Here are some of the starting pitchers I find most surprising so far in 2009:
1. Scott Richmond and Chris Jakubauskas. These two undrafted pitchers both pitched for years in the Independent A leagues (Richmond for 3; Jakubauskas for over 4) before getting a chance with a major league organization. Richmond is a 29 year old rookie, and he’s pitching great: 4-2 record, 3.64 ERA, 44 hits allowed, 17 BB’s and 38 K’s in 47 innings pitched. Jakubauskas’ numbers are terrible, but the fact that he is pitching in the majors at all as a 30 year old rookie is really something. His last outing was great, but he’ll need a lot more like that one to stick around.
2. Wandy Rodriguez. He’s 30 this year, and he’s having his first really great year, with a 5-2 record so far and a 1.83 ERA, 53 K’s and only 16 BB’s in 59 innings pitched. Needless to say, he’s never pitched anywhere near as good as this previously in his major league career. In Wandy’s defense, he has shown real progress throughout his career. After getting hit pretty hard and having control problems in his first two seasons (2005 & 2006), he improved dramatically in ‘07 and ‘08. In ‘07, he shaved more than a run off his ERA, and his strikeouts and walks numbers improved dramatically to 158 K’s and 62 BB’s in 182.2 IP. In ‘08, he sliced another run plus off his ERA, down to 3.54, and again put up fine K’s to BB’s numbers: 131 K’s and 44 BB’s in 137.1 IP. The main thing that’s surprising to me about his 2009 is that he is 30 years old. If he were 27 or 28 this year, I would chalk it up to a not unusual career progression for a player having his peak season.
3. Randy Wolf. His won-loss record is only 2-1, but he’s got a 2.72 ERA in 56.1 inning with 46 K’s and 19 BB’s. He’s always been a good pitcher, whose main problem has been staying healthy. However, his previous career highs in ERA were 3.20 and 3.70 for the Phillies back in 2002 and 2001, respectively. He’s 32 this year (turns 33 on August 22), which is a strange age to have a peak season. The vast majority, and I’m talking over 90%, of players in professional baseball (at least those not taking vitamin S) have their peak seasons by age 31. Dodger Stadium is a great place to pitch, but Wolf pitched for the Dodgers in ‘07 and for San Diego for most of ‘08 (another great place to pitch) and didn’t pitch anywhere near as well as he has so far in ‘09. Because his Hits/IP, K’s/IP and K’s/BB’s ratios have always been very good, I can’t exactly call it a fluke. However, I don’t expect him to complete this year with a sub-3.00 ERA, and I don’t think he’ll ever have a sub-3.00 ERA over a full season.
4. Joel Piniero. He’s 5-3 with a 3.48 ERA. I don’t see it lasting through the season. He had some fine seasons when he first came up with the Mariners years ago (2002 & 2003), but he’s never had an ERA below 4.33 in a season since then. Also, after those two fine early seasons, his K’s to IP ratios have dropped like a stone. This year he has 19 K’s (but only 7 BB’s) in 54.1 IP. In other words, he’s not missing a lot of bats, and, in fact, he’s given up 59 hits already. What has really kept his ERA down this year is that he has only given up two gopher balls. However, over the course of his career he has allowed more than three times as many HR’s per IP as he has so far this year. I don’t see him keeping ERA below 4.00 through the season.
5. Matt Palmer. Another 30 year old rookie, he is now 5-0 for the Angels with a 4.26 ERA. Talk about being at the right place at the right time! Palmer would still be languishing in the minors but for the many injuries to the Angels’ pitching staff and the untimely death of Nick Adenhart. I don’t see Palmer’s success lasting. In 31.2 IP, he has 18 K’s, 13 BB’s and has allowed 4 HRs. Those are not numbers that suggest he is a bona fide major league starter. Still, I wish him the best, and I hope he proves me wrong.
6. Tim Wakefield. He has a 5-2 record and a 3.59 ERA. He hasn’t had an ERA this low, or below 4.00, since 2002, when he was a reliever, spot starter and designated inning-eater for the BoSox. What’s really helped him this year is his success in keeping the ball in the park. He’s allowed 4 HRs in 52.2 IP, which is just a little higher than half his career norm. Wakefield is 42 this year, which is actually a pretty good age for a knuckleball pitcher. Phil Niekro had a 3.11 ERA in the strike year of 1981, when he was 42, and went 17-4 the next year at age 43; and Hoyt Wilhelm had a 1.66 ERA for the 1966 White Sox as one of their top relievers (the ChiSox had a great bullpen that year with under-remembered relievers Eddie Fisher and Bob Locker). In fact, Wilhelm didn’t have an ERA over 2.00 again until 1969. I expect that Wakefield also has an excellent chance to pitch into his late 40’s like Niekro and Wilhelm. If Wakefield does, with 366 HR’s already served up in his career, he has a chance to catch Robin Roberts, whose 505 gopher balls given up is the all-time record.
7. Barry Zito. Zito’s record is a poor 1-4, because he is in the bottom five for NL starters in terms of run support, but his ERA is a very respectable 3.62. For anyone who has followed Zito since he signed with the Giants after the 2006 season, Zito pitching this far into 2009 with an ERA under 4.00 is a surprise. Last year, he was absolutely terrible, going 10-17 with a 5.15 ERA. He allowed a dozen unearned runs last year, so his 5.15 ERA doesn’t fully reflect how badly he pitched. The only reason he stayed in the Giants’ rotation was because of the enormous financial commitment the Giants had made to him and the fact that the Giants, even without Zito starting every fifth day, were not a .500 team.
As a regular observer of the Giants, it seemed to me that Zito’s big problems were his lack of command and his loss of arm strength. Zito’s control has never been great, but it was especially poor last year, as he allowed 5.1 walks per 9 innings. By the end of the season, his fastball was topping out at 85 or 86 miles per hour, and he couldn’t get the sharp break on his curveball even when he could throw it for strikes. This year, his arm is a bit stronger and in the games in which he has pitched well he has had improved command. His fastball is back around 87-88 mph (still none too impressive) and his curve is better than last year. However, with 19 BB’s and 32 K’s in 49.2 IP, he isn’t dominating anyone. However, at this point Giants’ fans would be satisfied if Zito were merely a solid No. 4 starter.
There are any number of young players who are having break-out years, but I don’t really find any of them particularly surprising. Just how well Zack Greinke has pitched (0.82 ERA, 73 K’s and only 12 BB’s in 66 IP, etc.) is surprising, but no one who has been following the game closely the last few years should really be surprised that Greinke at age 25 is establishing himself as one of the best pitchers in the AL. He was, after all, the 6th player taken into the 2002 draft. He was rushed to the major leagues too soon because the Royals didn’t have anyone better, kind of like the Cubs with Greg Maddux in 1987 or the Braves with Tom Glavine in 1988. Last year at age 24, Greinke quietly had a great year. His record was only 13-10 but he had a 3.47 ERA playing his home games in a hitters’ park, and he had 183 K’s and only 56 BB’s in 202.1 IP. The main thing to wonder about Greinke is how long his current success will last. He appears to have a body much like another great Royals pitcher Bret Saberhagen. When Saberhagen was right, he was one of the two or three best pitchers in baseball and won two Cy Young Awards. However, overwork in his good years really sucked the life out of his arm.