Grading Future Guerra: Splits and Age

Junior Guerra is having a one-of-a-kind season all around. As previously discussed, the age-31 righty has started the most games during an age-31 starting pitcher in the divisional era (1969-present). Furthermore, with that age-31 record comes strike zone control that is also particularly rare. From 2000-2015, 30 of 101 qualified pitchers working in their age-31 season have posted a 7.4 K/9 and 2.5 K/BB profile. Entering his start in San Diego, Junior Guerra boasted that particular strike zone profile, which is not spectacular for either K/9 or K/BB, but quite rare in combination.

Part One: Grading Guerra’s Future

Since Guerra is a popular target for fan trade rumors, it is worth pricing the righty’s future value for the organization. In the previous post, I used 18 examples from that K/9 and K/BB profile to showcase how certain pitchers gain strike zone proficiency as they age. Among these pitchers were A.J. Burnett and Jason Hammel, who are both valuable pitchers within a specific organizational system. Considering Guerra an extension of the Brewers’ biomechanical and strategical organization, and in light of the mid-to-late 30s strike zone development of some pitchers, allows one to give Guerra a strong future grade.

In this installment, Guerra’s future will be graded against extreme split-fingered fastball pitchers, as well as Guerra’s own meandering professional career.

Extreme Splitter Pitchers

According to FanGraphs’s readily accessible (but potentially problematic) PITCHf/x classifications, only 14 pitchers in the PITCHf/x era have even approached Guerra’s extreme split-fingered fastball approach. The immediate offseason comparison for Guerra was another infamous age-31 splitter breakout (Mike Scott), and of course two of the only other prominent age-31 starting pitching debuts came from splitter pitchers (Jose Contreras and Hisashi Iwakuma). For the purposes of this feature, Koji Uehara, Edward Mujica, and Hideo Nomo are the most extreme splitter pitchers (30 percent); Masahiro Tanaka and Matt Shoemaker are next (25 percent); and Steve Trachsel, Jose Contreras, Esteban Yan, Jose Valverde, Alfredo Simon, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, Hisashi Iwakuma, and Joel Peralta round out the list (20 percent).

If there is one thing that is true of Guerra it is that if he is singular in one way, he is singular in every possible way, it seems. As a result, grading his future is quite difficult: there are literally very few pitchers that have accomplished what he has, or that match his relatively extreme pitching profile. By classification, the split-fingered fastball is arguably an “outsider” / “oddball” off-speed offering, countering the hegemony of the typical slider / curveball / change up profile that most pitchers offer.

Not surprisingly, those 14 extreme splitter pitchers are quite a motley bunch. If you’re like me and cut your teeth as an everyday fan during the early 2000s, this list is a fun blast from the past.

Splitter Pitchers Through Age 31 WARP Age 32 and After WARP 7.4 K/9 and 2.5 K/BB seasons (-31 / 32-)
Curt Schilling 25.4 86.3 13 (4 / 9)
Roger Clemens 79.5 69.5 15 (7 / 8)
Hisashi Iwakuma 3.2 16.1 3 (0 / 3)
Jose Contreras 1.2 10.2 0 (n/a)
Edward Mujica 5.8 n/a 2 (2 / 0)
Esteban Yan 6.5 n/a 2 (2 / 0)
Koji Uehara n/a 11.4 9 (0 / 9)
Masahiro Tanaka 11.7 n/a 2 (2 / 0)
Matt Shoemaker 7.1 n/a 4 (4 / 0)
Steve Trachsel 28.3 -1.5 1 (1 / 0)
Hideo Nomo 22.1 4.7 4 (3 / 1)
Joel Peralta 3.5 5.8 6 (1 / 5)
Jose Valverde 9.8 1.3 7 (6 / 1)
Alfredo Simon 1.1 -0.1 0 (n/a)

Interestingly enough, splitter pitchers seem to “age with their decade.” Outside of Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling, who are difficult comparisons for any pitcher, most extreme splitter pitchers that emerged during their 20s were not particularly valuable during their 30s. However, the splitter has proven to be a particularly valuable pitch for 30s-emerging pitchers.

