12 June 2015

Erik Bedard: Diamond In the Rough

I won't lie to start this piece out, with some fabricated schmaltz about how Erik Bedard renewed my interest in the Orioles (or gave me a reason to watch them in the first place). At the time he resided in Baltimore, I couldn't care less about baseball, or much of anything sports-related aside from kickball on the elementary school playground. Had I supported the team in that era, though, I certainly would have known his name, and cheered him on whenever possible.

Now, with that corny introduction out of the way, let's look back more candidly at Bedard's career. With his retirement coming at age 36, he's traveled a long way since the Orioles selected him in the 1999 draft*. As the team's sixth-round pick, Bedard had to work his way through the minors with little fanfare. Despite crushing the opposition in that year and the next, posting a 1.86 ERA and fanning 35.0% of the batters he faced in 29.0 Rookie League innings, he didn't appear on Baseball America's top-10 list for Baltimore. His solid 2000 follow-up to that (3.57 ERA, 28.1% K% in 111.0 innings at Delmarva) also didn't garner a nod.

*Interestingly, Bedard didn't have the best career of any Oriole in that class: Brian Roberts, picked 50th overall, outpaced him by both rWAR and fWAR.

Luckily, Bedard turned some heads — and erased any remaining doubts about his potential — with his 2001 campaign. A 2.20 ERA and 33.7% strikeout rate across 102.1 innings in the Rookie League and Frederick earned him the second-place spot in BA's Baltimore system ranking, as well as the 90th spot in the minors overall. Although Tommy John surgery sidelined him at the end of 2002, he pitched well enough in that year at Bowie (1.97 ERA, 23.4% K% in 68.2 innings) to place first among Oriole farm hands.

Rehab kept Bedard off the field for most of 2003, but he managed to succeed when he did see action, allowing a 2.79 ERA and 34.7% K% in 19.1 innings pitched over three levels of the minors. When the major-league club held a competition in 2004 Spring Training to determine their fifth starter, Bedard won out, and began the season in the Orioles' rotation.

That season had its share of bumps. Bedard's 11.2% walk rate came in at fourth-highest in the American League, and his .323 BABIP placed fifth. At the year's end, he owned the Junior Circuit's 32nd-best ERA- (101), as well as its 20th-best FIP- (91). This added up to a respectable rookie showing, but certainly not one that foretold stardom.

From there, however, Bedard only got better. He cut down on free passes in 2005, issuing them at a 9.1% clip; that change elevated him to a 92 ERA- and 79 FIP-, respectively the 25th- and sixth-lowest marks in the AL. Bettering his command further the next year, to the tune of an 8.2% base on balls rate, he ranked ninth in ERA- come season's end, while his FIP- placement stagnated.

In those three years, a trend began to emerge: Bedard underperformed his peripherals. He had the 13th-largest ERA-FIP gap in baseball, owing mainly to an inflated .315 BABIP. Pitching in front of the tenth-best defense in one's league will generally have that effect on a hurler. This, at the time, seemed like Bedard's ceiling — a decent pitcher on a terrible team.

2007 rolled around soon enough, and the team stayed awful overall. But Bedard didn't; he started punching out a lot more batters — 30.6%, to be exact — while once again lowering his walk rate, to 7.8%. Together with the team's fielding, which improved to seventh in the AL and thus lowered his BABIP to .283, this gave him an incredible 70 ERA- (third in the league) and equal 70 FIP- (first in the league). The 27-year-old Bedard had finally reached his potential, an end-of-season oblique ailment notwithstanding.

Bedard was still a great player on a horrible team, which meant he would probably go to another city soon. Sure enough, in the 2008 offseason, the Orioles shipped him to Seattle for a king's ransom: Adam Jones, Chris Tillman, George Sherrill, Tony Butler, and Kan Mickolio. This impressive haul compensated for the pain of losing one of the organization's only homegrown pitchers.

Jones had torn up the minor leagues to that point, enough so that BA deemed him the 64th-best prospect in baseball prior to 2006, and the 28th-best prior to 2007. Tillman displayed promise as a 19-year-old, and thus earned the third-place spot in the Mariners' system before 2008. Sherrill's performance had fluctuated, but like the pitcher going the other way, he had his best year in 2007, notching 22 holds and 56 strikeouts in 45.2 innings of 2.36-ERA ball. Butler and Mickolio, while not as interesting as the other four names involved in the swap, nevertheless put up solid numbers in their minor-league careers.

Overall, the trade seemed rather one-sided at the time; in retrospect, we can conclusively say that it was. Jones has blossomed into a star, posting at least 4 fWAR in each season from 2012 to 2014, and hitting well enough in 2015 to easily eclipse that threshold. Tillman has regressed some this year, with a sub-replacement-level 145 ERA- in his 65.0 innings of work; in the seasons preceding that, though, he excelled, as he accrued 4 rWAR in both 2013 and 2014. Sherrill collected 51 saves for the Birds in 2008 and the first half of 2009, which enticed the Dodgers enough to offer Steve Johnson and Josh Bell for him. The latter didn't do much for the major-league club, but the former gave them some acceptable innings in 2012 and 2013, and may serve as a satisfactory relief option this year. Butler never cracked the show, and Mickolio saw a bit of major-league action before the Orioles sent him to Arizona in exchange for Mark Reynolds.

And as for Bedard? He never again recaptured his 2007 form. Various injuries to his shoulder robbed him of his velocity, and allowed him to pitch only 164.0 innings (albeit with a 77 ERA-) from 2008 to 2010. Following a trade to Boston midway through 2011, he bounced around and struggled on the mound when he saw action, before calling it a career yesterday.

What place does Bedard occupy in Orioles lore? For young fans of the team (such as myself), he earned us two of our current stars; his contributions to the club end here. This, of course, belies the labor of an outstanding pitcher, whose output I can hardly overstate. While Bedard covered only 657.1 innings from 2004 to 2007, a mere five AL pitchers could beat his 15.4 fWAR in the aforementioned span; that number increased slightly to 11 when judged by his 13.0 rWAR. Moreover, since the Browns moved to Baltimore in 1954, Bedard accumulated the 13th-most fWAR and the 31st-most rWAR of any qualifier.

There's also his non-numerical value to the Orioles, which (obviously) I can't quantify, but which nevertheless pertains to his case. When a team stays terrible for a long time — more than a decade, in Baltimore's case — fans look for any reason to stay faithful. Players such as Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis, and Bedard, even after their departure, will always hold a special symbolic significance for their ability to provide a light in the dark times. Although I cannot testify to the effect Bedard had on me and my fandom, his impact on the city during those years surely speaks for itself.

As Erik Bedard's winding career — no-name prospect to adequate starter to wunderkind to injury case — draws to a close, we can wonder what might have been, if he'd stayed healthy, or if the team around him had played at his level. Really, though, the best course of action is to appreciate what we had: a Baltimore-raised, damn fine pitcher.

1 comment:

Ryan Romano said...

Also, couldn't find a place to fit this in, but Bedard has the seventh-most rWAR of any Canadian pitcher: http://bbref.com/pi/shareit/5Cch2