At the top
Brian Matusz is probably going to enter the best young pitcher conversation sooner than later. Although he will celebrate his 24th birthday in a matter of days (the 11th), he already has 40 starts and more than 220 innings pitched under his belt. There is a reason why the Orioles took the San Diego State ace fourth overall in the 2008 draft, just ahead of Buster Posey and before the other big college arm in the draft (Aaron Crow) and that’s because Matusz could become a frontline starter for the next half-decade.
He owns the big frame you desire from a starter (6’4” if you believe the Orioles’ official site, but 6’5” on ESPN) and has room to fill in, since his official weight is below 200 pounds. Matusz’ fastball sits around 90 (he can get up near the mid-90s if needed) and shows the willingness to pitch inside against right-handed batters. He throws an assortment of pitches, including a changeup (which sits about eight paces back from his heater) and an effective curveball, which he can seemingly throw for strikes or bury in the dirt. He complements the bender with a mid-80s slider.
A 4.30 ERA may not seem impressive, but consider Matusz threw at a league average rate as a rookie in the American League East while being two years removed from a classroom. Matusz’ SIERA (4.20) suggests the ERA is truthful about his performance, while, as Marc Normandin wrote, he really turned it on down the stretch. Whether that’s random fluctuation or a sign of improvement is anyone’s guess. Regardless, it is difficult to forget how Matsuz’ pitched the last time he saw the Rays in late September – seven innings, three hits, no runs, eight strikeouts, and two walks. If not for David Price, Matusz could be the best southpaw under the age of 25 in the division.
In the middle
Jeremy Guthrie and Justin Duchscherer act as the veteran presence following Kevin Millwood’s departure. It sure feels like Guthrie, a former attendee of Stanford University, has been around forever, but this will only mark his fifth season in Baltimore. He’s become a durable option for the O’s, topping 25 starts in each of his seasons (including three straight 30-plus start seasons) while racking up more than 190 innings in each of the last three (including more than 200 in the past two). Guthrie is a bit of an undercover hard thrower (as he is only 6’1”, but sits in the low-to-mid 90s) and he has been able to outperform his SIERA in two of the past three seasons. A theory, however incorrect, on the differential is Guthrie’s change in peripherals once runners reach base. His strikeout and home run rates dip while his walk total rise.
Meanwhile, I covered Duchscherer here. He’s a lottery ticket, but one that comes with some red flags, including a crimson-drenched injury history. Moving away from Oakland and into Baltimore is going to mess with his batting average on balls in play and his home run rate. A few people (myself included) used to label Duchscherer as the best case scenario for Andy Sonnanstine’s career path, which should tell you about all you need to know regarding his stuff.
Filling it out
The Orioles actually have a nice amount of young pitching climbing the organizational rungs, like Chris Tillman, Zach Britton, Matt Hobgood, and Brandon Erbe. Those names are important to keep in mind because one of them will likely replace Brad Bergesen in the rotation with time, as his career upside is becoming Nick Blackburn. Tillman is the only one of the quartet with big league experience (23 starts worth) and that experience is unpleasant (an ERA over 5.6 and poor SIERA to match). Meanwhile, Jake Arrieta will likely claim the fifth spot in the rotation. He’s a well-built righty (think Wade Davis) who rides a low-to-mid 90s fastball hard and heavy. Arrieta’s secondary stuff needs improvement (left-handers in particular teed off to the tune of .315/.394/.505), but the Orioles are probably pleased with the numbers turned in over his last eight starts versus those of his first 10 (3.78 ERA and 1.80 K/BB versus 5.47 ERA and 0.76 K/BB).
At the top
By now, Jon Lester’s heroic recovery from cancer is a footnote on his career, which speaks highly to his performances on the mound. Lester is just a phenomenal pitcher generally overshadowed by the higher price veteran arms and hotshot youth. Clay Buchholz received the Cy Young buzz last season because of his record and ERA (17-7, 2.33), but while Buchholz has 62 career starts at age 26, Lester had 91 with a better ERA (3.66 to 3.68) and peripherals (2.39 K/BB to 1.83).
