And now, the starting pitchers…
- At the All-Star Break, Zack Greinke has pitched almost exactly as much as he pitched all of last season – he’s thrown 124 innings and faced 515 batters this year, compared to 122 and 507 last year. And the rest of his numbers are nearly identical as well:
- 36 walks last year, 36 walks this year;
- 106 Ks last year, 104 Ks this year;
- 52 runs allowed (50 earned) last year; 49 runs allowed (48 earned) this year;
- He was 7-7 last year; he’s 7-5 this year.
His ERA is a little better this year (3.48 to 3.69), but the league average is also better, and Zack’s ERA+ is a little worse this year (123 to 127).
The biggest difference is that Greinke allowed 12 homers last season, but 17 this year. On the other hand, he’s allowed just 22 doubles this year compared to 35 last year. His splits against him in 2008 are .252/.304/.422; last year they were .265/.319/.427. His OPS+ against was 96 last year, 95 this year. Any way you slice it, his performance has been identical.
Except for one massive difference: last year, Zack made 14 starts and 38 relief appearances, throwing 44% of his innings in relief. This year, he has been in the rotation all year. Use the same pitcher as a starter and then as a reliever, and there’s no comparison: almost every pitcher will be much more effective in relief. As a starter last season, Greinke let opposing hitters bat .292/.346/.494, but as a reliever they hit just .226/.282/.332.
So while on the surface it appears that Greinke hasn’t had a breakthrough season, he has. Four years ago I called him the future of pitching – the future has finally arrived. He ranks 7th in the league in VORP among pitchers. He’s the new Curt Schilling or Ben Sheets, a guy who can give you 220 innings a year with a terrific strikeout-to-walk ratio tempered only slightly by his propensity to give up homers. Unlike Schilling or Sheets, though, Greinke has a pristine health record (well, physical health record), and the time off two years ago probably helped his arm. His mechanics are considered to be excellent. Much like Posnanski recently wrote about DeJesus, we no longer have to dream about the promise of Zack Greinke’s future. The reality of his present is pretty damned good.
And oh, yeah: he’s still just 24 years old. I don’t care what else Dayton Moore does this season – if he doesn’t have Greinke signed to a long-term deal by Christmas, then his efforts as GM this season will earn a failing grade.
- I think the general perception of Brian Bannister is that he’s been a disappointment this season, with his 5.24 ERA, and a 6.34 ERA since April 30th. I can’t say I’m disappointed, because I expected this – and I don’t mean that in a bad way. I wrote in this year’s Baseball Prospectus that Bannister was going to struggle in the short term as he made adjustments. The thing is, he knew he would have to make some adjustments, and made some of them before the season began – which led to his great April. He has struggled since, but there’s still a light at the end of the tunnel.
Bannister’s struggling this year because he’s giving up more homers (1.17 per 9 innings vs. 0.82 last year), and because he’s giving up more hits on balls in play (.293 BABIP this year, .262 last year). But here’s the thing: we knew – and Bannister knew – that his BABIP last year was probably not sustainable. And given that he’s a flyball pitcher who pitches to contact, his home run rate last season was probably unsustainable as well. Meanwhile, his walk rate is up, but just marginally (2.62 vs. 2.40 BB/9 innings), but his strikeout rate is up significantly (5.40 vs. 4.20 K/9 innings.)
Bannister was so successful last year in part because of an ability to keep hits and homers off the board that wasn’t really an ability at all. His performance hasn’t declined this year – it’s simply regressed. Meanwhile, the most important skill for a flyball pitcher is the ability to strike hitters out – and that’s a trait that Bannister has been overtly working on this season, to good effect. There was simply no way a pitcher with Bannister’s profile could survive as a major league starter with a strikeout rate of 4.2 per nine. With a strikeout rate of 5.4 per nine? Now he has some wiggle room.
