Most of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ offseason moves have been met with a snicker. Rod Barajas? At least we’ll get to see the pierogie race earlier, with him getting out so quickly. Clint Barmes? Isn’t that a pseudonym for “Expensive Ronny Cedeno?” The Erik Bedard signing seems fit for ridicule, too. Looks like Charlie Morton will have a rehab buddy.
But that last one’s not really fair. Pittsburgh paid little for Bedard’s services — just $4.5 million, with $500K in possible incentives — and he’s coming off his best, healthiest season since he finished fifth in Cy Young balloting with the Orioles back in 2007. The Bucs went for upside with Bedard instead of giving similar dough to the Chien-Ming Wangs and Aaron Harangs of the world, and you should do the same even if it means absorbing a few potshots from your league buddies.
You know the drill with Bedard. He’s an excellent starter three months a year. The problem, of course, is that the season lasts six months. But the Canadian lefty, who tossed just 164 innings in 2008-2009 and missed all of 2010 with a pair of shoulder surgeries, turned in what could be deemed a relatively “healthy” season in 2011. Bedard made 24 starts and threw 129.1 innings. He did say hello to his dear friend, the DL, in late June with a knee sprain, and he missed some time in September with continued soreness in his left knee. But at least his shoulder held up, and the knee ailment isn’t expected to be an issue this spring.
Bedard wasn’t just back on the mound in 2011, though — he proved that his low-90s fastball and downer curveball are still capable of making batters look silly. Bedard struck out 23.1 percent of the batters that he faced, placing him in the same neighborhood as James Shields, Cole Hamels, Felix Hernandez and in the top 20 among starters with at least 120 innings pitched. He didn’t do that by blowing hitters away (Bedard’s 7.9% swinging strike rate was right around the MLB average for starters), but he froze plenty of them looking. Bedard struck out 13.3% of the batters that he faced looking, well above the 11.5% average for starting pitchers. While swings and misses feel more gratifying, a study by our own Matt Swartz showed that swinging strikes don’t predict future K rate any better than called strikes. Considering Bedard’s 2011 K% was right in line with his career average (22.8%), there’s little reason to think this was a fluke.
His control wasn’t exceptional, especially as he dealt with the knee injury, but his 8.9 BB% was passable and Bedard posted a 3.62 ERA with the peripherals to back it up (3.64 FIP, 3.56 xFIP). On a per-inning basis, he was basically as good as Josh Beckett and Gio Gonzalez. And, with Bedard signing with the Bucs, he’ll benefit from a switch to the non-DH league, a park that suppresses right-handed power and an outfield that covers a good deal of ground.
Baseball Reference’s Play Index Tool has a feature that allows you to estimate what a pitcher’s numbers would have looked like in a different league and park. Had Bedard pitched in the NL for the Pirates in 2011, B-R estimates that his ERA would have been about three-tenths of a run lower. Safeco is an awful place for righty batters, but PNC Park is another home run grave yard, decreasing homers for righties by 27 percent and overall offense by two percent. It won’t hurt that the slightly fly ball-slanted Bedard will have Alex Presley, Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata tracking down flies, either. According to Baseball Info Solutions, that trio had +10 Defensive Runs Saved, and that’s with both Presley and Tabata missing time to injury.
Given his health history, expecting Erik Bedard (33 in March) to pitch a full season would be silly, if not downright insane. But he returned to the majors last year with his stuff and shoulder intact, and he’s in a perfect spot to succeed in Pittsburgh. Bedard is precisely the type of pitcher who should be targeted late in drafts, once the 200-inning-a-year studs and top prospects are off the board. Could he spontaneously combust tomorrow? Sure. But if he doesn’t, he’s a well above-average starter who racks up lots of Ks. And if he does bust, what have you lost other than a 15th-round pick or a waiver claim? I’ll take the upside of a Bedard over safe mediocrity any day.
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