As 2016 winds down I realize I have learned so much this year. For example, I now know that if a woman asks "Does this dress make me look fat?" the best answer is not, "No, I don’t think it’s the dress." Sadly, I have had a lot of alone time to ponder this.
I have also learned that new A’s farmhand Jaff Decker’s first name is pronounced "Jeff," spelled "Jaff" only as a send up to his misspelled birth certificate. That means it is entirely possible that Jed Lowrie’s first name is actually pronounced "Jad" or even "Jef" depending on how careless they were at his hospital. My favorite baby-naming story, though, is still the girl whose parents chose a first name that is pronounced "fah-MOLLY" because they saw "female" on the birth certificate and thought that was supposed to be her name. True story or urban myth? It’s the internet, so really what’s the difference?
What I haven’t quite figured out is how to measure the ultimate value of a pitcher like Kendall Graveman. I refer to a pitcher who is, in the classic "innings eater" mold, better at pitching a lot of innings than at dominating them. Usually these pitchers throw a lot of strikes without striking out many, give up their fair share of hits but also usually get deep into games. Neither 190 IP nor a 4.00 ERA is surprising. In past seasons the A’s have had examples in Joe Blanton, Trevor Cahill, and Tommy Milone.
To start with, the value of "a lot of innings" however good or bad is not necessarily obvious. On one hand, part of Rich Hill’s value is that even if he only makes 20 starts, and the rest are made by a replacement-level pitcher, he is so good that in balance he is still worth a lot. At some point, quality is more important than quantity. On the other hand, all the starts made last season by Eric Surkamp, Zach Neal, and Ross Detwiler demonstrate how much you give up when you have to replace innings with your #6-#8 starting pitchers. Graveman is not only pretty good, but last year he didn’t have to split his day’s starts with the likes of Bad, Worse, and Worser.
Then there’s the additional question of the projected upside of a pitcher who just doesn’t strike many out. At 5.23 K/9IP in 2016, and 5.55 K/9IP for his career, Graveman’s strikeout numbers are perilously low for a pitcher often talked about on AN as having "#3 SP upside" (occasionally even #2). Most pitchers simply cannot succeed striking out fewer than 6 batters per 9 IP, but in Graveman’s case he has consistently, over his 2 seasons, averaged (if projected over a full season) 10 wins and an ERA right around 4.00.
Additionally, Graveman does have some "swing and miss" potential with his cutter as well as with a slider and changeup that has come and gone from his repertoire. If he focused on striking out more batters, could Graveman bring his K-rate up significantly? And if he did, would he be performing better or just "worse but with more Ks"?
For every rule there is an exception, such as Tommy John striking out few but pitching like an ace (in his 288 win career, remarkably John struck out 4.3/9IP!). By and large, though, the ceiling for such a "pitch to contact" guy is limited, partly just due to excessive dependency on batted ball chance and on infield defense. Even though I like Graveman’s arsenal and think he showed growth in the second half of last season, that consistently low K-rate is enough for me to conclude that he is probably a #4 SP — but if he remains as durable as he was last year (and he has yet to succumb to any kind of arm injury in his career), he probably has more value than is generally associated with a typical #4 SP. Maybe call him a "4+" but not quite a true "middle of the rotation" arm.
If you’re wondering what that is worth, on the free agent market it gets guys like Mike Leake contracts of 5 years and $80M. Then again, that might say more about the free agent market than it says about Leake’s actual abilities.
What we’re left with, on this lonely and Jaff-y day, are these questions:
- What do you think Graveman’s actual upside is going forward, and why?
- How valuable is a SP who gives you 190 IP, a 4.00 ERA, double digit wins and double digit losses? Are those pitchers destined to fade quickly into the sunset (I’m looking at you, Kirk Saarloos) or sustain their career only in the bullpen (Blanton, Cahill), or can they improve to become middle of the rotation mainstays — or even better?
Also, does this font make me look tall?