About a week ago, Fangraphs added Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections to its sortable projections page. Which is nice, because it makes it pretty easy to sort through the various projections. Back when the Giants 2012 ZiPS projections were released, I made brief mention of the fact that Eric Surkamp is projected for an ERA+ of 101 in 142 innings. That’s league-average production, and it’s a luxury to get that kind of performance out of the fifth spot in a rotation. Anyway, sorting through these projections once again, Surkamp really stuck out.
Specifically, ZiPS has Surkamp at 116 strikeouts (7.32 K/9), 59 walks (3.72 BB/9), and 11 homers (0.69 HR/9) in 142.2 innings of work. The walk rate’s decent, but nothing special (if anything, it seems a bit uncharacteristically high); the strikeout rate’s average, but I suppose that’s kind of nice to see, considering how Surkamp struggled to get whiffs in the majors last year. Then there’s the home run rate — the one area in which Surkamp stands out as markedly above-average.
Put it together, and he’s at a 3.65 FIP. Think about that: 3.65. Mike Minor is at 3.65. Matt Moore, the consensus top pitching prospect in baseball, is projected to post a 3.64 FIP. Jake Peavy, Alexi Ogando, and Gavin Floyd are at 3.63. James Shields, who finished third in AL Cy Young voting last season, is at 3.66. There are some caveats, though, and they’re important: park and league factors. Surkamp is a National League pitcher with a relatively pitcher-friendly home park, so he has the upper hand here. But it’s still impressive.
Having watched Surkamp’s six major-league starts in 2011, it’s easy to brush off his minor-league performance. He was terrible. He didn’t locate the ball, and when he did, he got hit hard. And these weren’t even against good offenses: one game against the Houston Astros, two against the San Diego Padres, two against the Colorado Rockies (who, at that point, were just running out mediocre lineups). Nobody in the majors who threw 25+ innings faced easier lineups than Surkamp. Whether it was nerves or fatigue, he looked completely overwhelmed. It was a super-small sample size, of course — I mean, we’re talking about 27 innings here. But he didn’t pass the eye test either — he simply didn’t look like a starter ready to face major-league hitting on a weekly basis.
Projections should always be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism, and in Surkamp’s case, I think that’s especially true. (It’s worth noting that Steamer projection system, one of the better ones out there, has Surkamp at a less sexy 3.94 FIP). It’s harder to project a pitching prospect like Surkamp than it is to project an established major-league pitcher. And there seems to be a consensus among scouts that Surkamp profiles as a fifth — maybe fourth — starter; even the most optimistic scouting reports see his upside as a mid-rotation starter. These projections look like they could actually represent his ceiling.
But at the same time, there’s something to be said for these numbers. It might be easy to forget or ignore, but Surkamp dominated the minor leagues. Across 22 starts in Double-A Richmond last year, his stats were fantastic: 10.43 K/9, 2.78 BB/9, 0.32 HR/9, 2.02 ERA in 142.1 innings. He led the Eastern League in FIP, at 2.37, and around late August, it seemed as though he was completely ready to make the leap to the bigs.
The Giants don’t have a lot of starting pitching depth, especially with Jonathan Sanchez gone. Surkamp is their sixth starter. Injuries happen all the time, and Spring Training has served as a reminder of that fact (see: Vogelsong, Lincecum). Barry Zito – who was an absolute trainwreck last year — is the fifth starter. So I wouldn’t be surprised if Surkamp starts a lot of games for San Francisco this year, and I also wouldn’t be surprised if he handles it well. For whatever reason, there seems to have been little mention of him during Spring Training so far (in fact, if I’m not mistaken, his name hasn’t come up once on Andrew Baggarly’s blog at CSN Bay Area). But he could very well play a crucial role this season. Don’t forget about him.