With the 2011 season firmly behind, it’s easy to look at Philadelphia’s Four Aces mantra as hubris, especially in light of their surprising exit in the NLDS. And yet, three of the aces held up their end of the bargain. The title was only rendered false by Roy Oswalt turning in a career worst season as the fourth expected ace. While his comparatively poor year didn’t do much to inhibit the Phillies in terms of regular season success, he is something of a question mark in 2012. It must be said, however, that it bodes well for a team’s continued success when one of their bigger unknowns is whether their fourth starter, who was still slightly above league average despite a down year, will return to the team.
When he first came to the Phillies in the midst of the 2010 season, Oswalt looked every bit the ace he was in Houston. He was extremely stingy with base runners and struck out 73 hitters in just 12 starts. In 2011, he struck out just 20 more hitters in almost twice the starts as part of a decline in nearly every fantasy stat. He posted his highest WHIP ever and his highest ERA since 2009 — symptoms of a lot of balls finding holes at rather untimely moments. This could be due to a decrease in fastball velocity, something Michael Barr explored earlier this month.
His BABIP was 20 points above his career average despite a LD% below his typical level. He produced a high number of fly balls — both infield and outfield flies — yet allowed a career high OPS and a near career high slugging despite a HR/FB below his career rate. He wasn’t giving up lasers all over the park or suffering greatly from his home park’s dimensions, yet it seems that balls continually found gaps in the outfield, which makes his overall line look worse than it ought to have been. He’s a pitcher who has outpitched his xFIP for most of his career, so this year was nothing unusual in that sense.
While his back is no longer bothersome to the point that he is thinking about retiring, it is a concern. The injury has flared up a few times in the last few seasons, costing him over two months of time in 2011. The Phillies’ training staff is certainly aware of the injury and are almost certainly working to mitigate it, but we’re reaching the point where their job may be more palliative and less preventative. The hope going forward may well be that Oswalt’s time on the DL will be short, rather than that he’ll be able to make all his starts. He still made 23 starts this season, so it’s not like his injury renders him devoid of value, but it does have to be part of the keeper math.
Without a doubt, part of the overwhelming disappointment with Oswalt was his acquisition price. His ESPN ADP was 71, well ahead of Matt Cain, Yovani Gallardo, Matt Garza, and more than 100 picks ahead of Madison Bumgarner. He didn’t match either his 2010 numbers or the hype surrounding the Phillies’ rotation, and that will reflect poorly on him, perhaps unduly so, when it comes to both keeper decisions and to draft day 2012.
That gap between expected value and produced value is part of what makes him a tough keeper call. I fully expect him to be better next year than he was this year, but I don’t think he’ll be worth the slot he was picked at for the 2011 season. If you have any sort of dilemma about whether he’s worth using a keeper spot on him, I’d put him back in the pot, then hope to get him at a reduced rate or slot. Just because you’re putting him back into the mix doesn’t mean you can’t target him as a solid SP option for the back end of your rotation. If someone else is willing to take him in the 70s again, more power to them, but pitching is so deep right now, I don’t see him being worth drafting that high or keeping.
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