Here’s a quick recap of the whirlwind last 12 months or so of Jeremy Guthrie’s life, and you tell me which of these items seems to jump out at you the most:
- 1) After five years with the Orioles, was traded to Colorado in February in a deal that initially didn’t seem to make sense for either side
- 2) Missed nearly a month of time after injuring himself in a bicycle accident in April
- 3) Pitched so badly for Colorado that even though their rotation was easily the worst in baseball, he still couldn’t keep his starting job and was sent to the bullpen in June
- 4) Was traded to Kansas City in July for the equally-as-disappointing Jonathan Sanchez
- 5) In two months for Kansas City, suddenly became a shockingly effective starter
- 6) Somehow turned that stretch into a three-year, $25 million contract to remain with the Royals through 2015
For me, it’s that last point that immediately stands out. Three years! For the age-34-to-36 seasons of Jeremy Guthrie! You might say that it’s another case of “Dayton Moore being Dayton Moore”, and you might be right, but with the way the market seems to be going in the world of inflated television money, that might just end up being the going rate for someone of Guthrie’s skill. That’s terrifying to accept, though it’s part of a conversation that is far larger than just Jeremy Guthrie.
Based on this deal, the Royals obviously seem to place a considerable value on Guthrie. Should fantasy owners? To understand that, we really need to know whether Guthrie is the unspectacular innings-eater we saw in Baltimore, the complete disaster we saw in Colorado, or the surprising success we saw in Kansas City.
Going back to his five seasons in Baltimore, Guthrie was an extremely consistent pitcher as an Oriole, other than an odd 2009 where he suddenly became unable to keep the ball out of the air. He pitched a ton of innings (983.1), he gave up too many homers (1.2/9), and he lost a lot of games on a terrible team (47-65), but generally managed to counteract a low strikeout rate (5.5/9) with a good enough walk rate (2.6/9) to be able to get by.
That combination of skills led to a pitcher who managed to outperform a mediocre FIP (4.74) with a somewhat better 4.12 ERA, largely thanks to an ability to keep hitters off-balance enough to routinely score a lower-than-average BABIP over enough innings that it started to seem like a real skill rather than a sample size fluctuation. Guthrie was routinely worth around two wins per year with the Orioles, and while there’s definitely utility there for a team needing to fill around 1,500 innings a year, there was little to excite fantasy players. After all, who wants a pitcher who doesn’t strike out enough hitters and has trouble winning games while being backed by a lousy team?
Guthrie went to Colorado, and it should have surprised no one that things fell apart. Putting a homer-prone pitcher in Coors Field, well, what could have gone wrong? Guthrie himself admitted that he had difficulty with his breaking pitches there – please ask small children to leave the room before you view his home/road splits with the Rockies – and the biking accident that injured his shoulder certainly didn’t help. He struck out fewer, walked more, and allowed an absurd 2.08/9 homer rate. Shockingly, it didn’t end well.
Guthrie’s time in Kansas City started just as poorly, allowing 26 baserunners and 14 earned runs over 16.1 innings in his first three starts, all losses, as his record fell to 3-12. But on August 8, he pitched eight scoreless innings in Chicago. The next time out, he pitched seven scoreless against Oakland, then allowed two runs (both unearned) in 7 2/3 innings against the White Sox. He got lit up against Boston, but picked right back up again for a string of solid starts, and so over his last 11 starts of the season – from August 8 on – he pitched 74.2 innings with a 2.17 ERA and a 44/14 K/BB ratio.
It was a shocking turnaround, and for once, we had a real, tangible reason for the improvement. From a September 1 Kansas City Star article on how pitching coach Dave Eiland improved Guthrie’s mechanics:
The change in glove position, combined with the turn, also allows Guthrie to get the ball out of his glove on time. In the old motion — hands together at the chest — the ball was coming out of the glove as Jeremy moved forward. That meant his body was too far out in front of his arm and the resulting release point kept the ball on a higher, more even plane.
Now Guthrie is taking the ball out earlier, the turn keeps him back longer, the arm has a chance to get on top and ball is delivered in a sharper downward plane. If the only thing a hitter sees is the top of the ball, he’s got a better chance of hitting it on the ground.
Whether it was because of the changes Eiland made or simply getting out of Colorado, the new Guthrie went from “avoid at all costs” to “potential low-end option”, and as we can see from the contract, his career has suddenly been resuscitated. That’s wonderful for Guthrie, but I’m still not sure it’s enough for most fantasy leagues.
Looking at just his time with the Royals, which is cherry-picking to view him in the best possible light, Guthrie’s K/9 skyrocketed above his career mark of 5.4 all the way to… 5.5. His line drive percentage declined from what it was in Colorado, but was still higher than it had been every year in Baltimore, and his groundball rate actually decreased slightly. The main improvement was in a BB% that was lower than it had ever been, but despite the more positive results he showed with the Royals, he seems to be a fundamentally similar player to what he’d always been.
So what you’re left with here is a pitcher who still doesn’t strike out enough to be fantasy relevant, loses more games than he wins, is on his third team in less than a calendar year, and will be headed into his age-34 season in 2012. All that, and he’s on a Kansas City club which hasn’t lost fewer than 87 games in a decade and is unlikely to help push him to more wins like a stronger team might.
In the real world, every team could use a starter like Guthrie at the back of their rotation to soak up some more-or-less league-average innings. In fantasy, it’s difficult to see the appeal outside of the deepest AL-only leagues.