2012 Spring Training: Does Sophomore Slump Really Exist; Will Worley Regress?

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2012 Spring Training: Does Sophomore Slump Really Exist; Will Worley Regress?
Drew Hallowell/Getty Images
Will Worley be high-fiving as much in 2012?

The "sophomore slump" is the jinx or regression about which every achieving rookie has been warned. Regardless of being a hitter or pitcher, there are some merits to commodifying the expected trend. The hitters rationale for the expected second-year struggles is obvious, pitchers figure out a book on them. We've seen this happen most recently with Jason Heyward or Gordon Beckham. For Heyward, two-year veteran's average slipped nearly 50 points from year one to two last season.

For pitchers though, it's a little more complex because there are some extra components to it. Like opposing pitchers to rookie hitters, opposing hitters can figure out a book on a pitcher and his tendencies; their pitches may not be as surprising. But unlike hitters, who may be more successful in making the transition to an extended version of the seasons to which they are accustomed, a pitcher in his early 20's body, and arm in particular, may struggle rebounding from a full major league season.

There are examples of pitchers struggling from both components. All-Star pitcher Rick Sutcliffe saw his ERA rise more than two full points from 1979-80 after winning Rookie of the Year. Sutcliffe pitched nearly 250 innings in his rookie year and that could have contributed to his struggles. Kerry Wood is an example of a guy who was injured after a rookie season, and required Tommy John surgery, which prevented him from even pitching in his true "sophomore season".

And then there's Brian Matusz, who is an example of both. Not only was he injured to start the season after making 32 starts as a rookie, but he had an insanely poor season. His ERA nearly tripled, and ballooned to 10.69, allowing more than two base runners per inning.

Although it was not necessarily in his sophomore season, many people around the game wonder if Cole Hamels struggled with the extra workload in 2008. He threw nearly 75 more innings that year than any year he ever had thrown before as a professional. In 2009, he started the season with an arm injury, was slightly off schedule because of that, and really never was able to get on a real string of putting games together where he was pitching like his normal self, and finished with an ERA about one point higher than usual.

Chris McGrath/Getty Images
Hamels struggled for much of '09

So with that in mind, people around the Phillies and their fans could be wondering what is in store for Vance Worley's 2012 season.

"The Vanimal" was one of the biggest stories of the Phills' big 2011 season. Finishing third in the National League Rookie of the Year voting, Worley won 11 games and posted an ERA just above three in the majors' best rotation. At no point did he look overmatched. He did, however, initially struggle adjusting to the schedule of a major  leaguer. It probably was no aid to him that the Phillies sent him back and forth between Philadelphia and Allentown in the first two months, but Worley admitted to struggles as a result of that.

To figure out what a realistic expectation for Vance Worley is for the 2012 season, we should first figure out the reality behind the "Sophomore Slump" for a pitcher--does it really exist anymore?

Aside from a few examples, it, in general, does not exist anymore. This can be concluded by looking at the most recent cases, pitchers that exceed 100 innings in their rookies years between 2008-10. Following up those seasons in 2009-11, there really is no collective regression.

24 pitchers exceeded the 100 inning mark, but we can only look at 23 of them because Sean Gallagher did not really have a second, follow-up season. But of the 23 most recent cases, they on average saw their ERA drop more than one-third of a point lower in their second year. This coincided with a slight increase in strikeout rate, as well as a considerable dip in the rate of walks they allowed.

The 2010 rookie class is the only one that did not see improved rates in each of the three categories. Take out Brian Matusz and his ridiculously awful stats, and it actually reverses the direction the numbers went and they became improvements.

Another item to note of the recent rookie pitchers is that seven of the 23 were injured their sophomore season, about a 30% rate. Nearly all seven of them, however, were pitchers that saw a considerable increase in innings pitched.

Can we translate these numbers into figuring out Worley's 2012 season? Probably, especially because we can project his strikeout and walk rates. A key to Worley's season was the strikeouts he would accumulate, especially swinging. Because so many of them were swinging, an indication the hitter saw something good enough to swing at with their bat, it is more promising that he can repeat that success than it would be if all of his strikeouts were looking. Consider that, in general, rookie pitchers do not see any decrease in their strikeout rate, Worley's 2012 season begins to take shape in a positive way.

Having said that, Worley's rates all were much better than the average rookie stats were. His ERA was more than one point lower, strikeout rate was about a point and a half higher, and his walk rate was significantly lower.

Does this make him an outlier to the trend? Maybe, so we should look at someone who had a comparable season to him.

Tommy Hanson is the best candidate for that. Hanson's numbers all were within 12 decimal points of Worley's ERA, K/9 and BB/9. They both won 11 games, with Hanson losing one more game. Their inning totals also are very similar, with Worley throwing four more in that category.

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At one point, the Phillies had a 14 game win streak in Worley's starts

Looking at Hanson's 2010 season, his second in the big leagues, he actually saw a form of regression with his ERA and K/9 going in the wrong way. His walk rate did improve, however. Still, Hanson's ERA was 3.33 and K/9 were 7.68 which both are still good for each category. He also was able to exceed 200 innings.

Other pitchers with rates similar to Worley’s saw slight increases, but still were not too severe to make them a weak link. Madison Bumgarner’s ERA of 3.00 in 2010 rose to 3.21 this year. Jhoulys Chacin’s K/9 of about nine and Johnny Cueto’s K/9 of 8.17, awfully close to Worley’s, both dipped below seven.  Derek Holland’s BB/9 of about three rose approaching four.

David Price and Clayton Kershaw’s strikeout rate went against the trend and rose significantly, but they are two tremendous, left-handed, talents. Those are two traits Worley does not possess.

The numbers and the trend tell us, if anything, that Worley may not have quite the success as last season, but by no means will he be awful. If anything, he still would be in line to be an above-average starting pitcher. What he does have working for him, though, is that he did not have a huge jump in innings pitched last season, and made nearly the same amount of starts in 2011 as 2010.

Kyle Kendrick is a parallel people have often tried to create beside Worley as far as projecting his sophomore season, but Kendrick’s 2007 is not really similar to Worley’s 2011. Kendrick had a huge jump in innings, touching over 200 his rookie season and making 32 total starts. The extra strain may have impacted his right arm, as his fastball velocity dropped the following season, and his sinker did not drop vertically nearly as much as the year prior. So that parallel does not even exist.

Mark Fidrych, another guy with an animal-related nickname like Worley, is often the guy people go back to when warning of the sophomore slump. But Fidrych, who suffered injuries for the next few years, threw an astonishing 24 complete games as a rookie. On top of that, he injured himself fooling around in the outfield during Spring Training, which may have lead to further arm damage. Like Kendrick’s year, the Fidrych parallel is off as well, and in this case, well off from Worley.  

It is just like how the “sophomore slump”, statistically speaking, does not appear to exist in this era of young pitchers.

So will Vance Worley allow the Phillies to win 14 straight starts of his this season and start out 11-1 again? Probably not, but he will not tail off too much. And should we be surprised if he remains healthy all season? No, because his innings really did not spike up too much.

An injury to him is one of the last injuries anyone should fear among possible injured Phills anyway, just as there is no evidence to fear for Worley struggling too much with any “sophomore slump.”

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