Thursday, September 6, 2012

Jeremy and Luke.

It’s a cliché at this point, but whether the Royals have a shot at contending in 2013 ultimately comes down to whether they can put together a starting rotation that even approaches mediocrity. Even with an adequate rotation, they could be in for another losing season if their young lineup does a collective Hosmer, or if the bullpen decides to remind us that even the best collections of relievers are ephemeral. But if the rotation once again has an ERA above 5 and ranks 12th in the AL, discussion of the offense and the bullpen will be academic.

From the ashes of one of the most embarrassing trades the Royals have ever made, Dayton Moore may have found a solution for the rotation. A month ago Moore had traded the All-Star Game MVP and NL batting leader for Jonathan Sanchez. Today, he’s traded a disgraced PED user for Jeremy Guthrie. I’m not saying that Moore looks a lot smarter today, but Jeremy Irons is all set to play him in the movie.

Since joining the Royals, Guthrie has a 3.70 ERA in nine starts; after allowing 14 runs in his first three starts, he’s allowed just 12 in his last six. He had a stretch of 22 consecutive scoreless innings, punctuated by a start in which – upon review – he did not give up a hit until there were two out in the eighth inning. I believe that’s the deepest the Royals have taken a no-hitter since Bret Saberhagen threw their last one in 1991.

And six weeks after the Rockies were so desperate to get rid of him that they traded him for Jonathan Sanchez, Jeremy Guthrie is the ace of the Royals’ staff. He’s also a free agent at the end of the season, and the Royals have a difficult decision to make. Guthrie has said publicly that not only would he like to re-sign with the Royals, but that he’s willing to talk about a contract before the season is over. Dayton Moore said yesterday that the Royals will “probably” wait until the season ends before talking contract.

Some caution is warranted here, because it’s so hard to pin down Guthrie’s value. It’s not just that he didn’t look nearly this good six weeks ago. It’s that he didn’t look nearly this good six months ago, coming off a season in which he led the AL in losses, with a 4.33 ERA, and more hits (213) than innings pitched (208). Guthrie also allowed 26 homers, with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of barely 2-to-1 (130 to 61). I wrote about him last winter as a possible acquisition target for the Royals, but 1) I wrote about a lot of guys and 2) I wasn’t that high on him. I had him ranked 10th on my list of trade targets, behind guys like Mike Pelfrey and Charlie Morton.

One of the things that made me nervous about Guthrie is that, quite frankly, his peripheral numbers were never as good as his ERA – he was sort of the anti-Hochevar in that regard. In the five years that Guthrie pitched for the Orioles, his BABIP was never higher than .287, and was as low as .255. Your typical BABIP should be around .300; Guthrie was exceeding that year after year. That might be sustainable if you’re an extreme flyball pitcher (see Chen, Bruce), but Guthrie isn’t quite that extreme.

This year, with the Rockies, Guthrie’s BABIP was .323, which is pretty typical for that ballpark. Since joining the Royals, it’s back down to .281.  His career BABIP is .279. Maybe he really does have the ability to prevent hits on balls in play, but if he does, it seems sort of strange that Jeremy Guthrie is better in that regard than Roger Clemens (.286) or Greg Maddux (.286) or Randy Johnson (.295) or even Pedro Martinez (.282).

But if he doesn’t have the ability, he’s done a remarkably consistent job of faking it for six years now, his Colorado experience notwithstanding.

It’s not even his Colorado experience so much as his Coors Field experience. Even with the Rockies, with whom he had a 6.35 ERA, Guthrie pitched fine away from Denver. Here are his numbers this year:

Coors Field: 42 IP, 67 H, 14 HR, 9.50 ERA
On the Road as a Rockie: 49 IP, 55 H, 7 HR, 3.67 ERA
As a Royal: 56 IP, 53 H, 6 HR, 3.70 ERA

Guthrie made seven starts at Coors Field this year. He allowed at least four runs in all of them, at least five runs in six of them, and at least six runs in five of them. With Coors Field playing as it did in the pre-humidor days, Guthrie’s inability to get anyone out there can hardly be held against him.

So I wanted to take a closer look at Guthrie’s tenure with the Orioles. He wasn’t an elite starter with them; in 983 innings he had a 4.12 ERA, which was 6% better than league average during his time there. But there’s a giant caveat there: he pitched for the Orioles. In the AL East. On the one AL East team that wasn’t a scary juggernaut team for almost his entire time there, or in the case of the Blue Jays, a team that might have contended in any other division in baseball.

Guthrie averaged 31 starts and 197 innings a season, with an above-average ERA, against what I’m guessing was a higher caliber of competition than any other pitcher in the world faced in that timeframe. He threw 441 of his 983 innings (45%) against the Red Sox, Yankees, Blue Jays, and Rays. How much better would he have been had he pitched in a different environment? More to the point, how much better might he be if he stays with the Royals, facing the AL East titans barely one-third as often?

