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Drew Pomeranz’ talent is for real

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There are legitimate questions about Drew Pomeranz’ workload, but the talent is for real.

MLB: San Diego Padres at Arizona Diamondbacks Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

So, Dave Dombrowski got his guy. We knew that whenever the Red Sox made their trade to acquire a starting a pitcher, it was going to hurt. That doesn’t mean we were fully prepared for this. I’m not going to sit here and tell you not to be upset that the organization just lost Anderson Espinonza for Drew Pomeranz. The latter certainly has his weaknesses, and all of the concerns are valid. The track record is very short. There is legitimate injury concern, especially given his lack of workload in the past. There’s no guarantee he’ll be a factor towards the end of the season. So, yeah, I get why some people are upset.

Here’s the thing, though: I do believe that Pomeranz is good. Put another way, even if I’m worried about him physically for the rest of 2016, I very much believe in the talent that has gotten him to this point.

The obvious place to start is with how good Pomeranz has been this year. He’s averaging exactly six innings per start over 17 outings while pitching to a 2.47 ERA. There probably is some regression heading for that sub-3.00 ERA, but we get too hung up on things like that. There is plenty of room for regression while still being good. The peripherals all call for him still being one of the better arms in the league. To wit, he’s pitched to a 3.18 FIP, a 2.76 DRA and an 84 cFIP. For context on those last two numbers, Pomeranz is 11th in baseball in adjusted DRA and 20th in cFIP among pitchers with 75 innings.

Those are all the best numbers of Pomeranz’s relatively short career, which should come as no surprise. They are very good numbers, and it’s hard to beat very good numbers. On the other hand, he has been above average for three straight years now. In each of the previous two seasons — 2014 and 2015 — he has posted sub-3.75 ERA’s, sub-4.00 FIP’s, sub-4.00 DRA’s and sub-100 cFIP’s. Of course, this comes with the caveat that he had been switching between the bullpen and the rotation prior to this season, so these numbers must be taken with a grain of salt. On the other hand, we can only deal with the numbers we have, and most of the recent ones tell a good story.

Miami Marlins  v San Diego Padres Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

Photo Credit: Denis Poroy

The number one concern many have for Pomeranz is that he’s going struggle in transitioning from the NL West to the AL East. It’s a valid concern! The two divisions couldn’t be more opposite, at least in terms of park factors. However, the transition may not be as difficult as it seems on the surface. For one thing, Petco Park isn’t the pitcher’s haven it used to be. In fact, ESPN’s park factors only include one year of data, but they have Fenway and Petco as equals in terms of run environment. It is true that sites which use multi-year factors, like Fangraphs, have Fenway as a much more severe hitters park, but that also doesn’t factor in the real changes made in San Diego.

In addition to the park factors, it’s not as if Pomeranz has been this good in 2016 solely because he’s pitched in San Diego. For one thing, we use normalized numbers for this very reason. He’s been well above-average even when you consider these park differences, and one should expect the normalized results to be something close to the same thing in Boston. On top of that, his numbers on the road have actually been better than at home this year. Specifically, he has a 2.32 ERA on the road compared to 2.64 at home, and has allowed a .524 OPS outside of Petco compared to .588 in San Diego. He’s striking out more than 10 batters per nine innings in both situations.

Finally, he has the kind of profile that you’d like to see try to make the transition from NL West to AL East. Namely, he strikes out plenty of batters and he induced plenty of ground balls. I already mentioned the 10+ K/9 he boasts this year. Although that is likely to come down some now that he won’t be facing opposing pitchers every night, he still pitches like a strikeout-per-inning kind of arm. As for the ground balls, they haven’t been totally consistent throughout his career, but he is inducing a 50 percent rate, per Baseball Prospectus. Even if that also comes down, it’s still encouraging that we’re not talking about a severe fly ball pitcher trying to make the move.

Besides the changing of divisions, people are legitimately concerned about his lack of track record, and whether or not we can believe the small sample. Of course, we should always be somewhat skeptical of small sample success. On the other hand, there are real changes that are driving all of this. The biggest thing, and it’s something that Dombrowski mentioned in his post-trade presser on Thursday night, is the addition of a cutter. Now, the pitch isn’t one of the elite ones in the game, but it’s certainly getting the job done. The lefty is throwing it about 11 percent of the time, and the pitch is inducing whiffs on almost 30 percent of swings while inducing ground balls on 43 percent of ground balls. This gives Pomeranz a legitimate third pitch to go along with his fastball and his curveball, something that had been sorely lacking in his repertoire.

The other two pitches are where the numbers really come from, though. Starting with the curveball, which is likely his best pitch. Pomeranz seems to have realized this, as he’s using it more than ever this year with a usage rate of almost 40 percent. It’s getting the job done, too, with a whiff/swing rate over 30 percent and an absurd ground ball rate over 70 percent. The pitch works so well because he pitches it off his fastball. The heater won’t garner any headlines — it comes in at low-90’s velocity — but it has captured the heart of Statcast aficionados like Mike Petriello. Petriello wrote about Pomeranz back in May, which you can read here, and explained how well the pitcher uses his fastball/curveball combination to get strikeouts.

As I said at the top of this post, Pomeranz is no slam dunk and I’m not going to try to persuade you not to be sad that Espinoza is now in another organization. What I do want to get across, though, is that the talent is mostly real with the former. Is he a legitimate top-of-the-rotation guy like we’ve seen for much of 2016? Probably not. However, there are real changes in his repertoire and how he’s approaching opponents. These changes are also the kind that shouldn’t have too much of an effect when moving to a more hitter-friendly division. The Red Sox were desperate for pitching, and in Pomeranz they got the talent that one can comfortably slot in the middle of the playoff rotation.