Touring the Museum of April Statistical Oddities: Pitchers
Picking up what I started earlier, we continue our walk through some extreme small sample-based statistics put up by pitchers in the first three weeks of the 2013 season. It's plenty of fun to gawk at the numbers, but dangerous to draw firm conclusions about what's happening. Nonetheless, here's what stands out to these eyes with a bit of explanation as to why. The pitchers are listed alphabetically, individually or by first in a multi-player group.
Nobody's confusing Blanton with a Cy Young contender, but for a team without Jered Weaver and a patchy rotation behind it, he's been a disaster thus far, failing to last six innings in three of his four starts. Last year, Blanton was hammered for a 4.71 ERA thanks to a weird combination of a high batting average on balls in play (.314) and as many unintentional walks as homers (29, 1.4 per nine apiece). This year, the problem has been even more extreme, as his gaudy homer rate and stingy walk rate have been offset by a .381 BABIP. Exacerbating that is a strikeout rate that's less than half last year's mark (3.5, down from 7.6). Maybe the Halos should see what Jeff Weaver's up to these days.
Matt Cain, Giants: 6.59 ERA, 1.9 HR/9
Just over two weeks ago, all three of these Cy Young contenders were battered and scattered by their opponents, and it's been part of a larger trend in which they've pitched particularly poorly with men on base and been prone to the big fly. Hamels, helped by a solid outing on Tuesday, has yielded a .208/.271/.434 line under such conditions, and last year's AL award winner, Price, has been worse (.302/.327/.556). They've got nothing on Cain, though; he's been lit for a .400/.468/.750 line with men on base.
I was among the SI staffers who went out on a limb by touting Darvish as a Cy Young favorite, and thus far, he's made that look quite good. Not only did he come within one out of a perfect game in his first turn on April 2, but he's struck out well over a hitter per inning in every start. His 37.6 percent strikeout rate is a dramatic improvement even above last year's stellar 27.1 percent mark, but of course, one needs to examine the competition Darvish has faced. With one start against the Astros (5-14, 3.95 runs per game), one against the Angels (7-11, 4.44 runs per game) and two against the Mariners (8-13, 3.24 runs per game), his competition has been more stiffs than stiff.
For a team that wound up trading NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey this past winter, Harvey has been a godsend. The seventh pick of the 2010 draft, he was supposed to be good, but more of a number two starter instead of a legitimate ace. After a strong 10-start debut late last year, he has thoroughly dominated this young season thanks to a mid-to-high 90s fastball and a wipeout slider. In each of his four starts, he's gone at least seven innings while allowing four or fewer hits and one or fewer runs. Overall, he's allowed just 10 hits in 29 innings while striking out 32. This can't last, but it's fun to watch while it does.
Roberto Hernandez, Rays: 9.1 K/9
The former Fausto Carmona has struggled in recent years thanks to his inability to miss bats; from 2008 to 2012, his ERA (5.06) basically matched his K rate (5.1 per nine). With his identity crisis in the rearview mirror, Tampa Bay picked him up off the scrap heap; when he started on April 4, it marked the first time in nearly eight years that a pitcher they acquired as a major league free agent had done so. As they've done with many a reliever, the Rays have tweaked his mechanics and repertoire, and while the jury is still out on the overall results given his 4.74 ERA, he's missing bats like never before. His three seven-strikeout games are already one more than he had in 35 starts across 2011 and 2012.
Brett Myers, Indians: 4.2 HR/9
Hopes that Cleveland's offseason makeover would improve their run prevention have thus far proved unfounded, as they're still yielding 5.12 runs per game, and two rotation members have proven particularly lost. Jimenez's efforts to iron out his mechanics have thus far backfired to the point that he has allowed more than a run per inning via a combustible combination of homers (2.1 per nine) and walks (5.8 per nine). As for Myers, after spending 2012 as a reliever, his return to the rotation has been its own kind of nightmare, and he's had more gopher problems than Carl Spackler. He allowed four homers in his first start of the year and 10 in 21 1/3 innings — two more than he gave up in 65 1/3 innings last year — before going on the DL with a forearm strain.
Cliff Lee, Phillies: 2-1, 2.83 ERA
Last year, Lee apparently forgot how to win, going just 6-9 despite a 3.16 ERA and a 7.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 30 starts and 211 innings. While his command hasn't been quite as sharp thus far this year (a 5.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio), he's got that old winning spirit back; he didn't notch his second victory until his 18th start last year. Of course, pitcher wins are a silly stat that have much to do with support from one's teammates, and in this case, Lee's relatively gaudy win total doesn't even reflect improved offensive support; the Phillies have averaged 3.1 runs per game in his turns, compared to 3.5 last year.
Amid glowing scouting reports and strong results from the Grapefruit League, this was supposed to be the year that the 24-year-old Porcello stepped forward, but instead he's been stepped upon by opposing hitters. Through three starts and one relief appearance, he's allowed as many homers as he has walks or strikeouts. He may have reached the nadir of his career last Saturday, when he retired just one of 11 Angels he faced in the first inning while allowing nine runs; the two outs he recorded were via a double play, and he departed with the bases empty, so there's no credit or blame to be assigned to the bullpen.
The Nationals' ace hasn't pitched badly, just inefficiently at times; his 4.0 pitches per plate appearance is right on the money with last year's mark, but he's striking out just 20 percent of hitters instead of his career-level 30 percent. That shortcoming has been exacerbated by the lack of support he's received from his teammates on both the offensive and defensive sides. The Nats are scoring just 1.8 runs per nine in his starts, hence the lousy won-loss record, and they've made key errors behind him, resulting in four unearned runs to go with his eight earned ones. Of course, it's a pitcher's job to prevent those, too, and Strasburg's 4.43 RA/9 more accurately illustrates his early-season woes.
Jake Westbrook, Cardinals: 1.25 ERA, 8/14 K/BB ratio
Command is said to be the last thing that comes back after Tommy John surgery, but even after missing all of 2011, Wainwright walked a respectable 2.4 per nine last year, a shade below his career mark. This year, he didn't issue a single walk in 29 innings over his first four starts before finally issuing a free pass on Tuesday night. He has struck out nearly a batter per inning and hasn't allowed a home run yet either. At the opposite end of the command/control spectrum is Westbrook, who has walked 5.8 per nine while striking out just 3.3 per nine, yet lived to tell the tale. He issued six passes in his first turn but allowed just one run (unearned) in 6 2/3 innings, then followed with a five-hit, four-walk, three-strikeout shutout of the Reds. He's not a pitcher who misses many bats (career 5.1 strikeouts per nine), so unless he gets sharper, his ERA will inflate like a balloon as the inevitable hits and homers arrive.