The Mariners had what appeared to be an easy decision last July. Starting pitcher
The salient choice for a ballclub on its way to 101 losses -- only second-worst in the majors (thank goodness for those Nationals!) -- was to purge the lefty from its roster. However, part of the reason the Mariners lost 101 games was because its management team did everything but make salient and thoughtful decisions. So Washburn stayed, despite rumors to the contrary, and racked up a 1-5 record with a 4.53 ERA and a 1.41 WHIP to finish the year. Heck, that was an improvement. The rumors had motivated him!
Fantasy owners understandably wanted to avoid Washburn during their spring drafts. There weren't many geniuses who thought the 34-year-old could turn his career around. Lo and behold, that's precisely what he's done. But can he sustain his outstanding start?
A primary factor in any pitcher showing improvement is to check stats related to his control. Considering Washburn is a command-reliant pitcher (his average career heat on his fastball is 88.4 miles per hour), an improved walk rate or K/BB rate can mean a world of difference.
His BB/9 rate is at 2.39, his lowest mark since 2003, when he posted a 2.34 figure. He walked just one batter in his first two starts -- covering 14 innings -- although he's issued a trio of free passes in each of his last two outings. You could make the case that his walk rate might increase once he faces more patient squads; he's made two starts vs. the Angels and one against the Twins, who rank 26th and 27th, respectively, at drawing bases on balls.
A career-high 2.43 K/BB rate is probably the most noticeable piece to his 2009 statistical puzzle. He didn;t have a rate higher than 1.87 since 2004 (2.15) and hasn't come close to his current mark since 2002, when he produced a 2.36 rate. Consequently, he had a career year in '02, going 18-6 with a 3.15 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP.
Washburn's pitch efficiency has also factored into his success. It's reasonable to assume that a hurler who throws fewer pitches per inning is keeping his walk rate down, and allowing himself to go further into a game, leaving something in the tank as the game draws to a close. Washburn has already gone seven-plus innings twice, something he did just five times in 26 starts last year. His pitches per inning is currently at 14.6 -- he hadn't averaged below 16.4 since 2005 -- and his pitches per game stand at 96.3. He threw 103 pitches in his April 21 start against the Rays, the one team out of the three he's faced who tend to make pitchers work for their outs.
These references to Washburn's control being related to a couple impatient teams he's faced doesn't mean he'll suddenly explode with the walk rate of
How does a 15.7 line drive percentage taste? That's what Washburn has to be asking his opposing hitters, who aren't making the sort of contact off him that they did last year, when Washburn's liner percentage was an unsavory 22.9 percent.
His ground ball percentage has remained in the same territory it's been the last two years (37.3 percent compared to 36 and 36.5 in '08 and '07), so fly balls are what batters are hitting off him more these days. That percentage is up six points, to 47 percent, and Washburn has been lucky that he hasn't allowed more long balls. His HR/FB percentage has decreased, meaning he's allowing the same number of homers even though he's serving more fly balls. How long that holds is anyone's best guess. What fantasy owners can hope for is that the Mariners fantastic outfield defense helps keep a few fly balls in the park.
There's no doubt the
Serving homers is difficult to predict, but one sure-fire way to suppress them is to pound the lower half of the strike zone. After allowing just one homer in his first three starts, Washburn served two on April 26 vs. the Angels. Both homers -- hit by
Washburn hit the lower half of the zone just 43 times in a 99-pitch day, although the benefit of keeping the ball down was obvious when he managed to do so. Of the 15 batted ball outs he recorded, six were hit on pitches low in the zone, and three more hit on mid-zone throws. Just one of the six non-homer base hits he allowed came on a pitch low in the zone.
For a career fly ball pitcher, disregarding the lower half of the strike zone can lead to rough innings and unproductive outings. Witness the six earned runs he allowed in that start.
The April 26 start was disconcerting on several levels: Washburn didn't record a strikeout, he walked three batters for the second game in a row, and Angels hitters raked him for his improper pitch placement. But one bad start shouldn't cancel out three promising ones, so Washburn should get play from his owners when he faces a punchless Athletics batting order in Seattle on May 2.
It's not safe to say that he's an efficient pitcher, but he's more efficient than he's been in the past. He will not repeat that brilliant 2002 season, when he won 18 games and posted a 1.18 WHIP, although he can certainly bounce back for 10 wins, and an ERA and WHIP resting around the 4.20 and 1.30 areas, respectively. You can live with a pitcher who delivers those numbers, even if he's one with an extremely modest 5/4 career K/9 rate.
You don't want to rely on Washburn to be a cog in your pitching staff, but he can be a strong fourth or fifth piece for owners in deeper mixed leagues. That's not quite the type of pitcher whom you would expect to earn $14 million in a season-and-a-half. Leave it to fantasy baseball to more properly determine a player's value.