Remembering Jeff Suppan

Jared Wickerham

Inspired by Will Leitch & Derrick Goold's excellent pieces on starting pitcher Jeff Suppan, a look back at the righthander's career.

The St. Louis Cardinals agreed on a contract with free agent Jeff Suppan over a decade ago, on December 18, 2003. The three-year deal worth $9 million seems quaint in today's age of increasingly long and large pitcher contracts, but it was a good signing at the time. The deal was part of Walt Jocketty's revamp of a 2003 club that underperformed expectations after a trip to the 2002 NLCS.

Suppan announced his retirement from Major League Baseball last week, which makes it hard to believe that the righthander was already a nine-year veteran when he inked his contract with the Redbirds a little over ten years ago. But it's true. A second-round draft pick for Boston, he made his big-league debut in 1994 as a 20-year-old. That's right, Suppan was younger at the time of his first MLB appearance than any of the current crop of Cardinals phenoms were at the time of their respective big-league debuts--Shelby Miller (21), Michael Wacha (21), Carlos Martinez (21), and Trevor Rosenthal (22).

The relatively soft-throwing righty did not impress in Boston. After three seasons with an ERA of 5.99 over 157 2/3 innings totaled in 29 starts and 10 relief appearances, Suppan got a fresh start for the 1998 season via the expansion draft when a team then known as the Diamondbacks drafted him. Midway through both Suppan's and the Arizona's inaugural NL seasons, the Kansas City Royals purchased the righty.

Suppan pitched for the Royals through 2002, when he became a free agent. The Pirates signed him to a contract. Suppan pitched well in Pittsburgh. In a Luhnowian move, the Pirates flipped Suppan to the Red Sox midway through the parties' one-year contract. Suppan fizzled in Fenway and became a free agent once again entering the 2003-04 Hot Stove.

When the Cards signed Suppan, I was in my early-20s and liked the signing a lot. It was the early days of my access to the internet and I didn't know about advanced stats. My method of evaluating Cardinals roster decisions hadn't changed substantively since the 80s. What had changed was the method. Instead of digging out Suppan's 2003 baseball card (which I didn't have and wouldn't have had the 2003 season even if I had), I typed in "www.espn.go.com" (remember go.com?) and what I saw convinced me that Suppan had figured out this whole pitching in the majors thing, his last few months in Boston notwithstanding.

SUPPAN'S CAREER STATS (1995-2003)

YR

G

GS

IP

BABIP

LOB%

K%

BB%

ERA

FIP

xFIP

fWAR

rWAR

‘95

8

3

22.2

.347

66.9%

19.0%

5.0%

5.96

4.38

-

0.5

-0.1

‘96

8

4

22.2

.338

61.9%

12.1%

12.1%

7.54

5.60

-

0.2

-0.1

‘97

23

22

11.2.1

.333

64.3%

13.3%

7.2%

5.69

4.37

-

1.7

-0.1

‘98

17

14

78.2

.302

60.5%

14.8%

6.4%

5.72

4.87

-

0.5

-0.7

‘99

32

32

208.2

.281

70.2%

11.6%

7.0%

4.53

4.83

-

3.1

3.1

‘00

35

33

217.0

.294

74.8%

13.5%

8.9%

4.94

5.37

-

2.4

2.9

01

34

34

218.1

.282

69.8%

12.7%

7.8%

4.37

4.68

-

3.1

2.5

‘02

33

33

208.0

.283

65.6%

12.0%

7.5%

5.32

5.00

4.67

2.0

1.4

‘03

32

31

204.0

.285

73.0%

12.6%

5.8%

4.19

4.29

4.31

2.9

3.4

*As detailed above, Suppan split his time between leagues and teams in 1998 and 2003.

In the offseason of the Suppan-St. Louis contract, I had no idea what the following stats were:

  • Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP)
  • Left On Base Rate (LOB%), Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)
  • Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP)
  • Wins Above Replacement (fWAR and rWAR)

To my knowledge, a lot of these stats had not yet been created (and, even if they were, they were not as easily accessible as they are today). So my fan eye of 2003 vintage was drawn to two stats: IP and ERA. Suppan had a decent ERA and healthy IP totals. This made him an ideal innings-eater for a club that had nine different pitchers start in 2003--a list that included Jeff Fasero (6 GS), Sterling Hitchcock (6 GS), and Kiko Calero (1 GS).*

*As an aside, Dan Haren started 14 games for St. Louis in 2003 and posted a 5.08 ERA, which equaled an 81 ERA+ and 121 ERA-. I use ERA+ and ERA- because they reflect difference comparison points and there questions about ERA+.

