Thursday, January 8, 2009

Are Pitchers Really Harder To Project?

An anonymous commenter on my David Price post had this to say:

You are totally nuts dude. look at his age and experience, coupled with his strikeout totals. No doubt this kid is a k per inning guy when he gets some time under his belt.

He may be right about Price's long term potential, but my post was really focused on how good Price is right now.

The common wisdom seems to be that future pitching performance is harder to predict than future hitting performance. In one sense that's true, but in some ways it's completely wrong.

What is true is that long term improvement is harder to forecast. The vast majority of 20 year old hitters will be substantially better five years in the future than they are now. The same really can't be said of pitchers. Some will suffer major injuries. Others will have more subtle problems with arm strength, mechanics, or other aspects of pitching that reduce their effectiveness. Many will never be better than they are at 20, although some will also reach their full potential later than almost any hitter. So in that sense, the common wisdom is correct. Pitchers' long term development is much harder to predict.

The good news is that in many cases we don't actually NEED to forecast development in pitchers. We can simply recognize changes in true ability faster than others. When a 21 year old hitter with a career average of .250 hits .320 in April, I have no idea if the change is permanent or simply short term variance. However, when a 21 year old pitcher with career ratios of 5.0 for strikeouts and 4.0 for walks completes the first month of the season with a ratio of 35/8 in 31 innings, I can be nearly certain that he's become a much better pitcher than he used to be. If I'm lucky, he'll have suffered enough bad luck to keep his ERA high, obscuring his true talent level, and allowing me to get a bargain.

So getting back to my anonymous friend...while he may be right about Price, we really have no idea. And rather than guess about the development of a young pitcher, I'd rather wait and see. Once (if) he becomes a "k per inning guy" it will be apparent within about five starts...and at that point Price is likely to be slightly undervalued in most leagues.


Anonymous said...

"The common wisdom seems to be that future pitching performance is harder to predict than future hitting performance. In one sense that's true, but in some ways it's completely wrong." . . . That's a pretty ridiculous way to frame the argument. You can't say something is "in some ways completely wrong" and yet also claim in one sense that it's true.

Anonymous said...

This is your anonymous dave price poster (I am just too lazy to sign up to google blogger).
The problem with your argument is that if price has 5 k/inning starts in April, his value will already be sky high. This holds if he breaks out this year, next year, or probably even 2010. People are not just going to forget about dave price.
As you can probably tell, I am bullish on d price this year. no, he will not have 200K this year, but I could see him being a 3.7 era, 170k pitcher out of the gate. Watching him reminds me of watching francisco liriano when he was pitching out of the bullpen in his rookie year. Their stuff is so obviously nasty, it is hard to imagine them not being able to replicate their short term performance while relieving into dominance as a starter, just as joba did. And by 'stuff', I don't mean daniel cabrera 'i have no idea where the ball is going' stuff, I mean nasty stuff with control.
But we can disagree for now. We will have to wait until he gets a few starts under his belt this year to be certain.
Keep up the good work, I love the blog.

Schruender said...

I'm also a huge fan of Price. And agree with Mr. Anonymous/Lazy on the Liriano comparison to an extent (I wish we saw more Major League innings).

I agree with you on the idea that predicting a 5 year course for a hitter is much easier than a pitcher. That's why whenever someone signs a deal like Sabathia did this season it raises a few eyebrows. You just don't see pitchers getting many deals like that and when they do, it is often a huge mistake (Zito, Hampton, etc.)

Alex said...

I guess I just don't see Price as a good opportunity to look for value in any case. If you 'buy' now I think you're taking a risk, and you're not getting him that cheap anyway. Should be interesting to see how quickly he develops though.

Fake Teams said...

Tend to agree with Alex on Price price. He is going too early for a pitcher whose innings are likely to be controlled. He threw just 125 or so last season, and I suspect the Rays will limit him to the 160 area.

Nevermind his K/IP was 1.0 with the bulk in the minors.