By: Ben Leonard
Postseason hero Yusmeiro Petit was overlooked in the playoffs, not starting a single game. In spite of this, he still shined. Being overlooked has been the only constant in a tumultuous career for Petit, bouncing around from the Marlins to the Diamondbacks, Mariners, and Mexico before settling in with San Francisco. He found his place as a long reliever for the Giants in their title run, posting a 1.42 ERA in 12.2 innings while striking out thirteen. The right-hander is talented and cheap, yet the Giants have penciled in Tim Lincecum as their fifth starter over him. Bochy and the Giants naively believe that Lincecum can turn it around as a starter after four straight years of decline, partly because of his salary, and partly because of his two Cy Young awards.
Petit quietly established himself as one of the best right-handed pitchers in the game in 2014, building upon his solid 2013 campaign. For some context, here is a blind comparison with one of the top right-handers still on the free agent market.
As you may have guessed, Player A is Petit and Player B is James Shields. Petit had the seventh-highest strikeout rate in the big leagues, while Shields’ 7.14 K/9 pales in comparison to his extraordinary clip. Shields is commanding a five-year deal in the $100 million dollar range, while Petit only has a 1-year, $1 million dollar deal. Petit has much better peripheral statistics, is three years younger, but makes essentially $20 million less per year. Petit outclassed Shields in 2014 in every way except name value and established history.
Unlucky as a Starter
Many fans may point to Petit’s ugly splits between starter and reliever as reason to lose faith in the righty. He did indeed post an ugly 5.03 ERA as a starter, and a measly 1.84 ERA as a reliever. However, in such a small sample size, it can be easy to get caught up in standard statistics and draw flawed conclusions.
Petit’s rapid decline was largely due to a decrease in luck, not skills as a starting pitcher. Opposing hitters actually hit line drives more frequently against Petit as a reliever (22.4% vs. 20.2%). However, Petit was a victim of an inflated 13.1% HR/FB rate, compared to an unsustainable 2.1% as a reliever.Even his infield hit percentage spiked as a starter, sitting at 7.6% compared to 4.8%. Petit threw the ball seemingly just as well, if not better, as a starter, but got nothing to show for it, shown by his 3.01 xFIP. Balls simply were placed better with him as a starter, in part fueled by an inflated .309 BABIP (vs. .261).
The Giants should expect regression to the average from Petit next year as a potential starter, somewhere right in between his 2014 splits. Overall, he had a 2.84 xFIP last season, a somewhat realisitic figure for next season. Petit has always slightly underperformed his fielding-independent peripherals, but not enough to believe it will deviate too much from the 3.00 range. Even a number in the 3.50 range will be more than enough for the Giants out of the fifth spot of the rotation, as it is far superior to anything Lincecum and Vogelsong have achieved in recent years.
Unlike his apparent superior Lincecum, Petit is a pitcher, not a thrower. He has demonstrated an ability to succeed without velocity. His average fastball last season travelled at just 88.7 MPH, good for 155th among pitchers who threw at least 150 innings. Petit has exceptional command and keeps the ball down very well, not relying on sheer arm strength to deceive hitters. This attribute translates well over time for the righty, who should be able to avoid the sharp decline that Lincecum suffered as his velocity declined.
His devastating changeup caused many swings and misses last season, another reason for optimism. Changeups are less susceptible to decline over time, as grip is more essential to their movement, not the snap of a wrist. It is more of a feel pitch, one that does not much rely on brute strength.
For these reasons, Petit can be considered a relatively long-term solution on the hill for the Giants. He is under team control until 2017, and will remain very cheap until then. The Giants have three more years in Petit’s prime, and need to take advantage of it while they can. Lincecum has excelled in a long-ish relief role in the past, especially in the 2012 playoffs. He was effective even as recently as the 2014 World Series, throwing 1.2 perfect innings. Lincecum can fill in for Petit admirably, but has no reason for to start games for the Giants other than his pricey contract. The Giants will pay Lincecum regardless; therefore, there is no reason not to field the best staff possible and start Petit.
Stats and info courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference
Cover Image: By Lisa Suender on Flickr (Original version) UCinternational (Crop) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons