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Geoff Baker covers the Mariners for The Seattle Times. He provides daily coverage of the team throughout spring training, and during the season.

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August 18, 2008 10:46 AM

Happy Jarrod Day

Posted by Geoff Baker

Yes, I know it doesn't have the same ring to it as Happy Felix Day, but at least every Jarrod Washburn start gives the Seattle blogosphere something new to ruminate about other than how its favorite team managed to lose that day's game.

Washburn has become perhaps the most interesting aspect of the 2008 Mariners. He's lived out two different seasons: the one before May 25 and everything since. Ever since May 25, he's compiled an earned run average of 3.27 over his last 14 outings, posting nine "quality starts" of at least six innings pitched and three earned runs or fewer allowed.

By comparison, over the same period of his last 14 starts, Felix Hernandez has thrown exactly the same number of innings as Washburn (88), while compiling an ERA of 2.86 with 10 quality starts.

The difference? Hernandez has thrown one more quality start and allowed four fewer earned runs than Washburn over the exact same number of innings going on three months. And yet, one ballplayer is lionized and the other, villified. Interesting, to say the least.

We won't get into another debate about whether the M's should have traded Washburn or not. Obviously, they aren't going to. I thought they might be able to work out a deal with the Twins, but given that 30-day waiting period the now have to go through before they can put Washburn on waivers again, it isn't going to happen. I honestly don't understand what the M's are doing. If they can pull off a better deal this winter, they'll change my mind, but it seems a needless risk to take. I'd mentioned before July 31 that there was no need to deal him until August, if money was all the team wanted, and, as you saw, there was at least one other taker in the Twins. So, we know that two AL contenders thought enough of Washburn that they were willing to take on $13 million of his salary through 2009. Never mind teams in the NL, where he'd have probably been better-suited.

The M's are obviously gambling that there will be a broader NL/AL market come this winter. But I still don't get the gamble. I know the team says it doesn't care about money, only value, but $13 million buys you plenty of value on the player front. Especially for a team that likely won't be contending in 2009. I agreed with Seattle waiting past the July 31 deadline and their move proved correct. They advanced from the cash and a token Yankees prospect to at least talking cash and more serious players with the Twins. But this latest move, I think, stretches things too far with little more to be gained. We'll see.

On to Washburn, the reason his "turnaround" has been greeted with such skepticism is obviously not in the results he has produced. By any measurement, they have been more than acceptable. In fact, his entire season's numbers have been skewed by three starts in May in which he gave up nearly a third of his earned run totals over just 11 2/3 innings. Take away those three starts, against the Indians, White Sox and Tigers, and Washburn's ERA falls from 4.58 to 3.47.

No, obviously you can't cherry pick this way. But, for all of those skeptics shrugging off Washburn's stretch of the past 2 1/2 months as a "fluke" a skeptic might say those three outings were the abberation and that he's actually had his best statistical season in years. The truth, I suspect, lies somewhere in the middle.

Some of those who look at more advanced statistical measurements for pitchers have scoffed at Washburn's results. Why? It boils down to the way he compiles them. Washburn, simply put, does not have the look of the kind of pitcher fancied by these analysts. He gives up too many flyballs for their taste. Too many line drives as well. Doesn't strike out as many batters as they'd like.

And they are right. Washburn does give up a lot of flyballs. This is nothing new. He's been a flyball pitcher his entire career. Does he give up a lot of line drives? Too much for the liking of the analysts, though not all that much more than he has his entire career. The last year Washburn was in Anaheim, his line drive rate was 21 percent. This year, it's jumped to 23 percent, which, yes, is too high in general terms.

But should we be looking at Washburn in general terms?

Washburn's contention is that he's become a better pitcher since late-May because of two things: his return to a split-fingered fastball as an "out-pitch" of sorts. He resorted to it in desperation in May, trying anything he could to get hitters out. Doesn't throw it more than a half-dozen times per game because of the strain it had previously caused his elbow. But he used it to strike out Vladimir Guerrero in Anaheim last week with two men on base. So, he does have an "out pitch" he can, contrary to popular belief, go to in a pinch.

