I had originally meant to begin this series of articles immediately after the New Year, the better to lend them relevance and immediacy. However, in mapping out the process, I felt it urgent enough to begin now.
I plan to provide, for each projected 2010 Cub and for a few key extra players, profiles with predictive and informative value.
Readers should expect brief reviews of the player's 2009 campaign. These will be followed by explanations of any changes in the player's expected role for 2010. Finally, using the anecdotal and statistical tools at my disposal, I will attempt to project the player's 2010 performance to the greatest possible degree of accuracy.
There is no better starting point for this endeavor than Ted Lilly. The southpaw starting pitcher solidified his status as the Cubs' ace in 2009, but November shoulder surgery has the majority of Cubs' fans highly concerned about his 2010 prospects.
Before taking on the daunting task of unraveling that mystery, let us reflect upon Lilly's tremendous work in 2009.
At 33 years old, Lilly had his best campaign this season. He struck out 151 and walked just 36 in 177 innings, exhibiting a remarkable combination of above-average strikeout skill and impeccable control.
Nor was that control a fluke. Lilly ranked fourth in MLB in percentage of pitches thrown for strikes, and first in pitches inside the strike zone . Those numbers demonstrate not only control but also command; clearly, Lilly could get the ball over the plate, and do so consistently.
Owing largely to his spectacular work in these departments, Lilly posted career bests in fielder-independent pitching (FIP, a statistic dealing only with balls not put in play, scaled to ERA) and wins above replacement. Indeed, the run value of plate appearances against Lilly that ended with a ball not put in play was 14 runs less over the course of the season than it would have been against a league-average pitcher.
Lilly was better than average when the ball was in play, too. However, his marks were much less impressive in those departments, due primarily to defensive inefficiency. Chicago did save Lilly nine runs against average when he allowed line drives; however, outfield defense allowed him to prevent just two runs on outfield flies, relative to league average.
Given how good Lilly is, that number is surprisingly low, especially given this statistic: Of Major Leaguers with 162 or more innings pitched, Lilly racked up the highest fly ball percentage. The abysmal work of Alfonso Soriano in left field hurt the left-handed Lilly, who likes to work inside against right-handed hitters.
Primary center fielder Kosuke Fukudome struggled in his move to that position from his more natural right field. Right fielder Milton Bradley struggled in a move from his natural position as designated hitter.
Overall, the Cubs' outfielders posted a minus-15 plus/minus score on John Dewan's innovative fielding scale. That ranked an unsightly 22nd in the league.
With Bradley gone, however, Chicago intends to move Fukudome from center to right field. That move alone could be worth a dozen runs, if Fukudome continues to play his better position with the prowess he showed in 2008 and parts of 2009. Much will depend on how far back toward the mean Soriano is able to travel.
Much more may depend on Chicago's ability to fill their center field void with a capable defender who can take pressure off Soriano in the outfield. Fukudome's worst sin in 2009 was making fewer out-of-zone plays (again, per Dewan's system) than any other center fielder with at least 900 innings played. If the Cubs can acquire a rangy center fielder able to get to more balls in the left-center field gap, Soriano may get better overnight.
Meantime, Lilly's deeper numbers clearly indicate he can remain successful if these defensive improvements occur. He needs only to prove he is healthy, which he will not get any opportunity to do until he begins throwing after the New Year. The best guess is that he will return around May 1 and provide the Cubs with roughly 177 innings once again.
This time, however, with solid help from his outfield and without the wear and tear caused by his stint with the 2009 United States' World Baseball Classic entry, he could be even more valuable. I expect Lilly to post a rough approximation of the following numbers as a 34-year-old:
- 30 starts
- 179 innings
- 148 strikeouts
- 42 walks
- 1.21 WHIP
- 3.31 ERA
- 3.86 FIP
It will be noted that, with the exception of innings and starts, all of Lilly's numbers actually project to decline in 2010. I reiterate, however, that I am being optimistic here. The pitcher described in these numbers is still worth roughly three wins above replacement level.
Furthermore, Lilly had a career year in 2009. That means that we should expect some regression regardless of other factors. The injury risk introduces another potentially problematic variable, so does Lilly's advancing age. For those that buy into it, the demonstrated walk-year performance spike could improve those numbers by about six percent. Lilly will be a free agent after 2010.
Wins, obsolete stats for pitcher evaluation but commonly used to measure a pitcher's performance vis-à-vis his team's, were hard to come by for Lilly in 2009. Despite his great peripheral numbers, he won just 12 games.
That is one problem Lilly won't be able to solve simply by maintaining his stellar performance: Among qualifying pitchers, only six received fewer runs of support than Lilly in 2009. If he can repeat his strong showing, however, improvements to the team around him could make Lilly the 17-win ace Chicago enjoyed in 2008.
Look for upcoming profiles of the rest of the Cubs, starting with: