Few men who don red pinstripes currently stir the bile of Phillies fans more than David Herndon. To some extent, this visceral reaction is understandable; he has been unequivocally awful over a very small sample thus far in 2011. After his ninth inning appearance against the Mets on Friday night in which he walked a batter and allowed two home runs, his ERA stands at 9.28 in 10.2 innings pitched. A deeper look at his statistics tells us that this is no fluke either. His K/9 rate currently sits at a paltry 2.53 and his BB/9 is a bloated 5.91. If those were the other way around, we might be talking about a pretty decent pitcher. But for Herndon, the resultant 8.08 FIP and 6.10 xFIP confirm just how bad he has been. Moreover, his flyball % is up to nearly 40%, and 20% of those flyballs are leaving the yard.
Just from watching him, you can tell that he is leaving too many fastballs up in the zone. His inability to throw strikes hasn't helped him either, as he is forced to throw more hittable fastballs. It seems quite possible that he is dealing with a mechanical issue that could explain his struggles and a trip down to AAA would certainly suit him well. There he could work on correcting whatever issues are effecting him--away from the pressure and the spotlight of the big league club. He could also work on continuing to develop a serviceable secondary pitch that could allow him boost his K-rate--an important step if he is to develop into a better than league average bullpen option.
Thankfully, his appearance on Friday did the team no harm--the score was 10-0 when he entered. It did spark debate and discussion about just what we might reasonably be able to expect from Herndon going forward, though. In discussing his future, those who are bearish on him have resorted to revisionism when discussing his past.
One argument that is raised is that Herndon was simply bad last year (the implication being that he thus can't really be expected to improve much going forward). His 4.30 ERA, 1.61 WHIP, and .321 batting average against from 2010 are cited as evidence of his mediocrity. Of course, the latter two statistics can be attributed to his his unsustainably high .357 BABIP from last year. Meanwhile, his ERA was only .04 lower than his 2010 SIERA and .12 higher than his 2010 xFIP of 4.18 (FIP liked him even more: 3.56). Granted, this xFIP was slightly worse than league average (by 5%, to be exact), but there were several aspects of his performance that were quite encouraging and pointed to his potential as a solid, better than league average bullpen arm.
First, he showed an ability to limit walks. His BB/9 was under 2 for each of his seasons in the minors and his 2.92 with the major league club last year, while not spectacular, was solid.
Second, he showed an elite ability to generate groundballs, with a 56.9 GB% last year. For a pitcher with a below average K/9, this is absolutely imperative for him to be effective (and why Kyle Kendrick isn't effective). Thus, two things that are typical markers of successful pitchers, Herndon already has. Then, the logic goes, if he were to improve his K/9, and perhaps drop his BB/9 by a tick, he could begin to reach his aforementioned potential.
Here is where the second faulty argument arises. "If you exclude one season in the minors, Herndon's K/9 has always been below 5, so what basis do you have for believing this will ever improve?" it goes. This is a tricky bit of sleight of hand designed to obscure evidence that runs counter to the second assertion. Indeed, in that one season we are talking about, Herndon did improve his K/9 significantly, and he did so over a statistically meaningful sample size. 2006 was Herndon's first season of professional baseball. In 69.1 rookieball innings in the Angels' system, he posted a K/9 of 4.67. In 2007, he was bumped to A-ball, where he posted a K/9 of 4.9 over 152.1 innings. The following season--which we are expected to exclude--he was bumped to high-A where he posted a 6.26 K/9 over 100.1 innings. Why, it certainly strikes me that this would be a perfectly reasonable basis for believing his K/9 could improve!
The next season Herndon was bumped to AA--widely seen as the biggest jump for prospect. In 65.1 innings that season, his K/9 slid back to 4.82. But this can partly be understood as a symptom of making the jump and adjusting to a higher level of competition. Another season--or part of a season, even--could have made a world of difference. Between the 2009 and 2010 seasons, Herndon was selected by the Phillies in the Rule 5 draft, meaning he would have to remain with the big league club for the entirety of the season or risk being reclaimed by the Angels. This also meant that he would not get another crack at AA nor his first crack at AAA in 2010. Naturally, his K/9 stayed about where it had been the season before in AA. But the key is this: until this season (and it is still extremely early), Herndon had never spent two full seasons at any level of professional baseball in his career. The closest he has ever come to being at the same level for two full years in a row was 2007 and 2008 when, incidentally, his K/9 jumped by over 1.3. So if the question is "Is it realistic to assume that Herndon can improve his K/9?" The answer is absolutely "yes."
To sum up: People should not let their displeasure with Herndon's struggles in the earlygoing of 2011 cloud their interpretations of his past nor their hopes for his future. No one has ever argued that Herndon was a very good pitcher last year. What we have argued is that he demonstrated the potential to be a nice pitcher if certain parts of his game develop. It is not unreasonable to believe that these parts of his game could still develop. Even with his putrid start to 2011, this remains true.