Saturday, April 27, 2013

Brothers in Arms: The Rise and Fall of Four Starters

This season, while still early, is writing the final chapters in the careers of four starters to have thrown no-hitters.

Jonathan Sanchez, Philip Humber, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Francisco Liriano. Four starters, all of whom have thrown no-hitters (and in Humber's case, the 21st perfect game in MLB history). Four men who, for all intents and purposes, have bottomed out shortly thereafter. We are witnessing the nadir in the career of each man.

Jonathan Sanchez was, not all that long ago, a respectable if not outstanding back-end starter for the Giants. While he was always overshadowed by better starters on the pitching-rich San Francisco franchise, Sanchez managed to cobble together 6.6 WAR between 2008 and 2010. This included a no-hitter on July 10th, 2009 against San Diego, as well as a 2010 season wherein he won thirteen games, had an ERA of 3.07 (although his FIP and xFIP pointed to a true ERA closer to 4.00). The warning signs were evident even then for Sanchez. Firmly entrenched in his physical prime between 2008 and 2010 (his Age-25 to Age-27 seasons), Sanchez was able to offset his proclivity for walks with a high strikeout rate, enough to offset his high BB rate and keep a K/BB ratio over 2.00 for those three seasons. Even still, Sanchez led the majors in walks (with 96 in 193 1/3 innings) in 2010, his best season. This was at the time off-set by his 205 strikeouts, one of fifteen pitchers that season to post 200 or more Ks.

Since then, however, Sanchez's career has crumpled. His walk rate has increased, while his strikeout rate has dropped precipitously. Between 2008-2010, his BB/9 rate hovered in the mid-4s, not great, but tolerable from a high-strikeout pitcher. That is not the case anymore, though; Sanchez had a K/9 rate in the mid-9.00s between 2008-2010, but that has dropped to below 9.00 this season, and was a paltry 6.26 Ks per 9 IP last season, in which he posted an ERA of 8.07, including an ERA of 9.53 with the Colorado Rockies. This has been coupled with a noticeable rise in Sanchez's tendency to give up home runs. In his prime, his HR/9 rate was between 0.80 per 9 innings and 1.05 per 9 innings. Since leaving San Francisco, that rate has skyrocketed. In 2012, Jonathan Sanchez's HR/9 rate rose to 1.53, and in 2013 stands at an ugly 3.97 HRs per 9 innings.

While most would not have anticipated Jonathan Sanchez's career to get worse than his 2012 season and his time with the Rockies in that season, 2013 so far has been as bad, if not worse. In his most recent start, Sanchez managed to leave the game with a loss, without recording an out. Sanchez allowed back-to-back homers from Matt Carpenter and Carlos Beltran, followed by a single to Matt Holliday. Clearly frustrated at this point, Sanchez decided to throw a pitch at Allen Craig, although it could be argued that Sanchez is at this point so devoid of control over his pitches that he may not have even intended to hit Craig. Regardless, Sanchez earned a six-game ban for his actions. His final line that night:

0.0 IP, 3 H, 2 R (2 ER), 2 HR, 1 HBP, Loss

His ERA in 2013 currently stands at an abhorrent 12.71. His FIP and xFIP are not much better (9.43 and 5.40, respectively). The Pirates are currently dealing with a litany of injuries to starting pitchers (Francisco Liriano, Jeff Karstens, and knuckleballer Charlie Morton) and are averse to calling up either of their prized pitching prospects (Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, not Rinku and Dinesh) too early. While their options are currently very thin (they have Vin Mazzaro, the only man in modern baseball history to give up 14 earned runs in under 3 innings of work), it has become clear that Jonathan Sanchez will not re-discover the magic of his 2010 season. The time to cut bait is now for Pittsburgh.

Similar in makeup to Jonathan Sanchez is de facto Indians ace (and I use the term "ace" quite loosely) Ubaldo Jimenez. Ubaldo's career did not earn himself a World Series ring as it did for Jonathan Sanchez, but both Sanchez and Jimenez had their best career years in 2010. Much like Sanchez, Ubaldo had his best years between 2008 and 2010. After coming up in 2007 and giving up the 762nd and final home run of Barry Bonds's career, Ubaldo Jimenez posted 16 WAR and 46 wins between 2008 and 2010. In the three years since, he has posted 3 WAR and 32 losses, including a league-high 17 losses in 2012 for Cleveland.

In the midst of his prime, Ubaldo Jimenez had a no-hitter, the first in the history of the Colorado Rockies, on April 17, 2009 against the Atlanta Braves, and had two scoreless streaks of 20+ innings. Then the next season, Jimenez won 19 games, posted the best pitching season in Rockies history, and had a 2.88 ERA while striking out 214 batters.

