Monday, November 30, 2009

Room For Improvement: Fausto Carmona

Well, yeah. Pitchers, by VORP ascending:

Manny Parra, -23.9
Andy Sonnanstine, -20.1
Chien-Ming Wang, -18.7
Brad Lidge, -15.6
Fausto Carmona, -15.5

Now, Wang was injured and only made 9 starts, but packed a helluva lot of badness into those 9 starts. Brad Lidge you may have heard of. It's a bit amazing that Tampa kept letting Andy Sonnanstine wander out to the mound to post a 6.77 ERA and give up 11.83 H/9, but then, he WAS held to 18 starts.

Fausto got 24. Including right down to the wire, on Sept. 30.

Manny Parra, amazingly, went 11-11 for a bad Brewers club despite managing a 6.36 ERA. But Milwaukee doesn't have the deep well of outstanding young pitching that the Rays do: it makes sense that they'd keep trotting Parra out there. They had Jeff Suppan, Dave Bush, and Braden Looper in the rotation, fer crine out loud. In this sense, they were a lot like the Indians: what Carmona needed as much as anything else was bulk innings against major-league hitters, and once he came back from the Instructional League, the Tribe was clearly out of playoff contention, so what could it hurt? What, he's blocking Matt Ginter?

The numbers, in a sense, truly speak for themselves: 151 hits, including 16 HR, in 125 1/3 IP. 70 BB to 79 K. A 1.763 WHIP with a 6.32 ERA. Hitters hit .295/.387/.465 off Carmona. He had one month in which he made more than one start and had an ERA under 6.00. There really isn't any way to cut the numbers to make Fausto look like an effective pitcher.

Here's the thing: when he came back from two months off on July 31, it seemed like he might have gotten at least some of his act together. In his first five starts, only one featured a third run allowed. He was still walking too many guys, but generally speaking, he was significantly better than in the first half.

The funny thing is, when you look at the split, you might think there's not much difference:

1st half: 12 G, 291 PA, 41 BB, 36 K, 9 HR, .283/.391/.459
2nd half: 12 G, 305 PA, 29 BB, 43 K, 7 HR, .306/.383/.470

See, I was surprised by this. I really thought Carmona pitched better in the second half, but geez, those slash stats are actually worse. He posted a much better K:BB ratio, kept the ball in the park a little better ... what the hell happened?

BABIP, 1st half: .300
BABIP, 2nd half: .342

Wow, .342. That really blows. It got me to look at some of his other splits here:

Bases empty BABIP: .280

Eh, a little lucky if anything.

RISP BABIP: .348

Great Scott, that's horrific.

Runners on base BABIP: .368

Now, wait a minute.

Look, I'm not a guy who thinks that the pitcher has NO control over the opponent's average on balls hit in play (i.e., no homers). But I feel that the evidence is relatively stable that these numbers tend to waft around a basic mean. The Cleveland defense was nothing special, but it wasn't Historically Awful. Three sixty-eight is really, really high.

In 2007, Carmona's lone Tremendous Season, these numbers were:

Empty: .282
RISP: .265
Men On: .279

In 2008:

Empty: .256
RISP: .355
Men On: .333

So, to absolutely no one's surprise, Fausto Carmona was a bit hit-lucky in his Cy Young caliber season. No f*#&ing kidding. But in 2008, he seemed to get EXTREME swings, where he was very lucky with the bases empty, and very UNlucky with guys ready to score. And, of course, 2008 was a bad season, with a "backwards" K:BB ratio and a 5.45 ERA.

Oddly enough, Fausto was at least still a severe groundball pitcher in 2008:

2007 GB:FB: 1.84
2008 GB:FB: 1.84
2009 GB:FB: 1.29

Now, that's just weird. It's like he's a completely different guy in 2009. Well, not in terms of being able to walk even the Manny Sanguillens and Vlad Guerreros of the world, but in terms of HOW he pitched, it's just off. And, of course, with fewer ground balls comes more balls roped for extra bases:

2007: .248/.309/.352
2008: .271/.374/.385
2009: .295/.387/.465(!)

See, even when he lost his control in 2008 and his K rate fell off a cliff, his SLG allowed was still fairly low, a .114 ISO (.104 in 2007). In 2009, this jumps to a massive .170, clearly the wrong approach.

What happened? Well, the conventional wisdom is that hitters stopped swinging at those sinkers that fell out of the strike zone, reducing his strikeouts, upping his walks, and generally rendering him inert. It's worth noting that although the RESULTS differ, the KIND of pitcher Carmona is doesn't change much from 2007 to 2008: his GB:FB rate is the same, his HR/9 rate actually went down slightly (16 in 215 IP to 7 in 120 2/3), and his hit rate is only slightly higher. It just that the strikeouts of 2007 turned into baserunners in 2008, and that made more runs.

The thing is, he was awfully unlucky on batted balls with guys on base in 2008. Sure, he walked more guys and gave up a few more hits, but that resulted in a rise in ERA that might have been disproportionate. And I wonder if this might have gotten into Fausto's head, to the point where he no longer trusted his stuff to get people out when it really mattered.

