Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Hong-Chih Kuo

In my last post, I tore down a pitcher who ESPN thinks has turned a corner this year. If Gavin Floyd isn't the next big thing, who is?

One possibility is Hong-Chih Kuo. In the last post, I talked about the three stats that matter most for pitchers. Kuo excels at only one of those--strikeout rate--but he's off-the-charts good at it: his career K/9 of 10.7 would be the second highest of all time if he had enough innings to qualify. Unlike Floyd, Kuo has posted decent groundball rates every year except 2007, and he's never had a big problem giving up home runs. Kuo's career HR/9 is less than half of Floyd's.

Kuo's career walk rate isn't good, but the most common path to stardom for a young pitcher is to debut in the majors with good strikeout numbers, then improve his control to cut down on walks. Think Randy Johnson in the early-mid nineties, or Tim Lincecum right now. Kuo already has the dominant strikeout rate, and his BB/9 has been consistently improving since he arrived in the majors.

Perhaps the best measure of a pitcher's true talent is his expected fielding independent ERA (xFIP). A pitcher's xFIP is what we'd expect his ERA to be with average defense and luck. Kuo's career xFIP is 3.85, and in 2008 it's at 2.88, one of the best in baseball. While Kuo has accrued these numbers as both a starter and reliever, his numbers as a starter are actually better for his career.

Two problems have plagued Kuo's career. One is his health: he's survived two Tommy John surgeries and several minor injuries. This is the biggest roadblock to his sustained success.

The other is that Kuo's batting average on balls in play (BABIP) has been far worse than the league average. This could be a persistent problem throughout his career; on the other hand, I remember similar comments being made about Heath Bell as a Met, and since then Bell has done just fine in that department.

The Dodgers rotation is already crowded and could be even more so if Jason Schmidt can ever get healthy. Still, Kuo deserves a full-time shot. Don't be too surprised if he's starting for the Dodgers on opening day pretty soon.

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