Since that illustrious season, however, his career has had a similar, if less drastic, arc as Jon Sanchez. Ubaldo's HR/9 rate between 2008-2010 was between 0.41 and 0.54 per nine innings. Since then, that rate has risen to 0.81 in 2011, 1.27 in 2012, and is currently 2.12 in 2013. This is accompanied by a rise in his BB/9 rate. Much like Sanchez, Ubaldo's power was derived from his fastball (although it was as much as 10mph faster than that of Sanchez at its peak) and off-set the high walk rates that were posted. While Jimenez's K/9 rate has only decreased marginally, his walk rate has jumped from a rate in the mid-3.00s to a rate of 4.84 per 9 in 2012, and an unsightly 5.82 per 9 this season. Consequently, his K/BB ratio has plummeted from a high of 2.33 in 2009 and 2010 to a rate of 1.51 last season and 1.36 so far this season. All of this has been accompanied by a continually decreasing number of innings pitched per season:

2008: 198 2/3 IP
2009: 218 IP (+19 1/3 IP)
2010: 221 2/3 IP (+3 2/3 IP)
2011: 188 1/3 IP (-33 1/3 IP)
2012: 176 2/3 IP (-~12 IP)

Unlike the Pirates, however, the Indians gave up a significant haul to acquire Jimenez in 2011, and he has an $8 million team option (with a $1 million buyout) for 2014. What's more, the Indians have just as few alternative options as Pittsburgh, and do not have any major-impact pitching prospects to look forward to, after having traded Drew Pomeranz and Alex White (neither of whom have panned out) in 2011 to acquire Jimenez.

This brings us to Francisco Liriano, the ever-frustrating talent. A converted reliever, Liriano was utterly dominant as a starter in 2006 (16 starts, 12-3, 2.16 ERA, 208 ERA+, 1 SV, 121 IP, 144 Ks, 10.7 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 4.50 K/BB, All-Star appearance) before tearing the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow and missing all of 2007. Liriano is the somewhat-rare case of the starter who comes back from Tommy John surgery worse than he was before; his BB/9 was under 3.00 in both 2005 and 2006, but has since only dipped under 3 walks per 9 innings in one season (2010, his Age-26 season, with a 2.7 BB/9 rate). His pre-surgery K/BB ratio was above 4.50 in 2005 and 2006, but has never been higher than 3.47 since, and has routinely been below a rate of 2.00 strikeouts per walk. An ERA that was 2.16 before the injury has never been lower than 3.62 (which he posted in 2010) since.

Post-surgery Liriano has been perpetually infuriating, particularly if you are or were a fan of the Twins during his tenure there. One start would be outstanding, and then would be followed up by a terrible start or multiple terrible starts. He might be the most enigmatic pitcher in the major leagues in the past five years. His 2011 season is a perfect illustration of such a phenomenon. On May 3rd, 2011, Liriano threw a no-hitter against the White Sox, despite only striking out two and walking six (!) batters, throwing 53% of his pitches for strikes, and getting first-pitch strikes on only one-third of the batters he faced. Even after posting a full nine innings of no-hit, shutout ball, Francisco's 2011 season ERA still stood at 6.61, and he finished the year with an ERA of 5.09 and an ERA+ of 80 (20% below league average).

While Liriano's K/9 rate has crept back up into the 9.00 range in the past few years, his BB/9 rate jumped from 2.7 walks per nine in 2010 to a static rate of 5.0 BB/9 every season since, nearly double his 2005-2006 and 2010 rates. His wildness has long been his trademark, but it's taken a step up as he exits his prime pitching years. In an unexpected twist, Liriano may be in line to replace fellow Pirate and brother in (pitching) arm Jonathan Sanchez in Pittsburgh's rotation; he will be returning from a freak accident resulting in a broken right forearm on May 10th. If he can even pitch like he has in the past three years, he will still be an improvement over Sanchez, and while not ideal, the Pirates will likely roll with that until Gerrit Cole is ready to be called up.

Finally, we come to our anomaly. What to make of Philip Humber? A former 1st-round draft pick and top prospect for the Mets and Twins after being a major piece (along with Carlos Gomez) in the 2008 trade for Johan Santana, Humber never fully met his potential. Humber was part of the Rice Big Three, all of whom (Jeff Niemann, Humber, Wade Townsend, and also David Aardsma) were drafted in the first round of the 2004 entry draft, the same draft in which Justin Verlander and Jered Weaver (among less-heralded others) were selected.

