What Does the Future Hold for Jake Peavy?by Geoff Young
February 06, 2007
The honest answer is that we have no clue whatsoever, but that's boring and doesn't tell us anything we didn't already know. So instead we gather available information and make educated guesses.
Why We Use Comparables: Justification and Limitations
One way of projecting a young player's possible future performance is through comparables. This is a technique often used in real estate. The idea is to look at the values of properties that are similar—using whatever parameters are deemed important—to the property being evaluated to get a rough idea of the latter's value.
In real estate, of course, we're dealing with an existing situation and not looking so much into the future. Well, we are looking into the future, but it's a little more subtle. Neighborhoods change, markets change, everything changes. We're really using values at a given point in time to help determine the value of a similar property.
We can do the same with baseball players. Using a tool such as Bill James' similarity scores, we can focus on a few key characteristics to narrow our search and find players whose careers to that point resemble those of the player being examined. Which characteristics are most important is another topic altogether, but this is the gist of the technique.
As with any system that attempts to predict the future, it is flawed. Every case is different and there are simply too many data points to account for everything. Life is complicated that way. Still, the more good information we are able to acquire, the more insight we gain and—for the GMs or fantasy owners among us—the better decisions we make.
Comps for Peavy
If we look at Jake Peavy's comparables through age 25, we see the following names:
|Note: Sim is the similarity score. A score of 1,000 is a perfect match. Also, I use ERA+ for easier comparison across eras and ballparks, and express hits, walks and home runs allowed as per nine innings so we're looking at apples and apples.|
The first thing to notice is that we have some decent comps here. That isn't a given. Sometimes you'll end up with guys in the 800s as the best comp or a list of players who retired 70 years ago. In those cases, you are—and I'm using the technical term—totally hosed.
But we've got something to work with, so let's take a closer look. What else can we see? A lot, really:
- Benes, Busby and Monbouqette are closest in ERA+.
- Benes, Wilson and Nash are closest in hit prevention.
- Benes has the exact same walk totals.
- Nobody comes close in strikeouts or home runs allowed, although some of this may be due to era. During Peavy's stretch, league averages have been 6.63 K/9 and 1.05 HR/9. For the rest of the guys on this list, those have been 5.03 - 5.86 and 0.67 - 0.91, respectively. We could do some normalization if we were so inclined, or we could just bear these differences in mind. Guess which I'll be doing.
Looking at career totals, Benes appears to be the best comparable for Peavy through age 25 (Smoltz scores higher because of factors such as wins and actual ERA as opposed to ERA+). The truly weird thing about this one is that both pitchers spent their first five seasons with the San Diego Padres. Relevance? None, it's just weird.
Tables for Four
It's good to examine all of our comparables more closely, but in the interest of brevity and because these are the data points closest in time, we'll walk through only the three guys who actually got their start after Peavy was born, as well as Peavy himself.
This was a partial season for everyone. Benes and Martinez (who came up briefly the year before) are ahead of the curve—check out those hit and strikeout numbers—while Smoltz is really battling his command.
Smoltz and Martinez blossom in their first full seasons, while Benes holds his own. Martinez in particular looks like a guy with a serious future. Peavy does okay but struggles with walks and the long ball—not a good combination.
Benes takes a big step forward, while Smoltz and Martinez slip. Martinez' dramatic drop in strikeouts is troublesome. Peavy explodes, cutting his walks and homers while increasing his strikeouts and winning the NL ERA title.
Benes slips a bit, Martinez falls off a cliff (the drop in strikeouts a year earlier was no fluke; now the rest of his game has deteriorated as well), and Smoltz is just treading water. Peavy slips but still performs at a high level and leads the league in strikeouts.
Benes and Martinez rebound somewhat, although Martinez' is largely an illusion—his hit prevention and command just keep getting worse. Peavy's ERA+ takes a big hit, though his peripherals remain strong.
There are two things worth noting from the above tables. First, now that we're looking more closely, we're seeing more discrepancies. This is to be expected; it's like when you know two people whose facial features are alike. The first time you meet them, maybe you can't tell them apart; after you get to know them a little better, and have more data points by which to recognize each, you wonder why you had trouble making the distinction in the first place.
The second thing to note is that there are patterns here. Benes and Martinez started out okay, then spiked, and finally settled into a lower level of performance. Smoltz got off to a slow start, broke out in a big way, slipped a bit, and then returned to his breakout levels. The shape of Peavy's career through age 25 most closely resembles that of Benes, although Peavy's peak so far has been much higher.
Back to the Future
Now that we are a little more familiar with what our comps have done to date, and we have a better understanding of where certain comps hold up or break down (e.g., Peavy hasn't experienced the huge drop in SO/9 that Martinez did at age 23), let's see where they go from here:
Benes essentially became a league-average pitcher. His hit prevention from age 26 onward grew worse than it had been through age 25, his walk totals rose about one every other game, and he served up a lot more home runs. Benes settled in at his age-24 level through age 30 (except for one valley at age 27 and one peak at age 29), then slipped into steady decline before retiring at age 34.
Benes ended up winning 155 big-league games and finishing with exactly 2,000 strikeouts, yet often is viewed as a disappointment based on the lofty expectations his early success brought. If Peavy follows this path, it's pretty apparent that he'll be viewed in such a light as well, regardless of what the final numbers say.
Smoltz is a freak who is still going. He survived extremely high workloads at a young age and became one of his generation's best starting pitchers before getting hurt at age 34. Then he became one of his generation's best closers for three years before returning to a very high level as a starter. You don't predict Smoltz' path for anyone. Seriously, someone should make a movie about him one day.
Anyway, inasmuch as we can divine anything from Smoltz, it's worth noting that after his age-25 season, he slipped into Benes-like production for a couple of years and then turned into an absolute monster at age 28. Where Benes had peaked early and then found a lower comfort zone, Smoltz took one step forward, two steps back, repeated that process, and then became dominant. This represents an absolute best case for Peavy.
Martinez is a lot like Benes. Pedro's older brother finished his 14-year career in 2001 with 135 victories. There's absolutely no shame in that. It's just that when you are the Cy Young Award runner-up at age 22, people have a tendency to expect greater things.
Benes and Martinez went one way, Smoltz went another. Based purely on the numbers, it was impossible at the time to tell which was headed where. The same can be said of Peavy. Bearing in mind the limitations of any attempt to predict the future (i.e., we can't actually do it), he's looking like a good bet to enjoy a solid big-league career. Whether it's as a slightly above-average starter who sticks around a while, a guy with a legitimate shot at Cooperstown, or somewhere in between remains to be seen.
References and Resources
As always, Baseball-Reference completely rocks.
Geoff Young covers the San Diego Padres at Ducksnorts and is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. Feel free to send Geoff comments via email.
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