Nice to be back as the Mariners fight to stay in this playoff race. A lot of that could depend on the AL Central producing a team capable of beating the Angels. The Twins couldn’t do it last night, blowing a lead in the ninth and losing in 10. The Mariners get their own AL Central patsy tonight as the last place Indians come to town. Seattle took three of four in Cleveland last week and can’t afford to let up now, Two of three in this series has to be the minimum if you’re the M’s.
A big thanks to Larry Stone for all the hard work he did on the blog the past seven days while covering the team’s road trip. He’s due for a well-deserved rest.
Also, it was nice to see Dewayne Wise achieve his moment in the sun yesterday, making that ninth inning catch to preserve Mark Buehrle’s perfect game. I met Wise in 2000 when he was a Rule 5 draft pick first called up by the Blue Jays straight out of Class AA at age 22. It was clear he was a bit out of his league, but the Jays did not want to lose him back to his original team, so he spent much of the year glued to the bench. He was used mainly as a pinch-runner and barely uttered a word all season to the mostly veteran players all around him. Would you?
Finally did hear him talk a bit when I used to run into him the following year when he lived in a condominium complex we were staying at for spring training. Very polite and courteous. A nice guy. His bat has never taken off in the big leagues, but his speed and defense have been enough to allow him to hang around for 286 games over the past decade.
Buehrle already had a World Series ring and no-hitter prior to yesterday. For me, the perfect game feat will be as much about Wise as the pitcher. This was Wise’s “career moment” nearly 10 years and a ton of hard work in the making. It’s nice to see the good guys have those things happen to them.
Now, speaking of pitchers and the defense behind them, let’s move on to Jarrod Washburn, who has the fourth-best ERA in the AL at 2.71. If someone had bet you $20,000 in March that Washburn would have a higher ERA than a healthy Roy Halladay (No. 5 at 2.73) on July 24, how many of you would have been rushing to liquidate your portfolios?
Still, there are a ton of folks out there suggesting Washburn has been “lucky” so far, is overrated and will soon make like Cinderella’s carriage and go “poof!” That the Mariners should trade him ASAP, regardless of where they are in the standings. This column for SI calls him a “smoke and mirrors act”.
Are these people nuts? Or, are they on to something? Let’s discuss.
Photo Credit: James Snook/Icon SMI
At the heart of the Washburn debate is the way in which he has gone about compiling a record of 8-6 with that 2.71 ERA. Washburn is not a strikeout pitcher. Of all the top-five ERA guys, he’s the only one who has not fanned at least 100 batters. Washburn has 78 strikeouts, while the other four have 136, 137, 101 and 113 respectively.
So, quite a difference.
In fact, his strikeouts per nine innings rate of 5.57 is the lowest of any pitcher in the top-10 for ERA. The others in the top-five are all at 7.06 and higher.
And so, Washburn tends to get hitters out, as he always has, by allowing opponents to put the ball in-play. And that type of pitcher tends to make a certain segment of statistically-inclined fans a little nervous. It’s understandable. And it’s what has been fueling much of the “trade Washburn!” talk since early last year.
Adding to those concerns is the fact that Washburn is more of a flyball pitcher than a guy who gets groundballs. He’s improved by a miniscule amount since last year in that regard, adding a better sinker to his repertoire. But he’s still a guy who gives up a lot of flyballs. And again, that makes people nervous because there is a line of thinking that a pitcher has little control over whether flyballs leave the park as home runs or wind up in the gloves of outfielders.
This is where my opinion starts to differ from that of some fans.
Because not all fly balls are created equally and the measurements we have out there for grading the strength of fly balls do not really distinguish which came close to leaving the yard and which were routine pop ups to shallow parts of the field.
After all, we don’t judge pitchers on how many balls hitters managed to foul straight back. As you might know, in baseball, when a hitter fouls one straight back, it often means he was just an inch or so away from hitting a home run. But folks, that’s baseball. It really is a game of inches. Those double-play grounders Kenji Johjima hits to the left side (when he actually plays) are often an inch or so from being line drive singles. But they aren’t.
