A Run at History
We’ve all seen it, and it certainly doesn’t take a sabermetric fan to understand that they were watching something historic. I’ve always hated the ‘if he keeps up this pace’ caveat, but the numbers were absolutely stunning. Simply put, he’d left his peers behind and was competing with the record book. Most fans can rattle off the names by heart: Lima’s magical 2005. The memorable 2008 duel between Carlos Silva and his teammate Miguel Batista, with Brian Bannister challenging both. The murderer’s row of the 2007 Nationals: Mike Bacsik, Matt Chico and Jason Simontacchi. No, M’s fans, you didn’t imagine it: Ryan Rowland-Smith put them all to shame.
Yes, I felt the need to talk about Ryan Rowland-Smith’s move to the DL – hell, everyone else is doing it. RRS’s WAR in 2010 stands at -1.4, far and away the worst in the majors. That WAR total is nearly equivalent to the 2nd, 3rd and 4th worst pitchers’ totals combined. He’s done this in less than 100 innings. As a fan of Ryan’s, I’ve got no choice but to be fascinated. Here was a guy who pitched reasonably well last year – perhaps not quite up to his ERA or FIP, but solid (and quite consistently) nonetheless. And in 2010, he’s been further below average than Cliff Lee’s been above average. How does this happen?
Dave’s post below lays out the ‘how’ but I still can’t figure out the ‘why.’ Yes, a pitcher who doesn’t throw hard isn’t going to last long when he can’t hit his spots. But it’s stunning the way these subtle declines in ‘skill’ or results can snowball: RRS gave up no HRs on curveballs in 2009, and he’s given up 4 so far in 2010. When he’s watching his best pitch from 2007-09 get hammered, it’s probably more likely that he’d start nibbling with his FB, fall behind, and have to get more of the plate, leading to more pitches getting hammered, and off we go. His slider’s actually getting *more* swinging strikes in 2010, and it hasn’t been hit as hard, but a combination of BABIP and poor location mean that it hasn’t worked either.
His fastball results make me think that for 95+% of pitchers, ‘locating the fastball’ is some hybrid between a skill and a result. That is, while it’s not impacted by defenders, batters or official scorers, we can expect quite a bit of variance in a pitcher’s ability to hit spots. This variance will not always be punished as savagely as it has in Rowland-Smith’s case, but it’s something to keep in mind. Pat Andriola took a look at Zach Greinke’s fastball in 2009 and 2010 in this article at fangraphs a few weeks back. If Zach Greinke can’t maintain optimal location, what chance to RRS have? Location is clearly part skill, but it’s not all skill.* You’re going to have pitchers whose fielding-independent metrics diverge markedly from year to year even after you smooth out HR/FB, LOB%, etc. Greinke’s FIP and tRA are up over a full run this year.
Finally, there’s the issue of Ryan’s personality and his popularity with M’s fans. Clearly, M’s fans didn’t give Carlos Silva or Jeff Weaver this much slack when they struggled (and neither struggled quite this much). RRS has made an impact with fans in part because he’s so willing to engage them. He blogged a bit and has a huge following on twitter, where he’s been candid about his struggles and also lets fans know where he’ll be hanging out (I think divulging similar info would’ve gotten Silva into a hell of a lot of fights). As Jeff wrote at LL, this has made it easier for fans to relate to him, and it’s made him unique – though obviously his back-story helped set him apart as well. I spoke with him while he rehabbed in Tacoma last year and he’s just as down to earth as everyone says. So I don’t think I’m alone in saying that Rowland-Smith’s struggles feel crueler somehow than, say, Casey Kotchman’s or Rob Johnson’s. It also means that when I look back at my own preseason projections, RRS’s stands out. Sure it was wildly, astonishingly wrong, but I keep asking myself if part of the reason it was wrong was that I wanted Ryan to succeed. If I’m honest, I think that was part of it.
All of this is why I’m glad Rowland-Smith has landed on the DL with whatever it is that they’re calling it (back strain, huh? Eh, at least they didn’t go with ‘tendinitis’). I sincerely hope that the mechanical tweak Rick Adair is working on helps, and I sincerely hope that his luck suddenly goes from unbelievably bad to unbelievably good. I hope a pep-talk from his old minor league teammate Rich Dorman gets him to forget about his results and work on what he needs to do to become a major league pitcher again. Mostly, I hope that this season’s absurd stats don’t define his career. The Angels have made me put up with a lot, but if RRS’ Mariner career ends the same week Joe Saunders gets flipped for Dan Haren, I really don’t know what I’ll do.
*: Three tangents: first, I’m betting this is partially why veterans aren’t anywhere near as consistent as traditionalists think they are. Silva as consistent innings-eater? Barry Zito as guy-worth-truly-insane-contract? There are a number of reasons why pitchers begin to suck, but this is probably a big one, and it’s something that won’t necessarily get picked up in BB rates. A guy without a lot of stuff can get pegged as having brilliant location, when in reality he may only have been the beneficiary of great ‘location results.’ Second: qualities like ‘stuff’ and velocity are important in that they provide a margin of error for variance in location. A 98 MPH fastball may not need to be well-located, but an 88 MPH fastball sure better be. Third, it’s always a good idea to think about sample size concerns. Location isn’t the only ‘skill’ metric that can fluctuate wildly over small samples. When Carlos Peguero had a wOBA of over .500 for a month, his K% and BB% numbers looked better. This proved that the hot streak wasn’t purely the result of a spike in batting average on balls in play, but it didn’t prove it was anything more than a hot streak. Since April, he’s struggled to wOBA over .340, and his K rate is back above 30%.