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Digging into ZiPS player comps: pitchers

And a few more hitter to round things out

Chris Carpenter

When Dan Szymborsi’s 2021 ZiPS projections came out for the Blue Jays back in November, one of the interesting things in addition to the actual forecasts themselves is the #1 player comp. In particular, especially for some of the younger players, some of the comps really stuck out to me for various reasons. I thought I’d dig into them a little deeper, and having looked at core hitters yesterday, we’ll finish with pitchers and circle back to a few other hitters as well.

Hyun-Jin Ryu — Herb Pennock

This is an interesting comp, in the sense that Pennock was a dead ball era lefty who pitched very little before his age 25 season, mostly as a swingman. Then he had a 10 year run as a frontline starting pitcher in the 1920s (84 ERA-), though his average of 237 innings a year was well short of what aces in the day generally pitched. Likewise, Ryu has been excellent but not piled up the innings at the major league level.

The major difference of course is that while Ryu wasn’t in the majors before he was 26, he had thrown over 1,250 innings in Korea. Matching based on MLB production from age 26 to 33 brings in Bret Saberhagen (925 IP, 83 ERA-) and Chris Carpenter (955 IP, 80 ERA-) as right handed comps, and the latter two actually strike me as really compelling considering the full career trajectory. Interestingly, so does Kelvin Escobar (916 IP, 84 ERA-)...what is it with these late-90s Jays pitchers?

In terms of lefties, David Wells comes to mind. Like Ryu, he had a late start to his MLB career, dealt with injuries, though still managed a lot more innings than Ryu (1319, albeit with a lesser 90 ERA-). The Jays would love to get his late-30s from Ryu.

Nate Pearson — Jim Palmer

I guess because Palmer was a very hard throwing right handed pitcher (reportedly 95 MPH on his fastball 50 years ago), who also dealt with injuries early in his career — Palmer missed all of 1968.Otherwise, it doesn’t make much sense as Palmer posted a 2.34 ERA in 181 innings in his age-23 season to bring his career total over 500 innings. And then averaged 287 innings over the next nine years. Realistically, Pearson throwing 1,000 career is probably above the median forecast.

Robbie Ray — Al Leiter

If wishing only made it so. I don’t really see the comparison, given that Leiter couldn’t stay healthy and only threw 339 innings through age-28 whereas Ray already has 842. Then Leiter broke out in 1995, and averaged 30 starts and just shy of 200 innings at an ace level over the next decade after leaving Toronto for the big bucks.

The best basis for comparison is that Leiter was quite wild, leading the majors in walks in 1995 and 1996 even as he was effective. Something clicked by 1998 though, as he curtailed his free passes to 9% and averaged 10% over the rest of his career (vs. over 13% through 1997). Interestingly, Ray had averaged 13% the last three years, vs. 9.6% from 2015-17 when he was quite effective. Just getting back to the effectively wild level would go a long way.

Ross Stripling — Elmer Dessens

Dessens actually had a better run than what I remember in the early 2000s, throwing 530 innings with a 3.94 ERA from 2000-02. He fell off to a 5.07 ERA in 175 innings with Arizona in 2003 (moving in a rare four team deal involving the Jays sending Felipe Lopez to Cincinnati), and spent the rest of his career as a mediocre reliever. So not the greatest prognosis for Stripling.

Tanner Roark — Bill “Spaceman” Lee

Like Roark, Spaceman had a pretty good run through his late-20s and early-30s was a solid mid rotation starter (1450 innings, 3.58 ERA, 90 ERA-) before ballooning to a 4.96 ERA in 1980 at age 33. On the plus side, he rebounded to a 2.94 ERA in 1981 as a swingman. On a the negative side, he missed two months and only pitched 89 innings and his career was effectively over. 2021 is all that matters for us, and on balance I’d actually be quite happy with 100 good innings from Roark.

Jacob Waguespack — Dan Stanhouse

Not to be confused with Dave Stenhouse, a catcher selected by the Jays in the 5th round of the 1982 Draft from Holy Cross who made it as high as AAA in 1986-87. Stanhouse has a few good years as a reliever, but was effectively done at age 28. Considering that Waguespack didn’t even break into the until he was 25, it’s not much of a comp.

Circling back to a few hitters...

Rowdy Tellez — Mario Valdez

I have little concrete idea what to expect of Rowdy after how good he looked in such a short period of time in 2020, so I was curious to see the comp here. Unfortunately, it’s not particularly meaningful in that Valdez only had 216 career PA. Baseball-Reference suggests, appropriately, a mixed bag of similar players but that includes Cecil Fielder and Mark Trumbo near the top.

Danny Jansen — Jamie Nelson

I had no idea who this was, as it turns out Nelson only had a single season of 111 PA in 1983 with Seattle. The basis is really good plate discipline with poor overall production, but this the rare ZiPS comp that is clearly light as Nelson bounced around the upper minors until 1990 but never made it back.

It turns out there’s only 293 post-WWII catcher to have 250 PA by age-25 (Jansen’s already at 548), Some names that stand out as the best comparisons in terms of offensive profile? Jerry Narron and actually Buck Martinez isn’t too far off. On the slightly more positive career outlook front, another former Jays player in Alan Ashby profiled similarly.

Alejandro Kirk — Mike Sweeney

A really interesting comp since Sweeney came up a catcher, before transitioning to 1B/DH in his mid-20s. The offensive profile looks like a good match too, as Sweeney combined excellent plate discipline (9% career walk rate and 10.5% strikeout rate) with a strong ability to square up the ball and good if not standout power. Sweeney had a really good run in the early 2000s, and though he declined quite and had a short peak, would be a good outcome for Kirk and is actually quite a plausible or realistic career path for Kirk.

George Springer — Moises Alou

This one comes from the Astros list, but it’s actually a really good comp. He didn’t walk as much as Springer has in his late-20s, but otherwise their strikeout, power, and contact profiles match well. Alou aged really well into his 30s, and the Jays would be thrilled if Springer did similarly (almost 3,000 PA and a 133 wRC+ from ages 31 to 36 despite missing a full season). Again, this is probably more an 80th percentile outcome than a base case projection/comp though.