I tallied up Guthrie’s record from 2007 to 2011, and divided it between his performance against the AL East, and his performance against everyone else. The numbers:

AL East: 441 IP, 463 H, 140 BB, 286 K, 65 HR, 4.25 ERA
All others: 543 IP, 508 H, 141 BB, 316 K, 68 HR, 4.01 ERA

Honestly, the difference in ERA is a little less than I expected. The penalty Guthrie paid for pitching against AL East opponents was somewhere around 25 points of ERA – not huge, but not insubstantial either. Now, let’s take him out of Baltimore and put him in Kansas City. Assume for a moment that four of the five AL East teams continued to play at the same high quality that they did from 2007-2011 (a debatable assumption). The Royals average between 7 and 8 games a season against each AL East team, so they’d average 29-30 games, or roughly 18% of their season, against the same competition that Guthrie averaged 45% of his innings against.

So move 27% of Guthrie’s innings from the “AL East” row to the “All others” row, and you’d cut his ERA by…maybe 7 points. That’s hardly worth mentioning.

But there’s another factor to consider. Camden Yards is a modest hitters’ park, and is particularly favorable to home runs, which is problematic for Guthrie, a flyball pitcher. Let’s take a look at his home/road splits from 2007 to 2011:

Home: 494 IP, 516 H, 120 BB, 312 K, 71 HR, 4.25 ERA
Away: 490 IP, 455 H, 161 BB, 290 K, 62 HR, 3.99 ERA

The disadvantage that Guthrie had from pitching at home was roughly the same as the disadvantage he had pitching against AL East teams. But actually it’s worse than that, because typically pitchers are better at home – that’s why there’s a home-field advantage. Over the last three years, AL pitchers have had an ERA 36 points better at home than on the road.

So depending on how you look at it, Guthrie’s ERA was between 25 and 60 points higher at home than it would be for a typical pitcher. Some of that might simply be luck – he had a better strikeout-to-walk ratio at home than on the road, although he gave up more home runs as well. Let’s take the low end of that range, say 28 points, and cut it in half because he pitched half of his innings at home. That works out to about a 14-point drop in ERA if Guthrie had pitched for the Royals, assuming Kauffman Stadium had no effect on his performance. If anything, Kauffman would probably help Guthrie, but let’s be conservative here. (Guthrie has a 3.63 ERA at Kauffman in his career, although he had only pitched 22 innings at the K before this year.)

Add together both factors – the AL East phenomenon and the ballpark effect – and Guthrie’s 4.12 ERA with the Orioles would drop around 21 points – to about 3.91 – with the Royals. Then factor in that the AL ERA from 2007 to 2011 was 21 points higher (4.30) than it is this year (4.09), and you can chop another 21 points off his ERA, to 3.70.

His ERA since joining the Royals this year? 3.70. Funny how that works out.

This is a really long way of saying that Guthrie’s performance since joining the Royals is probably for real, and that three-month purgatory in Denver never happened, like that season of “Dallas” or the Neifi Perez trade. (Never. Happened.) There’s always the chance that Guthrie shows natural decline; he turns 34 right after Opening Day next year. But at least so far, there’s no degradation in his stuff. His fastball velocity ranged between 92.5 and 93.3 mph from 2007 to 2011; it’s averaged 92.8 mph this year, and 93.0 since joining the Royals.

So I’m on board with an extension, at least within reason. Given his age, it seems reasonable that the Royals shouldn’t be expected to commit longer than two years. I’ve been saying two years, $15 million on Twitter for a while now; Sam Mellinger has made his own suggestion of two years, $18 million with an option. That seems a little high to me; I don’t think Guthrie would have gotten 2/$18M if he had been a free agent last winter, and I don’t think you can argue that he’s increased his stock this season. Maybe his time in Colorado never happened, but it’s still on his stat sheet.

But somewhere in that range seems reasonable. The Royals can absolutely afford to pay it, and they can absolutely afford to pay Guthrie and still spend even more money to get a better, younger starting pitcher in free agency.

But if they’re looking for change in between the sofa cushions – or even if they’re not – I have an easy way for them to save money: let Luke Hochevar go. It’s time to cut bait.

Remember that fantastic stat last season, that Kyle Davies had the highest ERA in major league history for anyone with 120 starts? Well, Luke Hochevar now has 123 starts in his career, so here’s that list again:

1. Kyle Davies, 5.59
2. Casey Fossum, 5.45
3. Jimmy Haynes, 5.37
4. Kevin Ritz, 5.35
5. Luke Hochevar, 5.30
6. Scott Elarton, 5.29
7. Jose Lima, 5.26

(I couldn’t resist running the list seven deep. Four of those seven pitchers have toiled for the Royals within the last seven years.)

Here’s the thing – with the exception of Davies, all of those other guys pitched in the 1990s or early 2000s, when league ERAs were much higher. If we look at ERA+ - ERA adjusted for league context and ballpark – here’s a list of the worst pitches with 120 or more starts:

1. Phil Ortega, 75 ERA+, 141 GS
2. Wade Blasingame, 77 ERA+, 128 GS
3. Kyle Davies, 77 ERA+, 144 GS
4. Pete Broberg, 78 ERA+, 134 GS
5. Steve Arlin, 78 ERA+, 123 GS
6. Luke Hochevar, 80 ERA+, 123 GS
7. Elmer Myers, 80 ERA+, 127 GS

What’s important to take from this list is that while every pitcher on that list made it to 120 starts, NONE of them made to 150. There’s a natural limit to how long a pitcher can pitch this poorly and still con teams into giving him more opportunities. Hochevar is approaching the end of his rope.

