March 01, 2005

Jon, Paul get back to where they belong

As the smoke clears from a helter skelter offseason, baseball connoisseurs are singing the praises for the signings of Philadelphia's Jon Lieber, left, and Anaheim's Paul Byrd. Both pitchers returned to action last summer after Tommy John surgery, and should be tremendous bargains for their new teams.

Lieber and Byrd aren't household names, and among fantasy baseball aficionados, project as mid-to-late rounders based on low strikeout totals.

But in the real world of baseball, they could be the most valuable assets to their respective rotations, offering consistency and plenty of deep starts, all for a pretty good price.

Skeptics should realize Tommy John surgery is just another part of a pitcher's career these days, many recipients return feeling better than ever, like the Cub's Kerry Wood.

"I hit my top speed (in pitch velocity) after the surgery," Wood said to USA Today in a 2003 article, "I'm throwing harder, consistently."

All signs point to Lieber and Byrd, a former Phillie and all-star, returning to full strength. Lieber was out for the entire 2003 season with the injury. Before that, the former Cub was just hitting his stride, winning 20 games and posting a 3.80 ERA in 2001 before his elbow gave out halfway through 2002. Byrd pitched in 33 games with Kansas City on 2002, signed with Atlanta, but didn't pitch again until June of 2004.

Sabermetric stat houses like Baseball Prospectus agree that Lieber should be in the clear, finding no conclusive trends that project declining production after Tommy John. So why did the Yankees let Lieber go?

"In retrospect we probably should have picked up the option (on Lieber)," Yankee GM Brian Cashman said recently. "But who knew the market was going to explode the way it did?"

Yankee GM Brian Cashman toyed with a number of overpriced free agents for weeks after Lieber signed with the Phillies, including Eric Milton, who opted for Cincinnati. Cashman would later fill the back of their rotation with 29-year-old Braves free agent Jaret Wright.

Wright was as bad as any pitcher in baseball during the 2002 and 2003 seasons. Last year's performance (15-8, 3.28, 159 SO) is seen by many experts as a stroke of luck and a risky signing by the Yanks.

So how did Lieber slip through the cracks? Simply put, Lieber isn't as flashy as most fans would prefer, and his injury problem became overblown. Several GMs were later quoted as saying Lieber was among the sharpest signings of the offseason.

"In implying that Lieber was not their preferred pitcher because he doesn't miss bats, the Yankees missed the forest for the trees," Baseball Prospectus said in their annual. "Lieber allowed a ton of hits ... but because he was affective against righties and walks no one, he was better than average at baserunners allowed."

You can’t say enough about Lieber’s control and ability to keep men off base. According to Bill James, Lieber was second in the AL in getting pitches into the strike-zone at 59.8 percent. James also calculated that his 1.58 groundball to flyball ratio was one of the ten best in the AL in 2004. For Reading Eagle readers just checking in, click here for writer Mike Berquist's take on his Phllies blog.

Like the Braves school of pitching? I do. Lieber is Leo Mazzone's dream: deadly accurate, speeds up and slows down his strikes, and at Citizen's Bank Park, will bury the legacy of the lucky, fly-ball inducing Milton.

The Braves were patient with Byrd during his own recovery from reconstructive elbow surgery, and inserted him back in the rotation in June. He went 8-7 with a 3.94 ERA.

Like Lieber, Byrd is an inning-eater with great command, posted a K/BB ratio better than 4.0 in 19 starts last season, and says his velocity is even better than before the surgery.

With Anaheim, potentially the most explosive offense in the American League, I don't see any reason Byrd can't win 15 games or more.

Contract comparisons:
Milton: 3-year, $25.5 million
Wright: 3-year, $21 million
Lieber: 3-year, $21 million
Byrd: 1-year, $4.5 million


At 3:49 PM, Blogger el123chico said...

now that's a solid statistical analysis. byrd should easily win 15 games in anaheim this year, then the yankees will overspend to get him next year and he'll go back in the tank. jaret wright got lucky last year with the braves (what pitcher doesn't?) and will flounder in new york.


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