Creeping Inexorably Toward A Worthwhile Sub-Heading.
Sunday, January 04, 2004
Assuming the Position - Part 6 - The Starting Staff
The story of the 2003 Chicago Cubs was written on the arms of the pitching staff. Without the outstanding contributions of the starters, particularly the front three, there would have been no NLCS defeat to mourn. What can we expect for 2004?
Mark Prior - There is no single player on the Cubs roster who is more important to the present and future success of the franchise than Mark Prior. He finished the year with a record of 18-6, 245 K, only 50 BB, and a miniscule 2.43 ERA over 211.1 IP, good enough for third place in the NL Cy Young voting. All this when he was only 22 years old. Prior appears to have the ability and desire to be one of, if not the single most dominating pitcher in the National League for many years to come.
That being said, there is much that is troubling about the way Prior was used last season. Despite being extremely young and still at a point in his career where the risk for injury is higher, in 2003 Prior accumulated the highest average pitch count per game in the majors, averaging throwing 113.2 balls every time he took the mound. Nine of his thirty starts went over 120 pitches, three over 130, and his average pitch count over his six starts in September was 126.3. These are not statistics to be proud of, and many in the blogosphere and beyond have rung the alarm about Prior's workload. Apologists will point to Prior's textbook mechanics, the smooth and flawless delivery that lulls so many major league hitters to sleep, as the factor that makes his usage pattern excusable or even ideal. After all, if you have a pitcher like Prior who is unquestionably the best man on your staff, if there is no one in your bullpen who you think has a better chance to get the out than the man already on the mound, and if his 120th pitch looks as easy and effortless as the first, why not just let him go until he can't anymore?
It's all about context. If the game in question is in a vacuum, if there are no future considerations involved, if this game is the only game he will ever throw, the usage pattern makes sense. The problem, of course, is that no game is played in a vacuum. Perhaps in the playoffs, when the stakes are so high and the light of an offseason of rest can be seen at the end of the tunnel, thoughts of how this outing affects the future can be pushed aside, but the regular season is not such a beast. When you have a pitcher with Prior's long term potential, every decision you make has to take both the present and future into account. This doesn't mean managing scared, just smart. If your starter has the lead and has thrown 110 pitches through seven innings, are you better off sending him back out to start the eighth, likely racking up another 15+ pitches, or should you pass it off to the bullpen?
More often than not, when Prior was on the mound, Dusty Baker sent him back out there. Was he the best man for the job? Probably. But if you can't rely on your bullpen to throw two innings and protect today's lead, keeping your best starter fresh for the tomorrows to come, let alone healthy for the seasons beyond, then either your bullpen needs to get better or you have to learn to trust what you've got. It looks like Jim Hendry has made some solid upgrades to the relief corps this offseason, but whether Baker will trust it enough remains an open question, and a subject for another entry.
Kerry Wood - Mark Prior may be the super-charged robotic arm of the Cubs, but Wood is the team's heart and soul, as well as its second best pitcher. He was also second on the team, and in the majors, in the number of pitches thrown per game, racking up an average of 109.9 pitches in each outing. Wood also led MLB in Pitcher Abuse Points (Prior came in third), and had the highest pitch count in a single outing for any pitcher last season, tossing 141 pitches over 7 innings against St. Louis on the tenth of May.
Despite this horror show, I'm not terribly concerned about the long term impact of last season on Wood's arm. Kerry hasn't had a serious arm injury since losing the 1999 season to Tommy John surgery, and he hasn't missed time because of his arm since 2001 when he lost about a month to shoulder tendonitis. He's thrown over 200 innings for two straight seasons now, and last year he was finally able to get his strikeout rate near where it was in 1998. He'll be 27 next season, and all signs point to him being a dominant, durable pitcher for years to come. So, why am I concerned about his usage patterns?
By the end of the year, it became clear that starts immediately following more strenuous outings were potential disasters. Not that Woody couldn't go deep into games, there were many occasions when he threw over 115 pitches and still came out looking good in the starts that followed. It was the games where Kerry was completely exhausted, when he needed oxygen afterwards, when it was obvious to laymen watching on television that he had given all he had but was asked to give more that were followed by horrendous, bone-crushing defeats. To get the most out of Kerry Wood, and get the most out of the team, Baker needs to learn to recognize when he's reached his limit.
Carlos Zambrano - Leading the team in innings pitched, Carlos was a horse all year, and while Dusty rode him with slightly less zeal than the other members of the "Big Three," by year's end Zambrano showed the most overt signs of long term trouble.
