Friday, January 23, 2009

Southpaw Saviors?

In my last post, I highlighted the Carl Pavano signing and expressed concern about the state of the Tribe's starting rotation for 2009. While I'm still worried about a pitching staff sans-Sabathia, I think I did a poor job of backing up my opinion. I summed up my thoughts as such:

"No one behind Lee and Carmona can truly be counted on to a.) pitch effectively for most of the season b.) stay healthy or c.) not pitch like a rookie who is in way over his head."

This is a pretty broad statement without much evidence behind it. Amazingly, no one called me on it, but I think these issues warrant further investigation.

What should we expect from Aaron Laffey?

Laffey started the 2008 season in Buffalo as an emergency sixth starter for the Major League club, but was soon called to action after Jake Westbrook suffered a rib injury in mid-April. With Westbrook's subsequent elbow injury (and season-ending surgery) it seemed like Laffey wouldn't be making that long drive to Buffalo anytime soon. Laffey provided the Tribe with an exceptional backup to Westbrook and initially improved on his 2007 debut.

Year Age Level IP (GS) ERA WHIP K/9 BB/9 GB/FB LD% Strike%
2007 22 AAA 96.1 (15) 3.08 1.16 7.01 2.15 N/A N/A N/A

MLB 49.1 (9) 4.56 1.34 4.56 2.19 3.32 18.8 62.2
2008 23 AAA 61.2 (11) 4.38 1.46 6.86 2.63 N/A N/A N/A

MLB 93.2 (16) 4.23 1.43 4.13 2.98 1.69 18.7 60.8

With the exception of two forgettable starts against New York (5.2 IP, 4 ER) and at Texas (5 IP, 8 ER), Laffey was very effective in his first 11 starts. The young southpaw averaged 6.23 innings per start with a 2.83 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 1.57 K/BB, and 1.60 GB/FB ratio over that span. At some point during his final six starts, Laffey started to experience difficulties with his throwing elbow. He got hit harder, surrendered more walks, and lasted fewer innings resulting in a 1.40 point jump in his ERA. After lasting just 3.2 innings in Seattle and getting torched for 8 ER in 4 IP in L.A., Cleveland sent Laffey back to Buffalo to smooth out some wrinkles in his mechanics. It's unclear to what degree, if any, Laffey's elbow was impeding his delivery at this point, but he did not fare much better in Buffalo, posting a 4.38 ERA and 1.46 WHIP in 61.2 total innings in AAA that year. Those last two starts basically trashed Laffey's overall numbers. In his 14 starts before the All Star Break, Laffey had a 3.45 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, and 1.48 K/BB.

Despite struggling with his delivery and/or a strained elbow (again, I can't say for sure), several of Laffey's key peripherals from 2008 were still comparable to 2007. Even with a rough stretch in his final six starts, Laffey's line drive percentage and number of pitches thrown for strikes saw little change from last season. This is important because it shows Laffey's pitches were still fairly effective and batters were not driving his pitches any more than usual.

It's interesting that Laffey threw only 1.4% fewer strikes in 2008, yet his BB/9 rate jumped 0.79 points. The best explanation I can think of for that is that Laffey did not challenge batters to expand the strike zone as often as before. In 2007, a batter may have been more likely to offer at a breaking ball on its way out of the zone resulting in a ground or foul ball (both tallied as strikes), rather than a called ball. This theory is encouraged by a 6.4% drop in O-Swing%, or the amount of time a batter swung at a pitch outside the strike zone.

With all the reports of Laffey's delivery needing some work last season, it seems pretty likely that his pitches were not experiencing the same movement as before. If Laffey was unable to drive his breaking ball through the desired trajectory on a consistent basis, this could explain why his walk rate went up and his pitches failed to fool as many batters. Flatter or more erratic pitches could also lead to fewer fooled batters flailing into groundball outs, at least partly explaining the steep drop in GB/FB ratio. I'm fairly confident that any issues Laffey had with his pitches were directly related to his strained elbow. One good sign amidst Laffey's control issues was that his pitch velocity saw only negligible changes between the two seasons.

The key to Laffey's success is his ability to induce groundball outs. The only variables that changed since 2007 were the health of Laffey's elbow, his command, and his groundball production. Laffey's pitch selection, velocity, and strategy basically stayed the same. The fact that a specific, integral variable (the elbow) can be traced back to the other two troublesome variables is encouraging.

It's easy to forget just how few consecutive innings Laffey has logged in the Majors when it feels like (at least to me) he's been such a steady contributor to the team since their playoff run in 2007. Even though his experience and talent give him an edge over his contemporaries, Laffey has still not been guaranteed a spot in the rotation heading into Spring Training (Shapiro has hinted that Laffey is the frontrunner for the job, so this may just be to further competition amongst the lesser candidates). There is still some question as to how Laffey will perform over the course of an entire Major League season. This is certainly a valid point, since no amount of projections or speculation can truly predict how a 23-year old pitcher coming off an injury will perform over 170+ innings. That said, I still feel there's a strong chance Laffey will continue to improve on his two partial seasons.

The issues outlined above are unlikely to follow Laffey into 2009, especially since his delivery issues were caught and corrected early. Cleveland was wise to shut-down Laffey as soon as the elbow strain was diagnosed and has carefully monitored his performance since then. If Laffey's control reverts back to its 2007 form, his walk and groundball rates should go back to normal which will make him much more effective than he has been lately. I don't see any reason why this won't happen next season if Laffey is 100% healthy. I'm not sure if this will be Laffey's breakout season, but I do think he will establish himself as a full-time starter in the Majors. If I were to choose which fourth or fifth starter will go on to log the most innings this season, I would take Laffey over Pavano, Huff, Sowers, and Lewis.

