Sunday, February 20, 2005

An Esteban against the current . . .

. . . born back ceaselessly into the past.

Loiaza will run faster, stretch out his arm further . . . and one fine morning---

In Barry Svrluga's Post article today, Loaiza sounds more than a bit like Jay Gatsby, reliving a fine fling with greatness in 2003, only to lament that it came at the wrong time---much like Gatsby's fling with Daisy Buchanan.

According to Svrluga, that ol' Sport:

Six men stood Saturday morning behind a pitcher's mound in a distant part of the Washington Nationals' training complex here, a half dozen sets of eyes fixated on a single arm [, including] Jim Bowden, the general manager, [who] peered out from behind his sunglasses.

Before I begin, I just have to note the perfect image Svrluga paints of Bowden; the ego practically seaps out of the words.

It makes sense that there will be scrutiny of Loaiza this spring, because perhaps no one on the Nationals' staff is capable of producing such disparate results. Only once in a 10-year major league career has he won more than 11 games, but that one time gives the Nationals' hope, because it was a 21-win season just two years ago. Only once has he struck out more than 137 batters in a season, but that one time came during 2003 as well, when he led the American League with 207.

I ran that paragraph through on
Babel Fish, from English to Chinese-traditional to English to Italian to French to Portugese to English to Dutch to English to Korean and back to English and got the following translation:


Now, Loaiza, competitor that he is, will attempt to rationalize his less-than-stellar 2004:

"Being traded to the Yankees, it was probably just a little bit too much for me," he said. "Probably, I have too much concentration. Instead of me throwing the ball, I was really concentrating more."

And, Nationals management, having been the only guys---as Svrluga notes---to give Loiaza a "firm offer" (ugh---gives me bad memories of the Uniform Commercial Code), will aid and abet Loiaza in his attempts to explain last year's suckcosity:

"It's a lot of pressure in New York, and with the Yankees," Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said. "Sometimes, that just affects a person and they put too much pressure on themselves individually. They just can't perform naturally. I think the new surroundings, you're not going to see as much pressure" on him.

Well, maybe.

But let's not obfuscate, shall we? No matter how quickly Loaiza and others will attempt to revise history a little bit, his problems most assuredly did not begin with the trade to the Yankees; to be honest, he wasn't so hot for about two months prior to the trade. (Loiaza's 2004 month-by-month stats are on
this page, which breaks out many more of his stats splits.)

Later in the article, Loiaza notes that he is now a two-time all-star. This is true; he was also an all-star last year. However, the all-star berth was almost entirely a product of his reputation having caught up to his excellent 2003---and obscuring a 4.77 ERA.

Essentially, he rode a fine-but-nothing-special April (3.71 ERA---seven taterific homers in 34 IP; he did have a two-hit shutout) to a 4-0 start that reinforced the perception that maybe he had emerged into a top pitcher.

He was a little unlucky in May (2-3, 3.68 ERA; better peripheral stats) but sealed his all-star credentials in June, going 2-0 to up his record to 8-3---despite a 5.35 ERA for the month. Things got even worse in July.

He entered the all-star break at 8-4, 4.77 ERA. He was only nominally an all-star.

And this was all before the trade to the Yankees.

In all, amazingly, the last time he started a game and made it past the fourth inning with fewer than four runs allowed was June 17.

So, just so we are clear, one cannot ascribe all---or even most---of his troubles in 2004 to Ed Whitson Disease. It wasn't the trade to New York that did him in.

Alright. All of that is in the past now. Looking forward, what can we expect from Loaiza. Bowden, for one, doesn't have the first damned clue:

"You just don't know what you're going to get," Bowden said. "Is he capable? Absolutely. He's done it before. Will he do it for us? We don't know."

Bowden, of course, is the guy who signed Loiaza.

In one of my first posts here, I made a "tentative" assessment of the Loaiza signing, concluding that "I don't hate it" and "[i]t's not a bad move, . . . not one of Bowden's worst so far."

I made two points, essentially:

1. Loiaza might not be a top pitcher, but does anyone really "fluke" a 21-win season with a 154 ERA+? (That is to say, if he's had that good a season, how bad can he really be? Would 2004 actually be more of a fluke?)

