According to MLB Trade Rumors, Roy Oswalt has interest in pitching a full season in 2014. Even without the obvious nostalgic connection to the Astros -- n'er has a greater pitcher hurled for the hometown nine -- it would make sense for the Astros to sign him. Many people think that Oswalt is limited to a bullpen role, given his health and age, but Oswalt himself does not think so, and he may be right. As Tim Dierkes over at MLBTR hints, many great starting pitchers have performed well at Oswalt's current age of thirty six. Since the year 2000, twenty-six pitchers threw at least 160 innings during their age thirty-six season, and only four of them failed to reach a WAR of 2 or higher. Almost a third of them had a WAR of 4 or higher.
However, a discussion of Roy Oswalt's possible placement in the Astros' rotation cannot be held without acknowledging the relevance of some negatives. Since 2011, Oswalt has missed 127 games with lower back and thigh injuries, so his health will be a concern for whatever club he signs with. During that time, he has also found little success in preventing runs; over the past three seasons he racked up an un-Oswaltian 4.93 ERA in 230 innings pitched, including a jarring 8.63 ERA last season that would make even Philip Humber fans cringe.
The Statistical Argument
Fear not. Oswalt's ERA from 2012 and 2013, based on fewer than 100 innings pitched, can be dismissed as statistical noise. Or rather, not dismissed, because it certainly happened, but rather disregarded when trying to evaluate what he could accomplish in 2014. Instead, more relevance might be found in his FIP (See glossary below...I don't feel like working an explanation into this narrative). Oswalt had a FIP of 3.60 during the past three seasons -- only slightly higher than his career FIP. His xFIP has hovered around 3.40 for that time period, which is actually better than his career xFIP. This bodes well because it could mean that, with a larger sample of innings, the ERA should have eventually come down to approach those numbers.
In layman's terms, Oswalt's ERA and FIPs show that he was an unlucky ducky. During his recent two-year span of run-prevention futility, he actually raised his strikeout rate and lowered his walk rate. He gave up roughly the same rate of home runs. Despite these positive peripherals, his ERA ballooned. The cause resides with his Batting Average on Balls in Play. Oswalt's BABIP rose from .316 in 2011 to .378, and finally to .442 in 2013. Knowing that league average is about .300, and that his career BABIP is .301, it becomes obvious that the ERA mess can be attributed to a larger percentage of balls in play that landed for hits instead of outs, not a worsening in the factors he can control. A high BABIP can be caused by bad defense, pitching in hitter-happy parks like, oh, say, Arlington and Colorado -- both of which he called home during 2012 and 2013 -- and old-fashioned crummy luck
Finally, while Oswalt's fastball velocity has lost one mph on average since his prime, over the past three seasons it has averaged a constant-ish 91 mph. He still is able to drop that slow curveball in at 70 mph, and his slider still hits the mid-80's.
A strong statistical case exists to show that despite his recent high ERA, Oswalt's effectiveness as a pitcher has not declined in the areas that he has any control over: Strikeouts, Walks, velocity, and Home Runs allowed. That bodes well for his future, if he can stay healthy.
The Financial Argument
Matt Swartz at fangraphs recently discussed how many player contract dollars is worth one WAR to a baseball club, and concluded that it's impossible to know exactly. However, for conversation purposes, people generally accept that $5 million per WAR a good benchmark.
Even despite his high ERA, Oswalt earned 0.9 WAR for the Colorado Rockies in 2013, which has a contract worth of about $4.5 million. The Rockies paid him only $2.3 million for that contribution, making his actual value higher than his paycheck. In 2012, Oswalt's 0.7 WAR did not justify his $5 million salary, primarily due to a spike in Home Runs compared to his career rate. Likewise, his $16 million 2011 salary exceeded the contract value of his 2.9 WAR ($14.5 million). In this, nobody should be surprised - $16 million players who live up to their contracts year-to-year are rare. In fact, in 2013 alone, the list of players whose contracts exceeded the $/WAR value of their performance included Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Howard, Josh Hamilton, Zack Greinke, CC Sabathia, Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Johan Santana, and Mark Teixeira...just to name a few.
