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The Older But Loaiza Hurler for Me
2003-08-08 01:19
by Mike Carminati

Esteban Loaiza won his fourteenth game the other day, projects to 20 wins on the season, leads the AL with a 2.30 ERA, and started the All-Star game for the AL. If the season were to end today Loaiza would probably win the AL Cy Young.

Roy Halladay would get strong consideration give that he has won 16 (and projects to 23 wins), but his 3.40 ERA is just ninth in the AL. Loaiza is also pitching for the white-hot White Sox and will probably get a goodly amount of exposure as the Sox battle for the AL Central crown. Meanwhile, even with his 15-game winning streak, Halladay's Jays are mired in mediocrity. Baseball Prospectus calls him the luckiest pitcher in baseball (based on the difference between his expected and actual wins and losses) though they also list him as the ninth most valuable starter in baseball. That seems fair: Halladay is a great pitcher having a tremendous year won-lost-wise aided by some good fortune.

Whether Loaiza wins the Cy Young or not, he has been a tremendous story this year. Last year at this time, he was 4-6 with a 5.36 ERA en route to a 9-10, 5.71 season as a teammate of Halladay's, in Toronto. He was playing out a string after signing a two-year, $10.3 M contract with the Blue Jays in 2001. Toronto had acquired the mercurial righty from the Rangers in the middle of 2000, and he finally looked like he was ready to fulfill his potential going just 5-7 in 14 games but with a 3.62 ERA that was 37% better than the league average. The Blue Jays thought so highly of Loaiza that they let him pitch the opener against his former teammates, the Rangers, in San Juan, which he won 8-1 with nine strikeouts in seven innings.

However, Loaiza was back to his old ways in Toronto. In 1995, he worked his way into the Pirates rotation, and had what looked like a break-out year in 1997 with 11 wins and a 4.13 ERA (4 percent better than the league average). He anchored a young Pittsburgh staff that featured Jason Schmidt, John Lieber, Francisco Cordova, and Steve Cooke, all 27 years old or younger. Oddly, the Pirates never had much success with the unit and only Schmidt and Loaiza are still active in the majors. However, they did both start at the All-Star game this year.

Loaiza always had problems with walks and gopher balls, so by the middle of 1998 he had been traded to Texas. His career with the Rangers followed the same pattern: two years of disappointment, followed by one promising season, subsequently followed with another disappointing start, and finally a trade. Loaiza looked pretty good as a spot starter in 1999 going 9-5 with a 4.56 ERA (10% better than the league average). However, when he was moved back into the rotation for good in 2000, his ERA shot up to 5.37 (5% worse than average), and his career in Texas was done.

His years in Toronto got progressively worse, with ERAs 37% better than the league average, 5% worse, and a horrific 22% worse than the league average (while being paid over $6 M last year).

Here's what ESPN had to say about in him in their scouring report at the beginning of the year:

Loaiza has an outstanding ability to locate his pitches somewhere in the strike zone, but it's his location within the zone that gets him into trouble. Strange as it sounds, scouts say Loaiza throws too many strikes. When he expands the zone by working the corners and wasting the occasional pitch, he is much more effective...

2003 Outlook
Some club, somewhere, will install him in the rotation and await the breakthrough season that never seems to come. If he applies himself strictly to the job, Loaiza is capable of 175 innings and 12-15 wins.

This year, he signed with White Sox in an unheralded move for just $500 K. He slipped into their rotation as the number-four starter coming out of camp. That's when his Cinderella story began. He was 5-0 with a 1.25 ERA. Each month so far this year, he has had an ERA no higher than 2.57 (in one August start, it's 3.00).

Now Loaiza, a man with a 4.88 career ERA (5% worse than league average) and a 69-73 record coming into this season, seems to have turned his career around at age 31.

Let's see if what ESPM prescribed (working corners and wasting pitches) is the cause of his turnaround:


You'll note that the number of pitches per inning are down and per game are up due mostly to his improvement this year: fewer runners on base when fewer batters faced and fewer pitches per inning; fewer runs allowed mean staying in a game longer and throwing more pitches on average per game. They don't tell the story

Pitches per plate appearance, however, do. His career high (3.73) this year means that he is being more patient, and therefore, the batter cannot wait for a mistake pitch to whack. This is also evidenced by his ground ball-to-fly ball ratio, which is the highest it has been since 1997. Batters are being more defensive, just trying to make contact, instead of being able to pop a pitch they were waiting for.

