MSTI’s 2011 in Review: Starting Pitchers, Part 3

You know the offseason has started to get fun when it’s been over a week since I’ve posted a Season in Review piece, thanks to all the hoopla over ownership and the signing of Juan Rivera. Before we completely turn the page to 2012, let’s continue our look back at 2011 with the third and final installment of starting pitchers, featuring two veterans who combined for 65 starts and a youngster who received just one.

Hiroki Kuroda (B+)
3.07 ERA, 3.78 FIP, 7.17 K/9, 2.18 BB/9

Here’s one of my favorite “pitcher wins and losses are stupid” notes yet: Kuroda set career highs in both wins (13) and losses (16) this year, which must of course mean that he had both the best and worst season of his career.

That’s ludicrous, of course, because the 36-year-old Kuroda had nothing but another productive season, breaking the 200 inning mark for the first time, though an uptick in home runs allowed made it slightly less valuable than in 2010. Kuroda got off to an especially good start this season, allowing three earned runs or fewer in five of his first six and seven of his first nine starts, but he didn’t always get the support he deserved, as we noted on June 14:

The failure of the bullpen and the inability of the offense to overcome it really has to make you feel for Hiroki Kuroda, as Steve Dilbeck points out at the LA Times blog. Kuroda was once 5-3, but has now been hung with five consecutive losses to push him down to 5-8. On the surface, it sounds like he’s struggled, but we know better; the Dodgers have scored eight total runs for him in those five games. While he deserves his share of the blame for the first two, games in which he allowed four and five earned runs, he’s allowed a grand total of five earned over his last three starts. All of them go in the books as losses, despite his season xFIP of 3.50.

And again on June 19:

For 7 1/3 scoreless innings on Sunday, the Dodgers looked likely to set us up for disappointment. Hiroki Kuroda had sailed through the first seven, allowing just five baserunners before Matt Guerrier threw a clean eighth. After a tough turn around the starting rotation, it was a much-needed boost from the veteran. But yet again, there was absolutely no support from the offense, as Bud Norris and Sergio Escalona held the Dodgers to harmless singles by James Loney and Dioner Navarro, and walks by Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier. There’s a reason Kuroda has a losing record both for the season and his career, and it’s because of games like this.

And yet again on July 28:

If Wednesday night’s loss to Colorado was indeed the final start as a Dodger for Hiroki Kuroda, it came in the most appropriate fashion possible: six innings of one-run ball, twice as many strikeouts (six) as walks (three)… and yet another loss, since the inept Dodger offense couldn’t be bothered to put a run on the board until Rod Barajas‘ solo homer with one out in the ninth. (On a side note, another strike for pitcher W/L records; Kuroda, Blake Hawksworth, and Mike MacDougal all allowed the same damage of one earned run. Kuroda allowed that much over six innings, while Hawksworth did it in one and MacDougal in one and a third. Yet Kuroda is the one with the blemish on his record. Uh, okay.)

That inspired Jon Weisman to pass along this astonishing note:

Since May 22, Kuroda is 1-10 with a 3.38 ERA.

Of course, noting Kuroda’s misfortune was hardly what we’ll remember this season for, because the “will he or won’t he” question of whether he’d accept a trade at the deadline of a lost season swirled for weeks. Kuroda almost certainly would have been the most desirable starter on the market other than perhaps Ubaldo Jimenez, and could have brought the Dodgers a nice return. It’s amazing to think what might have been if Kuroda had accepted a deal to Boston, wouldn’t it? Perhaps the Red Sox might have avoided a full collapse, and Theo Epstein and Terry Francona might still be there.

Part of the speculation was fueled by Kuroda himself, since for most of July he refused to come right out and say that he would or would not accept a trade. Finally, one day before the trading deadline, he announced that he would be exercising his right to reject a trade and stay in Los Angeles. Though I respected his decision, I had to admit that I was disappointed at the time:

I look at it from more of a “wanting my team to win” point of view, and from that standpoint, it’s hard not to think that Kuroda has hurt the chances to do that, even if only in a small way. A few weeks ago, I noted that I would be more than okay with keeping Kuroda to soak up some innings over the last few months if the deal was just going to be a salary dump, with little in the way of talent coming back. Yet as dominoes have begun to fall over the last few days, we’ve seen that this particular trade season is shaping up as a clear seller’s market. Look at what Toronto was able to do in exchange for some relievers and eating a bad contract. Look how much the Orioles got for 36-year-old Koji Uehara, or the Mets for two months of Carlos Beltran, or the reported return for Ubaldo Jimenez if that goes through. With Detroit, St. Louis, and Cleveland (maybe) all having picked up starters, that left the Red Sox, Yankees, and Rangers to fight over Kuroda, the clear top remaining starter. That’s an enviable position to be in.

