Sunday, January 9, 2011

Defending the Orioles at Number 26

I'll be honest, when Josh wrote his piece on the worst rotations in baseball, I didn't think too many people would be upset to see the Orioles at number 26.  They are, after all, a rotation that's almost entirely built on unrealized potential.  Still, we received a couple of comments from angry Orioles fans regarding their team's placement on the list.  One anonymous commenter had this to say:
"Garbage. Ranking the Orioles staff so low betrays a lack of knowledge. You belittle Chris Tillman, who hopes to win the 5th starter's spot this year. As one of the younger pitchers (22 y/o) in triple A last year, he pitched a one hitter and a no hitter. Yet he may not make the O's staff and you think it's one of the worst in baseball? Get a clue. Zack Britton may be the best of our young starters. He's ready but stuck until an opening occurs. Others believe Jake Arrieta may be the best of them all. David Hernandez threw about 95-96 as a starter but was moved to the bullpen to make room for others. His velocity increased to 97-99 in the bullpen. Every team talking to the O's inquired about Hernandez, yet he was moved to the bullpen to make room for more promising guys. Getting the picture yet?

Take this to the bank: the Orioles 2011 rotation will not be a bottom 10 rotation. May be a top 10. If not 2011, most certainly 2012.

After a long dark period, O's fans can rejoice that there is no agreement as to who will be the next O's ace: Matusz, Arrieta, Britton."
The problem with this argument is that it's based almost entirely on rhetoric--not facts.  After reading some of the messages on an Orioles bulletin board from which we've received heavy traffic from recently, it appears that it wasn't just the one commenter that was drinking the hype Kool-Aid, but several Orioles fans.* That's to be expected, and I have no problem with that.  It's great to see them get excited about their team, but emotion and excitement should never take the place of rational and logical thought processes.  Let's take a deeper look at the Orioles rotation for 2011.

* Just for contrast, the writers and readers of Let's Go Tribe seemed thrilled to see their team at #21 on our list.  Take a look at the comments section.  They're surprisingly positive.  This, of course, doesn't justify our position, but it does show that Indians fans are more realistic about the expectations of their pitching staff.

Brian Matusz - 10-12, 4.30/4.05/4.51, 7.33 K/9, 2.27 K/BB, 36.2% GB, 2.7 fWAR

Matusz isn't quite an ace yet, but it wouldn't surprise me to see him take another step toward that goal in 2011.  While the soon to be 24 year old lefty has tremendous tools at his disposal, he still has a lot of work to do before reaching his ceiling.  Matusz allows contact within the acceptable range, but it's a little too high for a pitcher with ace quality stuff.  In 2010, he saw a considerable drop in his swinging strike rate (9.4% to 8.0%), while seeing a corresponding increase in contact rate (78.2% to 82.8%).  I can best attribute these trends to his over-reliance on his fastball, and a reduction in the number of sliders thrown.  According to Fangraphs pitch type values, Matusz's slider was worth 4.1 runs.  On the surface that might not seem very impressive, but he only threw his slider 6.9% of the time.  Considering his slider (along with his curve) induce the most swinging strikes, he should probably try to mix in a few more sliders into his regular repertoire.

My other concern with Matusz is his poor GB/FB ratio (0.77 for his career).  As I mentioned in my analysis on Slowey and Baker yesterday, pitchers that give up a large number fly balls also tend to give up more than their share of home runs.  So far, he's performed better than expected with regards to his HR/FB rate, but there's not enough data to state whether he's one of those pitcher that consistently outperforms the league norm.  Until we do, we should expect that his HR/FB rate will regress to the mean in 2011.  Additionally, while he wasn't victimized by the Orioles questionable outfield defense last season (per UZR), it remains to be seen if he'll continue to be as fortunate in 2011 and beyond.

* This fact shouldn't really surprise anyone as pitchers very rarely give up home runs on ground balls.  When they do, it's usually the result of a fielder error.  

Jeremy Guthrie - 11-14, 3.83/4.44/4.80, 5.12 K/9, 2.38 K/BB, 42.3% GB, 2.3 fWAR

There's not really a whole lot to say about Guthrie.  As the 22nd overall pick in the 2002 draft, a lot more was expected out of him.  Guthrie is essentially a league average pitcher that ultimately belongs in the number four spot, not the two.  He does a few things pretty well.  He limits walks, induces a reasonable number of ground balls, and has a surprisingly effective fastball considering he doesn't induce a lot of whiffs.  His age, low strikeout rate, high contact rate, and lack of a consistent second pitch (his slider used to be that pitch) makes Guthrie more of a question mark than a positive asset at this point.  I wouldn't be surprised to see him enter his decline phase in 2011.