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Lester is his durability. He’s made 32 or 33 starts while facing at least 840 batters and compiling at least 200 innings in each of the last three seasons. Of course, the other stuff about Lester is neat too. He’s a 6’4” southpaw with a fastball around the low-to-mid 90s who gets groundballs by the dozen and seemingly limits home runs.
The other remarkable thing about Lester is how well his 2010 season stacks up despite an impossibly horrible start. He allowed nearly an earned run per inning pitched over his first three appearances (15 in 16) while facing what became three-fourths of the American League playoff bracket. He would then take 10 starts to give up another 15 – and six of those came in one start. He would then give up 20 earned runs over his next 11 starts before another clunker (he gave up nine runs to the Blue Jays) before allowing eight earned over six more starts. His final start of the season was another effort worthy of the dumpster (eight earned versus the White Sox), but that is five starts where he gave up more than four runs.
Whenever you pitch for a team with a lineup as potent as Boston that plays in an offense-enabling ballpark like Fenway, allowing four runs or fewer 27 times is going to result in a fair share of wins. Naturally, Lester wound up with 19, a little more than double his loss total.
In the middle
Josh Beckett used to carry the reputation of an injury-prone youngster. After overcoming the tag for a few seasons, he seems to be back on the path, only now he does it with a body on the wrong side of 30. It’s difficult to describe his 2010 season as anything but a disaster. He made 21 starts and allowed nine fewer earned runs than he did in 32 starts the previous year, while allowing more home runs than he did in 2007 – when he tallied nearly 80 more innings. In some ways, it played out like his first season with Boston, except with injuries and without the shiny 16-11 record.
John Lackey, meanwhile, christened his Red Sox’s career with a forgettable first half before taking advantage of a weak second half schedule. Lackey pitched a lot like he always has, except against tougher opponents and parks more often. In a season where seemingly everyone spent time on the sidelines, give Lackey credit for making 33 starts.
Beckett’s issues (with injuries and aging) and Lackey’s issues (mostly being Lackey) leave the door open for Buchholz to become the Red Sox’s best right-handed starter – if he isn’t already. While his ERA certainly looked the part last season, he’s probably not quite as good as it suggests. A keen ability to generate double plays certainly proved beneficial – particularly in light of a sub-2 K/BB ratio –, but Buchholz isn’t all smoke and mirrors as there is plenty to like from a scouting perspective.
Filling it out
There are moments every season when Daisuke Matsuzaka puts together a masterful performance and appears on his way to fulfilling some of the hype machine, but five days later he erases the good feelings with more of the same ol’ same ol’. This trend continued in 2010:
May 11 v. TOR: 7 IP, 1 ER, 9 SO, 0 BB (Next start: 4.2 IP, 7 ER, 3 SO, 3 BB)
May 22 v. PHI: 8 IP, 0 ER, 5 SO, 4 BB (Next start: 4.2 IP, 3 ER, 1 SO, 8(!) BB)
June 7 v. CLE: 8 IP, 0 ER, 5 SO, 2 BB (Next start: 5 IP, 2 ER, 6 SO, 4 BB)
August 5 v. CLE: 8 IP, 1 ER, 6 SO, 2 BB (Next start: 5.2 IP, 4 ER, 7 SO, 3 BB)
September 26 v. NYY: 8 IP, 2 ER, 7 SO, 1 BB (Next start: 5 IP,2 ER, 6 SO, 5 BB)
To make matters worse, Matsuzaka continues to struggle versus lefties when it comes to free passes. Lefties have posted on-base percentages of .353, .424, and .376 against him over the last three seasons. Not good with the complexion of the Rays’ and Yankees’ lineups.
