Monday, January 11, 2010

Washburn Apparently Saves Twins

It was reported by Scott Miller of CBS Sports last week that the Twins had made an offer to Jarrod Washburn. Lavelle Neal tracked down some more information, hearing it was a one-year, $5MM offer, which Scott Boras declined. For the casual fan, getting someone like Jarrod Washburn seems like a smart move, especially after the Twins had trouble finding five consistent starters last season. A closer look into his stats, however, tells a different story.

Before being traded to Detroit at the trade deadline this past July, Washburn was 8-6 with a sparkling 2.64 ERA in 133 IP. His strikeout rate during these 20 starts was consistent with his career numbers, averaging 5.3 K/9. His BB rate was down, however it wasn't a major improvement to explain the sudden dominance. After allowing an average of 2.7 BB/9 over his career, Washburn was now allowing 2.2 BB/9, which is one base runner basically every 3 starts considering Washburn averaged close to 6 innings per start.

So, with his strikeout and walk numbers remaining very similar to his career averages, why was his ERA so much lower? Part of it was undoubtedly related to luck. Washburn had allowed an average of 9 hits per 9, or 1 hit an inning over his career. During his first 20 starts this past season, he was allowing just 7.4 hits per 9. Factoring in his improved walk rate, Washburn was ultimately allowing 2 less base runners per 9 innings than he had over his career. That's an improvement, but if you think it still seems like that's not enough to turn a career 4.10 ERA into a 2.64 ERA overnight, you're right.

Washburn's biggest improvement during his time in Seattle was his ability to keep the ball in the park. Over his career, he's allowed an average of 1.2 HR/9, but during his 20 starts in Seattle last season the number was down to a ridiculous 0.7 HR/9. That's one less home run for every 2 starts, which could ultimately be a difference of two runs every 9 innings. That helps better explain why his ERA dropped nearly a run and a half. When you factor in an improved walk rate, an improved hit rate, and the ability to keep the ball in the park, it's not hard to understand why he was so successful in Seattle.

However, both the home run rate and the hit rate are likely to return to their career averages this coming season. In fact, after his dazzling performance with Seattle, Washburn's numbers with Detroit were all above his career averages. Why? Some will point to his knee injury being a main reason, but the truth is when you average certain numbers over a 13-year career, it's fairly easy to predict a pitcher's stats by the end of the season. His numbers simply returned to their averages.

Why was Washburn's hit rate so much better in Seattle? I believe that has a simple answer. Since 2004, Washburn has been a fly ball heavy pitcher. With Seattle in 2009, 57% of balls put in play against him were fly balls. When you factor in that Seattle had one of the best outfield defenses in baseball history last season, and Safeco is a very spacious park, it makes it a lot easier to understand why Washburn was allowing less hits per 9, as well as seeing his home runs allowed drop by almost 50%.

When Washburn arrived in Detroit, his fly ball ratio went way up. It went from 57% to 69%, and while Comerica Park is still spacious, it was actually a hitter's park last season. According to the MLB Park Factors, Comerica was the 13th highest scoring park in baseball, while Safeco field ranked 21st. Comerica gave up about 10% more home runs than Safeco, although the hits were almost identical. So why did Washburn's hits/9 sky rocket to 10.9 H/9 when he arrived in Detroit?

Undoubtedly, he was somewhat affected by his knee injury. He wasn't just average, he was terrible, posting a 7.33 ERA in 8 starts in Detroit before undergoing surgery. However, another factor is the outfield defense. Seattle's outfield for most of last season was Franklin Gutierrez in center, Ichiro in right, and a combination of Wladimir Balentien, Endy Chavez, Bill Hall and Michael Saunders in left. The best way to determine one's fielding value in my opinion is using Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), although the +/- system is also very good. If you're unfamiliar with UZR, here's an interview with Mitchel Lichtman, the man behind the stat. Anyways, Endy Chavez posted a UZR/150 of 23.4 in LF last season, an extraordinary number for an outfielder. Balentien, after being poor defensively for most of his young career, posted a 20.7 UZR/150 in LF, where he played almost exclusively before being shipped off to the Reds. Bill Hall's and Saunders numbers aren't important, because neither played an inning in the outfield while Jarrod Washburn was still a member of the Mariners. Between Chavez and Balentien, the Mariners LF position saved close to 22 runs over a full season, which is a very good number for an entire outfield, let alone one position.