Brian Bergesen - 8-12, 4.98/5.12/4.90, 4.29 K/9, 1.59 K/BB, 48.7% GB, 0.6 fWAR

Bergesen gets the third slot in their rotation by default.  I know a lot of Oriole fans want to say that his poor 2010 was due to the freak injury he sustained during a MASN commercial shoot (and there's some merit to that), but that's somewhat dishonest.  Bergesen just doesn't have enough talent to be anything more than a fringe major league starting pitcher.  In reality, he'd probably be best used as either a long reliever or a AAA call-up.  I'm sorry, but it's true. 

He neither strikes batters out, nor does he induce swinging strikes.  His control is good, but not great--particularly when compared to his strikeout rate.  Also, for a pitcher who relies on his sinking fastball to induce ground balls, he does a fairly poor job of actually producing them (at least in comparison to most pitchers with extreme ground ball tendencies).  According to Fangraphs pitch type values, his fastball (worth -24.3 runs) was one of the least effective pitches in the majors.  To make matters worse, he doesn't have a "plus" secondary pitch in his repertoire. 

Lastly, he allows far too much contact.  In 2010, his contact rate was tied for third highest in baseball among qualified pitchers.  The other members of the top five were Doug Fister, Rodrigo Lopez, Kyle Kendrick, and Livan Hernandez.  That's not exactly an awe inspiring group.  Despite Joe Morgan's insistence to the contrary, pitching to contact doesn't work.  In the long-term, high contact rates leads to more hits, and therefore more runs. 

Chris Tillman - 2-5, 5.87/5.89/5.26, 5.20 K/9, 1.00 K/BB, 42.7% GB, -0.2 fWAR

Let me start out by saying that Tillman has the potential to end up as a bonafide number two starting pitcher in the major leagues.  Going into his age-23 season, he has plenty of time to turn his recent major league performance around.  That said, he hasn't done anything in the majors that would convince me that he's going to turn it around in 2011.  He could surprise me, but until he does, I have to project him based on what he's produced so far.

Tillman doesn't induce strikeouts or whiffs; he allows too many walks; and his fly ball tendencies cause him to give up more than his share of homers.  He, like every other Oriole pitcher, seems to rely too much on his fastball.  He threw the pitch 61.3% of the time during his 23 starts over the past two seasons, and it's been rather ineffective (worth -19.6 runs).  He has developed a pretty effective cutter, which should help him induce more ground balls.  His change-up also has the potential to be a solid pitch, but he'll need to throw it more often to gain any benefit from it.

Tillman is very much a work in progress.

Jake Arrieta - 6-6, 4.66/4.76/5.35, 4.66 K/9, 1.08 K/BB, 42.2% GB, 0.8 fWAR

Despite what the commenter above said, Arrieta has a very small chance of ever becoming an ace.  Most scouts have his ceiling pegged as a number three starter.  I haven't read any scouting reports claiming that Arrieta might be the best of the bunch.  Considering what he's shown so far in both the minor and major leagues, that might be a little bit of a stretch. 

Like Tillman, he's shown very little to allow me to believe he'll be a solid major league starting pitcher.  (He's only 24, so there's still time to change my mind.)  His strikeout rate is poor.  His control, even in the minors, was disappointing.  Despite having command of four pitches, he lacks a true plus pitch.  His slider flashes plus at times, but it's unknown whether he'll ever develop the pitch to the plus level.  Again, Arrieta throws too many fastballs (above 60%), and would probably benefit from mixing in more secondary pitches into his repertoire.  Until he proves otherwise, Arrieta profiles as a back of the rotation starter for a non-contender. 

As for Zach Britton and Brandon Erbe, neither are in the majors, so it's unfair to lump them in with the our list.  That said, I love Zach Britton.  He strikes batters out, limits walks, and induces ground balls.  What's not to love?  If anyone can wrestle the ace role from Matusz, it's Britton.  Brandon Erbe, on the other hand, was atrocious last year going 0-10 with a 5.74 ERA between low A and AAA.  His performance was so poor that Jon Sickels of dropped Erbe from his Oriole prospect list entirely (he wasn't even named in the "Others" category) after being ranked number five in 2010.  He's only 23, so he still has some time to develop, but he's probably need to be considered a fringe number five guy at this point.

The Orioles rotation has a lot of potential, but they need to prove they can consistently pitch at the major league level before anyone is going to take them seriously.  Sometimes, the truth hurts.

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