Thursday, February 9, 2012

Blue Jay Prognostication: The Rotation

With Spring Training just around the corner, it’s time to look at what some of the major prognostication sources predict for Blue Jays players for the 2012 season. I gathered projections from four sources:

Bill James -– Author of “The Bill James Handbook” and one of the original sabermetricians
RotoChamp –- A fantasy baseball projection website –- The official fantasy baseball projections of Major League Baseball
PECOTA -– Baseball Prospectus’ weighted player projection system

In addition to those four projections, I added data from the 2011 season, as well as my personal prediction for each players statistics. With prognostication there’s no right or wrong way to do it -– trends, historical comparisons, three year averages, and league average systems are all valid. For my projections, I used a combination of statistical evidence and gut feeling, as one thing I have that the others do not is exposure. I watch 140+ games every season and immerse myself in everything Blue Jays. That has to count for something, right?

Ricky Romero

There’s no debating that 2011 was a breakout year for Ricky Romero. In his first year as the ace of the staff Romero encapsulated himself in the mantra, attacking hitters instead of nipping corners. As such, he threw a personal best 225 innings, while seeing both his walk rate and strikeout rate drop. That’s not to say Romero isn’t a strikeout pitcher anymore -– his 178 were 12th best in the AL –- he’s just pitching smarter. With runners on the corner and 1 out, it’s a lot easier to get out of the inning with a weak ground ball as opposed to two strikeouts.

With that being said, most projections seem to feel Romero is going to take a step back in 2012. His ERA is going to rise, there’s no doubt about that -– his .242 BABIP and 79.2% LOB values from last season are unsustainable. Even so, both Bill James and PECOTA went a bit overboard. The PECOTA projection of a 4.33 ERA and 1.40 WHIP is flabbergasting to anyone who actually watched a Blue Jays game last season. Assuming the strikeout and walk rates remain consistent with 2011 -– which all systems project them to –- the normalization of his BABIP and LOB% to more league average values would peg him with a low to mid 3 ERA and a WHIP in the low 1.2’s.

Brandon Morrow

For Morrow, 2011 was not the breakout season most Blue Jays fans were hoping for -– at least, not on the surface. Morrow’s ERA ballooned to 4.72, and even topped 5 in the summer months. Despite this, he did show some substantial signs of improvement. While adding 33 more innings onto his arm, Morrow maintained his league-leading strikeout rate, while cutting his walk rate from 4.06 to 3.46 – a significant improvement. The biggest problem for Morrow –- which has been well documented this offseason –- is his inability to get out of trouble once runners get aboard. His 65.5% LOB rate is well below league average, and absolutely killed his ERA.

All five prognostications, myself included, agree that Morrow should finally turn the corner in 2012. The amount in which he’ll improve, however, is up for debate. and PECOTA have the most pessimistic projections, expecting a drop-off in strikeout rate with an increase in walk rate. I disagree, and have the most optimistic view of Morrow’s 2012 season. While I expect the strikeout rate to take a small step back as Morrow further approaches the 200 inning plateau, I feel the biggest difference this season will be improved command. Morrow has substantially improved his walk rate in each of the past three seasons, and with his newfound aggressive mentality, I expect him to attack hitters in 2012 and further cut down that walk rate.

Henderson Alvarez

Alvarez will only be 21 years old on Opening Day, yet after an impressive top-to-bottom 2011 season, there’s little doubt he is poised to make the leap to full-time MLB starter. After receiving the call in August, Alvarez displayed his power arsenal and impeccable command, dominating hitters to the tune of a 3.53 ERA and 1.13 WHIP. What was perhaps even more impressive was his stamina and reliability, as he pitched 6 or more innings in eight of his ten starts. The only flaw with his debut was the lack of strikeouts, as Alvarez’ 5.65 K/9 were subpar for a pitcher with his type of stuff.