I’ll give him credit – Hochevar sets up his marks with skill that Robert Redford and Paul Newman would appreciate. He outwardly manifests all the signs of a mid-rotation starter – acceptable strikeout rate, good command, groundball tendencies. That’s why the Royals keep sending him out there even with an ERA above 5. And he’ll put it together for weeks, even months at a time. Last year he had a 3.52 ERA in 12 starts after the All-Star Break – then started this season by allowing 28 runs in 28 innings in his first six starts.

But from May 12th through the end of August, Hochevar put together arguably his best extended stretch of pitching – in 20 starts, he allowed a 4.02 ERA in 125 innings. Sure, there were some stinkers in that stretch – in six of those 20 starts, he allowed at least five runs – but if you chose your selective endpoints carefully, you could actually depict him in a favorable light. His seasonal ERA was down to 4.93; with a really, really good September he might have even been able to set a new career-low in ERA, breaking last season’s mark of, um, 4.68.

And then on Saturday he went out and laid another turd, giving up 8 runs in 1.2 innings to the worst team in the AL, punctuated by a grand slam to Joe Mauer when Hochevar decided to throw a 1-2 pitch right down the middle.

That’s the 18th time since 2008 that Hochevar has allowed at least 7 runs in an outing. That leads the major leagues:

18: Luke Hochevar
17: A. J. Burnett
17: Paul Maholm
16: Livan Hernandez
16: Roberto Hernandez

(Hochevar, it should be pointed out, has made only 122 starts since 2008, an average of fewer than 25 starts per year. Burnett, by comparison, has made 157.)

His ERA on the season is now 5.34. He’d need to throw 22 consecutive scoreless innings to lower his ERA down to match last season’s mark of 4.68. That won’t happen, which means that Hochevar will now have made 15+ starts in five different seasons, and has never had an ERA lower than 4.68.


And I’m sorry, but I’m done with him. I don’t think there’s ever been a Royals player – maybe any player – as exasperating for me to analyze as Hochevar, because he should be better than this. The stat “xFIP” is one of the most accurate measurements of what a pitcher’s ERA should be, given his walks, strikeouts, and groundball/flyball tendencies. Since reaching the majors in 2008, here’s a comparison of Hochevar’s ERA and xFIP:

2008: 5.51 ERA, 4.64 xFIP
2009: 6.55 ERA, 4.28 xFIP (!)
2010: 4.81 ERA, 4.09 xFIP
2011: 4.68 ERA, 4.05 xFIP
2012: 5.34 ERA, 4.34 xFIP

Hochevar has a substantially better career xFIP (4.28) than Jeremy Guthrie (4.65) does. His xFIP is better than that of Jair Jurrjens (4.32) and Bronson Arroyo (4.44). It’s a tick worse than Gavin Floyd’s (4.18). That’s the pitcher he’s supposed to be – not an ace, but a solid #3 starter who gives you 190 innings a year. And if was just that pitcher, he’d be an enormous asset to a franchise that desperately needs exactly that.

But he’s not. He’s one of the worst starters in the majors this year (fourth-worst ERA of any qualifying starter), for the same reason that he’s been one of the worst starters in the majors for the last five years: he can’t pitch from the stretch.

I’ve written about this multiple times in the past, and nothing has changed. In 2012, here are Hochevar’s splits:

No one on base: .255/.330/.444
Men on base: .297/.356/.476
Runners in scoring position: .309/.366/.530

You know what else hasn’t changed? The Royals haven’t acknowledged that this is Hochevar’s fundamental problem. We’ve seen every explanation under the sun – tipping pitches, not mixing in his pitches, not pitching inside, using too many pitches – and yet not once have I seen the Royals so much as mention that Hochevar is MUCH MUCH more effective when there’s no one on base. (If they have mentioned it, please point it out to me, and I’ll be happy to apologize.)

Enough. Hochevar is making $3.51 million this year. If the Royals go to arbitration with him, he will almost certainly end up with a salary of around $5 million for 2013. Playing time matters, and Hochevar’s ability to take the mound every five days will insure him a healthy raise. That’s $5 million that could go to someone far more deserving. Take that money and add another $6 million – what the Royals are paying Joakim Soria this year – and you could get a real pitcher this winter, someone like Anibal Sanchez or, yes, Edwin Jackson.

Given that the Royals won’t even acknowledge the problem, I have no faith that they will acknowledge that there isn’t a solution, and let Hochevar go. (When I tweeted after his last start that “the Royals can’t bring Hochevar back. They just can’t,” a baseball insider responded to me with three words: “Want to bet?”) I expect that they’ll do what they did with Kyle Davies last season, when they gave Davies the highest salary of his career because they thought that he was this close to turning the corner.

Because, you know, that worked so well the last time around.