May 25, 2010
Last week in this space, I took a look at hitters who had already exceeded their 2009 VORP in the early stages of 2010 and tried to determine whether those players were likely to build on their exceptional starts. This week, I’ll be doing the same for pitchers. I’ve selected the five starters and five relievers who have achieved the greatest VORP bouncebacks so far this year, compared to last year’s VORP tally or, for players that put up negative VORP performances last year, a replacement-level zero VORP. To make the starter list, a pitcher must have thrown at least 90 innings last season, while the cutoff for relievers is 40 innings. Those performance benchmarks are designed to ensure the players selected pitched significantly, if poorly, last season, and are off to a good start, rather than off to a mediocre start that’s much better than their disastrous 2009 numbers.
The interesting difference between the hitters and pitchers selected is age. Whereas the youngest bounceback hitter was Kelly Johnson at 28, and only two of nine were under 30, six of the 10 pitchers listed below are in their Age-26 season, and only one is over 30. Whether by random chance or due to the difference in aging patterns for pitchers and hitters, many of the bounceback pitchers were once well-regarded prospects who had either achieved some early success and then floundered, or have merely not yet fulfilled their promise. Perhaps you have to be young and well-regarded to continue to be given innings when you pitch as badly as many of these players did in 2009, though it’s interesting that such a selection bias didn’t seem to apply to hitters. I’m curious to hear what our astute BP commenters have to say about this.
Livan Hernandez, SP
If you’ve ever played a game of skill, you understand what it’s like to be “in the zone.” Basketball players shoot towards a hoop seemingly six feet in diameter. Pool players see balls seemingly ride on rails toward the called pocket, and always get their desired leave. Petanque stars throw towards a distant cochonnet as if it were only a meter away. And baseball pitchers hit their spot every time, making batters flail away helplessly while the pitcher hopes his fleeting dance with preternatural hyper-precision will last.
Therefore it’s clear that Livan Hernandez is definitely not “in the zone,” since he’s still pitching like Livan Hernandez, if not worse. His home run rate is above his career average, and his career-low strikeout rate (as Eric Seidman has noted) barely exceeds his walk rate. His 5.53 SIERA is actually worse than last season’s 4.94. So how has Hernandez managed to sport a 1.62 ERA through eight starts? His league-low .193 BABIP, in front of a decidedly pedestrian collection of fielders, points to Hernandez collecting a season’s worth of at’em balls in two months, while his otherworldly 97.5 percent strand rate has ensured that the few batters who have managed to reach base have rarely scored. That might continue on in some alternate universe, but in this reality, where pigs can’t fly, Spock is beardless, and an 80-percent strand rate by a strikeout pitcher usually leads the league, such things aren’t sustainable.
A case can be made that Hernandez is pitching so as to make a hitter’s excitement at facing his stuff-free offerings work against him. He’s throwing fewer strikes than ever—about 41 percent, third-lowest in the major leagues and more than 10 percent below his career average—and more out-of-zone pitches are being offered at and put into play. Perhaps this means hitters aren’t waiting for a pitch they can drive, and Hernandez is taking advantage of this. OK, sure, that’s possible. More likely, we’re witnessing an outlier driven by near-infinite improbability, and when Hernandez's luck changes, his numbers will again be consistent with that of the useful innings sponge he still is.
Several weeks ago, John Perrotto took a look at Pelfrey and mentioned a ridiculous .077 BABIP with runners in scoring position as a significant contributor to his hot start. That number is now a less-exceptional (though still low) .225, but Pelfrey is still pitching well. By starting off 65 percent of the batters he’s faced with a strike, he’s getting ahead of hitters, which makes the splitter he’s debuted this year more effective later in the count. His strikeout rate is at a career high, and at a still-young 26 years most of this seems like sustainable progress. A more normal distribution of hits is likely to occur as the season goes on, which will mean an increased ERA, but it’s looking more and more like Pelfrey’s 2009 struggles were just a bump in the road.
Francisco Liriano, SP
Liriano’s outstanding performance in the Dominican Winter League, where he went 3-1 with a 0.49 ERA in the playoffs, had Twins fans thinking the former phenom had finally turned the corner on his 2007 elbow surgery and was ready to take his rightful place at the head of the rotation. His hot April start, with a 3-0 record, 0.93 ERA, and zero home runs allowed, has been followed by a 6.08 ERA in May. Are the wheels starting to fall off? Hardly. Liriano’s peripherals have remained steady in both months, with an extra strikeout per nine innings, a sharply reduced walk rate, and a huge increase in ground balls. The only difference was in BABIP: a .247 mark in April gave way to May’s .414. Like Pelfrey, Liriano is getting ahead of hitters and throwing more (and more effective) off-speed pitches—in this case a slider—while his velocity is up a few ticks to the 93-94 mph range. His numbers are starting to bear more resemblance to their pre-injury majesty, so while it’s true that no surgery comes with guaranteed results, it’s also true that recovering enough to pitch and recovering enough to pitch effectively are rarely the same thing.
