Dude, Where's my Arm?!
August 3, 2006

I was flipping through the games on Wednesday and stopped on a couple because I was having a hard time processing what I was seeing. 

For example, I boggled when I saw the radar numbers of Chien-Mien Wang.  Last year he was mostly throwing 91-93.  On Wednesday, he was 92-97(!).  His sinking fastball has a lot of lateral movement but at that velocity I'm surprised so many guys are able to put the bat on the ball.  He had pretty good strikeout rates in the minors that haven't translated and I guess it's because he throws so many balls over the plate.  In the minors, that movement would get swings and misses but in the majors it just gets groundballs. 

I know a lot of people like to use strikeout-to-walk ratio to evaluate pitchers, but in doing so they seriously undervalue guy like Wang.  I really don't know what kind of staying power he has, but there is precedent for guys with lousy K/BB and K/9 rates having solid careers.  Ted Lyons is in the Hall of Fame with more walks than Ks and a career K/9 of 2.32.  The game was less about home runs and strikeouts back then, but the example is still instructive.  Is anyone judging Justin Verlander negatively because his K rate is barely 6 per 9?  Conversely, how many people are lining up to pick up Scott Baker, because his K/BB rate is in the top 20 in all of baseball at 4.73.  He might be better off throwing fewer strikes because hitters seem to like it when he gets it over the plate.  Same with Edgar Gonzales in Arizona, who has a 15/1 ratio and a lovely 6.27 ERA and 1.45 WHIP to go with it.  Keith Foulke, Brian Sikorski, TJ Beam, Chris Hammond, Vinnie Chulk, Manny Delcarmen, Kevin Gregg, Jake Peavy, Greg Maddux, Yusmiero Petit, Jeremy Accardo and Mike Burns all have excellent K/BB rates, better than 3/1.  And all of them have something else in common - lousy ERAs and WHIPs.  K/BB is a helpful tool but it is by no means a guarantee that the pitcher won't still stink. 

Similarly, guys who throw a high percentage of strikes can also have a wide range of success.  Ted Lilly threw 67% of his pitches for strikes against the Yanks last night and got hammered for 10 hits and 5 runs in a little more than 5 innings.  Scott Baker threw 68% strikes to the Rangers, yet didn't get out of the 4th inning.  Meanwhile, Andy Pettitte threw just 58% strikes to the Padres and shut them out for 6 innings.  Not impressed by the Padres?  OK, Ricky Nolasco threw 56% strikes to the Philles BEFORE they traded Abreu and he held them scoreless and nearly hitless for seven innings his last time out.  The percentage of strikes a pitcher throws means very little as to the outcome of a single game.  The quality of the strikes is much more important.  To know that, you have to watch the games.  Even over the course of a season you will find a fairly wide range of strike percentage and successful pitchers.  Among the leaders in highest strike percentage you will usually find Paul Byrd, Curt Schilling and Jon Lieber.  You will also find Eric Milton, Josh Towers and Jose Lima.  Among the league trailers you will often find Tom Glavine, Brandon Webb and Jose Contreras.  Draw your own conclusions.

But I digress... you know who else has surprisingly good velocity that is probably under most people's radar?  Edwin Jackson.  He was hitting 98 mph in his second inning of work against the Tigers on Tuesday and looked very comfortable just letting it go.  I'm sure the Rays will try to ease him back into the rotation at some point, but he might just be one of those guys who likes to go all out for as long as he can when he's on the mound.  That could mean a shot at the Rays closer's job at some point, even though I would give the edge to Seth McLung at getting and keeping that job in the very near future.  He's got seriously good stuff, too.

Jeremy Sowers doesn't have great velocity but what he does have is a delay hitch in his delivery that throws off the hitter's timing and a slider that breaks across the plate like Tony Fossas' did.  Sowers made David Ortiz (as well as most of the lefties he faced) look pretty bad.  He also seems unflappable.  His strikeout rates aren't particularly exciting but he knows how to pitch.  I don't think he'll experience many growing pains and makes a solid pick-up in mixed leagues.

