Cardinals news from a Sabermetric point of view

Taking a realistic view of McClellan’s spring performance

Erstwhile reliever Kyle McClellan is looking more and more like he’ll win the fifth spot in the Cardinal rotation. He has put up increasingly attractive numbers in his three spring starts and as of March 15 had compiled nine strikeouts against only three walks spanning 12 innings of work.

Despite some in the local media who mistake spring-training statistics for the real thing, spring numbers are, for one thing, a measly-sized sample when it comes to projecting regular-season performance. One look no further than the 2010 spring line from Adam Wainwright, the man whose injury is allowing McClellan to audition for starter: 6.14 ERA and a 1.59 WHIP. Then Wainwright proceeded to go out and finish second in the Cy Young voting. Of course, it works the other way, too: Last spring, Kyle Lohse (whom we might add is having another excellent spring) boasted a decent 3.81 ERA in 13 innings but in the regular season turned in a ghastly 6.55 ERA over 18 starts.We’ll let the reader decide whether Lohse’s 2011 campaign will look more like his career ERA of 4.79 or his 2011 spring ERA of 1.38.

So before you look at McClellan’s stellar spring stats and think how great it would be to have a fifth starter with a 0.75 ERA (consider that McClellan isn’t exactly facing full-scale major-league lineups, either), rein in your expectations using some bigger samples. For instance, we might first consider McClellan’s career performance to-date: A nifty 3.23 ERA, 7.2 K/9 and 2.61 K/BB. But that has all come in relief. You can expect his ERA to increase as a starter. But by how much?

To get an idea, let’s look at Cardinal pitchers who have already done what McClellan is trying to do. Since 2000, the team has had five pitchers relieve and start at least 30 games each: Matt Morris, Adam Wainwright, Braden Looper, Brad Thompson and Jason Simontacchi.

Pitcher As RP As SP Diff
Morris 3.57 3.99 0.42
Wainwright 3.39 2.93 -0.46
Looper 3.58 4.75 1.17
Thompson 4.08 5.01 0.93
Simontacchi 4.31 5.23 0.92
average 3.79 4.38 0.60

In all cases but one — Wainwright — the pitcher posted a better ERA in relief. This is not news, of course. But if we use the best-case scenario, worst-case an average-case scenarios applied to McClellan, we see some reasonable numbers.

McClellan As RP As SP
Best-case 3.23 2.77
Worst-case 3.23 4.40
Average-case 3.23 3.83

McClellan is a talented pitcher, and we applaud his efforts at transcending roles (always to be commended, whether it’s Braden Looper or Skip Schumaker), but we can safely assume that he’s not the pitcher that Adam Wainwright is. So we’re left with something between that worst-case and average case. And, if we’re betting on the optimistic end, it looks pretty good. In fact, a 3.83 ERA from K-Mac would catapult him into the No-4 starter slot or even better, since Lohse, his spring numbers notwithstanding, projects at anywhere between 4.54 and 4.81, and Jake Westbrook isn’t likely to crack a 4.00 ERA.

McClellan still has at least three more spring starts, which is as many as he has had so far. We of course hope he continues his spring success. Fans (and media) would be wise to temper their expectations based on March numbers and what we know about the reality of pitchers performing as starters. McClellan does appear to be successful starting in the regular season, just not as successful as his spring.

3 Responses to “Taking a realistic view of McClellan’s spring performance”

  1. MuleRider342 Says:

    I like the premise for this analysis but it’s a bit ham-handed to be very useful in providing any sort of guide to how K-Mac will do THIS year. On the surface, it seems that it would be better in determining how he would do as a starter for the REST of his career, not in 2011, because isn’t that how the other guys are measured? Jumping out at me was Matt Morris’ 3.99 career starter ERA, which we know was bloated by a very uninspiring tailspin after a brilliant start to his career. When he was close to K-Mac’s age and starting, he was actually putting up very good numbers. The argument with the other guys is harder to make because their careers as starting pitchers was much more brief than Morris’ or Wainwright’s, and I’d argue that K-Mac is much closer in talent to those two than Looper, Simontacchi, or Thompson. In conclusion, your analysis should have focused more on the “early” starts from those guys – i.e. first season or two they were used more as a starter – rather than the entire rest of their career. It picks up too much what I’d call “baggage” of poor performance as mediocre talents were winding down their career rather than looking at them in “peak form,” which is where K-Mac should be right now.

  2. Weekend Round Up – 3/20/2011 | Fire Brand of the American League Says:

    [...] over at Fungoes tries to take a realistic approach to evaluating Kyle McClellan’s spring [...]

  3. Fantasy: Kyle McClellan | The Mennella Line Says:

    [...] by including 20 starts among his 35 appearances, pegs the righty’s 2011 FIP at 3.80, and the Fungoes blog, using recent Cards pitchers who have made the transition as a guidepost, arrived at a similar [...]

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