Last night, Tom wrote about Epstein’s optimism regarding the pitching staff, particularly the depth. He also spoke of players entering their prime or pre-prime years. Today, I wanted to delve a little further into that and look at some starting pitchers and a couple of bullpen arms who stand to improve this season because they are a) entering their prime years, b) should benefit from a much improved defense, c) could benefit from a change in their approach or d) all of the above. For this piece, we are going with the pitchers expected to be on the Opening Day roster. In other words no prospects who won't be up in April. Before I start that, here’s a review on some of the stats I’ll be using in this article.
FIP: Stands for Fielding Independent Pitching. This stat is similar to ERA but only factors in what a pitcher can control such as strikeouts, walks, and HR rate. The attempt is to measure how a pitcher without the influence of the defense behind him. Pitchers with lower FIPs as compared to their ERAs tend to improve with better defense.
xFIP: The same as FIP except that it normalizes HR rate to the league average since sometimes HR rate can involve both good and bad luck. Both FIP and xFIP are better predictors for future success than ERA.
BABIP: Stands for Batting Average of Balls In Play. This stat measures luck on batted balls to some degree. If your BABIP is high, it means a lot of batted balls fell for hits. In other words, more seeing eye groundballs and bloop hits and less line drives right at ‘em. In Yogi Berra’s words, more “hitting them where they ain’t”. A higher number can mean less luck for a pitcher (and more luck for a hitter).
Chris Volstad: Volstad had some ugly results last season. He was 5-13, with a 4.89 ERA but there are some encouraging behind the scenes numbers to consider. The first is a strikeout rate that jumped to 8.00 in July and 8.77 in August last year while maintaining good control at less than 3 walks per 9 innings. His xFIP went higher than 3.56 just once from May until the end of the year and he finished the year strong with a 2.32 ERA in September/October. His biggest problem was the HR ball, but he brought his rate down to 0.50 and .58 HRs in two of the last three months. If he can sustain that over the course of a season it bodes well for him. His xFIP, which measures his performance with an average HR rate, was a very respectable 3.64. If Volstad keeps the strikeouts high and the HRs low as he did late in the year, he could be in for a surprise season.
Travis Wood: An NL executive told me he really liked this acquisition and thinks he could be a solid 4th starter for years to come, perhaps more but not at the ace level. There's nothing special about Wood's stats in 2011, even if you look at predictors like FIP/xFIP, but my optimism stems from the idea that he can bounce back after typical Dusty Baker overuse in what was a promising 2010 rookie season (3.51 ERA in 17 starts and an impressive 7.5/2.3 strikeout to walk ratio). It wasn't just overuse, however. Wood's approach on the mound changed in 2011. He became less aggressive with his solid fastball and used more of his less effective cutter instead. We can expect him to benefit as much as any pitcher from new pitching coach Chris Bosio's more aggressive style and approach.
Bounce back Candidate
Ryan Dempster: Despite having an awful season in 2012, Dempster wasn’t a whole lot different than the reliable starter he has been since joining the rotation in 2008. His strikeout rate was still very good and his walk rate was still acceptable, though up a little the last 2 years. His groundball and HR rates were similar to career numbers and his velocity and overall stuff also remained constant. His approach has changed a bit of late. He’s been throwing more 2 seam fastballs (more sink/movement than a 4 seamer but often less velocity) the last 2 years. But what really seemed to hurt Dempster last season was bad defense and bad luck. The BABIP rose to .324, his highest since his rookie season back in 1998. His ERA was high at 4.85, but his FIP and xFIP numbers were right in line with his career numbers, suggesting that last year’s atrocious defense wasn’t doing him any favors. He is a pitcher who could benefit the most from an improved defense next year. Like Wood, I think he'll also benefit from working with Bosio.
Jeff Samardzija: While he’s always had a good arm, Samardzija’s stuff and command simply got better in 2011. His fastball shot up to an average of 95 mph and he also added about 3 mph on his slider. He learned to keep the ball down in the strike zone and increased his ground ball rate from 30% to 41%. After striking out just over 5 batters over the past two seasons, Samardzija’s K rate jumped to 8.9 last season. Now that he’s figured a few things out, he can stop searching and start building on the foundation he built. One thing he still needs to improve is his control (5.11 walks per 9 innings), although it did improve to just over 3 ½ walks per 9 innings in the last 3 months of the season. If he can get that walk total under 3 and maintain his K rate, he should have a big season. If that happens and the Cubs trade Marmol, Samardzija could be a long term closer candidate. Of course that's a lot of "if's", but none are outside the realm of possibility.
Bounce back Candidate
Carlos Marmol: Who else? He'll likely be one of Chris Bosio's projects. Marmol’s velocity went down last year to a career low average of 91.8 mph, down from 94 mph the 3 previous seasons and his slider flattened out and became hittable in the second half. His control was still awful at 5.8 walks per 9 innings. His contract is beginning to get expensive, so he needs to regain his velocity and the movement on his slider if he expects to remain a Cub. If that happens, he only needs to get his walk rate down to about 4 per 9 innings to be dominant again. But even if Marmol does return to dominance, he's no guarantee to remain a Cub. If Samardzija or someone like Rafael Dolis or Chris Carpenter step up as legitimate closer material, the Cubs may move Marmol to obtain more prospects at the deadline.
The Cubs may not have a front line pitcher outside of Matt Garza, but there is some reason for optimism. Improved approaches and a sold defense should lead to better results on the mound, and if the Cubs can find a starter or two along with some younger, cheaper late inning relief for the long haul, that has to be considered a big success heading into 2013.