Carlos Silva has had his ups and downs, but he has generally succeeded at the major league level despite very low strikeouts rates. He finds himself on the free agent market for the first time in his career this winter, and may well be one of the better arms out there to plug into the middle of a rotation; whether that is due to the weak free agent crop around him or the virtue of Silva’s talent is what we will look at today.

Carlos Silva was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Philadelphia Phillies all the way back in 1996. The 17-year-old right-hander would spend most of his first three campaigns at Martinsville in the Appalachian Rookie League:

Year Team               IP    K/9  BB/9   K/BB   HR/9    H/9    RA
1996 Martinsville(Rk)  18.0   8.0   2.5    3.2    0.5   10.0   5.50
1997 Martinsville(Rk)  57.2   4.8   2.2    2.2    1.4   10.3   7.24
1998 Martinsville(Rk)  41.0   4.6   0.9    5.3    0.4   10.5   5.27
1998 Batavia(A-)       45.1   5.4   2.3    3.0    0.8   12.1   7.38

To say that Silva’s numbers from the low minors are ugly would be just a bit of an understatement. He posted two Run Averages in the sevens at two stops, with his best mark coming in at 5.27. He strikeout rates were below average in all but his initial stint at Martinsville, and his homer rates were already an issue at a level where no one is hitting home runs. His walk rates were impressive, but those hit rates more than made up for it.

This wasn’t all Silva’s fault though, as ground-ball pitchers in the low minors-as he was then-sometimes cannot escape those types of records, especially if they’re not striking anybody out, like Silva. There was a lot of work that needed to be done in order to turn Silva into a decent pitcher even in the low minors, and he would need to survive long enough to earn promotions so he could pitch in front of better defenses.

Silva would get his chance to play with higher-level teammates starting the next year, when he was promoted to full-season A-ball despite his troubles with the low minors. With better defenses behind him than those he’d had in short-season ball, Silva pitched much more effectively than before:

Year Team             IP    K/9  BB/9   K/BB   HR/9    H/9    RA
1999 Piedmont(A)    164.1   5.4   2.3    2.4    0.3    9.6   4.33
2000 Clearwater(A+) 176.1   4.2   1.3    3.2    0.4   11.7   5.06

The strikeout rates improved slightly, but the most important aspects were the homer rate and the lower hit rate. Silva still managed to give up 22 unearned runs, but his RA was much more manageable; the quality of defensive play behind him was still a problem, but not as many balls were finding holes, as seen by the improved rate of hits.

Silva delivered similar results at High-A Clearwater as well, with low strikeouts and walks combined with bunches of unearned runs and hits, though his hit rate jumped back into dangerous territory during the 2000 campaign. The considerable drop in walks helped even things out results-wise. The RA wasn’t impressive, but with a ground-ball pitcher giving up close to 30 unearned runs you have to assume some of it is the defense’s fault.

After coming this far heading into the 2001 season, Baseball America ranked Silva the 20th-best prospect in the Philadelphia organization:

Silva’s live arm rivals the system’s best. But since signing, he hasn’t developed the secondary pitches and polish to accompany his blazing fastball. For a guy who consistently blows his fastball in the mid-to upper 90s, Silva has been surprisingly hittable. He also has averaged a mere 4.9 strikeouts per nine innings. Last year, he led the Florida State League in innings pitched, losses, and complete games, and it may have been his last experience as a starter. The Phillies liked what they saw from him in shorter relief stints during instructional league and think he could have a future in that capacity. Silva’s changeup is showing signs of coming around. He has experimented with a curveball and slider that he’s struggled to throw consistently. A shift to the pen could prove to be the turning point in his career.

Despite the sessions during instructional league, Silva would spend all of his 2001 season as a starter for Double-A Reading:

Year Team           IP    K/9  BB/9   K/BB   HR/9    H/9    RA
2001 Reading(AA)  180.0   5.0   1.4    3.7    1.0    9.9   4.25

Even with the increase in homers (what pitcher doesn’t miss the Florida State League?), Silva kept his hit rate back down and improved his K/BB a bit, helping to keep his RA at an acceptable level. He also only allowed seven unearned runs on the season, most likely a credit to playing with a more polished upper-level defense behind him. In response, Baseball America moved Silva all the way to ninth slot in the Phillies’ organizational prospect rankings:

The story remains the same on Silva. He has had one of the organization’s best arms since signing at age 16, yet he has never dominated hitters. He has established himself as a workhorse and finished second in the Eastern League in 2001 with 180 innings. Silva throws a heavy 93-94 mph sinker from a three-quarters angle, and the pitch moves on a tough downward plane. He’ll touch 95-96 on occasion and offers a fringe-average changeup that helps him get tons of groundouts. He’s around the plate too much with his fastball. He lacks confidence in his secondary pitches and allowed opponents to settle in and hit him at a .284 clip with 20 home runs in 2001.There had been some discussion of moving Silva into the bullpen due to his lack of a consistent breaking pitch, but that was shelved after he made encouraging progress with his slider in instructional league.

Baseball Prospectus 2002 didn’t think Silva would move past Triple-A as a starter:

The knock on Silva has always been that he doesn’t get the strikeouts a pitcher with his fastball should get, largely because his off-speed stuff isn’t very good. He’s also somewhat homer-prone. Silva induces ground balls and has excellent control, so he keeps moving up the ladder. He’ll likely hit the wall in Triple-A, at which point he’ll end up in the relief role for which his stuff is best suited. If he keeps the ball down more consistently, he’ll be decent.

