2012 MLB Prediction: Justin Verlander and 10 Pitchers Who Will Regress This Year

Matt TruebloodSenior Analyst IJanuary 26, 2012

2012 MLB Prediction: Justin Verlander and 10 Pitchers Who Will Regress This Year

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    Justin Verlander had a terrific year in 2011. He won both the American league Cy Young and the AL MVP, and although (strictly speaking) he deserved neither, he captivated baseball fans across the nation with his dazzling stuff, a sterling no-hitter performance and a final line that included a 2.40 ERA, 251 innings pitched and 24 wins.

    It was a tremendous season by a tremendous pitcher, one who well deserves to be noticed; he is one of the top 10 pitchers in MLB right now.

    That said, Verlander is due for a meaningful step back in 2012. He got rather lucky in 2011, and has some regression due simply because he was so good last year. Verlander might well rack up 220-plus innings for the fourth straight season, and he should do very well. However, he's not going to be the consensus best pitcher in baseball again, nor anything close to it.

    What follows are profiles of 10 pitchers, including Verlander himself, who are in that boat for the coming year. Each is due for a rude awakening after dream seasons in 2011.

10. Cole Hamels

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    Cole Hamels took a one-year, $15-million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies this month, avoiding arbitration and setting himself up to go for big money as a free agent after the 2012 season. It's a thoroughly understandable choice. Everyone loves the feeling of being courted, even bid upon, and Hamels should be the most coveted free-agent hurler if and when he reaches the market.

    Were I Hamels' agent, though, I might have advised being a bit more open to a long-term extension right away. Prior to signing the deal, Hamels had the Phillies up against a deadline. They would not have wanted to take their left-handed co-ace to a contentious arbitration hearing, and even if they did, they likely would have lost.

    Using that deadline as leverage, Hamels' team could have wrung huge money out of the Phillies over multiple years. If the Phillies had gone for it, they would have made a multi-year commitment to Hamels based on the absolute best season he will ever have.

    Hamels struck out a bit over 23 percent of the batters he faced in 2011, and walked 5.25 percent of all batters faced. That's the best ratio he has posted since his sophomore season in 2007, but it's not unsustainable, and it's not the problem. On plate appearances not ending in contact, Hamels remains a very, very good pitcher, especially for a southpaw.

    When opposing hitters hit the ball, though, they have been in the habit of hitting it fairly hard. Entering 2011, Hamels had allowed a batting average on balls in play of .289 in four seasons and nearly 1,000 innings. Opposing hitters had an OPS of .701, hit home runs every 31.8 plate appearances and scored 3.53 earned runs per nine innings pitched by Hamels.

    In 2011, though, Hamels hit a run of very good luck. He allowed a .255 BABIP, and opposing hitters' OPS fell to .596. They hit home runs in just one of every 44.7 plate appearances, partially thanks to seeing only 6.7 percent of their outfield flies leave the park, the smallest percentage ever by batters against Hamels.

    All that suggests Hamels' 2.79 ERA will not prove sustainable going forward. 

9. Joe Saunders

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    Joe Saunders seemingly got the boot from the Arizona Diamondbacks in December, when the team non-tendered their left-handed starter rather than engage him in what looked like it would be an expensive arbitration process. Saunders made $5.5 million in 2011, and would have been slated to push $8 million if the Diamondbacks had tendered him.

    It was a smart move. Arizona re-signed Saunders for $6 million earlier this month, and by saving 25 percent of what it might have cost them otherwise, they hedged their bets on a pitcher who might well be only 75 percent of the pitcher he was in 2011. 

    Last year, Joe Saunders had a 3.69 ERA. It was the best he had posted since 2008. He did not, however, pitch substantially better last year than he had since 2008. In fact, he was virtually the same pitcher, only luckier.

    Saunders struck out 12.5 percent of the batters he faced in 2011, a sorry number. He walked 7.2 percent of opposing batters, a mediocre one. He was 20 percent worse than league average for starting pitchers when it came to missing bats, as expressed by the percentage of his pitches that resulted in swinging strikes.