So, one can try to argue that a shallow pop up to the left fielder off Washburn was really an inch or so from being a home run. But the truth is, it wasn’t a home run. It was an out. And of all the fly balls yielded by Washburn yesterday, I can’t remember any where I truly thought “uh-oh, that might be gone!”
In a pitcher’s park like Comerica, it makes sense for a pitcher who knows what he’s doing to allow some fly balls. Same thing at Safeco Field.
And Washburn has made a career out of getting hitters to mis-hit the ball.
His home runs allowed per fly ball this year is lower than it’s ever been at 7.5 percent. The average rate for a pitcher is usually 11 to 12 percent. But Washburn has been better-than-average in this regard for the past two seasons prior to this one, so to chalk it all up to “luck” seems a bit strong. It’s possible he does have a knack for keeping hitters off balance to the extent they can’t make solid contact.
So, what it boils down to is, do you believe Washburn can do stuff to hitters more successfully than other pitchers can, to the point where fewer fly balls leave the yard off him?
This will be key towards deciding whether some of you will want to keep Washburn around beyond this season or not.
There is no question that Washburn has been helped by his defense.
His Fielding Independant Pitching (FIP) stat sits at 3.80, which is more than a run higher than his ERA and suggests that — without Franklin Gutierrez and others making some miracle plays behind him — his ERA should be higher. That, when stuff starts evening out in 2010 or so, an ERA in the high 3.00s or low 4.00s would not be out of the question.
Frankly, I’d take a 3.99 ERA from Washburn next season if he could be re-signed at a reasonable amount. Last I checked, Gutierrez will still be around and — with a better shortstop — maybe Washburn is a 3.50 ERA guy next season. Many teams around baseball would take that behind Felix Hernandez and like their chances.
No, what will be the ultimate decider for a lot of folks is whether Washburn can keep his fly balls in the park.
When you look at another stat called xFIP, which adjusts the pitcher’s home runs-to-fly balls rate according to the average of just over 11 percent, it suggests Washburn’s ERA should be more like 4.54.
And that is what a truly average pitcher looks like in the AL.
At that point, you start to understand arguments that say the Mariners would be better off going with Jason Vargas, Ryan Rowland-Smith and Garrett Olson as rotation lefties rather than shelling out seven figures on Washburn.
The folks who say this are looking at the very numbers and arguments I’ve just laid out for you. They aren’t crazy for believing in what they do.
And they often will be the first — OK, maybe not the first, but close enough — to admit that some pitchers can defy their statistical expectations and revive careers even though they give up fly balls. Jamie Moyer was one of those and has continued to kick around with numbers far worse than Washburn’s FIP or xFIP this year.
Anyone who saw Washburn throwing 88 mph fastballs to Miguel Cabrera yesterday, then dropping in that 66 mph “Dolphin” or “Flipper” curve on him has to understand that this is an improved pitcher. Yes, Washburn has better fielding behind him. But when you can have a 22 mph variation in your pitches, the hitters are going to be kept off-balance. And they are going to mis-hit the ball.
A year ago at Comerica, fly ball park or not, the Tigers teed off on Washburn, hitting line drive after line drive, because he didn’t have enough variation from his high-80s fastball. Not this time. And remember, Gutierrez wasn’t there to back Washburn up this time. Nope, instead, the pitcher relied on what he has all season — a variety of pitches that don’t allow hitters to settle in and time their swings. And that produced the kinds of fly balls that you don’t really need a guy like Gutierrez to chase down.
So, what to do now?
Well, the M’s are still 5 1/2 games out of first place. But all of a sudden, they’re also only 4 1/2 out of the wild-card race. They are still in this thing and Washburn has helped keep them there.
At this point, unless some team blows you away with an “A” level prospect, I’d hang on to Washburn and try to re-sign him for next year.