With the Atlanta Braves shopping Jair Jurrjens, the question that everyone should want answered is whether or not Jurrjens is a lemon. Is the drop in his velocity attributable to injury, or is he simply losing velocity the natural way. The only way we will know for sure is if someone states so publicly, and unless Jurrjens is about to go under the knife, it’s doubtful that information will be forthcoming anytime soon. So for the moment let’s take a look at the things we can see.
Jurrjens is a good example of a bad-good pitcher, in that his peripherals rarely match the shininess of his superficial stats. His career ERA is nearly a half-run better than his FIP, and his FIP is more than a third of a run lower than his xFIP. More succinctly, Jurrjen’s career ERA- is a very-nice 83, while his career FIP- is a slightly above-average 95 and his career xFIP- is a slightly below-average 102. One of the main reasons his FIP and xFIP don’t match his ERA is because of his strikeout rate. Jurrjens has never had a league-average K/9. This year, it was even lower than usual, as his K/9 dipped all the way to 5.33, nearly two strikeouts below the league average. This is likely attributable to the drop in velocity he experienced this season. Jurrjen’s average velocity has declined in each of his five big-league seasons, but until 2011, the drops were miniscule and not a cause for concern. But this season, his average fastball lost two miles per hour. Jurrjens did spend time dealing with a right knee injury, and the ability to push off the rubber may partially explain the drop in velocity, but it’s doubtful that it explains it completely. In looking at his velocity charts, we can see that the top velocity range of some of his 2011 starts don’t even reach the average velocity of some of his 2010 starts. That is a troubling sign, as is the overall drop in velocity over the years.
Pitchers who can’t rely on their fastball often mix things up more than their flamethrowing brethren. Over the past five seasons, there were 135 qualified starting pitcher seasons where the pitcher’s average fastball velocity was less than 90 mph (this group excludes Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey seasons). That group threw, on average, 4.27 different pitches. Narrowing the results a little to pitches that were thrown greater than or equal to five percent of the time, we see that number drop to 3.81, which is still close enough to a four-pitch mix for government work. Looking at the 290 starting pitcher seasons (excluding Jurrjens) on the other side of the coin (fastball velocity of 90 mph or better), we see they mixed up their pitches less — they had averages of 4.13 and 3.51, respectively. This makes good intuitive sense — as your fastball drops in velocity, you have to work harder to get guys out, and often that involves throwing more pitches. That could be a problem for Jurrjens, who has been a three-pitch guy — fastball, slider, changeup — his whole career.
But for the sake of argument, let’s assume for a minute that Jurrjens isn’t hurt and that he can continue to pitch effectively with a three-pitch mix that includes an 89 mph fastball, what does that make him worth? Last year, he was worth $6.9 million by our calculations so if he put up the same production this year, he would still likely be a good value for the Braves or whoever they trade him to, in a vacuum that is (FanGraphs’ Matt Swartz has Jurrjens pegged to make $5.1 million in arbitration). But the problem is that a trade would not occur in a vacuum. The team trading for Jurrjens would obviously have to give something up to get him. Initial reports suggested top Kansas City prospect Wil Myers as one of the targets. This is absurd. The other problem is that Jurrjens will once again be eligible for arbitration in 2013, and using his 2011 performance as a baseline for 2012, there is a good chance that he will not be worth his salary in 2013. This would make him either a non-tender candidate or an albatross. Either way, you wouldn’t want to trade six years of a potential star’s career for him.
The Braves are shopping Jurrjens with the luxury of saying that they are trying to make room for their young studs on the farm, which is probably a true statement. But it could also be they are shopping him because he is damaged goods, and that’s not good for potential trade partners. If he is healthy — and I would want my medical team to get a look at him for a physical before signing off on any trade — Jurrjens might regain what he once had, but what he once had wasn’t all that spectacular, and his current statistical profile of a league-average pitcher is the one he is likely to retain going forward. That does have value in a pitching-thin free agent market, but anyone looking to trade for Jurrjens with the hope that he is going to dominate — and gives up elite prospects commensurate with such a hope — is taking an awful risk, one that is not justified by anything other than blind faith.