The Brandon Webb That Wasn’t and Will Be

By means that remain unclear at the moment, the present author found himself browsing within the baseball-related pages of over the holiday. For reasons that are also obscure, I followed a link from that site (courtesy user jedisloth) to a piece from The Arizona Republic’s sports section dated April 2009. There, I was reminded — on Christmas, a day intended to be full of sweetness and light — I was reminded of former Diamondbacks right-hander Brandon Webb and the stupid and dreadful injury that would ultimately end his career.

What one learns from the experience is not to go around clicking links haphazardly on a day supposedly reserved for joy. What else one learns — or what I, specifically, learned — is a lesson about Brandon Webb and scouting and context.

Webb’s was a career that, if it ended suddenly, also began with a sort of remarkable suddenness, too — at least in terms of Webb’s success relative to the expectations that preceded him. Having been selected in just the eighth round of the 2000 draft and remaining absent from all of Baseball America’s top-100 prospect lists throughout his minor-league career, Webb debuted with Arizona in 2003, throwing 180.2 innings that season and producing a 4.4 WAR. He surpassed the 180-inning threshold in every subsequent campaign through 2008 — which season was of sufficient quality to earn him a second place finish in Cy Young voting only to Tim Lincecum.

After that, for all intents and purposes, Webb’s career was over.

It’s an unusual career arc, that — and, perhaps for that reason, one sometimes forgets that Webb was among the best pitchers in the league while he flourished. Regard, by way of example, the top-10 pitchers by WAR from 2003 to -08:

# Name Team IP K% BB% GB% xFIP- FIP- ERA- WAR
1 Johan Santana – – – 1305.0 26.1% 5.9% 38.6% 75 74 64 35.7
2 Roy Halladay Blue Jays 1232.0 17.8% 4.2% 56.6% 75 75 71 32.2
3 CC Sabathia – – – 1269.0 20.5% 6.5% 44.4% 84 80 78 30.0
4 Brandon Webb D-backs 1315.2 19.3% 7.9% 64.3% 75 75 71 29.5
5 Roy Oswalt Astros 1247.1 19.0% 5.5% 48.5% 82 78 74 27.7
6 Javier Vazquez – – – 1272.0 22.1% 6.2% 39.0% 86 86 94 26.3
7 Mike Mussina Yankees 1108.2 19.2% 5.0% 43.7% 84 82 90 25.2
8 Ben Sheets Brewers 1060.0 21.7% 4.5% 40.8% 80 76 81 25.1
9 Randy Johnson – – – 1031.0 24.6% 5.5% 42.2% 77 77 85 25.1
10 Mark Buehrle White Sox 1336.0 14.1% 5.3% 46.0% 95 91 84 24.4

That, again, is a collection of the best pitchers from the mid-aughts — and Webb was their peer for the duration of that period over which his shoulder worked adequately.

For most who’re familiar with FanGraphs, this is probably little more than review. For my part, I had remembered that Webb was quite excellent — and that his excellence was largely founded on a ground-ball rate literally unmatched by any starter since that point in time (2002) for which that data exists.

There’s a curious phenomenon that occurs sometimes, though, in such cases where metrics or data become available for a player after his exit from the sport — or, at least, where one’s awareness about the importance of those metrics or data doesn’t arise till then. Not until the introduction of FIP-, for example — that is, fielding independent pitching adjusted for park and relative to league — did it occur to me to think at all about Noodles Hahn, who remains 12th all time by that measure among qualifiers. Likewise, it was only when Bill Petti examined historical strikeout rates relative to league that the achievement of Dazzy Vance was clear to me. Mostly, one is accustomed to using new tools to the end of assessing the value of contemporary players. Applying those same tools to players from the past, even the recent past, can yield new understandings — about the players, specifically, or about the tools themselves.

It had probably been three or four years since I’d examined Brandon Webb’s player profile before yesterday. My personal understanding of the game has change in the meantime. So has, on a basic logistical level, the stats I’ve included in the customizable area of the player pages here. One wouldn’t necessarily suppose that such a banal detail would facilitate even a minor epiphany. It has, though.

Examining Webb’s numbers, most of them were familiar to me — if not the particulars, then at least the larger concepts. He produced decent strikeout rates; he limited walks; his ground-ball rates were generationally great.

There was something I hadn’t remembered, though — or something I hadn’t known or thought to know. Allow me to re-enact the experience here poorly for you.

