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Snitches get stitches

Another week, another mailbag featuring multiple questions about Ryan Church. I almost never reference these mailbags anymore, mainly for the same reason I used to mention them all the time: They're fine for the purpose of question-and-answers for fans in general, but they don't normally cover notable ground for the purpose of those who read all the articles daily, scan the blogs, post on the message boards (i.e., the obsessives). This isn't a positive or negative evaluation of the mailbags; it just is. But I'll make an exception here.

Enough with the Church questions. Really. I know there's not much else to discuss (Robert Fick???), and I surely recognize Church is a talented player who could contribute for a low cost---sort of fits in with the cost-cutting initial MLB phase of "The Plan," you know. But we've been told time and again he's as good as gone. It hasn't happened, but it will. Maybe the organization hasn't given him a fair shake, the beat writer's generally amiable retorts to the contrary. However, it's all pretty moot now, or more than likely will be by the time Opening Day ushers in the Giamattiesque Spring.

So let's just remember the good times, shall we? Like that full-bore, game-saving, caution-in-the-wind catch at PNC Park back in the summer of 2005.

Wait; that's pretty much what ushered in the bad times. Anyway, let's move on. Talk about other subjects, like Cristian Guzman---

---and Ian Desmond???

Everybody wants to talk about Church. What about Cristian Guzman? He has been a waste of money for the Nats. Should we get Ian Desmond ready for a call-up? -- Kyle W., Richmond, Va.

Guzman is one of the top question marks on the team because of his poor season in 2005 and missing all of 2006 with a shoulder injury. It's too early to say who will be Guzman's backup. However, it will not be Desmond, because he has so much to prove in the Minor Leagues.

I'll say.

Repeat after me: Until further notice, Ian Desmond is so Two Thousand Five.

* * * *

Moving on to another subject, I mentioned a few nights ago that I would be looking at each of the Nats' current starting pitching alternatives. I don't know how formal I'll make these looks; heck, I'm long past even pretending to start a series of features and expecting to make it to the second installment. But this post at Baseball Analysts ("Categorizing Pitchers by Batted Ball Types and Strikeout Rates") is a timely opportunity to discuss Mike O'Connor briefly.

Rich Lederer's post begins with two generalized statements that the data essentially support, all else being equal:

  • pitchers with high strikeout rates would generally fare better than those with low rates, and
  • pitchers with high groundball rates would normally fare better than those with low rates.
Based on these two statements, Lederer makes the following claim: [P]itchers who combine higher strikeout and groundball rates will outperform those with lower rates.

Well, I don't know if it's as much of a claim as a general truth. I'm not nearly expert enough to scrutinize what Lederer does in the article, but if you think about the bolded and italicized for about thirty-five seconds, you'll realize it must be true in the majority of cases.

I'm not a tremendous visual learner, but efforts at graphing and plotting this type of pitcher data is common. I'm sort of sentimental for the old "QMAX" system developed in the gone-but-not-forgotten Big Bad Baseball Annual. (BBBA's website is dead, but this old post at Ducksnorts blog provides a brief explanation of QMAX.) Lederer's attempt at plotting GB/FB and K rate data isn't nearly as esoteric, but it is fairly instructive for our purposes. Using "the strikeout and groundball rates for everyone in the major leagues who completed 100 or more innings and started in at least 33% of their appearances," Lederer divided these pitchers into four quadrants:

  • "Northeast": pitchers with above-average groundball and strikeout rates;
  • "Southeast": pitchers with above-average strikeout and below-average groundball rates;
  • "Northwest": pitchers with above-average groundball and below-average strikeout rates; and
  • "Southwest": pitchers with below-average groundball and strikeout rates.
With a groundball rate of 36.17% and a strikeout (per batter faced) rate of 12.97%, O'Connor resided squarely in the "Southwest" territory, which isn't really good news---it's the quadrant with the worst pitchers. Southwesterners averaged a 5.01 ERA, half-a-run worse than the next-worst quadrant. (No, that doesn't appear to be park-adjusted.) If that doesn't satisfy you, consider that Ramon Ortiz, Tony Armas Jr., and Livan Hernandez were all Southwesterners in 2006.

Yes, those were the top three innings guys for the Nats last season.

Yes, O'Connor was fourth.

Yes, they were all Southwesterners.

And yes, the Nats had a really bad pitching staff.

Generally speaking, there's one out available to a Southwesterner, which is, Lederer notes, maintaining a low walk rate. It is at this point that I realize we haven't actually looked at O'Connor's 2006 stats. Well, at least we haven't looked at them in awhile. Here they are:

Category 2006
IP 105
H 96
HR 15
BB 45
SO 59
ERA 4.80
ERA+ 92

O'Connor's walk rate wasn't low last season. That has to improve. His IP/H ratio looks kind of manly, and to be sure, O'Connor displayed an apparent ability to limit good contact in tight spots (at least for awhile). But as this graph demonstrates, he might be walking a fine line between success, failure, and blow-up. If that batting average on balls in play props up to the league average, things might get uglier. The flyball rate might (hopefully) limit that to an extent, but I'm guessing Nook better be on his horse.

I don't want to be too pessimistic here. O'Connor went to GW; he's my boy. But, when discussing a best case/worst case for O'Connor, the worst case isn't merely a bad season---it's getting knocked out of the rotation after a dozen starts.

But let's hope something closer to the best case comes to pass.