Roy Oswalt Buyer’s Guide

It is a funny thing about perspective; it tends to shape everything you see. Roy Oswalt was once one of the best pitchers in baseball, racking up more than 900 innings and 20 Wins Above Replacement between 2004 and 2007. He served as Houston’s Opening Day starter for eight consecutive years. Then he joined the Phillies as one of the four aces and was promptly forgotten.

Overshadowed by the giants around him (Halladay, Hamels, and Lee are each at least three inches taller than Oswalt), Oswalt pitched pretty well when compared to mere mortals and suffered through injuries in 2011 which stripped him of invaluable Phour Aces status.

Hampered by a bad back, Oswalt threw just 159 innings in 2011, lowest in his careers since 2003 when a groin strain limited him to just twenty-one starts. Now he’s a free agent with considerable risk. Like most players assumed to be “great buy low candidates”, Oswalt is sure to command a contract commensurate with his track record and expected 2012 performance.

The expected 2012 performance part is the multi-million dollar question. What does Roy Oswalt bring to the free agent table for perspective teams in need of a starter?

The remaining starting pitchers on the free agent market do not inspire a great deal of confidence. There are the dependable inning-hungry types like Edwin Jackson and injury fliers like Rich Harden. Roy Oswalt is a rarity: a high-ceiling pitcher with only minimal injury concerns.

Not to gloss over Oswalt’s injury concerns as they are very real. Bad backs are troubling enough, bad backs that cause the sufferer to contemplate retirement in a moment of weakness demand close attention.

The former Astros right-hander missed all of July this past year but pitched well upon his return from the disabled list. Oswalt struck out 51 batters against only 15 walks in 67.2 innings. He missed bats at a 10% rate in his return while surrendering just four home runs.

The injuries and age took their toll on Oswalt as his stuff isn’t quite what it was. Using the ever-popular spin direction/velocity charts, we see the average speed of all Oswalt’s pitches slip-sliding away.

As Rotographs notes here, Oswalt’s fastball did recover some velocity towards the end of the season while he adjusted his total approach to pitching. Oswalt moved away from an aggressive attack, working off his fastball first and foremost, towards a cagey style of pitching. Oswalt settled on a change up grip he liked and introduced the new off-speed offering to his repertoire.

Courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info

The above heatmap suggests it was anything but open season Oswalt’s fastball. And, looking at his pitch f/x data, he began to rely on his fastball earlier in counts as the season progressed. His swinging strike rate also increased as his health returned. Does this mean teams are getting a reasonable facsimile of vintage Roy Oswalt?

It just might.

Backs are tricky and any time you see the word “degenerative disease” it adds a sense of foreboding. Oswalt is a pitcher who has managed this back condition for a handful of years, through the prime earning years of his career.

Which represents the trickiest part of the Roy Oswalt puzzle: why would he want to play for your team? Teams on the cusp like the Blue Jays and Nationals might benefit from the final two good years of Roy Oswalt’s career but is that an attractive option for a ring-hoarding veteran? A move to St. Louis seems possible, reuniting with former teammate Lance Berkman in the Proven Veteran Landing Spot.

As previously stated: Oswalt will not come as cheaply as those of us who enjoy playing GM like to think. Poll respondents on MLB Trade Rumors believe the Boston Red Sox are the most likely team to meet his potential contract demands. Might it be on a one-year deal or the three-year deal he previously sought? As most things at this time of year, it comes back to what the market will bear.

Oswalt can walk away from multi-year offers he doesn’t like knowing he can re-establish his value with a good season then sign the final big money deal of his career next season. Or he can take the years now if he wants to pitch and train without the pressure to stay healthy. It is all up to Edwin Jackson, really. Which is precisely what exactly none of us thought when this off-season started.

Pitch f/x data courtesy of Joe Lefkowitz, other stats from Fangraphs and Baseball Reference.