Sidney Ponson's last spring start yesterday wasn't exactly pretty. He allowed 10 hits and five runs (one unearned) in five innings, while walking one and striking out three. His groundball-to-flyball ratio looked good at 9-3, but the results weren't all that positive. His spring training ERA ends at 4.29, but the inconsistency of his starts reminds us of something: trusting sinkerballers to be successful can be a dangerous game.
The Twins are taking their chances this year with Ponson and Carlos Silva. Both have had one particularly good season and one decent season and both were terrible last year. (I'm not counting Silva's two relief seasons in Philadelphia, since we are discussing starters here.) Inconsistency from sinkerballers, of course, is nothing new.
I think there are two recent examples of success and failure with trying to bring back such pitchers from struggles: Derek Lowe and Jason Marquis. Naturally, when it comes to sinkers, no one can compete with 2006 NL Cy Young winner Brandon Webb, but Webb is the exception and he's yet to really have a bad season. As for Lowe, he's the most positive of the two cases.
Lowe in his career is 100-82 with a 3.81 ERA (as well as 85 saves, a product of his days as the Boston closer) in 189 starts. In 2002, Lowe contended for the Cy Young when he went 21-8 with a 2.58 ERA. Lowe didn't do that on pure luck or anything, as opponents .211/.266/.302 against him with only 12 home runs. Lowe also walked only 48 in 219 2/3 innings.
Lowe followed with an average campaign in 2003, going 17-7 with a 4.47 (remember, the Red Sox had a pretty good offense that year). The following year, Lowe hit rock bottom, going 14-12 with a 5.42 ERA. Lowe gave up 224 hits in 182 2/3 innings, a very Silva-esque year. Lowe managed to save his year by having a great postseason and got a nice contract from the Dodgers in the offseason. He's been very good for the Dodgers the last two years, going 28-23 with a 3.62 ERA. He's pitched an average of 220 innings in those two years. Of course, it helps that Chavez Ravine is a wonderful pitcher's park, but home runs were never Lowe's problem, as he gave up only 15 in his worst year and in fact, gave up a career-high 28 in 2005, his first year with the Dodgers.
As for Marquis, his story should provide more caution to trusting sinkerballers. Marquis was a highly-touted prospect for the Braves, getting his first call-up in 2000, pitching 23 1/3 relief innings with a 5.01 ERA. The next year, Marquis appeared in 38 games and got 16 starts, going 5-6 with a 3.48 ERA. His future looked good, as he struck out 6.82 per 9 IP, a good number for a sinkerballer. However, Marquis started only 22 times in 2002, going 8-9 with a 5.04 ERA in 114 1/3 innings. In 2003, he was injured and complained about spending the majority of time in relief, as he was had an awful 5.53 ERA in 40 2/3 innings. He was traded that offseason to the Cardinals, who saw him as a reclaimation project for pitching guru Dave Duncan. (You'll note they did the same with Ponson last year and that didn't work out so well.)
Marquis would have his best year in 2004, going 15-7 in 201 1/3 innings with a 3.71 ERA. Hitters still knocked him around though, hitting .275/.339/.430. He followed up in 2005 with a solid year, going 13-14 with a 4.13 ERA. After an average year, he was absolutely terrible last year, nearly as bad as Silva. In 194 1/3 innings, he gave up 221 hits, had a 6.02 ERA, gave up 35 homers, and let hitters knock an astounding .289/.364/.509 against him. Basically, hitters lit up like Michael Cuddyer. (For reference, opposing batters hit .324/.354/.538 off Silva, with 246 hits and 38 homers in 180 1/3 innings. Sorry for making everyone remember just how bad it was...)
Despite this, Marquis got a three-year, $21 million contract from the Cubs. Like the Twins, because of one good year (and a decent year), the Cubs decided to take a chance on the "veteran" Marquis. The pattern is the same. In 2005, Silva had his best year, going 9-8 with a 3.44 ERA and that great 71/9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 188 1/3 innings. The year before, he was had a pretty good year, going 14-8 with a 4.21 ERA. Likewise, Ponson had a decent year in 2002, going 7-9 with a 4.09 ERA and had his best year in 2003, going 17-12 with a 3.75 ERA. Each year, he treaded the fine line, as opponents still managed a .258 average against him. He followed with a drinking problem and bad enough pitching to get his contract terminated by the Orioles. Last year, the Cardinals tried the same thing the Twins are now, releasing Ponson after he went 4-4 with a 5.24 ERA in 13 starts, sending him to New York, where he lasted only 16 1/3 innings. At the end of the year, he had gone 4-5 with a 6.25 ERA in 85 innings. Nothing pretty.
So what's the point with all these stats? Not to overwhelm anyone, but just to show a simple point: sinkerballers always walk a fine line and a dangerous one at that when trusting them with the ball. What is so confusing is that a former scout like Terry Ryan should recognize this. Having two of these guys in the rotation could mean anything. Sure, they could both "revert" to their former selves, under the guiding of pitching coach Rick Anderson. Or, more likely, they could be terrible again. For every story like Lowe, or even Webb, their is a guy like Marquis, who probably isn't worth the trouble.