Here is a quick list of what I find positive and negative about the possibility of Erik Bedard in a Mariner uniform.
- 4:1 K to BB ratio in 2007
- Jump in 2007 K rate
- Not flyball heavy
- Pitches with his left hand
- Steadily decreasing walk rates
- Perennially low home run rates
- Only under team control for 2 more seasons
- Turns 29 next season, will be 31 for his first free agent season
- Seems determined to hit the free agent market no matter what
Overall, the pros outweigh the cons by a healthy margin. Some of these points deserve further fleshing out though. While often cited for durability concerns, has pitched 190 innings on average the last 2 seasons. While that’s not a workhorse by any means, it is not a problematic total. If we traded for Bedard and got 380 innings and roughly 60 starts out of him before 2010, I would be pleased with that.
The main elephant in the room Bedard’s K rate and it’s heliumitic rise last year. Bedard was always a solid pitcher who ran mid 7 K rates, a sub 1 home run rate and had high but declining with experience walk rates. All in all, it was the profile for a high 3/low 4 FIP pitcher. What would be considered a solid #2 in the American League. But in 2007, while the walks continued to fall, the home runs picked up a skosh and the strikeouts went nutso up from 171 in 196 innings in 2006 to 221 in 182 last season. That’s a rise from 7.8 Ks per 9IP to a staggering 11.7. People are justifiably worried that we’d be acquiring Bedard expecting him to repeat an unrepeatable 2007, much like Beltre after 2004 and Washburn after 2005.
Well, those people are right and wrong. They are right that 11.7 strikeouts per 9IP is not sustainable. It just flat out isn’t in the AL these days. There’s also considerable worry as to how much of an impact pitching guru Leo Mazzone had on that, and what kind of residual you could expect Bedard to keep up leaving Mazzone behind as he would be if he headed to Seattle. Those are both valid points. However, here’s the counterpoint and it’s a biggie: Bedard’s swinging strike percentage jumped three points in 2007; up to a delicious 18% of all pitches thrown. Bedard did pretty much nothing different in 2007 than he did in previous years, but suddenly batters were missing his stuff much more often. He didn’t throw more first pitch strikes, get more strikes called, induce more foul balls, throw less or more balls or even induce more swings in general. No, the only thing that happened was that of the pitches that batters swung at, they missed a lot more of them.
The reason that is the key is that the percentage of swinging strikes is the best indicator out there for predicting future strikeout rates. Swinging strikes is to a pitcher’s strikeout rate as line drive percentage is to a hitter’s batting average. When you see a pitcher gain or lose strikeout rate and don’t see a corresponding change in swinging strike percentage, you’re better off betting for a regression next season back towards a pitcher’s career norm. But when you do see an increase (or drop) in swinging strike rate, the possibility that pitcher has taken a step forward (or back) is much more likely and that the new strikeout rate has a higher chance of holding.
An example of this would lie in J.J. Putz, who in 2006 exploded on to scene, going from a middling relief pitcher into closer extraordinaire and doubling his strikeout rate. Entering 2007, many analysts predicted a fallback for Putz, because they were spotting what they felt was a fluke. However, what most Mariner fans knew was that Putz’s success was driven by the mastering of a new pitch; the splitter. This pitch turned Putz into basically a completely new pitcher, giving him something other than the mid to high 90s fastball to occupy the minds of opposing batters. Writing back in the Spring, I noted that Putz’s 2006 swinging strike rate jumped from hovering around 15% all the way up to 23% in 2006. It was a mind boggling jump and there was almost zero way that it was a fluke. Even if I had not spent all summer watching Putz in 2006 and knew about the new pitch, knowing what I did about the driving factors in his increased strikeout rate I would have, and did, predict continued success in 2007. We all know how that worked out.
It should be noted that this is not a catch all statement, like everything in probability. And there’s nothing to say that Bedard doesn’t take a step backwards in 2008 and lose those extra swings and misses. All I know is that the best evidence I have available says that Bedard was a sustainably better pitcher in 2007 than he was previously.