Silva started the season in Double-A again as a starter, but he would indeed work in a relief role for the Phillies once he was called up:

Year Team                 IP    K/9  BB/9   K/BB   HR/9    H/9    RA
2002 Philadelphia(MLB)   84.0   4.4   2.4    1.9    0.4    9.4   3.64

Silva was able to keep the ball in the park effectively, and his groundouts helped to balance out the lack of punchouts. As always, his walk rate was very good, though his K/BB took a hit with the well below-average strikeout rate. All in all though, this was a decent debut from Silva, who was still slated to start in the long run.

Baseball Prospectus 2003 didn’t think much of Silva yet, thanks to the lack of a strikeout pitch:

With Silva, Larry Bowa took a page from Earl Weaver’s methods-this being one of the few times you’ll ever see those two managers mentioned in the same sentence with any congruence. Silva was a hard-throwing starter in the Phillies’ minor league system that Bowa put in his bullpen as a long reliever for the year, with the thought of eventually returning him to the rotation. Silva’s control remained excellent, and he significantly cut down on his home runs allowed, two needed improvements if he hopes to survive with a low strikeout rate. Unless he develops a good strikeout pitch Silva’s likely to be a useful spare part for a few years but not much else.

The 2003 season did not go as well for Silva as his ’02 campaign:

Year Team                 IP    K/9  BB/9   K/BB   HR/9    H/9    RA
2003 Philadelphia(MLB)   87.1   5.0   3.8    2.2    1.0    9.5   4.43

The strikeout rate improved, but his walks jumped up considerably along with his home runs allowed; Silva was walking a very fine line between useful and awful, and 2003 saw the pendulum swing closer to the latter side of things. The Phillies sensed the trouble with trying to convert him to a starter while moving into Citizens Bank Park (a hitter’s haven in the making), and dealt Silva to the Twins along with Nick Punto and Bobby Korecky for Eric Milton. Minnesota realized how useful Silva could be as an innings-eater if he were able to balance that aforementioned line effectively, so he was shifted back to the rotation from the pen.

Silva’s four-year stint in Minnesota wound up looking all very similar, with a few slight differences that made or broke his value season by season:

Year Team              IP    K/9  BB/9   K/BB   HR/9    H/9    QERA
2004 Minnesota(MLB)  203.0   3.4   1.6    2.2    1.0   11.3    4.93
2005 Minnesota(MLB)  188.1   3.4   0.4    7.9    1.2   10.1    4.41
2006 Minnesota(MLB)  180.1   3.5   1.6    2.2    1.9   12.3    5.11
2007 Minnesota(MLB)  202.0   4.0   1.6    2.5    0.9   10.2    4.76

All of these seasons were characterized by low strikeout and even lower walk rates-his 2005 campaign gave us the lowest rates of BB/9 of the modern era-and high homer rates for a contact-oriented pitcher, and relatively stable QERA figures, as far as a range is concerned. What may be the most important thing to take from this is that Silva’s 2006 does not look like his other seasons, including his more recent 2007. The homer rate jumped up that time out, even by Silva’s standards, and his hit rate was also abnormally lofty.

What caused the one-year difference in performance? A look at his batted-ball data can tell us what we need to know:

Year P/PA    FB%    LD%    GB%   IF/F%  HR/F%  BABIP eBABIP   Diff.
2004  3.3   31.5%  17.9%  50.5%  11.6%   9.9%  .318   .299   -.019
2005  3.1   31.2%  19.6%  49.2%   5.9%  12.2%  .289   .316   +.027
2006  3.3   34.2%  22.2%  43.6%   6.8%  16.1%  .322   .342   +.020
2007  3.6   33.6%  18.8%  47.5%   6.7%   8.4%  .303   .308   +.005

Silva’s ground-ball rates are generally similar, with the exception of 2006, and the same can be said for his line-drive rate. With the extra liners falling in for hits-Silva had one of those stretches where he was much more hittable than usual, as the H/9, HR/9 and BABIP all show-and it hurt his numbers. You could say he should have been worse given that his BABIP was lower than expected, but he also pitched poorly with men on base, stranding just 67 percent of runners after a strand rate of nearly 75 percent the previous year. With his LOB percentage returning to a more normal 71 percent in 2007 along with the much lower 18.8 percent liner rate, Silva was able to return to form and crank out another 200 league-average innings for the Twins.

Looking at his batted-ball data and his QERAs, in the right environment it’s easy to envision Silva posting an ERA in the low- to mid-fours with 200 innings pitched for a team. If Silva were to head to a park that was either neutral or favored pitchers-preferably just somewhere where homers off of mid-range flies were not an issue-he could flourish in his role as a third or fourth starter type. A switch back to the National League might also be a solid plan for Silva, as his style of pitching may work better in the weaker of the two circuits.

Silva will get his payday considering the dearth of starting pitching talent on the free agent market this winter, but as long as he is able to avoid serving up too many hittable pitches, he should be able to continue his high-wire act for a few more seasons. Silva isn’t on the wrong side of 30 yet and he’s managed to stay effective so far, so there’s no reason to believe he can’t keep it up through at least a short-term contract. That should be the expectation of whichever team that signs him, because in the right circumstance, he could be a steal of sorts in this weak market.

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