Last week we took a look at some rookies whose names had peppered my inbox, and we will continue this week with a few first-year pitchers. All of these pitchers are on the VORP leader boards for rookie starters, but that just gauges their value for this year while putting their peripherals to the side; what we want to sort out is how these starters will fare in their second year in the majors, and are they worth keeping in mind for 2009?
Jair Jurrjens was dealt from the Tigers to the Braves this winter in the trade that netted Detroit shortstop Edgar Renteria, and based on this season, it looks like the Braves were the winners of this transaction. In Jurrjens' first full year, he has thrown 165 1/3 innings while striking out 6.5 per nine, walking 2.7 per nine, and given up just 0.5 home runs per nine (that's 12 per 200 innings pitched). The low homer rate is due in part to his tendency to keep the ball on the ground -- the Braves right-hander has a 2.0 G/F ratio and just 26 percent of his balls in play are fly balls, with a mere 7.4 percent of those going yard. Not everything is peachy in his peripherals though, as his .308 BABIP is roughly 30 points below expectations given his 21.8 percent line-drive rate. That is balanced out somewhat by his below-average strand rate of 70.9 percent, and his 3.57 FIP, which adjusts for both of those figures, is a sliver below his actual ERA of 3.59.
That BABIP issue is the only thing that could be bothersome with Jurrjens in 2009, as an increase in that number would bring up his opponent line. He doesn't walk too many hitters right now, but if his opponents batting average increases from its current .257 because his BABIP climbs, he'll be letting too many hitters on base. Luckily, he isn't giving up much in the power department, as the opposition has slugged just .382 against him (that's a .125 ISO, right around B.J. Upton's disappointing power output this year). He didn't show any lefty-righty leans this year, holding both sides of the plate to equally impressive, unproductive lines (.260/.331/.392 against lefties, .254/.311/.371 against right-handers), but he did have a harder time succeeding at home in Atlanta, with the opposition slugging .438 against him. That's something to keep an eye on for next year as well, as his road line (.231/.308/.329) has had a lot to do with his success. He's given up seven of his 10 homers at Turner, and based on how infrequently he allows fly balls, I'm inclined to think that the line against him in Atlanta is the flukier of the two. If so, that makes him a very valuable pitcher heading into next season, especially if the Braves are able to stay healthy and help him notch a few more wins for you.
Greg Smith has had a solid rookie campaign despite the awful W-L record for a currently bad Athletics' club, but there are some issues to look at when evaluating him for his sophomore campaign. Smith has struck out 5.6 hitters per nine and walked 3.9, giving him a K/BB of 1.4, and that's not going to turn any heads, especially when his G/F ratio of 0.7 suggests the threat of a few too many extra-base hits. His 4.23 ERA is solid, but it isn't where he's supposed to be production wise -- his .264 BABIP has been the source of his success, and that comes from the excellent defense that plays behind him. The Athletics are third in the majors in Defensive Efficiency, converting 71.2 percent of balls in play into outs. Since Smith doesn't do much more than the average starter as far as strikeouts go, and he walks far too many hitters for a guy who isn't a power pitcher, he needs the help that his defense provides.
There's nothing wrong with relying on your defense if you have a good one behind you, but you would still like to see Smith increase his punchout totals next time. The 24-year-old southpaw may not have the stuff to do so though, as his fastball averages only 87.5 mph, but he does employ a neat breaking ball. Baseball Prospectus 2008 said that Smith looks like he could be a Doug Davis type, and that has value in a fantasy league during his good years, but on the other hand, you have seasons like this one, where you don't want to be anywhere near Davis and his erratic numbers. Think of Smith the same way: if you have the patience to see if his defense saves him yet again, give him a late look, but he's not a young player worthy of going out of your way to keep around.
The Mariners have had a small bright spot in their rotation outside of Felix Hernandez, and that has been the Australian Ryan Rowland-Smith. Rowland-Smith has a high-80s fastball that he complements with a slider, curveball and changeup that all sit in the 70s, with the curveball coming in at an especially slow 71.5 mph. He's struck out a solid number of hitters at 6.4 per nine, though you would like to see his 3.7 BB/9 drop slightly given that he isn't a power pitcher. Although he started out the year in the bullpen and has 35 appearances as a reliever, the Mariners have plopped the lefty into their rotation and given him seven starts. As a reliever, Rowland-Smith held opponents to an impressive .240/.318/.351 showing, but he's had a bit more trouble as a starter, giving up .268/.335/.439. The nature of relief is that you face just a few opponents per appearance, so the sample sizes for those two pieces of data are nearly identical, with Rowland-Smith facing just 14 fewer hitters out of the rotation.
The samples are too small to draw much from regardless; it's just over a month's worth of starts. Rowland-Smith is the kind of guy who you want to pay attention to, though, because not everyone will know that he's not just a reliever, especially given that he pitches for Seattle. He's been a flyball pitcher during his time in the majors, with a 0.7 G/F ratio -- that's helpful for him when he pitches at Safeco, a park that deflates offense. The southpaw also displayed an odd split, having had trouble facing lefty hitters: they have mashed him to the tune of .313/.400/.452 this year. Given how little time he's logged in the majors, it's hard to tell if this is going to be a constant issue, or if it's a blip we can expect will go away with larger samples. He was more effective against lefties than right-handers during his short stints in the majors in '07, so keep an eye out. If his line against lefties levels out -- and it should given he's a lefty himself -- he may have more value than his '08 has given him credit for, though on the downside, he will still be pitching for the Mariners.
Though Luke Hochevar has been shut down for the '08 season with an oblique strain, there's no reason we can't take a look at his value for the future. For the year, his lines aren't impressive, with a .280/.345/.413 opponents showing and serious struggles against left-handed hitters (.314/.371/.475 in 261 at-bats). He was anathema to right-handers, though, holding them to a .244/.319/.348 line, and was much better at home (.285/.333/.381) than on the road (.275/.357/.446). Hochevar did manage to drop his walk rate since July began, but part of the reason for that was the opposition bludgeoning him instead of waiting for him to let them on. He gave up 61 hits in his last 50 2/3 innings this year, though that isn't all his fault -- Kansas City has converted just 69.3 percent of balls in play into outs, good for 23rd in the majors. Even so, it's still not a good thing, especially when he struck out a paltry 4.3 hitters per nine over the same stretch. At this stage, he's clearly a pitcher who relies on his defense to help him get out of the situations that he puts himself into, and the fielders behind him aren't capable of fixing his mistakes each time out.
Hochevar's fastball averages 90.5 mph, and his slider is his second most oft-used pitch, coming in at 82.7. He also uses a curveball (75.9 mph, 9.5 percent of the time) and a changeup (82.4, 9.7) to round out his pitches. He has averaged 3.7 pitches per plate appearance this year, which seems low when you think of his early season walk rates, but now that he's at a much more manageable 3.2 BB/9, it makes sense. There are a few bright points when considering Hochevar for '09. He did manage to bring down his walk rate in the second half before going down with an injury, though whether that's because he got the situation under control, or that he was putting it on a platter for the opposition is up for debate. His strand rate of 62.3 is well below the league average; his FIP is 4.40 thanks to this, more than a full run below his ERA. Considering he gave up a .323/.383/.480 line with runners on, that may have more to do with Hochevar pitching from the stretch than it does with poor luck.
Marc Normandin is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact Marc by clicking here or click here to see Marc's other articles.