February 2, 2010 at 8:00 am by Capitol Avenue Club under Atlanta Braves
This was the biggest strength of the Braves in 2009. After 2008, a year that saw four older and/or injury prone pitchers go down long-term, Frank Wren went crazy and acquired three big league starters despite the presence of 1) a good 23-year old who pitched close to 200 innings in 2008 and already has a season and a half of MLB experience under his belt, 2) a 22-year old phenom knocking on the door, 3) another apt 22-year old at his heels, and 4) a thirty year old that showed promise in 158 and 2/3 innings during 2008 that could be retained for virtually nothing. Not to mention the presence of three or four other organizational options.
Though some may question the logic, it’s hard to argue with the results. The three new starters provided plenty of quality starting pitching. In all, the group made 91 starts plus Kenshin Kawakami’s 13 and 2/3 innings in relief. They totaled 570 and 1/3 innings (6.12 per start) with a 3.76 ERA, a 1.28 WHIP, and a 454-to-164 strikeout-to-walk ratio (7.16 K/9, 2.59 BB/9, 2.77 K/BB). The team’s other 71 starts were made by Jair Jurrjens (34), Tommy Hanson (21), Tim Hudson (7), Jo Jo Reyes (5), and Kris Medlen (4). Of the two groups, two from the former group figure to return and four from the latter group (including the emergency starter) figure to return. Overall the group ranked as one of baseball’s best rotations. The same should be true, though perhaps to a lesser degree, next season.
Losing Javier Vazquez makes any rotation in baseball worse, though due to the rotation depth the Braves possessed the replacement level was rather high, which softens the blow quite a bit. Rather than Vazquez, the Braves will go into 2010 with Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens, Derek Lowe, and Kenshin Kawakami in their rotation. It’s still an outstanding group, but, like I said, no rotation in baseball is better off without Javier Vazquez than they are with him.
The best pitcher in the rotation is Tommy Hanson, who has just short 130 MLB innings under his belt. Still, considering how well he has pitched–both statistically and from other talent-evaluation perspectives–for the past two years, I’m perfectly comfortable calling the 23 year old Hanson the best pitcher in the rotation. He throws four pitches, a low-to-mid 90′s fastball that he’ll occasionally dial up to 96 or so with good tailing action, a power slider that grades as a 60, a 12-6 curve ball that also grades as a 60, and an occasional low-80′s change up that can be anywhere from a 35 to a 50. In the majors last season he struck out 116 batters in 127 and 2/3 innings, including 98 in June, July, August, and September over 98 and 2/3 innings. Before getting the call, he struck out 90 batters in 66 and 1/3 innings at class AAA Gwinnett, making him one of two pitchers in the organization to record at least 200 total strikeouts in 2009. If Hanson stays healthy it’s only a matter of time before he does something incredible, perhaps as soon as 2010. I think it’s fair to expect around 200-220 innings from Hanson in 2010 with around 200 strikeouts and 55-70 walks, making him one of the more valuable assets in baseball. If he isn’t paid a visit by the bad luck fairy and doesn’t have trouble keeping the ball in the park next season, well, he’ll probably be in the conversation for the Cy Young. I’m not uncomfortable making that prediction, not in the least.
Nobody else in the rotation has that kind of upside unless they’ve gotten fundamentally better over the off season, but two others figure to be rock solid, above average starters–somewhere between 3 and 5 wins, in terms of value. Jair Jurrjens and Tim Hudson. Jurrjens is coming off a pair of strange seasons. His batted ball peripherals look like they came from two different pitchers but his fielding independent peripherals are nearly identical. I don’t know what to make of this. Rather than explain them to you, I’m going to display an image that is a visualization of the trends of Jair Jurrjens’ batted ball profiles the past two seasons. Brought to you through the miracle of Open Office and Microsoft Paint:
I’ve also prepared a table of his rates of the five batted ball types (infield fly, outfield fly, home run, ground ball, and line drive) per batted ball:
I don’t really understand it. In 2009 he struck out and walked batters at nearly the exact same rate as he did in 2008. In 2009 he induced fewer ground balls and line drives, which resulted in a lot more fly balls. These fly balls were hit out of the park at virtually the same rate (4.3% to 4.7% per fly ball and 1.9% to 2.3% per batted ball) and were hit on tne infield at virtually the same rate (11% per fly ball, 4.3% to 5.0% per batted ball). That means he allowed a lot more outfield fly balls (204 in 2008, 263 in 2009, 34.7% per batted ball in 2008, 41.2% per batted ball in 2009). Somehow allowing a ton more outfield fly balls resulted in a 33 point decrease in batting average on balls in play. This doesn’t seem intuitive and is highly indicative of something abnormal. The simplest explanation is luck and better positioned defenders, though a 3% decrease in line drives is consistent with a drop in BABIP. Perhaps the outfield flys were more weakly hit, I don’t know. I’m told increasing FB% is also consistent with drop in BABIP, though the Braves’ outfielders were so bad in 2009 I’m not sure that was the case for that team.
