MLB Handicapping: Four Overrated Pitchers
by Trevor Whenham - 04/07/2009
We're at an interesting point in the baseball season. What happened in the spring is almost totally irrelevant for a bunch of reasons, but the season is just brand new so we can't spend much time talking about what has happened so far this year. All that leaves us, then, is wild prognostication and boldly confident speculation. Most of what is said at this time of year doesn't turn into much, but that doesn't make it any less fun to think about. In that spirit, here are the four pitchers who I think come into this season as the most overrated. They are all good, but I think in each case the expectations are just too high.
Josh Beckett, Boston Red Sox - Beckett is a good pitcher. At times he can be very good. In two different playoff runs for two different teams he has been absolutely spectacular. The way people talk about him, though, you'd think that he walks on water. There are reasons to be doubtful about him. He is streaky - he can go quite a while without recording a win. He's not the same pitcher on the road that he is in Fenway. The most dangerous concern, though, is the sense that he is the king of handling pressure. He certainly can be at times, but assuming he always is that way is just throwing money away. Take a look at the playoffs last year, for example. The so-called 'best playoff pitcher of our time' had two no-decisions in three starts and an ugly 8.79 ERA. Most glaring, though, is how Beckett treats bettors. The team was just 13-14 when he started last year, yet he always seems to face big prices, so he burned a whole lot of cash. He's viewed by many as an elite ace in the league, but the recent past just doesn't support that notion.
Cliff Lee, Cleveland Indians - What Lee had last year was one of the single most impressive seasons I have seen in my time as a baseball fan. The problem, though, is that it was just one season. We can't assume that Lee belongs among the elite of the pitchers in the major leagues until he proves that the improvement can last. We tend to view a massive one-year upsurge in batting performance with skepticism, but are far more accepting when a pitcher goes from zero to hero. Lee may be the real thing, but let's not get to far ahead of ourselves in proclaiming his brilliance. At this point, whenever I think about Lee my mind immediately goes to Bob Welch. Welch, like Lee, was a perfectly serviceable and at times brilliant pitcher for the Dodgers and A's. In 1990 he erupted for a ridiculous 27 wins and cruised to the Cy Young Award. He was much praised for that performance, and deservedly so, but he was never the same again, and was out of baseball four years later. Lee might not be Bob Welch, but he's guilty until proven innocent in my eyes.
Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants - Since I picked on one Cy Young winner I might as well be fair and hit on both. Let me say up front that I think Lincecum is brilliant and I wish him nothing but the best. The odds just aren't in his favor, though. He's only 24, and he pitched 50 more innings last year than he has ever pitched in a year before at any level. That's a well-proven recipe for disaster, or at least for a significant regression this year. He's a serious power pitcher, but he's so small and slight that it seems almost likely that he will face mechanical problems at some point. He still doesn't have his first big contract under his belt, so he has the pressure of playing for a payday. He's relied upon to be the ace of his staff despite having so little experience. Lincecum certainly looks and acts like a freak, but when it comes to betting on his future this year the smart money would be bearish. That's certainly not how the public is feeling.
CC Sabathia, New York Yankees - You really have no choice but to think Sabathia is overrated right now. After all, he's got a ridiculously fat new contract, he's in the country's biggest media market, and the media can't seem to talk about anyone else. Sabathia is a good pitcher, and as a Brewer last year he was absolutely brilliant. I just don't believe, though, that he's as good as his contract would lead you to believe he is. In eight years in the pros he has had 2.5 that have been very good. He's never followed up a strong year with a good start. Outside of those periods of brilliance he's just 70-59. Even when he's good he has a bad habit of falling asleep on his feet for a stretch - he went four games without a win for Milwaukee down the stretch last year. There's a bigger issue in my mind, though - his size. He's a power pitcher that is closing in on 30. Power pitchers who have had long careers have typically been fit guys who work hard to maintain their shape. Sabathia just doesn't do that. He's accomplished what he has accomplished so far because of incredible natural ability, but that's not enough as a player gets older, and I'm not yet convinced that Sabathia will put in all that it takes to stay in top form.