A Furry Surprise: Start Charlie?


I was partaking in a baseball quiz on ESPN radio Friday afternoon when out popped the question, “which reliever has the lowest WHIP this season?” Fantasy gurus know exactly what WHIP is, but to clarify, it’s the average number of walks and hits a pitcher gives up per inning. The answer was, of course, Charlie Furbush. Of course?! The guys on the show didn’t even know who Furbush was.

Furbush has—somewhat quietly—put together an unexpectedly fantastic season out of the bullpen. WHIP is probably not the best way to evaluate a pitcher, but his 2.10 xFIP and 1.50 SIERA should appease the sabermetrically inclined. This performance begs the question, subsequently asked by Mr. Dave Cameron over at USS Mariner, Should Furbush start?

Cameron concedes the advantage that relievers gain facing batters only once each outing, and he addresses the fact that Furbush has enjoyed the benefit of facing a much higher percentage of lefties than a southpaw starter would expect. Despite these advantages, Furbush still looks really damn good, even against righties, and our suffering rotation couldn’t get any worse if Furbush took another stab at it. The reward is high, especially with Furbush being cost-controlled for some time, while the loss is…well…more losses? Not possible.

I was in a keeper league for a while that had roster positions for minor league players, and I spent a fair amount of time perusing minor league stats. In 2010, I noticed Furbush, whose 109 strikeouts in 77 innings jumped off the page for the Tigers’ A+ affiliate. As he moved up through AA and AAA, however, one major problem stood out: Furbush gave up a lot of homeruns. Major league hitters proved just as challenging for Furball, where his long-ball rates as a starter were far above the league clip. But that doesn’t mean we should stick a fork in him as a starter. His strikeout and walk rates were quite acceptable (4.2 xFIP).

One major advantage Furbush enjoys in Safeco lines up perfectly with his weakness—not just the long ball, but specifically the long ball to right-handed batters. Furry has allowed 15 HR to righties versus just one HR to lefties as a starter. Even when adjusting for the fact that he faced more righties, his HR rate to lefties is still awesome. Safeco, conveniently, squelches HR power to right-handed batters.

Summary: Furbush gives up lots of homeruns to righties. Safeco destroys right-handed power bats. I think he deserves round two in the rotation.

Naysayers might point out that (as a starter) he gave up four ding dongs to just 113 batters at Safeco last season, three to right-handed bats, and that Safeco is doing nothing to help him. But 113 batters faced is a small sample for homerun analysis. This season at home, he has given up just one homerun to 48 batters. Another small sample. I can work magic with small samples all day.

If Furbush has really improved this season above and beyond the advantages of coming in fresh as a reliever, then that could be a big plus for Seattle’s deteriorated rotation—even into next season, as Cameron pointed out. The only way to find out is to start him and give him an extended run in the rotation.

Side note: after bringing up Oliver Perez last week,  the M’s now have three lefty bullpen arms. Kinda overkill, no? This could be a sign that they’re thinking about sliding Bushy back into the rotation. Or maybe not. What do I know.