    His success didn't come from those areas. It came from good fortune, as expressed by his .275 batting average on balls in play (down from a .296 career number) and his 77.7 percent strand rate (i.e., over three-fourths of the baserunners he allowed died on the bases). Saunders' FIP (fielder-independent pitching) was 4.89, fully 1.2 runs worse than his ERA. A rational 2012 projection for Saunders should reflect those skill indicators, not the happenstance results Saunders had.

8. Wandy Rodriguez

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    Over the past four seasons, Wandy Rodriguez's ERA numbers have been fairly stable and very good. They read as follows:

    Year ERA
    2008 3.54
    2009 3.02
    2010 3.60
    2011 3.49

    In general, Rodriguez had supported those raw numbers with solid skill indicators, too. He was capable of missing bats, and restricted walks. He posted a better-than-average tRA (translated Run Average, an ERA estimator that factors out ballpark and other extraneous effects) in each season from 2007-10.

    In 2011, though, Rodriguez put more men on base. He walked roughly his usual number of batters, but made declining strikeouts a three-year trend. Rodriguez continued to pour the ball into the strike zone and continued to get ground balls, but batters no longer felt uncomfortable facing him. Rodriguez was substantially above-average in terms of forcing bad contact, especially foul balls, in 2008 and 2009, but fell equally below-average in that category in 2010 and 2011.

    More men reached base, and more men hit the ball hard, but fewer of the men who made it to first base circled the remaining 270 feet. Rodriguez's 79-percent strand rate was one of the league's best, which indicates he got lucky on that count, too.

    As a result, his tRA ballooned to seven percent worse than league average in 2011. His 2012 numbers should be substantially uglier than the surface-level ones he had last year.

7. Jhoulys Chacin

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    Only Fenway Park saw batters achieve a better batting average on balls in play in 2011 than Coors Field did, and it's fair to suggest that even that might have had to do with the offense that called Fenway home. Pitching in Colorado is hard. If it doesn't look hard, something might be off.

    So it was in 2011. Jhoulys Chacin posted a 3.68 ERA despite making 18 of his 31 starts at Coors Field. That in itself is not so alarming; the underlying figures are.

    Chacin was a ground-ball machine, which is not a bad thing to be in Colorado. Not only does keeping the ball on the ground prevent it from flying away in the mountain breeze and thin air of Colorado, but it ensures that terrific fielders led by Troy Tulowitzki at shortstop get a chance to impact the game. With a 56.3-percent ground-ball rate, Chacin executed his game plan well.

    Still, something does not add up. As demonstrated in The Hardball Times 2012, ground-ball pitchers give up better hit and home-run rates on balls in play. The reason is simple: By pitching with ground balls in mind, such pitchers expose themselves to having the ball squared up more often when batters get down on their offerings well enough. 

    Since Chacin called Coors Field home and pitched in pursuit of ground balls, he should have expected an opposing batting average on balls in play around .300. Instead, his BABIP was .261. In the meantime, he led the league in walks allowed. Chacin is one of the Rockies' top two or three pitchers, but not one of the eight best in the NL West. That will prove true in 2012.

6. Tim Hudson

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    Tim Hudson ain't dead yet. At age 35, he reached back for a bit extra in 2011, and led the Atlanta Braves by striking out a higher percentage of the batters he faced than he had fanned in years. He maintained his usual excellent command, as well. 

    Yet, luck played a large role in Hudson's success, too. Scarcely one in every 20 of the outfield flies he allowed left the park, a fortunate number. Despite a ground-ball rate virtually identical to that of Jhoulys Chacin, Hudson shared Chacin's ill-fitting BABIP numbers. Opposing hitters only got hits at a .271 rate when they put the ball in play against Hudson last year.

    Hudson remains a solid starter; he even has a Hall of Fame case, however shaky. His 3.22 2011 ERA, though, is not coming back:

5. Mark Buehrle

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    Buehrle's 2011 stats were not grossly out of whack with the skills he displayed en route to compiling them. He was last season what he has always been, more or less.

    A low, low walk rate helps Buehrle compensate for being very contact-oriented. His ground-ball proclivity makes him relatively invulnerable to home-run barrages. His athletic defense of his position and uncanny ability to hold runners on their bases make him a perfect candidate to outperform his ERA estimators each and every year.

