Brad Penny and Hee Seop Choi for Guillermo Mota, Paul LoDuca, and Juan Encarnacion. That trade made two years ago was most likely Paul DePodesta’s defining transaction as GM of the Dodgers. Nobody seemed to like it, arguing LoDuca’s leadership couldn’t be replaced and Mota was the glue holding the bullpen together (Eric Gagne, anyone?) Those in favor of the trade saw a top-notch starter in Penny and a young power-hitter with patience and potential.
The short story is that Penny immediately injured himself and missed the rest of the season, while the Dodgers still managed to win the division. The long story is that Choi never performed up to expectations, Mota’s been a disappointment for the Marlins and Indians, and LoDuca’s still a nice catcher, but his legend status has disappeared. Penny, after an above-average 2005 season where he managed to toss 175 innings amidst injuries, has turned into an early Cy Young candidate in 2006. Paul DePodesta is long gone, but is this the year that his 2004 trade is finally recognized as a plus move for the Dodgers?
Penny’s ERA currently sits at 2.53 in 53.1 innings pitched. That’s an ERA 1.4 runs below his career rate and currently ranks him fourth in the National League. He’s never posted a full-season ERA below 3.00 before, but came close in 2004.
So, let’s see what Penny’s doing better this season that explains the ERA drop. He’s been consistently average with his strikeout rate over his career and 2006 is no different. Control-wise, he’s walking half a batter more per game this year than last, but the 2.7 BB/9 is in line with his career rate and better than average.
On the other hand, Penny’s homerun rate has been amazing so far in 2006 — he’s only given up 2 homeruns in 53.1 innings. Keeping the ball in the park has been a strength throughout his career, but he’s actually allowing more fly balls this season than in the past, in addition to fewer groundballs and more line drives. A shift like that in batted ball profile would tend to imply an increase in homeruns, but Penny’s only allowing 3% of fly balls to leave the yard, compared to a career norm of about 9%. Expect that number to rise, and Penny’s ERA along with it.
A second indicator of a potential rise in ERA is Penny’s left-on-base rate in 2006. Over his career, 72% of base-runners were left on base, whereas that number is up to 81% this season. That number will likely regress as the season goes on and with it more runners will score.
Penny’s Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) sits at 3.31, significantly higher than his actual ERA. FIP accounts for the high LOB%, but unless Penny continues to be historically stingy with the homeruns, expect his ERA the rest of the season to be at least 3.75. If he can stay healthy enough to pitch 200 innings, however, his 2006 season will still garner a lot of attention, especially if the Dodgers continue to rebound from 2005 and challenge for the division lead.