In this case, I am going to also draw on the K/9 and K/BB profile, and make the audacious comparison between Schilling and Guerra. Curt Schilling was a wildly fluctuating pitcher throughout his 20s, but in his late 20s he harnessed his approach and became a late bloomer. His strike zone profile, in this sense, is arguably in line with pitchers like Ted Lilly, Cliff Lee, and Roy Halladay, in terms of commanding into his 30s. It is not absurd to suggest that if Guerra succeeds, he could simply be one of many pitchers that learned the strike zone and succeeded within the strike zone during his 30s, rather than his 20s.

Interestingly enough, if one wishes to return to the age-31 starting pitching debut scene, Guerra’s strike zone control aligns more closely with Hisashi Iwakuma than Jose Contreras. In this sense, one might be inclined to grade Guerra with more likelihood of a regular role (like Iwakuma) than a nomadic role (like Contreras). Splitting the difference between these two pitchers, Guerra grades out at 13.2 future WARP; grading the eight splitter pitchers that worked during their 30s (excluding Clemens and Schilling for obvious reasons) gives Guerra a grade of roughly 6.0 WARP.

Age is an Accomplishment

Age determinism is a popular tool for baseball fans, and one can hardly blame them: if you’re making an off-the-cuff judgment of a player, it is easy to downgrade a player or expect decline by following an expected aging curve for each player. This replaces deep analysis with a blazing assumption (“players break down as they age” or “pitchers lose value due to injuries and loss of stuff in their 30s”), but it’s a hard assumption to shake.

The problem with age determinism in the case of Guerra is twofold:

  • First, Guerra was “always old” as a splitter pitcher. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Guerra was not comfortable with the split pitch until his age-26 season in 2011. By this point and time, Guerra was in his third season away from MLB affiliated baseball, where he would be old for nearly every level of play. In fact, Guerra was hardly of average age for his independent affiliation Wichita squad, where he broke through in 128.7 innings with his best sustained strike zone control effort of his pitching career.
  • Even within affiliated baseball, Guerra was old for his levels of play. Initially developed as a catcher within the Braves system, the Atlanta front office allowed Guerra to stall for three years in rookie ball. So, Guerra has been “old” for nearly every professional level as a pitcher: he was old as a pitching rookie in 2006, and merely of average age in A-ball during that year. When he joined the Mets system in 2008, Guerra was old at every level. In fact, the only place where Guerra has been young during his pitching career is Venezuela, where he was younger than the average 2008-2010 Winter Leagues (there he posted a 34 K / 28 BB performance in 41 aggregate innings).

Using Guerra’s age, then, to obstruct his future value is a mistake, because his age has theoretically worked against him at every level. Now a singular pitcher, Guerra was once merely an outlier.

This age determinism is also used in brutal combination with the assertion that Guerra has never reached his 2016 performance level in his career. By contrast, once Guerra mastered the splitter in 2011 (by his own recollection), he immediately turned around his strike zone profiles, and began improving his K / BB. In this sense, one could make an invaluable mistake by assuming that Guerra is a one-hit-wonder in 2016, rather than viewing 2016 as a part of an extended process of adjustment for the Brewers ace.

Given the one-of-a-kind development by Guerra in every aspect of his career — his age, his MLB starting pitching debut, his age-31 strike zone control, his splitter — the Brewers are smart to price Guerra at the highest possible level. One can easily argue that the ace should not be traded, for he can further hone his strike zone control well into his 30s, and presumably age just like several other oddball splitter pitchers that came of age during their 30s. In an era that constantly clamors for the “market inefficiency,” betting on “singularity” or finding a truly one-of-a-kind player for a waiver claim is the greatest possible victory. There is only one Guerra, forgingĀ a future value asset that is beyond scarce.

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