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Stauffer’s Survival

WPA says that Tim Stauffer‘s start last night, one run allowed in six innings of the Padres 3-1 win over the Dodgers, was worth 0.208. But that certainly underrates the importance of the start, coming after San Francisco’s 2-0 loss to the Cubs. (Hey, Appelman, where’s Playoffs Probability Added when I need it?) In his fifth start of the year, and fourth since joining the rotation on September 6, Stauffer managed to lower his ERA from 1.99 to 1.95, striking out five with a 9-3 groundout-to-flyout ratio. Now, it’s starting to become apparent that the 28 year old thought-to-be-bust, a guy who entered the year with 167.2 boring career innings spread over five years, just might be a Padres playoff starter.

These are the kind of stories that make baseball fun to watch, something that in the wake of FJM returning to Deadspin, I think statheads and Bill Conlin (and Murray Chass and…) could agree on. Stauffer was once the fourth overall pick of the 2003 draft, slotted in between Kyle Sleeth and Chris Lubanski, a top five that entered the year as one of the worst all-time (good seasons by Delmon Young and Rickie Weeks helped rectify that). Before the draft, Baseball America compared the guy to Brad Radke and, yes, Greg Maddux. They wrote, “His stuff, delivery, mound presence and pitchability are all major league quality now, and he should breeze through the minors.”

He did just that in 2004: a 1.78 ERA in six California League starts, a 2.63 ERA in eight Southern League starts, and an impressive 3.54 ERA in 14 Triple-A starts (the last one, albeit, with bad peripherals). The Padres split Stauffer between Portland and San Diego the next season, but his ERA was in the five’s in both places. In 2006, it was Portland for the whole season, and he allowed a 5.53 ERA, with career highs in HR/9 (1.2), H/9 (11.7) and BB/9 (3.1). Those are bad. His 2007 season was a little better, but a bad BABIP left his ERA higher than a top prospect should have (4.34), and with fairly pedestrian stuff, he was quickly being forgotten. And, he might have been pitching hurt.

In 2008, Stauffer underwent surgery for a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, and predictably, missed the season. Last year was supposed to be about baby steps, a May return in Double-A, with 12 relief appearances there. But then came a promotion back to Portland, where he had four good starts, before getting the call to the big leagues. Stauffer had 14 starts in the second half of 2009 for the Padres, with both his FIP numbers in the 4.7 range, and a 0.1 WAR to show for his efforts. But don’t get caught in the mediocrity of the performance, the quick turnaround was the story, the performances didn’t matter.

Now, the story is both of health and success. And, of a pitcher reborn. If his one-time comparison to Brad Radke was to believed, Stauffer was going to be a four-pitch flyball pitcher, succeeding on good command. Entering the year, his career groundball rate would have been around 43%. But this new pitcher, this sub-2 ERA guy, is combining good command with some plus movement, and he’s got a 53.6% groundball rate to show for it. Returning to the rotation has done nothing for this newfound style, as he has a 54.0 GB% in September with a 2.0 GB/FB ratio. Thanks to Texas Leaguers, I can tell you that his fastball last year had 8.93 Vertical inches and -5.53 horizontal inches, where in 2010, it’s been 7.12 vertical and -7.57 horizontal. I can’t tell you exactly what that means, but one way or the other, it’s producing more groundballs.

In relief this season, Stauffer was mostly a fastball-slider pitcher, throwing the two pitches 82.1% of the time. But in his four September starts, Stauffer has picked up the usage of his change-up, throwing it 15.3% of the time overall, including 26.5% of the time versus left-handed hitters. He’s actually seen the velocity of his fastball and slider rise (91.5 and 86.0 mph’s respectively), with the speed of his change-up (81.1 mph) decrease in the conversion from reliever to starter. Though, of course, these are all small sample sizes. The point is, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound righty had nothing to gain pitching in relief versus the rotation: not velocity nor bite. The move to starting has only allowed him to use his good change-up more often.

Watching Stauffer last night, he’s a guy that going forward is so dependent on his ability to spot the ball on the outside corner. For instance, check out the Pitch F/X graphics from his September 16 start against the Cardinals. He threw two pitches on the inside half to lefties, and just three pitches inside on right-handers. More than pitching down in the zone, he just lives on the outer half, and will only face trouble when his pitches start to inch back to the middle of the plate. Luckily, half his games will be in PETCO Park, where mistakes can be tolerated.

Both in October and 2011, Tim Stauffer is one of the best 4 pitchers available to start for the San Diego Padres. In 2008, when Stauffer underwent surgery, he was assumed to be a bust. He’s not Brad Radke, and he’s sure not Greg Maddux, and I’m not even yet convinced he’s a groundball pitcher, but I do know that Stauffer is one hell of a story.