TigsTown Analysis: The Washburn Deal

The Tigers traded a pair of young left-handers in exchange for free agent-to-be Jarrod Washburn, who just happens to have the third best ERA in the AL. What did the Tigers get in Washburn, and what did they give up in Luke French and Mauricio Robles? Get the analysis inside!

It's hard to argue with Jarrod Washburn's productivity so far this season: 8-6, 2.64 ERA, 79 K's, 33 BB's, and 1.07 WHIP.

But the 34-year old southpaw has a career ERA right around four, a K:BB ratio under two, and his banner season came all the way back in 2002 when he went 18-6 with a 3.15 ERA with Anaheim. So, what's the deal?

Well, it's a number of factors, and the implementation of his mechanics adjustments and new split-finger that he began working on last year are only a part of it.

There's no question that regardless of luck and fielding, Washburn is having a better season than what he's put together in past years. Over the previous five years, Washburn's FIP (fielding independent pitching, like ERA) has been between 4.3 and 4.9. Thus far for 2009, he's been sitting at 3.86. So even with great defense and a pitcher-friendly park, he's been pitching some of his best baseball in recent years.

Washburn's fly ball/line drive/groundball ratio has remained relatively constant – he's been within a couple percentage points of each with his career norms so far this season. But what has been going better for him is his home run rate – he's typically averaged a little over a home run per game (1.1 for his career), but in 2009 so far, it's been just 0.8.

A splitter would logically induce more groundballs, but that hasn't happened – his home run numbers are down, and his home run percentage on fly balls have dropped significantly. He's only giving up a homer on 7% of fly balls, as opposed to his five year average somewhere between 9.4% and 11.7%. Given that there's nothing statistically out there to indicate a notable reason why his home run numbers would drop, it's more likely that it's due to luck and other factors beyond how Washburn has been pitching.

His monthly splits have remained strong though, with him having an outstanding July, going 4-1 with a 1.44 ERA. So, if he's peaking now, the Tigers have snagged him at an optimal time.

What does all this mean?

It means the Tigers got a solid pitcher who has been having a career year, due to some better pitching and some luck. He's not the third best pitcher in the American League like his ERA currently indicates, but there's no reason to believe he won't be a very good number three starter for the Tigers over the final two months. Comerica Park has consistently played big and is tough on right-handed hitters, and the Tigers defense is at least solid (though not as good as the M's), so Washburn should continue to have success through 2009.

What about what the Tigers gave up?

Tigers' fans have gotten an opportunity to see what Luke French can do, and there's no question that French can compete at the big league level. At what level of play though remains to be seen.

Up until this spring, French was realistically viewed as more of a swingman or someone that could become a lefty specialist than someone that could become an every fifth day starter. But as TigsTown first reported to you in March and April, French looked like a sharper pitcher in the spring, and the numbers showed that.

French entered the season with a career minor league ERA right at 4.00, but excelled despite the step up in levels and competition. French emerged as Toledo's top starter, and posted a 2.98 ERA in 13 starts for the Hens before his call-up. His FIP was just 3.30, so he clearly wasn't just lucking into a great first half either – French's improvements on the mound (a fastball sitting at 90 rather than 87 and a tighter slider) turned into increase performance.

French still isn't expected to be a star at the big league level – his major league equivalent FIP is 4.27, likely leading him to be more of a back of the rotation innings eater than a star.

But the key to the deal is likely Mauricio Robles.

The diminutive 20-year old left-hander was identified earlier on this summer as a pitcher the Tigers liked . . . but one they'd be willing to part with if necessary to swing a deal. At least, they'd be willing to part with him more so than giving up Casey Crosby, the star southpaw in West Michigan who has the frame (6' 5") and the velocity (sits at 94-95 MPH) to project to be a top starter.

Robles, to his credit, is also a lefty and has the velocity, but doesn't have the frame as he stands only 5' 10. There's nothing in the rule book that says you can't be 5' 10" and be an outstanding starter . . . there just isn't much precedent for it happening. Currently, there are only seven lefties 5' 10" and under on a big league roster – Danny Herrera, Mike Hampton, Randy Wolf, Pedro Feliciano, Arturo Lopez, Brian Shouse, and Davis Romero. Nearly half of the big league rosters don't have a single pitcher under 6' 0".

Robles' numbers are obviously strong – a career 3.38 ERA and 294 strikeouts in 268 2/3 innings playing at levels that were advanced for his age, so he's no slouch. Robles was ranked 12th in the organization by TigsTown in the most recent rankings release, so while he was a very good prospect, in a system that is markedly devoid of high end prospects right now, he's not even the best of a group of B-level prospects.

If Robles bucks the trend, and becomes an excellent starting pitcher, which he has the potential to be, then the Mariners end up winning out in this deal.

On the upside for the Tigers, assuming they offer Washburn arbitration this offseason but aren't able to resign him, they'll likely be able to replace Robles with a compensation sandwich pick that they'll gain by losing Washburn, in other words making the trade a two month rental of Washburn in exchange for French.

If Washburn ends up becoming a key part of the Tigers' pennant chase, French is likely a pitcher well sacrificed to take the gamble and make the run. Whether or not the rest of the team can keep up in the playoff race is another matter.

But for now, it seems like the Tigers have made a sound move in adding Washburn in their run for the AL Central in 2009.

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