Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
January 12, 2008
BASEBALL: Dissecting Blanton, Bedard and Santana
The Mets have lately been said to be pursuing three pitchers, all on the trade market: 29-year-old lefthander Johan Santana, 29-year-old lefthander Erik Bedard and 27-year-old righthander Joe Blanton. Santana, of course, is the best pitcher in baseball, and nearly everyone agrees that Bedard made The Leap to become a significant star in 2007 before his season was ended by a strained right oblique muscle. But how much better is Santana than Bedard, and why? And is Blanton really a quality alternative - or is he just a guy whose stock is high after a good year he can't repeat?
Let's break down their records over the past three seasons by their component parts, thanks to The Hardball Times and ESPN.com. Let's start with the basic numbers, and some sense of their context:
23/9 refers to doubles plus 2x triples per 9 innings - basically, how many extra bases the pitcher allowed on balls in play. Like hits per 9, this can be heavily influenced by team defense. LgERA is the park-adjusted league ERA figure from baseball-reference.com, so you can get some sense of the different offensive contexts they pitched in.
As you can see, the three pitchers show disparate trends. Blanton had a fine rookie year, a terrible 2006, and a bounce back in 2007. Bedard has been making steady progress for years. Santana had an off year in 2007, but his overall record is steady and the off year is consistent with what happens to great pitchers in midcareer from time to time.
Blanton's K rate alone tells you that he's just not in the same class as the other two. It improved in 2007 to the point where it allowed him to succeed, but his real step forward this season was in dropping his walks to a minuscule level, while also cutting down on the longball. Also, and we will see this more below, Blanton's numbers in 2007 suggest a more stable mix - he's less dependent than in 2005 on a very low hits/innings ratio that wasn't sustainable.
Bedard's gradual improvement is mainly a matter of mastering his control, though his previously steady K rate shot through the roof this year. His weak point is that unlike the other two he has yet to prove he can hold up under a 200+ IP workload.
Santana, by contrast, has carried a heavy workload for some years, which is generally a sign of durability but is also a double-edged sword in long-term projections. While his walks were up slightly, Santana's off year this season was mainly the result of a sharp upward spike in home runs.
Now, let's dig deeper to get at the components of how they got these results:
DER is the percentage of balls in play turned into outs; I've included team DER here as well so you can compare how much of this is team defense. LD% is the percentage of balls in play that are line drives, which on average are obviously more likely to be hits regardless of defense. GB% is percentage of ground balls as a percentage of balls in play. DP and SB/BR are numbers of double plays and steals per 100 baserunners on first, as estimated from (H+BB+HBP-2B-3B-HR). HR/F and IF/F are percentages of homers and infield flies as a percentage of fly balls. It's debatable how much this is luck vs skill by the pitcher, and of course a low percentage of homers per fly ball can also be the park rather than the pitcher.
Looking deeper into Blanton's numbers, a few things stick out. First, he really was a product of good defense/good luck in 2005, with that amazing DER. Second, I wonder if THT has changed the way they compute infield flies, since all three of these guys had a much higher proportion of them in 2005. Third, it's not really fair to compare him to two lefties in terms of holding runners on.
And fourth, and most important, Blanton is not a ground ball pitcher, so his bread and butter is that exceptionally low (one of the lowest in the AL two years running) rate of homers per fly ball. With a mediocre K rate and a great walk rate, Blanton's success turns in large part on his ability to combine a very low HR rate with that great control. Oakland's a big ballpark, but from what I can tell from looking at the A's numbers in recent years (including comparing, say, Barry Zito's numbers from 2006 and 2007), while Oakland pitchers do seem to have possibly a lower HR/F ratio than normal, there doesn't seem to be anything dramatic enough to suggest that Blanton's numbers are mainly park-driven. Either this is a skill, or he has been very lucky two years running.
As a result, while he's got to be the third choice in this crowd, compared to two #1 starters, I feel OK with the idea that at least Blanton's great control and relative lack of homers allowed makes him a good bet to remain a reasonably effective third starter type for the next few years.
As to Bedard, he's clearly labored under the toughest conditions of the three - highest-scoring environment, poorest defensive support. His eye-popping K numbers suggest a guy who is pretty close to the top of the game right now. Starters who can routinely rack up over those kind of K/9 are hard to find (the Mets are fortunate that of the 26 starters to strike out at least 7.7 men per 9 in 300+ innings over the past three years, they have four of them - Pedro at 8.98, Perez at 8.55, El Duque at 7.86 and Maine at 7.71. Bedard or Santana would make a fifth if they don't have to part with Maine or Perez). He has also done a tremendous job of avoiding doubles and triples (this year Corey Patterson may have been a factor in that). The issue with Bedard is whether you can project him forward from 180-190 innings to 220-230, which he has never done.
As for Santana, I've said before that if you can sign him and not part with Wright or Reyes, you do that deal; he's the best in the business. Santana's a high-risk proposition because he is a pitcher, but he's probably the least risky bet of any pitcher in the game. Note that on top of great K/BB numbers his DERs have been markedly better than the team three years running, which suggests at least the possibility that he may have some particular skill in avoiding good contact. Note that Santana in a bad year still had an ERA more than half a run lower than Blanton in a more favorable park having a very good year.
Santana's high HR rate this year was partly trhe result of his very low GB/FB ratio, but it was probably partly a fluke (that 15.6% HR/F was one of the league's highest and out of line with his past history).