The Red Sox have an unfortunate (for the Rays, at least) amount of pitching talent coming through the pipelines. They seized Anthony Ranaudo in the supplemental portion of the first round of the 2010 draft after injury issues caused him to slip from his perch as the best collegiate arm, and then took Brandon Workman – another college arm – in the fourth round. They join Michael Bowden, Drake Britton, Felix Doubront, and Stolmy Pimental as potential rotation options, with Junichi Tazawa also on the path to recovery from Tommy John surgery.
At the top
There are horses and then there are horses. CC Sabathia is a big fellow in multiple ways as he ducks under doorways and sweats gravy. Regardless of his Wellsian physique, the man is an anchor.
Sabathia has been around the league since 2001 (as a 20- and 21-year-old) and he’s made fewer than 30 starts once (in 2006). He made up for missing a few starts by making at least 34 in each of the four seasons since. He’s racking up 230 innings as most frontline pitchers racked up 200 inning seasons and yet he doesn’t appear close to stopping. Last season, he made one start that lasted fewer than five innings and four starts that lasted fewer than six innings. Four. Sabathia has started 322 games over his career and he’s gone fewer than six in about 70 of them. That is 20% of his starts.
As easy as it is to wisecrack about Sabathia’s loose uniform or looser dietary habits, he’s still one of the league’s best pitchers.
In the middle
A.J. Burnett and Phil Hughes are going through the same phase as the Boston veterans and Buchholz. Burnett lost the feel for his curveball and saw his strikeout and home run rates decline because of it. For the first time since 2001 (his first full season in the bigs), Burnett failed to strike out at least seven per nine (although he sat very close at 6.99). The New York media seemed fascinated with the idea of individuals joining the team to somehow straighten Burnett out – including Johnny Damon – but offseason visits from Brian Cashman or new pitching coach Larry Rothschild seem relatively useless. Burnett knows what he must do, but it might be beyond his means.
For his part, Hughes handled the transition back into starting as well as possible considering the circumstances. Not long ago, Hughes was part of a talented young trio, but Ian Kennedy has since moved on to the desert and Joba Chamberlain is in pitcher’s purgatory. A glance at Hughes’ ERA and K/BB splits can lead one to a convenient narrative on how he tired late in the season because of the increased workload, but most of the damage took place in the middle months, as Hughes actually closed the season quite well.
Filling it out
Ivan Nova gained velocity and stature last season. The 24-year-old figures to start in the rotation after a 42-inning stint last season. He made two starts against the Rays with mixed results. Andy Pettitte’s retirement gives Sergio Mitre, Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, and Mark Prior new life. (Okay, maybe not Mark Prior.) The Yankees do have quite a few prospects on the way up, from Andrew Brackman to Manny Banuelos to Dellin Betances to Hector Noesi to Graham Stoneburner and so on. Still, one of Garcia or Colon is likely to break camp in the rotation.
Colon last pitched in the majors with the White Sox during the 2009 season. He made 12 starts, averaging more than five innings per, before disappearing back into the abyss. He’s supposedly back with a skinnier frame and livelier fastball, although he hasn’t made more than 20 appearances in a season since 2005, so who knows what kind of durability he offers.
Garcia pitched with the White Sox last season and pitched about as well as his 4.64 ERA suggests. Much like Colon, there’s no guarantee he’ll be able to stay healthy for more than a few starts, as he made 23 big league starts in the three seasons prior.
The best case scenario here is one of the two takes the position by the horns and turns in a league average performance while eating innings. That kind of best case scenario is usually reserved for the Orioles, but after losing out on Cliff Lee – twice – and spending quite a bit on the bullpen (Pedro Feliciano and Rafael Soriano) the Yankees stayed conservative with their rotation additions.
At the top
Romero, whose nickname is evidently RR Cool Jay, is the left-handed portion of the duo. He’s short (6’0”) and doesn’t throw overly hard (averages around 90-91) but makes work with an assortment of pitches, including a changeup. It’s fair to say most Rays’ fans first exposure to Romero came in July of 2009 when he threw eight shutout innings while striking out seven. He didn’t fare quick as well against the Rays this season, but still represents a challenge.