The problems began in his next to last outing of the season, when despite being handed leads of 3-0 and 9-4, Big Z let the Pirates back into the game, giving up 9 runs in 4.2 IP. The Cubs went on to win the game, but Zambrano's performance was unsettling for a number of reasons. Carlos had broken the 200 IP mark in his previous game, the first 200 inning season in his career, and up until then he had given up a grand total of six home runs. That's right, six dingers in 204.1 IP. In this game, he gave up two home runs to the same player. He also gave up eight hits and walked three men. His next game against the Reds wasn't much better. While he didn't give up a home run, he did cough up 7 H in 5 IP, while issuing 5 free passes. He didn't look right on the mound, and it showed in the results as his control, spotty already, was worse than usual. However, despite the poor results, one could still point to Carlos' still excellent GB/FB ratios over those games as a sign that his issues might be short lived.
Zambrano's gaudy regular season GB/FB ratio of 2.28 was easily the best on a staff where the worst ratio was the fine 1.06 mark posted by Wood. He gave up only nine home runs over 214 innings, and only 188 hits overall. No Cubs pitcher was hurt less by balls in the air than Carlos Zambrano. But, come playoff time, Big Z was swatted by flies.
Over three October starts, a season long trend reversed itself for Carlos. His GB/FB ratio went from extreme groundball, to a decidedly flyball-centric 0.75, he gave up 25 hits over 16.2 innings, and went from giving up one home run for every 100 batters faced to giving up a long ball every twentieth hitter. No matter what language you speak, that spells trouble. Most of the time when a sinker-ball pitcher becomes fatigued his ball sinks more, but the change in the GB/FB ratio and the increase in home runs implies that either the sink wasn't as hard, or it just wasn't there. If it's the first explanation, then maybe we're simply dealing with the fatigue of a young man who has never pitched so many innings in a season. But if it's the second answer, say your prayers, because you're looking at a pitcher who has significantly altered their mechanics to make up for the aforementioned fatigue, or even worse, to compensate for an injury.
No matter what the cause, the end of last season leaves a lot of unanswered questions for the Big Z heading into 2004. The answers to those questions may hold the key to the Cubs season.
Matt Clement - His strikeout rate dropped from his fine 2002 season (he didn't have the same consistent control of his nasty slider from game to game, frequently getting under it), but when he had it together, Clement was a force to be reckoned with. He posted the second best BAA among the teams' starters, allowing opponents to hit a meager .227 against him. That's the second best BAA of his career (the best was his .215 mark in 2002), and that along with his still declining walk rate are signs that last year was a season where Clement was able to consolidate some of the previous year's gains. He has an excellent chance to move from consolidation to building this year, and I would expect his contribution to land somewhere between the 2002 and 2003 versions. Not bad for your fourth starter.
Juan Cruz/????? - Smart money says Cruz will be manning the back of the rotation in 2004, and that's alright by me. Cruz has been all over the place during his first few years in the bigs, but the time has come for him to get a solid opportunity to pitch regularly for the Cubs. There's nothing left for him to prove in the minors, and with prospects like Angel Guzman breathing down his neck, it's time for Juan to get it done or get dealt.
The good news is, the organization seems to be behind him. Both Dusty Baker and Jim Hendry have said that the fifth starter's job is Juan's for the taking in the spring. Of course, the second base job was Bobby Hill's for the taking last year, so these statements, while encouraging, should be taken with a grain of salt. However, Cruz is backing up the Cubs' decision with his stellar play in the Dominican Winter League. In 5 games, 2 of them starts, Juan has posted this stat line:
Granted, this is a league where Esteban Yan has a 1.83 ERA over 54 IP, but those numbers still bode well for the coming season. Cruz has a lot of talent, and when he first pitched for the Cubs in 2001, he had a lot of poise as well. That cold-blooded resolve seemed to leave Juan during his first disastrous starts of the 2002 season, but he has the ability to be a rotation mainstay for years to come. He needs to show that he can go more than five innings per start and consistently keep his head in the game if he wants to keep his presumptive job.
Although improvements have been made on the offensive end, the fate of the 2004 Cubs rests firmly on the shoulders of the pitching staff once again, and one of the most important issues heading into this season will be how the innings are distributed between the starters and relievers. That, and a look at the bullpen in general, will be the subject of Assuming the Position - Part 7.