Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Meeting Expectations: Kevin Slowey

The Twins and Kevin Slowey agreed to a 1-year, $2.7M deal Tuesday, avoiding arbitration in Slowey's first year of arbitration eligibility. A few others have written about the deal, including a good piece by Nick Nelson for TwinsCentric. I'd also like to take a look at Kevin Slowey and see what we might be able to expect from the 26-year-old right-hander going forward.

Slowey has about as impressive a minor-league track record as anyone has had in the Twins organization. In 367.1 minor league innings, he compiled a 1.94 ERA, a 0.849 WHIP and an eye-popping 6.94 K/BB ratio. His Major League success has been much more tempered, though Slowey has continued to exhibit fantastic command throughout.

Kevin is entering his prime years, the period from 27-32 when a pitcher should (*) have his most productive seasons. Slowey's had a couple of injuries so far in 3 full seasons though one of them was more of the accident variety (getting hit in the wrist by a batted ball), so I hesitate to label him "injury prone." In those three seasons, he's started 71 games which is an average of almost 24 starts per year...not bad. I think if Slowey is going to have that "breakout" year, this might be it.

In 2009, Slowey had a rough April before settling down and putting together a nice string of starts. In 12 starts between April 18th and June 19th, Slowey averaged about 6 innings per start and only allowed more than 3 runs in 2 of those 12 starts. Things got rough again after that, with Slowey complaining of wrist pain (likely from his batted ball incident the prior year), which led to season-ending wrist surgery. In 2010, Slowey was back in the starting rotation and started the year nicely, allowing more than 3 runs only 2 times in his first 12 starts of the year. Things took a turn in mid-June and Slowey was held out of a few starts due to right-elbow pain, including being pulled in the 7th inning of a no-hitter (which I was at). His innings through the end of the season were pretty limited, though he did finish the year with a tidy 13-6 record and serviceable 4.45 ERA.

In comparing Slowey's 2008 and 2010 seasons, I noticed a couple of things (he pitched 160.1 innings in 2008 and 155.2 in 2010 so the sample size is comparable). In 2008, Slowey induced GBs at a much higher percentage (36.1%) than in 2010 (28.3%). Meanwhile his LD% stayed about the same (19.1% in 2008 vs. 21.1% in 2010) while his FB% went from 44.8% to 50.6%, good for an increase of almost 13%. Over the course of 3 full seasons, his GB rate has dropped every season while his FB rate has increased. This isn't overly concerning since Slowey now pitches in a spacious ballpark half the time, but it's certainly not the direction you'd like to see him headed in.

In looking at his swing statistics, another pattern emerges...

Thanks to FanGraphs

Between 2008 and 2010, Slowey's O-Contact% (percentage of times a batter makes contact on a pitch thrown outside of the strikezone) went from 70.1% to 77.6%. His Z-Contact% (percentage of times a batter makes contact on a pitch thrown inside the strikezone) went from 85.7% to 90.2%. In short, batters are simply making contact with Slowey's pitches at a higher rate, and when they are making contact on over 90% of pitches in the're gonna give up some runs, especially when you don't have overpowering stuff (for comparison, Liriano's Z-Contact% was 85.8% in 2010, and is at 83% for his career). On top of all of this, Slowey's BB/9 was higher in 2010 (1.68) than it was in 2008 (1.35), and his K/9 was lower in 2010 (6.71) versus 2008 (6.90).

Curiously, Slowey's FIP in 2008 vs. 2010 is not much different, 3.91 vs. 3.98 respectively. So why a 4.45ERA in 2010 vs. a 3.99 mark in 2008? It's hard to put a finger in it exactly, yes the walk rate was up and the K-rate down, but Slowey's strand-rate was almost identical and his HR/9 was nearly identical as well. More than likely a combination of more base-runners (1.15WHIP in 2008, 1.29WHIP in 2010) and a slightly higher BABIP, .307 in 2010 vs. .290 in 2008, added up to the extra 1/2 run on the ERA (maybe throw poor outfield D in there?).

So, all that said, what can we expect from a healthy (hopefully) Slowey in 2011? I would take an average of 2008 and 2010, depending on luck of course, which we can't really account for. What is going to prevent Slowey from really being dominant in the Majors is the fact that he relies so much on location. In the minors, pinpoint control goes a long way because a lot of the hitters don't have well-developed plate discipline. In the Majors it's a different story and history bears out the truth. You can certainly be a good location pitcher in the Majors, people like Moyer, Maddux (later-years), Radke, Glavine (later-years), Buerhle, etc. have had great careers. Slowey doesn't have a bad fastball (90-91mph) and his sinker (90-92mph) is a good pitch too, but they aren't blow-you-away pitches.

Slowey's game is limiting base-runners and insofar as he can do that, it will determine how much success he has. My guess on the numbers we can expect from Slowey are as follows:

180 IP
1.20 WHIP
13-16 Wins
2.0-3.0 WAR

For $2.7M, that's a pretty good deal. Fortunately, the Twins aren't relying on Slowey to be a #1 or even a #2 starter. He makes a very good #3 or #4 (depending on where you slot Baker) and should be in line for a bounce-back season of sorts.

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