Is Scott Schoeneweis Any Good?

The Mets are closing in on signing Scott Schoeneweis to a three-year, $10.8 million contract. In this market, that’s not a lot of money, but for a team with a well-stocked bullpen—already including left-handed specialist Pedro Feliciano—the move is a bit confounding.

Schoeneweis’s role has changed frequently throughout his eight-year major league career. He debuted with the Angels in 1999 as a relief arm, then did nothing but start in 2000 and 2001. After 15 starts in 2002, he returned to the bullpen, only to log 19 starts with the White Sox in 2004. He’s been a reliever since, and his stats suggest that he’d be best off remaining one.

While his strikeout rate has held steady in his last three years in relief, his walk rate has exploded, and his usage pattern has changed as well. Once a one-inning pitcher, he has been used more and more as a one- or two-out guy:

Year    IP      ERA+    K/9     BB/9    IP/G
2003    64.7    104     7.79    2.64    1.10
2005    57      134     6.79    3.95    0.71
2006    37.3    97      7.00    5.79    0.68

It isn’t necessarily bad to be a specialist; it could certainly work magic for Schoeneweis’ employability as he ages. It does, however, limit his usefulness to the Mets, especially when the bullpen already contains Feliciano, who worked less than an inning per outing last season.

Those Bases on Balls

The walk rate, though, can’t be salvaged. The best Schoeneweis and the Mets can hope for is that 2006 was an aberration. It’s nearly impossible to succeed while walking nearly six batters per nine innings. To look at it another way: more than 10% of plate appearances against Schoeneweis in 2004-06 ended in a base on balls.

Given that Schoeneweis’ value is so clearly in his matchups against left-handers, it’s worth taking a closer look. Here are his results against lefties and righties in his last three years as a reliever:

Year    OBPvR   SLGvR   OBPvL   SLGvL
2003    329     370     297     278
2005    405     389     260     241
2006    339     429     333     292
Career  362     459     303     302

He has never displayed excellent control, but until last year, he was stingy with the walks against lefties. A .333 OBP isn’t a disaster, but it is unquestionably a step in the wrong direction. And while it’s possibly to have a statistical blip at age 32, he could just as likely be legitimately losing his effectiveness.

If it’s more than just a blip, the trend removes him from the ranks of valuable lefties. Two relievers who received similar deals this offseason, Alan Embree and Jamie Walker, held opposing lefties to OBPs last year of .288 and .262, respectively. The Mets’ lefties, Feliciano and Darren Oliver, limited left-handers to .272 and .252, respectively.

But Can He Start?

New York’s starting five is far from established, with Pedro Martinez set to miss the first half of the season and such pitchers as Oliver Perez, Dave Williams, and Mike Pelfrey going into Spring Training competing for a rotation spot. The Mets are probably not done (they have made an offer to Tomo Ohka, for instance), but Schoeneweis’ history as a starter may have made him more appealing.

It would be a mistake, however, to expect that he can be plugged into the rotation with positive results. Schoeneweis has never posted an ERA+ as a starter above 93, and that was in 2001. In 2004, he managed an ERA+ of 88, and hasn’t started since. In the meantime, his walk rate has increased and he’s become less effective against right-handed hitters.

In short, Schoeneweis is following a fairly typical late-career progression for a left-handed pitcher. By most statistical measures, he’s gotten less effective, especially against opposite-side hitting. He may be a better rotation option than, say, Jose Lima, but not dramatically so. Certainly not enough to justify the difference between the league minimum and $3.5 million per year.

Looking Forward to This?

The three projection systems available so far offer a sort of consensus on Schoenweis. The differences are only matters of degree. It looks like his strikeout rate will continue to plunge, while his walk rate is unlikely to keep climbing. (If it does, it’ll probably have to continue its ascent in the International League.)

More specifically, here’s what CHONE, Marcel, and ZiPS have to say about Scott’s prospects in 2007. (Note: these projected Schoeneweis with Cincinnati, so he should fare better in less homer-happy Shea.)

System  IP      K       BB      HR      ERA     K/9     BB/9
CHONE   65      43      26      7       4.63    6.0     3.6
Marcel  58      40      26      6       4.58    6.2     4.0
ZiPS    51      35      27      3       4.41    6.2     4.8
Average 58      39      26      5       4.54    6.1     4.1

Given that Schoeneweis is unlikely to offer any better than replacement-level insurance for the rotation, the Mets have committed an awful lot of money for an whole lot of mediocrity. It may remain a challenge to spin Jamie Walker’s $12 million deal as a bargain, but Omar Minaya would’ve been much better adding a million bucks to the pot and signing Walker instead.

Or, you know, going without a subpar second lefty.

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