Don’t Fear The Pumpkin
by Ken Arneson
2005-11-28 23:59

“We don’t get the guys who are perfect…There has to be something wrong with them for them to get to us.”
–Paul DePodesta, in Moneyball

“Give me a name for chance and I am a fool!”
–Rodolfo Tonetti, in The Gay Divorcee

Pumpkins

Esteban Loaiza signed with the A’s. What’s wrong with him?

Like some of Billy Beane’s other past pitching acquisitions, such as Mike Fetters, Mike Magnante, Mike Holtz, Mark Redman, Arthur Rhodes, and Jay Witasick before him, there is a clear and definite risk that Esteban Loaiza could turn into a pumpkin at any moment.

Loaiza had a great year in 2003. He had a very good year in 2005. Unfortunately, he turned into a pumpkin in 2004. And before 2003, he was pretty much an average to below-average pitcher.

This is what both frightens and fascinates me about this signing. Beane is taking an extremely interesting gamble. Fate is a foolish thing to take chances with. It could pay off brilliantly, or it could completely blow up in his face.

To see how, let’s start by looking at Loaiza’s stats from the last six seasons:

Year Team ERA DIPS K/9 K/BB GB/FB
2000 Tex/Tor 4.57 4.63 6.19 2.40 1.18
2001 Tor 5.02 4.52 5.21 2.75 1.36
2002 Tor 5.71 4.30 5.17 2.29 1.32
2003 ChW 2.90 3.20 8.23 3.70 1.44
2004 ChW/NYY 5.71 5.16 5.75 1.65 0.98
2005 Was 3.77 3.48 7.18 3.15 1.21

Of note:

  • When Loaiza strikes out 7+ batters per nine innings and has a strikeout/walk ratio over 3.0, he is one of the best pitchers in baseball. When he strikes out less than six per nine, or has a strikeout/walk ratio around 2.0 or less, he is a pumpkin risk.
     
  • In Toronto (mid-2000 to 2002), the Loaiza may have been hurt by throwing so many ground balls on Toronto’s fast artificial turf. His DIPS (defense-independent) ERAs were respectable, but his actual ERA was much higher.
     
  • 2003 was obviously a career year, but looking at DIPS, you can see a steady improvement in each year leading up to it.
     
  • With DIPS thrown in, his horrible 2004 season looks like as much of an outlier as his great 2003.
     

Loaiza induces a lot of ground balls. This plays perfectly into the Oakland’s excellent infield defense. Even if they got the mediocre Loaiza of 2000-2002, with DIPS ERAs hovering around 4.50, the A’s defense could turn that into an actual ERA under 4.00. Witness the A’s rotation in 2005:
 

Player DIPS ERA
Rich Harden 3.12 2.53
Dan Haren 3.95 3.73
Barry Zito 4.51 3.32
Joe Blanton 4.58 3.53
Kirk Saarloos 4.63 4.17

The only pitcher on the entire 2005 A’s pitching staff (starters and relievers) with a DIPS ERA higher than his actual ERA was Joe Kennedy (4.28 DIPS/4.45 ERA).

The other good thing about Loaiza is that he has rarely been hurt. Health is a useful skill. Although this could change, as Loaiza will turn 34 next month.

With all this information in hand, I can see three scenarios play out:

  • Best case: His bad 2004 was a true outlier, for whatever reason. Loaiza keeps his K/9, K/BB and GB/FB rates high, and with the A’s excellent defense vacuuming all those grounders up, and the A’s get one of the best pitchers in the AL for a great price.
     
  • Middle case: Loaiza will give the A’s a lot of decent-not-great innings at a reasonable price. Loaiza has already peaked, and will start a slow decline from an above-average pitcher at age 34 to a below-average pitcher at age 36. This decline will be somewhat masked by the A’s defense, making him look like an above-average pitcher, even if he’s not. If Beane is lucky, prices on starting pitchers will continue to rise, and he can take advantage of his defense’s masking effect, and flip Loaiza to some desperate soul during or after 2007.
     
  • Pumpkin case: 2004 was a sign of things to come. Loaiza can lose his touch at any moment, and suddenly will. Loaiza gives up line drives instead of grounders, and the A’s defense can’t help him. The A’s waste $21 million, or whatever fraction of his contract remains when the pumpkintransmogrification takes place.
     

Which result will the A’s get? Who knows? My first reaction was one of bewilderment, but I’m more at peace with the decision now than I was a few hours ago. Fate is the foolish thing. Take a chance!

The seasons don’t fear the pumpkin
Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain.
We can be like they are!
Come on baby…don’t fear the pumpkin.
Baby take my hand…don’t fear the pumpkin.
We’ll be able to fly…don’t fear the pumpkin.
Esteban’s your man…

Or something like that…

Comments: 3
1.   jkrometis
2005-11-29 08:00

1.  I fear that you're giving too little weight to Loaiza's home park this past year. RFK was one of the most run-suppressing parks in the majors last year. His home/road ERA split (2.86 vs. 4.71) was quite large, and not especially inspiring when compared to 2003 (3.32 vs. 2.46).

However, I think it's worth noting that, unlike with John Patterson, the split does not come from obviously park-induced sources (stats are per batter faced):

Home: .212 K, .051 BB, .038 2B/3B, .020 HR, .270 BIPA
Away: .161 K, .066 BB, .056 2B/3B, .019 HR, .334 BIPA

The decrease in doubles and triples could be park influenced, as could the balls in play figure (though such a large swing is also likely due to luck), but the biggest issues here are the K & BB numbers, and the difference is pretty drastic. So which Loaiza can the A's expect to get in the future?

Perhaps Beane's scouts can give him a better idea than we have, but with the information I have, I wouldn't feel too comfortable with him at $7M per year. Either way, I doubt he finishes the deal in Oakland. But maybe this is rotation insurance in preparation for shedding a starter in the near future. And we all know who that might be...

P.S. Are there two teams less likely to be bidding for the same player than the A's and Giants?

2.   Vishal
2005-11-29 13:13

2.  looking at loaiza's espn player card, it seems that some years he is a groundball pitcher, and some years he is not.

3.   jkrometis
2005-11-30 10:50

3.  Okay, maybe I'm just out of touch with the market: If Kyle Farnsworth is worth $17M over 3 years, then yeah, I'd take Loaiza for $21M!

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