Saturday, February 26, 2011

Jair Jurrjens a Huge Key for Braves

Jair Jurrjens was one of the great steals of this century when the Tigers traded the Curacao native to the Braves along with Gorkys Hernandez for Edgar Renteria. Renteria famously fizzled with the Tigers while Jurrjens, pitching at the major league minimum in 2008 and 2009 went on to put up seasons valued at $16.7 and $17.2 million for the Braves (per Jurrjens seemed like a rising star when he went 14-10 with the Braves in 2009 with a sparkling 2.60 ERA. Jurrjens made 33 starts in 2009 after making 31 in 2008. But his 2010 season was derailed by injury and while the Braves did make it to the playoffs, Jurrjens became almost forgotten.

But with the Phillies improving their rotation with Cliff Lee, it's imperative that the Braves get a bounce back season from Jurrjens to compete in the arms race of the NL East. All reports indicate that Jurrjens is completely healthy this spring and that's very good news for Fredi Gonzalez and the Braves. If he can take the ball every fifth day along with strong rotation mates, Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe and Tommy Hudson, the Braves can compete very well with the Phillies from a rotation standpoint.

The difficulty is in knowing what to expect from Jurrjens. Well, in some aspects, it's easy to know what to expect. Every year, his peripherals such as strikeouts and walks have been almost exactly the same--even 2010 in limited duty. But the results have varied a lot. Even 2009 where the ERA was so low, a large part of it seemed lucky as his BABIP was a career low .268 and his xFIP was 4.47 or +1.87. The other thing that is confusing about Jurrjens is his ground ball rate. In his first year with the Braves, his ground ball rate was 51.5 percent. That went down to 42.9 percent in 2009 and down again to 39.9 percent in 2010. Naturally, his fly ball rate correspondingly went up every year (his line drive percentage has gone down slightly every year). Despite the increase in fly balls, he kept the ball in the park in 2009, but had less success with that in 2010.

So what kind of pitcher will Jurrjens be? We'll have to see now that he is healthy again. He is basically a three pitch pitcher with a good fastball and slider. It was his change up that lost value last year. It was a plus pitch in 2008 and 2009 but hit the negative numbers in 2010 and thus he threw it less. It would seem that he needs the change up to come back as an effective pitch to give the batters something to think about. It would seem natural that a change up would suffer with injury problems. So that is a pitch to watch closely with Jurrjens in 2011.

The one bright spot on Jurrjen's limited 2010 season was his ability to get batters to swing at pitches outside the strike zone, a rate that jumped fairly significantly from previous years. And so the key to Jurrjens' season then seems to be for him to continue to get batters to bite at pitches off the plate, regain the touch with his change up and stay healthy. It's hard to believe that Jurrjens is only 25. He still has his whole pitching life in front of him. If the Braves can get a healthy Jurrjens throwing 33 starts for the team this season along with the rest of their rotation, they should stay in contention all season, all other things being equal. The reports of his good health have to be a very pleasing development and one that gives the team and its fans much hope for 2011.

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