My impression of Suppan from the winter of his signing is reflected in Baseball-Reference WAR (rWAR), which uses a runs allowed model that accounts for team defense to calculate a pitcher's value above replacement.* The rWAR column in the chart above shows that Suppan was a solid pitcher over the five years of his career that immediately preceded his signing with the Cards.

*rWAR differs from Fangraphs WAR (fWAR) in that fWAR strips defense away and focuses solely on those outcomes over which a pitcher has control by using FIP, a stat calculated based on strikeouts, unintentional walks, hit batsmen, home runs allowed, and innings pitched. I had no idea about any of this in 2003, but I nonetheless included fWAR in the chart as a point of reference.

rWAR reiterates how different the run-scoring environment was back in the late-90s and early-Aughts. Over the five years prior to signing with the Cardinals, Suppan posted a 4.67 ERA, which good for a 104 ERA+. This means Suppan's 4.67 ERA was a bit better than average from 1999 through 2003, when adjusted for park effects. (For comparison, the NL collective ERA in 2013 was 3.74; the AL average ERA, 3.99.)

The Cardinals' signing of Suppan in 2003 was not remotely sexy. They signed him for that very reason. The Cardinals wanted a dependable innings eater who would prevent the other team from scoring at a serviceable rate. The Cardinals needed a starter who, in the words of Will Leitch in his excellent Sports on Earth piece on Suppan, would show up. Over the parties' three-year contract, the Cards got what they paid for and then some.

SUPPAN'S STATS (2004-06)

YR

G

GS

IP

BABIP

LOB%

K%

BB%

ERA

FIP

xFIP

fWAR

rWAR

‘04

31

31

188.0

.277

72.6%

13.6%

8.0%

4.16

4.77

4.58

1.1

1.2

‘05

32

32

194.1

.291

75.5%

13.7%

7.6%

3.57

4.53

4.37

1.4

1.5

‘06

32

32

190.0

.293

72.3%

13.7%

8.2%

4.12

4.70

4.70

1.6

1.2

Okay, so Suppan's overall value, as reflected by rWAR and fWAR alike fell while pitching under the tutelage of Dave Duncan. Nonetheless, he was was a stalwart in the Cardinals rotation, making 95 starts over three seasons with an ERA comfortably above average. By ERA+, Suppan's run prevention actually improved relative to his peers. From 2004 through 2006, it was 109.

The "and then some" of el Birdos' Suppan contract came in the fall. Suppan turned in some surprising performances over three Octobers:

  • In Game 7 of the 2004 NLCS against division rival Houston, Suppan bested Roger Clemens--albeit, with the help of Jim Edmonds as narrated by Mike Shannon in this clip. Both pitchers lasted six innings, but Suppan allowed just two runs (one earned) to Clemens' four (all earned), and the Cards won the game 5-2, the series 4-3, and the franchise's 16th pennant.
  • The 2006 NLCS was probably the high point of Suppan's career. He won Game 3 of the series by stifling a deep Mets lineup that was third in the NL in runs scored and first in all of MLB in position-player fWAR. In Game 3, Suppan blanked New York: 8 IP, 4 SO, 1 BB, 3 H, 0 R.
  • Suppan won his second NLCS Game 7 in three years for the Cardinals later that series, befuddling the Mets once again. Suppan's Game 7 line was: 8 IP, 4 SO, 2 BB, 4 H, 1 ER. At his stltoday.com Birdland blog, Derrick Goold has penned an excellent read on Suppan's career with a wonderful portion devoted to 2006 NLCS Game 7.
  • Suppan pitched poorly in his lone World Series start prior to the Tigers-in-Three 2006 Series. In his second World Series start, Suppan did not pitch particularly well. He was not the "winning" pitcher in Game 4, as he left with the Cards trailing 3-2. Nonetheless, the reigning NLCS MVP turned in a performance that was familiar to Cardinals fans: 6 IP, 4 SO, 2 BB, 8 H, 3 ER. Suppan's Quality Start kept the Redbirds in the game. The bats rallied late and St. Louis held on to win the game by a score of 5-4. The game was a fitting close to Suppan's three-year contract with the Cardinals.

