Ducksnorts Book Excerpt: Jake and the Question Marks

Ducksnorts Book Project 2007 The following excerpt is taken from the upcoming Ducksnorts book, tentatively scheduled for February 2007 publication, and provides a glimpse into the uncertainties surrounding the starting rotation headed into 2006 and how some of those were resolved.

Park quickly joined Williams in the rotation, making his first start in Atlanta on April 14 after two relief appearances. Apparently whatever mojo Park had found during the WBC remained with him in San Diego, as he compiled a 4.32 ERA over 15 starts through June (it was actually as low as 3.27 in the middle of May).

Unfortunately, a mysterious physical ailment that caused lower intestinal bleeding forced Park to miss much of the second half and pitch ineffectively when he was available. He only made seven appearances from July on, sporting a lofty 6.23 ERA during that stretch. Still, the Padres got a good half-season out of Park, who helped them more than Nevin would have. More importantly, from a life standpoint, Park ended the season healthy. During the ordeal, he had lost 15 pounds and received 10 units of blood in three separate transfusions from, among others, Jake Peavy’s wife, Katie, and Padres sports therapist Kelly Calabrese.

As for Brazelton, whatever he showed the Padres in Arizona disappeared as soon as the season began. His success turned out to be a desert mirage. After two excruciating starts, Brazelton was yanked from the rotation. He made a few relief appearances but spent most of 2006 at Triple-A Portland after demonstrating zero ability to retire big-league hitters, who batted .354/.411/.658 against him in 91 plate appearances spanning 18 innings. To put those numbers into some perspective, consider that the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols hit .359/.439/.667 in 2003.

Fortunately for the Padres, they had a secret weapon waiting to replace Brazelton. One of the team’s unsung heroes of 2006, Clay Hensley, would move into the rotation April 18 at Coors Field, of all places. After merely holding his own during the first half of the season, Hensley came on strong down the stretch, fashioning a tidy 2.66 ERA over 84 2/3 innings after the All-Star break. That brought his season ERA to 3.71, good enough for 10th in the National League — not bad for a guy who wasn’t even supposed to be in the rotation. Hensley, whose pitches have terrific movement, struggled with command at times but established himself as a potential mainstay at the back of the rotation, in the vein of, say, the departed Brian Lawrence.

Hensley wasn’t the only surprise in the 2006 rotation. Right-hander Mike Thompson, drafted 10 rounds ahead of Peavy in 1999, finally made his big-league debut. The Colorado native racked up the frequent flier miles, getting the call from Triple-A Portland whenever one of the starting five went down with injury, which was more often than anyone would have liked. Although Thompson’s numbers weren’t spectacular (4.99 ERA over 92 innings), he provided tremendous value to the club by being available when needed and keeping the team in games when called upon to start. Thompson doesn’t show up on anyone’s prospect lists, and his future as a big-league pitcher is questionable, in a Brian Tollberg kind of way, but he helped hold the Padres’ staff together in 2006 when they needed it most. Thompson provided a great example of how an organization’s farm system can help the big club even when it isn’t necessarily churning out stars. Sometimes it’s necessary to deviate from the plan, and when that happens, it’s good to know there are guys like Thompson in the minors that can help fill the gaps.

Between Park’s injury and Thompson’s inexperience, though, the Padres weren’t content to stand pat with their rotation down the home stretch. With the Los Angeles Dodgers bringing veteran Greg Maddux into the fold late, the Padres made their own move, acquiring San Diego native Wells from the Boston Red Sox. The results were mixed, and although he may have helped get the club into the playoffs, Wells was not a factor in the post-season. Unfortunately, the price for the six starts he made was Triple-A catcher George Kottaras, who likely would have competed for a job with the big club in 2007. With Kottaras now in Boston and given the uncertainty of Mike Piazza’s future, the club is betting that Josh Bard’s 2006 season wasn’t a fluke. If this seems like a big gamble for 33 1 /3 innings from a 43-year-old pitcher, that’s because it is.

Back to the front of the rotation, Peavy and Young were the only pitchers to make 30 or more starts for the Padres in 2006. Peavy finished the season second in the NL with 215 strikeouts but saw his ERA jump from 2.88 to 4.09. His peripheral numbers in 2006 weren’t appreciably worse than they had been the previous season, so some of this may have been random bad luck. Anecdotally, it seemed as though Peavy worked harder to achieve similar results, often requiring more pitches to put hitters away after getting to two strikes. His pitches per plate appearance did increase from 3.89 to 3.97, which comes out to roughly eight extra pitches a game. That’s pretty subtle, and I’m not sure it’s enough to constitute “evidence” but it does match visual observations of batters fouling off more two-strike pitches. That said, Peavy’s “off year” is one that most pitchers would kill for, and in light of Roy Oswalt’s 5 year/$73 million contract with the Astros, Peavy still looks like a tremendous bargain at 4 years for $14.5 million.