What are the results? More strikeouts, fewer walks, fewer home runs, fewer hits, and possibly a Cy Young.

It made me wonder how rare a career turnaround was for a pitcher who had already recorded over 1200 largely mediocre innings. Do pitchers learn to pitch this late in their careers? And do these lessons learned carry through for the rest of a late-blooming pitcher's career?

Three guys that I thought of off the top of my head (that is after reviewing a list of Cy Young winners) were Steve Stone, Mikeuellar, and fellow ex-Pirate Vern Law. Stone was a below average journeyman pitcher who walked a great deal. In 1980 at age 32, he won 25 with a 3.23 ERA (23% better than the park-adjusted league average) and a Cy Young award. 1981 was an injury-shortened poor performance. 4-7 with a 4.60 ERA (21% worse than the league average) in only 62.2 innings, and then he called it a career.

Cuellar was a late bloomer more because he was not given an opportunity than because of any fault of his own. He pitched a no-hitter for the Cuban army team in 1955 at 18 and soon moved on to organized ball, striking out seven in his first game. But aside from a cup of coffee with the Reds in 1959, he languished in the minors until 1964 (age 27). Cuellar pitched well for the Astros from 1965-68 after developing his palm ball, but it wasn't until he was traded to the Orioles that he became a star. In his first year in Baltimore, he won 23 with a 2.38 ERA (49% better than league average) and shared the Cy Young award with Denny McLain. Cuellar won 20 three more times, including 20 in 1971, when the O's had four twenty-game winners. He finished his career 185-130 with a 3.14 ERA (9% better than league average). He was also 2-2 with a 2.61 ERA in three World Series. (Cuellar is also the only lefty among all the pitchers discussed throughout this piece.)

Law was a Bob Tewksbury-type pitcher who walked as many (if not more) men as he struck out when he first came up. His ascendance mirrored the Pirates' who were cellar dwellers when Law started his career. It culminated in 1960, as the 30-year-old Law won 20 games and the major-league Cy Young (only one back then), and the Pirates won the Series. Law won two World Series games and started the famous seventh game in which Mazerowski homered. Law was injured the next season and aside from a tremendous 1965 season-probably his best-in which he went 17-9 with a 2.15 ERA (63% better than league average) and Comeback Player of the Year award, was not the same pitcher though he lasted parts of seven seasons. His career numbers were 162-147 with a 3.77 ERA (1% better than average).

So anecdotally, the future doesn't seem to bode well for Loaiza. However, this is an extremely small sample of pitchers who may or may not be truly similar to him. Let's try a different tact. I ran a query of all pitchers who had at least 1000 innings, a career winning percentage between .475 and .525, and a career ERA between 4.50 and 4.75 at some stage in their careers to find players comparable to Loaiza at the start of the season. I then looked at the next season in their careers. Here 'tis (with career numbers first and then the numbers for the next season):

Al Maul606647.6%4.731897017.45
Armando Reynoso686252.3%4.7320020010.80
Bobby Witt697348.6%4.57199314134.21
Bobby Witt838649.1%4.5219948105.04
Bobby Witt919648.7%4.5619955114.13
Bobby Witt11211948.5%4.61199712124.82
Bobby Witt12413148.6%4.631998796.56
Bobby Witt13114048.3%4.7319997155.84
Bobo Newsom808648.2%4.60193920113.58
Cal Eldred646549.6%4.5120001024.58
Cal Eldred746752.5%4.5220010113.50
Ed Wells676251.9%4.641934174.79
George Hemming737250.3%4.5618961564.19
Jack Wilson676849.6%4.511942146.22
Jaime Navarro10810750.2%4.5019998136.09
Jaime Navarro11612049.2%4.6220000610.53
Kid Carsey959649.7%4.68189611115.62
Mark Gardner838150.6%4.5620001174.05
Mark Gardner948851.6%4.512001555.40
Mike Smithson697248.9%4.5319897144.95
Omar Olivares717748.0%4.532001696.55
Oral Hildebrand727349.7%4.5219391043.06
Pedro Astacio1039651.8%4.50200212114.79
Pete Schourek626250.0%4.5420003105.11
Pete Schourek657247.4%4.592001154.45
Phil Collins737748.7%4.581935785.64
Randy Lerch596348.4%4.501986117.88
Sterling Hitchcock605651.7%4.672000164.93
Sterling Hitchcock616249.6%4.692001655.63
Sterling Hitchcock676750.0%4.752002125.49
Willie McGill677048.9%4.541896545.31

First, you'll notice that a lot of those pitchers are either from the last 10 years or from the 1890s or 1930s. That's because they are probably the three highest-scoring eras in baseball history. If you had a 4.50 ERA in the Sixties, you were not going to last long enough to pitch 1000 innings.

