Is Tampa Bay pitching overrated?

Florida News - May 14, 2009

While Tampa Bay has had plenty of named talent over the last few years from Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Matt Garza to David Price. This along with a top offense and elite defense has led to their recent success in the AL East. Perhaps overvalued is a bit harsh, but they have several pitching changes and having to be compared to their peers in the division shows some flaws.

Departing this year will be the presence of Kazmir at the top of the rotation, but that shouldn’t be a bad thing.  His walk rate was always high and with the drop in velocity it’s likely the drop in strikeouts is going to stick around.  He is surely not the ace of seasons before.

That leaves James Shields as the team ace and that is a good start.  He was the ninth most valuable pitcher in the AL last year based on pitching runs above replacement.  There were some cracks in his season though as his walk rate climbed, but not an extreme amount and should regress in 2010.

After that great start we head to Garza who has benefited from one of the best defenses in baseball.  His BABIP in the past two years has been .278 and then .284.  His xFIP in his career is 4.42, but with such good defense he has only given up a ERA of 3.99.  That level of pitching places him just a step behind Shields as he is projected for a run above replacement of 33 from CHONE this year.

Here is where the pitching is full of questions.  There are four pitchers who have a solid chance at the next three spots in the rotations including; Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, Andy Sonnanstine and David Price.

The leader in that group based on 2009 results is Niemann, but there are plenty of questions about his skills.  He has had walk troubles in the majors and while they improved last year his strikeouts dropped as well.  He was able to do so well in 2009 based on a low HR/FB shown by a xFIP of 4.53.  This sounds more like what he is going to do going forward and would be quite a setback for the Rays pitching staff.

After losing that much value they need someone else to step up and Wade Davis will surely be one of those pitchers.  He could be a pleasant surprise, but at 36.1 IP pitched in the majors it’s tough to say he will make an immediate impact and take that number three spot.  It’s also concerning that while he has shown some good strikeout numbers he is another Rays pitcher who struggles to control his pitches and walks to many hitters.  Most of the projections expect that he will continue to struggle with control and be similar to Niemann with an ERA in the mid fours.

Looking for a second chance is Sonnanstine who had to be sent to the minors to work on his stuff, but he was another pitcher unable to control his walks.  He has a track record of elite control in the minors so it’s likely that his control gets better, but even at it’s best he is about 15 runs above average.  he just doesn’t strikeout enough hitters to be dominant.  Perhaps a move to the bullpen could make him more valuable, but he’ll get another shot to fill in the number four or five spot this year.

That leaves big time prospect David Price.  To be honest I never was very high on Price so perhaps my review will be biased, but there are definitely questions about what he can be now.  As he progressed in the minors his K/BB numbers fell with each level, but with a ground ball rate over 50 percent he brought something to the Rays no other pitcher did.  With such a great ground ball rate he should take take full advantage of that great defense.

Once again his K/BB did not progress and the major leagues took more than their fair share of free passes from Price.  That is to be expected in young pitchers and could get better with time, often leading to the idea of a year three jump in pitchers skill.  The concern is that he has changed his approach as his ground ball rate was a league average 41 percent last year.  Suddenly Price is looking at being behind the starting four and could be back to the pen or even the minors.

The Rays have once again a very god offense and possibly a top two defense for the third straight year.  The trouble stopping them from getting in front of the Red Sox for the Wild Card this year is the starting pitching. If only they played in another division or the NL they would be sure picks for the playoffs every year.

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