It’s easy to be dismissive of the Chicago Cubs’ latest free agent signing, righty Scott Feldman.
His career ERA is just 4.81. Career WHIP is just 1.417. He’s coming off a 5.09/1.383 season in which his ERA+ was 89. That’s in the reasonable range of a back-end rotation spot, but it’s hardly anything to be excited about.
But when you dig into his advanced stats, there’s a lot more to like. About that 2012 season: his BABIP was an unusually (for him) high .318, his left-on-base percentage was an extremely low 61%, and his groundball percentage was a lower-than-usual 42.2% – all signs of some bad luck. Factor in the fact that he struck out 7 per 9 innings, while walking just 2.33, and he’s looking a lot better. Indeed, when you factor all of that in, it’s pretty easy to see why his Fielding Independent Pitching (a stat that takes into account *only* those outcomes completely within the pitcher’s control, stripping out what happens behind him) was just 3.81 last year – which would have been 36th best in all of baseball if he’d had enough innings to qualify*. That’s better than guys like Edwin Jackson, Hiroki Kuroda, Rick Porcello, Yovanni Gallardo, Paul Maholm, Matt Harrison, Ian Kennedy … I could go on, but you’re getting the idea.
By some metrics, Feldman was one of the better – albeit extremely unlucky – pitchers in baseball last year.
(*Yeah, the innings thing can’t totally be ignored here. Feldman started just 21 games last year, and made another eight appearances in relief. You can understand, then, why his innings were limited, but it raises the dreaded “small sample size” specter. Full disclosure: his career FIP is 4.56, which is no better than a touch below average.)
For that reason, it’s easy to see why Feldman became something of a sabermetric favorite of Dave Cameron’s over at FanGraphs. Today, when the Cubs announced the signing, which was for just one year and $6 million (plus up to $1 million in incentives), Cameron was borderline effusive in his praise of the Cubs for picking up a guy he says might be one of the best buys on the market:
Feldman might not have the reputation of a quality starter yet, but he’s shown the skills necessary to become a perfectly acceptable middle-of-the-rotation innings eater. Last year, he ran a 3/1 K/BB ratio while maintaining an average ground ball rate, putting him in the same xFIP range as guys like Kyle Lohse, Ryan Dempster, Edwin Jackson, and Dan Haren,. He doesn’t have the same track record of success as those guys, but he’s also going to cost a fraction of the price, and offers the same low BB/average K/average GB skillset ….
Feldman isn’t likely to turn into any kind of ace, but he’s a good bet to give the Cubs 180 solid innings of work, and at $6 million with no long term commitment, this is a nifty little move for the Cubs. Don’t be too surprised if they’re announcing another contract with him at some point in 2013, rewarding him for his breakout season and keeping him on the north side beyond just this one season.
Keeping Feldman (or Scott Baker) beyond 2013 is, of course, a possibility – maybe Feldman breaks out, and maybe he loves it in Chicago – but I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say that is in the Cubs’ plans at this point. Instead, they are trying simply to obtain relatively cheap, relatively solid upside pieces on short-term deals, which provides them with a variety of options: keep the player, trade the player, trade another superfluous player, etc.
Given the upside in Feldman, and the low cost, it’s arguable that signing him is preferable even to signing someone with a better (though more injury-marred track record) track record, but who will cost quite a bit more. Like, say, Brandon McCarthy. And, what do you know, earlier this offseason, Cameron wrote at length about that very comparison in a piece calling Feldman the “Poor Man’s Brandon McCarthy.” A relevant selection (though the whole thing is worth a read):
A better walk rate with the same strikeout and same groundball rate makes McCarthy a better pitcher, but we also have to keep each pitcher’s environment in mind. McCarthy spent the last two years in pitcher-friendly Oakland, knowing that he could get away with catching too much of the plate and the park might bail him out. Feldman, on the other hand, had to deal with the heat and humidity in Texas, where the ball absolutely flies in the summer months.
Oakland also has the vast expanse of foul territory, which leads to more in-play outs on pop-ups, which can be a significant benefit to a pitcher. So, while Feldman didn’t live in the zone as often as McCarthy, their approaches might have been different had they switched home parks ….
McCarthy posted a 5.6% HR/FB rate in Oakland, while Feldman ran a 13.4% HR/FB rate in Texas. On the road, it was 8.4% for McCarthy and 8.5% for Feldman. You don’t want to assume that a player’s road performance is his true park neutral level, but it’s worth noting that park factors are probably a pretty big deal in this comparison.
McCarthy, himself, even tossed in his two cents to the comparison, noting that the two of them worked together on changing their approach while together in Texas. McCarthy said that it was he would doing an impression of Feldman, and not the other way around. That’s pretty high praise for a guy whose $6 million deal with the Cubs is just a fraction of what McCarthy is going to get.
Even after signing Feldman, I remain of the mind that McCarthy is an attractive target. Because of the short-term nature of Baker’s and Feldman’s deals, and because of Baker’s Tommy John recovery, it’s easy to see the Cubs going after another pitcher. Given that Feldman and McCarthy have a positive history together in Texas, is it really such a leap to say that signing Feldman actually makes the Cubs incrementally more likely to sign McCarthy, rather than less likely?
I don’t know whether I’d actually make that claim, but I’m perfectly comfortable saying two things: (1) I like the Feldman signing for a number of reasons, and (2) I don’t think the signing precludes the Cubs from pursuing another starting pitcher.
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