Over the course of the organization's successful years, we, the fans, were conditioned to expect a certain type of roster each year with its own strengths and weaknesses - that is, the team would be carried by pitching and defense, with less of an emphasis put on power in the middle of the lineup. Although some of those offenses were quite good, people rarely paid much attention to the runs scored; rather, it was the runs prevented that caught their eye. Observers came to expect the Mariners to have good pitching year in, year out. How much of this can be attributed to Safeco Field in recent years is up for debate, but you have to go back to 1986 to find the last time the pitching staff lacked a starter with an ERA below 4 (minimum of 10 starts to qualify).
Fast forward to February of 2005. Of the 11 pitchers to record at least one start in 2004, 10 remain in the organization, but only one of them managed to post an ERA below 4.67 out of the rotation. Going further, with Moyer's age, Pineiro's elbow, Meche's inconsistency, and Franklin's...Franklinness...it's reasonable to expect 80% of the rotation to finish north of 4.00 (I realize that Franklin may lose his spot, but I don't think any replacement is going to burst onto the scene).
Which leaves us with Bobby Madritsch, the 29 year old southpaw with 88 innings of Major League experience. As a rookie, Madritsch dealt with severe abuse at the hands of Bob Melvin in posting a 3.27 ERA, the only above-average figure of any starter in the rotation. If anyone's going to have a successful year on the mound, it seems like Madritsch is as good a candidate as any. So how does he look going forward?
Before projecting his future, it's important to look at his past. Consider his 2004 performance:
The quick and dirty explanation of these numbers is that, while Madritsch was aided by his defense, his ERA wasn't really the result of good luck - given the baserunners Madritsch surrendered, he allowed just about as many runs as you'd expect. I'm reluctant to say that Madritsch's low BABIP reflects some luck, because the defense as a whole was pretty good, and everyone on the pitching staff had the opportunity to take advantage of the gloves behind them. Furthermore, Madritsch was a lefty flyball pitcher in Safeco Field; all three are factors which reduce BABIP.
A quick glance at his basic peripherals - that is, walks and strikeouts - suggests that Madritsch wasn't really so phenomenal; both his K and BB rates were below the AL league average (albeit not by much). Looking a little deeper (or a little further to the left on the ESPN player card, anyway), though, reveals that Madritsch's home run rate was superb. Like, almost historically outstanding. Out of the 359 batters he faced, only three managed to hit the ball out of the park; had he thrown enough innings to qualify, Madritsch's 1-per-120 ratio would have been the best in the Majors by a comfortable margin.
Okay, that's all well and good, but how do we know it wasn't a fluke? You know, small sample size and all that good stuff.
I'll tell you how. In the 346.1 innings Madritsch threw in the Minor/Independent Leagues between 2002 - 2004, he allowed just 20 home runs, or one every 17.1 innings. I shouldn't need to tell you that this is a pretty spectacular ratio. Sure, it came against inferior competition, but it establishes a track record of being able to keep the ball in the park. This is important when we think about how Madritsch will develop in the future.
What else do we have? Let's take a quick look at the other peripherals, also against his 2002 - 2004 numbers (for the sake of consistency).
K/9: 6.14 in the Majors (9.36 in the Minors/Independent)
BB/9: 3.38 (3.35)
K/BB: 1.82 (2.79)
IP/GS: 7.1 (6.0)
So what we know is (A) Madritsch's home run rate and endurance have improved in the Majors, (B) his ability to throw strikes has remained consistent, and (C) his strikeout ability has gotten worse.
It should be pointed out that Madritsch's strikeout rate in Tacoma fell in between the two figures cited above. Although we're dealing with small samples (that is, below 100 innings), it seems plausible to suggest that his stuff - particularly his changeup - isn't as effective at missing bats in the upper levels as it was elsewhere. That said, while the change in strikeout rate is alarming, it didn't dip to a perilous level in the Majors, and he was still able to pitch quite successfully.
When you compare Bobby Madritsch's Major League performance to his minor league track record - with emphasis on his 62.1 innings in AAA - you realize that he came out just as anyone could have expected. The only difference was that he threw his 88 ML innings in front of a defense that turned more balls in play into outs than the defenses he had pitched with before.
So, knowing that, where do we go from here? The defense has only gotten stronger over the winter, and even though Madritsch is more flyball-oriented, he'll still benefit from the shiny new gloves manning the infield. There's also no reason to expect his peripherals to get worse, given his history; he'll probably allow an extra homer here and there, but he should still be among the league leaders in fewest allowed.
Those shiny (x)ERA figures near the start of the article already established that, were Madritsch to repeat his 2004 performance, his ERA would stay somewhere around last year's 3.27. A few more home runs might bump him closer to 3.50, but I think the take-home message is pretty clear - there's no mathematical reason to expect Madritsch to regress very much going forward.
The only real concern I have is how he'll recover from Bob Melvin's treatment of his left arm last year. Despite throwing just 88 innings, Madritsch ranked #7 in the Majors in Pitcher Abuse; given Madritsch's injury history, such usage was careless, and I have to wonder if it will have any carryover effects. That he only recorded 11 starts makes me a little more comfortable, in that he wasn't exposed to the Melvin buzzsaw for a full season, but overstressing an arm expedites the wear and tear, and that's never good.
Nevertheless, I feel pretty good about Madritsch's health, and I like the odds of him emerging as the #1 in the rotation next year - if not by label, then by performance. PECOTA's projection of a 4.49 ERA and 13 homers in 106.2 innings strikes me as way out of line. If Madritsch doesn't exceed that forecast by at least 0.75 points, then I'll be pretty surprised.