by Eno Sarris //
Brad Penny once pitched in the American League, and the results were less than stellar. While it’s tempting to say his return to the harder league will go as poorly, there’s little black and white here. Let’s unpack what went so poorly for Penny in Boston, why he returned to grace in the National League, and what that might mean for him now that he’s a Detroit Tiger.
Penny had a 5.61 ERA in Boston and a 2.59 ERA in San Francisco in 2009 – and yet his performances were much closer to similar than would first appear in looking at ERA alone. In Boston, he struck out 2.12 batters for every one walk, and in San Francisco he struck out 2.22 batters per walk. He had an FIP (Fielding-Independent Pitching – a stat that runs on a similar scale to ERA, while stripping out defense and luck and focusing on factors the pitcher can control) of 4.49 in Boston; his FIP in San Francisco was a similar 4.35. The big difference was that Penny yielded a very lucky .211 batting average on balls in play while wearing black and orange, pushing his ERA much lower.
Oh, there was one difference worth mentioning. Penny had a 40.8% groundball rate in Boston, and a 53.8% number in San Francisco. As Penny’s strikeouts have tumbled over his career, his groundball rate has climbed – his three best years by groundballs have come in his last four years, for example. That went away in a short stint in Boston, but he re-found his ability to get grounders in San Francisco.
And he continued to coax ground balls in St. Louis last year, before a lat injury cut his season short. In those nine Cardinals starts, he managed a 52.8% groundball rate that would fit in with his recent work in the category. He did refine his cutter with Dave Duncan, and also threw far fewer four-seam fastballs than he had in the past. But let’s not count on the Duncan bounce lasting beyond the friendly confines of Busch Stadium; the Tigers’ curious roster could hurt his new team’s ability to turn grounders into outs as is.
Looking at some comparable American League pitchers given Penny’s statistical benchmarks, we find Fausto Carmona (5.31 K/9, 3.08 BB/9, 55.6% GB), Trevor Cahill (5.4 K/9, 2.88 BB/9, 56% GB) and possibly Rick Porcello (4.65 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, 50.3% GB). Those ERAs ranged from 4.92 (Porcello) to 2.97 (Cahill), but use FIP instead, and the range narrows to 4.11 to 4.31. The average FIP in baseball for qualified pitchers last year was 4.08.
The injury concerns are there, even if Penny lost most of the year to a non-arm injury. Given his mix of passable strikeout-to-walk ratios and good groundball rates, Penny should be able to approximate an average major league starter for the Tigers. From the list above, you can see that he might even luck into a stronger fantasy season. But his recent history also suggests that there’s no way you can depend on him. Put him in the leave-a-penny-take-a-penny tray on draft day in standard 12-team mixed leagues, and use him if/when you need him during the season.
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.
By Erik Hahmann
A handful of moves made this off-season could prove very valuable to major league clubs, even if they lack the buzz of signing a Matt Holliday or John Lackey. The Cardinals’ signing of Brad Penny to a one-year contract is one such move.
Looking at Penny’s raw 2009 numbers may make you think I’m out of my mind. Penny’s fantasy stats in Boston were especially awful, as the big right-hander posted a 5.61 ERA in 24 starts. But more advanced metrics show that he pitched much better than that. Penny posted an unusually high batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .336 with the Red Sox. That figure was 33 points above his career line, leading to more runs scoring as a result of luck, defense and other factors out of his control. His Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), a measure of factors such as strikeout, walk and home run rate that a pitcher can better control, was a much more respectable 4.49 for the Red Sox.
Nevertheless, Penny was cut by Boston and subsequently signed by San Francisco. The move back to the NL, where Penny had great success over the first nine seasons of his career, proved to be beneficial career move. Away from the much tougher American League East, he posted a 2.59 ERA in 41.2 innings pitched with the Giants. This time, Penny benefited from good luck, posting a microscopic .211 BABIP in San Francisco, and a 4.19 FIP that showed the true performance gap between his stints with the Red Sox and Giants to be much smaller than his 3-runs-lower ERA suggested.
Still, those 41.2 IP are what earned Penny his chance with the Cardinals and pitching coach extraordinaire Dave Duncan. The list of pitchers Duncan has helped turn around while in St. Louis is impressive, with Chris Carpenter and Joel Pineiro the two most prominent recent examples. Duncan teaches his pitchers to throw a sinking fastball, with the goal of generating more outs early in counts and preventing home runs and other extra-base hits. In a recent LA Times article, Pineiro said: “Duncan has all his guys throwing sinkers. He just said, ‘I want you to trust it and throw it.’ ”
Coming into last season, Pineiro hadn’t posted an ERA below 4.33 or an FIP below 4.41 since 2003. A full season in the Duncan Pitching School would change that: Pineiro’s fastball usage, which had been above 60% just one time in his career, jumped to 71% last season, most of them of the sinking variety. That big increase in sinkers resulted in his groundball percentage rocketing to 60.5% – after never topping 47.5% in his pre-St. Louis days.
Other recent reclamation projects of Duncan’s include Todd Wellemeyer and Kyle Lohse. In 2008 Wellemeyer, a fringe swingman and reliever to that point, won 13 games for the Cardinals, posting a 3.71 ERA and a K/BB ratio of better than 2:1. That same season, the newly acquired Lohse, who’d never posted an ERA below 4.18 in his previous seven seasons, enjoyed the best year of his career under Duncan, going 15-6 with a 3.78 ERA.
Penny owns a better pedigree than Pineiro, Lohse or Wellemeyer; he’s also thrown fastballs at least 70% of the time in five different seasons, which should make for an easier transition to the Duncan system. Penny should benefit from a strong offense behind him this season, led by Matt Holliday and Albert Pujols guy. He also figures to benefit from facing some weak offenses: four of the Cardinals’ five division rivals ranked among the bottom 10 of baseball in runs scored.
Would-be Penny owners have may reason for concern on the defensive front. The Cardinals defense struggled last year, as the team ranked just 18th in MLB in Ultimate Zone Rating, a stat that measures the number of runs a fielder saves on ball hit into and around his assigned area of the field. Still, St. Louis’ team mark of -17.8 (every 10 runs saved equals one win gained in the standings, so -17.8 means the Cardinals’ defense added nearly two losses to the team’s ledger) was scarcely worse than the -16.3 total put up by the Red Sox, Penny’s employer for most of last season. The Cardinals are also optimistic that highly regarded third base prospects David Freese could prove to be a defensive asset as a first-year starter in 2010.
Penny does have a track record of injuries, with two straight ugly season on his ledger (he posted an abysmal 5.27 FIP with the Dodgers in 2008). Those factors add up to a B-Rank of 361 for this season, with a positional ranking of 137. That ranking sandwiches Penny between Homer Bailey and Brandon McCarthy (shown below using Bloomberg’s Draft Kit feature).
Brad Penny should be available near the end of most drafts. If he can click with Dave Duncan the way so many others have over the years, he will be an absolute steal come draft day.
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