Jeremy Guthrie Having A Down Year

Jeremy Guthrie came out of nowhere a couple of years ago to become the Orioles best pitcher.  He had a 3.70 ERA in 2007 and a 3.63 ERA in 2008, and for all intents and purposes he was considered the ace (lowercase, denoting the best starter on the team but not in the realm of Aces likes Roy Halladay & CC Sabathia – yaye stupid semantics!) of the staff going into 2009.  Well that hasn’t exactly happened, as Guthrie has a 5.43 ERA this year and has been one of the worst starters the O’s have run out there – he’s closer in FIP (5.62) to former major league starter* Adam Eaton (5.96) than he is to David Hernandez (5.21)… or Rich Hill (5.02)… or Jason Berken (5.02). Let’s just say that things have gone less than ideally.

* Hey, he did pitch pretty well in his first couple of starts.  Story from Fan Fest:  “At the Koji Uehara table, by friend Ian told Adam Eaton that he had Eaton on every one of his fantasy teams when he played for San Diego. Eaton seemed somewhat flattered, and responded by saying “back when I was useful, and good.” It was very good natured and I have a great amount of respect for him for showing that level of self-awareness and self-deprecating humor. Now I really hope he doesn’t suck this year.” Oh well.

Let’s take a look at his stats for the last few:

Year K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FB% HR/FB BABIP FIP tERA WAR
2007 6.31 2.41 1.18 38.2% 11.2% .277 4.41 4.69 2.6
2008 5.66 2.74 1.13 38.0% 10.5% .267 4.53 4.45 2.5
2009 5.23 2.88 1.81 46.3% 12.9% .285 5.62 5.19 0.4

So the strike-out rate – which was never that strong – is trending down, and the walk rate is going up. His FIP and tERA are so high because he’s giving up just a ton of home runs – his 27 allowed is the most in baseball and more than he gave up in either of the previous years already. You could say he’s been a little unlucky with his HR per flyball rate, but it’s not all that high.  The problem has been that he’s become one of the most extreme flyball pitchers in baseball (5th highest FB% amongst all qualified starters) while playing in Camden Yards.  That is really not a recipe for success – especially when, as a byproduct of his lowish strike-out rate – Guthrie gives up a lot of balls in play in general. Interestingly, Jeremy is once again doing better than your average pitcher with balls in play (the average is around .300).  He’s not getting as lucky as he did the last couple of years, but his struggles this year haven’t been as a result of a bunch of bloops falling in. I expected his ERA to regress towards his FIPs and tERAs, but it’s gone way passed that.

Next there’s the pitches themselves (data from FanGraphs):

Jeremy Guthrie has always thrown pretty hard, but his fastball velocity has dropped about 0.5 mph on average each of the last two years and the pitch is pretty straight.  He got away with that in ’07 and ’08, with values of 0.47 and 0.68 runs above average per 100 fastballs thrown.  This year it’s at -0.84 runs per 100, and – because I don’t feel like going through all of the pitch/fx data – I’m going to guess that because a lot of the home runs have come on fastballs located poorly.

I noticed at the end of last year that Jeremy started to throw a lot more change-ups (from 5.0% to 10.8% of the time) and that – just generally looking at the outcomes – the pitch was his best in 2008.  Well the pitch values corroborate that, as his change-up was 0.72 runs above average per 100 thrown – the highest of his four offerings. This year he’s gone to the change-up even more (16.1% of the time), but it hasn’t been nearly as effective (-0.79 runs per 100). The pitch has less movement than it did last year, and in addition to that it might lose a little extra effectiveness when batters see it more often.

His curveball actually has pretty good movement, but for some reason it has never been a good pitch for him (below average every year, including -1.34 runs per 100 this year).

It’s the slider that’s been consistently good for Guthrie – it has above average movement, and it’s been worth 0.77 runs above average per 100 thrown this year.

So what should Jeremy do (assuming there isn’t some sort of hidden injury or mechanical issue – neither of which I’m at all qualified to speak on)? A few less change-ups and a fastball that actually sinks a little perhaps.  And just locating better, I guess.  With a bunch of young pitchers getting close to their theoretical innings caps (so that their workloads from last year won’t be increased by more than 25-30 innings), Guthrie is going to be a staple of the rotation through the end of the year.  And with these same young pitchers facing similar issues in 2010, Guthrie is probably going to be a staple in the rotation next year too. For now we just need to hope that he can figure something new out, because what he’s currently trying is pretty clearly not working.