Instead, we have 8-10 more starts of Kuroda to look forward to, and that might be it if he decides to go back to Japan after the season. I know some will be happy with that, saying that it proves he’s “true blue” or makes the club better for the last two months, but I don’t really see what that accomplishes. At the end of the season, his current 6-13 record will be something like 8-17, and the team will still be several games under .500 and double-digit games out of a playoff spot. Having Kuroda around, or not, was not going to change the fortunes of the 2011 club. Trading him might have helped future versions of the club, teams he’ll have been long retired from, and while I’m glad he enjoys being a Dodger enough to invoke his no-trade clause, he could have also gone on a two-month road trip somewhere and re-signed in Los Angeles the day after the season ended, if he chose. His gain, short-term, is probably our loss, long-term, and it’ll be a bit hard for me to watch his next start without that thought in the back of my mind.

That came to fruition the very next day, when the dust had settled from the unexpected and unpopular Trayvon Robinson / Tim Federowicz deal:

Worse, there’s also the feeling that this goes back to Hiroki Kuroda‘s refusal to accept a trade. Boston writers Gordon Edes and Sean McAdam each reported that Federowicz and Juan Rodriguez were initially discussed in negotiations for Kuroda, an assertion backed up by Ned Colletti’s comments that Federowicz was someone he’d been eyeing for some time. (McAdam says that a third prospect likely would have been included, though he doesn’t state if that was Stephen Fife or not.) Kuroda was clearly higher on Boston’s starting pitching shopping list than Erik Bedard, so if he agrees to the deal, the Dodgers send two months of Kuroda to Boston for a package nearly identical to the one that ended up coming for Robinson. That’s a deal that I think most of us would have been pretty satisfied with – I know I’d have been – and Robinson would have remained in the system. Remember when I said I was disappointed in Kuroda’s choice? Yeah, that paid off a lot quicker than I thought it would.

I know the arguments on the other side of that, namely that Kuroda had the right to choose to stay and that he should be commended for his loyalty, or that Robinson wasn’t stellar in his short MLB debut in Seattle (which again, is totally beside the point) and I understand that. But as we saw, even though Kuroda pitched well down the stretch (slightly hampered by a neck injury) and the Dodgers played well, there was never any chance they were going to get back in the race, so that asset is now lost.

Still, that’s in the past, and for the third time in a year, we’re playing the “will he or won’t he” game with Kuroda, this time about if he’ll return to America for 2012. There’s no one who seriously thinks he’ll come back to MLB with anyone other than the Dodgers, and right now I put it at 70/30 odds that he will return for another season.

I hope he does. Kuroda’s been a solid performer and by all indications a good teammate, and the Dodgers are in the unique position of being (probably) the only team able to buy a valuable asset for one year when pitchers of similar value would require three or four.

Ted Lilly (C-)
3.97 ERA, 4.21 FIP, 7.4 K/9, 2.4 BB/9

Of the two main starters on this page, it’s a little surprising that it was Hiroki Kuroda who dealt with neck pain rather than Lilly, considering that the veteran lefty was the one who was constantly whipping his head around to see balls leaving the yard – hence the card picture, which come on, I had to use.

To be fair, Lilly improved greatly as the season went on, but we’ll get to that in a second. When he initially signed his 3/$33m deal last October, my reaction was less than positive:

So sure, I’m happy to see him back in 2011, but we can’t be short-sighted about this. Remember, Lilly just finished a 4-year, $40m contract, which is an average annual value of $10m/year. Somehow, despite being 4 years older, less than a year past shoulder surgery, and on the decline, the Dodgers saw fit to give him a deal which increases that value?

I’m not arguing that he wouldn’t have found a contract like that on the market, because he would have. I would have just preferred it be some other team to make a foolish investment. Spending money does not equal spending wisely, because while Lilly’s a good pitcher, he’s hardly a difference-maker, yet he’s being paid like one. Though I’m glad he’s back for 2011, I really think we’re going to regret this deal in 2012 and 2013 – which is basically exactly what I said about Blake’s deal after 2008.

The fact that it started with a $7.5m outlay this year and increases to $12m and $13.5m in 2012 and 2013, incredibly high numbers for a late-30s mid-rotation pitcher, doesn’t help to ease our uncertainty. The discomfort increased as Lilly failed to make it through five innings in either of his first two starts, and his ERA was still north of 5 even headed into his first start of August.