Back in the spring, when I wrote about Bannister as part of my spring training countdown, I finished my writeup with this exhortation to him: “Brian, if you’re reading this, just remember that the numbers aren’t saying you can’t remain effective. What they’re saying is that you can’t remain effective the same way. So while your efforts to keep your BABIP at a low level are laudable, focusing your efforts on getting more strikeouts is going to yield a lot more bang for your buck.”
I don’t know if Banny reads this blog, though of course if there’s one player who does, it’s him. But it really doesn’t matter, because Bannister is the one player in all of baseball who was most likely to reach this conclusion on his own. He’s actively trying to miss bats, and he’s going through the inevitable transition period as he learns how to do that without upsetting the other parts of his game.
I don’t know if he’s going to be successful. But I do know that he couldn’t continue to be successful with his old approach. It’s going to be very, very interesting to see how he performs in the second half.
- I can’t get a handle on Luke Hochevar. One start, he’s a strike-throwing, groundball machine; the next start, he’s the second coming of Scott Elarton. In 108 career innings, he’s allowed just 10 homers and 26 doubles – his career slugging average against is an impressive .409 – but his strikeout-to-walk ratio is a decidedly unimpressive 60-to-44.
I believe in him for two reasons. The first is that sinker. His G/F ratio is 1.86, which ranks 11th among the 121 pitchers in the majors with 80+ innings this year. As Nate Silver discovered a few years ago when he was tweaking his PECOTA formula, a pitcher’s tendency to be a groundball or flyball pitcher is an innate tendency that almost never changes over time. Saying that Hochevar is a groundball pitcher is almost like saying he’s right-handed; it’s not what he does, it’s who he is. By contrast, a pitcher’s walk and strikeout rates are much more mutable. Hochevar may not increase his strikeout rate dramatically, but he doesn’t really have to. His strikeout rate isn’t fantastic, but Chien-Mien Wang has thrived with a strikeout rate that’s even lower. (Hochevar’s sinker doesn’t compare to Wang’s, mind you.) If Luke can cut his walks by a third and keep the ball down, he’ll be a #3 starter at least.
I’ve never seen a study look at the issue of whether groundball pitchers have a tendency to peak later in their careers, but my guess would be yes. Kevin Brown had a breakout season when he was 31; Derek Lowe broke out as a closer at age 27, and as a starter at age 29. Wang was still in the minors when he was Hochevar’s age. Even Brandon Webb, who was an instant sensation, was 24 as a rookie – and just a year earlier had been a hittable and lightly-regarded prospect.
So there’s reason to believe Hochevar still has some upside, which he’s more likely to reach because of my second reason for optimism: his intellect. I haven’t dealt with him directly, but colleagues of mine who have were deeply impressed with his intelligence and self-awareness. I’ve said this many times before, but to reiterate: intelligence is vital for a starting pitcher. Good pitching requires a plan. Smart pitchers are more likely to be able to formulate that plan, execute it, adjust it on the fly, take feedback from it, and tweak that plan for the next start. As much attention as Bannister has received for trying to alter his approach as the season has progressed, Hochevar has been doing the same thing, both this year and last. It will be a long time before we know whether his plan is working, but I’ll always bet on the guy who’s trying to improve over the guy who’s coasting on his talent.
And remember: the guy everyone thought the Royals should have taken with the #1 overall pick, Andrew Miller, has a 5.66 career ERA. More surprisingly, given that Miller was considered an extreme groundball pitcher in college, his career G/F ratio is lower (1.62) than Luke’s (1.89). Yeah, yeah, in hindsight they should have taken Lincecum. But in foresight, they might have made the right call.
- Gil Meche, like the three pitchers above, is supposed to be a pretty smart guy. (And yes, Greinke is smart. He may come across as a flake, but I’m convinced that’s partly an act – and on the mound he’s a veritable pitching savant.)
