Saturday, February 6, 2010

Pitching, uncertainty, and the NL West

Starting pitching will be interesting in the division this season. The Giants, as we know, have a stellar group, and expectations for their continued excellence are very high. Last year's champs, the Dodgers, have two young bucks that most teams should be coveting. Southpaw Clayton Kershaw and righty Chad Billingsley form an impressive 1-2 punch. Kershaw turns 22 in May and has fewer than 300 ML innings under his belt. His 185 K in 171 IP and his miniscule 3.08 FIP turned a lot of heads and his season rated 4.2 WAR. The Dodgers will be expecting a lot from their young phenom, but he'll have to show he can go a full season without shoulder trouble, and he'll have to cut down on walks (91). He's shown the ability to get people out (only 119 hits allowed) and has tremendous upside. Bill James and CHONE, however, say his FIP will go up almost half a run. That ought to have the fans seething, after all, we project our youngsters to keep improving, right? The righty half of this promising duo saw his ERA+ plunge last year to 98 from his excellent 133 in 2008. He also walks too many guys (86 in 196-1/3 IP), but his all-around Cain-like numbers (173 H, 17 HR, 179 K) make the 25-year old a valuable (3.1 WAR) asset. Bill James and CHONE see him improving slightly on his 3.82 FIP. Free agent Randy Wolf was not resigned, and the Dodgers will have to replace his team-leading 214 IP and his fine 122 ERA+. Expecting something similar from 31-year old journeyman Vicente Padilla is probably a reach (career 100 ERA+). Hiroshima Carp veteran Hiroki Kuroda gave them 20 serviceable starts (105 ERA+) and is probably good for two dozen or so this season as well. This team hits very well and has tremendous talent in the 'pen, so perhaps they are willing to live with some uncertainty at the back end of the rotation.

Speaking of uncertainty, the Diamondbacks have a big question mark with former ace Brandon Webb. The 2006 Cy Young winner and 2007-2008 runner-up pitched only four innings in 2009 after throwing over 1300 in his first six seasons. If he can give Arizona anything close to his previous greatness they would possess two sensational arms. Under-appreciated Dan Haren is the best pitcher in the West not named Tim Lincecum. He had an amazing 1.003 WHIP last season, and career-highs in IP (229-1/3), ERA+ (146), and strikeouts (223), while being worth an outstanding 6.1 WAR. This guy not only has an impressive array of pitches but ridiculous control (78 walks total in his last two seasons, 435-1/3 IP!). His only weakness seems to be homers. This team generated some controversy with a bizarre 3-way trade that saw them lose young, high-upside, JSanchez-like K-machine Max Scherzer, but gain solid mid-level starter (and former Dodger) Edwin Jackson, and young control-artist (and Yankee prospect) Ian Kennedy. Those two will round out the rotation. GM Josh Byrnes talks about the deal--among other things--on the SB Nation blog AZ Snakepit. Can you imagine our haughty and inaccessible GM being this refreshing and candid with anyone, particularly a bloody-fookin' blogger? Kudos to 'pit-meister Jim McLennan for pulling it off.

The Rockies have never been known for pitching, but Dan O'Dowd and The Humidor are building a new type of Colorado team. Their 2007 World Series squad had a 111 ERA+ and their 2009 Wild Card team had a 108 ERA+. Obviously they are biased toward the run-scoring part of the equation, but improved pitching has clearly turned the club around from their long stretch (2001-2006) of sub-.500 baseball. 26-year old Ubaldo Jimenez emerged as the team ace, throwing a fastball that tops out at 100 mph, and a filthy slider and splitter that induce lots K's and ground balls. Bill James and CHONE say his impressive 3.38 FIP will rise by more than half a run in 2010. (What regression-istas they are!) He walks a lot of guys (103 in '08 and 85 in '09), but that's nothing new to fans of teams with young flamethrowers. Keep an eye on Jimenez--remember he beat Tim head-to-head last August. Reliable-but-not-flashy 31-year old Aaron Cook has been with the Rockies for 8 seasons, and has a career 111 ERA+ and 4.36 FIP, and projects about that for next season. DL-time hurt his WAR--his 1.9 was quite a drop from 2008's 4.7, and it is reasonable to think that a healthy Cook is at least a 2.5-3.0 guy. 27-year old Jason Hammel came over from Tampa Bay last season and became a starter, producing 3.8 WAR in 30 starts. He throws strikes and has a good repertoire, but the word is he lacks a true out pitch. Time will tell, and he projects about a 4.20 FIP. Journeyman lefty Jorge de la Rosa struck out 192 in 185 IP last season, with career highs in wins (16), ERA+ (104) and WAR (3.7) for either a "breakout" or an "outlier" season, depending on whether you are Rockies fan, I suppose. Ground-ball specialist Jason Marquis took the free-agent route and signed a fat deal with Washington. That's a lot of starts (33) and innings (216) to make up, adding some uncertainty to the otherwise-solid 2010 rotation, one of 2009's quiet success stories (5th in the NL in team FIP, just behind the Giants).

