Baseball BeatNovember 13, 2007
Dustin McGowan: Better Than You Might Think
By Rich Lederer

Quick, go trade for Dustin McGowan before anyone else in your league reads this. You can ask questions later.

OK, now that you have McGowan on your team, let's see if I can put a really big smile on your face by proving that you just stole him from one of your fellow league members, who most likely didn't even know how effective the 25-year-old righthander was last season.

Let's start out by comparing two pitchers. For now, we'll call them Pitcher A and Pitcher B. Hint: one of these two pitchers is Dustin Michael McGowan from Savannah, Georgia.

            GB%   FB%   LD%   K/9  BB/9  K/BB  HR/9
Pitcher A  53.0  31.0  16.0  7.64  3.24  2.36  0.74
Pitcher B  53.0  31.0  16.0  6.54  2.55  2.57  0.59

Which pitcher would you rather have? Pitchers A and B have identical GB, FB, and LD rates. Pitcher A has the superior K/9 rate, while Pitcher B has the better BB and HR rates. It's a tough call, don't you think?

Well, let's take the masks off Pitchers A and B and disclose their names. Pitcher A is none other than Dustin McGowan. Pitcher B is Roy Oswalt. Yes, the All-Star pitcher who has finished in the top five in the NL CYA in five of the past six years. The same guy who signed a five-year, $73 million contract extension in August 2006. That's an average of $14.6M per year according to my math. McGowan made no more than the MLB minimum of $380,000 (and pro rated at that) and will be under the control of the Blue Jays for the next five years.

Oswalt has the longer, more proven track record, but McGowan just might be his equal on a go-forward basis. You won't see him among the league's top ten in wins, ERA, or strikeouts. But, get this, he was 2nd in the AL in SLG (.347) and OPS (.644), 4th in BAA (.230), and 8th in OBP (.296). Only Erik Bedard had a lower opponent SLG and OPS than McGowan. Even if you include National Leaguers, McGowan was fifth in both categories (behind Bedard, Chris Young, Jake Peavy, and Brandon Webb). Oswalt didn't even place in the top ten in the NL in either stat.

McGowan was lights out against righthanded batters. The 6-foot-3, 220-pounder allowed only 59 hits (including just 2 HR) in 298 at-bats. He led the league in BAA (.198), OBP (.262), SLG (.252), and OPS (.514). That's right, Dustin dominated RHB even more than Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett, Fausto Carmona, Kelvim Escobar, Roy Halladay, John Lackey, and Justin Verlander.

How did McGowan do it, you ask? The former first-round draft choice had the sixth-highest GB% and the sixth-lowest LD%. Only Burnett and Carmona had a better combination of GB and LD rates. Although A.J. had a higher strikeout rate, McGowan bested his teammate in walk and home run rates. The latter's relatively low LOB% (68.1%) could help explain why his 4.08 ERA was worse than his peripheral stats.

Nonetheless, from the middle of July through the end of the season, McGowan was 7-5 with a 3.29 ERA in 14 starts covering 93 innings. He held opponents to a line of .208/.277/.314 during this period, which included three starts vs. the Yankees. The youngster held Minnesota scoreless for 7 1/3 IP on 7/24; allowed only one run in eight innings of work vs. Texas (8/5) and Seattle (9/1); struck out 12 while giving up just 4 hits and 1 walk against Tampa Bay on 9/7; and tossed a 5-hit, no-walk, 9-strikeout, one-run, complete-game gem vs. Boston on 9/17. But McGowan's best start might have been back in June when he faced only 29 batters in throwing a 1-hit, complete-game shutout against the Colorado Rockies. Interestingly, that masterpiece followed his worst outing of the year when he gave up 8 hits and 6 runs in 1 2/3 innings in a 10-1 loss to the Dodgers, a team he had handled quite well just 11 days earlier.

Dubbed by Baseball America as Toronto's top prospect in 2003 and 2006, McGowan has never started a season on the 25-man roster. He was optioned to Syracuse (AAA) last March and was recalled in May after posting a 1.69 ERA with 29 SO in 22 innings. He immediately joined the rotation and never missed a scheduled start the rest of the season. Long on potential and short on results, McGowan had, by far, his best season.

