Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Introducing Steve Delabar

Introducing Steve Delabar
(Or the Real Life Kenny Powers)

            After earlier on in the night dealing away formerly beloved prospect Travis Snider (covered by Gideon earlier), Alex Anthopolous continued to rebuild his bullpen, and at the same time jettison contact challenged outfielders.  In his second deal within the hour, Eric Thames (who started the year as the team’s starting left fielder) was sent to the Seattle Mariners in exchange for intriguing relief arm Steve Delabar. 

            The tale of Delbar’s trip to the major leagues is almost the polar opposite to that of the day’s other acquisition, in former 4th overall pick, Brad Lincoln.  Delabar started his career by being drafted in the 29th round out of Volunteer State Community College in Tennessee, which isn’t exactly a baseball power house like Lincoln’s alma mater, the University of Houston.  Delabar spent the next 3 seasons bouncing between Rookie and High A ball in the Padres system.  To say he struggled would be putting it very mildly.  He posted ERA’s above 5 at almost every stop, and just could never find the strike zone enough to be effective.

            By the time 2008 came around, the Padres had seen enough, and released him after he posted an ERA of 5.27 in A ball.  Delabar seemed to be following the career path of most 29th round picks.  They could have fun filing out a low level affiliate (heck, its better than working at Sears), but to expect anything more than that would be a major surprise.  Delabar then took his act to the independent leagues, pitching both in the Frontier League, & the Can-Am league, in Brockton & Florence respectively in ’08, & ’09.  His numbers looked decent, but it looked like his career would be ended when a fractured elbow ended his 2009 season.

            This looked to be the end of the line for Mr. Delabar.  He didn’t pitch the entire 2010 season, instead going back to his home town of Elizabethtown, Kentucky and becoming a substitute teacher.  The only “competitive” ball he played was playing slo-pitch softball.

            If this tale sounds familiar it should, because this is the plot of HBO’s drama Eastbound & Down, minus the big league career, & cocaine abuse.  Guys like this don’t come back unless it’s a scripted TV drama.  Essentially no one had ever really believed in Delabar, evidenced by him being a 29th round pick, and at the age of 27, after a catastrophic elbow injury, and a year away from the sport, there wasn’t a sole who expected to see Mr. Delabar to turn into a major league pitcher.  No one.

            However Delabar wasn’t done, and he signed a minor league deal with the Mariners in 2011, and after reporting to the hitters paradise that is the California League it was obvious he was a wildly different pitcher.  He shot up all the way from the Cal League to make a late season appearance in the big league pen.  Over the 4 levels he pitched in he struck out 75 batters over the 63 innings he pitched for a 10.9 K/9 rate.  Somehow Delabar in the span of 12 months had gone from being a substitute teacher in the middle of Kentucky, to a member of a big league bullpen (and an effective one at that). 

            In 2012, he proved that the miracle 2011 season was no fluke.  He’s managed to get even better.  He’s struck out 31.1% of the batters he’s faced this season, which places him in the top 20 of all big league relief pitchers.  More impressively, unlike most pitchers with a strikeout rate that high, his control’s been quite good as well.  The only pitchers who’ve struckout more than 30% batters faced who have a walk rate lower than Delabar’s 7.4% are Craig Kimbrel (6.9), Octavio Dotel (6.7), Joel Peralta (5.7), Jake McGee (6.0), & Jonathan Papelbon (5.8).

            What’s almost more impressive than what Delabar has done, is how he’s doing it.  Unlike most big league pitchers, Delabar essentially doesn’t have a breaking pitch.  On occasion he’ll show his slider, but that’s only about 5% of his pitches.  Other than that he gets by on a power 4 seam fastball that averages 93 MPH, and a changeup, which at 86 MPH shows a pretty decent difference in speed.  This has been effective for pitchers in the past (two who stick in my mind are former all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman, and former Brewers closer Doug Jones), but to say its rare would be quite the understatement. 

            While getting a pitcher with these type of peripheral numbers who’s under team control til 2018 is all very positive, that isn’t to say there aren’t reasons to be concerned. There is one notable weakness that Delabar’s shown in the big leagues, and that’s a proclivity to give up the long ball (especially when outside of Safeco Field).  The reason despite all the strikeouts, that Delabar’s ERA is still north of 4.00 is because he leads the league with a shockingly high 2.21 HR/9 rate (which if it keeps up would put him in the top 10 for my lifetime).  Away from the friendly confines of Safeco field it spikes to an absolutely unconscionable 4.70.

            Normally when I see a pitcher with a HR/FB rate of over 27%, but when I look deeper into his home//road splits I just don’t know what to think.  In the cavernous Safeco he’s only allowed 1 HR in 21.1 Innings for a HR/FB rate of 7.7.  On the road, in normal sized ballparks however, things get rather wacky.  He’s allowed 8 HRs in just 15.1 innings, good for a 4.70 HR/9, and a HR/FB rate of 45%.  Those numbers seem unsustainably high, but is something worth considering.

            The last thing to consider within Delabar’s splits are his reverse platoon splits.  This is something you could expect with a pitcher who features a changeup as his only off-speed pitch.  Righties batters have a wOBA of .409, while lefties have hit a pitiful .150.  To boot, all 9 of his Home Runs allowed have come against right handed.   He could function as a 2nd lefty in the pen the rest of the season, but John Farrell will need to be careful when matching him up.

            Even though Delabar has some flaws, and might need to be protected, he’s a worthwhile arm to acquire.  I’m willing to take a risk on a pitcher who misses as many bats as he does, especially when the cost was only a Quadruple A outfielder in Eric Thames.

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