The 2008 Toronto Blue Jays just might have been the strongest fourth-place team in major league history. Toiling in the brutally competitive AL East, Toronto compiled a +104 run differential due to the club’s outstanding run prevention. While strong defense deserves some of the credit (the Jays ranked 3rd in the majors in Defensive Efficiency), the Blue Jays starters were plenty effective, compiling a league-best 3.72 ERA as a staff. However, that group will look drastically different in 2009, with Shaun Marcum falling victim to Tommy John Surgery, Dustin McGowan recovering from a shoulder operation and A.J. Burnett likely headed greener pastures courtesy of a lavish free agent payday.
One of the guys who will be back (along with that Halladay fellow) is right-hander Jesse Litsch. A 24th-round draft pick out of South Florida Community College in 2004, Litsch quickly ascended to the majors following a minor league career that showcased polish, if not power (3.41 ERA, 7.71 K/9, 1.58 BB/9).
Reaching Toronto at the age of 22 in 2007, Litsch made 20 starts for the Jays. In 111 innings pitched, Litsch posted a 3.81 ERA. However, that number overstated his performance. Litsch’s Fielding Independent ERA (FIP ERA) was a more tame 5.14. He displayed relatively good command (2.92 BB/9) and kept the ball on the ground (48.1 GB%), but Litsch just didn’t miss any bats, with only 4.05 K/9. That strikeout rate was the 11th-lowest among starters throwing at least 100 innings. A quick look at the other names near the bottom of the whiff list (including Steve Trachsel and Livan Hernandez) shows that it doesn’t pay to garner so few swings and misses.
In 2008, Litsch would once again outperform his peripherals, compiling a 3.58 ERA in 176 innings. The 6-1, 175 pounder benefitted from a combination of good luck and stellar defensive play behind him, posting a below-average .285 BABIP. While Litsch was fortunate to post such a low ERA, his rates did improve. His abhorrent strikeout rate crept up to 5.06 per nine innings (still quite low, but it’s something) and he issued just 1.99 BB/9. With the slightly improved K rate, sharp command and more work for his infield D (48.5 GB%), Litsch’s FIP ERA was a legitimately useful 4.29.
What makes Litsch so interesting is his “kitchen sink” approach to pitching. You name a pitch, and odds are, he throws it. Litsch used a traditional fastball less than any other pitcher in baseball this past season, save for knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. Litsch’s 89.9 MPH heater was utilized just 23.9% of the time, and that was actually up from his 18.9% fastball usage in 2007. His bread-and-butter offering is an 86 MPH cutter, used 43.4% of the time. Litsch also feeds batters a steady serving of 82 MPH sliders (11.4%), 77 MPH curves (11.9%) and 81 MPH changeups (9.4%). None of those pitches are dominating, but facing a pitcher with such a diversified repertoire has to be challenging.
Batters appeared to find Litsch’s stuff a little harder to hit in 2008. His Outside Swing Percentage (O-Swing%) climbed from a below-average 19.6% in ’07 to 25.5% in 2008. That bodes well for his long-term prospects. As Eric Seidman discovered, there is a statistically significant relationship between O-Swing% and BB/9, WHIP, ERA, and FIP ERA.
Both the Bill James and Marcel projection systems see some regression coming to Litsch’s ERA in 2009, with James predicting a 4.06 mark and Marcel forecasting a 3.87 showing. Both systems have Litsch’s projected FIP ERA at 4.43.
Jesse Litsch will never be a dominant starter, as his low strikeout rate will often keep him at the caprices of the defense behind him. Luckily, the leather behind Litsch is solid right now. That, coupled with groundball tendencies and strong control, should be enough for the 24 year-old to post another season worthy of fantasy consideration.