YEAR   AGE    G  GS   IP      H    R   ER   HR   BB    SO    ERA   ERA+
2005    23   13   7   45.1   49   34   32    7   17    34   6.35    70
2006    24   16   3   27.1   35   27   22    2   25    22   7.24    63
2007    25   27  27  169.2  146   80   77   14   61   144   4.08   109
CAREER       56  37  242.1  230  141  131   23  103   200   4.87    92

McGowan throws four pitches, including a fastball that sits at 94-96 mph and touches the upper-90s, a high-80s slider, power curveball, and a changeup. His fastball has better-than-average life down in the zone, inducing an inordinate number of worm burners. According to The Bill James Handbook 2008, McGowan had the fourth-fastest heater (94.7) in the AL. He was also 10th in terms of using his slider (18.7%) and fifth in opponent OPS vs. sliders (.504).

Courtesy of Joe P. Sheehan, one of the gurus when it comes to tracking pitches, I present McGowan's and Oswalt's pitch types in graphical format. The former's data is based on 1,182 pitches, which covers most of the second half of the season (when he was on top of his game).


As you can see, McGowan actually throws a harder fastball (96.25 vs. 93.13) and slider (89.15 vs. 84.71). He also uses his changeup (16%) more often than Oswalt (4%), who prefers to go with his curveball (19%) as more of his off-speed offering.

McGowan by Pitch Type:

CB    LHB     91
CB    RHB     52
CH    LHB    146
CH    RHB     42
FB    LHB    326
FB    RHB    254
SL    LHB    115
SL    RHB    156

The results of these pitches are graphically displayed in the following links: FB vs. RHB, FB vs. LHB, SL vs. RHB, and SL vs. LHB. The latter two graphs give one a sense of how McGowan's slider moves across the strike zone.

Drilling down deeper, here are McGowan's pitch types by count:

0&0	167	38	69	25
0&1	57	24	38	21
0&2	11	 3	23	18
1&0	87	26	17	 2
1&1	45	28	28	14
1&2	22	13	30	40
2&0	31	11	 8	 1
2&1	46	 9	13	 3
2&2	41	14	36	16
3&0	 8	 7	 0	 0
3&1	18	 8	 1	 1
3&2	47	 7	 8        2
Tot      580      188      271      143

As shown, McGowan threw his fastball 49%, slider 23%, changeup 16%, and curve 12% of the time during the second half. Not surprisingly, he relied on his fastball to get ahead of hitters. Conversely, he used his secondary pitches when he had a pitcher's count and went to his curve as a strikeout pitch.

Where can McGowan improve? Well, his control is less than impeccable. He walked 61 in 169 2/3 innings and was third in the league in wild pitches with 13. However, it is important to point out that his walk rate improved as the season progressed. Dustin only allowed two or more bases on balls in two of his final seven starts when he gave up 13 BB in 47 1/3 IP (including 6 BB in only 4 1/3 IP vs. the NYY in his second-to-last outing of the year).

McGowan could stand to lower his HR rate vs. LHB (12 in 338 AB and 377 PA). That said, his rate stats (.257/.326/.432) were actually quite acceptable for a RHP and his strikeout rate (20.7%) was a tad better than his overall total (20.4%).

Lastly, McGowan can also learn how to hold runners on base better. He was third in the AL in stolen bases allowed last season. Runners stole 29 bases in 30 attempts while he was on the mound. They have been successful 39 times in 44 tries over the course of his MLB career. Catchers Gregg Zaun and Jason Phillips are partially to blame here as they only threw out 17 of 133 base stealers (13% vs. a league-wide average of 27%).

Rogers Centre played as a pitcher's park in 2007, suppressing hits and runs. The AstroTurf surface may be conducive to McGowan, who was 8-3 with a 3.27 ERA at home and 4-7 with a 4.91 ERA on the road. An infield consisting of John McDonald at SS, Aaron Hill at 2B, and Lyle Overbay at 1B is a decided plus for any groundball pitcher. Alex Rios in RF and Vernon Wells in CF are two of the better fielding outfielders in baseball as well. The Defensive Efficiency Ratio was .727 (which is basically the same thing as saying batters hit .273 on balls in play).

McGowan has future ace written all over him. Only 25-years-old with a high ceiling. First-round draft pick. Top prospect in the system on two separate occasions. Mid-90s fastball with a "plus" slider. With excellent groundball and strikeout rates, he lives in the tony Northeast Quadrant (which I will update and feature once again this off-season) with similar percentages as Chris Carpenter in 2006. My kind of pitcher indeed.

OK, any questions?

[Additional reader comments and retorts at the Baseball Think Factory/Baseball Primer Newsblog.]


How luck related are line drive rates among major league pitchers? Do they vary greatly from year to year or do they stay reasonably stable?

Line drive rates are more steady year-to-year among pitchers than hitters. The most important batted ball stat is groundball percentage. The best groundball pitchers typically give up the fewest number of line drives and flyballs, and the worst groundball pitchers regularly allow the most line drives and flyballs.

