Yu Darvish’s Improvement
In the wake of Daisuke Matsuzaka‘s failing foray into Major League Baseball, many were skeptical of Darvish’s prospects with the Rangers (despite their very different pitching styles). After year one, I feel very much at ease. Darvish was durable, tossing 191.1 innings last year over 29 starts, a rate that would have put him at 217.2 innings for a full 33-start season. His strikeout rate was among the league’s best, and what gives me confidence is how he kept that high K rate through the end of the season when teams were seeing him for the second, third, or fourth time. Best of all, his K:BB ratio improved rather noticeably as the season wore on. It was below 2.00 for the first two months, crept into the mid-2.00s for the next three months and then ballooned to over 5.00 in September when Darvish’s BB/9 fell to 1.72. I’d expect improvement in 2013.
Ryan Vogelsong Repeats
I didn’t like Vogelsong’s chances at a repeat. I even wrote as much last year:
Amazingly, Vogelsong had an ERA over 3.03 in just one month this whole season  as he proved doubters wrong again and again. Now with a whole offseason of doubt ahead of him, it’s going to take something special for him to put together a similar year.
Indeed, Vogelsong did something special. His strikeout rate jumped to 7.50 K/9 with a 20.1 K%, and his walk rate fell to 2.94 BB/9 with a 7.9 BB%. While his 3.70 FIP was nearly identical to his 3.67 FIP in 2011, I didn’t think he’d even be able to replicate an ERA that low much less another season with his ERA outperforming his peripherals. His ERA was a whole run lower at home (2.86) than on the road (3.87), so I’d consider him a mainly a splits play in shallower leagues going forward.
Gio Gonzalez’s Control
Control has never really been Gonzalez’s calling card. In 24 starts over his first two seasons (2008-2009), Gonzalez walked 5.70 batters per nine innings. That rate has been on the decline though, falling as far down as his 3.43 BB/9 mark in 2012. With his strikeout rate on the rise and his ground ball rate already near 50%, we should be seeing many more years of dominance from Gonzalez.
Chris Sale’s Conversion
2012 gave us a lesson in the differences between being a successful starting pitcher and a successful relief pitcher. On the one hand was Daniel Bard, who absolutely bottomed out in Boston. On the other hand was Sale. So, why did Sale succeed where Bard did not? Even out of the bullpen in 2011, Sale featured four pitches which he threw at least 9% of the time. Two were well above average (his two-seamer and slider), one was average (his change-up), and one was slightly below average (his four-seamer). Transitioning to the rotation, Sale cut down his velocity across the board and almost did away with his four-seamer (he threw it just 9.8% of the time versus 43.4% in 2011). The result was a pitcher with three offerings he varied very evenly, all of which were above average. For comparison, Bard only threw two pitches more than 7% of the time when he worked out of the bullpen in 2011 and was wholly unable to make the transition. Relievers that fit the Sale mold will likely see success. Anyone who fits the Bard mold will crash and burn.
Jarrod Parker’s Development
I was very hard on Parker last September, proclaiming him a player to drop thanks to a difficult three-start stretch to end his season (@NYY, @TEX, vs. TEX). Instead of tanking like I thought he would, Parker flourished. He maintained a K/9 over 7.00 while posting a monthly best walk rate of 1.76 BB/9. Parker’s ground ball rate improved in the second half, and he has the look of a potential top-25 starting pitcher this year.
David Price’s GB%
It’s not the first time I’ve said this — heck, it’s not even the first time I’ve said it in this post — but judging a pitcher’s performance comes down to three primary factors: strikeout rate, walk rate, and ground ball rate. 2011 saw Price reach new levels with his strikeout and walk rates, but 2012 saw him reach the ranks of elite with his ground ball rate. His 53.1 GB% was a marked improvement from his 44.3 GB% the year before, and he was over 52.0% in four of the season’s six months. That shows me the improvement was skill-based and not fueled by luck. His acehood (is that a word?) has been cemented.
Jon Lester’s Velocity
Lester struck out 26.7% of the batter’s he faced in 2009. That number has been on the decline every year since, culminating in a 19.0 K% last year. What made him go from Justin Verlander-ian to Johnny Cueto-ian? Lester’s fastball averaged 93.7 mph in 2009. That number has been on the decline every year since, culminating in a 92.6 mph velocity last year. Oh, and his change-up velocity last year (85.9) was a career-high. Not a good combination.
Ervin Santana’s HR/FB
Santana rode an 18.9% HR/FB rate all the way to 39 homers allowed last year. Yowzers! What happened?! Well, Santana allowed 15 of those 39 homers off his slider, which left the park with a 21.4% HR/FB rate. That’s unsustainably high, especially given his slider last year had a very similar movement profile to the year before when batter’s hit it out with a 9.9% HR/FB rate. Luck clearly wasn’t on his side. That said, Santana is getting more hittable. His four-seam fastball was a below average offering, probably because it was slower and moved less. Also not a good combination.
Jered Weaver’s Strikeouts
In 2010, Weaver struck out 9.35 batter per nine. In 2011 that rate was 7.56, which was much more in line with previous seasons. Last year it was just 6.77. Weaver pitches in a favorable ball park, but his FIP last year was 3.75. And that includes a below-league-average 8.6% HR/FB rate. I love Weaver’s durability, walk rate, and the offense backing him, but I’m a tiny bit skeptical right now.
Doug Fister’s Strikeouts
There are some things that George and I can’t help but argue about. Like we have to consciously steer the conversation away from those topics because we know it’s going to lead to a 10-, 20-, or 30-minute argument about something completely pointless. Fister’s strikeout rate was one of those things last year. I argued he’d repeat what he did in Detroit. George wasn’t as convince but didn’t like him regardless because he’s a ground ball pitcher with questionable infield defense behind him (Miguel Cabrera at 3B?). Well, Fister actually improved his strikeout rate from his 2011 with the Tigers and pitched to a .213 average on ground balls (league average .234).
Homer Bailey’s Breakout
Did anyone notice Homer Bailey posted 13 wins with a 3.68 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, and 168 strikeouts over 208 innings? Does anyone even care? Bailey has now strung together two straight years with elite walk rates (2.25 BB/9 in both), and he’s a sneaky dependable starter right now. I’d much rather him over other innings eaters like Edwin Jackson.
Roy Halladay’s Repertoire
I sort of go nuts over analyzing pitchers, and I love looking at their PitchF/X data to see why they either regressed or improved. We’ll need more than one year of data to explain why Roy Halladay struggled last year, but there’s no doubting that he had his worst season in years and it coincided with a change in his repertoire. According to PitchF/X, Halladay eliminated his four-seamer (FA% in the chart below) and his change-up (CH%) while drastically increasing his cutter (FC%), two-seamer (FT%), and curveball (CU%) and adding a splitfinger (FS%). In terms of pitch effectiveness (measure in runs above average or RAA), the curveball and splitfinger were slightly below average and no single pitch was even one run above average per 100 pitches thrown. For comparison, in 2011 Halladay had three pitches that were at least 1.50 RAA per 100 thrown: his cutter, curveball, and change-up. I’ll be interested to see which of these trends carries over into 2013.