Check this out: against right-handers, Fausto has always been tough. Heck he was tough THIS year:

2007: .216/.280/.321 (.248 BABIP)
2008: .230/.358/.309 (.269 BABIP)
2009: .245/.331/.366 (.280 BABIP)

Against lefties, though:

2007: .275/.333/.375 (.304 BABIP)
2008: .303/.387/.444 (.312 BABIP)
2009: .331/.427/.537 (.352 BABIP)

I mean, that's terrible. What the heck happened?

LHB, pulled: .377/.377/.688, .324 BABIP
LHB, up middle: .388/.386/.626, .358 BABIP
LHB, opposite: .385/.385/.487, .385 BABIP

Do those numbers make any sense at all? In 2008, the BABIP for left-handed pulls was .377, but up the middle was .270. In 2007, those numbers are .244 and .292.

I haven't done enough research on BABIP to be able to say anything definitive on the topic. And I'm making some mental projections onto Carmona that are completely inferred from some very limited data. But here's what I think is plausible:

Carmona was lucky in 2007, both in terms of being hit-lucky and in terms of batters swinging at sinkers that weren't actually strikes. This resulted in weak ground balls (depressing his BABIP) and strike outs (missed entirely), a good K:BB ratio, and a low ERA. In 2008, he threw roughly the same "stuff," be hitters laid off the sinker that fell OUT of the zone, resulting in more walks and fewer Ks.

But on TOP of this, hitters got lucky against Carmona on balls hit in play, and this led Carmona to make an overreaction to the data: he thought his stuff was too hittable. This led him to try too hard to hit corners or power pitches past people, and all of this led to a 5.04 ERA.

This season, Carmona sought a way to keep the sinker from dropping out of the zone, with disastrous results. His new grip/release didn't result in low-zone sinkers, it resulted in blunderbussery of the highest order. Faced with pitches that sailed out of the zone, Carmona began working in the middle of the plate just to throw strikes, and ended up giving up so many hits to left-handers that they pounded him right off the mound. And his HR/9 rate more than DOUBLED from 2008. This is compounded by his propensity to throw the same speed over and over again, illustrated here.

So what is REASONABLE to expect? Will Carmona ever be able to duplicate his 2007 performance? Nah, I doubt it. I'd bet a lot against it in 2010, at least. It was a perfect storm of factors for Carmona by all appearances. He's not THAT good.

Is he doomed to repeat 2008 or 2009? Well, it does look like there's some room for optimism here, amongst the hit-unlucky numbers, the improvement in K:BB ratio from 1st half to 2nd half, and the strange replacement of super groundball stuff with ordinary poundable stuff. And there's the prospect of playing an infield that actually knows what it's doing, with Jhonny Peralta not learning third base on the job, Asdrubal Cabrera starting at short, and Luis Valbuena's eyes shrinking from saucer size. (I cannot speak for defense at first, as I don't know who's playing it, but really now. They're going to be worse than Ryan Garko? What, they're going to stab spectators with pointed sticks? How can you play first base so badly as to affect Fausto Carmona's fortunes as much as the other three guys?) The outfield defense ... man, I don't know. A healthy Grady Sizemore would help. A lack of Ben Fungusco will help. Matt LaPorta at first instead of left would help.

So let's say this: Carmona sustains his K:BB ratio of about 1.50 from the second half. He regains his sinker to post a GB:FB ratio that splits the difference between the 1.84 of his youth and the 1.29 of this year, say 1.57. He gets more hit-neutral under the following circumstances: against left-handers up the middle and with runners on base. By getting more ground balls, his HR/9 rate comes back down to ... I dunno, let's say 0.75 HR/9 (this is higher than his .67 rate in 2007 and his .525 in 2008). That's about 17 homers in 200 innings. Heck, make it 20 homers, a 0.9 HR/9 rate. (I'd rather not, but we'll be cautious.) And the fewer hits and runs that result from these factors results in more confidence, resulting in more strikes and fewer walks. For sake of argument, he goes from 5.04 BB/9 to 3.6 BB/9, which is 80 walks in 200 IP (still significantly higher than 2007). Again, if you don't like this, make it 90 walks for a 4.05 BB/9. I mean that's still kinda a high rate, yeah? So at the end of the day, we're probably talking about slassh stats more in the .270/.350/.390 range, maybe a mid-4s ERA: not terrific, but a noticeable improvement. And maybe that's a springboard for another step in 2011.

See, I think ALL of these are attainable goals. They're not too far-fetched, and they all stem from basically one thing: throwing his best pitch better. Maybe having Jake Westbrook back will help him as well. I think if Carmona can do these things, we're talking about a guy who's got more like a 15 VORP pitcher than a -15 VORP pitcher, an increase of 30 VORP.

(For reference sake, Aaron Laffey led the non-Cliff Lee portion of the Cleveland pitching staff with a 10.9 VORP. We are not talking about a tremendous season here. But it WOULD be a tremendous IMPROVEMENT.)

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