New Indians pitcher Shaun Marcum is better than you think

Scott Cunningham

Everyone seems to be in agreement that Shaun Marcum's 2013 season was an unmitigated disaster, but maybe we just aren't looking at it the right way.

In the little corner of the net that belongs to Tribe fans, the narrative I am seeing on Shaun Marcum is something like, "Injury-prone pitcher coming off a season where he was dreadful when he did pitch, probably not going to help but maybe..."

Well, I'm not buying the negativity. It seems to me that there is a lot of evidence that we should be much more optimistic about Marcum's value. First, with the injuries, almost everything he has gone through the last two seasons may have been tied to a single root cause - Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. TOS has far-ranging implications across the upper body, impacting nerves and blood flow. It is no surprise that a pitcher dealing with this would have issues.

Now he has had surgery to fix this issue. Does that mean that he will for sure be healthy? Of course not. But it certainly provides reason to think he could and maybe even should be healthy. Prior to the onset of the potentially-TOS-related issues, he threw 396 innings across two seasons. There was Tommy John surgery before that, but this is a guy who has shown he can come back from surgery and be a workhorse. If TOS was the root cause of his issues, and Marcum is healthy now, there is good reason to think he can stay that way.

But what really gets to me is the "dreadful when he did pitch" part. On the surface, Marcum's 2013 was not pretty (1-10 record, 5.29 ERA), but those surface numbers can be awfully misleading. Let's take a look at some numbers that are less tied to team defense, scoring and luck.

How about K%, BB%, and HR/9, three stats that are among the ones pitchers have the most control over? Earlier this off-season, Scott Feldman got $30 million over 3 years, and here is how his 2013 compared to Marcum's in those stats:
















So Feldman struck out fewer guys, walked more, and was more homer-prone, leading to a meaningfully worse FIP (a metric which tries to encapsulate a pitcher's performance independent of the team around him). Feldman will be 31 come Opening Day; Marcum will be 32. Feldman has never thrown 190 innings in a season; Marcum has done it twice. Marcum may be riskier, but he has a MUCH higher upside and he cost much less.

In our effort to go beyond surface stats, let's look at a few other FIPs. How about Jeff Samardzia? Two weeks ago,86% of you were clamoring for the Tribe to give up a small pile of prospects to acquire him. His 2013 FIP was 3.77. He has other advantages over Marcum, but if you're going to say Marcum had a terrible season, it's notable that Samardzija's doesn't look any better in terms of those rates. Shelby Miller and Julio Teheran were revelations for their teams, and figure to have bright futures. Their FIPs were 3.67 and 3.69 respectively. How about another free agent the Indians could target? Matt Garza posted a 3.78 FIP.

Shaun Marcum's 3.64 FIP was not world-beating, but it was better than all those guys and good enough for 35th out of 81 NL SP with 70+ IP. Is he an ace? No, but his FIP lands him in solid #3 starter territory.

Last year, the Indians rotation as a whole had a 3.70 FIP. When he was on the mound, Shaun Marcum, at least according to FIP, was better than the average Indians starter last year. Marcum, if healthy, wouldn't be the Indians #5 starter, he'd be in the conversation for #3. He is clearly better than Zack McAllister, who had a higher BB%, lower K%, and higher HR/9 than Marcum in 2013.

Before you all think I went completely crazy and don't see the warts here, I am not suggesting that Marcum is definitively better than Samardzija or Garza. He certainly isn't as valuable nor does he carry the potential of Miller or a Teheran. And he does have his warts. But the negativity around his 2013 performance is heavily influenced by a .322 BABIP and 61.9% LOB%, both of which are way out of line with his career norms.

Perhaps he gave up more solid contact than previous seasons (his Line Drive % has increased) and maybe he fell apart pitching from the stretch (his 4.36 FIP with men on base is certainly worse than his overall number), but it is more likely that poor defense, balls that happened to fall in, and some unfortunate timing led to some ugly surface numbers. Underneath, you have a guy who -when healthy- was actually a very solid pitcher.

I acknowledge that health is still a concern. Hopefully the TOS surgery cleared things up, but we really have no idea, and won't for a while. There is reason to doubt Marcum. But his 2013 was not terrible - far from it - and there is good reason to believe the Indians just made the best signing of the off-season, grabbing a pitcher whose underlying skills suggest a #3 starter, and getting him at almost no cost.

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