    Buehrle is not going backward in 2012 for any statistical reason, but he will go backward. He simply doesn't have the stuff to last much longer in MLB. The Marlins made a bad investment in Buehrle by betting he will be able to keep sneaking inferior stuff past big-league batters.

    Consider Buehrle's average fastball velocity for the past five seasons, as measured by the Pitchf/x system:

    YEAR Avg. Vel.
    2007 86.9
    2008 86.6
    2009 85.5
    2010 86.1
    2011 85.0

    Obviously, throwing hard is not a part of Buehrle's game anyway. Still, there is a threshold beneath which an MLB pitcher is not viable. Beneath that threshold, not even a Buehrle archetype can succeed. 

    Jamie Moyer is a lazy comparison to Buehrle. Moyer is one of the extreme fly-ball pitchers of the past decade, so as he lost velocity, he simply refined his command and movement, and allowed batters to keep popping the ball up against him.

    Buehrle's ground-ball penchant works against him in that regard. It narrows his margin for error. We may have seen the beginning of the end for him in 2011, when his line-drive rate rose to 19.7 percent. That's the worst figure he has had since 2005.

    He'll ultimately fade slowly, but Buehrle is not going to have a 3.59 ERA in 2012.

4. Jeremy Hellickson

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    That Jeremy Hellickson won the 2011 American league Rookie of the Year award is a sad statement about our continued reliance on ERA in evaluating pitchers. Hellickson struck out just over 15 percent of the batters he faced last year, and walked 9.3 percent. He posted a FIP 15 percent worse than league average, and a tRA two percent worse. Yet, he had a 2.95 ERA, so he won the award.

    How did he get there? Well, Hellickson got lucky in a number of ways. Firstly, he (and in some measure, his bullpen) stranded 82 percent of all the men who reached base against Hellickson. Only four of the 18 runners who were aboard when Hellickson left his starts came around to score.

    Secondly, opposing hitters managed a league-worst .223 batting average when they put the ball in play against Hellickson. He was an extreme fly-ball pitcher, so the luck involved is less striking, but Hellickson certainly benefited from an outfield defense as good as any in MLB, and from a pitcher-friendly home park. Indeed, his 2.54 ERA at home demonstrates the positive value he gained from things beyond his control.

    That said, Hellickson is not that much worse than the numbers suggest. He uses a change-up/cutter mix that hardly seems likely to lead to strikeouts, but his walk rate should shrink with time. It looked artificially high thanks to eight intentional passes. Runners who reach via intentional walk also are less likely to score, so Hellickson's strand rate might have been less lucky than it looked.

    Hellickson is also just 25, so he has time to develop. He could well be Tom Glavine someday, the mystery man able to perpetually out-pitch his FIP. In the meantime, though, expect his ERA to balloon a bit in 2012.

3. Ricky Romero

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    Ricky Romero is a very good young pitcher, and has seemed poised to break out for a year or two. Ostensibly, that's what happened in 2011. In reality, that season was less valuable than his 2010 season, and it portends poorly for 2012.

    Eno Sarris wrote a delightfully concise story about how pitchers' strikeout skills change as they age. It's worthwhile to read from start to finish. If you haven't the time, though, at least click through and consider the graph around which the piece revolves. The upshot: No pitcher should ever be expected to improve upon, or even maintain, his strikeout rate from year to year. If they do so, it registers as a very unlikely surge.

    Ricky Romero doesn't strike out that many batters even now. At age 26 in 2011, he whiffed 19.4 percent of the batters he faced, just a tick lower than what he had done in 2010. He should be expected to see that rate drop a bit more in 2012.

    Meanwhile, Romero did his usual good job putting the ball on the ground. Of all batted balls against him, 54.7 percent bounced before reaching an infielder. Yet, he didn't see the difficulty with inflationary BABIP that one would expect in such a situation. In fact, batters batted just .242 on balls in play against him.

    Romero might well be good again in 2012; he has the core skills necessary. He will not repeat his 2011 numbers, though; they are the best-case scenario for him.

