July 27, 2003

Lima Time!

Just a few months ago, Jose Lima was a total joke. That may sound mean, but it was true. He was a pitcher who had two very nice seasons sandwiched in between a whole bunch of horrible ones and, as his ERA soared, "Lima Time!" became something people laughed at, instead of with. It was sort of like the pitching version of "The Mendoza Line."

After starting his career 9-22 with a 5.92 ERA, Jose Lima somehow went 16-8 with a 3.70 ERA for the Astros in 1998, and then followed it up by going 21-10 with a 3.58 ERA the following year. Then, he put up the following numbers:

Year      IP      ERA     W     L

2000 196 6.65 7 16
2001 166 5.54 6 12
2002 68 7.77 4 6
TOTAL 430 6.40 17 34

Initially, Lima's troubles were blamed on the Astros moving from the spacious, pitcher-friendly Astrodome, to their new ballpark, Enron Field, one of the better hitter's parks in baseball. While the change in ballparks certainly would have hurt any pitcher, placing all the blame on it was pretty silly. Lima's road ERA in 2000 (6.32) was horrible and just slightly better than his home ERA (6.92). In fact, for all the talk of the homer-friendly Enron Field killing him, Lima gave up a homer once every 4.2 innings on the road and one every 4.0 innings at home.

Even when he was pitching well, Lima never struck many people out and instead relied upon good control and the ability of his fielders to turn the many fly balls he induced into outs. Despite pitching in the Astrodome, Lima served up 34 homers in 1998 and 30 in 1999. Then, in his first season in Enron Field, he gave up 48 homers in 196.1 innings.

His strikeout rate dropped over 15% from his 1999/2000 levels and his walk rate also got significantly worse. Those things hurt him, but the home runs are what killed him. His 48 homers allowed were the second-most in the history of baseball, behind only Bert Blyleven's 50 in 1986. Of course, Blyleven gave up those 50 homers in 271.2 innings, while Lima served up his 48 in just 196.1 innings. In fact, Lima became just the 2nd pitcher in baseball history to give up 40+ homers in less than 200 innings (Shawn Boskie in 1996 is the other one).

Lima didn't have a single good month in 2000. His monthly ERAs were: 8.42, 7.68, 5.17, 5.91, 6.67 and 6.16. Even the worst pitchers usually find a way to scrape together 2 or 3 good starts in a month at some point, but not Lima.

Right-handed batters hit .272/.305/.488 off him. That's not great, but the .305 on-base percentage against is pretty good and the .488 slugging percentage is bad, but not completely awful. His performance against lefties however, was completely awful. In 360 at bats against left-handed batters, Lima gave up 131 hits (.364 AVG), including 30 doubles and 25 homers - good for a obscene .689 slugging percentage.

Basically, all the lefties who batted against Lima in 2000 hit like Barry Bonds. One more amazing thing about his righty/lefty splits from 2000 is that Lima's strikeout/walk ratio was excellent against righties and absolutely horrible against lefties. Against righties, he had 92 strikeouts and 27 walks. Against lefties, he had 32 strikeouts and 41 walks. Of course, if lefties were slapping you around to the tune of a .689 slugging percentage, you might start walking a few of them too.

As long as we're having fun with Lima's splits from 2000, here are a few more fun numbers to chew on...

--- Batters hit .453 off him on the first pitch of an at bat. In 117 at bats when the ball was put in play on a 0-0 count, Lima gave up 53 hits, including 9 homers and 10 doubles - for a .769 slugging percentage.

--- Wait, it gets worse. When the hitter didn't smack the crap out of his first pitch and instead took it for a ball, their batting average went up to .462 on 1-0 counts. He gave up 9 homers in 65 at bats with the count 1-0.

--- Even when Lima managed to keep the batter from hitting the ball over the fence for a few pitches and got the count to 3-2, he still gave up a .322 batting average, along with a .729 slugging percentage.

--- In 91 at bats against the #3 batter in the lineup, Lima allowed them to hit a combined .451/.514/.890. In fact, the only spots in the batting order that didn't slug at least .500 off Lima in 2000 were the #8 spot (.405 SLG) and the #9 spot (.338).

--- Amazingly, Lima only gave up 1 grand slam the entire year, although batters did hit .375/.462/.875 off him with the bases loaded.

--- With runners on base, Lima gave up 21 homers and 22 doubles in just 325 at bats, and hitters accumulated a total of 111 RBIs in that situation, or 1 RBI every 2.9 at bats.

