Weaver and Lilly

On Sunday I finally had a chance to watch Jeff Weaver, the latest addition to the Yankees’ rotation and ever-increasing payroll. Acquired just prior to the All-Star break, Weaver had made two starts in pinstripes which I’d missed. He didn’t exactly distinguish himself in those outings, giving up his share of runs but being rescued by the turbocharged Yankee offense. His performance on Sunday was no prettier than his previous two. In fact, it was considerably uglier; Weaver blew an early four-run lead and tied a Yankee Stadium record by surrendering five home runs. But the Bronx Bombers again rescued him, rallying to beat the Boston Red Sox for their fifth final-at-bat, come-from-behind victory in the last six games.

Even prior to Sunday’s near-debacle, I had very mixed feelings about the corner of the trade which brought Weaver to New York in exchange for Ted Lilly (who went to Oakland to be their #4 starter behind Hudson, Mulder, and Zito) and two top-notch prospects. The conventional wisdom is that the Yanks upgraded from an unestablished pitcher to a more experienced and heralded one–an ace in the making. But while the evidence doesn’t exactly refute that, it does give enough pause to wonder what the hubbub is all about. First off, Lilly was pitching as well as any Yankee starter this year. Sorting by ERA:

            IP  IP/GS   ERA  K/9  K/W HR/9  WHIP
Pettitte   54.0  5.40  3.50  6.0  2.3  0.5  1.54
Lilly      68.2  6.25  3.54  6.9  2.4  1.2  1.06
Hernandez  71.2  6.52  3.64  7.2  2.9  1.1  1.03
Wells     126.1  6.65  3.78  6.1  2.6  0.7  1.27
Clemens   118.2  6.25  4.02  9.6  3.1  0.8  1.23
Mussina   129.0  6.45  4.40  7.2  3.7  1.3  1.14

These numbers are as a starter only; if we include relief appearances Lilly’s numbers are even better. Still, he ranks 2nd in ERA, 2nd in baserunners per inning (WHIP), and 4th in strikeouts per 9 among the six Yankee starters, and seemed to have shed the knock about not lasting deep enough into games. He threw a 1-hitter at the Seattle Mariners earlier this year, as well as a 3-hit shutout against the San Diego Padres. With a little more run support, his record could have been 6-3, instead of the other way around, prior to the trade. In short, Ted Lilly has shown he’s capable of being a solid-to-excellent big league starter.

Surprisingly enough, Lilly is actually seven months older than Weaver and was drafted two years earlier, as the 23rd round pick of the L.A. Dodgers in 1996 (he came to the Yanks via Montreal, as part of the Hideki Irabu deal). Weaver was the Tigers’ 1st round pick in 1998 (taken 14th, four spots behind Carlos Pena, who was the third principal of the three-way trade; other notable names from that draft include Pat Burrell, Mark Mulder, Corey Patterson, J. D. Drew, Austin Kearns, Felipe Lopez, Sean Burrroughs, and C.C. Sabathia). Here is a comparison of the two pitchers:

          IP    K/9   K/W  HR/9  WHIP   ERA   W-L
Weaver  734.2  6.06  2.31  1.03  1.31  4.44  40-51
Lilly   239.2  8.13  2.36  1.50  1.30  4.87   9-13

Lilly has about one-third of the major league experience that Weaver does, but the rate stats are very comparable, except for two areas. First, Lilly has proven considerably more vulnerable to the longball than Weaver. It’s hard to believe after yesterday, but the former Tiger is actually known for his tendency to avoid the dinger (where have you gone, Comerica Park?). Second, while their control ratios are almost identical, Lilly’s strikeout rate is 34 percent higher than Weaver’s. Strikeout rates are an important yardstick to measure a pitcher by, as they have a great amount of predictive value. As Bill James put it in his New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (page 291):

“The influence of strikeouts on a pitcher’s future can be compared to the effect of height on a man’s chances of playing in the NBA… It’s not that ALL seven-footers can play in the NBA, and it isn’t true that height is everything. There are other factors, but if you studied the American male population, you could very easily establish that the percentage of men who play in the NBA increases substantially with each one inch of increase in height. The same is true here: there are other factors in having a long career, but if you study the issue, you can easily establish that pitchers who strike out four men per nine innings last longer than pitchers who strike out three men per nine innings, that pitchers who strike out five men per nine innings last longer than those who strike out four… and so on without end.”

