As you've all probably heard by now, Blake Beavan was recently demoted to Tacoma and Erasmo Ramirez will be taking his place in the rotation tonight against San Diego. Beavan has been hittable all season long, but recently took a turn for the worse, allowing seventeen runs and four homers in thirteen innings over his last three starts. To be sure, this is hardly the end of the line for the big right hander: 6'7'' pitchers who can throw in the 90's don't grow on trees and Beavan will be given opportunities to reclaim a spot on the team. But after posting an ERA, FIP, and xFIP over 5 since his call-up last July, it's fair to wonder just how tenable his pitch to contact skillset is long term.
To find out, I compiled a list of pitchers who, in their first two years as starters, posted a k/9 under 5 and a walk rate under 2. To toss out any hangovers from the dead ball era, I threw out any pitchers from before the 1960's. To remove as much small sample size noise as I could while still including Beavan in the group, I also removed pitchers with less than 150 innings under their belt. The results were a mixed bag:
Mark Fidrych, 3.78 k/9, 1.77 BB/9, 156 ERA+
Mike Mussina, 4.98 k/9, 1.89 BB/9, 152 ERA+
Dave Rozema, 3.14 k/9, 1.58 BB/9, 131 ERA+
Larry Sorensen, 2.87 k/9, 1.83 BB/9, 108 ERA+
Steve Kline (the other one), 3.63 k/9, 1.70 BB/9, 108 ERA+
Nick Blackburn, 4.57 k/9, 1.80 BB/9, 99 ERA+
Doug Fister, 5 k/9, 1.82 BB/9, 98 ERA+
Fritz Peterson, 4.50 k/9, 1.88 BB/9, 95 ERA+
Bill Long, 4.18 k/9, 1.62 BB/9, 95 ERA+
Josh Tomlin, 4.98 k/9, 1.51 BB/9, 91 ERA+
Eric Hillman, 3.47 k/9, 1.55 BB/9, 90 ERA+
Bill Wegman, 3.67 k/9, 1.92 BB/9, 87 ERA+
Josh Towers, 3.81, 1.13 BB/9, 86 ERA+
Atlee Hammaker, 4.75 k/9, 1.68 BB/9, 82 ERA+
Blake Beavan, 4.07 k/9, 1.47 BB/9, 78 ERA+
*- ERA+ measures a pitcher's ERA relative to league average. A score of 100 is perfectly average: 75 is replacement, 125 is good, 150 is excellent.
At first glance, it appears that the extreme pitch to contact approach can work, and even be fairly effective. In fact, a number of pitchers on the list went on to have long and productive careers. Some, like Mussina and Fister, amped up their strikeout numbers and essentially morphed into different pitchers. But others succeeded with a very similar style. Peterson led the AL in walk rate over the five seasons following the sample's parameters and despite low strikeout numbers, he worked as an effective pitcher for years without ever missing too many bats. Hammaker also led the league in walk rate (and ERA) his third year in the majors and was poised to have an effective career before injuries took their toll.
Still, Peterson, Hammaker, Fidrych, and all of the other successful pitch to contact guys listed above had one thing in common: when effective, they were stingy with the long ball. Of the five pitchers in the sample that posted ERA+'s over 100, each had a HR/9 rate under .9. On the flip side, Beavan, Towers, and Wegman had the three highest HR/9 ratios, and were among the worst of the group in ERA+. While we don't have batted ball data for the older pitchers, it's fair to assume that the successful ones induced plenty of ground balls.
That's troubling for Beavan, who's ground ball rate would be the eighth worst mark in the league this year if he had thrown enough innings to qualify. Ground ball rate isn't automatically connected with a pitcher's propensity to allow home runs (see: Cain, Matt) but there is a high correlation between the two and Beavan's career 1.41 HR/9 ratio doesn't suggest he's an exception to the rule. In the long run, the pitch to contact approach cannot work with a high home run rate, and from all indications, it's a problem Beavan needs to fix to become more than a replacement level starting pitcher.
For Beavan, I see two possible ways to improve. Given that a pitcher's velocity over time generally only moves in one (bad) direction, Beavan probably can't count on missing more bats in the future. In that case, he needs to augment his ground ball totals, either by making a conscious effort to pitch down in the strike zone or by adding a new pitch.
Recent precedent suggests that the second option is plausible. One example is Pittsburgh's Charlie Morton, who entered the 2011 season as a fairly generic and ineffective starter. That spring, Morton began throwing a sinking, two-seam fastball almost exclusively. His GB% shot up twelve percent from 2010 to 2011, and he posted the lowest ERA and FIP of his career. Injuries have limited Morton to only nine starts this season, but thus far, he's carried his ground ball success over to 2012.
Beavan might succeed by following Morton's example. While learning and mastering a new pitch is much easier said than done, the sinker is an excellent weapon for a pitcher who can't rely on overpowering stuff, and is an offering that would complement Beavan's approach nicely. The alternative is that the organization could shift Beavan to the bullpen and hope his offerings play up in a shorter role. Most starters-turned-relievers gain a lot of life and movement on their pitches in the switch, and if Beavan can maintain his control while also adding velocity, he could turn into an effective relief option. At worst, his current skills are ideally suited for Hisashi Iwakuma's role and he could hang on as a decent long man and spot starter for a major league club.
The bottom line is that Beavan in his current state is a replacement level pitcher. The pitch to contact approach can work, but it comes with a thin margin for error, and Beavan doesn't miss enough bats or induce enough ground balls to make it work. At this point, he needs to figure out a way to increase his strike out totals or keep the ball in the park. Otherwise, he's probably destined to pitch as a spot starter or reliever.