By Conway West 11.03.14
Baseball had a year that rivaled 1968 for the “year of the pitcher” moniker: the highest K rate of all time and the lowest runs scored since 1981. That, in addition to the specialized relievers becoming more specialized and defensive shifts becoming commonplace, means that baseball might be in a drought of offense, which seemed unimaginable just 10 years ago.
This article will focus on starting pitchers and which outperformed projection expectations of them coming into the year, as well as those who underperformed. I have avoided the conversation regarding relievers for two reasons: one, the overrated/underrated thing is so apparent with relievers (wow, Wade Davis was really good this year! And Jim Johnson was terrible!). Two, relievers are so fickle, and have such situational roles, that their success is so much harder to predict. It is almost assumed that there is no good in projecting the success of the bullpen arms; just have as many relievers that throw really hard as you possibly can. I used steamer for the projections, and FIP for the basis, which I will explain why FIP is great in a later article.
Most Surprising Starting Pitcher
Garrett Richards, Angels (Projected FIP: 4.37, Actual: 2.60)
Richards began the year as a previously ineffective extra arm for an Angel’s team that had a lot of pitchers that fit that bill. With injuries in the rotation to start the year, Richards started the season in the 4th spot of the Angels’ rotation, slotted between the potent combination of Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs (both struggled mightily). He proved effective the first start of the season, and then pitched 7 shut out innings against the Mariners his second start, and then pitched like an ace the rest of the way on a team that desperately needed it. He was consistently the most effective pitcher the Angels had all year, in any role.
Richards rise to ace-dom comes from that fastball velocity, amongst other things, which was 6th in the bigs out of players with significant playing time, and first out of starters. Dude throws hard, and has always thrown hard, but this year he continued on 2013 success of finding the strike zone more often. When you throw 96+, and can locate with 3 pitches, you can normally be successful at the major league level. Richards is on the young side (this was his age 26 season) and looks like he has learned how to pitch; he looks poised to continue his growth as an ace. Even before his season-ending injury, advanced scouts were wary of Garrett’s success because of a growing trend in MLB.
One of the emerging storylines of early in the 2014 baseball year was Tommy John surgery. While pitchers left and right were being put on the shelf with elbow injuries, the consensus (with a lot of scientific data to back it up) was that hard throwers (especially young ones) equate to elbow injuries. The dark humor behind this statement, obviously, is that Richards suffered one of the most gruesome injuries of 2014 that wasn’t an elbow. That injury could be crippling to the best pitcher in Southern California not named Clayton.
Honorable Mentions: Jose Quintana, Jeremy Guthrie, Dallas Keuchel
Most Deceptively Underachieving Starting Pitcher:
Shelby Miller, Cardinals (Projected FIP: 3.82, Actual: 4.54)
The category of “most underachieving” can be really fun, particularly with pitchers, when looking subjectively at the matter. For instance, the year after RA Dickey won the Cy Young as a feel-good story (when he was possibly out-pitched by the afore-mentioned Clayton), he was traded to the Blue Jays in a deal the Mets must have been licking their chops over: they knew the market was grossly overrating their Cy Young winner. He then pitched pretty much like numbers should suggest: average. This seems to happen with pitching to a high degree: since they perform less than hitters, their success is examined more thoroughly, then blown out of proportion either way afterwards. Starting pitchers are the quarterbacks (analytically) of baseball.
With that being said, I have tried to be objective with this list, showing numbers and explaining them with possible explanations. Shelby Miller for me wasn’t as exciting as several of the candidates for this award, but he is still deserving of the honor. Led by a bottom-15 walk rate, K rate, and home run rate, Miller was tagged all season. He also had tremendous luck with a .256 BABIP, which was third lowest in the majors. St Louis had a good team defense, but nothing so spectacular to explain that number. Miller’s ground ball rate wasn’t that special, either. He just was lucky to not be worse than he already was this year.
If you ever watched Shelby pitch, there is subjective reasoning to back that up: he seemed to walk everyone the first inning, until he threw a flat fastball in the zone that got roped and caught by someone to turn a double play. His season felt always on the verge of disaster. There is hope – he is still very young, and shot through the minors striking people out all the way.
Others on this list popped out as more exciting: Danny Salazar was a dark-house ace candidate, who was ruined by terrible team defense and wildness early in the year. Alfredo Simon was a fantasy name heard often all year: just interesting enough to always pop up on the waiver wire, but ended with terrible peripherals. AJ Burnett was awesome last year, and was equally bad this year, which could have led to interesting discussions on age and pitching. And we haven’t even mentioned Chris Young, the worst pitcher by FIP this season. If you were to ask Mariners’ fans in August about Chris Young, some would have called him the MVP of the team. How’s that for overrated?
Honorable Mentions: Danny Salazar, AJ Burnett, Alfredo Simon