Another young, oft-disappointing power lefty, Gonzalez is a former minor-league strikeout king whose walk rate has previously undermined him at the highest levels. This year, however, he’s been throwing more strikes and better avoiding ball four, and while his strikeout rate has also gone done a bit, the overall change is for the better. PECOTA seems to have correctly pegged last year’s sub-replacement VORP as an unlucky mirage—Gonzalez’s 2009 SIERA was a solid 3.88—and while his walk rate (almost four per nine innings) is still less than ideal, he’s missing enough bats to make up for it, and he’s young enough to improve and gain the consistency he needs. Perhaps most importantly, Marc Normandin likes him, and that’s good enough for me.
Fausto Carmona, SP
A VORP more than 15 runs below replacement level certainly earns you a short leash. When you compare the total difference between last year and this year, the Cleveland sinkerballer’s 26.5-point VORP increase is the second largest in baseball (behind Manny Parra, whose 2010 flirtation with bullpen competence is miles ahead of last year’s league-worst minus-23.9 VORP). As with Gonzalez, Carmona has increased his value by significantly lowering both his walk and strikeout rates this year—the difference being Carmona doesn’t record enough strikeouts (fewer than five per nine innings) to make that Faustian bargain worthwhile. He’s surviving on a .267 BABIP and a low (5 percent) HR/FB ratio, and while his sinker still generates a 55 percent groundball rate, it’s nowhere near the 64 percent he recorded during his 2007 heyday. His miniscule improvement in SIERA (from 4.82 to 4.75) is a convincing argument that, unlike the other young starters on this list, there’s little evidence of this being a significant bounceback.
Last year Berken made 24 less-than-stellar starts, but with more highly-acclaimed prospects starting to arrive, the Orioles decided to see what his value might be in the pen. He’s pitched better (if infrequently) in long relief, cutting his walk rate in half, but as his 4.71 SIERA indicates, his nondescript strikeout rate will keep him from becoming a dominant bullpen force. Much like Hernandez, Berken has a low BABIP and is currently stranding more than 90 percent of the batters that reach against him, so it’s just a matter of time before he starts giving up runs in bunches. He might provide value as a swingman, but talk of moving him back into the rotation shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Healthy and now closing for the Astros after being acquired in a trade at the winter meetings, Lindstrom has gone 10-for-10 in save situations and has thus far produced at the high level many thought his stuff would support. The key for him this year has been a huge reduction in his walk rate—down from 4.56 per nine innings to 1.86—driven by a greater ability to throw strikes early in the count. Lindstrom still brings 96-mph heat, but he’s throwing his slider much more than usual. Since he’s more frequently ahead in the count, he’s getting more swings at pitches outside the zone, and inducing more ground balls (a career-high 55 percent). If he can keep his walk rate down, there’s no reason to think Lindstrom can’t keep on keeping on.
Perhaps he’s healthy, and certainly the VORP and RA numbers are better, but this sure doesn’t look like the old Chris Ray. That Chris Ray, even last year’s Chris Ray, the one with the 4.50 SIERA, could rack up strikeouts (7.92 per nine innings for his career). This Chris Ray, with a 5.68 SIERA, is whiffing fewer than five batters per nine, while walking almost as many. If those streams cross, it would be bad—maybe not “all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light” bad, but “no future with the Rangers” bad. Ray’s miniscule .172 BABIP and 90 percent strand rate isn’t going to last, and if he can’t find a way to get more batters to swing and miss, this is one Tommy John surgery story that won’t have a happy ending.
Matt Capps, RP
Conversely, this looks more like the old Matt Capps. The former Pirate has taken charge in the back end of the Washington bullpen, closing out 16 of 17 save opportunities. Last year saw an unexpected rise in Capps’ walk rate, and this year it’s dropped to 2.31 per nine innings, though still higher than his miniscule 1.71 career rate, while his strikeout rate is at a career high. More importantly, though, Loki seems to be through messing with him: last year’s out-of-character .370 BABIP is down to a more normal .298. Capps is on this list only because last year was an anomaly, and as predicted, his Q Rating in Washington has already surpassed that of the former Surveyor-General of the Dakota Territory.
Villanueva wasn’t as bad last year as his -1.1 VORP might indicate. He posted a reasonable 4.02 SIERA, but even that’s a little misleading since he spent part of the year in the leaky Brewers rotation, a role for which he’s ill-suited. Last year, for example, he posted a 6.52 ERA and 5.3 K/9 while starting, compared to 4.84 and 8.9 from the pen. This year, used completely in relief, his strikeout rate has rocketed to over 11.0 per nine innings, his below-average fastball velocity is up a tick or two, above 90 mph—not that he throws it much, as only knuckleballers Tim Wakefield and Charlie Haeger, and fellow junkball artist Sean Marshall, throw fewer heaters than Villanueva’s 28 percent. Possessing four solid pitches, he’s durable but effective only in shorter stints. Given the current wretched state of Milwaukee’s bullpen, I’d love to see Villanueva (and Marshall with the Chicago Cubs, for that matter) used as a modern-day Mike Marshall, racking up 150-plus relief innings a season a few at a time. Seriously, what would they have to lose?