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Gavin Floyd Flying Under the Radar?

On the surface, Chicago White Sox righty Gavin Floyd appeared to take a step back in 2009. After all, his ERA rose from 3.84 in 2008 to 4.06 this past year, with his win total dipping from 17 to 11 in the process.

Recently, ESPN fantasy analyst Tristan Cockcroft came out with a preliminary top 200 list for the 2010 season. Floyd checked in at number 200. He ranked below starters such as Derek Lowe, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Ervin Santana.

Santana (elbow, triceps) and Matsuzaka (shoulder) lost big chunks of the ’09 season with injury problems. Lowe, meanwhile, pulled off an undesirable trifecta by missing fewer bats, walking more hitters and getting fewer ground balls than usual.

But Floyd? He’s coming off of his best season in the majors, win total and higher ERA aside.

This time last year, I examined Floyd’s 2008 season and came to a rather harsh conclusion:

Floyd’s prospect pedigree, superficial improvement in ERA and big win total might trick some people into believing that he has taken major strides toward becoming an ace-level starter. However, there just isn’t any evidence to suggest that’s really the case. Floyd is worth selecting in the later portion of most drafts, but don’t be the guy that takes him really high and then spends the season wondering why his ERA went up by a run.

Today, I can say that I was wrong about Floyd. And now, I fear that other analysts may be making a similar mistake in underestimating the former Phillies prospect.

In 2008, Floyd struck out 6.32 batters per nine innings. In ’09, his K rate climbed to 7.6 per nine frames. The increase appears to be supported by a drop in contact rate. Opposing batters made contact when swinging at Floyd’s pitches 81.7% of the time in ’08, but just 77.8% in ’09 (80-81% MLB average).

Also, his rate of swinging strikes spiked from 8.4% in ’08 to 9.9% this past year (7.8% average for starting pitchers). Floyd ranked 17th among starters in contact rate and 21st in swinging strike rate.

The soon-to-be 27 year-old also lowered his walk rate a bit, from 3.05 BB/9 in 2008 to 2.75 BB/9 in 2009. Floyd kept the ball on the ground more than in years past, with a 44.3 GB% (41.2% in ’08).

That’s not a massive increase, but it makes a difference. His home run/fly ball rate didn’t change all that much between 2008 (11.8%) and 2009 (11.2%), but his HR/9 figure fell from 1.31 to 0.98. Considering U.S. Cellular Field’s homer-happy tendencies (1.26 HR park factor from 2007-2009), getting a few more grounders can’t hurt.

For most of his major league career, Floyd struggled to retire lefty batters. In 2009, that wasn’t the case. Baseball-Reference keeps track of a stat called sOPS+, which compares a player’s performance in a given split to the league average. An sOPS+ of 100 is league average. A score below 100 for a pitcher means that he was better than the league average, while a score above 100 means he did worse than average. Here are Floyd’s sOPS+ figures vs. lefties since 2006:

2006: 155
2007: 132
2008: 111
2009: 74

While one year of platoon data shouldn’t be taken as definitive proof that Floyd has conquered southpaw batters, there’s other evidence to suggest the improvement is legitimate.

Floyd has shifted his pitch selection in recent years, progressively tossing fewer low-90’s fastballs in favor of more mid-80’s sliders and cutters:

Floyd’s fastball, slider and cutter percentage, by year:

2007: 62.1 fastball (FA) percentage, 7.6 slider (SL) percentage, 6.7 cutter (FC) percentage
2008: 54.9 FA%, 9.2 SL%, 9.4 FC%
2009: 41.5 FA%, 16.3 SL%, 12.7 FC%

Floyd’s fastball has been scorched for a career run value of -0.92 per 100 pitches, making his decision to throw fewer heaters a wise one. His slider and cutter are lumped together on his Pitch Type Values section. Floyd’s Pitch F/X graphs (like this one from a 9/16 start vs. Seattle) show that they’re two distinct pitches, though:

The run value of his slider and cutter combined is +0.58 during the course of his big league career.

With more whiffs, fewer walks and the patented “Cooper Cutter” in his arsenal, Floyd was one of the better starters in the A.L. in 2009. Floyd’s Expected Fielding Independent ERA dropped from 4.61 in ’08 to 3.82 this past season. That placed 8th among A.L. starters.

Gavin Floyd might not be an elite starter, but he’s pretty darned good. Don’t let the win total fool you: Floyd was better than ever in 2009.