As good as their left field defense was, Franklin Gutierrez was even better. He posted a UZR/150 of 27.1, but since he played more than 150 games, he actually finished the season with a UZR 0f 29.1. That is simply sensational. Factor in Ichiro's 11.3 UZR/150, and over the course of a full season, the Mariners outfield defense saved close to 63 runs. That is a ridiculously high number, and it shows why Washburn was so successful in Seattle before struggling in Detroit.

By comparison, Detroit's outfield for most of the season consisted of a combination of four players: Ryan Raburn, Curtis Granderson, Magglio Ordonez and Clete Thomas. Raburn and Thomas split the LF duties exclusively after Washburn's acquisition, with Raburn posting a respectable 11.1 UZR/150, very similar to Ichiro's numbers in RF for Seattle. However, since Clete Thomas split time with him, his less stellar 5.0 UZR/150 makes the Tigers LF defense about 8 runs above average over a full season. Not terrible, but definitely a downgrade from the Mariners 23 runs above average.

The biggest difference, however, came in CF. Curtis Granderson posted just a 1.6 UZR/150, more than 25 runs below Franklin Gutierrez's numbers. Magglio Ordonez, on the other hand, was a -5.4 UZR/150, making the Tigers' outfield defense ultimately barely above average, saving about 4 runs over the course of a full season. That's a major drop off from Seattle's exceptional defense, and it helps explain why Washburn was unable to see much success once he arrived in Detroit.

Now, what does any of this have to do with the Twins? Washburn is likely to finish this coming season with a fly ball rate around 60%, so park factors and outfield defense are going to be major factors for his success. With Target Field opening, it's impossible to know if it will play as a pitcher's park or a hitter's park, but the dimensions seem to suggest it will be closer to a hitter's park than a pitcher's park, and it's very doubtful it plays anything like Safeco field. However, without any information to back up those claims, park factors won't be in the discussion quite yet.

The Twins outfield defense, though, is another story. With the trade of Carlos Gomez to Milwaukee, the Twins traded arguably the best defensive center fielder in baseball, and are now going to be starting Delmon Young in left field exclusively, where he's been arguably the worst defensive outfielder in baseball. Last season, Young posted a UZR/150 of -25.6 in LF. That is FIFTY runs worse than the Seattle left fielders last year, and terrible no matter how you look at it.

Michael Cuddyer will man the other corner spot for the Twins, and his defense has been almost as poor. Last season, Cuddyer posted a UZR/150 of -22.1 in RF. That means the Twins are giving up nearly 50 runs per season by starting Delmon Young and Michael Cuddyer at the corners together, before either picks up a bat. The hope, of course, is that Span will be a very good defensive center fielder and help mask the deficiencies of the other two.

Unfortunately, Span has also been below average over his career in center field. Last season in 84 games, Span posted a -7.4 UZR/150. Now, unlike Young and Cuddyer, Span has been a great defensive corner outfielder, and his sample size in center is very small, so it's not unrealistic to expect him to become an above average center fielder. However, a best case scenario would appear to be Span being a UZR/150 of around 12, based on his 16.7 UZR/150 in left and 12.3 in his best season in right. Even if Span becomes that good of a defensive center fielder, the Twins would be giving up 36 runs in outfield defense over an average team, and compared to the Mariners exceptional defense last season they'd be conceding over 100 runs.

Washburn could be a solid one year gamble for a team with a spacious park and some very good defensive outfielders, but that simply isn't the Twins. Washburn has stated several times he wants to play closer to his home in Wisconsin, and the best team for him to sign with other than Seattle may in fact be the Brewers, with Gomez in center field. I admittedly didn't look at their corner outfield situation, but with Gomez alone and a more spacious park than Target Field will be, Washburn makes more sense in Milwaukee. Just please, keep him away from the Twins, Bill Smith.