Sunday, June 15, 2008

Examining the Rotation

Cleveland has built a good reputation for keeping its players healthy in recent years, but the injury bug has nailed key members of the offense and pitching staff in 2008. Given how successful and relatively healthy the pitching staff was last season, it seemed inevitable that all those innings would catch up to the rotation in some form. Throw in two grueling playoff series and some extra wear and tear has a chance of carrying over to next season.

Carmona had never exceeded 150 innings pitched at any point in his baseball career (148 IP at Class A) and had just 74.1 Major League innings before his breakout season. Despite being characterized as the team workhorse, Sabathia exceeded 200 innings for only the second time in his career in 2007 (210 IP in 2002). Not including the playoffs, C.C. logged 31 more innings than he’s ever had in his career last season.

Oddly enough, the less experienced Carmona looked more like the ace than Sabathia early on. Carmona has exhibited some control issues this season, with a .60 K/BB ratio over 10 starts. Fausto’s primary weapon of getting groundball outs has allowed him to overcome these issues though and he still boasts a 3.10 ERA.

Sabathia got off to a rocky start (7.88 ERA in 6 April starts), but his overall numbers do not reflect the vast improvements he’s made as the season has progressed. C.C. has shown little sign of slowing down and has a 2.43 ERA, 4.90 K/BB ratio, and 3 complete games in 8 post-April starts.

The team’s main innings eater, Westbrook, came off a strong Spring Training only to land on the disabled list with an intercostal strain in his left side. The injury caused him to miss time from April 20 to May 28, but he only made one start before aggravating his throwing elbow. Westbrook has made just five starts this season, but was very effective when healthy with a 3.12 ERA and 1.15 WHIP.

The Tribe’s starting rotation has been the life preserver for an otherwise disappointing season. Fortunately, Carmona will be making his first rehab start in the minors next week, but Westbrook is lost for the season due to a torn elbow ligament. Cleveland’s farm system had been particularly robust the last few years, but many of Buffalo’s top players are already settled in Cleveland. It may be depleted somewhat, but the pitching depth is as important as ever for 2008. Below is a breakdown of how the injuries to Carmona and Westbrook have played out so far.

Player: Fausto Carmona

Injury: Left hip strain, placed on the 15-day DL on May 24.

Projected Recovery Time: Early July at the latest, with a rehab start scheduled for this week.

Replacement: Jeremy Sowers

Cleveland really dodged a bullet with Carmona’s injury, as it could have been much worse. According to Head Trainer Lonnie Soloff, the injury did not seriously affect the interior part of the hip muscle, which would have taken much longer to heal. Another encouraging aspect of the injury is the way it occurred. Carmona tweaked the muscle while running off the mound to cover first base. This suggests that if given proper rest the injury probably won’t hinder Carmona’s pitching motion in the future.

Carmona has struggled with his control this season, giving up at least four walks in seven of his last ten starts, but since the hip was not a pre-existing condition there is no connection between the two.

F. Carmona 2007 32 215.0 3.06 1.21 2.24 2.97 32

2008 10 58.0 3.10 1.59 0.61 3.71 15

Upon his return, Carmona’s main task will be to straighten out some of his lopsided peripherals. Fausto’s K/BB ratio has a difference of 1.63 between 2007 and 2008. The strikeout has always been more of a supplemental weapon for Carmona, but keeping those free passes down to a minimum is crucial for any pitcher looking for long-term success. Sooner or later all those walks are going to start crossing home plate.

At first glance, Fausto’s walk rates seem somewhat foreboding. Another set of data shows that his 3.10 ERA in the face of an elevated number of baserunners is no fluke and has a strong chance of improvement.

First, Fausto has managed to increase his groundball to flyball ratio from 2.97 to 3.71; that’s a pretty significant jump and helps explain why he’s been so good at damage control this year. Even if he scatters a few walks in a start, those runners are more likely to be stranded on a seeing-eye single, rather than a double off the wall. Carmona has been keeping the ball down, which is a good sign. Also, his double play rate has doubled this season. In 2007, Carmona converted a double play every 6.71 innings; that rate has increased to a DP every 3.86 innings.

Second, the flyballs that do make it into the air (as an out or a hit) are not leaving the park. In 2007, Carmona saw 11.1% of his flyballs go for homeruns compared to just 2.9% this season. Again, Carmona is allowing more base runners, but continues to do the right thing in keeping the ball on the ground and in the park.

Unless there’s an underlying health issue that has not been disclosed, there’s little reason to think Carmona won’t move past his current control issues and revert to his dominant self, much like Sabathia has done in his last few starts.

With Aaron Laffey already locked into the rotation, Jeremy Sowers got the call to replace Carmona. Sowers has been underwhelming in his first three starts, averaging just 4.7 innings a game with a 6.91 ERA. In his fourth start (occurring as I type this), Sowers needed 94 pitches to go 4.1 innings with 4 ER against lowly San Diego, so expect those numbers to balloon a bit. It’s hard to determine exactly what happened to Sowers between 2006 and now, but he has yet to make a smooth transition back to the majors since then.

