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What To Make Of Charlie Furbush

Starting to remember baseball games
Starting to remember baseball games

A week ago - seriously a full week ago - the Mariners agreed to send Michael Pineda and a guy to the Yankees for Jesus Montero and a guy. The trade still isn't official, in part because of the Seattle-area weather, and in part because Montero hasn't been able to take a physical, but Montero cleared up a visa issue and should take his physical soon, if he hasn't already. He should pass. You almost have to be a dog not to pass. Literally a dog.

So the Mariners are adding a bat. Hooray! Losing a pitcher (boo), but adding a bat (hooray!). And adding a cheap bat, to boot. A bat so cheap that the Mariners still have spending money, if they feel like spending money to spice up their offseason even more.

On whom might the Mariners spend that money? People have talked about the team adding a starting pitcher, since the rotation's been depleted. Michael Pineda's a pretty big loss, and he leaves a hole Hector Noesi probably can't fill. Hell, people have been talking about the rotation all offseason. But one name I haven't seen that often is Charlie Furbush. What's the deal with Charlie Furbush? This was all a really terrible way to lead into a blog post about Charlie Furbush but hopefully, as you're reading this sentence, you've forgotten about the other sentences that preceded it.

Last year, Furbush was a 25-year-old rookie. He appeared in 28 Major League games, but what I want to talk about are his starts. He made 12 Major League starts, including ten with Seattle. Here's what he did in those starts:

  • Post a higher strikeout rate than Edwin Jackson
  • Post a lower walk rate than David Price
  • Post a lower contact rate than C.J. Wilson
  • Post an average strike rate
  • Post a lower xFIP than Chad Billingsley

You look at that and you can't help but be impressed. Not bad for a rookie southpaw. Really quite good. Sure, Furbush didn't have his arm built up and he isn't a potential workhorse, but what this suggests is that he can deliver some quality innings.

Of course, that list above doesn't tell the whole story. Here's the rest of it:

  • 6.83 ERA
  • 5.15 FIP

Oh, right, Furbush wasn't good, because he allowed a ton of runs. And he allowed a ton of runs in large part because he allowed 12 homers in 12 starts. Charlie Morton allowed six homers in 29 starts. Matt Cain allowed nine homers in 33 starts. Roy Halladay allowed ten homers in 32 starts. And so on. Charlie Furbush allowed 12 in 12.

Not a big deal, right? I mean, it looks bad in hindsight, but these things regress going forward, don't they? Elevated HR/fly ball ratios. It's a sample of only 12 starts, and isn't a sample of 12 starts a small sample?

A sample of 12 starts is a small sample. We wouldn't think that Charlie Furbush might have a home run problem based only on 12 starts. But this goes beyond Furbush's 12 Major League starts. He's allowed 16 homers in 102.2 innings in triple-A, which is well worse than the league average. He allowed five homers in 33.1 innings in double-A, which is well worse than the league average. He allowed 17 homers in 188.1 innings in advanced-A, which is well worse than the league average. Charlie Furbush has been allowing home runs for three years.

We're still talking about a sample under 400 innings, which isn't that big. Small sample sizes can be bigger than you think. But this is evidence that Furbush's homer-proneness might not have been a fluke. This establishes a history.

And, as you could guess, if Charlie Furbush is unusually homer-prone, then that's bad. That would make him worse than his xFIP. That would make him worse than his K/BB ratio. I know it's strange to talk about someone being "unusually homer-prone" since a lot of writers tie themselves into knots trying to find exceptions to batted ball theory that mostly don't exist, but it isn't out of the question that Furbush could have a problem. Pitchers don't share the same level of ability to prevent fly balls from leaving. Maybe Furbush is below-average in that regard.

There are two main questions, I think, one coming from the other. The first is, has Charlie Furbush's true talent level involved allowing more home runs than you'd expect? We can't answer this conclusively. Furbush's track record suggests that his true talent has involved more homers, but it doesn't prove it. Sample size.

The second question is, if the answer to the first question is "yes", will that continue going forward? We can't answer this one either. I bet you're glad you read this post! Let's say Furbush had a legitimate home run problem in 2009 and 2010 and 2011. That doesn't necessarily mean he'd have a legitimate home run problem in 2012 and beyond. Pitchers can make adjustments, and Furbush is still developing. He could improve. He could do less of whatever he's been doing wrong to lead to the homers.

There are things we don't know about Charlie Furbush. I think the biggest problem, though, has been his home runs, and we've been trained to be skeptical of unusually high home run rates. More often than not, they come down. There's no guarantee that Furbush's would come down, or at least come down enough, given his history, but there exists that chance. And then, suddenly, Furbush would look kind of appealing.

Furbush has a good fastball. He has decent enough stuff, overall, and he's demonstrated the ability to throw strikes and miss bats. He doesn't have particularly smooth mechanics, but not everybody does. It seems like people are forgetting about Furbush. Either forgetting about him, or writing him off as a reliever. I think he could still be an effective starter, though. He's not a starter I want to see begin the year in the Mariners' rotation, which makes the intro to this post all the more stupid, but he's a starter in whose development I have quite a bit of interest. Don't look past Charlie Furbush just yet.