Rich, How is Daniel Cabrera doing on your team?? Did you learn any lessons from hyping Cabrera??

I was wrong on Cabrera and, in fact, admitted as much in Confessions of a Baseball Analyst in July 2006. In addition, when recently asked by a reader "where some of (my) projections have gone wrong," I provided the following answer:

If you take a look at the top 20 pitchers in each of the Northeast and Southeast quadrants, I would say that the system identified pitchers who not only fared well in 2006 but were also among the best in 2007. Excluding those who were injured, only four pitchers jump out at me as not coming through this past season. Scott Olsen flopped, Dave Bush regressed, Daniel Cabrera has not panned out, and Mike Mussina is on the back side of his career.

I will admit to the Cabrera mistake but am proud of my record when it comes to identifying young pitchers. I have been wrong in the past and will continue to make errors going forward. That's the nature of going out on a limb and making forecasts. But I'm confident in my methodology and believe I will be right many more times than I'm wrong when it comes to identifying up and coming pitchers such as McGowan.

McGowan had Tommy John surgery several years ago. Some analysts believe that this has no impact on a pitcher's projection. I am skeptical with respect to starting pitchers whose game is power. Almost all successful post-TJs have changed their game or their role, and there have been none who have delivered 200 innings seasons for more than a couple of years. John Smoltz might be the most successful, but he had quite a few years off.

They actually replaced the AstroTurf in the Roger's Center when it was remodeled and dubbed the Roger's Center in 2005, with something else supposed to resemble real grass more accurately. I can't remember what it's called though.

Wow, just think if you had Halladay, Burnett, McGowan, Carpenter and Escobar, guess the last two couldnt pitch for Toronto and McGowan you could have had for a bag of baseballs a little more than a year ago.

GREAT article. Finally, someone is recognizing Mcgowan. The guy is going to be a top 5 pitcher in a few years. That 1 hitter against Colorado earlier this year was probably the best game I've ever seen pitched.

Right now... Doc is the ace of the Jays, but in a year or two.. that will be Dustin's job.

Actually, McGowan has never fallen out of favour with the Jays front office... He's been asked for and turned down in trades many times, but everyone in management (and on the team) always said he had the stuff to be amazing, it's great that he's finally pulled it together. (So, no "bag of balls" trades ever there...)

The turf is called "Field Turf", it's the same stuff they have in Tampa... It's supposed to be much better, and it certainly appears to be nicer (and to play the ball more naturally). And to me, it'll always be the SkyDome

Take the fact that the Rogers center suppressed runs with a grain of sand. It had more to do with the Jays pitching, which was clearly the best in the league. It is a hitters park.

Yeah, the Jays can pitch. As a Yankee fan, I saw a lot of that. If they could manage to keep Burnett healthy (always the problem with him), their rotation would be sick.

Thankfully, they can't hit.

They couldn't hit last year, their offensive numbers were pretty solid the year before with basically the same lineup. We'll see how they do this year.

Injury should be a concern for McG. He came off of TJS which, for my money, is why it took him a couple more years than predicted for him to figure it out. As much as his command has improved, so has his approach where he now has the ability to attack the hitters. And therefore dominate.

Problem is overwork and pitch counts. Injury is a concern with McG as much as it is with AJ because of pitch counts from everybody's favorite manager. Those masterpieces you cited, while very impressive, have another important number attached to them; # of pitches.

With Dusty and AJ basically being the same pitcher, maybe the Jays can see a combined 34 starts from them. That'd be pretty sweet..

In addition to the TJ surgery, McGowan was also diagnosed as a Type 1 diabetic a couple of seasons ago. Prior to the diagnosis, he and the team were mystified by some of the health problems he was having. Following the diagnosis, he has learned to control the symptoms and has made tremendous strides towards becoming the pitcher the Jays always thought he would be!

Go Dustin!

"They couldn't hit last year, their offensive numbers were pretty solid the year before with basically the same lineup. We'll see how they do this year."

A lineup that is, for the most part, aging. Frank Thomas, Matt Stairs (huge fluke year this year, partially cancelling out a horrific Vernon Wells), Troy Glaus, etc. They have Rios (good player!), but not much else in terms of guys who are a good bet to improve (Lind? Wells bounceback?). I'm sure I've missed someone, because I'm no expert on the Jays, but I seriously doubt they will score many more runs in 2008.

What about McGowan's .283 BABIP? That, coupled with my skepticism about him sustaining that GB% make me view him as one of those annual pitchers who pop up on everyone's sleeper list only to disappoint.

thanks for the GREAT post! Very useful...