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July 22, 2008 at 10:50 AM

Should M’s keep Washburn?

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For anyone who hasn’t seen it, here’s the latest blog post from Ryan Rowland-Smith, written after his demotion to Class AAA.
“It was the toughest day of the year for me,” he writes. “I left Safeco Field upset and very confused. I’m not sure if people understand the feeling of being sent down, it’s tough no matter what.”
It goes on into more detail. Interesting to read his thoughts. I’d have thought he’d be happy once he thought of the bigger picture, knowing that he really wants to become a starting pitcher. Then again, it’s easy for all of us to sit and talk big picture. These guys have a limited shelf life when it comes to their athletic careers.
By the way, for those of you asking me about the Manny Ramirez story and how I got it: let’s just say that the Times has plenty of reporters and columnists who are Mariners fans and go to games on their own dime. If you’re going to have a run-in with a cop, it’s best not to do it right in front of those Times reporters and columnists trained to take down notes and get in-close to the action.
Back to Rowland-Smith. He is, as we mentioned, being groomed to take over a rotation spot. Why? Well, part of the reason is the uncertain status of the two lefties in the rotation. Who knows whether Erik Bedard will be healthy enough to pitch at 100 percent efficiency the rest of the season? Or whether or not Jarrod Washburn did enough last night to get himself traded.
Now, here’s the part that’s going to get me in trouble with some folks: should the Mariners be trading Washburn?
I mean, yes, we’ve all heard the conventional wisdom. That Washburn is regressing with age and will be a worthless hunk of lefty mound waste by next season. One that will cost more than $10 million.
But if all the M’s are going to do is dump Washburn’s salary in a trade, would it benefit the team more to be keeping him? You know my take on it. I still think the team should hedge its bets and try to save money. Namely because it has some lefty starters who could step in and do a borderline, replacement-level job right about now. Or, within weeks. Like Rowland-Smith.
The big question becomes, how “real” is this mid-season transformation by Washburn? Because it appears that, if he keeps this up the rest of the year, he will wind up producing very close to the same numbers that he did in 2007.

