Sunday, February 11, 2007

Gang of 13: Jerome Williams

Jerome Williams is at a crisis point in his career. A former first-round pick (39th overall) of the San Francisco Giants, Williams has been on a steady slide for a few years, and this could be his last chance to prove himself. Williams is just 25, so there's still plenty of potential in that arm, especially with his pedigree, but the results just haven't been there. If things break right, the Nationals could have themselves a steal, since the Nationals will continue to hold the rights to his contract for three seasons beyond this one.

There have been two basic problems with Williams. First, he's not much for conditioning. At one point, he reportedly weighed around 260 pounds. That works if you're a slop-throwing Cuban, otherwise it's just sloppy. (Doesn't he resemble him here?) It's hard to maintain command and consistency of a delivery with poor conditioning, mostly because of increased fatigue. He's rarely going to give you much more than five innings.

The second problem is that he's basically a two-pitch pitcher, mixing a low-90s fastball with a pretty good changeup. By all accounts, he's never been able to develop a usable third pitch to compliment those. You can get by with two if you're a reliever, but by the second time through the lineup, a starter with two pitches isn't deceiving many. Pitching coach Randy St. Claire is going to need to work hard with him on a good breaking pitch.

Even just with two MLB-quality pitches, Williams tore through the minors. He made his pro debut as a 17-year old and lived up to his draft status. He started seven games and allowed just nine earned runs. He zipped up the chain over the next two years before starting the 2002 season in Triple-A Fresno. Despite being just 20 years old, he started 28 games with a 3.59, which is even more impressive when you realize how much of a hitter's league the PCL is.

He would start the next season again at Triple-A, before getting a callup for an emergency start at the end of April. The Giants sent him back down to Triple-A, and he picked up where he left off, dominating the PCL with an even more impressive 2.68 ERA. When June rolled around, the Giants, who were competing for a post-season spot, called him back up. Williams, still just 21, stuck in the rotation for the rest of the year, winning 7 games with a 3.30 ERA.

Since then, it's been a bit of a battle. Williams showed up to spring training the next year out of shape and overweight. He battled a right arm strain which was diagnosed as elbow tendinitis at mid-season. The tendinitis would eventually require surgery in August, and he would miss the rest of the season. At the end of the year, he had 10 wins, but his ERA had risen to a disappointing, but still respectable, 4.24.

The following spring, he would have to reassert himself in the eyes of the Giants. Unfortunately, his father had a liver and kidney transplant during the spring, which caused him to fall behind. (His mother had died a few years before from breast cancer.) Predictably, he got smacked around in the spring, but he still headed north with the team as the fifth starter. After just three starts, the Giants didn't like what they saw, and they sent him to the minors to work on his command.

His time in the minors wasn't much better. As good as he was in Fresno previously, he was as bad in 2005, walking more batters than he struck out. In late May, the Giants traded him to the Cubs, and he pitched much better with their Triple-A affiliate. The Cubs called him back up, and he pitched effectively through the end of the season.

Despite his relative success, there were some warning signs. He set a career low in strikeouts per IP, and career highs in walks and homers per IP -- the exact opposite of what you'd want in a successful pitcher.

When 2006 rolled around, Williams pitched like he was toast. He'd appear in just 5 games for the Cubs, but those three key stats would all get worse. When they shipped him back to Iowa, he pitched as if he'd lost it. He gave up more homers there than he had at any stop in his career, and he struck out just over 4 batters per 9 innings -- a woeful rate that would pretty much automatically disqualify any pitcher from an extended period of success. You simply can't consistently succeed in the majors without missing bats from time to time.

So what happened to him? Is it physical? Was he having arm problems that were making his performance tail off? Is it mental? Is his head just not in the game? Is it just a conditioning issue? Damned if I know!

But I do know that if there really is such a thing as a St. Claire Special, Williams is the guy the Nats need him to work on. There's a TON of potential there. What he was doing as a teenager and a 20-year old is special. A pitcher who's that young shouldn't be holding his own in Triple-A or in the Majors. Yet Williams did.

Somebody has to get through to the kid -- whether it's putting the fear of God into him that this is his last chance and he better show up at a proper weight with the desire to match the talent he has, or it's just St. Claire refining his slider, giving him a third pitch to counteract to left-to-right break of his change.

The projections systems are all over the map with him:
CHONE: 4.91 ERA
Marcel: 4.56 ERA
ZIPS: 5.28 ERA
PECOTA: 5.21 ERA

He's certainly capable of beating all of those. But will he? Williams is probably a pretty good barometer of the Nats' season. If he's pitching well, the Nats are going to surprise. If he's stinking on ice, then they'll be living up to their low expectations.

If he does succeed, the Nats are in a great position. Realistically, he's the only one of the huge crop of stiffs they brought in who could reasonably be termed a part of "The PLAN!" since he's the only young one with any real upside.

It's a lotta "ifs", for sure. But this is shaping up to be an iffy kinda season.


  • He's in camp already. That's a good sign!


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