Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Mid-Season Report Cards: The Starting Rotation

The New Kids on the Block
If you know me (or are one of the few people that don't, but have bothered to read the About The Blog(ger) page), you know I'm a teacher by day. As a teacher, I just can't resist handing out mid-season report cards, despite being on my summer break. What can I say? It's what I do.

This will be a three part series. I'll start with the starting rotation, because I'm also one of those people that just likes to rip a band-aid off to get it over with. Next up will be the position players, followed by the bullpen, so I can at least go out on a positive.

I think we can probably all agree that the results haven't been what we have hoped for so far in 2013. Injuries have been a huge factor, so much so that I had to revise my formatting for this whole exercise. My original plan was to go position by position, but injuries have pushed so many bench players into full time duty, often at multiple positions, that it quickly broke down and I decided to just go player by player. The list won't be exhaustive as I'll only be focusing on players that have played a significant role on the team so far this year, or who I expect to do so going forward. The occasional AAAA fill in guys will be omitted (with one notable exception) because quite frankly I just can't be bothered, and you probably don't care that much anyways. If you're really that busted up about not being able to read about the likes of Ramon Ortiz, Thad Weber or Andy LaRoche, I suggest you reexamine your priorities in life. You could probably be making better use of your time. Alright, enough with the life coaching. Let's get started.

The Rotation

This is one of the areas in which injuries have wreaked the most havoc. The Blue Jays have already gotten starts from 13 different pitchers, with only Dickey and Buehrle having managed to make all of their scheduled starts, and only Buehrle has lived up to his billing as a reliable but unspectacular starter. With Morrow and Happ still on the DL, Dickey and Johnson disappointing thus far and Rickey Romero still trying to find himself on his AAA vision quest, most point to Toronto's starting rotation as the area most in need of shoring up before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

R.A. Dickey: C+

Much like his pitch, the 38 year old R.A. Dickey has been unpredictable and enigmatic in his first half-season as a Blue Jay. Expectations were extremely high after his unprecedented for a knuckleballer Cy Young season in 2012 in which he rocked a 2.73 ERA and 3.27 FIP. There is no question that some regression was to have been expected, but the 4.69 ERA and 4.91 FIP he has been sporting so far this year seems excessive. Some people point to the lack of strikeouts since last year as the reason for his struggles, but it would have been asking quite a lot for him to continue striking out nearly 25% of all the batters he faced like he did in 2012. However, he's still striking out 16.8% of batters faced which is more than he struck out in 2010 and 2011 when he he was still a very good pitcher. A bigger problem has been the walks. So far in 2013 he has walked 8.6% of batters after hovering around 6% for the past three seasons. When coupled with the big uptick in his home runs, 1.40 HR/9 versus an average of 0.79 HR/9 over the past three seasons, those extra base runners have proven very costly. That HR/9 is inflated by an awful 13% HR/FB ratio, and while one would have expected him to allow a few more dingers moving from the expansive CitiField to the more offense friendly Rogers Center, that numbers seems like there might be a touch of bad luck involved, as there likely is in his below average 69.9% strand rate.

This grade is based on the fact that his results have been disappointing, but that there have been encouraging signs. He started the season nursing an injury and unable to achieve the knuckleball velocity that is his calling card. That appears largely resolved, and while his good starts have been pretty awesome, even his bad ones haven't been all bad. They often seem to be marred by one ugly inning that ruins an otherwise solid start. Most encouraging is the fact that he's gotten the walks more under control in June and July after walking the ball yard in April and May, and if his home runs follow suit in the second half he should be poised for much better results.

Mark Buehrle: B

Buehrle also got off to a rough start to the season, getting shelled in his first few starts. After posting a 6.35 ERA in April, he's since brought that number down to 4.89 with a 4.46 FIP to go a long with it. For his career, he's put up a 3.86 ERA and a 4.15 FIP, so he's pretty much the same guy he's always been with a few more home runs thrown in which was, as with Dickey, predictable with the move to the Rogers Center and the AL East with all its good hitting teams and bandbox stadiums. He's pitched 116 innings through 94 games, so it will be almost impossible for him to make it to 200 innings in 2013. If he doesn't, it will be the first time in his career since becoming a full time starter back in 2001. There really isn't that much to say about Buehrle except that he's consistently average and durable. So far that has held true in 2013 as well. That certainly isn't worth the exorbitant contract the Marlins awarded him before the 2012 season, but it does have significant value.

