It’s time for our favorite guessing-game. Here are three seasons by three different Tribe southpaws. Can you guess who is who?
Before we reveal the identities, let’s pause over these seasons and to see what we can glean. I’ve tried to pick seasons where each player was about the same age, to get a feel for their respective developmental curves. Each player had an ERA above 5.40—nothing terribly impressive there. They each allowed about 1.5 base runners per inning. All of them had lower FIPs than ERAs, which means either that their defense wasn’t terrific or that they let up too many “seeing-eye singles”. Both Player A and Player C struggled to strike batters out (about one every other inning), while Player B looks as if he struggled with walks. Nonetheless, all three of them strikeout about 1.5 to 2 times as many batters as they walk, which is acceptable, if unimpressive. Player C throws the most groundballs, but also has the highest ratio of his flyballs leave the park. Player A limited the damage done on flyballs, keeping over 90% in the yard.
All in all, though? Pretty similar pitchers. Ready?
Player A – David Huff, 2009 (Supplemental first round pick, Cleveland, 2006)
Player B – Cliff Lee, 2004 (Fourth round draft pick, Montreal, 2000)
Player C – Jeremy Sowers, 2008 (First round draft pick, Cleveland, 2004)
And we all know what happened to Players B and C after this. Let’s discuss.
Jeremy Sowers first came to the Majors in 2006, throwing reasonably well over his 88-inning debut. He posted a lucky 3.57 ERA (4.57 FIP) with unremarkable peripherals—he struck out fewer than four batters per nine innings while walking more than two. He got another cup of coffee in 2007, and his low strikeout numbers (3.21 K/9) finally caught up with him to the tune of a 6.42 ERA. After the 2008 campaign discussed above, Sowers threw 123.1 innings in ‘09, walked more batters than he struck out, and posted a 5.25 ERA. He led the league in one telling statistic: in 2009 no pitcher had a batter swing and miss less often than Jeremy Sowers. The team designated him for assignment this spring, and he’s currently pitching out of the Columbus bullpen.
Now let’s look at Cliff Lee’s career arc. 2004 was Lee’s first full season in the Majors, and believe it or not, his 8.07 K/9 rate that season remains the highest of his career—he’s never broken 8.00 since. In 2005, Lee struck out only 6.37 batters per nine, but managed to cut his walks down to 2.32 per nine; the improved control helped him cut his ERA to 3.79 and garnered him 18 wins on a surprising 93-win team that fell one game shy of the postseason.
But that looked like it could’ve been the peak for Lee. In 2006, his strikeout numbers continued to fall to 5.79 per nine, while his walks jumped to 2.60. His ERA for the season finished at 4.40. Things got worse in 2007, when Lee struggled to make the rotation out of spring training, was sent down after a mid-season screaming match with Victor Martinez, and was ultimately left off the post-season roster in favor of Tom Mastny (!). He finished the year with a 6.29 ERA, and looked like he might be done as a starter in a rotation that featured two of the four leaders in the AL Cy Young balloting (Sabathia and Carmona).
Then, of course, came Lee’s unbelievable 2008. He still struck out fewer than 7 per nine innings, but cut his walks and home run rates by two-thirds. He finished the year at 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA and a Cy Young Award. Since then, he’s been on autopilot. In 2009, he walked 43 batters in 233 innings; so far this year, he’s walked one batter in 37 innings. He will become very rich this off-season, and the Yankees are already fitting him for Andy Pettitte’s rotation spot.
So the question is: who is David Huff? Will he become Jeremy Sowers or Cliff Lee?
Well, of course, we don’t know. But let’s look at some more numbers to see what they might tell us. Here are the respective fastball velocities of this trio over the course of their careers:
|Cliff Lee||90.4 mph|
|Jeremy Sowers||89.2 mph|
|David Huff||90.0 mph|
According to those figures, it looks like Huff’s fastball splits the difference between Sowers and Lee. But look at the career velocity charts below, and notice how Lee’s fastball added velocity over the course of his career while Sowers’ lost it.
