Two Januaries ago, John McGrath wrote a piece for the Tacoma News Tribune comparing Ryan Franklin to Roger Clemens. Before the article was finished, McGrath made sure to label Franklin as the Mariners' starter "most likely to improve" in 2004 - because Franklin was coming off a season in which he went 11-13 despite posting a 3.57 ERA.
As many of us expected, Ryan Franklin saw his ERA balloon by 37%, despite changing little about his approach. As a low-strikeout flyball pitcher, Franklin was in the perfect situation in 2003, but things were different the next season, and luck caught up with him.
There's a certain strikeout rate level below which it's essentially impossible to have consistent success. Even if you limit walks and homers, you're still allowing a lot of balls in play, and the results are dependent on the team's defensive performance. And if you're Ryan Franklin, and you allow a lot of balls in play while also serving up a bunch of gopherballs...well, the odds of succeeding are worse.
He makes for an interesting little case study. Check out this chart:
Strikeouts stayed the same. Walks stayed the same. Homers stayed the same. ERA jumped by 133 points.
In 2003, Ryan Franklin was a flyball pitcher in Safeco Field, in front of one of the best team defenses in the history of baseball. The outfield was particularly good, as there were Gold Glove contenders at all three positions. Mike Cameron was the best flycatcher in the league. The circumstances were perfect for Franklin to take advantage of external factors on the way to posting an artificially low ERA. Obviously, it worked out.
The difference between the 2003 and the 2004 Seattle Mariners is Mike Cameron. When he left, Randy Winn was forced to center and Raul Ibanez took over in left, making the team markedly worse defensively at both positions. We expected Franklin to feel the pain, and so nobody was real surprised when his doubles/triples rate doubled (from 3.1% to 6.4%). There were a few extra hits that got through the infield, to be sure, but the biggest problem was watching so many balls drop in the outfield, balls that would've turned into outs a year before.
As David Cameron pointed out, the run value of a double is .7. Ryan Franklin allowed 56 doubles and triples in 2004, compared to 27 in 2003. If you bump that run value up to about .75 or so (to account for the triples), then you find that the difference between those two years is about 22 runs.
Difference between 2003 and 2004, due to extra-base hits:
Difference between 2003 and 2004, in terms of total runs allowed:
That's it. The difference between the good and bad Ryan Franklins were 29 extra-base hits, which can be blamed on a significantly worse outfield defense.
Take a look at the chart again - specifically, the last column (dERA). This is a measure of defense-independent ERA, or the ERA figure a pitcher could be expected to put up given the same individual performance in front of a league-average defense.
They're identical (for all intents and purposes). Ryan Franklin was the third-luckiest pitcher in baseball in 2003, in terms of having balls in play turned into outs, and the difference between his actual ERA and his dERA was the largest in the league by a significant margin. It didn't take a rocket scientist to realize that this spelled trouble for the future. Things caught up with Franklin last year, and he turned into the pitcher we all thought he'd be.
Going forward, what can we say about Ryan Franklin? Even the defense behind him last year was better than average, and it helped him look better than he actually was (although certainly not to the extent of 2003). As a starting pitcher, there's no reason to expect Franklin to change his approach - he's going to be a low-strikeout, low-walk guy who gives up a bunch of homers and allows a lot of balls in play. So, once again, we're looking at a guy whose success will be determined by the guys behind him.
The good news is that next season's outfield defense should be better than it was last year. With Jeremy Reed pushing Randy Winn back to left, we will have reconstructed two-thirds of the magical 2003 outfield defense, with Cameron/Reed representing the only difference. With Ibanez out of the picture and Winn back in his rightful position, we can expect next year's defense to allow extra-base hits at a lower rate than it did in 2004. Even though it won't approach the 2003 level, it's going to help Franklin, and shaving off just ten doubles/triples from last summer's total means the difference between a 4.90 and a 4.54 ERA.
Ryan Franklin, in a standard environment, is an ineffective pitcher. In a big park, though, he's got some value as an innings-eater with a rubber arm, and in front of a good defense he can even pass as a #4 starter if you don't look too closely. If Franklin can get back even a third of the 29 doubles/triples he added in 2004 - a pretty good possibility - then he'll bring a palatable ERA and a bunch of innings to a rotation that's plagued with question marks. There are worse things to have.