Okay, so I think you get the picture. Lima's 2000 season was a complete disaster and ranks as one of the worst seasons by a pitcher in baseball history. Perhaps because of his success in 1998 and 1999, the Astros stuck with Lima the next season. He rewarded them by posting a 7.30 ERA in 53 innings, before they finally pulled the plug on him and dealt him to the Tigers for Dave Mlicki, in what has to be considered one of the greatest "I'll take your crap if you take my crap" trades of all-time.

By being traded to the Tigers, Lima moved from Enron Field to Comerica Park, one of the best pitcher's parks in baseball. His numbers improved significantly, but he still posted a 4.71 ERA and went 5-10 in 18 starts for Detroit. And, even while pitching in one of the toughest parks in baseball to hit home runs, Lima served up 22 long balls in 112.2 innings with the Tigers, including 10 in 67.2 innings in Comerica.

The Tigers, not exactly bursting at the seams with quality pitching, kept Lima around for the start of the 2002 season. He began the year in the rotation and had a 12.15 ERA in 4 April starts, before being banished to the bullpen, where he posted ERAs of 9.00 and 10.39 in May and June. Lima's season ended after his 9.53 August ERA and he ended the year with a 4-6 record and a 7.77 ERA in 68.1 innings.

At that point, his career looked finished. He had just posted ERAs of 6.65, 5.54 and 7.77 in his last 3 seasons and even a move to a great pitcher's park that suppressed homers, his main weakness, wasn't helping him at all. Not surprisingly, Lima didn't get any major league offers for the 2003 season and signed on with the independent league Newark Bears, the same team Rickey Henderson was with.

Lima pitched very well for Newark, going 6-1 with a 2.33 ERA in 8 starts, with an excellent 52/5 strikeout/walk ratio in 54 innings pitched. Somewhere in an office in Kansas City, Royals GM Allard Baird got the bright idea that his team - in first-place and the surprise of baseball - should sign Jose Lima and insert him into their starting rotation.

The transaction was no doubt laughed at by baseball fans across the country and, I will admit, I was among those laughing. In fact, I did more than just laugh - I wrote about it. Here's what I said in my Bi-Weekly Review of the AL Central for Baseball Primer, back on June 17th:

"In a move perhaps meant to off-set their winning ways, similar to the management-wants-the-team-to-lose plotline in "Major League," the Royals signed Jose "Life to Flying Things" Lima and actually gave him a start against Barry Bonds and the Giants. Jose served up a massive homer to Barry and ended up pitching six innings, allowing four runs in a no-decision.

No word yet on whether or not there is a life-sized cardboard cutout of Royals owner David Glass in just his skivvies in the KC locker room."

Not only was I absolutely positive that this move was a big mistake by the Royals, I was very happy they signed Lima, because, as you may know, I am a bit of a Minnesota Twins fan. On top of that, I was quite proud of myself for coming up with what I believed to be an incredibly clever nickname for Lima - "Life to Flying Things." Not only was it accurate (or so I thought), it was also a tribute to Bob "Death to Flying Things" Ferguson, a player in the 1800s and the owner of one of the coolest nicknames in sports history.

Anyway, it turns out signing Jose Lima wasn't exactly a disastrous decision. And, it turns out, Jose Lima joining the Royals' rotation wasn't exactly good news for the Twins and their fans. You see, Jose Lima, he of the 5.14 career ERA and 6.40 ERA over the last 3 seasons, currently has the following numbers this season for Kansas City:

GS       IP      ERA     W     L

8 49.2 2.17 7 0

That's right, he's got a 2.17 ERA and has 7 wins - and zero losses - in 8 starts. In all honesty, I think I may have been more likely to believe it if you told me this Jose Lima that is currently 7-0 was actually not the same guy, and was some young rookie who slipped under the radar or something.

But, I have checked around and, according to all the information I can find, the man who is currently 7-0 with a 2.17 ERA for the Kansas City Royals is, in fact, Jose "Lima Time!" Lima.

I could try to rationalize it or even try to explain it, but who are we kidding? There isn't a single person in this entire world - including Allard Baird and Jose Lima himself - who thought Lima would pitch anywhere near this good. If you search long enough, you may be able to find three people in Antarctica who are about 4 years behind on the news and maybe they thought Lima could still be a decent pitcher in 2003, but you'll never find anyone who can honestly say they thought Jose Lima would have anything resembling a 2.17 ERA and a 7-0 record this year.