Morrow crossed the border in a buy-low deal with the Mariners prior to last season for Brandon League and a minor league outfielder. Previously, Morrow battled diabetes and indecision over whether he wanted to start or not, but broke camp in the Jays’ rotation and never looked back. He’s yet to cross the 150 innings mark in a season, meaning don’t expect a 200 inning season until 2012 at the earliest, but he managed to strike out nearly 11 batters per nine innings pitched. Even Tim Lincecum hasn’t managed that.
Morrow’s start against the Rays were some of the more unusual of the season. He went six, walking six, and striking out eight in late April, then had a game where he went seven while striking out one in Late May. The next time he saw the Rays, he struck out 17, walked two, and allowed a single hit in a complete game shutout. Ask anyone who watched the game and they’ll tell you this guy could be a problem. He throws in the mid-90s and his secondary stuff can take the breaks of a whiffle ball. He’s not on all the time, though, and thus he’s not quite an ace, but he could be.
In the middle
Once upon a time, Brett Cecil closed for the Maryland Terrapins. Now he starts for the Jays and fills the goggled starters quota vacated by Gustavo Chacin. Marc Rzepcyznski’s nickname is Scrabble and you would be hard-pressed to find a more appropriate nickname across the majors. Both were drafted in 2007 and live in the low-90s from the left side with groundball tendencies. Cecil is the better out of the two,
Filling it out
The centerpiece of the Roy Halladay trade should join the big league rotation permanently sooner rather than later. Kyle Drabek is a short righty with a live fastball and fierce curve who made his debut (and two subsequent starts) in September. Without intimate knowledge of the situation, one has to wonder if the Jays will send Drabek down in order to avoid Super Two status and allow the incidental Jesse Litsch to make a start or two before flipping the switch.
Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays’ answer to Matusz, Sabathia, and Lester emerged last season. After a disappointing first season out of the rotation, the Vanderbilt attendee bounced back in a big way. His fastball is ethereal and video game-esque. All the talk about Price developing a changeup has passed in favor of the curveball he twirls. I go into more depth on Price in TPR11, so I’d rather not delve into too much about him right now. Still, he’s a frontline starter and has a chance to become the best starter in Rays’ history (probably dethroning Shields) while also being known as either the best pitcher selected first overall or the second best, depending on what happens with Stephen Strasburg.
Just about anything that could be written about James Shields’ 2010 season has been written. Virtually every run metric except ERA suggested Shields was decent-to-good last season – unfortunate for Shields, as ERA carries the most weight amongst the public. Yet, consider that Shields made 17 quality starts in 2010 – defined as a start where the pitcher went six or more innings and allowed three or fewer earned runs. Why is the number 17 important? Because Shields made 17 quality starts in 2009 in the same number of starts too. The MLB average was 49%, meaning Shields actually made more than the league average rate of quality starts and matched his 2009 total despite a horrendous ERA. What this suggests is Shields pitched decently, but when he was bad, he was really, really bad.
Regardless, Shields’ issues seem minor compared to the health and effectiveness problems facing the division’s other number two and three starters, particularly when contractual status is taken into account. Shields is not threatened with rediscovering his knockout punch (like Burnett), staying healthy with marginal stuff (like Duchscherer), or a combination (like Beckett).
As an aside: What is humorous is how quickly Heater-type lauded Matt Garza as the leader or soul of the pitching staff, when Shields is the one who seemingly mentors younger pitchers the most. Lest everyone forget who worked with Jeff Niemann on his cutter during spring training or numerous other accounts of Shields’ helping his mates out. Clearly qualitative value is only worthwhile when you want to feel angry.
The public opinion of Niemann is tough to figure out. He was (somehow) regarded as a consistent and top of the rotation arm for the better part of his career. Then he made a few difficult starts returning from the disabled list and suddenly became a goat before being left off the playoff roster. The injury bug did not peak its head into Niemann’s career for the first time last year and he’s probably the starter most likely to hit the disabled list during any given season.
