Don’t Forget About Eric Surkamp

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.

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9 thoughts on “Don’t Forget About Eric Surkamp

  1. Regardless what Zito does as to his method of delivery by improving his skills, he will continue to be a train-wreck. Surkamp should be handed the 5th starter in the rotation. If the Giants were smart, they should bite the bullet & release him. He is taking up a slot on the team, which would be better served with another position player.

  2. Most likely, neither Surkamp’s performance in the minors nor his performance in the majors last year is indicative of his true level of performance. Once he shakes off the nerves, stops getting the rookie treatment from the umps and isn’t fatigued from a long season, I’d be comfortable projecting him somewhere between his ZIPS and Steamer projections.

    The one thing that bothered me about him the most last year was I had read that his curveball was good enough to be a #1 pitch. I was expecting to see something along the lines of a Barry Zito/Bert Blylevin cureball. What I saw looked very pedestrian to me. Not something he could use as a primary weapon at the major league level.

    It’s probably good enough that if he can command the fastball and add in a solid changeup, he can probably be an above average pitcher at his peak.

  3. In 2011 Surkamp pitched 142.1 innings in 23 games at AA BEFORE his call up.
    His previous career high had been 131 IP in 23 games in 2009!

    If you look at his strikes thrown totals in his MLB starts you can see he’s hitting the strike zone less often with each start — an obvious sign of fatigue.

  4. I agree with Dr.B and Prof’s statements. Surkamp’s potential as a pitcher probably lies somewhere in the middle of his great Minor League numbers and his subpar MLB cup of coffee. I think Surkamp has the potential to be a No. 4 or No. 5 starter in the future, but I am really interested to see how his Spring will go. As prof noted, he did log in a lot of innings last year, and fatigue most likely was a huge factor in his lackluster performance with the Giants. Now that he’s rested and starting off fresh, I am curious to see how he will perform this Spring.

  5. Good call. If the Giants had left him in AA the whole year people would be raving about him and demanding he get a fair shot right now. Fatigue from the long season, a hickup with the cup of coffee, whatever. There is a good chance he is going to see time this year. Second time around he might be a bit more aggressive and confident. He has to be confident to throw his curve and his change, and he needs those pitches to thrive. I’m a fan. Not everybody can be MadBum. Giants fans are a little spoiled with the wealth of pitching.

  6. I have not found that many people have forgotten him, though I think you are right, he hasn’t really been mentioned by the local Giants scribes much, if at all. I think most astute Giants fans have him foremost on their minds because he is the 6th starter, first in the firing line if something should happen, and so far something did, first Vogelsong then Lincecum.

    Kruk’s theory is that ideally you don’t go beyond 25 IP over what his high in IP was before, and while that did not affect either Lincecum or Cain or Bumgarner, that could be seen with his stats, Surkamp went beyond 25 above his high somewhere at the end of his first MLB start, and promptly tanked after that.

    I would note that under Shandler’s PQS (Pure Quality Start, a sabermetric version of the old Quality Start) methodology, Surkamp had a dominant start in his first MLB game, then the rest of the starts were disaster starts. So there is hope in that first start, it did demonstrate that he has some ability to pitch in the majors, he just needs to be able to duplicate that in start after start, whether that decline be from fatigue, overuse, mind games, over confidence, pressure, whatever.

    About Zito’s train wreck of a 2011, most people forget to mention that he was in an almost literal train wreck just days before the season started: his car was hit by another car at high speed and he reported that if he had not accelerated at the last second, it would have been a much worse accident, head on. I’ve been in crashes like that before, and I wasn’t right physically for a while. But whereas I sit on my ass all day doing white collar nerdy work, Zito after a few days was pitching in a major league game.

    No doctor, but it is my opinion that his body and mind underwent stresses that while modern medicine could not shush out that anything was wrong, he pushed himself to overcome and his body gave out. For example, in my crash, I was in a sports car and because I’m tall, my legs were very close to the front dash and somehow my shins did break against that, I’m still amazed I didn’t have more injuries other than being shaken up.

    Baseball is hard enough when you are an elite athlete. The human body can survive amazing stresses sometimes: a drug addict who was high, went into the ducts of the Transamerica Building and basically fell all the way to the bottom, but had no breaks, though obviously a lot of scrapes and bruising. The doctor noted that the addict being high was most likely very limp and wasn’t bracing for any collision, which would have broke something. I think that is how I didn’t have any breaks, the other car hit me from the side, I didn’t have any idea of what happened until my car skidded across the intersection and stopped a few feet from hitting another car, so I was limp as well.

    While we both did not suffer any breaks, I have to think that our connective tissues had to have undergone a lot of stresses. I think Zito was similarly stressed and probably should have been put on the DL for 15 days, but instead pushed it anyway because all his tests came back negative for the most part. That would explain how a pitcher who went his entire career without the DL suddenly was on it twice in the same season.

    If he is healthy, I see no reason why he cannot revert to his 2009-10 form, which is great production to get from your #4 or #5 starter (just not great when paying $20M). It makes no sense to dump a potentially very productive (if overpaid) starting pitcher when your alternative is only slightly better (at best; Shandler’s publication projected a 4.02 ERA for him in 2012

    Especially with such thin depth at starting pitcher, if Zito was dumped and someone (let’s say, Lincecum) goes out with a bad back, our rotation could suddenly be Hensley, Bumgarner, Cain, Vogelsong, Surkamp. And Vogelsong isn’t going to pitch like he did in 2011, I don’t think he’ll be bad plus think he’ll still be good, just not great.

    The best strategy is to go with Zito, let Surkamp prove his stuff in AAA (again, he’s not a proven major leaguer yet, despite great projections) and be SP insurance in the minors for 2012. He can compete with Vogelsong and Zito for a back of rotation spot in 2013 and may the best two pitchers win (though I suspect the loser would end up the long relief guy if Surkamp does force the issue). This strategy worked out in 2010, Bumgarner was able to work out his kinks in the minors, then came up when he was ready and Wellemeyer was not productive.

    • Great point about that auto-wreck. Almost forgot about that. Zito get’s no amnesty from the SF faithful. A return to 09-10 FIP would be valuable. And if Zito ‘crashes’ yet again, if Surmkamp could FIP between 4 and 4.2, that would do the trick as well.

  7. Won’t forget about Surkamp. He just needs some more stamina and a little more cooking time. A taste of the bigs was what he needed. I’d definitely keep him primed for an injury replacement or for Zito.

  8. I hate to break it to you but Surkamp will not be any better than Zito or any other 5th starter unless he develops different “out” pitches (for reference see Lincecum’s change-up). It was clear last year, and even in the first spring training game, that he has one great pitch, the curve ball. But one great pitch means every batter knows what to look for, and when a batter knows what to look for you as a pitcher are toast! Until he develops other pitches (which a dominant fastball is clearly out) he won’t be anything but the guy with a great curve who has a 4-5 ERA, and maybe a .500 winning percentage.

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