It doesn't appear that Fausto Carmona's stay as the Cleveland closer will be a long one.  Sure, he had pitched with great confidence out of the pen before being anointed, but his run-in with David Ortiz's game winning homer has apparently unhinged him.  Last night, after striking out the first two batters in the ninth and only needing one more strike, he overthrew a fastball and hit Doug Mirabelli, of all people.  With the very next pitch he hit Alex Gonzales.  He had a total of four visits on the mound (one by the pitching coach and three by various numbers of team mates) to try to calm him after the first hit batsman.  He started out well enough against Kevin Youkilis but again started to overthrow his fastball and couldn't trust his breaking ball.  He ended up giving a full-count free pass on a pitch that nearly hit Youkilis in the head.  His first pitch to Mark Loretta almost hit him, too.  He finally grooved a fastball, taking a little off to try to get a quick strike and Loretta smoked it halfway up the Monster for a game-winning single.  Two save chances, two blown saves and three terrible late-inning outings in a row.  And the saves were not just blown on lucky bounces or a tough play in the field.  Both of them were due to Carmona's control, or lack therof.  Eric Wedge's facial tick has gotten much worse since he designated Carmona as his closer.

The Indians have several other potential options so it's not like the Royals earlier this year where Burgos was really their only option.  Rafael Betancourt is pitching the best right now so he will probably get the next shot at the job.  However, he's no lock: over the last two years his ERA with runners on base is over 7.  This year in particular batters are hitting nearly .300 against him (with 4 homers) when runners are on base in a little more than 15 innings.  Fernando Cabrera is probably next in line after him.  If Cabrera would stop starting every batter he faces with his fastball and occasionally throw his splitter, he might become a pretty decent closer.  Even then, his delivery - falling off to the left of the mound - is susceptible to mechanical problems.  Eric Wedge's facial tick is only going to get worse.

I don't know how many of you saw it but Wily Mo Pena's home run against Brian Sikorski on Wednesday was frightening.  With most home run there is an arc where the ball soars to a certain point then falls fairly gently into the stands.  Pena's blast was a thing of violence, seemingly increasing it's velocity as it rose before it slammed into the wall behind the first row of Monster seats.  It hit so hard that it bounced back halfway back to the infield.  I wouldn't be surprised to find that it dented the wall.  Pena has scary power and the even scarier thing is that he's still pretty young (24).   If he can learn not to swing at everything, he could become a pitcher's nightmare and a fantasy monster in a couple of years.  I'm reminded of another free-swinging slugger with awesome power who didn't walk much early in his career.  He made his debut at age 22 and in his first two seasons he had BB/K rates of 19/85 and 17/92.  Like Pena, he didn't hit for high average his first couple of years.  When he turned 25 people started to take notice of him but his career really took off when a light went on (only swing at strikes) the following year.  That season, he hit .315 with a .381 on base and .581 slugging and he became the central cog in a team that won two World Series and four division titles.  You probably know him as Willie Stargell.

But back to Cleveland... Andy Marte needs help from Jobu.  His bat no like curve ball.  Doesn't much like change-up either.  In spring training he proved he could hit fastballs, and he can probably wallop mistake breaking balls over the middle of the plate.  But unless he changes his approach and shortens his swing, this time around the majors won't be any better than last year's go around.  In case you don't remember, he hit .140/.227/.211 last year in a better hitters park and against weaker competition than where he is now. 

On the opposite end, it's impossible to be hotter than Mark Teahan over the last month.  He's hitting .368 since the All-Star Break with 6 homers, 21 RBI, slugging almost .800 with an OPS over 1.200.  Like Chris Shelton in April, this too shall pass.  There is nothing in his minor league numbers (or even his college numbers when he was using an aluminum bat) that indicates he capable of sustaining this kind of power.  His .287 minor league average suggests that he might be capable of a good batting average however.  One interesting note: Erik Kubota, who was the director of the A's scouting operations, thought that of all the guys drafted in the Moneyball draft, Teahen was the one who could come the closest to fulfilling Jason Giambi-type production.  That still seems far-fetched but maybe he saw something in his swing. 

With Julio Lugo gone, Ben Zobrist got a couple of starts for Tampa.  He's smooth at short and everything looks good on defense but I'm not sure he's going to hit enough to stay in the line-up.  He was consistently late on pitches from Zach Minor.  It's understandable to be late on Verlander's fastball, but Minor is only hitting 91-92 and to be consistently late on what is a slightly better than average fastball is not a good sign.  He'll get playing time, but might end up as Adam Everett without the speed.