by Eno Sarris //
Two starts into his 2010 season, Brad Penny sports a 0.79 ERA and a 0.64 WHIP. Sample size caveats obviously apply. But can Penny dip into the Dave Duncan fountain of rejuvenation and enjoy a big year? Let’s take a look at his career both recent and long-term, as well as the effects of the Cardinals’ pitching coach.
To tamp down expectations, one only needs to realize that Penny is likely to strike out batters at a below-average rate. He’s only struck out more than the major league average three times in his 10-year-plus career, and not once since 2006. Since then, his strikeout rate has been on a three-year decline.
In Boston in 2008, the combination of his declining strikeout rate, increasing walk rate, an unlucky .336 BABIP and 64% strand rate (usually around 70% across baseball) led to his career nadir. That low point sent him packing from the American League and seemed to signal the end of his fantasy value. Not so. Back in the National League last year (and a nice pitcher’s park, as the Giants’ home park had a .970 park factor for home runs), Penny again found relevance that he’s continued to provide this year. How did he do it?
Taking a look at the Bloomberg Sports Fantasy Tool, we get our first clue in the graph for Penny’s WHIP in 2009. He slowly whittled that number down to a more respectable 1.40 level by the end of the year, mostly by returning to his historical levels of control. His full-year walk
rate was 2.65, compared to his already better-than-average 2.88 number. He also got lucky in San Francisco, where his .211 BABIP and 81.8% strand rate evened out his Boston struggles.
It wasn’t just luck that provided some of his boost in San Francisco, however. With the Giants, Penny had a 53.8% groundball rate, which followed his career trend of inducing groundballs. Derek Lowe has already showed us that someone can survive – and even thrive – with a sub-standard strikeout rates if it comes paired with great control and lots of dead worms. Through his first two starts this year, Penny has upped the ante by walking a miniscule 1.29 batters per nine and inducing 60% of his contact on the ground.
Of course, you don’t put up a sub-one ERA and WHIP without some luck, and Penny’s been lucky this year. He won’t continue to put up a .222 BABIP or 81.8% strand rate for sure. But Penny does have something on his side: Duncan. The Cardinals pitching coach has been helping Penny with a mystery pitch, which different classification systems call a split-finger or a cutter. As with Kyle Lohse, Chris Carpenter and Joel Pineiro before him, Duncan seems to have helped Penny work on a sinker and induce more groundballs.
The Duncan Effect has been pointed out before, and even demonstrated statistically by Steve Sommers on Fangraphs.com, but it’s worth looking at Penny’s two starts this year in comparison to his last two starts in of 2009. First up, a graph of his last two starts
in 2009, courtesy of Texas Leaguers. Notice that green bunch of diamonds in the middle, lacking much movement, and also the number of purple squares. Penny was throwing his slider (green diamonds) about 7% of the time, and his changeup (purple squares) 15.2% of the time in late 2009. Mostly, Penny was all fastballs (red squares, 67.3%).
Fast forward to the beginning of this year, after a spring of tutelage from the new pitching coach. He’s given up the slider, and now throws the changeup 24.6% of the time. Instead of relying too heavily on his fastball (43.3% this year), he’s also throwing a new pitch that Texas Leaguers calls a sinker (11.8%). All in all, the mix looks very different; removing a rather straight group of pitches which he couldn’t command well (55% strike percentage on sliders) is a good
It’s all a little confusing because pitch f/x databases are all getting better at calibrating their classification systems. One system might call a pitch a cutter, another might label that same pitch a two-seam fastball, another might call it a sinker. In the end, though, the fact that Penny is moving away from his four-seam fastball and adding new pitches is important. Even though the fastball velocity has returned to his early career levels, that pitch only garnered a 5.6% whiff rate last year. Compare that to the 10-13% whiff rates he’s getting from his changeup, curveball and sinker this year, and you see that the decision to throw fewer fastballs was a good one (though again sample size caveats apply).
The newfound pitching mix, the added groundballs, and playing in a friendlier stadium and more pitcher-friendly league than he did at this time last year – these facts all make Brad Penny a decent pickup in all formats. While he won’t be an elite pitcher all year, a season like Joel Piniero had last year is not out of the question for Penny.