Player Year Level GS IP ERA WHIP K/BB HR/9
J. Sowers 2007 MLB 13 67.1 6.42 1.56 1.14 1.13

2008 AAA 10 60.2 2.08 1.20 2.53 0.59

MLB 3 14.1 6.91 1.67 1.40 1.88

Sowers has a career 2.50 ERA in the minors, including a 2.08 ERA in 10 starts for Buffalo this year. He had supposedly corrected a few flaws in his delivery and improved his overall pitch velocity last year, leading to an increase in strikeouts at Buffalo. Jeremy got off to a hot start in 2008 and his stats as a starter were among the best in the International League. In two separate stints in the Majors though, Sowers has failed to capitalize on his past success.

I’ve always rooted for Sowers, but I can’t shake the feeling that he might not be cut out for the Majors. He’s been given several opportunities in the past few years and has not been a reliable arm since his promotion in late 2006. Sometimes when a pitcher who has dominated the minors and had some success in the majors goes into a long slump, it can be attributed to a mental block; I think this is the case with Sowers.

Sowers has never been handed a starting job in Cleveland outright. He has always had to look over his shoulder at either Laffey, Carmona, or a rehabbing pitcher who may take his position. A recent example of this was Jeremy Guthrie. Guthrie toiled in the Tribe’s minor league system on-and-off during the rebuilding years, but never seemed to breakout. Suddenly, at age 28, Guthrie becomes an above average starter with a young, pitching-starved Baltimore after being cut by Cleveland. My point is a change of surroundings or a little job security can go a long way for a pitcher.

As I said earlier, Cleveland is fortunate that they don’t have to rely on Sowers as anything more than an emergency starter for now. I just haven’t seen any signs that point to Jeremy breaking out of whatever developmental purgatory he’s stuck in. There’s really nothing more he can accomplish in the minors though, since his numbers suggest his mechanics have been corrected. At 25 years old, Sowers still has some time left to develop and he may well get that permanent starting job he’s been chasing by 2009.

The 2009 rotation starts to look pretty scary with Sabathia leaving, Adam Miller unable to stay healthy, and Byrd’s vitality questionable. Sowers should get one or two more starts before Carmona returns, but that may be the last we see of him for a while. Next year is going to be very significant for Sowers and will be his final minor league option year with Cleveland.

Player: Jake Westbrook

Injury: Tear in right ulnar collateral ligament, officially diagnosed on June 5. Will be corrected by Tommy John surgery and a lengthy rehab period.

Projected Recovery Time: 10-14 months

Replacement: Aaron Laffey

Out of all the pitchers on Cleveland’s staff, Jake Westbrook was the one I thought least likely to land on the disabled list again. Westbrook’s low-power, sinkerball style and reportedly top conditioning gave the impression that he would reach 200 innings as he had from 2004 to 2006.

Westbrook’s left abdominal strain caused him to miss time in May of 2007, but was a blip on a predominately healthy run. Now, Westbrook will miss the rest of the 2008 season and possibly two months of 2009 with a ligament tear in his throwing arm. Since signing a three year, $33 million contract extension last April, Jake has been on the DL twice.

The first stint again featured muscles in his left side (diagnosed as an intercostal strain), which is worrisome due to its repetitive nature. The elbow injury may have resulted from one of Westbrook’s strengths: his ability to rack up innings every season. While there seems to be a consensus that young pitchers who rely heavily on the breaking ball are much more likely to be injured later on, it’s unclear how much this would impact an older (24+) pitcher like Jake.

After doing an internet search, I failed to find any conclusive studies that point to breaking ball pitchers having more time lost to injury than other pitchers, but it is certainly possible that averaging 197.4 innings per season for the last four years took its toll on Jake’s arm. Again, not too familiar with sports medicine, but that’s the best conclusion I could reach as far as the cause of the injury.

I try and avoid putting blind faith in the front office, but you’d have to think that a pre-contract extension physical would have identified any damage to the ligament if it really did erode over a long period of time. At any rate, the Tribe is out $11 mil this season; hopefully this isn’t the start of a permanent trend with Jake.

The good news is that Tommy John surgery has become very common and has an 85 to 90 percent success rate, improving with older patients (Carroll, 2004). The large majority of pitchers who undergo the procedure regain their former abilities within a 14 month period. The majority of the time is spent rehabbing the elbow, which leaves the chances of a successful recovery largely in the hands of the pitcher and training staff.

There’s also Aaron Laffey, who is on track to be this year’s Fausto Carmona (the good version, not the 2006 Fenway version). Laffey has been one of Cleveland’s most consistent starters, filling in for both Westbrook and Carmona at times. Simultaneous injuries to both pitchers kept Laffey around, but Westbrook’s permanent departure cemented the starting gig for Aaron.

The fact that Laffey is only being paid the league minimum also takes away some of the financial sting from Westbrook’s lost contract year.

A. Laffey 2007 9 49.3 4.56 1.33 2.08 3.32

2008 9 57.3 2.83 1.15 2.15 1.56

Laffey has gone at least six innings and given up two runs or fewer in eight of his last ten starts. With only 106 career innings logged in the Majors, it will be a while before Laffey’s true potential can be measured. In the meantime, Laffey seems poised to have a breakout season with Cleveland.

A comparison of Laffey’s nine starts from 2007 to those in 2008 shows at least slight improvement across the board, with notable decreases in ERA and WHIP (these are almost guaranteed to change, as Laffey is currently putting up top-ten numbers here). It will be interesting to see if Laffey ends up outperforming Westbrook’s ZiPS projection of a 4.45 ERA over 180 IP.

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