Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Tampa Bay Rays - Looking at the Rotation

As we’ve made it past the 16th game of the season, we’ve seen 3 full passes through just about everyone’s rotation, and continuing the theme of evaluating team’s rotations, today we’ll look at the Tampa Bay Rays. I feel like I’m repeating myself, but it’s not really a surprise that the financially constrained Rays have a young pitching staff, with 30 year old James Shields and 29 year old Jeff Niemann being the oldest pitchers being handed the ball every 5th day.

James Shields has pitched very well so far, in fact his ERA+ is 5  points better than last year’s Cy Young candidate season. Shields has been up and down from year to year, having two very good years in ‘07 and ‘08, but regressed to league average in ‘09 and had a very rough 2010 (5.18 ERA). He followed up that very weak campaign with a 2.82 ERA and a 3rd place finish in Cy Young voting last year and if the early season is any indication, he’s looking to make a run at it again this season. He’s striking out fewer batters so far, but his walk rate is very close and he’s keeping the ball on the ground, garnering nearly 2 ground outs for each fly out, and has only given up 1 home run over 29 and ⅓ innings. I’d look for the strikeout rate to come back up a bit, and with it a few more fly balls, but if he can keep runners off base like he has been (1.091 WHIP) he’ll be positioned for another spectacular year.

Jeff Niemann is a bit more consistent across the board, he’s a league average pitcher who isn’t really doing any given thing wrong. He’s given up 2 home runs so far in 15 and ⅓ innings, which runs right in line with his career average, much like his ERA sitting about .05 below his career number. The two things I can’t see him sustaining are his WHIP (0.978) and his strikeout rate (25% of batters faced). The WHIP will normalize as his BABIP comes back to earth from the .205 it sits at now, but that kind of strikeout rate is going to burn up his pitch count in a hurry. Niemann’s stats will regress and normalize, but he shouldn’t stray too far from being a league average pitcher.

David Price has the same amount of service time as Niemann despite being 3 years younger, and has put together a very respectable resume over the last few years. Price’s ERA is very good at the moment, and he’s certainly shown the ability to keep it right where it is now, but with his peripheral stats where they are now, that isn’t likely for the whole season. Price doesn’t give up a lot of home runs, but right now he’s only given up 1 over 24 innings, which is excellent for him but not likely to be sustained. He’s walking almost 4 batters per 9 which is a bit high for him. The walk rate wouldn’t concern me if his strikeout rate wasn’t down along with it. Price’s WHIP and BABIP are a bit higher than his career averages, but could certainly remain about where they are.

Matt Moore at 23 years old he’s experiencing a rough start to what could be his first full year in the majors. in 19 and ⅓ innings his walk rate and strikeout rate are near identical, which can’t remain that way if he looks to execute on the flash of skill we saw last year or in the playoffs against the Rangers. Moore’s minor league stats are pretty much right in line with what he showed at the end of last season, high strikeout totals, a few walks, but overall keeps the ball in the yard very well. Who knows what he’ll do after breaking camp with the big club this spring, but he’s looked rough so far. I don’t expect to see his AAA numbers in the AL East, but he can certainly start to adjust and get the ball down more. Moore probably won’t be a Cy Young candidate, but I can’t see him staying this far below league average for long if he expects to hang with the big club all year.

Jeremy Hellickson, last year’s Rookie of the Year winner has come out of the gate in mid season form. His ERA is excellent, though not Cy Young worthy, though his walk rate is up, and his strikeout rate is down some regression and growing pains are to be expected in his second year. His 10 walks and 16 hits in 19 and ⅓ innings aren’t pretty, but he hasn’t been stung too bad by them yet. If Hellickson is to be productive through the season he’ll do well to adjust some there, but having only given up 7 earned runs so far, obviously it’s working for him just fine.

The Rays have a very good young rotation and are able to count on both Price and Shields to pitch like aces. If Moore and Hellickson can settle down and get their command back to where it was a year ago, this rotation could carry a much lesser offense to a respectable record. I fully expect to see the Rays vying for a playoff spot late in the season.

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