Saturday, July 16, 2011
A tale of two pitchers
By Dave Gershman
Friday night’s duel in St. Petersburg between the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays featured an extra dose of significance. It didn’t have anything to do with the bevvy of homers hit, and it had absolutely nothing to do with the Rays’ walloping of the Sox. Instead, it was a bittersweet story that we witness each and every year. Before David Price and Andrew Miller were yanked from the ballgame, they opposed each other in a matchup that, four years ago, might have been considered one for the ages as a showdown between young guns. Instead, this matchup symbolized the fact that not every drool-inducing prospect makes it as a star.
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I've spoken to many people involved in baseball operations around Florida. The Florida State League, spring training, the GCL, the Rays and continuing. They all struggle with attendance. So when you simply give up and close off your upper deck and do not take responsibility for the additional reasons that cause fans to not want to have anything to do with the Fish, it makes things plenty worse. That's like kicking someone when they're down. It doesn't make anything better. I understand that it costs some cash to pay workers and housekeeping to maintain that section, but Loria has the money and this is a Major League Baseball team, not an independent league team that thrives and makes most of their money on promotions and things that work despite the embarrassment.
The last time the Mets traded an overpriced closer to a contending team for two PTBNLs they ended up getting Chris Carter and Eddie Lora from Boston for Billy Wagner. That deal failed on several levels, which is another blog post in itself. Suffice to say however that the K-Rod-to-Milwaukee deal evoked thoughts of "here we go again" among many of the Mets' faithful. Then Sandy Alderson ended an interview the WFAN's Joe and Evan with a cryptic comment that one of the two PTBNLs had already been successful at the major league level but was currently back in Milwaukee's farm system. So, who might this player be? Well, a quick glance at the roster of the Nashville Sounds (the Brewers' Triple-A team) provides several names that might fit the description...
Capitol Avenue Club
Jason Heyward's ISO sits at a near identical .178 compared to .179 last year, and his walk and strikeout rates are not terribly different than his rookie season's as well -- an 11.1 percent walk rate is still impressive. The big difference between 2010 Heyward and 2011 Heyward is his BABIP, which sat at .335 last year and is .256 this year. Much of that is due to his .188 average on ground balls: Last year, Heyward's average on ground balls was .272, good for 44th highest in the majors. His .188 mark this year is the 162nd best. Obviously there has been a considerable dropoff, and this is the reason why his OBP sits at .315 rather than ~.370. So is it bad luck, or is he just hitting the ball dead into the ground more often?
In the spring of 2006, the University of North Carolina’s team boasted one of the best college arms some scouts had ever seen. Miller not only dominated the opposing teams in his conference, he dominated aspiring prospects in the Cape Cod League. For a while, he was projected as the first overall pick in the draft. Despite falling to sixth overall, he was still the top left-handed arm selected in that draft class.
A year and a day later, the best pitcher in the country -- a left-hander as well -- went first overall. You might have heard of him as the ace southpaw and two-time All-Star for the Rays: Price. At the time each was picked, the question was not, “Is this guy going to get to the bigs?” The question was, “How soon?” Both hardly prompted questioning regarding any facet of their makeup, stuff or potential.
However, the tough and rocky road in professional baseball took its toll: Price succeeded; Miller faltered. Baseball is as funny a game as any, and Friday’s matchup was a reflection of that, showing us that even the best prospects don’t always pan out.
In any case, Miller and Price pitching against each other tells us that despite everything going wrong in Miller’s young career, he’s valued by the contending Red Sox -- for now. He’s here for a reason. The reason truly might be that he’s here by default, as three from the initial contingent of Red Sox starters -- Clay Buchholz, Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka -- are currently on the shelf.
Miller is a valuable experiment for now because Triple-A Pawtucket has offered almost all it can at this point. Guys such as Felix Doubront are not yet ready, and prospect Junichi Tazawa is still getting back in the swing of things following Tommy John surgery.
The nagging problem is that Miller isn’t any different than the guy the Marlins recently gave up on. He can’t throw strikes consistently, nor can he keep the ball in the yard. Heck, Friday night’s game was lousy, even by Miller’s standards.
Compared to last season, Miller has actually lowered his walk rate by nearly three per nine innings. However, his strikeout rate has also dropped while his contact rate has gone up. Batters are connecting 77 percent of the time when they swing; last year, that figure was 70 percent. To put his decreased strikeouts into perspective, he’s punching out more than two fewer guys per nine than last season.
On the other hand, Price has enjoyed lots of success this year, continuing the success expected of him from his days on Vanderbilt’s diamonds. It’s no surprise that he is valued much differently than Miller. Price has walked less than two batters per nine innings this year and has struck out almost a man per frame. In addition, he’s posted a fielding independent pitching (FIP) of 2.90, 80 points less than his ERA on the season. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is right around league average (.290) and has been worth 1.6 wins so far halfway through the season. In other words, he’s been really solid. He’s the centerpiece of a young, ace-filled rotation the Rays hope to rely on for years to come. That’s obviously hoping that Price remains a Ray and that Wade Davis gets his act together. And it relies on the expectation that Matt Moore’s development doesn’t falter like, say, Miller’s.
It’s intriguing to look at how similar Price and Miller were at the time they were drafted, and how different they are now. Not just different on the pitching end of things, but one is extremely coveted by his team and the other might lose a rotation spot in the weeks to come -- especially after the trade deadline.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
Michael Morse: Got it! ... Had it... oh man.
Dave Gershman is the author of Marlins Daily, an affiliate of the SweetSpot network.