Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
December 23, 2003
BASEBALL: It's Not Just The Defense
Josh Heit, trying to find a silver lining in Aaron Heilman's disastrous debut season, looks at David Pinto's new defensive metrics and suggests of Heilman:
The conventional wisdom is that he sucks and needs to go back to AAA. However, he did lose 8.6 outs (137 expected) to his defense (Iíd probably blame, in order: Roger Cedeno, Robbie Alomar, and Joe McEwing. The Mets do keep showing up near the bottom of Davidís studies, if you look at some of the other data sets). He may have just suffered a string of bad defense.
I'd like to believe that's the core of the problem too, but . . . well, I don't doubt that Josh is right that Heilman suffered from bad defense (although it's a bit unfair to blame Alomar, given that he was traded on July 1 and Heilman threw most of his innings after that). But Heilman's problems ran a good deal deeper than defense. The real problem is that Heilman allowed 41 walks and 13 home runs in 65.1 innings of work, an unsustainable rate (5.65 walks and 1.8 HR/9 innings, if you're keeping score at home).
On the other hand, Heilman struck out just over 7 men per 9 innings, so he must have been fooling someone. I thought I'd take a look, via Aaron Haspel's search engine, to see how many other pitchers have had a season like Heilman's and see if (1) any of them managed to pitch effectively despite the walks and dingers or (2) any of them ever developed into good pitchers. I ran the search for pitchers who issued 40 or more walks and allowed 10 or more homers in a season of less than 70 innings.
Unsurprisingly, the results were ugly. Only 5 of the 17 pitchers had ERAs below 5.60, and only one (Bill Scherrer at 4.36 in 1985) had an ERA below 4.70. Let's review the list, from best ERA to worst:
1. Bill Scherrer, age 27. 1-3 with a 5.98 ERA the rest of his career, all in relief.
2. Brian Oelkers, age 25. Never pitched in the majors again.
3. Dave Campbell, age 26. Never pitched in the majors again; went into broadcasting.
4. Bob Gibson, age 27. No, not that Bob Gibson. 6-7 with 11 saves and a 3.90 ERA the following year in 92.1 innings, but basically washed out of the majors after that.
5. Jose Mesa, age 33. Mesa got worse the following year (5.36 ERA) before recovering to save 97 games with an ERA of 2.76 his first two years in Philadelphia. Has to be considered a modest success.
6. Mike Mohler, age 24. Had a little success in the majors, with a decent year and a half as a middle reliever at ages 26-27 after being returned to the minors. Career high in wins: 6. Career record: 14-27, 4.99 ERA.
7. Steve Barr, age 24. Never pitched in the majors again.
8. Matt Karchner, age 29. Notched 15 saves and a 2.91 ERA the following year, then regressed and appears to have left the game after three seasons of struggles.
9. Doug Bochtler, age 27. Pitched just 21 more innings in the majors.
11. Dave Boswell, age 25. A 20-game winner the previous year, Boswell threw just 29 more major league innings. I believe he had injuries.
12. Jon Garland, age 20. The youngest of the bunch and still a work in progress; Garland managed a 3.69 ERA in 117 innings the following year and has been just below a league-average starter since then.
13. Heath Murray, age 28. Has pitched just 12 major league innings since.
14. Clint Hartung, age 27. Never pitched again and was converted to an outfielder.
15. Bob Welch, age 37. Retired immediately thereafter.
16. Dick Starr, age 30. Never pitched in the majors again.
17. Roy Halladay, age 23. Had a 10.64 ERA in 2000, arguably the worst season a pitcher ever had in that many innings. Was returned to the low minors but returned a completely reworked pitcher the following year (2001), with a much higher strikeout rate. Won 19 games in 2002 and AL Cy Young in 2003.
This is a fairly grim list, although not completely hopeless. Heilman's 24 and had no prior major league success, so the best comps include some of the most successful ones, like Garland and Halladay, but still includes plenty of disasters. Of course, Halladay's stuff was electric before his blowout in 2000, and Garland also has physical gifts that Heilman lacks. Heilman also struck out more batters than any of these guys but Gibson, although the higher-K members of the group aren't a hopeful bunch.
Heilman was just plain bad in 2003, defense or no defense, and history suggests only an outside chance that he'll ever be an effective major league pitcher.