One of my favorite pitchers coming into 2009, Slowey was cut down after just 91 innings with a strained right wrist that eventually required surgery and ended his season on July 3rd. Though known for his remarkable control, Slowey isn’t a junkballer who gets by strictly on that control. He has maintained an above average strikeout rate since coming into the league in 2007 and it has steadily improved year over year. He went from 6.3 in 67 innings in 2007 to 6.9 in 160 innings in 2008 to a very healthy 7.4 last year. All the while keeping his BB/9 in the 1.3 to 1.5 range. That is sheer brilliance. To wit, only Joel Pineiro (1.1) and Roy Halladay (1.3) were sharper in 2009 amongst pitchers with at least as many innings as Slowey (1.5). In 2008, nobody bested Slowey’s 1.35 mark. It was moved out two decimal places because Cliff Lee (1.37), Mike Mussina (1.39) and Greg Maddux (1.39) were close. And in 2007, even with keeping the innings threshold in line with Slowey’s total (67), he finished 7th at 1.5.
He is expected to be ready to go by the start of Spring Training and I expect him to pick up where he left off and make good on the breakout promise he has shown thus far. He will be 26 years old shortly after the season begins (May 4th to be exact) and I believe he has another level to be reached in his game. It will all hinge upon his ability to keep the ball in the yard. Slowey is a severe flyball pitcher which thus far stands as the lone fly in his ointment (see what I did there?). It has led to ugly HR/9 rates ranging from 1.2 (in 2008 during his best season) to 2.2 (in 2007 which led to a 4.76 ERA). Last year, despite a brilliant 5.0 K/BB ratio, he was saddled with a career-worst 4.86 ERA because of a 1.5 HR/9.
The potential downside of the laser-like control displayed by Slowey is the fact that the ball is almost always over the plate. That means the ball will be hit, often. Where it goes determines the pitcher’s success. The perfect storm is pinpoint control and a high groundball rate to match. That leads to something resembling Pineiro’s excellent 2009 season in which he had a 3.49 ERA and 1.14 WHIP thanks to a 60% GB rate accompanying his aforementioned league-best BB/9 of 1.1. Imagine if he had the strikeout rate of Slowey, he’d have been nearly untouchable.
I don’t expect Slowey to all of a sudden induce groundballs at that kind of eye-popping clip. Heck, no one expected Pineiro to either as it was an 11% increase on the rate he had produced in the two years previous. Right now, Slowey is averaging around 33% each year. In order to have the kind of staff-leading season his K/BB suggests he can have, he will need to get that up to at least 40% if not closer to 45%. In the absence of such a rise, he will need to dramatically cut his HR/9. It can be done. Jered Weaver has shown as much with a flyball rate nearly identical to Slowey’s, but a HR/9 consistently at 1.0. Of course Weaver does this by defying the generally accepted norm of 10% HR/fb rate. He has held steady at 8% for virtually his entire career. Slowey can learn from what Weaver is doing should he not be able to correct his flyball ways instead.
For now, I strongly advise you pay for 2008 as your ceiling (3.99 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, nearly 7.0 K/9) while knowing that hidden value may be on the horizon in the form of an improved groundball rate which could easily lop as much as 0.50 off of his ERA giving you an ace-like pitcher at #2 or even #3 cost, depending on how your league values injury comebacks. Go the extra dollar to secure his services and your WHIP will thank you mightily.