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March 11, 2006

Looking Ahead to 2006 - Santana, Halladay, Wright, Small
by SG

Two of these guys will be contending for the AL Cy Young this year. Two will not. I'll leave it to you as the readers to discern which are which.

Let's start with the guy who by almost any reasonable measure should have won the AL Cy Young last year, Johan Santana. I'll start with his scouting report.

Santana has three dominating pitches-a 94-MPH fastball, an 87-MPH slider and a 76-MPH changeup. The changeup is the most devastating, because it comes out of his hand looking just like his fastball. When it arrives 18 MPH slower than the heater, hitters swing and miss by embarrassing margins. The difference between 2003 and 2004 was his ability to locate his pitches, while in the past he relied more on changing speeds. Santana also learned to throw his slider with different breaks at different speeds, giving him a slurve-like alternative to his other pitches.

Santana has a history of starting off slow and then picking up steam as the season progresses. Here are his career splits:

Pre All Star Break: 24-16, 4.00 ERA, 450 IP, 401 H, 476 K, 144 BB, 53 HR, K/9: 9.51, BB/9: 2.88, Opp Avg: .238
Post All Star Break: 35-9, 2.56 ERA, 405 IP, 298 H, 408 K, 113 BB, 34 HR, K/9: 9.43, BB/9: 2.68, Opp Avg: .202

The explanation for this last year was some minor surgery that he had in the offseason that made him rusty, however his FIP shows that he was probably not pitching that much differently.

As you can see from this chart, Santana's peripherals were pretty consistent even in the first half, and as the season progressed his ERA and FIP lined up quite nicely.

Santana led the AL in pitching runs created with 145, and was worth a whopping 52 PRC over the average AL starter. That is 5 wins better than average (not replacement level) and he really should have gotten more consideration as an MVP candidate.

The projection systems all expect continued excellence from Santana next year, as you can see below.

The consensus is that he'll pitch a little less, primarily due to Marcel regressing his innings from his time as a reliever, but when you have a guy who strikes out so many guys, walks so few, and gives up a low amount of HRs, you can expect consistency from them. Since Santana is so good at the things that pitchers have the most control over, he is far less susceptible to the vagaries of of his defense and/or luck. The only concern that Twins fans should have with Santana, and it's pretty minor, are his occassional nagging injuries.

Roy Halladay was actually better than Santana on a rate basis last year, but a line drive off his shin on July 9 against the Rangers ended his season after only 19 starts. Halladay's scouting report:

When healthy, Halladay throws a four-seam fastball that has late life and reaches the high 90s. In spring training, he experimented with a changeup that he can put in the back of the hitter's mind and possibly get a one-pitch out. He may add it to his arsenal, but for now, the Blue Jays simply want him to show that he's healthy.

Halladay was the 7th most valuable pitcher by pitching runs created, despite making only 19 starts. He is probably unfairly labeled as injury-prone. He did have legitimate injury issues in 2004, but he pitched over 450 innings in 2002-2003 and last year's injury was a freak accident.

Halladay's FIP does not line up to his ERA as neatly as Santana's, primarily because he's not the same type of strikeout pitcher, but there's nothing in there that indicates a massive falloff.

The projections don't care about the reasons for Halladay's low innings pitched totals the last two years, so they expect Halladay to have a tough time making all his starts in 2006.

Last year, Halladay's PRC of 99 was worth 42 runs above an average pitcher in similar playing time. Considering he only pitched 141.2 innings, this is a remarkable total as well.

I'm not as pessimistic on Halladay's playing time as the projection systems. I don't think he's any more probable to get hurt than any other pitcher. He doesn't strike out as many guys as Santana, but he is an extreme ground ball pitcher (2.38 G/F ratio compared to Santana's 0.94 in 2005), which keeps his HR rate down. The biggest concern I'd see with Halladay is not his health, but the loss of the best defensive 2B in the AL last year, Orlando Hudson.

Regardless, he should be a legitimate Cy Young contender in 2006.

Of course, these guys are good, but neither one was undefeated in 2005. Aaron Small came from out of nowhere(a recurring theme for the 2005 Yankees) with his career ERA of 5.49 and went 10-0 with a 3.20 ERA at age 33. This despite a 4.96 ERA at Columbus and thoughts of retiring at mid-season.

Small's season reminded me of Dennis Lamp in 1985, when he went 11-0 with a 3.32 ERA at age 32 and helped that Blue Jays team break a young Yankee fan's heart. In 1986, Lamp went 2-6, with a 5.05 ERA.

Won/Loss record is not a good measure to use when trying to assess how good someone is. ERA certainly can show value in a given year, but it does not always give us a good idea of ability. This is an important distinction to remember. Small was great in 2005, and no numbers can take away from the value he provided, whether it was due to hits not falling in, random chance or luck on balls in play or whatever.

However, 2005 is past, and in order to realistically assess Small and what he may provide in 2006, it is important to look at all available data.

A lot of Small's success was credited to a two-seam fastball that he learned in spring traing, and he certainly did a great job of keeping the ball in the park (4 HRs in 76 innings). However, Small's G/F ratio of 1.22 was right around league average, and if you normalize his HR rate based on the actual amount of fly balls, you get a much different story.