More importantly, he says he has finally gotten a feel for his change-up after years of trying. This is the more important development because he will throw this pitch more often and in all types of counts. Washburn does not have a mid-90s fastball. He needs to keep hitters off balance to be successful and can only do this by changing speeds and location.

Once again, some have scoffed at Washburn's claims of having made an in-season adjustment. They will note that both Miguel Batista and Carlos Silva made similar claims only to revert to previous poor form. Those people would be correct about Batista and Silva. They did not sustain the improvements they felt they had found by making adjustments. Does this negate Washburn's claims? No, it does not.

The thing about baseball at the major league level is that pitchers and hitters all make adjustments of some sort on a week-to-week basis. Very few ever stay the same. Can't afford to. The game is played at such a high level in MLB that any weakness can be exploited by the other side. Staying the same throughout a season invites the opposition to scout you and find the holes in your game. So, looking at a player who clains to have made an adjustment and then disputing that adjustment because of a poor result is not the most sophisticated way of looking at things. You can dispute the success. If Silva says he found a better feel for his sinker the final four innings of one game, gets a bunch of groundouts and strikeouts, then gets shelled his next time out, it doesn't mean he was lying. It means, he could not sustain the success beyond that one outing.

It happens. Pitching is not like riding a bike, where once you do it you never forget how. A pitcher can come up with the perfect feel for his sinker one game and then forget it the next. Mechanics are a complex thing. Many pitchers keep detailed notes on the grips and mechanics they use so that they can remember how to repeat them. Mark Lowe did this with his slider earlier in the year and was finally able to replicate some of the success he had two years ago. But it's not always sustainable.

Washburn says he's having success at getting hitters to "mis-hit" the ball. In other words, he's keeping them off-balance and not allowing them to square-up on him like they were earlier in the year. Other than nearly three months worth of improved results, is there anything to back up his claim?

Well, first, I'd submit that it isn't up to any pitcher doing their job to justify it to critics. In my world, if the critics want to dispute something happening right in front of their eyes, it's up to them to make the case.

In Washburn's case, the critics have made theirs.

They say there is no discernable change between Washburn's flyball and line drive rates from earlier this year. That what he is achieving is mostly a "fluke" because pitchers usually -- there's that general term again -- can't control the results on their line drives or flyballs.

I'd agree with that to a point. Some pitchers can't control it. The typical groundball pitcher might not be able to control it. But what about pitchers who make their living off of flyball outs?

From what I've seen watching Washburn this year, he has improved in the quality of flyballs he's allowed. Let's face it, not all flyballs are created equal. The flyball that is taken in shallow left by an outfielder -- but could have been caught by the shortstop -- is not the same as a drive that makes Ichiro sprint 50 yards to the gap to try to prevent a double. Can a pitcher be responsible for this? Why not? If hitters aren't squaring up on him like before, who's to say he can't turn those extra-base hits to the gap into pop flies to the shallow part of the outfield?

But they will all be measured the same.

Let's take a closer look at Washburn's raw numbers from both before and since his supposed May 25 turnaround:

He has slightly reduced his overall flyballs and line drives per batter faced, from 33 percent to 31 percent for the flies and 19 percent to 17 percent for the liners. His strikeouts are actually down slightly, from 14 percent to 12.6 percent, but he's gotten more groundballs -- 29 percent versus 27 percent before.

Remember, that's a percentage against the total batters faced. So, slightly more grounders and fewer flyballs and line drives -- at the expense of some strikeouts. Washburn is not a strikeout pitcher. When he's striking guys out it's usually because he's pitching a great game or in a lot of trouble and trying to make hitters miss. When things are going well, he wants hitters making contact -- poor contact. That's his game.

So, a small case can be made, above, that the contact has been less squared-up than before.

Let's dig deeper. What is happening to all of those line drives and flyballs? Are they damaging?

On the surface, less so than in April and May. Washburn had an OPS against of:

April: .838
May: .974
June: .781
July: .656
August: .835

The August numbers have come up again. This is due to getting shellacked by the Orioles and having to face a bunch of extra hitters his last two times out because of errors by Yunieksy Betancourt and Adrian Belte against the Angels and Twins. But no, the numbers can't continue at this level for a much bigger sample size or it will be the sign of a problem.