Humber received all of 2 major-league starts between 2004 and 2010, and appeared in only 26 games over that time frame. He was traded by the Mets to the Twins, waived by the Twins, picked up by the Royals, waived by the Royals, picked up by the Athletics, and then waived by the A's before being claimed by the White Sox. The White Sox were willing to trot him out as a starter, and between 2011 and early 2012, Humber rewarded that faith. He posted a 3.4 WAR season in 2011, going 9-9 over 163 innings, posting an ERA of 3.75, an ERA+ of 116, and a career-best K/BB ratio of 2.83 to boot.

This was followed by a quality April in 2012, in which he had his career-defining moment. On April 21, 2012, Phil Humber tossed the 21st perfect game in major league history, blanking the Mariners in Humber's first career complete game. It has been referred to in some circles as perhaps the most unlikely perfect game in MLB history. He had the second-fewest starts of any pitcher to throw a perfect game (29 prior starts, second only to Charlie Robertson, who had 4 prior starts before throwing his perfect game, which curiously enough was also for the White Sox).

Since that apex, however, Philip Humber has completely fallen apart, arguably more so than any other pitcher mentioned here. As pointed out recently by HardBallTalk, Humber's ERA has been 7.52 since April 21, 2012. He finished his 2012 season (his Age-29 season) with a gag-inducing 6.44 ERA. This included starts such as:

4/26/12, vs. Boston - 5 IP, 8 H, 9 ER, 3 HR, 3 BB, 5 K, Loss

5/7/12, at Cleveland - 2 1/3 IP, 9 H, 8 ER, 1 HR, 2 BB, 1 K, Loss
7/22/12, at Detroit - 3 IP, 7 H, 6 ER, 4 HR, 1 BB, 0 K, Loss
9/4/12, vs. Minnesota - 1/3 IP, 7 H, 8 ER, 1 HR, 2 BB, 0 K

Understandably, the White Sox did not retain Humber's services going into 2013. Instead, he was signed to a deal by the Houston Astros, the babyface in the American League and a franchise coming off two seasons of 105+ losses. While the Astros did not expect the world of a player that no one else seemed to want, they could not have expected what he has given them so far (0-5, 7.99 ERA, 51 ERA+, 1.82 WHIP, 4.9 K/9), primarily in his two most recent starts:

4/20/13, vs. Cleveland - 1/3 IP, 8 H, 8 ER, 1 HR, 1 BB, 0 K, Loss
4/25/13, at Boston - 4 2/3 IP, 10 H, 7 ER, 1 HR, 3 BB, 5 K, Loss

Between 2011 and 2012, Humber had a number of peripheral stats go in the wrong direction. His walks per nine innings went from 2.26 BB/9 in 2011 to 3.88 BB/9 in 2012. His HR/9 rate ballooned from 0.77 per nine in 2011, to 2.03 per nine innings in 2012. His left-on-base percentage has nosedived accordingly; in 2011, Humber's LOB was 71.2%; in 2012, it was 67.6%; so far in 2013, it's at 57.8%. Obviously, none of this bodes well for Humber's 2013, nor his future. He is a 30-year-old once-highly-regarded prospect with one quality season as a starter under his belt and no job security for the remainder of the year, let alone in 2014.

Of all pitchers on this list, Phil Humber is probably the most likely to lose his rotation spot. He's the #3 starter in a rotation of back-end starters; his ERA sits at 7.99 as of this post. In comparison, the two men following him in the Astros rotation, Brad Peacock and Erik Bedard, have ERAs of 7.50 and 7.98 respectively. While the Astros were expected to be terrible, having multiple pitchers with ERAs north of 7.50 is another matter entirely. Peacock is a young, once well-regarded prospect, and Bedard is signed for more money than Humber is in 2013 ($1,150,000 for Bedard versus $800,000 for Humber). While they will continue to wait on Jarred Cosart to join the rotation and are not expected to call him up in the near future, the Astros also have recent waiver acquisition Travis Blackley (late of the A's) available to steal a rotation spot, as well as Jordan Lyles at AAA. Either of these pitchers could reasonably be expected to pitch better than Humber or Bedard, even though any pitcher on the hill for the 2013 Astros is playing behind an atrocious defense. For these reasons, it is likely we will see the rise and fall of Philip Humber's career occur before that of Ubaldo Jimenez or Francisco Liriano. As for Jonathan appears to be a race to the bottom between Humber and Sanchez. Who will get there first, time will only tell, but odds are pretty good for either man to be cut in short order.

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