This chart for Small includes his 2005 ERA, his FIP, and also his xFIP, which normalizes his HR rate to 10% of his fly balls.

Small's decent BB rate and outstanding HR rate made his FIP line up with his ERA last year. However, his career numbers tell a different story.

Batters Faced: 1001
HR/9: 1.0
BB/9: 4.2
K/9: 5.0

Batters Faced: 316
HR/9: .5
BB/9: 2.8
K/9: 4.4

Can one pitch make that much of a difference? Sure it can. Did it in the case of Aaron Small? We won't know until we have more data.

Until we do, we have to pay attention to the bulk of his career, which says that last year was an anomoly.

The projections for Small are not very kind, unsurprisingly.

Last year, Small's 76 innings were worth 30 pitching runs created, about 11 runs above what an average pitcher would have provided in the same playing time. The projections indicate that Small would be a little worse than average in 2006, about 1 run below average per 100 innings, although there's a pretty big discrepancy between them, so it's tough to really value him. Considering his role and his expectations, this is really not that bad. I have no idea how much he will pitch in 2006, but I'd guess he'll get a fair amount of work, probably around 100 innings at a minimum, which would be worth 25 PRC.

I'll root like hell for Small, because he seems like a humble guy and he worked very hard to get back to the majors, but I don't think we can realistically expect very much out of him. He had looked pretty good in spring training until Matt Smith gave up a 3 run homer that plated two of his runners, so perhaps his new pitch is a difference-maker. I guess we'll know more as we see more.

The remaining 100 innings of Yankee starters from last year had a pitching runs created value of 30, so if Small pitches at this projected level, that would be about a half win downgrade relative to last year. So basically, the Yankees' project about 1.5 wins better over 965 innings than their starters did last year. Ideally, they'll get more innings out of their starters this year, which would mean they're pitching well and the bullpen is not being overworked.

Jaret Wright and his disappointing 2005 shocked about 3 people. Unfortunately, they all work for the Yankees' front office and thought Wright was a good investment for 3 years and $21 million, even after HE FAILED HIS FIRST PHYSICAL.

Wright is my personal poster boy in one of the biggest flaws in the Yankees' player acquisition model. They buy high and sell low. It ends up costing them money and wins.

Running any peripheral stats for Wright seems like a waste of time, as by all measures he was lousy last year. Considering he'll be buried in the bullpen this year, it hopefully won't matter. There's some hope that he may be useful as a reliever, but considering he always seemed to struggle with his control and results in his first few innings, I don't think so. Anyway, here are Wright's projections.

What's the opposite of excellence?

The good news is Wright was awful last year so if he makes any contribution this year it's likely to be an upgrade. Also by spending more than 75 days on the DL the Yankees can opt out of the third year of his contract for the bargain price of $4 million. If they understand the concept of sunk costs, I'd imagine they will just do that. Wright does have plus stuff, as indicated by his scouting report from last year.

Shoulder problems had hindered Wright since he enjoyed a promising start with the Indians in 1997. Improved health last year enabled him to get the necessary extension on his delivery, resulting in as much as 6-8 inches of additional movement on his pitches. He also started throwing his sinker again after ditching the pitch because of his ailing shoulder, and he made impressive progress with his command by focusing on location instead of chucking every pitch with maximum effort. Wright hits the outside corner with his mid-90s fastball against righties, while his running heater comes back over the inside part of the plate against lefties. He has improved his strikeout-walk ratio by doing a better job of commanding his changeup and breaking ball.

Maybe something will click and he can be useful, but I wouldn't bet a damn thing on it.

I do want to give Wright credit for battling his way back to the mound last year. The team was desparate for arms and he did his best to get back on the mound. It's not his fault he was not effective.

Spring Training Update
The Yankees beat a bunch of Braves reserves 7-3 yesterday. Chien-Ming Wang was dominant after a shaky first outing, going three easy innings, allowing just one hit, and striking out four. The results aren't as important considering the caliber of competition, but how he looked was. His velocity was improved from his first game, as he was around 91-93 on his sinker, and his location was much better as he was consistently down in the zone. He was also using his split-finger effectively. The interesting thing about Wang's splitter is it doesn't move much differently than his sinker, but it is about 10 MPH slower, so it can be an effective change of pace for him.

Robinson Cano seems to be showing a better approach in spring so far, as he's working much deeper counts and being far more selective. Again, the quality of competition is an issue, but hopefully he can carry it into the season. His defense looks to be fine as well.

Andy Phillips made a nice turn on a 3-6-1 double play. He was defensively challenged at 2B and 3B, but looks like he could be very good at first.

Mariano Rivera is slowly picking up velocity and looked very good in his inning of work, getting up to 92.

Kyle Farnsworth seemed to be working on refining his slider yesterday, as that was about all he threw. It varied in speed from 79-84 mph, and has a pretty good break to it, although his control of it was not particularly good.

Marco Vecchionacci looks like he can really pick it at third base. Maybe they can move Alex Rodriguez to CF.

This entry is awfully long, so I guess I'm done.