Is Washburn Washed Up?

Jarrod Washburn is not a guy I’ve wanted on my fantasy teams over the last few years. But this year, that could change.

Let’s be clear: Washburn is not a particularly good pitcher. However, Washburn has been remarkably consistent in his time with the Mariners: since 2006, he’s posted FIPs of 4.78, 4.77 and 4.72. His fastball averages less than 88 MPH, and he only managed to strike out 5.3 batters per nine innings last year. So why am I writing about him?

Because Washburn could have some value this year, thanks to the defense behind him.

Washburn is a fly ball pitcher who allows a lot of balls in play. He doesn’t strike many batters out, and he relies on his defense to turn batted balls into outs. Washburn’s career BABIP is .282, lower than many pitchers’ BABIPs. However, in his career Washburn has allowed 43.7% of his balls in play to be fly balls, as compared to only 36.3% grounders. By their nature, fly balls become outs more often than grounders, perhaps explaining Washburn’s relative success on balls in play.

Last year, however, Washburn’s BABIP was .309 – the highest BABIP in Washburn’s career. In fact, 2008 was the only year in his 11-year career in which his BABIP has been over .300. That’s amazing. Thing is, the high BABIP appears to be a fluke – related more to the Mariners’s poor defense last year, rather than a decline in Washburn’s skills. Washburn’s strikeout rate was actually higher last year than it was in 2005 and 2006, and was only slightly lower than his 2007 rate. He also managed to lower his walk rate from 2007, and batters made contact approximately as often as they had in the past. In other words, Washburn may not be particularly good, but he’s not getting much worse, either.

And he has reason to be optimistic for 2009. Earlier this offseason, the Mariners completed a three-way trade in which they acquired Franklin Gutierrez and Endy Chavez – two of the best defensive outfielders in the game. Gutierrez will likely be the starting center fielder, with Ichiro in right. Left field is undecided at the moment, but the Mariners have shown a dedication to improving their defense. Washburn should benefit from regression to the mean, as his .309 BABIP from last year was an outlier in his career. But he should benefit further from an improved Mariners defense – especially outfield defense – that turns more balls in play into outs. If the Mariners defense allows Washburn to improve upon his career BABIP by 20 points, he’d have a .262 BABIP, which would lead to an ERA probably around 4.00 or 4.20.

Even with a strikeout rate around five batters per nine and a woeful offense preventing him from getting many wins, Jarrod Washburn could have some value in large mixed leagues or AL Only leagues thanks to a potentially stellar ERA and WHIP. He’s certainly no fantasy ace, but as a late round pickup in a deep league, you could do a lot worse than Jarrod Washburn.

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Whether right or wrong, it is a different perspective on fantasy baseball. Why continue to write about stars, that consitanly put up great numbers. Keep up the good work. Not all of us play in 10 team mixed leagues.