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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