This is what I first saw, the aforementioned custom view of Brandon Webb’s player page:

Webb 1

And then my attention narrowed to a smaller area of that page, as follows:

Webb 2

Finally, I was surprised to see the following:

Webb 3

Not the red outline, because that wasn’t there, but rather Webb’s average fastball velocities over his career. Between 2003 and -08, the period over which he was healthy, Webb never averaged even 89 mph with his fastball. All told, his fastball sat at 88 mph over the course of his career.

That’s not particularly hard. By way of context, Kiley McDaniel notes that an average (50-grade) fastball sits at 90-91 mph. McDaniel refers to a 45-grade fastball as “below average.” An 88 mph fastball is a 40. That scale has surely changed as the league’s average velocities have risen, but the point is that Webb never possessed even above-average velocity — and that’s quite likely why he wasn’t really ever considered a prospect.

By way of more context, here the bottom-10 pitchers by average velocity from 2014:

# Name Team FB% FBv
88 R.A. Dickey Blue Jays 12.2% 81.9
87 Mark Buehrle Blue Jays 49.0% 83.9
86 Chris Young Mariners 66.4% 85.3
85 Josh Collmenter D-backs 70.2% 86.0
84 Jered Weaver Angels 51.6% 86.3
83 Jason Vargas Royals 57.4% 87.3
82 Dan Haren Dodgers 34.9% 87.7
81 Eric Stults Padres 50.4% 87.9
80 Doug Fister Nationals 63.7% 87.9
79 Travis Wood Cubs 52.8% 88.3

The average version of Brandon Webb would have appeared 10th on this list — which list is occupied mostly by multiple crafty left handers, certain right handers who’ve suffered multiple injuries, a knuckleballer, and a person whose pitching mechanics were mostly directly informed by throwing an ax in the woods.

In terms of wins, the median figure among this group was 1.4 WAR. Among the pitchers from 2014 with the top-10 fastest velocities: 3.1 WAR. Nor is this an isolated case: there’s a distinct relationship between velocity and success. And that’s not even accounting for the fact that the lower-velocity group above have had major-league careers only because they’ve exhibited the ability to succeed (relatively speaking) at lower velocities.

In short, were one compelled to project the future value of a pitcher, doing so merely based on his average fastball velocity wouldn’t be the worst way to do it. Nor does the presence of arm speed appear to affect merely the quality of a pitcher’s fastball. Felix Hernandez, Tim Lincecum, and Justin Verlander are all pitchers who entered the league with premium velocity and then developed elite secondary pitches only after several years in the league. That they could have had evolved in the absence of that velocity to begin with — or had the chance to evolve — is doubtful.

It’s unfair to infer from McDaniel’s brief grading rubric (linked above) that all a scout might consider with regard to a pitcher’s fastball is its velocity. Movement is obviously considered, as is command — and McDaniel has spoken to the necessity, as well, of considering all the qualities of a prospect as a whole. When tasked with evaluating thousands of players, however, a scout — or even an impostor scout like the present author, who’s tasked with evaluating barely anyone — must contend with the reality that the probability of a pitcher with below-average velocity really succeeding in the majors is limited.

In any case, far from being a hindrance, Webb’s fastball was ultimately among the league’s most valuable pitches during his career. His curveball and changeup are also considered above average per the pitch-type runs — and the quality of each pitch in his repertoire obviously influenced the success of the other two.

These things we know — but only after the fact. Of some interest, though, is how it came to pass that 248 players were selected before Webb and how, even the offseason just before his four-win rookie year, there appeared to be no conversations about he’d soon become a top-five starter in the major leagues. Were there signs that Webb would be so dominant? Should it have been obvious? Did he exhibit some manner of dramatic improvement in that offseason just before his debut?

One wants to learn from history. One wants to suppose that, were Brandon Webb a minor leaguer now, about to produce a four-win season, that it would be obvious somehow. Some readers might suggest that the not-knowing is part of the game’s beauty. I’m not entirely inclined to agree, if for no other reason than the sentiment borders on the maudlin. Moreover, of the 30 major-league clubs, there are few probably few who care much for the not-knowing part of baseball and would regard as very beautiful the idea of employing a quote-unquote “non-prospect” on the verge of a four-win season.

In conclusion, this video:

Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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This is beautiful. RIP Brandon Webbs’ shoulder. Your groundballs will be missed.