But we’re beginning to see glimpses of the reason why most Mariner fans threw their hands up in despair for much of Meche’s tenure in
As with Bannister, let’s break down his peripherals to see where the problem lies. Compared to last year, Meche’s strikeout rate has held (6.50 last year, 6.58 this year). His walk rate is up a little (2.58 to 3.14), his homers are up a smidge (0.92 to 1.05), and his BABIP is up almost imperceptibly (.298 to .302). Last year opponents hit .263/.314/.397 against Meche; this year they’re at .269/.326/.429. In all honesty, he’s not pitching that much worse than last season, certain not enough to explain a jump in his ERA of over a point.
The biggest difference between The Epic of 2007 and 2008 is that last year, Meche turned it up a notch with runners in scoring position, allowing a line of just .233/.298/.355. This year, he’s been hit hard in those situations, with a line of .286/.353/.490. That’s the difference between a guy who strands 65% of the baserunners he puts on (and makes the All-Star team) and a guy who strands 55% of his baserunners (and has a below-average ERA).
The difference in Meche hasn’t been his skill level, just his timing. From start to start you don’t know if you’re going to get the guy who strikes out 10 batters in a start (as he did June 15th) or the guy who strikes out no one (July 2nd). But for the season as a whole Meche hasn’t been all that much worse than last year. The problem is that a lot of us thought last year might have been a springboard to bigger and better things, possibly heralding a breakout to #1 starter status a la Jason Schmidt or Chris Carpenter at the same age.
That hasn’t happened, and that’s unlikely to change. But Meche has been exceedingly durable (he tied for the league lead in starts last year, and is tied again this year), and if nothing else, a pitcher who gives you 34 starts with even a league-average ERA is a heck of a commodity. Even at $11 million a year, Meche has positive trade value if it ever came down to that.
- I have precious little to say about Kyle Davies. He’s also just 24 – him, Hochevar, and Greinke were all born in a six-week span in 1983 – and he has the best ERA of his career so far, but 1) a 4.59 ERA is nothing to write home about, and 2) his ERA is a fluke. It seems like all the injuries along the way have robbed Davies of his fastball – he’s averaging barely a strikeout every other inning, and even in
- I haven’t had time to cover the minors in any detail this year, but suffice it to say that the Royals have as many quality starting pitching prospects as they’ve had in a long, long time. The overall depth of starting pitching in the organization, including the major league level, is probably the best it’s been since the Royals traded away Bret Saberhagen after the 1991 season. This was Dayton Moore’s stated priority when he was hired, and so far he’s come through in spades. Rosa has excellent stuff and the numbers finally reflect that this year; Dan Cortes is still the best pitching prospect in the system and he’s just 21; Blake Wood has a big-league future, if not in the rotation then certainly in the pen; and in the low minors Dan Duffy is proving last season was no fluke. That’s to say nothing of Julio Pimental (who pitched in the Futures Game) or Edward Cegarra, who’s starting for
Dayton Moore has tried to make a splash the last two winters by signing premium free agents to eight-figure contracts. This winter, I predict he’s going to make a splash by taking advantage of all this pitching depth to trade some of it for a middle-of-the-order hitter.
- Another housekeeping note: due to overwhelming demand, I’ve decided to move the ballpark meet-up at U.S. Cellular Park from Saturday to SUNDAY, July 20th. You don’t necessarily have to email me to confirm – just show up at the park as follows.
The game is at , and the plan is this: we’ll meet outside of Gate 3 at SHARP. At 12:30 SHARP, we’ll head to the ticket office and purchase the best tickets available for a group of our size. Looking at the White Sox’ attendance this year, the only Sunday game that sold out was against the Cubs, so I think we’re safe there. Worst case, we’ll find some scalpers and split up into groups. If you’re coming to the game but already have tickets, drop by and say hi.
I’ll be the tall pasty guy with the Royals cap and the white Zack Greinke jersey. If there’s any change in plans – inclement weather, the Sox graciously provide us with a luxury box, whatever – I’ll post it here, so check here before the game just to be safe.