets to boot, so he can definitely improve the team in other areas. Angels rumors will keep flying for many weeks to come.