If it feels like we’ve been in this bunker before, we have. Almost every year for the last three or four years, either Jarrod Washburn, his agent, or the Twins’ front office makes some noise about the LaCrosse native playing closer to home, and fans are forced to duck and cover.
You can forgive fans for being a little gun-shy here, as Washburn has almost never been both a) available and b) a good idea. He’s certainly been one or the other at various points in his career, but the Angels had him locked down for the best years of his career, and he’s been fairly available since his long decline began.
Perhaps you can forgive the front office for thinking that these two states have aligned for the first time ever, making Washburn a great pitcher to add and a free agent with ties to the area, but color me skeptical.
2009 was a tale of two seasons for Washburn, his first four months with Seattle and his nightmare eight starts with the Tigers. In Seattle, Washburn was solid. He went 8-6 with a 2.64 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP—both extremely good numbers. He was boasting a career-best K/BB and a career-low HR/9. Not only were his hits allowed down, the balls that did fall in weren’t hit particularly hard; his slugging against was a career-low .334.
As a flyball pitcher who is home run prone, Washburn’s batting average allowed on balls in play has always been below average, but in 2009, it was low even for him—.245 where league average is between .280 and .300. Of the 20 starts he made for the Mariners, 15 of them were quality starts.
Seattle knew he’d be a free agent and traded him at his peak value. July was Washburn’s best month, going 4-1, allowing just seven runs, three home runs, striking out 19 and walking just eight. He was AL pitcher of the month, and Detroit snapped him up.
His time in with the Tigers was so bad, you’d think the Mariners dressed up Carlos Silva in Washburn’s uni and tricked the Tigers into taking him. He gave up 11 runs in his first 11 innings, and things hardly improved from there. In his eight starts with the Tigers, Washburn went 1-3 with a 7.33 ERA and a 1.56 WHIP, his K/BB dropped to a career low and his HR/9 climbed to 2.5. His hits per nine jumped to 10.7 and hitters weren’t getting soft contact, they garnered an OPS of .940 against Washburn.
Put another way, he turned every hitter he faced into Miguel Cabrera or Ryan Braun. The Tigers thought Washburn was going to be the guy who propelled them into the playoffs, instead, he became an anchor they were unable to overcome.
Without question, some of this has to do with a knee injury he suffered in his first start with the Tigers. It became so painful for him that he was unable to put full weight on his landing leg, according to a Joe Christensen report, which is bad for anyone, but is devastating for a flyballer like Washburn. Pitches that are supposed to dive out of the zone and induce weak contact are going to hang up and become essentially cannon fodder. Now that the knee has been fixed, Washburn should be back to normal, right?
Not so fast cowboy, there’s two other major pieces in play here: outfield defense and park factor.
As noted, Washburn is a flyball pitcher and always has been. Seattle boasted two of the top 11 outfielders in all of baseball in Franklin Gutierrez and Ichiro Suzuki and boasted the highest team UZR (ultimate zone rating) in baseball for all fielders and for outfielders. They turned 71 percent of balls in play into outs and boasted the third best park adjusted defensive efficiency in baseball. That park plays a role, too, as Safeco Field ranked 21st in park factor, a clear sign of a pitchers park; it was even lower in home runs allowed.
So, more of Washburn’s flyballs were staying in the park and the defense behind them was turning those balls into outs at a rate better than any team in the majors.
Contrast that with the Tigers’ defense and park and you can see why this would be an issue. The Tigers weren’t bad on defense, eighth best in terms of outfield defense and fifth best in team defense overall. They were 10th best in park adjusted defensive efficiency and turned just a tic under 70 percent of balls in play into outs.
They were the best unit in the AL Central, but still a far cry from the M’s. Comerica park was a fairly even park, 13th in baseball in park factor and 18th in home runs, so hardly a launching pad, but once again, less favorable to a flyballer like Washburn than Seattle was.
So it was a bad move for the Tigers; it would be an abominable move for the Twins.
The Twins were the third worst defensive team in baseball last year, and carried the worst OF in baseball because of Michael Cuddyer’s declining range and Delmon Young’s...everything. That was before they traded away 2008’s best outfield defender Carlos Gomez, take his UZR out of the mix, and the Twins were almost a win worse than the second worst team in outfield defense. They aren’t going to be better this year, and they may well be worse.
If Washburn was coming to the Dome, which played as a launching pad this year–eighth best to hit home runs in–I’d be picketing this move outside the Twins offices. We’ve no idea how Target field will play, though I can tell you that home runs will be hard to come by before May and will be abundant from May to September based on the effects of temperature on ball-flight.
However, wind flow and how the dimensions of the park contribute to deep flies becoming home runs and vice-versa remain to be seen. Unless it becomes the new PetCo, however, it isn’t going to remotely make up for the poor defense behind him.
This is the type of deal the Twins old guard used to make. A veteran player, from the area no less, wants to play for the Twins in the twilight of his career, if this were 2006, he’d already be in uniform.
Bill Smith has shown himself to be savvier than that, and it would behoove him greatly to avoid this deal, no matter how enticing it may seem. In keeping the Tigers from making the playoffs last year, Washburn helped the Twins more than he ever could actually playing for the team.