Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim lefty Joe Saunders is fresh off of the best season of his career. Given the opportunity to make 30+ starts for the first time in the majors, the Virginia Tech product posted a 3.41 ERA (8th among AL starters) and a 2.07 WPA/LI (11th). Saunders compiled a 17-7 W-L record and posted a 130 ERA+.
However, the are some reasons to expect this Hokie to decline in 2009. Saunders’ Fielding Independent ERA (FIP ERA) was 4.36 in 2008, nearly a full run higher than his actual ERA. While his control is pretty solid (2.41 BB/9 in ’08, 2.80 BB/9 career), Saunders does not miss very many bats. He struck out just 4.68 batters per nine innings last season, down from an already tepid 5.79 K/9 in 2007. His 2008 K rate was the 10th-lowest among qualified starters. Aside from Saunders and Rockies right-hander Aaron Cook (who compensates with a ton of groundballs), no one else in the top 10 had a FIP ERA lower than 4.09, despite generally good control:
10 Lowest K Rates Among MLB Starters:
1. Livan Hernandez (3.35 K/9, 4.94 FIP ERA)
2. Aaron Cook (4.09 K/9, 3.76 FIP ERA)
3. Paul Byrd (4.1 K/9, 5.14 FIP ERA)
4. Jon Garland (4.12 K/9, 4.76 FIP ERA)
5. Zach Duke (4.23 K/9, 4.40 FIP ERA)
6. Kenny Rogers (4.25 K/9, 5.22 FIP ERA)
7. Nick Blackburn (4.47 K/9, 4.40 FIP ERA)
8. Greg Maddux (4.55 K/9, 4.09 FIP ERA)
9. Jeff Suppan (4.56 K/9, 5.51 FIP ERA)
10. Saunders (4.68 K/9, 4.36 FIP ERA)
When a pitcher compiles so few strikeouts, he is often subject to the caprices of his defense and variance (luck) on balls put in play. Some years, the ball may bounce the pitcher’s way (as it did for Saunders in 2008, who posted a very low .267 BABIP). Other times, a pitcher might not get so lucky. Take Pittsburgh’s Zach Duke, for example. Duke’s peripherals (4.23 K/9, 2.29 BB/9) were pretty similar to Saunders’, yet Duke posted a mediocre 4.82 ERA. The difference between the two? A huge gap in BABIP. While Saunders was the beneficiary of good luck on balls in play, Duke couldn’t buy an out, and had the misfortune of posting a .327 BABIP.
Saunders figures to be a decent mid-rotation starter at the major league level, a guy worth looking at in the later rounds of the draft. But don’t let the ERA and shiny W-L record fool you: Saunders is more Average Joe than Cy Young.
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