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December 21, 2007 at 10:10 AM

A Silva lining?

Much of the free world still appears to be in shock over the Mariners giving Carlos Silva a four-year, $48-million contract yesterday. The Twins as an organization are happy for Silva, sort of the way friends are after you win the lottery. Only they can’t come around begging for handouts. This columnist from Minnesota calls it “the end of the world” and asks the question on many folks’ mind about what this does to the Johan Santana market. My hunch? Not much. Santana was going to get his $20 million or more per season regardless of what the middle tier of pitchers did.
The fact that Silva and Hiroki Kuroda are making $12 million per year instead of the $10 million most suspected they’d get is not, all of a sudden, going to make Santana a $30-million man. This subject is a little important to M’s fans even if they don’t trade for Santana. If the M’s were to get Erik Bedard in a deal and he saw Santana signing for $30 million per annum, how slim would Seattle’s chances be of getting Bedard to sign an extension before he hits the open market after 2009? Just food for thought.
So, what’s the upside on Silva, you ask? After all, if, as Adam pointed out in yesterday’s comments thread, there are many statistical similarities between Silva and Josh Towers, why would the Mariners go out and pay this guy so much money? Well, let’s take a look at some other stats.

Yes, it is true there are striking similarities between former Blue Jays starter Towers, now a non-tendered free agent, and the 28-year-old Silva. Both have the uncanny ability to throw strikes. Both have nearly identical ground ball, fly ball and line drive tendencies over the past three seasons.
I’ll stop right there because I think that’s the problem here. The three-season part. Yes, it’s true that both pitchers had their career-best seasons in 2005. Towers especially had a season — now almost three calendar years ago — that stands out in stark contrast to the rest of his career. We can all guess why that is and some of it might be accurate. Towers was pitching for his future in 2005 and seemed unlikely to be guaranteed a big-league job in coming years as a pending free agent. Then, he went out in 2005 and pitched his heart out, setting personal bests in most categories and surpassing 200 innings for the only time in his career.
It’s what happened next that erases any doubt about Towers and Silva being similar pitchers.
Towers went out in 2006 and was Horacio Ramirez — lite. I mean, he got absolutely bombed. His games were often over by the third inning. I know because I was there to see them all. Towers gave up 13 homers in his first 10 starts before being yanked from the rotation. And the big part of it was, he was barely throwing any innings in those starts, so the homer total is a lot worse than it already looks.
The true difference between Towers and Silva is not in earned run average — through technically, there is a huge difference. But we’ll leave ERA out of this for now. No, the real difference, the reason why I can partially understand the M’s being willing to throw millions at one guy instead of picking up the other for next-to-nothing is innings worked.
And forget about going back three years. For me, the most telling stats are what the two pitchers have done in 2006 and 2007, the two years since their career-best seasons.
I mean, it’s nice that Towers had a great year in 2005. But so did Dontrelle Willis. And if I’m looking for a reclammation project, I’d rather spend a few bucks and go for the guy who was a Cy Young contender instead of a guy like Towers. But maybe that’s just me.
Anyway, the point is, if I’m a GM about to unload the vault, I’m going to care more about what a guy has done lately than what he did three years ago. That’s why the past two years carry far more weight than 2005. With two years, you still leave room for the possibility of one of those being a “fluke” — either good or bad — while still getting an accurate read on what the pitcher is doing right now.
So, let’s forget about wins, ERA and all that — which clearly favor Silva — and get down to why the M’s spent so much money yesterday. It is about the innings pitched and this is where, as I mentioned earlier, the two pitchers separate, never to meet in the middle again.
So, over the past two seasons combined, let’s look at:
Number of 6+ inning games thrown
Silva — 40
Towers — 7
Number of Quality Starts (6+ innings, 3 earned runs or less)
Silva — 30
Towers — 5
Number of Quality Starts of at least 7 innings
Silva — 12
Towers — 1
Number of starts of 7+ innings
Silva — 18
Towers — 4
Getting a clear picture? So, knowing all of that, why on Earth would an M’s club in desperate need of starters who can go deep into games want to waste a rotation spot on a pitcher as bad as Josh Towers has been in that department the past two years? Forget about 2005. It’s almost 2008. Josh Towers brings nothing of value to the table for Seattle. Carlos Silva does. His ability to go deeper in individual games adds value to this current staff. There is no getting around it.
And yes, there is a difference between a 200-inning pitcher and a guy who can go seven innings or more. Any six-inning pitcher can hit 200 innings by making all his starts. But not all of those guys can work beyond the seventh inning with any regularity. Miguel Batista couldn’t last season. Felix Hernandez could at about the same rate as Silva. And sometimes, the ability to work seven innings or more is what saves a bullpen from burning out by the month of August.
I’ve seen it argued that Towers didn’t get to log the innings that Silva did because the Blue Jays bounced him in and out of the rotation. Well, yes, that’s true. But here is what Towers did last year, innings-wise, in each of his starts before getting bounced to the bullpen:
Obviously on a short leash. But why not? Here’s how he began the 2006 season before being bounced:
This screams out fifth-starter. Actually, it screams out bad fifth-starter. Borderline major leaguer.
Much of the comparitive analysis I’ve seen between Silva and Towers is based on what happens to balls once they pitch them. It suggests that both rely to roughly the same degree on the fielders behind them to make outs. Viewing things that way would suggest that the two are very similar pitchers.
But again, there is obviously something very different happening to the ground balls induced by Silva as opposed to Towers. Is it a coincidence? Maybe. But two years worth? Towers must be a very unlucky guy. More likely, the grounders he induces are screamers — like the ones I saw him yielding in 2006 — while Silva is getting the softer, double-play variety to escape trouble and keep his pitch counts low.
By the way, Towers was non-tendered a week ago and has yet to be picked up. So, it’s not just the local front office that fails to see what a hidden gem he is.
Again, there is merit to the analysis of how much a pitcher depends on his fielders. But to ignore all of the other telling stats in favor of this is something I’m not biting on. In the case of the Mariners, what value is Towers supposed to bring to this club? I’ve shown you the value Silva brings. It’s in his innings totals in individual games. Is that worth $48 million? Who knows what anything is really worth any more? That’s a lot of cash. But the M’s are a better team this morning for having spent it. They still need a front-end starter, though, or the full improvement won’t be felt.



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