Statistical Analysis of the Marquis Signing: Ground Balls + Bad Defense?

The Nationals announced today that they will sign 31-year-old right-handed-pitcher Jason Marquis to a two-year, $15 million dollar deal. The signing fills one of the needs General Manager Mike Rizzo established at the beginning of the off-season; to acquire a top of the rotation starter.

Marquis earned $9.875 million last season at the back end of a three-year $21 million contract that he signed with the Cubs in 2006. Assuming Marquis makes $7.5 million next season (half of his 15 total), he will be taking 24% pay decrease with the Nationals a year after earning his first all-star appearance and tying his career high in wins with 15. It’s interesting that Marquis would sign a decreased deal the year after his career year, especially since pitching is at such a premium this winter.

This could have happened several reasons. First, he may have just genuinely wanted to pitch in Washington. Marquis has had a history of pitching poorly in the second half for teams that are in contention, pressure can get to some people, and he wouldn’t have to worry about that in D.C.. Or, secondly, it’s possible that other teams just saw something they didn’t like, even in what was a good year for Marquis.

So lets take a look at what Marquis changed to get better last year.

In 2010 Marquis relied on his fastball and his slider far more than the other pitches in his arsenal. He threw his fastball 64.1% of the time which right on par with his career mean, but he threw his slider 20% of the time, which was up from 16% last season, and the highest amount he had thrown it since 2002. Marquis was able to throw more sliders by throwing his curveball and change up more selectively. His curve, a pitch that he once threw 12.2% of the time was only tossed 1.4% last year, and he threw his change up was down 5% at 7.6 from 12.5 the year before.

It appears that by simplifying his repertoire, Marquis was able to be more efficient on the mound. By throwing less curve balls and change ups, Marquis decreased the risk of throwing pitches that could possibly hang, or stay up in the strike zone. As a result his fly ball, line drive and home run rate went down in 2010.  The increased use of his cutter and his slider helped improved his ground ball rate 8% from 47.6% in 2009 to 55.6% in 2010.

It would seem then, that at the age of 30 Marquis has been able to solidify himself as a solid groundball starter in the majors. His low .63 HR/9 in Colorado, along with his 56% ground ball rate and his traditionally low BABIP fit the prototypical ground ball inducing starter. With that I suppose the other teams involved either didn’t like the fact that he pitched a career high 216 innings at the age of 30, or they were scared off by his poor second half splits:

1st Half: 11-6, 3.65 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, .264 BAA
2nd Half: 4-7, 4.56 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, .284 BAA

Or maybe, just maybe, Marquis actually wanted to play at Nats Park (shocking…I know).

But here’s the problem:

So Marquis has solidified himself as an innings eater who will fit right in as the Nationals number two starter in 2010. He had a WAR of 3.8 last season, but is predicted to return to his career mean of about 1.8. This means the Nationals paid about $7.5 million for two wins. That number may seem high, but when you consider who he will be replacing in all the innings he will be pitching, he will be filling in for guys who have negative WAR’s. So really he may be worth five or six wins for the Nationals. So that’s not a huge deal.

The real problem is this; the Nationals have invested in a ground ball pitcher for a team who lead the league in total errors and ErrR by a good margin. A more impressive feat when you realize that Ryan Zimmerman and Nyjer Morgan were two of the ten most valuable defenders in the majors this season.

What’s worse, the Nationals are entering season with a big question mark in the middle of their infield, especially defensively. Ian Desmond had a -2.8 UZR in five games at second base, and -6.2 UZR/150 at 17 games at shortstop. Guzman had a -2.6 UZR/150 at shortstop last season as well. While Zimmerman excelled defensively, Adam Dunn was a black hole at first base with a -25 UZR/150 at first base last season.

Yes, Rizzo is making strides to make the Nationals defense better. Morgan and Zimmerman are outstanding. Rodriguez, while not what he once was, should help. But I worry how this deal will work out. Washington’s defense has to get better at some point.

But when will that be? And how will it happen?

Hope Riggleman brings the fungoes to Vierra.