By the Numbers: The next Cliff Lee

Michael Salfino
Yahoo! Sports

You can find more from Michael Salfino at SNY.tv

Us numbers guys can be an insufferably smug lot. So when I saw the headline, "Edwin Jackson Drawing Comparisons to Bob Gibson" on the Baseball Think Factory newsblog , I reflexively snickered.

But then I remembered reading something about a famous pitcher's second year in colleague Gene McCaffrey's great "Wise Guy Baseball" annual and suddenly it didn't seem so funny. Two immutable facts of baseball are too rarely brought into sharp relief: (1) all of these pros are so enormously talented that greatness is always within their grasp and (2) the competition is so fierce that even the gifted among the gifted can struggle mightily for considerable stretches of time.

Tell me which of these 24-year-old pitchers is more likely to have a great career:

Pitcher A: 183.3 innings, 77 walks, 108 Ks, 101 ERA+

Pitcher B: 86.7 innings, 48 walks, 69 Ks, 73 ERA+

(ERA+ adjusts a pitcher's ERA to his ballpark and league season so that players from different seasons and even eras can be more reasonably compared.)

By now you've probably guessed that Pitcher A is the 24-year-old Jackson (his 2008 stats) and Pitcher B is the 24-year-old Gibson (1960 stats).

I am not projecting that Jackson is going to be Bob Gibson, who is one of the top 10 righties in baseball history. But you cannot discount the possibility so completely that Jackson will end up great – not even for a career let alone for a season.

In fact, Jackson is exactly the kind of pitcher who we should buy into at the first sign of breakout. He was a heralded prospect who had an incredibly good season for a 19-year-old in Double A. While his major league stat line is disappointing, he was rushed and, thus, victimized by the precociousness he showed in the minors. Skills? Here are the only starters with a faster average fastball last year than Jackson's 93.9 MPH (in order of velocity):

Ubaldo Jimenez, Felix Hernandez, Ervin Santana, Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett and Tim Lincecum.

So if Jackson takes to his new surroundings in pitcher-friendly Detroit and posts three of four high-quality, early starts, many smart guys will forecast it's a random bump. But I'm going to be buying and so should you. Someone is likely going to come out of relative obscurity to post that Esteban Loaiza 2003 or Cliff Lee 2008 season.

Guessing who is going to emerge from relative obscurity is likely a fool's errand. But so is reflexively discounting early-season evidence of dominance from unexpected sources. No one in the field is more likely than Jackson.

However, once you've made that long climb, the most likely next move is down. Most players have seasons that don't seem to make sense in light of their career stats, but only a handful are able to sustain that level of performance year after year. Muscle memory and the peak-performance zone fade during the long offseason. That's why I'm more bearish than most on defending AL Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee even though I was bullish early in 2008.

Let's see if we can identify a set of highly-skilled veteran pitchers who, like Jackson, are breakout candidates. Our filter is superior fastball velocity – the easiest skill to measure. Thanks to Baseball Info Solutions and FanGraphs.com for the data.

Jeremy Guthrie, Orioles: Still has the first-round bust tag even though he's pitched better the past two years than most busts ever do. Also, nobody wants Orioles this year, but teams unexpectedly emerge just like players. Again, we tend to ask, "Why," with talent far more than we ask, "Why not?"

Ian Snell, Pirates: It all fell apart for Snell last year. But, at this level, a couple of little problems can really screw up the stat line. Snell allowed the highest average on balls in play last year (.358; average is .300). Bad luck tends not to repeat.

Mike Pelfrey, Mets: I wrote him off before an unbiased scout lectured me on his superior skills right before he turned it around. He threw 80 percent fastballs last year, junking the mediocre breaking stuff and thus reducing his second-half walk rate to a sparkling 1.8/9.

Daniel Cabrera, Nationals: The 27-year-old's stuff has gone from great to very good but the walks are still a killer. Of all these guys, I'd be most surprised if he figured it out. Cabrera, though, does finally have a tailwind moving to the more pitcher-friendly NL.

Vicente Padilla, Rangers: The smart guys rightfully discount the record (14-6), largely a team stat. Padilla, though, was about 2:1 in K:BB last year, has top-shelf velocity and plays for a team that many in the know project could emerge as this year's Rays.

Joe Saunders, Angels: Have to put him here because the experts in all my drafts look at his poor K-rate and expect a major fall. But I see very good average velocity (91 MPH) for a lefty and a former first-round pedigree.