01 April 2013

Opening Day Starters and Jason Hammel

A team's opening day starter, by itself, doesn't mean all that much. It shows who is each team's ace -- not always, but usually -- but it doesn't reveal how good the rest of a rotation actually is. And while it may be more of a charade at this point to find out a few days before spring training ends who every team's opening day starter is -- especially since no one cares about the "opening day starter" designation after that first game of the season -- it's still somewhat intriguing to see who gets the official nod.

Some teams are lucky enough to roll out a talented pitcher on opening day for a half-decade or longer. The most recent pitcher like that for the Orioles was Mike Mussina in the '90s. From 1994 to 1996 and from 1998 to 2000 (he had elbow tendinitis to start the season in 1997), Mussina got the ball on opening day. That's six times in a span of seven seasons. And that obviously wasn't out of necessity; Mussina was very, very good. It's a shame that he wasn't able to pitch in Baltimore beyond 2000.

Since Mussina, though, the Orioles haven't had a dominant force at the top of their rotation (except for maybe Erik Bedard for a couple of seasons). A handful of guys were supposed to fill that role, but for one reason or another, it just didn't work out. But this isn't a post about failed prospects, thankfully. It's just a look back at the pitchers to make opening day starts for the Orioles for the last decade. Here they are:

2012: Jake Arrieta (1.6 WAR)
2011: Jeremy Guthrie (2.0)
2010: Kevin Millwood (1.2)
2009: Jeremy Guthrie (1.7)
2008: Jeremy Guthrie (2.5)
2007: Erik Bedard (5.1)
2006: Rodrigo Lopez (1.7)
2005: Rodrigo Lopez (2.0)
2004: Sidney Ponson (2.8)
2003: Rodrigo Lopez (1.1)

There are some decent seasons sprinkled in that group, but there's just one elite performance: Bedard in 2007, before he was traded to the Mariners the following offseason. Unsurprisingly, that season was Bedard's best. He finished with a 3.16 ERA and struck out an absurd 30.2% of the batters he faced while walking 7.8% of them. That strikeout percentage was the best in all of baseball in 2007; the next closest was Scott Kazmir (26.9%). That's a fantastic feat, though he hasn't posted a strikeout percentage over 26% in any other season. And while he's been effective at times, he hasn't posted a single-season WAR above 2.1 since 2007, either.

So does Jason Hammel, this season's opening day hurler, have a chance at eclipsing Bedard's 5.1 WAR? It's unlikely, but not impossible. He was very good last season -- 3.43 ERA, 22.9 K%, 8.5 BB% -- which was a lot better than most fans were expecting, but he only pitched 118 innings because of a nagging knee injury (which he eventually needed surgery on). And thanks to an improved fastball, he induced ground balls 53.2% of the time -- a career best. A left-on-base percentage of 73.9% and home-run rate of 0.69, which were higher and lower, respectively, than his career averages, aided his strong stat line, but he wasn't overly lucky (.291 BABIP).

Hammel's work with pitching coach Rick Adair last spring to improve his two-seam fastball proved to be extremely effective. It also didn't hurt that, per Pitch F/X data, Hammel's average fastball velocity of 93.6 was the best of his career. If he's able to stay healthy, get close to the 200-inning mark, and maintain that same (or a similar) level of effectiveness with his fastball, Hammel could approach Bedard's outstanding 2007 season. He may not dominate like Bedard did in the strikeout department, but barring injury, he should at least be the Orioles' best opening day starter in more than five seasons.

And if he does pitch well and demonstrates that he can stay on the field, Hammel will present the Orioles with a difficult decision. Hammel, 30, is in his final arbitration year, meaning he's a free agent after 2013. Would the O's be willing to bring him back with a multiyear deal? It would probably make plenty of sense, depending on the price. Fortunately, the Orioles don't have to decide right now, but a big season for Hammel will certainly be beneficial to his bank account.

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