Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Gang of 13: Colby Lewis

As crazy as it sounds, Colby Lewis might be the guy to watch this spring. That sounds silly for a guy with a 6.76 ERA in 46 major league games who's on his third team in the last few years, but when you cock your head to one side, squint a little bit while staring at his minor league performance and some scouting reports, you can convince yourself of some pretty stupid things.

Lewis was a first-round pick (38th overall) of the Texas Rangers back in 1999. He signed quickly and got 14 starts for Pulaski of the Appalachian League and simply dominated. That first year's stats are jaw-dropping: 64 innings, 1.95 ERA, 46 H, 84 K, just 3 HR allowed. The only knock was his walk rate. With his overpowering stuff, he allowed too many free baserunners, walking nearly 4 per game. I'd guess that that's a symptom of him being relatively old for a rookie league (where he'd likely be facing a lot of high school hitters), and a lack of command.

He zipped up the ladder relatively quickly, keeping his K rate up over 8, while cutting down the walks. When 2002 rolled around, Lewis was the Rangers' top pitching prospect, and a decent spring earned him a spot in the bullpen.

Unfortunately, those command issues that you could gloss over because he was dominating teenagers become a little bit more of a problem when he faced MLB hitters. Lewis walked 26 batters in just 34 innings, and his 28/26 K/BB ratio was ghastly. He got sent back down to Triple-A and got his control back, walking just 2.4 per game, while pitching very effectively. He got two more cracks at the majors that year, including four starts at the end of the season where he walked 17 more batters.

His 2003 season should be held up as the example for why single-season win/loss record is meaningless. Lewis finished 10-9 in 127 innings -- seemingly a decent season. But he did this with a 7.30 ERA. Yegods! Lewis' control failed him again, walking almost 5, but he couldn't keep the ball in the park (23 homers) and he gave up a crapload of hits (163 in those 127 innings).

In the middle of that dreadful performance, Lewis was sent back to Triple-A for a month. Over those 7 starts for Oklahoma, he was effective, even as he continued to walk too many batters. He had nothing left to prove in the minors, but he just couldn't translate that success to the majors, and he was reaching the point where careers start to flame out.

He did enough to cement a starting job that next spring, but he got just three starts (and 13 more walks). He reported right shoulder stiffness and went on the DL. Right as he was about to begin a rehab assignment, an MRI revealed multiple tears of his rotator cuff. He had surgery in May and missed the rest of the season. At the end of the year, the Rangers put him on waivers, and the Tigers happily scooped up his potential.

He spent all of 2005 rehabbing for the Tigers, including a separate minor surgery on his shoulder. He was finally healthy in 2006, and he pitched most of the year for Detroit's top farm team, the Toledo Mud Hens. The results were encouraging.

For many pitchers, a torn rotator cuff is a death sentence. Many pitchers are never able to recover their previous potential, and it's the type of injury that can lead to other problems. Any Nats fan who saw Tony Armas pitch and wondered what the hell all those scouts were raving about can chalk the difference between perception and reality to his rotator cuff surgery a few years back. Cubs fans can do the same with Kerry Wood's constant shoulder problems.

But Lewis seemed to have overcome all that. In '06, he greatly improved his control, walking just 36 batters, but his strikeout rate did drop into the mid-6s, where it was typically above 8 previously. Lewis would get two appearances mid-season with the Tigers, but they dropped him from the 40-man roster at the end of the season, and he signed with the Nats as a minor-league free agent in November.

It's hard to say what the Nats should expect from Lewis. He's clearly got a solid track record in the minors, and he showed an ability to adapt post-surgery, but we're left with an ungodly track record of performance in the majors. Still, the bulk of it came in that weird '03 season where he had the misfortune of pitching in front of a lousy defense in a sun-baked park that strongly favors the batter.

He's got a solid low-90s fastball, and a passable breaking ball, but he really needs to develop a third pitch. Of course, if he can't command the first two -- which clearly seems to be his problem -- it won't matter. The projection systems think fairly highly of him (Well, highly for a Nats pitcher).

CHONE: 4.70 ERA
Marcel 4.74 ERA
ZIPS: 5.28 ERA

It's going to be a challenge for him, but the potential is there. If 2006 represents a new level of command for him, and if he's able to solidify a third pitch, there's no reason he can't surprise as a passable 4th starter. And if he doesn't stick? Well, the fans in Columbus won't be disappointed.

4 Comments:

  • The length of this post should be exhibits 1 through 14 of why bloggers need editors!

    By Blogger Chris Needham, at 2/13/2007 10:35 PM  

  • Don't be silly... it's a good write-up, like all the others. These will let us all attach stories to the names we see in the spring training pitching roulette game. Great work!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2/14/2007 8:52 AM  

  • Still, the bulk of it came in that weird '03 season where he had the misfortune of pitching in front of a lousy defense in a sun-baked park that strongly favors the batter.

    All the sample size caveats apply and all that, but here's a weird stat in follow-up to this thought:

    2003 ERA
    Home: 6.88
    Road: 7.78

    He sucked everywhere! ;-)

    Nice write-up. I'm a bit more optimistic about Lewis than I was before I read this. YMMV, of course.

    By Anonymous Basil, at 2/14/2007 9:06 AM  

  • Yeah, Chris, don't be silly. This is like totally worth the price.

    By Blogger Sam, at 2/14/2007 10:22 AM  

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