Jake Westbrook entered this season in the Best Shape Of His Life. Last year, the reason why Westbrook was bad was because he got fat and wasn't confident in himself. Now that he's lost 20 pounds, he can't be anything other than confident and thus pitching like an ace. It might be time to reconsider that notion and Westbrook's slot in the rotation.
Westbrook has pitched 12 games this year, his most recent on Friday, and the results have taken a turn for the worst. While parsing 12 starts as if they were indicative of true talent level is a dicey proposition, let's dive in anyway. Here are the first 6 starts.
What characterizes the earlier part of Westbrook's season are two things: few walks and even fewer home runs. That, combined with high groundball rates, are why Jake Westbrook has survived in the major leagues for as long as he has. He's never been a pitcher that struck out a ton of batters. At 6.6 K/9, Westbrook is actually sporting his best strikeout rate of his career in 2012.
And that is part of what makes this argument hard. When looking at Westbrook's season in it's totality, he's been a better than he was in 2011 and a completely servicable pitcher. 2011 saw a career high walk rate and a Westbrook that failed to average 6 innings a start. That Westbrook may be coming back.
Obviously, the shift in runs for Westbrook has been dramatic. It's deceptive to look at the strikeouts and walks without noticing that they've accumulated in far fewer innings than his first six starts' totals. Westbrook's slide, like that of other starting pitchers on the team, has precipitated the general malaise of May, doubts about the bullpen and concerns about the composition of the team. What seems so odd about Westbrook's season is that he's striking out so many additional batters. Is it a strategy? Is it a conscious decision?
Most likely, it's the small sample size effect as we dissect 12 starts. And, again, this is just 12 starts but contextualized by the 2011 campaign of high walk rates and an inability to go deep into games, it is concerning.
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The Cardinals are set to debut another pitcher in the starting rotation today. After releasing Scott Linebrink (so glad we handed out that veteran reliever contract, guys!), Joe Kelly was added to the 40 man roster in preparation for today. Here's what you need to know about Kelly.
He was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2009 draft from the University of California, Riverside. Kelly wasn't a long time starter. He'd predominantly pitched in relief prior to joining the Cardinals. In his first stop after signing, Kelly was actually a reliever for the Cardinals short season affiliate the Batavia Muckdogs.
What makes Kelly interesting, and potentially a very good pitcher, is a power sinker that ranges from 92-94 mph. He can dial up fastballs to 97 though his bread and butter is getting groundballs on the sinker. Kelly's secondary stuff is clearly behind his fastball in terms of efficacy and questions about his a reliable third pitch are usually used as a prelude to pegging him as a future reliever. Reports vary on whether his breaking ball or changeup is the more reliable of his secondary offerings.
I've seen Kelly firsthand in the minors before and the fastball was noteworthy. It seemed (warning: subjective) obvious that his fastball was on another level relative to the other pitchers in that game. His control is generally good and there's enough movement on the fastball that mistakes are hard for hitters to punish. I thought his breaking ball was the better of his two pitches though, recently, I've heard that the changeup has come more to the forefront.
Despite those legitimate concerns about his secondary offerings, Kelly has steadily climbed the ladder with Shelby Miller (the two are good friends). He pitched a career high 132 innings in 2011 split between Palm Beach and Springfield. In 2012, he started in Memphis -- a club that has quickly deteriorated and looks to be truly abysmal this season. His strikeout rate has been down in Memphis from previous seasons of "good" to "concerning". But, throughout each season, Kelly has maintained an excellent groundball rate often leading the league.
The lack of strikeouts in the minors has always felt reminiscent of Mitchell Boggs who was lauded for his pure stuff but who did see it translate into a high degree of strikeouts until moving to the pen in the majors.
Joe Kelly's birthday was was yesterday. (Happy 24th, Joe!) Best of luck in your first big league start.