Next, you'll notice that not very many of them did very well their next year. Overall, they had a losing record (slightly) and an average ERA of 5.84. That is, average out the ERAs themselves-if you sum all of the pitchers' earned runs and innings, you get an ERA of 4.59. So I guess you can say that overall they continued to pitch at the same level, though a good number did finally fall completely apart and were very shortly out of the game altogether.

There are only a handful that had a season comparable to Loaiza's 2003 campaign: Bob Newsom, George "Old Wax Figger" Hemming, and Oral Hildebrand

Hildebrand was a pretty good pitcher early in his career, registering ERAs that were better than average in each of his first six seasons, all with the Indians. The best was a 16-11, 3.76 (28% better than average) in 1933. Hildebrand ended up with the Browns, had two very poor seasons, and was traded to the Yankees in manager Rogers Hornsby's housecleaning effort to rid St. Louis of playboys.

Hildebrand had his best year at 32 with the Yankees in 1939. His ERA was 42% better than average. However, Hildebrand was taken out of the rotation in 1940 and even though he pitcher fairly well (1.86 ERA, 118% better than average, in 19.1 innings) he did surrender 14 walks to only 5 strikeouts. After that his career was done.

Hemming was a journeyman who started his career in the Players' National League in 1890, pitching for Cleveland and Brooklyn's Ward's Wonders (named after players brotherhood leader and team manager John Montgomery Ward). He was horrible in short stints with NL clubs for a few years. Then he settled in with the Wilbert "Uncle Robbie" Robinson's Orioles in the mid-1890s. He went 20-13 with a 4.05 ERA (18% better than average) as their second pitcher in 1895. He actually slipped in 1896 to last on the staff in ERA despite a 15-6 record. He only had one more season and 67 innings left in his big-league career.

Louis Norman, a.k.a., Bobo, Newsom was a journeyman and flake. The guy played for the Senators in five differenet stints, the Browns for three, and the Philly A's and Dodgers for two each. From Cobb Would Have Caught It: The Golden Age of Baseball in Detroit by Richard Bak, here's a story from Charlie Gehringer about Newsom:

I remember him pitching against Greenberg once before he came over to our club. It's a hot day, he's got two strikes on Hank, and all of a sudden he just walks off the mound. He didn't even give the umpire a sign or anything. just took off for the dugout. Everybody said, "Well, where's he going?" Bobo goes into the dugout, and we see him going over to a big pail of water, and he's washing his face and he's toweling it off. All this time Greenberg's just waiting, probably thinking Bobo had hurt himself. Finally, after he's all washed up and dried off, Bobo trots out and throws one strike and Greenberg's out. I'd never seen anyone leave quite like that before. Or since. I forget whether he was with the Browns or Washington then, but Bobo was in a class by himself.

Newsom was 20-16 with 31 complete games in1938 with St. Louis but with a 5.08 ERA (2% worse than average) in 329.2 innings. He would be traded mid-1939 to the Tigers and went 20-11 with a 3.58 ERA (37% better than the league average) and then 21-5 with a 2.83 ERA (69% better than average) in his best season at age 32, 1940. He ended up fourth in the MVP voting that year behead Greenberg, Feller, and DiMaggio.

After that Newsom led the league with 20 losses in 1941 and '45. He pitched 10 more seasons after 1940 and had as many good as poor seasons.

So what does the future hold for Loaiza? It's difficult to say. There have been so few players that have had a one-year turnaround similar to his that no real prediction can be made. However, given that what Loaiza is doing this year is so rare, there really is no reason to believe he isn't a special type of pitcher who may have just turned his career around. Then again, he could sign another big contract this offseason, tank, and never be heard from again. You make the call.

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