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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Transaction Ketchup: Reds acquire Kirk Saarloos

Continuing my coverage of the battle for the 5th spot in the Reds' rotation, today we'll look at 27 year-old RHP Kirk Saarloos, who was acquired on January 23rd from the Oakland Athletics in exchange for AA reliever David Shafer.

Saarloos was drafted by the Houston Astros in the 3rd round of the 2001 amateur draft out of Cal-State: Fullerton. He blitzed through the minor leagues and arrived in the big leagues with the Astros in 2002, only his second professional season at age 23. He was hit hard that year, but showed improvement (sort of) in a long-relief role the following year. The Astros sent him to Oakland in exchange for Chad Harville in April 2004, and while he didn't do much that year, Saarloos had a very respectable 2005 campaign for the Athletics, going 10-9 with a 4.17 ERA in 27 starts. Last year, however, he was not as good, dropping to 7-7 with a 4.75 ERA in 121 innings, split between the bullpen and the rotation. The Reds brought him over to contend for the 5th spot in the rotation, or, perhaps, to be the 12th man in the bullpen.

Recent Stats:
2004/HOU-AAA 7.0 7.7 1.3 5.14 0.464 15.43 9.34 9.28 -12.6 --
2004/OAK-AAA 20.1 7.6 4.0 0.45 0.294 3.54 3.50 4.22 5.1 --
2004/OAK 24.1 3.7 4.5 1.49 0.270 4.44 6.02 6.06 4.1 59%
2005/OAK 159.2 3.0 3.1 0.62 0.272 4.17 4.45 4.70 27.8 57%
2006/OAK 121.1 3.9 3.9 1.41 0.295 4.75 5.69 5.54 12.0 55%

I first saw Saarloos pitch on March 26, 2005, at a spring training game vs. the Anaheim Angels, and I was pretty impressed. Granted, it was spring training, but he kept the Angels off balance for his entire stint in that game, inducing ground ball after ground ball and out-dueling Bartolo Colon. That appears to be his M.O., as he has induced 55+% of all balls hit in play to be on the ground over the past three years thanks to an excellent sinker.

What I didn't notice about Saarloos when I saw him in person, however, were his unbelievably low strikeout rates and his concerningly high walk rates (in fact, he struck out the first two hitters he faced and walked none...yay for single-day samples). It's pretty rare to see a major league pitcher these days throw 120+ innings/yr and not only fail to break the 4 k/9 strikeout threshold, but also maintain a ~1.0 k/bb ratio--and that's exactly what Saarloos has done the past two seasons. What's really amazing is that he has still remained modestly effective during in that time.

How did he do it? Earlier this week, I linked to Sal Baxamusa's write-up on "Captain Kirk," in which he argued that the reason for Saarloos' high walk totals is not a lack of a control, but instead the consequence of him having to nibble away on every pitch given his inability to get someone out on the basis of his stuff. In 2005, this gambit seemed to work, with an FIP and PERA under 5 to go with his impressive 4.23 ERA (ground-ball pitchers often have better ERAs than their peripherals would indicate, if for no other reason than that they tend to induce a lot of ground balls, and thus get a lot of defensive errors behind them, lowering their ERA). But in 2006, either he lost his ability to nibble, or hitters learned better how to hit him, because his walk rate grew to an above-league average 3.9 bb/9, and his hr-allowed rate doubled. Along with it, his FIP skyrocketed to 5.69, with his PERA shooting to 5.54. So if anything, he may have been worse in 2006 than the spike in his ERA would indicate.

What can we expect from him? At 27 (he turns 28 in May), he should still have some years left in his arm, but I'm honestly not sure how much was there to begin with. One hope might be that exposing him to a league full of naive hitters might result in Saarloos being effective for his first year in the National League. On top of that, he'll be pitching in a weaker offensive division than he did in the AL-West. And his ground-ball tendencies bode well for success in Great American Ballpark. So maybe he'll be ok next year. It's a gamble, but it might just pay off.

Here's a quick look at 24 year-old RHP David Shafer:
2004/CIN-A 77.0 9.8 1.9 0.94 0.261 2.92 2.99 6.19 7.7 --
2004/CIN-A+ 4.3 10.5 0.0 0.00 0.388 0.00 0.87 2.39 1.7 --
2005/CIN-A+ 13.7 11.8 1.3 0.00 0.280 0.00 1.01 2.92 7.3 19%
2005/CIN-AA 39.7 9.3 5.4 0.68 0.264 4.08 3.93 5.94 1.1 49%
2006/CIN-AA 49.7 9.4 2.9 0.36 0.265 2.36 2.60 4.16 10.9 43%
Shafer was a late draft pick, but has performed well at every level he has pitched. His minor league numbers show high strikeout rates, low walk rates, and low hr-allowed rates--in short, everything you could hope for in a reliever. He was 24 last year, and therefore was slightly old for AA, so I'm not going to get too worked up about losing him. But he is the kind of guy who could come up to the big leagues a year from now and be a productive guy out of the bullpen. Nevertheless, given that Saarloos could turn out to be a steadying force at the end of the rotation--and he might just be--I think Shafer was a reasonable price to pay for him.