While Brad Penny will probably never return to the level of pitching he reached as a Dodger in 2007 — 3.03 ERA/3.63 FIP/4.33 xFIP; 4.3 fWAR — the 32-year-old is an interesting free agent possibility after throwing 41 2/3 innings of 167 ERA+ ball in 2009 for the Giants and 55 2/3 innings of 122 ERA+ ball for the Cardinals this past season before being shut down with a shoulder strain.

I’d imagine the whole “missing 75% of the 2010 season” thing is why we haven’t heard much about teams being interested in Penny this offseason (outside of the Tigers), but once again, for a team with a pitching need at the low end of the rotation, Penny could be a worthwhile gamble for the Yankees.

Here are a smattering of Penny’s career pitching numbers:

Most Yankee fans’ lasting memories of Penny are likely of the “being lit up” variety, and while it’s true he looked pretty cooked by the time the Yankees battered him for eight earned runs on August 21, 2009, leading to his release by Boston, he wasn’t an atrocious back-end starter for the Red Sox through his first 17 starts of the 2009 season (a stretch that includes six shutout innings against the Yankees at Fenway Park on June 11), posting a 4.71 ERA over 93.2 innings. Granted that’s nothing to write home about, but to Penny’s credit he wasn’t really giving up oceans of runs during the first three-and-a-half-months of the season (only four starts with four-plus earned runs); his bigger problem was that he wasn’t giving the team innings. Of course, this ended up being rather moot as he was awful in his final seven starts for Boston, throwing 38 innings of 7.82 ERA ball and ultimately finishing his Red Sox career with a 5.61 ERA/4.49 FIP in 131.2 innings.

Shortly after his release he signed with the Giants (the Yankees reportedly had interest despite the shellacking they administered that led to his departure from the AL East), and seemed to transform into a completely different pitcher, posting a 2.59 ERA over 41.2 innings the rest of the way.

What changed for Penny between his poor stint with the Red Sox and excellent stretch with the Giants? For starters, he cut his walk rate by nearly a full batter per nine and upped his GB% from 40.8% to a career-high 53.8% (and essentially maintained that improvement during his brief time with the Cardinals this past season, at 52.8%). But perhaps most significantly, he moved from a Red Sox team that saw its UZR fall from 55.5 (3rd-best in MLB) in 2008 to 5.6 in 2009, to a Giants team with the best UZR in the National League in 2009 (55.7). This partially explains why his BABIP fell from .336 with Boston to a miniscule (and unsustainable) .211 with San Francisco, and correspondingly, why his LOB% fell from an almost comically low 64.4% to an obscenely high 81.8%.

While the 2011 Yankees won’t come close to the 2009 Giants’ level of defensive efficiency, the 2010 Bombers posted not only their best team UZR (15.3) since the stat started being recorded in 2002, but also their first overall positive tally ever, so perhaps the team’s improved defense would benefit the contact-friendly Penny some.

Picking up on that last sentiment for a second, I was surprised to find that Penny, despite possessing a heater that has averaged 93.4mph throughout his career — which would make it one of the top ten fastest in baseball from 2007 to 2010 had he had enough innings to qualify — has posted such relatively low K/9 rates. His high-water mark was 7.20 with the Marlins before being traded to the Dodgers in 2004, and his career rate is 6.27. Without having access to career horizontal and vertical break numbers and not having watched Penny pitch all that much, one might assume his fastball doesn’t have much movement, but after comparing two random games from CC Sabathia and Josh Johnson — two of the league’s elite fastball-throwers — along with that August 21, 2009, game for Penny, it looks like Penny’s fastball might have too much movement, finishing almost two inches higher on average (11.25) than Sabathia’s (9.36) and Johnson’s (9.35); and about an inch-and-a-half further away from the zone horizontally (-4.47 compared to the righty Johnson’s -3.12).

So what could a team signing Penny realistically expect? Penny is a career 4.11 ERA/3.98 FIP/4.19 xFIP pitcher, which is basically a slightly-worse version of A.J. Burnett (3.99/3.93/3.80).

Bill James doesn’t even have a projection for Penny, but CAIRO sees a 4.14 ERA/4.16 FIP over 120 innings from Penny, good for 1.2 WAR. As a point of reference, Ivan Nova‘s CAIRO projection is for 83 innings worth 0.3 WAR, while Sergio Mitre‘s is for 72 innings of 0.2 WAR ball. I could live with a one-year deal for Penny at around $5 million, assuming he’s healthy.

If we assume that Penny’s true talent level is closer to the form he showed in the National League, and that his arm can successfully bounce back from his strained lat, he could be the best of the scrapheap options currently available to the Yankees as they look to fill in the back end of the starting rotation.

3 thoughts on “Penny-wise

  1. While it's certainly possible that a guy like Penny just can't be all that successful in what's probably the most potent offensive division in baseball, I'm not ready to completely write him off given what he's done since leaving Boston. But yes, Penny's '09 does show what the AL East can do to a guy.

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