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Jeremy Guthrie as Baltimore’s Bright Spot

2010 has been miserable for the Orioles. The vaunted young position players have been disappointing as a group, and no Orioles position player has reached three WAR yet this season. In particular, Adam Jones‘ incipient superstardom looks to be on hold yet again, as he’s not even at two WAR yet. The pitchers have been even worse. However, for those people who see ERA as the go-to pitching stat, Jeremy Guthrie (3.74 ERA over 190 innings so far) might seem to be a “bright spot” in this otherwise wasted season.

If you’re reading this, you probably know that ERA is not considered to be a first-call pitching stat around here. FanGraphs uses FIP when calculating Wins Above Replacement in an attempt to avoid the problem of giving pitchers credit or blame for the fielders behind them and batted ball luck. It’s not perfect, but it is more stable from season-to-season than ERA/RA. FanGraphs has Guthrie at 2.1 WAR currently, which is helpful, of course, but if that’s a team’s bright spot… His decent rating is mostly due to his endurance, given his number of innings pitched, as his 4.39 FIP is actually below average (FIP is always scaled so that it is equal to league ERA, which is currently 4.10). While Guthrie does “eat innings,” the differential between his ERA and FIP indicates he’s likely been the beneficiary of good fortune regarding the fielders behind him and some batted ball luck (.265 BABIP). But even that FIP is a bit deceptive, as Guthrie has had a career-best 7.8% HR/FB ratio this season. xFIP accounts for this by normalizing his HR/FB ratio to league average, which puts his xFIP at 4.90 — the fifth-worst among qualified starters in baseball this season. If we widen the net a little further, we find his xFIP to be about the same as less bright spots such as David Bush, Kyle Kendrick, Brian Bannister, and Tommy Hunter.

Guthrie’s main skill is that he doesn’t walk hitters, and his 2.23 BB/9 is the lowest of his career. Guthrie’s strikeout rate has never been impressive, but 2010 is his second season in a row with strikeout rate under five per nine innings. While Guthrie is getting more hitters to swing at pitches outside the zone than ever before (27.6%), this probably reflects the overall higher O-Swing percentage in the league more than an improvement on Guthrie’s part — he’s still below average. Moreover, when he does get hitters to swing at pitches outside the zone, they’re making contact with those pitches at a greater rate than before. Pitchers with Guthrie’s stuff usually survive by getting good groundball rates (which FIP doesn’t take into account), but Guthrie has never been exceptional at getting grounders, despite his this season’s improvement over 2009.

This sort of thing isn’t atypical for Guthrie. In his 2007 and 2008 seasons his ERA was much better than his FIP and xFIP. In 2009 his luck “evened out,” as it were, as his 5.04 ERA was relatively close to his 5.31 FIP and and 5.22 xFIP. One season isn’t a great indication of true talent on its own, but when looking at Guthrie’s 4.90 xFIP, it isn’t that surprising coming off of a 4.54 in 2008 and a 5.22 in 2009, and is probably a decent indication of his “true talent.” While Guthrie’s straight FIP of 4.39 is the best of his career, his 4.41 FIP and 4.53 FIPs in 2007 and 2008 came in seasons where the league average was 4.47 and 4.32, respectively. This season, the league average is 4.10, making his performance that less valuable than it might appear to be.

Guthrie was an excellent waiver pickup by the Orioles in 2007, and gave them a couple of decent years at the league minimum. Even after his poor showing in 2009, it was a low-risk move for Baltimore to offer him arbitration given his previous performance and the reasonable likely award (they settled without a hearing). Given his overall WAR of 2, it was a decent investment, and the Orioles have had success when he has started, at least in terms of preventing earned runs. However, once taking into account his poor strikeout rate, his good fortune on balls in play, HR/FB ratio, his age (Guthrie will be 31 in April), and the Orioles’ place in the “success cycle,” the notion that Guthrie will be part of the next contender in Baltimore seems far-fetched, however shiny his ERA may appear. Even if the Orioles keep Guthrie around in order to “stabilize the rotation” (whatever that means), a closer look at his performance this season shows him to be a very faint bright spot, indeed.