I can hear the screams of “results based analysis” already. Well, yes. We’ve already seen that some statistical projections can be off. We’ve heard for two years now about how Raul Ibanez’s defense is getting worse by the second. And yet, there are now some zone rating statistics that show Ibanez is having his best defensive season in years playing left field. He’s still an above average American League performer among peers at his position, even with a regression at the plate. If his bat keeps progressing as it has the past two months, he could wind up having a better overall statistical season than in 2007. Don’t forget, offensively he’s been an above .800 OPS guy in three of the season’s first four months. It’s a .673 OPS in May that’s killing Ibanez’s overall hitting totals right now, but the impact of that lone month will be negated as more time passes as long as Ibanez keeps up what he’s done.
And yet, we’ve been told time and time again that Ibanez is done. That he’s terrible defensively and his bat is going to plummet. But the one thing veteran players — some of them anyhow — learn how to do over the years in make adjustments. They learn how to overcome in-season difficulties. Not all. We haven’t seen Jose Vidro or Kenji Joihjima do that yet in 2008.
But we’ve seen Ibanez do it before. And now, Washburn claims he’s done it as well.
How bad has Washburn really been this year?
Let’s see: his strikeouts-to-walks rate is still 2-to-1, like it’s always been. He’s on-pace for 180 innings, instead of the 193 2/3 he threw last year. But if he keeps up this pace of the past two months, throwing six innings every time out, he should come in right about 194 innings, pretty much dead even with last year.
Right now, his ERA+ is down to 84. That’s well off his 100 from last year. But part of that is a function of the league ERA as a whole, which is way lower than in 2007. Once again, if Washburn keeps up what he’s been doing since June began, he’ll wind up with pretty much the same results he did in 2007. His batting average against on balls put into play (BABIP) is .327 this year, compared to .291 last season, so you can’t really make a claim that he’s been “lucky” in that regard.
In other words, if he keeps it up, he’ll be a league average starter. So, is that so awful? Even at $10 million per year? For a lefty? Not really. Not the way pitching costs go. Yes, you can find cheaper guys and some will give you 33 starts per year, close to 200 innings and a league average ERA. But they are not a dime-a-dozen, especially from the left side.
And no Seattle starter, other than Felix Hernandez, will come close to replicating what Washburn has done over nearly 200 innings. That’s the ticket. Some of them have put up nicer numbers. But if you can only get those about 65 percent of time, it lessens the impact of those numbers.
Where Washburn did himself in, in the hearts and minds of plenty of fans — and reporters, let’s be honest — was bombing out early on in the season when this team still had a chance. When the games still meant something.
But then again, I can make the same claims about Ichiro, can’t I?
About how the latter’s .683 OPS in April helped doom this team and that little else he did later on really mattered. Come on, we can do that with just about every player on this team, both the popular and unpopular guys.
So, what will happen with Washburn? I’d say it’s still up in the air right now. Complicating things even further is what will happen if the M’s trade Erik Bedard this winter. If Washburn winds up dealt this summer, that would leave the team heading into 2009 without a lefty starter who has proven capable of putting up league average results.
A small consideration, to be sure. But a consideration nonetheless.
So, how do we know that what Washburn has done isn’t all smoke and mirrors? Well, we don’t. But consider this. Yes, he padded his record against some weak teams. But he also had his numbers driven up to ghastly proportions by some teams that hit the ball very well. If we’re going to discount one set of results, do we discount those others– like his massacre in Detroit at the hands of the Tigers?
I just find this whole question interesting.
To me, a team with options, like Rowland-Smith, or a healthy Ryan Feierabend, would do itself a favor by shedding an eight-figure contract from a veteran lefty. Especially if it has no serious chance of contending in 2009.
But contending or not, somebody has to pick up innings for the team next year. Somebody has to help keep the team from losing two of every three games, in order to keep the turnstiles flowing and the cash coming in for what is still very much a business. If you think Washburn has found something and that he can deliver close to 200 innings of league average stuff next season — at a cost that still isn’t the end of the world — then keeping him is not as laughable a prospect as it would have seemed back in May.
And besides, he only has to be “for real” another few months into next season. You can always unload him at the 2009 deadline and then he only costs you about $6.5 million.
Sure, it’s still a gamble. He could regress even worse than he did back in May. But everything is a gamble of sorts in the business of baseball. What I’m saying is, things aren’t always the slam-dunk they appear to be at first glance. Not everything is as black-and-white as it’s made out to be.
Hey, if we can’t talk about this stuff and keep things interesting, it’s going to be a very dull final two months of 2008, don’t you think?
ADDITIONAL NOTE (12:35 p.m.): For ConcentrationGuy in the comments section, if ERA+ is indeed a measurement of a pitcher’s ERA relative to the rest of the league and that league is indeed putting up ERA numbers better than a year ago, it stands to reason that this is causing Washburn’s ERA+ to be worse, does it not? After all, take Washburn’s same ERA stats and compare them to the league a year ago, where the average ERA was higher (worse), and Washburn’s ERA+ numbers would be better. Hope you get it now.
For Tangotiger, I appreciate what you are saying. But if American League ERA has fluctuated between 4.35 and 4.63 for the past five years, is it not unreasonable to expect this year’s 4.14 ERA to “regress to the mean” once a full sample size of one season is played? I mean, I haven’t checked this out, but I’d imagine the effect of interleague play and throwing to weaker NL lineups has taken the AL ERA to better heights, which will regress once more games against AL squads offset that? AL ERA hasn’t been this low, at least not by season’s end since 1993. That’s why I find it hard to believe this year’s ERA will remain so low come the end of September.
Yes, you could make the same argument that Washburn’s ERA will rise accordingly as well. But then again, not necessarily to the same terrible level he was at in May, when squads were obliterating him. I don’t expect his ERA to regress at quite the rate the league’s will. Even if he regresses slightly from where he’s been the past eight starts as we move forward and he faces more AL squads, his overall ERA could still improve, just because of how poorly he did early on. At that rate, his ERA+ would also improve, so long as AL ERA regressed to its usual standard of the past 15 years. Am I wrong?
For Brian L., Ibanez’s RZR (Revised Zone Rating) of .872 is the best it’s ever been for him in left field. His OOZ (plays made outside his zone) are also on-pace to beat out last year’s total and perhaps be the best of his career in left field. Also, his RZR is the third-highest of any American League left fielder, trailing only Johnny Damon and Carl Crawford, as is his OOZ. And that’s while playing half his games at Safeco Field, which, as you’ve mentioned, is not an easy place to play left.



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