It sounds as if Roy Oswalt should sign sometime this very Thursday. Since you are reading this in the future — which, to you, will feel like the present, but trust me: it’s the future — you may already know of Oswalt’s new team. Don’t gloat.
Instead, let us turn our languid eyes to Oswalt’s future, more specifically, his 2012 projections.
Maybe it is because he has pitched 150 innings in every season since the beginning of the Bush administration — or maybe it is because he played such a prominent role in a successful Houston Astros that seems now so distant from reality — but Roy Oswalt somehow feels ancient. Despite that, he is only a year and change older than Mark Buehrle and a year and one day older than Cliff Lee.
So Oswalt, first of all, is really not old — especially for a pitcher. At the same time, though, he is not necessarily healthy. He hit the DL twice last year and his back problems and his full history of injuries leaves great cause for concern.
Still, the Wizard of Os also ranks among some the best active pitchers. Regard:
With only 69 pitchers over the last 6 years putting up at least 900 innings — or an average of at least 150 innings per year — Oswalt’s 1415 IP appears frankly quite durable and impressive. He had collected 30 starts or more over his last 7 seasons before 2011, and despite his back problems, he still finished the season pretty strong, sporting a 3.44 FIP and 2.5 WAR through just 139 IP.
If we were to number Oswalt’s areas of concern, I imagine we would start like this:
1) His injury risk. For as much as he has been durable during his career, the seriousness of his recent injuries and his age both make injuries the Big Concern. In 2011, he had the second-lowest IP total of his career, but was still largely effective when he was pitching. At this point, 200+ IP is not impossible, but the winning team would be better off hoping for / paying for 150 to 175 innings, or 24 to 27 starts.
2) His career-worst xFIP. As we can see in the chart above, Oswalt has typically under-played his FIP — and the same is true for his xFIP and SIERA. However, for the first time in his career, his xFIP- stepped across to the bad side of league average (hitting 103 xFIP-). His HR/FB ratio dropped to a career low 6.3% in 2011, well beneath his 8.8% career rate. If all his other peripherals hold constant, but his HR/FB ratio normalizes, that could result in a considerable dulling of his value.
3) His decreasing slider effectiveness. Oswalt has a few mediocre pitches, but three really dominant pitches: His fastball, his sinker, and his slider. Across the charts, his velocities were down in 2011, but the most concerning change was the decreased effectiveness of his slider. It went from ranging between 0.50 and 1.00 wSL/C to hitting -0.25 last season (via Pitch F/x). If Oswalt loses control over his second-best pitch, he might become more suited to relief duty than starting.
Worth noting: Oswalt has a FIP approximately equal to 3.85 when going through a lineup for the third time. In 2011, his FIP was ~4.30 — whether that stems from pitch selection or exhaustion or random fluctuation, I do not know.
Here is what the projection systems — and a 3-year weighted average (5-4-3) — suggest Oswalt is capable of:
The projections, as suggested above, range from about 150 to 175, which means the winning team will need somewhere from 3 to 8 extra starts from a sixth starter. In a hotly contested division with a team lacking pitching depth, that could be a huge hurdle.
On the high end Rotochamps foresees a return to the glory days for Oswalt — 175 IP and 3.35 FIP — while Dave Cameron’s system of choice, ZiPS, predicts another injury-plagued, yet effective season with 153 IP and a 3.49 FIP.
Altogether, with the projections averaging 167 IP, a 3.43 FIP, and a 3.57 ERA, the winner of the Oswalt derby should be getting a February steal, at least 2 to 3 cheap WAR — but only the future (your future, and my present future) will tell. When it becomes the present, that is.