Posted: Monday May 1, 2006 12:30PM; Updated: Monday May 1, 2006 1:10PM
As a power pitcher who can induce ground balls, A.J. Burnett made for an attractive free agent last winter. However, his arm problems continue to hamper his development.
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While Webb's ERA remained constant amid a flurry of change, Lowe saw his ERA drop dramatically in 2005 -- from 5.42 in 2004 to 3.61 -- even though Lowe allowed grounders at almost the exact same rate in the two seasons: 63.5 percent versus 65.7 percent. Moving from Fenway Park to Dodger Stadium helped -- but so, apparently, did the Dodgers' defense. The difference in Lowe's FIP between the two seasons was only 0.23 (4.33 versus 4.10). Lowe was much more consistent than he appeared -- not that consistency in this case should be confused with greatness.
Indeed, allowing ground balls on a regular basis is no guarantee of success. To that point, we present journeyman pitcher Cory Lidle, a soldier of the ground-ball brigade, who posted ERAs of 5.75 in 2003, 4.90 in '04 and 4.53 in '05. The numbers are improving, but they're not exactly brilliant.
Lidle may suffer in part because he lacks the strikeout pitch that some ground-ballers possess. Webb struck out almost seven batters per nine innings in 2005. Chris Carpenter struck out almost eight. Lidle was below six. Of the select group of pitchers in '05 who 1) threw at least 162 innings, 2) induced ground balls on at least half of balls in play and 3) struck out at least 6.5 batters per nine innings, C.C. Sabathia of the Cleveland Indians had the worst ERA, at 4.03, which was still better than the league average.
In short, all ground-ball pitchers are definitely not created equally; some excel, others are reliably unreliable. One way to try to determine which is which, however, is to look at the factors that might reveal which ground-ball pitchers have been affected by incidental occurrences, and then adjust your expectations for the coming season accordingly. Here are some examples:
Mark Mulder, St. Louis Cardinals: In 2005, the defense behind Mulder was an asset, and his home run and walk rates improved from the previous season. That leaves Mulder as something of a high-wire act -- if any of these tent poles fail him, a disappointing season could come his way, especially if he can't reverse the decline in his strikeout rate. (By the way, St. Louis had three of the top 10 ground-ball pitchers in baseball last year in Mulder, Carpenter and Marquis.)
Jake Westbrook, Cleveland Indians. An All-Star in 2004, Westbrook appears to have been hurt by his defense last year, causing his ERA to rise from 3.38 to 4.49 even though his FIP improved from 4.10 to 3.94. Westbrook's homer and strikeouts rates over the two seasons were constant. Although his performance has been inconsistent in this opening month of 2006, Westbrook is a candidate for a better year if he can get any kind of help behind him.
A.J. Burnett, Toronto Blue Jays. He was signed to a five-year, $55 million contract during the offseason despite health concerns -- why? Because for Toronto, the potential of a ground-ball pitcher who also strikes batters out (8.5 per nine innings in 2005) and is stingy with homers was too tempting to resist. Sure enough, injuries have limited Burnett to two starts this season, but if he can get healthy, he's the kind of pitcher who can thrive even with an inadequate defense.
Yep, health. Ground-ball pitchers injure themselves one arm at a time, just like everyone else. Just another reason to beware the beguiling wormkillers.