By the end of 2009, Sowers’ fastball was averaging 87 mph, while Lee’s was at 91 mph. The promising news is that Huff’s graph appears to be moving in the right direction: in his first few starts in 2009 he sat well below 90 mph, but has continuously added velocity during his time in the Majors. At least in that regard, Huff looks more like Lee than Sowers.
Next we’ll look at pitch-types. Here’s how often each throw their various pitches for their careers:
|4-Seam FB||Changeup||Slider/Curve*||2-Seam Fastball|
*I’ve combined sliders and curveballs; I don’t like the way Pitch/fx distinguishes between them.
Again, Huff looks to split the difference between the two. Sowers throws his fastball more than 60% of the time, while both Lee and Huff are below that. Huff features his changeup and breaking ball more than the other two, and has adopted a two-seam fastball like Lee, a sinking pitch that induces groundballs. Huff throws a breaking ball nearly 20% of the time, compared to 10% for Lee and 14% for Sowers.
What can I conclude from all these numbers and comparisons? Not much, really. Maybe Huff will become Lee. But maybe he’ll become Sowers. The numbers could support either outcome.
But, as always, there are stories behind all these numbers.
Last week, Manny Acta and Tim Belcher had a closed-door meeting with Huff after a poor outing against the Royals. According to Anthony Castrovince, the coach and manager “were frustrated with Huff shaking off the catcher and going to his breaking and offspeed stuff more frequently than they’d like.” Apparently they want him to command his fastball on both sides of the plate—a trademark of Cliff Lee’s success.
Or, as David Huff put it, “I was kind of going down the wrong path and getting away from what I do. Manny and Tim saw that and yelled at me. They lit a fire under my butt.”
I’m not sure I have any statistics for “lighting a fire under one’s butt,” but I would guess from what we’ve looked at above, this is exactly the sort of thing that might push Huff more toward Lee and away from the Sowers’ mold of mediocrity. Both Lee and Sowers were unremarkable pitchers with good enough stuff to get by in the back end of a rotation, but neither distinguished himself for the first several years of their careers.
But the one thing I remember about 2007 was how angry Lee was over being sent down and left off the postseason roster. He grew catatonic and sullen. He’d snap at reporters and sneer at the fans and scream at his catcher. And as much as that experience may have been the beginning of the end of his time in Cleveland, it certainly marked him: he was mad, and he became determined to prove everyone wrong. For lack of a better phrase, 2007 lit a fire under his butt.
Sowers, on the other hand, never seemed to get better, and worse than that, he never seemed particularly frustrated by his lack of development. He refused to pitch on the inside part of the plate, and seemed content to ride the shuttle between Cleveland and Columbus (or Buffalo). Flames never appeared anywhere near his backside, and perhaps that’s one more weight to hang around the neck of Eric Wedge.
The good news from this lengthy discourse? Huff’s makeup largely resembles that of Cliff Lee. The bad news? It looks kinda like Sowers’ too. Huff’s development may hinge more on attitude and moxie rather than velocity and pitch selection.
I’m not terribly qualified to map the psyches of professional athletes, but my guess is that for Huff to have any chance of becoming a successful pitcher rather than “just another guy”, he’s going to have to fight through some adversity. Unfortunately, the Indians aren’t in a position to offer him much in the way of competition. By the end of the season, it’s possible that neither Westbrook nor Masterson will be in the rotation, and the paucity of alternatives could mean that Huff’s job is (too?) safe.
Still, I’m glad Acta and Belcher are openly challenging him. Only time will tell how he responds, but I’ll be rooting for David Huff. This team could use a starting pitcher or five.
*As you may have noticed, Scott is no longer posting these pieces as my proxy. I’m now a more permanent member of WFNY, and as such, I’ll be posting a bit more often. Just wanted to extend my thanks to the readership and of course, the guys here at WFNY for bringing me on.