2. Chris Carpenter

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    As the Arizona Diamondbacks charged to an improbable win in the 2001 World Series, Randy Johnson bore an increasingly heavy load. He wanted the title badly; that much was clear. If he hadn't, he likely would not have agreed to the borderline-abusive usage pattern implemented by manager Bob Brenly.

    The gambit worked, though. Johnson faced 994 batters during the 2001 regular season, then 156 more during the playoffs. Ultimately, the risk brought great reward. The Diamondbacks won the Series and Johnson took home co-MVP honors.

    Randy Johnson was an unmatched specimen, though. His body (especially his arm) bore the strain of that enormous amount of work without pain or problem. Only in 1996 had he ever had trouble staying on the mound.

    The St. Louis Cardinals did something similar in 2011. After losing Adam Wainwright to Tommy John surgery during Spring Training, the team elected to pursue a title in the final pre-free agency year for superstar Albert Pujols. To do so, they relied more heavily on Chris Carpenter, 36, than any team had on anyone since the Diamondbacks and Johnson, then 37.

    Carpenter faced 996 batters during the regular season, but was just getting started. He faced 47 more batters in two NLDS starts against the Phillies, including a stirring performance in Game 5 of that series. After taking on 23 more batters in a Game 3 win in the NLCS against Milwaukee, Carpenter got the ball in Game1 and 5 of the World Series, and faced 52 more opponents.

    Then the rain came. Few will remember it the way they do with the 1975 World Series, but rain changed the course of that Series. Carpenter was able to come back on three days' rest for Game 7, to face 26 more batters and win the biggest game of his life. If you're keeping score at home, that's 1,144 batters faced for the season.

    It's a great story about grittiness, opportunism and risk-reward exchanges. Unfortunately, its epilogue may be an ugly one. Carpenter signed a two-year, $21-million extension with the Cardinals in September, one the team may live to regret.

    Pushing a pitcher with Johnson's pedigree and durability was one thing; this was another. Carpenter has already piled up one Tommy John operation, one ulnar nerve transposition and one major labrum repair during his career, not to mention a litany of uncommon strains and cramping. At 37, he would be a red-flag injury risk for 2012 under any circumstance. Given the way the team worked him, though, he is now a five-alarm nightmare of a risk.

    There's no skill erosion here, though he doesn't seem to have the same sink he once did on his fastball, as his ground-ball rate fell significantly in 2011. As long as he is on the mound, Carpenter will be fine. That will not last long, though.

1. Justin Verlander

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    If one is to believe the chart presented earlier regarding strikeout rate on the aging curve, Justin Verlander is slowly returning to a more human rate of striking out opposing batters. That's fine, though, because he is also learning to command the strike zone and pitch to the best parts of it most often.

    If he is to make that sacrifice of sheer stuff and swings and misses for efficiency, though, Verlander needs to prepare for a few eventualities:

    1. Opposing hitters will start hitting home runs off him more frequently. They rang up 24 against him last year, but that was in 251 innings. Given Verlander's habits and repertoire, he should prepare to give up that many bombs every 220 innings going forward.
    2. It's not going to be as easy as it was in 2011. For some reason, last year batters managed a mere .236 BABIP against Verlander, second-lowest in MLB. That's unsustainable, as Verlander's career .286 BABIP against attests.
    3. Hitters will adjust to him. Verlander got better results than ever before from his curve ball in 2011, primarily because he found the right line for it. He started the pitch around opposing hitters' thighs, then watched it bend out of their reach as they flailed. Opponents swung at 33.6 percent of Verlander offerings outside the strike zone in 2011; that's the highest rate of his career. Teams across the AL will be less aggressive against him next season, so he will need to change his approach again.

    Thanks to a bullpen with an otherworldly knack for timely performance, Verlander stranded over 80 percent of the few baserunners he allowed in 2011. He left 11 runners on when he exited starts; none scored. The bullpen did not blow a lead for him all season, and saved him from four losses. 

    Verlander is not necessarily an injury risk. Quite the contrary. But he did slow down a bit in 2010, on the heels of a 2009 season in which he faced 982 batters. The following year, he pitched 15 fewer innings, walked eight more batters and struck out 50 fewer. It would be no surprise if he simply fell back because he could not sustain such excellence relative to his league.