The last time Oswalt pitched in the rotation for an extended time, he earned 2.9 WAR, and in the season prior, he posted 4.3 WAR ($/WAR value of $21.5M - well above his $16M salary). Given his track record as a starter and good peripherals, Astros fans can reasonably hope that Oswalt reaches at least 1.5 WAR as a starter in 2014. After all, Erik Bedard earned 1.4 WAR for the 2013 Astros, and Oswalt still pitches with better peripherals and FIP.
Oswalt's injury-plagued recent seasons make him a prime buy-low target. His WAR dollar value as a starter could conceivably top $10 million or more, but not even the most savvy agent can reasonably argue that his cost should exceed that of a $5 million gamble in 2014. His age, recent injuries, and the fact that he is two years removed from a lengthy starting gig all work against him, contractually.
The Astros have only a relative pittance committed to the 2014 payroll at present, and could afford to bid a bit more than other clubs for his services, including a possible 2015 club option. Even if he needs to be moved to the bullpen, the odds are still good that he can perform well enough to be worth that amount, by WAR.
The Intangibles Argument
The Astros should feel they have more incentive than other clubs to give the Oswalt experiment a try. Who would not love to see Roy Oswalt back in an Astros uniform? The 2013 Astros' starting rotation ranked 13th in the league in ERA. Their bullpen performed so badly that it actually ranked 16th out of 15 teams in the American League. Performance-wise, Oswalt would easily be a positive addition to either, and he also could serve as the proverbial "veteran presence" that the front office seems to think is so critical. Oswalt has the geographic connection, too. During his career, Oswalt has repeatedly stated his preference to be as close to home as possible. Houston is a short direct flight away from Jackson, Mississippi, only 80 miles from his home of Weir.
The Astros could further incetivize Oswalt to come back to Houston by pointing out that he has the chance to set or extend some club records. Oswalt currently sits one Win shy of Joe Niekro's record of 144 Wins. Oswalt ranks a close third behind Larry Dierker and Niekro on the Innings Pitched record board. He has some ground to make up before catching Nolan Ryan on the Strikeout list from second place, but with two healthy seasons in the rotation, he could conceivably get there. He also sits third on the Games Started list behind Dierker and Niekro, and would need only thirty starts to pass them. Oswalt always wanted to play for a contender, but at this point in his career he might be equally interested in setting some records if none of the clubs with playoff potential come calling with the contract and starting job that he appears to want.
Finally, the fans need something uplifting. They need lift-upping. TCB readers represent the most baseball-savvy and forgiving bunch of Astros fans that exist on the interwebs. But these days, even our comments boards occasionally resemble the frustrated ranting of jaded chron.com trolls. This more reflects the Astros' current state of affairs than it does the capacity of our readership to be reasonable. The fans are sick and tired of losing -- even those who are okay with the Astros' rebuilding plan. Frustrated Astros fans need something to root for. And nothing would boost fan morale like seeing The Wizard take the mound on opening day, representing the Astros' happy past, standing just in front of Jose Altuve, Jonathan Villar, and George Springer, who represent the future.
FIP - Fielding Independent Pitching - A measure of a pitcher's run-prevention ability, on the same-ish scale as ERA, that is based solely on things that the pitcher can control - strikeouts, unintentional walks, hit-by-pitch'es, and home runs allowed. It's a better tool for evaluating how a pitcher performed, because it eliminates the effects of poor defense and bad luck.
xFIP - Expected FIP. It's like FIP, only it uses the league-average Home Run per Fly Ball rate (HR/FB) instead of the pitcher's Home Run rate. The reason is that HR rate from year-to-year has proven to be wildly erratic, and that most pitchers tend to regress to the league average over time. It's a bit better at predicting future performance than FIP is, and certainly better than ERA.
WAR - Wins Above Replacement - a bunch of math happens, involving FIP, that converts a pitcher's performance into "Runs Prevented" over the course of a season, and then thereby calculated into "Wins". Basically, it's the number of wins a pitcher is worth above an utterly league-average player whose WAR would be zero.
BABIP - Batting Average on Balls in Play. How many times a ball that is put into play (not foul, not home run) is turned into an out instead of a hit. League average is about .300. For pitchers, higher = unlucky because an above-average number of pitches were allowed to fall for a hit (usually because of bad defense or park effects). Lower = lucky. Over time, players tend to gravitate towards average, so BABIP is a good indicator of whether a player's results have been affected by good or bad luck. At least, that's the simple explanation.