The funny thing is, as I look back through the year of posts, Lilly was just sort of “there”. He was rarely bad enough to get killed, nor was he effective enough that he really stood out. Scrolling through the database, I see more than a few times where I note a solid Lilly outing that avoided a “what’s wrong with Ted Lilly” post after several bad starts. Despite the seemingly outrageous homer rate, when I looked at him in June, that wasn’t the largest concern:

So what’s going on? Well, it appears to be two issues. First, despite the fact that I mentioned his K/BB hasn’t changed, he’s definitely missing fewer bats. He’s striking out more than a man less per nine innings, and his swinging strike percentage has sunk from 9.5% in 2009 to 8.9% in 2010 to 7.5% this year – and that last number is sure to fall further when tonight’s game is factored in. He’s walking fewer than he ever has as well, so that’s how the K/BB stays lower.

If you’re striking out fewer, you’re relying more on your defense, and that’s where we run into our second problem. According to Baseball Prospectus‘ “Defensive Efficiency”, the Dodgers currently rank 28th in MLB as far as turning balls into outs. So you’re seeing exactly what you’d expect to see when you have a pitcher who isn’t striking people out, and isn’t getting support from his defense. The problem is that I’m not sure how we see either of those items changing any time soon, particularly since Lilly is still signed up for his age-36 and age-37 seasons the next two years.

In July, you can see just how we felt about him during our midseason review:

Ted Lilly (D) (6-9, 4.79 ERA, 4.59 FIP)
Lilly hasn’t been awful (back, back, it’s gone!), but nor has he been (throw to second, and the runner is in!) in any way worthy of the $33m deal he received in the offseason. He’s (that ball is far, it is out of here!) striking out fewer than ever, and more (he’s going, and he swipes second without a throw) batted balls in front of a defense that isn’t great at converting them into outs isn’t (that ball is crushed into the second tier!) a good mix. Oh, and he’s 35 and has complained (Navarro’s throw to second, not in time, another steal!) of arm soreness already. Loving that three-year deal more than ever.

Not exactly the sort of start you’re looking to see in the first year of a multiyear deal, particularly from a player Lilly’s age, and at the time, there was little hope for improvement. Yet somehow, he did, perhaps based on this chat with Clayton Kershaw that provided really the only Lilly-based entertainment all season.

No, really: through the first 22 starts of Lilly’s season, the returns were poor, allowing 23 homers, a .791 OPS, and a 5.02 ERA. But beginning with a six inning, one run performance in San Diego on August 3, Lilly was practically a new pitcher; in his final 11 starts, he allowed just five homers, a .543 OPS, and a 2.09 ERA. We noted this on August 15:

Ted Lilly has taken a lot of criticism this year, and for good reason: he gives up homers every five seconds, he can’t hold runners on, he’s now 7-13 on the year, and, oh yeah, he’s still owed about $28m through 2013, when he’ll be 37. He’s given up fourteen dingers over his last ten starts - fourteen!– and only once in that time has he made it through a game longball-free.

Still, after allowing just one run over seven innings tonight (yes, on a blast to Ryan Braun), it’s worth noting that Lilly’s actually been very good lately, since this is the fourth start in a row in which he’s allowed two runs or less. That’s a total of just six earned runs over 26 innings, which is excellent. The catch, of course, is that Lilly has come down with the loss in each of his last three games, since the Dodgers have scored – wait for it – one run in that span. One!

Of course, one area he never improved at was holding runners on, where he allowed 35 steals against just two caught stealing, among the worst rates in baseball.

Despite the roundabout way in which he got there, Lilly had a basically average Ted Lilly season, despite another year of declining strikeout rates. His 4.21 FIP and 3.72 SIERA largely fall into line with what he’s been doing for years.

John Ely (inc.)
6.23 ERA, 5.67 FIP, 9.3 K/9, 5.2 BB/9

Geez, how long ago does “Ely-mania” seem right now?

Ely made only one start for the Dodgers this season, and even that was way back in April. That’s mostly due to the season-long health of the top four in the Dodger rotation, but also because Ely followed up a 6.22 AAA in 2010 with a 5.99 mark in 2011. The usual “yes, but Albuquerque” caveats apply, which, fine, but that’s still pretty ugly. (His home FIP of 4.52 and road FIP of 4.71 are at least a bit less stomach-turning.) Despite being called up in September as depth, he spent most of his time watching, logging just four innings over three unimportant games.

All of which is not to say that Ely has no place with the Dodgers. Every team needs a decent-ish 7th or 8th starter for a spot start here and there. I’d just recommend he get mighty comfortable in New Mexico.

******

Next! Javy Guerra, Proven Closer™! Scott Elbert‘s enormous comeback! And far too many words spilled on Vicente Padilla! It’s relievers, part 1!

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