Arizona Chooses Benson Over Buckner

With the Diamondbacks early season schedule, tomorrow will be the first game which requires the fifth starter. After giving two starts each to Dan Haren, Edwin Jackson, Ian Kennedy, and Rodrigo Lopez, Arizona will hand the ball to Kris Benson for their 9th game of the season.

Benson threw 22.1 innings of below-replacement level baseball in 2009, his first major league action since 2006, with Baltimore. His minor league performance wasn’t terribly encouraging either, as between 2008 and 2009, he pitched 129 innings in Triple-A, giving up an FIP above 4.00 and and ERA above 5.00. The last time Benson was truly productive was in 2004, when he allowed a career low 6.2% HR/FB rate and posted 200 innings of a 3.75 FIP, good for 3.8 wins.

Due to his poor performance in the minors and lack of performance in the majors in recent years, projections are not kind to Benson. The 5.37 and 5.31 FIPs projected by CHONE and Marcel, respectively, seem optimistic when compared to the 6.03 projected by ZiPS. Simply put, the projection systems do not believe that Benson is a major league pitcher.

The other option is Billy Buckner, a 26-year-old righthander. Buckner was impressive in Triple-A in 2009, striking out 8.4 batters per 9 innings in 103 innings of 3.31 FIP baseball. On the surface, Buckner looked bad in 77 major league innings (6.40 ERA), but a 63.2% strand rate, 16.7% HR/FB rate, and .347 BABIP suggest poor luck. Buckner still carried a respectable 3.07 K-BB differential and induced a high rate of ground balls at 48.8%.

Buckner’s solid performance in both leagues results in all the projection systems favoring him over Benson, with projections ranging from 4.46-4.63 in FIP. That makes Buckner a slightly below average starter in the NL – worth nearly 2 wins in 200 innings. Buckner had a rough spring, allowing 21 earned runs in 18 innings, but his peripheral line of 18 Ks, 8 BB, and 4 HR doesn’t suggest that he’s nearly that bad of a pitcher, even ignoring the obvious issues with spring training numbers. Still, a 5 IP, 10 H, 7 ER performance in his first minor league start doesn’t exactly instill the front office with optimism.

It’s likely that Buckner’s poor spring and first start is what has deterred the front office from Buckner and towards Benson, whose first minor league start was a five inning scoreless outing. However, it doesn’t appear, based on their recent performance, that Benson is likely to outperform Buckner this season. Billy Buckner should be taking the mound for Arizona today.

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Greg
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Greg

Let’s remember that DIPS theory rests on the idea that all MLB-quality pitchers have roughly the same ability to prevent hits on balls in play and to prevent home runs on fly balls. The fact that Buckner has failed to establish himself in the big leagues as he enters his age-26 season indicates that he might not be a MLB-quality pitcher. The facts that he has had consistently high BABIPs in the minors and majors and consistently high home run per fly ball rates in the majors further support this notion. Buckner may not be a major-league pitcher and DIPS may not apply to him. He might just not be very good.