Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Room for Improvement: David Huff

As I prepare this piece, David Huff finds himself in a battle for the #5 slot in the rotation with, of all people, Carlos Carrasco. This is surprising for three reasons:
  1. Huff was arguably our number ONE starter last season, certainly no worse than #3, and led the team with 11 wins
  2. This means Huff has been passed up by both Justin Masterson, who seems miscast as a starter, and Mitch Talbot, a guy widely considered by lay Tribe fans as a "settle-for" player in dealing Kelly Shoppach's Salary to Tampa Bay
Look, Carrasco has done some fine things this spring and looks much sharper than the version we saw at the end of 2009. True, Carrasco kind of spit the bit in his last start, but Huff hasn't done anything to make one think his spring is showing off any great skill, either. But Carrasco was so so so so SO very bad in 2009, I can hardly believe it isn't in his interest (and ours) to have him settle in, mow down some Triple-A hitters, build his confidence and repertoire, and hit the ground running in the majors later on. A fifth starter isn't of tremendous value in April, anyway, and I'd rather the just-turned-23-year-old get a start every fifth day. Also, he's Carlos Carrasco. But this isn't a case of "How the Mighty Have Fallen" for Huff, as he was never actually "Mighty" in the first place. He's kind of hard to distinguish from the long line of marginal left-handed starters the Indians have trotted out (Aaron Laffey, Jeremy Sowers, Chris Nabholz, Dave Otto, Mike Jeffcoat, Timmy from "South Park") over the years. He doesn't strike people out. He doesn't throw very hard. He has a limited upside. He is, like Zaphod Beeblebrox, just this guy, you know? The problem thus far with Huff is that he has no actual signature skill on which to hang his hat. He doesn't strike out a lot of guys, barely one every two innings (4.56 per 9 IP). He is okay at limiting walks (2.88 per 9 IP, for a 1.59 K:BB ratio), although it should be noted that this is second-best on the team (to Tomo Ohka!) and first amongst regular starters by a pretty big margin. He doesn't really keep the ball in the ballpark (1.12 HR/9), and he certainly doesn't induce ground balls, with a 44% GB rate and a cringe-inducing 180:287 GB:FB ratio over the season. If you're going to put the ball in the air, you better have SOMETHING to punch guys out with, or a really, really large outfield with Franklin Gutierrez in it. But consider this: Huff sort of "broke in" during his first month, going no more than 4 innings in any of his three May starts. After this, the team felt comfortable "airing him out" at around 100 pitches per outing, and to his credit, he gave the team five or six decent innings per start. There were a couple gems (8 innings of 4-hit shutout ball in Pittsburgh) and a couple clunkers (11 hits and 8 runs in 4 1/3 IP against Chicago, a game the Indians WON), but generally speaking, a David Huff start featured:
  • more hits than innings pitched
  • three to five runs allowed
  • five or six innings
  • a home run
In fact, in Huff's first 18 starts, Huff gave up 16 homers, gave up more hits than innings pitched 13 times, gave up at least three runs 15 times, and posted a fairly-horrifying THREE Quality Starts. Three. In eighteen starts. After an August 21st loss to Seattle, Huff sported a spiffy 6.80 ERA and generally looked like Jeff Mutis. Granted, this was his rookie season, but ... look, 6.80 is bad. That's a bad ERA. It's bad. And then, in Huff's last five starts, he conjured up FIVE Quality Starts. Maybe as importantly, he coughed up ZERO home runs. Sure, four of the starts were in September and only one was against an opponent looking to make the playoffs, but Huff pitched well in his last five starts. Of course, he didn't actually do anything that much different: he still gave up more than a hit an inning in 3 of the 5 (albeit 7 hits in 6 IP each time), still struck out only 4.91 guys per 9 IP, and still lofted a significant quantity of balls in the air (38:68 GB:FB ratio). On the other hand, nothing left the yard, he went at least 6 innings in each start, and gave up 2, 1, 3, 2, and 0 runs. If you were looking for one thing ... well, look ... frankly, you'd call this statistical noise. It's five games. As humans we like to see patterns whether there are actually patterns or not, and as fans we like to overweight the evidence that fits our worldview (or what we want it to be). However, it's not unreasonable to consider this Normal Rookie Pitcher Development, where a young pitcher learns to pitch against major-leaguers by pitching against major-leaguers. So let's say Huff pitches kind of like he did last year, except with a year under his belt. Let's say that instead of coughing up 11.15 H/9, he lowers this a couple notches to 10.75 or even 10.5. This isn't that unfathomable: Carl Pavano posted a 10.74 and wasn't that great, and Jeremy Sowers (Jeremy Sowers!) put up a 9.78, although I think that's a bit lucky for him. Let's say he found something that keeps the ball in the ballpark at a little lower rate, and instead of only posting 10 2/3 innings through the first two months, he puts up a more-reasonable 50. (This will help his VORP, ultimately a counting stat, as long as it's positive.) Finally, Huff simply progresses as a pitcher: I don't require him to be as good as he was in those last five starts, just something better than the near-7.00 ERA guy he was for much of the season. A 5.00 ERA guy, say. I mean, that's not so ridiculous, right? Anyway, Huff posted a lame-assed VORP of 1.9 last season, so giving him this kind of modest improvement means that it is reasonable to project a 13-point improvement in VORP from David Huff in 2010.

Now ... much as with Raffy Perez, this can still be true if Huff turns into a newt and doesn't get better. If Carrasco (or someone else) can step in and post a 15-VORP type performance, you could still get this kind of improvement, even if it's not from Huff, or comes as a tandem. I don't really care. If I can get 15 VORP from my fifth starter instead of Tomo Ohka and his Merry Bag of Nonsense, I'm not all that attached to any single player putting it up.

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