Jon Lieber was supposed to be the Sabermetricians' trump card.
Conventional wisdom states a pitcher must strike out no less than 10 batters a game, instigate at least one bench-clearing brawl a year, and date a cast member of the television show "Charmed" to be considered an ace.
On the other side, all statheads need is a guy to get dirty outs any way possible, happily trading flash for a hair cut you can set your watch by. That's Lieber's game. Er, it was his game ... until this season.
Some hard-to-please fans refused to look at the facts when GM Ed Wade signed the crew-cutted Yankee to replace Eric Milton and Kevin Millwood. They called him a No. 3 starter at best, saying he "wasn't lights out enough" and his strikeout totals were too low. They also believed he was an injury risk, preferring Wade sign a young gun like Carl Pavano who projects to have a long, promising career dating Playmates over a 35-year-old Alabamian who recently underwent Tommy John surgery.
The truth is, evidence indicates that pitchers coming off Tommy John actually pick up velocity. But the story with Lieber is in the numbers that don’t make SportsCenter.
Prior to 2005, he would have been perfect for close confines of Citizen’s Bank Park. His equivalent home runs per nine was an exceptional 0.9 in 2004, but the most impressive aspect of his game was his 0.8 equivalent walks per nine. Lieber was a control pitcher with a heavy fastball and sinker, especially tough on right-handers when he busted it inside. He was the Yanks’ best pitcher the second half of the season, and after the Bombers let him walk, GM Brian Cashman regretted the decision almost immediately.
PECOTA projected he would allow only 19 home runs this season.
Yesterday, he gave up home run number 20 and is now on pace to give up more home runs than Eric Milton last year.
So much for rock-solid evidence.
So what’s going on with this guy? He had a concrete pattern as easy to predict as his hair cut.
Ever since his first start, he’ll get to a point in the game when his jaw hangs open and he starts hanging his stuff. He’s walked 20 batters, after surrendering just 18 free passes last season. That indicates an issue with his control and conditioning, which has been address by manager Charlie Manuel who said Lieber must lose a few pounds. The season isn’t half over, and the hottest months and most grueling stretch are yet to come. His conditioning isn’t a joke anymore, it’s a concern, and represents another good reason to seek out some help in the rotation.
The most troubling part of his game may actually be his own defense, which has been atrocious. On several occasions this season, he botched a routine throw to first. Like Chuck Knobloch, he’s gone batty in that part of his game.
Lieber is showing troubling signs of physical and mental fatigue. After Sunday’s game, I’m officially "disappointed" in him, and it’s only going to take one more bad start at home before fans start jumping all over him.
Remember, they got him for three seasons at a pretty high price. What kind of pitcher will he be in 2007?
Maybe they should have followed conventional wisdom after all.