Shaun Marcum is a pretty good Major League pitcher. He’s been in the show since 2005 and owns a 3.76 ERA and 4.25 FIP in a little over 900 career innings. That’s a 90 ERA- and 101 FIP-, respectively. Like most pitchers though, it took Marcum a few years to really hit his stride. Since 2008 he’s pitched to a 3.57 ERA (88 ERA-) and a 3.97 FIP (97 FIP-) in a bit less than 700 innings. He did miss the entire 2009 season due to Tommy John surgery, but that’s a solidly above-average performance.
Marcum just turned 31 years old last month and is a free agent this offseason. You probably knew that already, but a lot of casual fans might not since there have been very few mentions of his name on various rumor-churning sites. Casual fans also might not realize Marcum is a pretty good pitcher either, but that’s besides the point. We have ourselves a perfectly capable right-handed starter who has been worth at least 3.0 RA9-wins in five of the last six seasons he’s pitched and is having trouble finding a job. It doesn’t make sense, especially with only five weeks to go in the offseason.
Of course, things aren’t that simple. What Marcum did years ago is less relevant than what he did last year, which includes missing two months with tightness in that surgically reconstructed right elbow. He also posted a 94 ERA- (worst since 2006) and a 105 FIP- (worst since 2007) while only throwing 124.1 innings, his fewest since before the surgery. On the bright side, Marcum did manage a career-best strikeout rate (7.91 K/9 and 20.7%), but he also posted the lowest ground ball rate (35.4%) of his career. Fly balls have always been his thing though (career 42.3%), and despite being homer prone (career 1.22 HR/9 and 10.8% HR/FB), he benefits from the air balls by seeing more batted balls turn into outs (career .270 BABIP).
The 2012 season was one of the worst seasons of Marcum’s career, the worst if we stick to his years as a full-time big leaguer (the last six or so). He also pitched poorly after returning from the elbow problem, particularly in September — a 4.68 ERA and 5.08 FIP in 32.2 innings. It’s the second straight season he finished poorly, as you may remember the ghastly 5.17 ERA and 4.48 FIP in September 2011. That includes a start of seven shutout innings too. The performance carried over into the postseason (16 runs in 9.2 innings), and that kind of stuff tends to stick out, fair or not.
More than anything though, more than the elbow injury and poor finishes to the last two seasons, I think Marcum’s market has been relatively quite this winter because his margin for error is so much smaller than that of his peers. He’s a soft-tossing changeup specialist, and that is not a phrase we use to describe right-handed pitchers all that often. When people see a swing like this…
…followed by a radar gun reading like this…
…it kinda freaks them out a little. It’s just not normal. Marcum has averaged 86.7 mph with his fastball over the last three seasons, the slowest non-knuckleballer, non-Livan Hernandez right-handed fastball in the game (min. 400 IP). It doesn’t look or feel right because it’s so unconventional, and yet it works for him and has for a really long time now. One day someone’s going to do some really great research and analysis on pitch sequencing and we’ll better understand how a big league hitter could swing through an 87 mph fastball over the heart of the plate like it was 97, and maybe then guys like Marcum will get some more respect.
Anyway, there is no shortage of teams in need of rotation help right now and at some point soon Marcum will have a job. He might even get a multi-year contract with the way the market has been this winter. Obviously the health of his elbow will play a big role in that and heck, for all we know the joint could be a mess and that’s why he’s still unemployed. In an offseason in which Kevin Correia is getting multiple years and Scott Baker is getting nearly $6 million guaranteed (after throwing zero pitches in 2012), I find it odd that someone of Marcum’s caliber is left looking for a job in mid-January. A team with a big-ish ballpark (Padres? Mets? Marlins?) could wind up with the bargain of the winter if the rest of baseball continues to give the soft-tossing righty the cold shoulder.