It’s difficult to remember now, but through his first 22 starts (as in, the starts before he hit the disabled list) Niemann had 141 innings pitched (more than six per) with a 10-3 record (the Rays were 17-5 in his starts), a 3.12 ERA, and a 2.32 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He fell apart in his next five appearances, but he looked fine after that. His last appearance came in the final game of the season as a reliever. He made 15 pitches, faced three batters, struck each out, and had seven whiffs. His final start came against the Orioles and can only be described as positively Niemann: seven innings, two earned runs, a walk, and three strikeouts.
Getting too low on a player for little reason is just as bad as getting too high on a player little reason. Niemann is an average or better starter with health questions. He’s not going to be a frontline starter – although, his ERA certainly suggest he is – but he doesn’t have to be in order to contribute in a meaningful manner.
I’ll quote and defer to my recent post on Davis here:
The eccentricity of Davis’ season notwithstanding, he certainly did look improved late in the season. Arbitrary endpoints and whatnot, but splitting Davis’ season into two portions reveals an improvement in walk rate came without a decline in strikeouts. Instead of walking 10.5% of the batters he faced, he walked roughly 7%. Davis walked as many batters over his final 92 innings (27) as he did over his first 49. However, playing this game as meaningful is dangerous. If the season played out in reverse, then the perception around Davis would dim.
One of the reasons Davis’ outperformed his peripherals so easily is his performance with men on base. Batters only hit .210/.301/.370 with a man on base against Davis in 2010, as opposed to .285/.338/.476 with nobody on. Whether Davis repeated his delivery from the stretch more often or this is nothing more than a statistical aberration will not be determined years down the road, but it’s certainly an interesting dynamic to watch moving forward.
Davis is unlikely to mimic the leap Price took from average to elite. Even if Davis’ RA9 is higher in 2011, if he can improve his peripherals and performance without men on base, then perhaps he can throw more innings. Given the uncertainty around the Rays’ bullpen, having another 200-plus inning starter should be a huge boost.
Presumably, Hellickson will make the rotation out of spring training. “Make” is the verb in the sentence, but it would be an upset if he somehow starts in Durham – especially if Andrew Friedman’s comments about Andy Sonnanstine being a lock for the bullpen are taken literally. As the Rays showed with Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann, the team is willing to throw rotation pieces into the mix immediately without the careful regard for service time. Pitchers do not age like hitters, so holding onto a pitcher attempting to catch a six-year frame is a rather futile process, instead the team promotes when it feels the pitcher is capable of handling the bigs.
Enter Hellickson, who debuted impressively last season. Zach Sanders recently wrote about why he felt Hellickson could do what Davis and David Price failed to – live up to the hype in their first rotational years – I like Zach, who is a smart, talented, and upcoming writer, but I disagree with the exact reasoning. James Shields and Andy Sonnanstine had the secondary pitches and command bug worked out upon reaching the majors too, yet neither posted polished rookie seasons. Maybe the weak surrounding cast played into their seasons though.
If Hellickson somehow does falter this season, he should still be fun to watch. Helloween will represent the must-see games for the first month or two before he fades into the normal fabric of the team.
With all that written, I tend to agree with Satchel Price at Beyond the Box Score when he ranks the rotations as:
3) Blue Jays
2) Red Sox
I am a big fan of Matusz and I think Arrieta could take a step forward. The rest of the rotation has too many question marks and mundane talents to excite me too much – at least for now. The Yankees have perhaps the best pitcher in the division followed by a pretty good young one, but Burnett and the back of the rotation make it difficult to rank them over the more stable and overlooked Toronto staff. From there, it’s Boston and Tampa Bay, which is a coin flip. I guess it just comes down to the amount of faith one places in the development of Davis and Hellickson, because otherwise it’s as close to a stalemate as possible.