Roy Oswalt, Potential Steal

A few minutes ago, Buster Olney tweeted out a note that the asking prices on free agent pitchers is on the way down, specifically naming Edwin Jackson, Hiroki Kuroda, and Roy Oswalt. In the message, he noted that Oswalt is said to be asking for $8 million on a one year contract, where he hopes to prove he’s healthy, re-establish his value, and land a raise next winter.

At $8 million for one year, the line for Roy Oswalt should be out the door. I’d venture to go so far as to argue that any contender with enough money to spend is wasting a potential golden opportunity by letting him sit out on the market any longer. At that price, Oswalt might just be the biggest bargain of the winter.

There seem to be a few factors conspiring to drive down Oswalt’s pricetag, but all of them are related to questions about his health. Last year, he was limited to just 139 innings due to lingering back problems that landed him on the disabled list a couple of times. He also saw his average fastball velocity decline from 92.6 MPH to 91.4 MPH, and saw his strikeout rate drop from 23.1% to 15.7%. These kinds of declines are often evidence of health problems and cause for concern going forward.

But, in this case, I think those concerns are generally overblown. We know Oswalt was hurt, so we shouldn’t be overly surprised to find evidence of diminished performance while he was fighting back problems. Back problems can certainly linger, and this could come back to affect his performance in 2012 as well, but we can’t ignore the fact that Oswalt ended the season as a healthy pitcher who looked every bit as good as he had earlier in his career.

Here’s Oswalt’s Pitch F/x velocity chart for the last few seasons:

After spending his career sitting in the 90-95 range, he was more regularly 88-92 in the first part of last season. His diminished velocity corresponds directly to his two stints on the disabled list, and it’s pretty obvious that they are directly related. Now, however, notice the massive upward spike at the end of the season, after he returned from his second break of the season. During September, his average fastball returned to his previous career norms, even topping 95 in his final start of the regular season – something he hadn’t done since the middle of the 2010 season.

As the stuff came back, so did the results. Here are his monthly splits from last season:

Mar/Apr 6.50% 19.40% 0.247 3.66
May 3.80% 10.00% 0.358 4.09
Jun 6.70% 10.90% 0.301 4.92
Aug 4.20% 17.00% 0.402 3.78
Sept/Oct 5.90% 18.30% 0.282 3.57

Before his back problems began in May, his velocity was normal and his K% was 19.4%. In September, when he was healthy enough to pitch again, his velocity was normal and his K% was 18.3%. While these numbers are both lower than his strikeout rate from 2010, they’re perfectly in line with his performances in prior years. If anything, it’s the 2010 K% that stands out as the fluke.

There’s not much in his 2011 performance that suggests a healthy Oswalt took any real step backwards as a pitcher. When he was throwing at normal velocity, he was still pitching at a the level of a +3 to +4 win pitcher, and that was the type of ability he was showing when the season ended.

The back problems and age mean that you probably don’t project him for more than 150 or 160 innings next year, with anything a team gets beyond that being a bonus. But, even in that kind of quantity, Oswalt could still easily be a +3 win pitcher. There just aren’t that many starters in baseball who can strike out three times as many batters as they walk, get an above average number of ground balls, and pitch effectively against hitters from both sides of the plate.

Oswalt might not be a 200 inning workhorse anymore, but there’s still a lot of value in getting 25 high quality starts and having him as an option for your playoff rotation. And, let’s be honest, in today’s baseball economy, $8 million just isn’t all that much money. That’s just a few million more than what Paul Maholm got from the Cubs. That kind of money needed multiple guaranteed years attached to sign mediocre outfielders like Josh Willingham and Jason Kubel.

On a one year deal for that price, it’s hard to see teams being able to get a better expected return on investment than they would from signing Oswalt. Unless teams have an MRI of his back that shows his spinal cord is twisted into a pretzel, Oswalt looks poised to be one of the biggest bargains of the off-season.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Could not agree more.