Bill James failed to give a projection for Hendo, so in the case of Alvarez we have only four predictions to inspect. It’s readily apparent that one of the four is not like the others. PECOTA expects a complete implosion by Alvarez, pegging him for a 5.50 ERA, 1.51 WHIP, and an unfathomable 4.40 K/9. Additionally, they project a walk rate approaching 3, despite the fact Hendo’s worst walk rate at any level is 2.16. To be perfectly frank, that prediction deserves to be thrown out. The remaining three projections all agree that Alvarez’ ERA is likely to fall in the mid-3 range. RotoChamp expects him to maintain his impeccable 2011 command, walking only 19 in 150 innings while striking out a modest 95. and I, however, feel he’ll throttle up the strikeouts at the expense of some command. Throughout his minor league career, Alvarez was typically in the mid to high 6 range for strikeouts per 9, and with his stuff, there’s no reason that shouldn’t translate to the major leagues in 2012.

Brett Cecil

After being selected by Toronto in the 1st round of the 2007 draft, Brett Cecil really appeared to come into his own in 2010. While the ERA was merely “good” at 4.22, he showed excellent command, strong groundball tendencies, and a solid strikeout rate. He even led the team in wins, with 15. Things fell apart quickly in 2011, as after an ugly start to the season he faced a demotion to Triple-A, where he would make 12 starts. Even after his return in late June he still wasn’t the same pitcher we saw in 2010. The strikeouts were still there, but the groundout to flyout ratio of 0.81 was well below the 1.21 mark from 2010 that allowed him to be so successful.

If a lack of conditioning is the reason for the drop in performance, then the problem should be easily remedied. All five prognostications –- myself included -– expect an improvement in 2012, though the degree of improvement is quite varied. projects drastic improvements in both strikeout and walk rates, resulting in what would be a career-best ERA of 3.82. The remaining four expect Cecil to post rates consistent with his 2010 and 2011 numbers, but an improved ERA due to a more Brett Cecil-like groundball rate. Throughout his minor league career his groundout to flyout ratio was around 2, and with a focus on conditioning and fundamentals there’s no reason his ratio should be as poor as it was last season.

Dustin McGowan

The fact McGowan is even mentioned on the starting pitcher projections is incredible given what he’s gone through since 2008. A trio of major surgeries and seemingly endless rehabilitation kept McGowan out of the major leagues for over three calendar years before he finally returned late last season. The Blue Jays have been medically advised that McGowan has a better chance of remaining healthy with a consistent schedule, and Toronto appears poised to give him every opportunity to achieve that consistency as a member of the rotation in 2012.

Given the lack of any actual data for three years, it’s astounding how similar all five projections are. The range in innings, strikeouts, and walks are 15, 19, and 16 respectively, while the range in ERA is merely a third of a run. The biggest variance is hits allowed (and therefore WHIP), but given that only 3 of the lines have projections for those statistics it’s hard to make any substantial analysis. PECOTA and estimate roughly a hit per inning, but when considering how in his last healthy season (2007) he held hitters to a .230 batting average against -– and his stuff is still there -– I find that hard to believe. Regardless, Dustin McGowan is in such a bizarre and unique situation that absolutely anything could happen.

Kyle Drabek

How the mighty have fallen. Drabek was pegged as one of the favorites for the American League Rookie of the Year in the spring of 2011, and his first start of the year –- 7 one-hit innings –- only further cemented that optimism. As the season wore on, Drabek’s control and curveball left him, followed closely by his confidence. He became a shell of his former self, and only got worse after an ill-advised demotion to the launching pad of Las Vegas. A year after being Toronto’s best pitching prospect, Drabek is now the red-headed step child to this often unforgiving fanbase.

I easily have the most optimistic projection for Drabek, and it’s because he’s simply too young and talented to give up on. A year ago, a 4.40 ERA and 1.42 would be a pessimistic view on Drabek. Today, fans would shed tears of joy if he achieved those goals. He has a power fastball, incredible curveball (which completely disappeared in his disastrous 2011 -– coincidence?), and a much improved cutter. His command is without a doubt shaky, but he has the stuff and the pedigree to be a successful major league pitcher. For now, Drabek just needs to focus on the basics that made him the heralded prospect he was and take things one step at a time. The numbers will come later. I’m not even going to discuss the negative predictions -- if you want to see someone kick a guy while he's down, look elsewhere. Blue Jays fans need to remember that every time Drabek blew a game, it hurt him far more than it hurt us. He deserves a chance at redemption.

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