2. It's a one-year deal, and if Loiaza pitched pretty well (or was well-supported), he could be flipped for something useful at the deadline. (Or he could be turned into a draft pick if we offered him arbitration after the season.)

Let's focus on the first point; I'll use the Bill James method and find a good comp for Loaiza. His "most similar pitchers" list is found here, but I thought I'd throw out a pretty good one-season comp: John Denny.

---At age 30 (a few months from 31), Denny won 19 games (and a Cy Young Award) with a 150 ERA+.
---At age 31, Loaiza won 21 games (and almost a Cy Young Award) with a 154 ERA+.

Prior to those seasons, Denny and Loaiza were of at least roughly similar quality. Denny had a tremendous age-23 season (140 ERA+), a previous excellent season Loaiza had never experienced, but otherwise they both sort of hung around with seasons of varying effectiveness between the 90s and the 110s of ERA+. (Denny, in the context of a late 1970s/early 1980s run scoring environment, had every bit as many stinker ERA+ seasons as Loaiza had. Denny, of course, struggled with injuries on and off his career, as explored in this article.)

Denny started 1984 (the season after) with remarkably similar pitching (148 ERA+), aside from the won-lost record, but was done in by a radial nerve injury after about 150 innings. He posted two more seasons of slightly-less-than league-average pitching and then hung up the jock. Loiaza posted the aforementioned stinker season of 2004 and is now looking forward, like Gatsby, of reclaiming past joy.

The comparisons between Denny and Loiza shouldn't go too far. Loaiza has been generally a healthy pitcher since sticking in the majors almost a decade ago; Denny, by comparison, fought an assortment of injuries throughout his career. (The fact that starters went deeper into games back then obscures this difference somewhat.) Furthermore, their pitching styles aren't not really comparable. Loaiza is a right; Denny was a lefty. Loaiza---in theory at least---employs a power-pitcher approach; Denny was perhaps best known for a slow, looping curve. And so forth.

The most similar pitcher to Loaiza by age is Rick Helling, who held considerable stature about five years ago, when he won 49 games (including a 20-win 1998) in a three-year span for the Rangers. Helling is, of course, a pretty comparable to Loaiza on a career basis, but Helling has enjoyed no season even approaching Loaiza's 2003.

Nor has Loaiza's all-time best comp, Mark Gardner, who strung together an amazingly consistent string of 90-100 ERA+ seasons in his thirties. Nor has Loaiza's third-best comp, Jon Leiber, who's also had a 20-win season but hasn't made it out of the 110s in ERA+ in a season. Nor has . . . ah hell, none of Loaiza's comps have ever had a full-season like E-Lo's 2003 season, and only a couple (John Burkett, Steve Avery) have come close.

It's a truly bizarre year, almost inexplicable.

And so, maybe we can forgive Loiaza for setting up shop, so to speak, within sight of Daisy Buchanan's house---where he can remember his orgiastic 2003 season, where he can plot for his grand return,

Of course, Gatsby ended up dead; as Nats fans, let's sure hope that Loiaza (so to speak) doesn't, too.

I'm not as down on Loaiza as everybody else seems to be, and I'll tell you why -- Randy St. Claire seems to be one hell of a pitching coach. I mean, look at LIVAN! (I think I got the punctuation and emphasis right, there...).

Is Loaiza going to be the pitcher he was in '03? Probably not. But I suspect that with a good pitching coach and a carefully monitored workload, he's good for 180 innings or so of 120 ERA+ -- that ain't nothin'.
I'd take 180 IP (or on pace for it at the deadline) with a 120 ERA+, that's for sure; it would net us a nice prospect.

There was a Baseball Primer discussion on the general subject I examined regarding Loiaza: great fluke seasons. I read it and realized that I totally forgot about Allan Anderson, of the late-80s Twins, who had a 167 or something ERA+ in 1988 (with a 2.45 ERA; barely edged Ted Higuera for the league lead) and otherwise never topped something like 110 in ERA+.
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