In this case "B" is for Buehrle. He's pretty much Buehrle'ing his way to another league average, 200ish inning season while making way too much money to do so. While his numbers aren't that much better than Dickey's, expectations for him were much lower and he's pretty much living up to them. As mediocre as he and Dickey have been, they're the only two pitchers not to miss a start this season and things would likely have been a whole lot worse for the Blue Jays at this point without being able to count on these two durable workhorses every fifth day.

Josh Johnson: C+

Much like Dickey, Jays fans and management had big expectations for the 6'7" Cy Young winner. While age and injury had robbed him of the overpowering velocity he showed in his earlier career with the Marlins, he still posted a 3.81 ERA and 3.40 FIP last year in Miami while making 31 starts and pitching 191 innings. That doesn't seem to have been the Josh Johnson the Blue Jays received in the blockbuster trade with the Marlins, as so far he's pitched to a 5.15 ERA. There are signs, however, that he has deserved better than his ERA would indicate. For starters, his FIP is a much better 4.06 due to his very good 22.1% strikeout rate and 7.6% walk rate. His xFIP is even better at 3.56 due to his sky high 14.7% HR/FB rate. Also, his BABIP is up at .327 which should probably regress to something closer to league average. Both BABIP and HR/FB rate are considered to be subject to random variation, so they suggest that Josh Johnson might have been the recipient of some pretty lousy luck in his 12 starts so far this year.

Much like with Dickey, his grade reflects his poor results but also the signs that there should be better things ahead for Johnson. The time spent on the DL doesn't help his case either, as there were significant concerns over his health to begin the season. Fortunately it was just a triceps strain and not a shoulder or an elbow, but any injury is always worrisome for a player recently returned from season ending surgery.

Esmil Rogers - A

What a revelation Esmil Rogers has been in his time as a starter. Acquired from Cleveland for spare parts Mike Aviles and Yan Gomes, his success is even more satisfying when you think of him as the ultimate return in the John Farrell trade. Go ahead, try it. Pretty satisfying, right? When he was acquired it was as a reliever, and everyone assumed that's what he would remain. Even the Blue Jays seemed hesitant to give him a shot in the rotation as they gave starts to the likes of Ramon Ortiz and Chad Jenkins before Rogers got his chance. Since then, he has had 3.27 ERA and a a 3.67 FIP. He has struck out 19.1% of the batters he has faced while walking 7.7%. His BABIP has been about league average, but both his strand rate and HR/FB rates are high. He's been fortunate that those two factors haven't combined to hang him with a few more runs, but while some regression is likely, his success appears largely sustainable so far. As I wrote in my earlier piece here, he has made some changes to his repertoire this year. Most notable is his addition of a sinker, taught to him by bullpen coach Pat Hentgen right about when he joined the rotation. Overall, he has been a fantastic surprise and, should he continue pitching like he has, will probably remain in the rotation once Morrow and Happ return. He has already been rewarded for his early success, with Gibbons saying that Rogers will get the first spot in the rotation after the All Star break.

Brandon Morrow - D

This is a painful grade to dish out as I'm still a believer in Brandon Morrow, but the bottom line is that he's only been healthy enough to make 10 starts so far and those 10 starts have been pretty lousy. His ERA is a miserable 5.63 and his FIP isn't much better at 5.43. His walk rate is a perfectly respectable 7.4%, but his strikeout rate is down pretty significantly from his career norms at 17.4%. The problem is he's a fly ball pitcher, so a lot of those extra balls in play have been fly balls. This wouldn't be an issue if they were going for outs, but he has a crazy high 15.6% HR/FB rate so far this season which obviously results in a lot of home runs. He's already given up 12 in 10 starts after giving up just 12 in 21 starts last season. That gives him a 1.99 HR/9 rate which is the highest among regular starters. The high HR/FB ratios of Blue Jays starters is a pretty odd trend. It is something that is quite influenced by a pitcher's home park, but the Rogers Center has never been known as quite such an extreme home run park.  Maybe Gregg Zaun isn't crazy when he says that removing the windows in Windows Restaurant has created a home run sucking vacuum in center field (but he probably is). The fact that most of the other parks in the AL East are jokes doesn't help either.

Morrow's grade is reflective of his piss poor results and inability to stay healthy in 2013. Like I said, I'm still a believer in all that potential, but like I tell a kid whose dog ate their homework, I can't mark what I haven't seen.

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