As a Chicagoan, I don't like most of the things that Jim Hendry does. I generally regard him as the man behind the variety of contracts that will handcuff this team financially for years. I find the comparisons to Elmer Fudd to be rather accurate at times, when Hendry bumbles his way through his job, wasting one of the highest payrolls in baseball. There's a pretty good chance that he won't be here anymore, though, if and when the new ownership comes to the conclusion that this management and the roster its built aren't capable of winning a World Series. I guess I feel okay about that now.
But Hendry has done some rights lately. He's let Tim Wilkens and the scouting department build up a really good farm system, which has already produced Starlin Castro of late and has Josh Vitters, Andrew Cashner, Jay Jackson, Brett Jackson, Hak-Ju Lee and others on the way. He made an apparently nice move in signing Marlon Byrd, who's thrived in Chicago, and the Carlos Silva acquisition really couldn't have gone better for the Cubs so far. But this team still has a myriad of problems, and I don't find it particularly likely that Hendry will be the one to fix them.
Even so, I'd like to focus on one of his nicer moves of late, a brilliant little acquisition hidden within a rather silly trade compounded by an even sillier contract extension. On July 30, 2009, the Cubs added traded pitchers Jose Ascanio and Kevin Hart along with prospect Josh Harrison to the Pirates for reliever John Grabow and a fallen young star named Tom Gorzelanny. Grabow posted a 3.24 ERA in Chicago after the trade, convincing management to give him a two-year deal even though his peripherals indicated that he wasn't even an average middle reliever. Alas, he's posting a 8.44 ERA in 2010, which certainly doesn't reflect his ability, but this guy just isn't a good pitcher.
But Gorzelanny, on the other hand, appears to be blossoming in Wrigleyville. He burst onto the scene in 2007 with a 3 fWAR season in Pittsburgh's rotation, although his xFIP sat at 4.88 for the year. But in 2008, his velocity plummeted, his command left him, and he finished the year with a 6.66 ERA and a 5.84 xFIP. He had totally fallen out of favor with Pirates management, losing his spot in the majors, rightfully so. But after a resurgence in Triple-A to begin 2009, he spent a few games in Pittsburgh's bullpen before being sent to Chicago. He finished 2009 with a 3.73 xFIP in 47 innings with the Cubs and Pirates, including 7 starts with Chicago.
After the 2008 season, Gorzelanny looked pretty much like a non-entity. He was a 26-year-old lefty coming off an absolutely awful season where everything fell apart and he often looked hurt. He couldn't even get another legitimate shot on a team that was handing them out (I mean, Virgil Vasquez and Jeff Karstens?). But his velocity returned last season, and this season everything else came back, in a big way.
While he's only 2-4 in his 8 starts this season, Gorzelanny has a 3.09 ERA in 46 innings, backed up by an even more impressive 2.77 ERA. His xFIP is slightly less impressive at 3.56, but it still indicates that he's been a legitimately high quality starting pitcher so far this season. His groundball and walk rates are back to near-2007 levels, but more importantly, his strikeout and whiff rates have shot up, and his contact rate has plummeted.
In his first 8 starts of 2010, Gorzelanny has been a totally different pitcher from the one in 2008. He's all but ditched the curveball that he threw over 11% of the time in 2007, as he's essentially become a three-pitch lefty depending on his fastball, slider and change-up. Interestingly, while his velocity has essentially held steady on his four-seamer, he's throwing his change-up significantly harder now, in the 83-85 range compared to 80-83 back in 2007. The effect has seemingly been significant, as his fastball and change-up have been easily his most impressive pitches (according to FanGraphs' pitch values).
In 2007, his contact rate sat at 83%, but he's cut that down to 77% this season. A big part of that appears to be that he's finally getting guys to chase on pitches outside of the zone. Compared to 2007, he's throwing the ball in the strike zone 6% less in 2010, but he's getting batters to swing at an impressive 33% of his pitches outside of the zone. In spite of getting more swings on balls, hitters are actually making less contact on those swings compared to the past, indicating that he's using his offspeed stuff to get strikes like never before. More swings and less contact on more pitches outside of the strike zone just sounds like a good thing for the pitcher, if you can follow that train of thought. If it sounds like he's just getting more guys to swing-and-miss on balls outside of the zone, you're right. His whiff rate is up from 7.6% in 2007 to 10.6% in 2010, going from below-average to well above-average.
Basically, Gorzelanny has apparently taken some huge strides as a pitcher. He always missed bats in the minors but he failed to really translate that to the majors, even in 2007 he got by mostly thanks to luck on fly balls. But he looks like a totally different pitcher this year, a three-pitch lefty that misses bats and has solid command of all of his pitches. He seems like a good bet to be a solid No. 3 starter for the Cubs this year, possibly better, even if he regresses some from his currently high level. ZiPS has him finishing the year with a 3.61 FIP, and I think that's a reasonable projection for him going forward. Credit Gorzelanny, credit the Cubs and credit pitching coach Larry Rothschild, because he's really made some serious improvement as a pitcher in the past year.
For two okay young relievers and a fringe prospect, the Cubs landed one of the better left-handed starters in the NL, he only costs $800,000 for 2010, and he's under team control through 2012. Oh, and they got Grabow, too, I guess. But seriously, that's a diamond in the rough if I've ever seen one. For all of the awful moves that Hendry has made over the years, you really have to give him his due with this one, because I think that he made a really astute move in trading for Tom Gorzelanny.