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as promised, i took a look at the wolf / meche / padilla / lilly class of free-agent pitchers --- all about 30 years old, all 1st-time free agents, all mid-rotation types with up-n-down resumes. ted lilly stands out as the best of the lot, so i'm just gonna write about him today.

why is he the best? in short, his peak ability is as high as any pitcher in this group, but he's by far the most consistent. of the four, only lilly has made 25+ starts in each of the last four years. here are his stats since 2003; just ignore the aberrant 2005 line (i've grayed it out for that purpose) and focus on the other three years. pretty reliable pitcher; you can count on 180 innings and 12 to 15 wins:

ip h bb so hr k/9 w-l era fip prar
2003 178.1 179 58 147 24 7.42 12-10 4.34 4.36 53
2004 197.1 171 89 168 26 7.66 12-10 4.06 4.65 71
2005 126.1 135 58 96 23 6.84 10-11 5.56 5.50 27
2006 181.2 179 81 160 28 7.93 15-13 4.31 4.85 59

now, are those such great numbers? on their face, they're just ok. but he put them up in a hitter's park in a dh league; moving over to the dh-free nl and to pitcher-friendly busch III would probably shear a third of a run off lilly's era. you'll note the high degree of correspondence between lilly's standard era and his FIP; that tells you the era figures are no illusions, born of great defensive support or sheer luck. we can trust them. so even if we assume no improvement at all in his abilities, the cardinals could expect 180 innings of high 3.00s / low 4.00s performance out of lilly.

pitching runs above replacement, or PRAR, provides another useful benchmark. in three of the last four years (all but 2005), lilly has been 50 or more runs better than replacement level. and he nearly attained that level in 2002 despite pitching only 100 innings. over the last 5 years (ie , going back through 2002), he has been 246 runs above replacement level --- a per-year average of 49 runs, not adjusted for playing time. if we remove 2005 from the equation, the per year average is 55 runs a year. now, how good is that? mark mulder in 2005 was 55 runs above replacement; carp in 2004 was 57 RAR. in the last three seasons, only two cardinal pitchers other than carpenter have topped 50 RAR in a single year --- mulder in '05 and marquis in '04. lilly averages 50 runs above replacement. if he simply maintains his established level of performance, he instantly becomes a strong #3 / borderline #2 pitcher in st louis.

but there's good reason to believe that lilly can raise his game. first of all, he's the type of pitcher duncan / la russa have their greatest rate of success with --- a veteran at midcareer who hasn't quite got the most out of his potential. judging from lilly's consistently high strikeout rates, he already has the ability to overpower hitters; his k rate over the last 4 years ranks in the top 5 among al pitchers. put him in the nl (where he can pile up ks against weak-hitting pitchers) and he might well whiff 8.5 men a game. (carp fans 7.5 per 9, for comparison's sake.) lilly has excellent stuff --- a first-rate curve and an above-average fastball, plus a decent changeup; his problem has been command/location --- he walks too many guys (about 4 a game) and makes a few too many mistakes, hence the high home-run rate. pitchers with those assets and liabilities often don't blossom until their late 20s or early 30s. one example would be chris carpenter; another would be darryl kile, another curveball specialist who showed flashes early in his career but labored to establish any consistency. he didn't put it all together until after age 30 --- and after he got together with dave duncan. not to belabor this comparison, but check out kile's line up to the time he joined the cardinals, vs lilly's line to date:

w-l era h/9 bb/9 k/9 age
kile 92-95 4.32 8.9 4.3 6.9 30
lilly 59-58 4.60 8.7 3.7 7.7 30

qualifiers: first, these two pitchers performed in disparate eras and contexts, so the numerical similarity only goes so far. second, kile possessed exceptional mental makeup, and that was a (perhaps the) key factor in his maturation arc. so the comparison is of limited usefulness; i draw it only to show that a track record exists --- duncan / la russa have taken pitchers like lilly before and made them better.

ok, so i've convinced myself that this guy is worth taking a run at. what's a fair price? estaban loiaza, a pitcher with a better resume, signed for 3 yrs / $21m last off-season. jerrod washburn, also more accomplished, signed for 4 yrs / $37m. i tend to think lilly's going to fall to the lower end of that range. the market is glutted with left-handed pitchers (zito, pettitte, randy wolf, mulder, and mark redman) and other, roughly equivalent mid-rotation guys (padilla, wolf, meche, woody williams, suppan, maddux, weaver). i don't think it will take a 4-year guarantee to get this guy.

let's call it 3 yrs / $25 milion. anybody with me?

Update [2006-11-9 11:25:37 by lboros]: for whatever it's worth dept: mlb4u.com's free-agent prediction list has lilly signing for 3 yr /$24m with the dbacks --- and randy wolf signing with st louis for 3 / $18m.

Update [2006-11-9 12:0:55 by lboros]: since the new banner ads launched on tuesday, i have received two reports from readers who got a pop-up ad when loading this site. there have a been a handful of similar reports at other SB Nation sites --- extremely spotty, but bothersome. the current theory is that those readers have been hit with spyware. the way to test that theory is as follows: if you get any sort of pop-up screen when this site loads, please run Spybot, Adaware, or some other detection program right away. then report the results --- if your detection sweep comes up clean, we'll know it's not a spyware problem.

no matter what, i need to hear from everybody who gets a popup screen when this site loads. either post it in the thread, or e-mail me at vivaelbirdos@yahoo.com. thanks, everybody.