Wednesday, January 5, 2011

I Defy You to Make Sense of Jesse Litsch

There is no middle ground on Jesse Litsch. You either think he's the worst starter the Jays have, or simply bad. So polarizing! Might he be the fifth starter, or fighting for the long man role? Unless you're Mike Wilner in Daytime Radio Host/Chase Producer mode or have a thing for freckles, you probably don't think too highly of Jesse Litsch. Both of which are somewhat understandable but not especially estimable.

Let me get this out of the way: I don't understand the appeal of Jesse Litsch. Every non-disastrous outing he makes seems more unlikely than the last. I don't think I'm alone in this. In fact, the Fangraphs community projections for Litsch serve as a great reminder for the value of scouts.

Four different Fangraphs users submitted 2011 projections for Jesse Litsch. 2 self-identified Jays fans and 2 out-of-town fans. The Jays fans, likely armed with scarred memories of Listch's outings past, project a dire 2011 for the Jays right hander. The non-Jays fans hardly toss him Cy Young votes but those with Litsch baggage foresee half as many innings with fewer strikeouts and more base runners.

Base runners are not the friends of pitchers like Litsch. Pitchers who miss bats at a below-average rate must hope against hope to induce a ground ball to do the work they're out pitch cannot. It's stressful stuff, hanging on by a BABIP thread.

Just look at the company Litsch keeps. Here is a complete list of pitchers (since 2007) with at least 340 innings pitched, K/9 under 5.00 and ground ball rates under 50%. Children, look away from the screen.
  • Jesse Litsch
  • Braden Looper
  • Jon Garland
  • Kyle Kendrick
  • Scott Feldman
  • Mark Buehrle
  • Paul Byrd
  • Nick Blackburn
  • Livan Hernandez
  • Jeff Suppan
  • Carlos Silva
  • Zach Duke
A rather contemptible lot. Some "effective" starters, durable hurlers who dutifully take the ball every fifth day. Mark Buerhrle is the best of the lot (15 WAR over this time frame) but he features the group's highest K rate while yielding the fewest home runs.

When compared to the august company he keeps, two factors work against young Jesse Litsch. His in ball average is the lowest and his strand rate is the second highest. That, to me, is terrifying. Regression waiting to happen. Jesee Litsch isn't exactly the kind of guy who can afford to regress. A rebuilt elbow might keep Jesse Litsch from using his ground ball-inducing cutter as frequently in the future, exposing him to even more fly balls and home runs.

Some pitchers demonstrate repeatable ability to maintain high strand rates and below-average in play averages? Yes, yes they do. But they aren't among this wing and a prayer bunch. If Jesse Litsch transitions to more of a fly ball pitcher, his in play average might stay down but the strand rate will rise when the home runs roll in.

Only Buehrle has a (fractionally) higher strand rate than our pink hero and I'm willing to credit his superlative pickoff move and general left-handedness as bonus points for his magical case against reason. We certainly can't make the same allowances for Litsch.

Is this a long way of saying I don't think Jesse Litsch is a viable fourth, fifth, or emergency starter? Yes. Not only does he have marginal at best skills, his inability to remain healthy pretty much discounts any inning-eater claims.

Is Marc Rzepcynzski a better option in every single way? Absolutely! I don't say that as an unabashed fanboy1 but as someone who feels that the ability to miss bats and induce an above-average number of ground balls outweigh struggles with control and the occasional gopher ball.

1 - This is a lie.


  1. I agree litsch has been a smoke and mirrors anomaly since he was called up from aa. he relies on late movement and boyish charm, his shoulder surgery might have left him with just his freckles to rely on.

  2. Surprised me to see Buehrle on that list. But you're right, there's something about Buehrle that elevates him from the Litschs of the world. The southpaw factor, the pick-off move, the incredible D, the quick work, the perfect game. He gets a pass. Team RZep, for sure. If 2011 is about growing, and biding time, I'd rather Stewart have a better shot of making the rotation than Litsch.

  3. The perfect game was awesome. He pitched great, though perfect games are made for guys like him (and Dallas Braden) who don't walk anyone. If the wind is blowing in you don't have to worry about bounces on balls hanging up in the breeze.

    Which makes Roy Halladay's perfect game THAT MUCH MORE IMPRESSIVE.

  4. litsch never should have quit his day job of being a batboy. his smug pudgy ginger face grates on my nerves and his pitching skills are not even good enough for the softball team that i play on. i hope he never comes back and that's the last we will see of jesse glitch.

  5. Litsch said he has had that hip injury for years now. He might come back like new.

  6. It is easy for those who play the season via statistical projection and analysis to lambaste those who have demonstrated success in the past (2.7 war his second season through the AL) as they try to prove that they still belong.

    The article was eloquently written but fails to place enough emphasis on the fact that when healthy Litsch was one of the top 10 pitchers in the toughest division in baseball (and it was his second season through so according to your tightrope analysis of his stuff hitters should have been lighting him up).

    Despite your illuminating number crunching, the games still have to be played. Just because you don't like how he looks on the mound doesn't mean he can't pitch.

  7. "Just because you don't like how he looks on the mound doesn't mean he can't pitch."
    While that is true, Litsch still can't pitch. For the simple reason that he can't pitch. At least, he can't pitch well enough to be a starting pitcher, least of all not in the AL East. At his best, he would make for a decent long man/trash man in the pen. Rzep should be the front-runner for the 5th starter job.

  8. The last time Jesse Litsch was completely healthy (2008), he put up an impressive 2.6 WAR in 176 IP. There are worse options in the world than him.

  9. Agreed BFF, but since then he hasn't shown any ability to stay healthy, the driving force behind his value.

  10. I'd love to see a high-upside guy like Rzepczynski or Stewart step into a rotation spot and absolutely own it, but I don't see what the problem with Litsch is if all else fails. I love the idea of having him in the system for depth.


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