Still, up until then, Washburn had significantly cut down on the extra-base hits allowed. That would tend to suggest the line drives off him are leading more to singles than doubles and triples. And that the flyballs are being caught instead of leading to serious damage.

But how do we know this isn't just luck?

Well, for starters, Washburn doesn't exactly have a Gold Glove defense behind him. Yes, the team has made some outfield defense improvement -- elevating this team more to an acceptable norm than the horror show it had been before. But as we mentioned in a prior post, there's been little or no change in the infield defense.

Let's look at other stats used to pinpoint "luck".

Washburn's Fielding Independent Percentage (FIP) of 4.59 is the lowest it's been in five years. That means he's relying less on others to get outs for him. His Defensive Efficiency Ratio (DER), a measurement of batted balls being made into outs behind him, is only .691 -- the worst it's been in five years. So, that would suggest the defense has done little to help Washburn this season, contrary to the belief that his improvement is because of improved gloves.

The opponents' batting average on balls put into play (BABIP) against Washburn has been, by month:

April -- .324
May -- .352
June -- .320
July -- .257
August -- .322

Considering the average a pitcher should expect is about .290, one can conclude Washburn may have gotten a little lucky in July. But that he has also been unlucky every other month.

So, the luck argument isn't holding much water so far. If anything, Washburn's stats should be better than they've been.

So, what about all those line drives and fly balls? Is he really just getting lucky, or is sustainable?

Well, let's see. In the home run department, 9.9 percent of Washburn's fly balls have left the yard. It was 9.4 percent last year, so, he's actually given up a miniscule amount more this year. It was 11 percent in 2006, so, he wasn't as lucky there. But it was 9.8 percent in 2005, his "salary-drive'' season in Anaheim. So, in all honesty, I don't see him being all that "luckier" than he's always been with home runs one way or another.

A better look at the "quality" of the flyballs and line drives he's yielded in the two parts of this season?

Up until May 25, he allowed 113 fly balls and line drives. Also allowed 24 extra-base hits. So, for every line drive or fly ball allowed, he surrendered an extra-base hit 21.2 percent of the time

From May 25 onward, he's allowed 183 line drives and fly balls and 30 extra-base hits. So, for every line drive or fly ball, an extra-base hit 16.4 per cent of the time.

That's quite a drop. It may not sound like much, but factor it over a season and it adds up to a whole lot of reduced extra base hits and runs against. It would also tend to suggest that the quality of contact being made off Washburn is not as damaging as before. Yes, I realize that a handful of extra-base hits could have come on grounders, but most of them usually don't. We're just giving some rough indications here. That hitters, it appears, are "mis-hitting" the ball. If the line drives being given up are singles, they are less damaging if not followed by a bases-clearing double. Simple stuff, right?

But nothing is simple where Washburn is concerned.

Look, no one is arguing he should win a Cy Young Award. But I'd submit that he's shown, for most of this season, to be every bit the league average pitcher the M's thought they were getting. That perhaps, outside of a handful of games, he's been even better than that and may be on to something. Is that ironclad? Nope. Very little is in baseball.

But it seems more plausible than trying, unsuccessfully, to dismiss him as a fluke every time out going on nearly three months now. Perhaps it's time to take a closer look at flyball rates and what they mean for extreme flyball pitchers? A closer look at the quality of the flyballs, perhaps? Just a thought.

And yes, the M's should have traded him by now.

ADDITIONAL COMMENTS (1:10 p.m.): For Meagain in the comment thread, Jeff Clement already did miss a pop-up, in Washburn's last start against the Angels. And it kept Vlad Guerrero at the plate with two on. Not only did Washburn not "throw him under the bus" for it, he picked his catcher up by striking Guerrero out.

For Rodrigo, the reason I have to write so long is that so many people miss the point when you write short. Washburn's BAIBP does not show he was mostly lucky. If anything, it shows he's been largely unlucky for every month this season but one.

To Anything Can Happen, you make a good point about Washburn's pitches per inning. They are indeed down, along with his strikeouts. This would appear to suggest a lot of quicker resolutions to at-bats. In other words, fewer strikeouts are not leading to more runners getting on because of hits or walks. If anything, they arer swinging into outs much more quickly. Hence, the "mis-hit balls" theory.




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