Suppan's performance in October of 2006 positioned him well for one last free-agent payday. The Cardinals, to their credit, refused to overpay in years or dollars for the veteran righthander. The Milwaukee Brewers, however, did not.

The Brewers blew St. Louis out of the water by making Suppan what was, in the words of Erik Manning at the time, "an offer he couldn't refuse." The offer was a contract for four years and worth $42 million. The deal was at about the going market rate, according to Jeff Sackmann's "The Mid-Rotation Starters of Your Dreams," which was written as a prospective look at what Barry Zito, Suppan, and others might sign for.

Despite Sackmann's piece, during post-2006 World Series championship offseason, the founding father of VEB, Larry Borowski, didn't think Suppan at that price would be a wise signing:

for whatever it's worth, PECOTA nailed suppan's projection in 2006: 11-11, 4.10 era, 193 innings (vs the actual totals of 12-7, 4.12 era, 190 inn). it doesn't therefore follow that he is destined to perform at the levels PECOTA projects for 2007-10; but he's gonna have to outperform that projection by a considerable margin to be worth the trouble.

****

encarnacion and looper seemed like safe options then, much as suppan appears to be now. like en'cion and looper, supps might help prop things up for a year, but it's likely that by year 2 of the contract --- and even more likely by years 3 and 4 --- he'll be dead weight, soaking up payroll (he'll be making at least as much as looper and en'cion combined) and blocking the path of better pitchers who have moved up through the minor-league ranks (e.g., black hawksworth and jaime garcia).

The events following Milwaukee's signing proved Borowski prescient. Suppan's Milwaukee stats:

YR

G

GS

IP

BABIP

LOB%

K%

BB%

ERA

FIP

xFIP

fWAR

rWAR

‘07

34

34

206.2

.318

70.4%

12.4%

7.4%

4.62

4.42

4.77

2.2

1.9

‘08

31

31

177.2

.301

71.2%

11.5%

8.6%

4.96

5.51

4.73

-0.5

-0.5

‘09

30

30

161.2

.314

71.6%

10.7%

9.9%

5.29

5.70

5.20

-0.7

-1.3

‘10

15

2

31.0

.407

59.2%

12.2%

8.1%

7.84

4.85

4.83

-0.1

-0.9

The Brewers released Suppan before the end of his contract, effectively paying him to not pitch for them. At the end of the guaranteed four-year deal, Suppan produced 0.9 fWAR and -0.8 rWAR. Whichever you use to gauge the Suppan-Milwaukee contract, it was a catastrophic failure. ($40 million deals can be that bad when a club has the Brewers' payroll.)

It turned out that Suppan's fourth year's salary from Milwaukee supplemented his second tour of duty in St. Louis. The Cardinals signed him and eventually called him up to join--you guessed it--Jaime Garcia in the St. Louis rotation. Suppan's ultimate stint with the Cardinals was that of replacement-level filler, called upon to bandage an injury-plagued rotation. By fWAR, Suppan fit the replacement-bill precisely; by rWAR, he was a bit better. Back in the Duncan fold, Suppan turned in another FIP-defying performance over a half-season's worth of starts.

YR

G

GS

IP

BABIP

LOB%

K%

BB%

ERA

FIP

xFIP

fWAR

rWAR

‘10

15

13

70.1

.301

79.2%

10.9%

8.2%

3.84

4.91

4.86

0.0

0.3

Suppan signed a 2011 minor-league deal with the Giants, was released by San Francisco, and then bounced to Kansas City. After not making a big-league appearance in 2011, Suppan made a half-dozen starts for the Padres in 2012, posting a miserable 5.28 ERA, 5.61 FIP, and 5.35 xFIP.

Suppan made his retirement official on Friday, finishing his 17-year MLB career with the following line:

G

GS

IP

BABIP

LOB%

K%

BB%

ERA

FIP

xFIP

fWAR

rWAR

448

417

2542.2

.297

70.7%

12.5%

7.8%

4.70

4.86

4.68

20.9

15.8

Cardinals fans will remember the righthander better than most. For Suppan was a useful pitcher on a pennant-winner who defeated Clemens in Game 7 of the NLCS and played an improbably important role in a miraculous World Series championship run two years later. For those contributions to Cardinals lore, I suspect Suppan will get a standing ovation every time he tosses out the ceremonial first pitch at a St. Louis NLCS game.

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