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Jake Westbrook: Dave Duncan Reclamation Project

ST. LOUIS, MO -SEPTEMBER 5:  Starter Jake Westbrook #35 of the St. Louis Cardinals pitches against the Milwaukee Brewers at Busch Stadium on September 5, 2011 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MO -SEPTEMBER 5: Starter Jake Westbrook #35 of the St. Louis Cardinals pitches against the Milwaukee Brewers at Busch Stadium on September 5, 2011 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Getty Images

There was a time when it was a Hot Stove tradition for St. Louis Cardinals fans to head to the free agent junkyard and peruse the starting pitcher scrap heap in search of a down-and-out starter with a bargain-basement price tag on whom Dave Duncan could work his magic. It was a tenant of Jockettyism brought about by the dearth of organizational pitching prospects; however, John Mozeliak has transitioned away from this approach to rotation construction. Early last Hot Stove, Mozeliak may have ended the tradition altogether by inking Jake Westbrook to a two-year, $16.5 million contract. It is somewhat ironic then that entering 2012 Westbrook has the classic Duncan reclamation profile even though he is a returning starter.

A consummate pitching democrat, Westbrook had long been seen as a fit for the pitch-to-contact philosophy of the Cardinals and Duncan. In need of a pitching upgrade, the Cardinals sent fan-favorite Ryan Ludwick to the Padres in a three-club deal that saw Westbrook sent from the Indians to St. Louis. Whether it was the change in leagues, the change from a hitter-friendly home park to a pitcher-friendly one, working with Duncan, or some combination thereof, Westbrook pitched extremely well for the Cardinals--better than he had for Cleveland in 2010 and better than he had for his career.

SAMPLE

IP

K/9

BB/9

HR/9

ERA

FIP

xFIP

fWAR

Career*

1,456.1

5.04

2.90

0.80

4.34

4.18

4.02

20.7

‘10 Indians

127.2

5.15

3.10

1.06

4.65

4.64

4.24

0.9

‘10 Cardinals

75.0

6.60

2.88

0.60

3.48

3.52

3.51

1.3

*Because I don't know how to isolate Westbrook's career numbers on Fangraphs through 2010, this career total includes his 2011 season.

The Westbrook that pitched for St. Louis was not the Westbrook that we should have expected. He showed off a pitching fascist streak never before seen with a K/9 of 6.60 that was more than a full strikeout per nine innings higher than his previous full-season career high of 5.51. As a Cardinal in 2010, Westbrook also shaved his walk rate to pre-Tommy John levels and suppressed homers at a greater level than at any point in his career. In short, Westbrook pitched as well or better for the Cardinals in 2010 than he ever had in his big-league career.

Mozeliak signed the free agent Westbrook to a two-year deal after the season. The contract--which paid Westbrook $8 million in 2011 and will pay him $8.5 million in 2012--values Westbrook as a about a 2.0-WAR pitcher. Thus, it seems that the Cardinals did not overpay for the groundballer based upon his stellar pitching for the club in 2010. Westbrook's 2011 fell short of the St. Louis front office's rational valuation of him as a pitcher, let alone the outsized expectations of fans who seemed to anticipate a performance on par with Westbrook's dozen 2010 starts with "STL" on is cap.

How badly did Westbrook underperform in 2011? Looking at Westbrook's 2011 stats compared to his career averages, one stat sticks out like a sore thumb: BB/9.

Even though his WAR total of 1.1 fell short of his salary, Westbrook's 2011 K/9, FIP, and xFIP were largely in line with his career rates. The problem area, of course, is Westbrook's walk rate which was the worst BB/9 Westbrook has posted since 2003, his first as a full-time starter. This is because Westbrook threw fewer pitches in the strike zone last season than ever before.

The blue represents to the MLB average for pitches in the strike zone; the red represents Westbrook's individual share of pitches in the zone. You can see that Westbrook has been relatively close to the MLB average throughout his career with 2011 being the greatest outlier. Last season, pitchers threw 45.3% of their pitches in the strike zone while Westbrook only managed 41.8%. The result was a higher walk rate and frustratingly inefficient outings. Westbrook managed a Quality Start in only 39% of his 2011 starts; for his career, 50% of his starts have qualified as Quality Starts.

In order to come closer to pitching at a level that approaches the value of his $8.5 million salary in 2012, Westbrook will have to walk fewer opposing hitters. As one might suspect, this will require him to throw more strikes. This ought to help Westbrook keep his pitch count lower, work deeper into games, and be the pitcher the Cardinals hoped they were getting when they signed him to a two-year contract last Hot Stove.