So Lilly’s strikeout rate could be a clue that he’ll enjoy the longer career of the two. Detractors might point out that Lilly’s delivery, though it contributes mightily to his ability to deceive batters, is all arm and no leg and thus may be putting an inordinate amount of strain on his shoulder, posing an injury risk. It should be noted that his arrival in the big leagues was somewhat delayed by a previous arm injury; he had bone chips removed from his elbow prior to the 2000 season.

But if we’re going to speculate about Lilly’s risk of injury, we ought to do the same about Weaver. Baseball Prospectus, which has published a (somewhat controversial) methodology about pitcher workloads called Pitcher Abuse Points (now PAP^3, for those of you scoring at home), said of Weaver in its 2001 edition: “Weaver’s strict pitch counts during his rookie season was a big story in BP2K, and while [then-manager] Phil Garner worked him more aggressively, Weaver had the benefit of an extra year of physical maturity and a season of minimal strain on his arm. As long as Garner doesn’t continue to rachet up his workload, Weaver should stay clear of serious injury.” So far so good, but this year’s edition of Baseball Prospectus was somewhat less sanguine: “… the heaviest workload Garner had placed on a starting pitcher since Cal Eldred’s shoulder broke down in the mid-1990s. The combination of Weaver’s consistent mechanics and a pair of relatively light workloads in 1999 and 2000 should keep him healthy.”

And so long as we’re speculating, one of the things that hasn’t escaped attention is Weaver’s temper. Where Ted Lilly operated somewhere in the vicinity of even-keeled and taciturn, Weaver seems more than a bit high-strung, and has a reputation for getting visibly demonstrative when his fielders let him down. Chewing on the glove or shouting into it, hanging out on the top step of the dugout, he seems more like the second coming of Jose Lima than like a New York Yankee. That shit won’t fly around here for very long. Not that Weaver doesn’t have his upside. He pitched only about 30 innings in the minors before making Detroit’s rotation, learning on the job the pitfalls of being a big-league starter and averaging just a hair under 200 innings per season in doing so. He’s got three and a half years of experience to go with a live arm and a good sinking fastball with late movement. He’s a decent big-league pitcher who could certainly improve with a good team behind him for a change.

All things considered, this deal was about money and perception–the perception that if one has money, as the Yankees do, they ought to shore up any doubt about whether a pitcher can get the job done. Ted Lilly, making something just above the minimum salary ($237,150) and out of options for the minors, apparently wasn’t enough of a proven commodity to be trusted in a pennant race, not when injury-related question marks hung in the vicinity of five of the other six (!) potential Yankee starters. Jeff Weaver, who is making $2.4 million this year and is signed for the next three years at a total of around $20 million, is a much more expensive pitcher who supposedly has the big-league experience and the pedigree to be a top-of-the-rotation starter, a significant consideration when one looks at a future rotation beyond Clemens, Wells and El Duque. As Jim Kaat put it in Sunday’s broadcast, “Weaver isn’t trained to run the Kentucky Derby yet, but I’d like to give him 40 acres and see what he can do.”

Given what I’ve seen, I’d as soon have done the same for Ted Lilly. I don’t think we’ve heard the last from him.

Postscript: The Oakland A’s placed Lilly on the 15-day DL retroactive to July 21 with an an inflamed shoulder. According to manager Art Howe, “The preliminary reports from the medical people are that he just needs strengthening and conditioning in that shoulder, but we’ll know more after the MRI is diagnosed.” And so it goes…

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