Regardless, what we have here is a young, durable starter with average strikeout and walk rates to go along with above-average batted ball peripherals, which is incredibly valuable. Jurrjens’ 2.60 2009 ERA is probably not sustainable, but something like 2008′s 3.68 ERA is probably close to the truth, and 220 innings of ~3.68 ERA is extremely useful.
Tim Hudson, the other one that figures to be a solid, above-average starter, is working off of a much larger sample, though presents some uncertainty given he’s only 18 months or so removed from tommy john surgery. Like Billy Wagner, he pitched extremely well immediately before and after his surgery, so I’m not too concerned, but you always worry about a 34 year old pitcher who is 42 and 1/3 innings removed from having his elbow re built. In his 11 year career, Hudson owns a 3.49 ERA, a 1.257 WHIP, a 6.1 K/9, a 2.8 BB/9, and a 2.22 K/BB. He’s an extreme ground ball pitcher, having induced 1.42 ground balls for every fly ball in his career, resulting in a batting average on balls in play (.287) twelve points below league average (.299) for his career.
Tim Hudson throws pretty much every pitch known to man. Well, not quite, but the six most common types of pitches in MLB (fastballs, sliders, curve balls, change ups, splitters, and cutters) Hudson has thrown in his career. It’s anyone’s guess what he’ll mostly throw in 2010, though it’s a virtual certainty that his 2-seam fastball (sinker) will be at the head of his repertoire. He’ll go with whatever off speed stuff feels the best that day or he thinks will be most effective. His repertoire start to start may change more than any other pitcher in baseball. He’ll throw the change up twenty times in one start then put it away and not throw it again for another month, for example.
His value will depend on how much he’s able to pitch, but I guess a conservative estimate of his value would be around 1 win per 50 innings.
The last two spots in the rotation will be occupied by Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami, both of whom I expect to be worth at least two wins in 2010.
I’ve covered Derek Lowe ad nauseum, particularly here. The thing about Lowe is, no matter how much of his decline is an aberration or fundamental skill loss, the dude pitches so much, even if his fundamental skills are as bad as his ’09 numbers would indicate, he’s going to be a 2+ win player. Barring any unprecedented injury (he’s rarely been injured apart from minor blister issues), he’ll pitch close to 200 innings, and even with a 4.06 FIP that’s valuable. It may not be $15 million valuable and sadly (or not) that’s the standard he’ll be judged against, but there is inherent value in a durable, average-to-above-average-ish pitcher. Having a guy you can slot in the 4th spot of your rotation that gives you 200 innings and a 4.30 ERA is something a lot of teams, even good teams, would love to have. Of course, they’re not going to be willing to commit $60 million for it, but that’s a sunk cost at this point and from an on field value perspective Derek Lowe is very useful, he’s a well above-average 4th starter. He also comes with some upside, given it’s not likely that all of his ’09 woes can be attributed to a fundamental decline, so anything he gives you on top of that is gravy. I won’t say the Braves don’t need Lowe to be a 4 win pitcher like he was in LA and like the Braves thought they were getting, but if he’s simply a 2.5 win pitcher, all’s far from lost.
Kenshin Kawakami is the most difficult of the bunch to predict. He’s only pitched 156 and 1/3 MLB innings, which is a small fraction of what I’d like to have when evaluating a player, and he has no minor league data. I know little about translating NPB data and the 156 and 1/3 MLB innings are rather noisy, given the adjustments he had to make throughout the season (bigger, slicker baseball, different hitters, different strike zone, et cetera). In the aforementioned 156 and 1/3 innings, he was worth ~1.7 wins according to fWAR. However, I don’t know if we can expect him to improve his win/IP rate in 2010 or not. He was known as a control specialist in Japan, but walked 57 in MLB last season. He’ll be 35 next season but he’s shown little signs of decline thus far. He walked only 34 in his final 105 innings (2.91 BB/9), covering June, July, August, September, and October. I wonder if we can expect Kawakami to improve that walk rate in 2010.
Last year Kawakami threw a low-90′s/high-80′s fastball, a plus cutter, a slow curve, a forkball, and a shuuto. His pitches are difficult to track, two of them are rather rare in MLB and easily mistaken for other pitches.
I know little else about him. He was mostly healthy in 2009, but the Braves were cautious and limited his innings. I wonder how many he’ll be able to pitch. If he stays healthy, something in the 2-3 win range seems appropriate.
The emergency starter, Kris Medlen, is arguably just as good as Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami, if not better, but he’s Kawakami’s size and has something on the order of 10% of the professional experience Kawakami and Lowe do. If anyone is injured, Medlen will assume a starting role, where I suspect he’ll pitch well enough for the Braves to think twice about putting him back in the bullpen.
I covered him previously in the relievers write up.
I have no idea who the 7th starter on the depth chart is and I don’t care to find out. I’m sure the organization shares this sentiment.