Down in San Diego they have little to get excited about and will likely be content with a spoiler's role down the stretch. They did play .527 ball in the second half of last season (39-35, same as the Giants), so all is not entirely bleak. Talented-but-mercurial Chris Young heads the depth chart, and the huge righty is just as huge a question mark for 2010. He's known for being a flyball pitcher (good for PetCo) and teams don't have a high average against him, but he's historically bad at holding runners, and given his injury history, doesn't project well. Veteran Jon Garland should give them 30+ starts and 200+ IP, he's a career 104 ERA+ and 4.72 FIP pitcher. Ex-Giant Kevin Correia was worth 2.4 WAR in his 33 starts--only a 94 ERA+ but a solid 3.81 FIP. I thought we should have kept Correia as a 5th starter, but I doubt the 29-year old has much upside. Young Mat Latos and lefty Clayton Richard round out the starting staff.

That's my look at the rest of the ro's in our division. We look good by comparison, eh? I'm not going to talk about 'pens or benches I'm sorry to say, as all this internet-research time is wearing out po' little ol' me. But I will be putting together my take on the West race as a whole sometime soon, certainly before Spring Training. By Opening Day the rosters will shake out and I'll have to update things. In the meantime, you might be curious about Baseball Propectus' PECOTA projections, they ought to fire up some debate.


Anonymous said...

I'm confused. The Giants are projected to have 1 more run scored than the Dodgers despite having some of the worst offense in recent memory? They finish one game below the Dodgers too? The Diamondbacks in first place despite uncertainty in their ace? The Padres dead last??? What a season. Oh, and I'll stop saying NJ.

M.C. O'Connor said...

That's the thing about projection systems--they are just logical consequences of the assumtions that go in to them. As fans, we like to tweak them with our own "fudge factors" (like Tim Lincecum is going to pitch EVEN BETTER this season). I'm going to put together my own version soon, and ask everyone to chip in their predictions/projections/guesses/wishes/fantasies.

Meanwhile check out BCB for Chris' take on things.

JC Parsons said...

That's about the third little "dig", so I'll respond. Saying that Tim will get better DOES NOT express a personal "fudge factor" it is a logical extension of his performance to date. It would be a "bias" to asssume that Tim will "average out" or "regress" one but Tim knows his "average."

M.C. O'Connor said...

Tim's a freak. I'm willing to believe anything as far as he's concerned. But even Albert Pujols had his OPS drop below 1.000 a couple of times. It happens. Whether it happens to Tim in 2010 or not, I can't say, but it is posssible, just like it is possible it won't.

That was not a dig. I accept the legitimate possibility that we have not seen the best of Tim. But I don't COUNT on guys doing historically amazing and unprecendented things. That's not how you build winning club. You have to have a more conservative approach--you have to assume normal variation. You have to have a deep stock of talent to weather the storms of randomness and uncertainty. A pitching staff is an aggregate of many individuals and many, many individual performances. We had great TEAM pitching last year, not just great Tim. I have a hard time believing that ALL the guys we got great performances from will ALL give us great performances AGAIN. It's not part of my baseball experience, I don't recall any Giants team ever being excellent at something in consecutive years, unless you count Barry Bonds as the whole team.

M.C. O'Connor said...

There's an article on THT by Joshua Fisher called "Even the Duds Have Studs" about bad teams having great ballplayers on them. He mentions the 2004 51-111 D-Backs who had Randy Johnson.

This is what Johnson did that year:
245-2/3 IP, 290 K, 2.30 FIP in 35 starts, only 44 walks. He was 16-14 despite being worth 9.9 WAR. Can you imagine having a guy THAT GOOD on a team THAT BAD?

Baseball is a funny game and it fucks with your head. Pitchers and catchers report in 5 days!