The Houston Astros look mighty smart this off-season, and you could even forgive them for signing Scott Feldman to a long-term pact because $10 million a year is affordable for any team, more so to one that owns its own cable network.
GM Jeff Luhnow built his front office chops by honing St. Louis’ scouting and talent development into the juggernaut that reached the World Series twice in three seasons, so no one’s really surprised at how Houston shifted from being results oriented to being process oriented.
The Astros agreed to an incentive-laden one-year deal with swingman RHP Jerome Williams Monday. It’s an underwhelming move by all accounts. But the principle behind it isn’t.
After returning to pitch stateside in 2011 for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, he’s compiled a 19-18 record in 79 games* and in 351 innings has allowed a 4.46 ERA / 85 adjusted ERA / 6.0 k/9 / 2.22 K-to-BB ratio.
*More than half of which came as a starter.
There’s almost no saving grace, except an extreme 50 percent ground ball rate, decent ERA independent of fielding and keeping a once troubling walk rate** that chased him out of the league under control.
*Comparable to Feldman’s.
**He sported an 8.0 B/9 rates in his last stint with the Cubs, and that didn’t really go down after moving to the Washington Nationals. Taiwan and Far Eastern medicine fixed all that.
There may have been troubling developments in 2013 that made the Angels blush at paying the veteran about $4 million after arbitration. His line drive and fly ball rates are up and his ground ball rates are down. But his velocity actually increased a mile an hour each for his four seamer (92 mph), cutter (89 mph), curve ball (79 mph) and change-up (85 mph).
I’d much rather bet on Williams, as the Astros have done, than wager on a 36-year-old whose career ended five seasons ago, because of shoulder problems. Or one more round with Joe Blanton in any role.
Because here’s the thing where common sense kicks in.
Call it the Dan Duquette Doctrine. When asked what made him think Wei Yin Chen could succeed in the Majors during the 2012 season, the Duke had a simple answer — he’s a lefty, he throws more than 90 mph and he’s good at hitting his target. Replace “lefty” with “extreme ground baller” and you’re pretty much operating on the same no-shit principle.
Ground balls won’t always deflate homeritis. Sometimes it doesn’t matter. Williams is sometimes.
In three seasons, Williams never had a GB rate below 47 percent, and yet he averaged more than a home run per nine innings, with below league average HR/FB rates that never went below 13 percent* and it’s more than bad luck. Williams relies on a cut fastball as his most used secondary pitch. Thing is, if the ball doesn’t cut, it’s a batting practice cock shot. If Williams’ cutter was any more effective, I doubt we’ll be talking about him being non-tendered, or finding gainful employment with any other team but the Astros.
*I’m cheating. Kind of. Williams’ lowest HR/FB ratio was 12.8 percent, and that’s when he pitched just 44 innings in his first season in Anaheim. While on the subject, Williams plays in a notorious run suppressing environment.
Contrast that to Chen, an extreme fly ball pitcher (career 36 percent) with essentially the same strikeout, walk and home run rates as Williams, but has a better HR/FB ratio and is less prone to hanging meatballs over the plate. That basically comes out to about half a run allowed a game over the course of one season. If you think, oh, that’s hardly a difference, let me give you an illustration:
Pitcher A posts six Ks, 2.5 walks and 1.12 HR per nine innings. At the end of the season, assume he throws 140 innings and ends up with a 4.56 ERA.
Pitcher B has the same peripherals, throws 140 innings and ends up with a 4.04 ERA.
That half-run difference valued Chen at two wins. Williams meanwhile was worth less than half-a-win.
But a process that works takes more than one step. Identifying pitchers like Williams, who owns the sort of tools few people in the world possess isn’t by any means an end point. Consider how well a pitcher did last season. Plus points if he actually pitched. Subtract points if the pitcher last saw action five years* ago. Add points if the pitcher is a no-name projected to prevent runs as effectively as free agents Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana.
want need Mark Mulder to succeed, and I’ve settled that bar low to accommodate my selfishness: seven to 10 games, 5.00 ERA thereabouts. Fuck, one Major League start is a rousing success. But I’m not betting my Cup Noodles stash, even if I have the opportunity to double it, with an added incentive of winning a gigantic bottle of Tapatio and a month’s supply of limes.
Using Steamers’ equation, here’s a comp for five pitchers and how they’re projected to do in 2014:
- Williams: 4.28 ERA / 3.93 FIP in 96 innings.
- Santana: 3.96 ERA / 3.71 FIP in 192 innings.
- Jimenez: 4.03 ERA / 3.79 FIP in 186 innings.
- Feldman: 4.35 ERA / 3.99 FIP in 173 innings.
- Bronson Arroyo: 4.49 ERA / 4.25 FIP in 202 innings.
In case you’re into torture porn and get high on schadenfreude, here’s ZiPS’ projections for Blaton and Mulder:
Blaton: 118 innings, seven K’s and a shade under two walks per nine, 76 adjusted ERA.
Mulder: 10.2 innings, more than five K’s and three walks per nine, and a 75 adjusted ERA.
So of course the Angels hang on to Blanton and pursue Mulder while allowing Williams to play for division rivals.
The likelihood of Williams appearing in 170 effective innings isn’t as great. He’s probably best suited to start some games, and come in long relief on others. Barring injuries, Jimenez, Feldman and Santana are worth more wins, and are clearly better pitchers when everything’s taken into account.
But signing Williams shouldn’t be viewed in a vacuum of other variables. Come hell, they’ll be comfortable giving us more Bo Porter faces. At this stage, however, Luhnow has assembled a young first four — Feldman, Jarred Cosart, Brett Oberholtzer and Brad Peacock. Behind them and arranged for a competition for a fifth spot in spring, including Williams, Dallas Kuechel and former first round pick Alex White. Sometime soon Mark Appel and Mike Foltynewicz could be big league ready.
Dumpster diving is firstly a numbers game. The Astros have learned to rummage the right way.