The cynic/logical person/realist in me is forced to say that this is a fluke. Jose Lima, at 30 years of age and coming off of back-to-back-to-back horrible seasons, has not suddenly remembered how to pitch, especially since he never knew how to pitch like this.

To Lima's credit though, he is doing some good things. Not good enough to explain a 7-0 record and a 2.17 ERA, but good things nonetheless. Mainly, he is actually keeping the ball in the ballpark. Lima has now pitched 49 2/3 innings this season and has given up just 3 home runs. That works out to a homer every 16.6 innings. To put that in some context, Lima has never, in his entire career, had a season in which he pitched even 9 innings for each homer he gave up.

Here are his home run rates during his career:

Year     IP/HR

1995 7.4
1996 5.6
1997 8.3
1998 6.9
1999 8.2
2000 4.1
2001 4.7
2002 5.7

2003 16.6

Aside from the homers, not much about Lima has changed. He has 23 strikeouts in 49.2 innings, which is 4.2 per 9 innings. Not only is that a really bad strikeout rate, it is actually the lowest rate in Lima's entire career. In fact, take a look at Lima's strikeout rates over the last several seasons:

Year      K/9

1999 6.83
2000 5.68
2001 4.56
2002 4.35
2003 4.17

That's not an encouraging pattern and not exactly the type of thing that screams out "THIS GUY IS GOING TO GO 7-0 WITH A 2.17 ERA!"

In addition to not having a good K rate this year, Lima's walk rate is actually up quite a bit too. At his peak (1998/1999), Lima was walking 1.2 and 1.6 batters per 9 innings. His great control, in addition to a strikeout rate that was still somewhat decent, allowed him to post excellent strikeout/walk ratios of 5.28/1 and 4.25/1. So far this season, Lima is walking 3.1 batters per 9 innings and his strikeout/walk ratio is 1.35/1, which is awful.

Basically, Lima is doing a great (and completely uncharacteristic) job of keeping the ball in the ballpark, and his strikeout and walk rates are both bad. So, how exactly does he have a 2.17 ERA and a 7-0 record?! Defense, it's all about the defense.

When Lima has allowed a ball to be put in play - that is anything that's not a homer, strikeout or walk - it has been converted into an out about 80% of the time. That is an unbelievably good percentage. In fact, it is too good - as in so good it's impossible to keep up.

The best defense in baseball at turning balls in play into outs so far this year is Seattle's. The Mariners are converting 73.6% of BIPs into outs this year, which is a great rate. The A's are second at 73.5% and the Cardinals lead the National League at 72.7%. Last year, the Angels led all of baseball at 73.1%.

A 73% BIP-out% is fantastic. A 74% BIP-out% is extraordinarily good. A 75% BIP-out% is bordering on unbelievable. Jose Lima has gone right past "fantastic, "extraordinarily good" and "bordering on unbelievable," and then he has gone ahead and skipped whatever adjective you want to attach to 76%, 77%, 78% and 79%.

If Jose Lima can continue to avoid giving up home runs to the degree has so far, he can be a successful pitcher. Not 7-0 with a 2.17 ERA successful, but successful. Of course, counting on Jose Lima to give up 3 homers for every 50 innings he pitches is pretty crazy, to put it mildly.

Jose Lima may still be a horrible pitcher and his current performance with the Royals may be a complete fluke with absolutely no chance to continue, but, no matter what happens, he's still got a 7-0 record and a 2.17 ERA on July 28th and I'm guessing if you would have walked into Allard Baird's office back in June when he signed Lima and told him that Lima would be 7-0 six weeks later, he probably would have smiled, nodded yes, and then hit slowly picked up his phone to dial security.

It may not last much longer, but no one thought it would last this long anyway, so what the heck do we know? Enjoy it while it lasts, because you never know when Lima Time! will be gone again. As a Twins fan, I'm hoping it'll be gone the next time Lima steps onto a mound, but I must admit it's pretty fun to watch.

Lima Time! baby. It's back and it's better than ever (for a limited time only, good while supplies last).

Link of the Day:

Baseball Primer - "Baseball for the Thinking Fan"

Today's picks:

Montreal (Vazquez) -110 over Atlanta (Hampton)

Philadelphia (Wolf) -150 over Cincinnati (Dempster)

Total to date: + 855

W/L record: 182-184 (1-2 yesterday for -100.)

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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