Just How Good Is Shaun Marcum?

There’s been a ton of talk about the Brewers’ addition of Zack Greinke this offseason, and that is warranted. Greinke is a special talent, and I cannot wait to see him on the mound – especially when the games start to count.

That right arm is good for something other than throwing a baseball.

However, it seems like Shaun Marcum, Milwaukee’s other big offseason acquisition, isn’t getting the credit he deserves. After all, Marcum had a better season than Greinke last year – he even had a better season, by most measures, than Yovani Gallardo, yet almost everyone pencils him into the rotation as the third best pitcher on the staff. So, I started wondering how Shaun Marcum compares to some of the other pitchers around the league, and whether or not we should be expecting more of him than just being a very good third starter.

We’ll start with Marcum’s statistics. In 2010, in the brutal AL East, Marcum went 13-8 in 31 starts with a 3.64 ERA, 114 ERA+, 1.147 WHIP, 7.6 K/9, and 2.0 BB/9 as a 28 year old coming off of Tommy John surgery. The season before he had Tommy John, 2008, saw him go 9-7 in 25 starts with a 3.39 ERA, 125 ERA+, 1.163 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, and 3.0 BB/9. So, combined, in 2008 and 2010, Marcum is 22-15 with a 3.53 ERA, 119 ERA+, 1.154 WHIP, 7.5 K/9 and 2.4 BB/9.

Interestingly enough, baseball-reference.com lists Yovani Gallardo as Marcum’s top comparable. In Gallardo’s last two seasons, he is 27-19 with a 3.79 ERA, 107 ERA+, 1.341 WHIP, 9.8 K/9 and 4.1 BB/9. Gallardo’s K/9 and BB/9 are both a bit higher than Marcum’s, so we’ll look at K/BB ratio: Marcum is at 3.10 in his last two seasons, Gallardo is at 2.39.

Statistically speaking, it seems pretty clear that Marcum’s last two years have been better than Yovani Gallardo’s. Yes, Gallardo gets more strikeouts, but he is not nearly as good at keeping men off base and therefore gives up more runs.

I got a little curious so I looked up stats for a few other big name pitchers throughout MLB and made a little table, with the stats from last two years as starters:

  • Shaun Marcum (2008 and 2010): 22-15, 3.53 ERA, 119 ERA+, 1.154 WHIP, 3.10 K/BB
  • Yovani Gallardo (2009-2010), 27-19, 3.79 ERA, 107 ERA+, 1.341 WHIP, 2.39 K/BB
  • Ubaldo Jimenez (2009-2010): 34-20, 3.17 ERA, 147 ERA+, 1.192 WHIP, 2.33 K/BB
  • Cole Hamels (2009-2010): 22-22, 3.67 ERA, 112 ERA+, 1.230 WHIP, 3.64 K/BB
  • Matt Cain (2009-2010): 27-19, 3.02 ERA, 138 ERA+, 1.132 WHIP, 2.60 K/BB
  • Mark Buehrle (2009-2010: 26-23, 4.06 ERA, 112 ERA+, 1.327 WHIP, 2.17 K/BB
  • Carlos Zambrano (2008-2009 – he only made 20 starts in 2010): 23-13, 3.85 ERA, 118 ERA+, 1.332 WHIP, 1.88 K/BB
  • Dan Haren (2009-2010): 26-22, 3.53 ERA, 122 ERA+, 1.139 WHIP, 4.77 K/BB
  • Roy Oswalt (2009-2010): 21-19, 3.39 ERA, 119 ERA+, 1.125 WHIP, 3.41 K/BB

And now to some of the best pitchers who played in the AL East for both of their last two years as starters:

  • Matt Garza (2009-2010): 23-22, 3.93 ERA, 105 ERA+, 1.256 WHIP, 2.39 K/BB
  • CC Sabathia (2009-2010): 40-15, 3.27 ERA, 136 ERA+, 1.170 WHIP, 2.79 K/BB
  • Josh Beckett (2008-2009 – he only made 21 starts in 2010): 29-16, 3.93 ERA, 119 ERA+, 1.190 WHIP, 4.17 K/BB
  • Jon Lester (2009-2010), 34-17, 3.33 ERA, 136 ERA+, 1.216 WHIP, 3.06 K/BB

As you can see, Marcum compares pretty favorably to a lot of these pitchers, many of whom are commonly thought of as legitimate MLB aces. I left out a few of the clear top tier guys like Tim Lincecum, Roy Halladay and Felix Hernandez, but I think it is safe to say that, statistically, Marcum could be placed near the top of the second-tier starting pitchers in baseball.

Another thing I was curious about is whether or not statistics held up to support the idea that a pitcher’s numbers improve noticably when they switch from the AL to the NL. I looked for guys who had switched from the AL to the NL as free agents or through trades over the last few years (plus one old guy) and here is the data I found:

