The St. Louis Cardinals and Jake Westbrook have agreed to an extension. The new contract is reportedly a one-year, $8.75 million contract for 2013 with a superfluous mutual option worth $9.5 million for 2014 with a $1 million buyout. While the mutual option seems increasingly prevalent, given that it is usually irrelevant in practice, it might be more straightforward to think of this deal as a guaranteed deal for one year and just under $10 million dollars.
Back in 2010, Westbrook was having a mediocre season (4.66 ERA, 4.25 FIP) for Cleveland after almost completely missing the prior two seasons due to injury. Traded to the Cardinals for the stretch run, he pitched quite well for 12 starts for St. Louis (3.48 ERA, 3.52 FIP). Whether it was Dave Duncan‘s “magic” or not, the Cardinals liked what they saw, and gave him a two-year contract for 2011 and 2012 and, you guessed it, a mutual option for 2013 (which the new contract replaces).
In 2011, Westbrook’s past, aging, and regression all seemed to break whatever spell Duncan had cast. Although Westbrook kept the ground balls coming, his strikeout rate dropped back to about that of his 2010 pre-St. Louis rate, while his walk rate was his worst in years. With a 4.66 ERA, Westbrook did not even initially make the Cardinal’s playoff roster, although he was added and pitched out of the bullpen in World Series.
Given his age (34) and recent performance, it is a bit surprising that Westbrook is pitching pretty much as well in 2012 (3.50 ERA, 3.60 FIP) as he did after initially being traded to the Cardinals in 2010. His strikeout rate is still poor (and at his age, it probably is not coming back), but his control seems to be as good as it ever been over a full season. Which Westbrook is the “real” one, the #2 starter of the last part of 2010 and 2012 thus far, or the back-of-the-rotation “innings eater” of 2011? Obviously, this matters a great deal to the Cardinals.
The most simple, boring answer, at least from the numbers, is that he is likely somewhere in between. On one hand, nothing obvious in Westbrook’s numbers this year seem to scream “luck.” His BABIP is not abnormally low (.298), and it is right in line with his career numbers. His ERA and FIP are pretty close to each other, too, as they have been over the course of his career (career: 4.26 ERA, 4.12 FIP). One area that might be subject to some regression is his lower home run/fly ball rate in 2012 (and the small sample of his first partial season in St. Louis). There is some evidence that ground ball pitchers like Westbrook tend to give up home runs on balls that do go in the air. On the other hand, the Cardinals’ home park suppresses home runs. Still, if Westbrook continues to keep the ball on the ground, a bit of random variation and regression on his air balls should not make that much of a difference.
On the other hand, while Westbrook has had more than 150 innings of being very good this year, he had 180 of being pretty bad last year. While Dave Duncan does seem to be able to help many pitchers (and it is worth noting that Duncan has been on a leave of absence all year), that does not make Westbrook’s prior history go away — emphasizing his 2010 Cardinals stint can tend to gloss over the fact that Westbrook was medicore overall in 2010. Put more simply: 2012 is really Westbrook’s first full season of being good since about 2006. It is unlikely that he is establishing a new level of performance at 35.
Westbrooks’ primary pitch is still his sinker, which he mixes with a cutter and slider (the proportion of the two varies depending on whose classification one prefers). Against left-handed bats, Westbrook mixes in a good number of change-ups. That has been his pattern for a while. I will leave a more detailed analysis to the Pitchf/x gurus, which I am decidedly not. Simply looking at the raw numbers, the main difference between the Good Westbrook (2012) and Mediocre Westbrook (2010 and 2011) is that Good Westbrook does not walk left-handed batters as much. I cannot find any obvious big differences in, say, his change-up usage that might explain what is different this year against lefties.
That does not mean that nothing is different, just that nothing stands out. Nor is it to dismiss the results. the point is just that there is no obvious reason to unduly emphasize Westbrooks 2012 or pre-2011 performance beyond what we would do in projecting a player. In 2013, Westbrook’s true talent ERA/FIP is probably in the low 4s. Over a full season, that probably makes him about a two-win player. For $10 million, that is probably fair for a player like Westbrook.
This is not to say that the Cardinals are getting a steal — after all, Westbrook has had serious injury issues in the past, has only pitched 200 or more innings once since 2006, and is in his mid-30s. However, given the Cardinals roster of talented but less-than-spry players, shoring up the middle and back of their starting rotation is a good idea. Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, and Jaime Garcia cannot exactly be penciled in for 220 innings each next season and Kyle Lohse (~!) is having a good season and will probably command some money in free agency. So even with Lance Lynn looking good and perhaps Shelby Miller really being ready (I’ll leave that one to others), there likely will be plenty of innings for a guy like Westbrook. Jake Westbrook is probably not the #2 pitcher he has looked like this season. However, he is likely to be better than most other #4 starters in the league, and with Cardinals looking at another shot at contention in 2013, signing Westbrook makes a lot of sense.