Does Huff have the tools to succeed out of the gate?

Former first-round draft pick, David Huff, is expected to be a strong contender for the final rotation spot out of Spring Training. Huff pitched collegiate ball for two years at UCLA before signing with the Indians in 2006. The California native encountered little resistance in the lower minors and found himself in Buffalo in a little over two seasons. Huff's 2007 season with Kinston was shortened because of a strained ligament in his throwing elbow, but he suffered no ill effects from the elbow in 2008. Below are Huff's stats from the past two seasons:

2007 22 A+ 59.2 (11) 2.72 1.21 6.94 2.26 3.07 .302 3.33
2008 23 AA 65.2 (10) 1.92 0.88 8.50 1.92 4.43 .240 2.99

AAA 80.2 (16) 3.01 1.03 9.04 1.67 5.40 .291 3.15

I really can't find anything to complain about here. Huff must have had great coaches and preparation at UCLA because he hit the ground running in his first full minor league season and never looked back. His strikeout and walk rates improved significantly at each development level, despite having to make the transition from AA to AAA mid-season. In 213.2 career minor league innings, Huff compiled an outstanding 2.70 ERA and 1.07 WHIP. Huff's numbers hold up well on their own, too. When team defense is removed from the equation with FIP, Huff would still have averaged a 3.15 ERA.

Even when Huff appeared to be at risk of stumbling in his first season back from the elbow injury, his talent proved otherwise. A .240 BABIP, like Huff had in 65 innings at AA, would normally indicate a pitcher is playing over his head. Instead, Huff improved across the board after his promotion to AAA, raising his BABIP to a more sustainable .291 in the process. Obviously, that last hurdle between AAA and the Majors is the biggest, but Huff seems as prepared as anyone to make a successful transition.

Despite having just over 200 innings of professional experience, Huff's maturity as a pitcher shines through in his performance. Tony Lastoria describes Huff's abilities:

"Huff is a strike-thrower who has excellent command of his pitches. His fastball consistently clocks in at 88-91 MPH, and his changeup is a plus pitch and ranked one of the best in the country coming into the draft. While he does not overpower hitters, he has unbelievable confidence in his fastball, and commands it well working it to both sides of the plate and to the corners on all four quadrants. He has the best fastball command in the entire system, and is a very polished pitcher. He is aggressive and attacks hitters, and he has a great, athletic delivery which deceives hitters and he repeats it well.

The key to Huff's future will be the development of an effective breaking ball as a third pitch to use against left-handers. He does throw a curveball, but it still needs a lot of work, and his slider is just average."

Huff's lack of a go-to breaking pitch may prove to be a challenge once he starts to face Major League hitting, but those pitches should have improved considerably by the time Spring Training starts (the scouting report I quoted is over a year old at this point). One trait that should serve Huff well in his rookie season is his ability to aggressively attack hitters in all parts of the strike zone.

At first, Huff reminded me of another left-hander who relies heavily on control. Jeremy Sowers' career mirrors Huff's in several ways. Both pitched in college, cruised through the minors, and were primed for their MLB debut by age 23 (assuming Huff joins the team this year). Sowers' career minor league stats are also similar (414 IP, 2.50 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 8.4 H9, 2.2 BB9, 6.7 K9), except Sowers was never the strikeout pitcher that Huff is. Leading up to his MLB debut, Sowers saw his strikeout rate decline at least a full point at each development level, settling in at 5.0 K/9 over 97.1 IP in 2006. Sowers was able to raise his K rate in two Buffalo stints in 2007 and 2008 to 5.7 and 6.4 respectively, but never duplicated that success in the Majors. Huff followed the opposite path, elevating his K rate by 2.10 points between A+ and AAA.

Also, if Huff's fastball range of 88-91 MPH sounds like something typically associated with "crafty" lefties, it's worth noting that Cliff Lee averaged just 90.5 MPH with his fastball last season. An 89 MPH average doesn't seem so bad for a pitcher who actually has the ability and the guts to challenge hitters on all parts of the plate.

If Huff's strikeout rate distinguishes him from Sowers, how does he compare to past pitching prospects? Below are the career minor league stats for two other left-handed pitchers who eventually stuck in the Majors:

Player IP ERA WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 K9
C. Lee 427.1 3.37 1.27 7.2 0.8 4.2 10.2
C.C. Sabathia 246.2 3.44 1.30 7.3 0.5 4.4 10.4
D. Huff 213.2 2.70 1.07 7.5 0.7 2.2 8.3

It's interesting to note how Lee and Sabathia made up for a lack of control with high K rates, while Huff had significantly better control with a lower, yet still strong, K rate. This may not mean anything at all, but it's fun to look at.

As far as I'm concerned, Huff doesn't have much left to prove in the minors. It's possible that Sowers will get one last shot at the Majors before the team makes a final decision on him, but it looks like the next wave of prospects has finally caught up to Sowers. Considering Cleveland's fourth starter is Carl "anecdotal adjective" Pavano, they'll need all the pitching depth they can get. However, unless Pavano crashes his Ferrari into the foul pole at Goodyear or something, Huff is a long-shot for the final rotation spot (I'll be surprised if Laffey doesn't get it). The good news is that as soon as Pavano inevitably implodes, the team can simply eat his meager salary and plug in Huff. Until then, Huff will probably be this season's emergency starter in Columbus.

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