  • Johan Santana: 2002-2007 (Minnesota): 90-41, 2.92 ERA, 154 ERA+, 1.026 WHIP, 4.38 K/BB
    2008-2010 (NYM): 40-25, 2.85 ERA, 143 ERA+, 1.175 WHIP, 3.02 K/BB
  • Roy Halladay: 2002-2009 (Toronto): 130-59, 3.13 ERA, 145 ERA+, 1.131 WHIP, 4.10 K/BB
    2010 (Philadelphia): 21-10, 2.44 ERA, 165 ERA+, 1.041 WHIP, 7.3 K/BB
  • Dan Haren: 2005-2007 (Oakland): 43-34, 3.64 ERA, 120 ERA+, 1.212 WHIP, 3.47 K/BB
    2008-2010 (Arizona): 37-26, 3.56 ERA, 126 ERA+, 1.132 WHIP, 5.33 K/BB
  • Tim Hudson: 1999-2004 (Oakland): 92-39, 3.30 ERA, 136 ERA+, 1.222 WHIP, 2.35 K/BB
    2005-2010 (Atlanta): 73-48, 3.57 ERA, 119 ERA+, 1.276 WHIP, 1.98 K/BB
  • Randy Johnson: 1989-1998 (Seattle): 130-74, 3.42 ERA, 128 ERA+, 1.250 WHIP, 2.45 K/BB
    1998 (Houston) 10-1, 1.28 ERA, 322 ERA+, 0.984 WHIP, 4.46 K/BB
    1999-2004 (Arizona): 118-62, 2.83 ERA, 165 ERA+, 1.068 WHIP, 4.99 K/BB
    2005-2007 (NYY): 34-19, 4.37 ERA, 100 ERA+, 1.180 WHIP, 3.58 K/BB
  • Nolan Ryan: 1973 (first year with DH) – 1979 (California): 119-105, 3.18 ERA, 114 ERA+, 1.317 WHIP, 1.82 K/BB
    1980-1988 (Houston): 106-94, 3.13 ERA, 110 ERA+, 1.206 WHIP, 2.34 K/BB

It would seem that making the AL/NL switch doesn’t actually make that much of a difference. Dan Haren was a little better in the NL than the AL, but he was also terrific for the Angels at the end of last year after starting the year poorly in Arizona. Santana has battled injuries in the NL, so it’s hard to fairly judge his data. Halladay is clearly better in the NL, but who says that isn’t simply because he was finally playing on a contender? Tim Hudson has clearly performed worse in the NL than the AL, and with Ryan it is pretty much a tossup. (Note: it’s also difficult to take into account things like prime years, as these players rarely jump leagues right at their prime. Ryan, for instance, didn’t play in the NL until he was 33 – and in 1988, the last year of data collected, he was 41 years old. He still led the league in strikeouts, though – AND the two years after that. What a freak.)

There is one name that stands out from that list though, in terms of AL/NL splits: Randy Johnson. Johnson put in some outstanding seasons in the NL, winning four straight Cy Young awards from 1999-2002. He won only one Cy Young in the AL, in 1995 with Seattle. Johnson was clearly better in the NL than the AL.  Interestingly enough, Johnson’s typical prime years (27-30) were in the AL – he was 34 when Seattle traded him to Houston halfway through the 1998 season. For this reason, you can easily chalk up his subpar seasons with New York to age – he was 41 when he started with them – but don’t forget the lofty expectations that Johnson brought to New York. Anyone remember John Kruk predicting that he would win 30 games?

There are a few pitchers that look like Randy Johnson the opposite way, and kind of disprove the hypothesis, such as Pedro Martinez. Martinez put in some historic seasons with Boston around the turn of the century, then (although aging) had one very good year with the Mets before, essentially, breaking down. Roger Clemens did win one NL Cy Young, but almost his entire career, which consisted of seven total Cy Young awards, happened in the AL. Curt Schilling was very good in the National League for a long time, and then put in one fantastic season with Boston before succumbing to injuries and age.

Personally, I don’t think you can bank too much on the NL being easier than the AL. Certainly the NL Central will be an easier place to pitch than the AL East, but in general it looks like AL/NL numbers aren’t all that different for star pitchers. However, looking at the first list from above, I feel that you could slot Marcum in there right with Dan Haren and Roy Oswalt, ahead of Carlos Zambrano, Cole Hamels, Mark Buehrle, Matt Garza, and Josh Beckett. Marcum hasn’t reached the levels of the true aces like Sabathia, Lester, or Jimenez, but he could certainly be considered, along with Oswalt, the best #3 starter in baseball.

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5 Responses

  1. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/14/sports/baseball/14score.html

    Here’s a link from 2007 documenting AL to NL data…”Of the 29 pitchers moving to the N.L. from the A.L., their E.R.A.+ figures increased to 110 (10 percent above league average) from 97 (just below average). This smaller shift than in E.R.A. is nonetheless more significant: It indicates that starters of equal caliber are more successful in the less suffocating National League.”

    I wholeheartedly agree that Marcum is being underrated by just about everyone saying he is a clear #3 on this team, but your argument using AL -> NL is wrong. Your 6 person sample is not the best way to go about this due to the randomness of such a small sample.

    • Cool article and thanks for calling me out. I guess I will stick up for myself by saying that it is not a given that Marcum will improve, as several star pitchers have struggled after switching to the nl. Hopefully he will be with the norm like Halladay and Johnson.

      • Agreed, he is not guaranteed to improve. Maybe he doesn’t handle change well. Maybe he and Rick Kranitz won’t mesh well. Plenty of outside factors.

        I’ve got him pegged at a bit over a 3.65 FIP with him regressing a bit in BB’s while getting about 17 more K’s (estimating 200 IP – face a pitcher every 4th inning which amounts to 50 extra AB’s by pitchers and a 35% K% for a pitcher).

        All this aside, I’ve just started reading your blog at the turn of the year (as a cubs fan to follow Greinke – my favorite player – and the opponents) and I really like the insight I find here. Keep up the good work

  2. Thanks for the thoughts and numbers. Keep it coming!

  3. Not to nitpick a ton, but he only won four games against the East in fourteen starts, with three of those W’s coming against Baltimore . Without those O’s games, his ERA is awful. It’s just frustrating when people say he was remarkable pitching in the AL East, when he wasn’t. He was remarkable against everyone but those in his division, and for some unknown bloody reason, the Tribe.

    Marcum’s numbers outside his division were PS3 silly last year, it won’t hurt facing the ‘Stros, CNLBC and that other team from PA, and undoubtedly will show through in his results this season.

    I agree he’s underrated, but next time you post something, just make sure you remain a little more Atlantic.

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