Tuesday, November 29, 2011

For Want Of A Pitcher: Bruce Chen.

Last week I took my first real vacation in a long while, unplugging from the grid on a 7-day cruise with my family aboard Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, which along with its sister ship the Allure of the Seas is, I believe, the largest cruise ship in the world. So it says something about me that the most memorable part of the cruise for me was noticing Mitch Maier walking through one of the restaurants during breakfast one morning. Despite undoubtedly being mortified at seeing the only person on the boat wearing a Royals cap coming straight at him, he was very gracious when I said hello.

The world didn’t stop while I was on the boat, and the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that was finalized while I was gone contains some major implications for the Royals. I’ll discuss those when I get the chance, but meanwhile Dayton Moore couldn’t sit still, maintaining his reputation as a GM who, once the off-season starts, shoots first and asks questions later.

First, he re-signed Bruce Chen to a two-year, $9 million contract (with incentives of about $1 million a year.) If bad news is buried on a Friday evening, you have to wonder why the Royals slipped this signing in on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving.

The return of Chen is hardly bad news. He has been the Royals’ best starter over the past two seasons combined, whether you use the oldest of stats (Chen leads the team with 24 wins over the past two years; only Luke Hochevar has more than ten) or the newest (Chen had 4.6 bWins Above Replacement in 2010-11; Zack Greinke is second among starters at 2.3 bWAR.) Neither the time nor dollars committed in this deal are overwhelming. It’s been reported that Chen turned out slightly higher offers from other teams, and I don’t doubt that.

But I’m not convinced that this is particularly good news either. Chen had a 3.96 ERA over the past two years, and a starting pitcher who can give you a 3.96 ERA is worth a hell of a lot more than $4.5 million a year. But there’s little about Chen’s underlying performance to suggest he can maintain an ERA under four.

Over the last two seasons, Chen has walked 3.08 batters per 9 (as always, intentional walks have been stripped out) and struck out 5.94 per 9. His career marks in those categories are 3.21 and 6.82. Granted that Chen benefitted from facing pitchers during his time in the NL, Chen’s success the last two seasons has not been accompanied by any improvement in his command or ability to miss bats. The only thing he’s been able to do is limit the long ball – he’s allowed 1.07 homers per 9 innings, down from a career mark of 1.55 per 9.

That’s a huge difference. Any pitcher who is able to cut his home run rate by a third is going to have a lot more success. But the most durable way to limit your home runs is to limit the flyballs you give up, and Chen hasn’t done that – if anything, he’s been slightly more of a flyball pitcher these last two years than he was before. Somehow, just 8.1% of the flyballs he allowed the last two seasons wound up over the fence. In each of his previous seven seasons, at least 11.1% of the flyballs he allowed were home runs. Pitchers have little ability to influence their HR/FB ratio, so this suggests that Chen hasn’t been a better pitcher the last two years; he’s just been luckier.

It’s not quite that simple. Kauffman Stadium, while a neutral park overall, is one of the toughest parks in baseball to hit homers in (it’s a very good park for batting average and triples). Over the last two seasons Chen allowed just 15 homers in 148 innings at home, but 20 homers in 147 innings on the road. There’s no question that Kauffman is a good fit for him. Except that his ERA at home has actually been higher the last two years (4.28) than on the road (3.73).

Also, while Chen’s home run rate has been uncharacteristically low the last two years, that’s the only part of his game that seems to have been infused with luck. Notably, he has not been particularly lucky on balls in play. This may surprise you to know, given that his batting averages on balls in play the last two years were .279 and .280, much better than the MLB average of around .300. However, Chen’s career mark is .282. Extreme flyball pitchers like Chen tend to have lower BABIP’s than average – flyballs (at least the ones that don’t clear the fence) are less likely to fall in for hits than groundballs. If Chen can continue to keep the ball in play, he can continue to be successful.

However, there’s the durability factor to consider. Chen made only 25 starts and threw only 155 innings last year. In 2010 he only threw 140 innings in the majors, although he did throw 21 innings in the minors and spent a few weeks in the bullpen before he earned a spot in the rotation. But you can’t ignore that in 13 seasons in the major leagues, Chen has never thrown 200 innings in a season, and last season was actually the second-most innings he’s ever thrown in the majors.

And then there’s the fact that he turns 35 in June. And that his fastball averages about 86 mph.

I’m not saying that Chen is a tech bubble ready to pop. But we have to temper our expectations here. The Royals didn’t sign a slightly above-average starting pitcher; they signed a slightly below-average one. That still has value, and so does Chen’s affability and popularity, both in the clubhouse and with the fan base. Re-signing Chen is a darn sight better than trading for Jair Jurrjens. But the Royals need to improve their rotation, and bringing back the one starter most likely to regress from his 2010 performance isn’t improvement. At best, the Royals spent $9 million to stand still.

The Royals didn’t just commit money to Chen; they also committed a roster slot, and if they’re going to genuinely upgrade their rotation, they’re running out of places to do so. Chen will be in the rotation, along with Hochevar, Jonathan Sanchez, Felipe Paulino, and Danny Duffy. As it stands, the Royals’ rotation is complete; if the Royals do manage to acquire a truly above-average starter, one of those guys is going to lose their job. If it means that Danny Duffy goes back to Triple-A to work on some things, delay his arbitration eligibility by a year (he’d need about a month in Omaha to do the trick), and waits in the wings for the inevitable injury that opens up a rotation spot, perfect. Unfortunately, I worry that even if the Royals do something bold like sign Roy Oswalt, it will lead to Felipe Paulino somehow getting the shaft. You guys know what I think of Paulino. You guys also know that I seem to be in the minority here.

I still think that there’s room for the Royals to sign another starter, because no matter how good their training staff is, it’s almost impossible to get through a season with only five starters. In the last 16 seasons, just four teams – the 2003 Mariners, the 2005 Cardinals and Indians, and the 2006 White Sox – had five starters each make at least 30 starts. The tentative 2012 Royals rotation above is acceptable if all five guys stay healthy; they almost certainly won’t. But add an Oswalt or an Edwin Jackson, and then Danny Duffy is your #6 starter, and Luis Mendoza is your #7, and by mid-season Mike Montgomery or Jake Odorizzi ought to be ready, and suddenly the specter of losing your #3 starter to an oblique pull for two months isn’t so scary.

This season, the Royals gave 14 starts to Sean O’Sullivan and Vinny Mazzaro. Handing those 14 starts to pitchers who actually deserve the responsibility might be worth an extra three or four wins right there.

This ignores the fact that the Royals might already have that extra starting pitcher on hand in the form of Aaron Crow. They certainly seem to think so; how else to explain the Jonathan Broxton signing? But more on that next time.