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The Great Westbrook Debate

By Chris Hrabe
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Over the last month, and ever since he returned from the DL earlier this year, Jake Westbrook’s performance has been the subject of much debate. It came to a bit of a head on Wednesday afternoon, when Westbrook struggled through 4+ innings and was unable to get out of the fifth, nearly surrendering a 7-0 Cardinals lead in Milwaukee.

I tweeted the following:

@chrabe: If Matheny plays the “we owe it to Jake” card to justify another Westbrook start, Mo should intervene. This is getting bad…

Was this harsh? Maybe. Was it justified. Absolutely.

Westbrook performed well at the beginning of the season, even in some cases, well above his season projections (somewhere around .500 and an ERA around 3.85 according to both ZiPS and Steamer, per Fangraphs.)

But after a stint on the DL, Westbrook has struggled. Velocity data from Brooks Baseball points out that Westbrook’s velocity has dropped across the board every month this season.

This month, Westbrook has allowed 24 earned runs in 21 innings, while walking 13 and striking out just 9. That translates to a walk rate that has risen dramatically over the past month to 5.57/9IP, or 11.8%. His ground ball rate has plummeted to 45.1% in August, after never being lower than 56.5% the rest of the year. Conversely, Westbrook’s fly ball rate is up to 29.3% in August, after sitting around 20% through the first four months of 2013.

Doesn’t sound like much of a ground ball pitcher.

Can you argue that August is a small sample size? Sure. But the second half numbers are almost the same, as far as the batted ball values go. Also, you can argue that Westbrook was pitching above his projections before the second half of the season and the DL trip, and may not be as healthy as he was when the season started.

Time is of the essence. Is there time to see if he will regress to the mean? Or has the DL stint and the drop in velocity centered on a new mean?

What does all this mean moving forward? For me, it means that Westbrook shouldn’t start another game for the Cardinals. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but an aging veteran whose velocity has dropped every month this year and has all of a sudden been susceptible to fly balls doesn’t give his team a competitive advantage.

Mike Matheny may very well want to give Westbrook the benefit of the doubt, give him another chance. This isn’t unique to Matheny, but it doesn’t mean it’s the right move.

This is the time for objectivity to reign, not emotion or loyalty. Objectivity is what has led the Cardinals to so many smart baseball decisions time and time again. Here’s hoping there is another one come Monday night against Cincinnati, heading into the most crucial stretch of the season and a race for the National League Pennant.

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