Should Indians Expect Improvement from Mitch Talbot?

By Lewie Pollis

With Josh Tomlin now shut down for the rest of the season, someone had to take his place in the rotation for his scheduled start Saturday. Apparently, that someone is Mitch Talbot.

Talbot, 27, had a rough start to the 2011 season, going 2-6 with a 6.33 ERA in 11 outings (to be fair, it was a relatively small sample size and his context-neutral numbers are better) this year for the Indians before he suffered a back injury in July and was sent to Triple-A Columbus upon his recovery. Apparently his time with the Clippers has helped him to improve both his mechanics and his results:

“My ball was really flat when I was here,” Talbot said. “I just worked on getting it downhill again, getting sink instead of run.”

Clippers manager Mike Sarbaugh said Talbot reinvented himself with his fastball.

“He gained confidence with his fastball,” Sarbaugh said. “He has plus movement on it, and I think pitching off of that, Mitch found out that it’s a good pitch and gets the hitters to be a little more aggressive, so his secondary pitches became more effective.”

Indeed, his Triple-A numbers are quite good: in 44.1 innings, he’s 4-2 with a 3.15 FIP (his 4.26 ERA is largely a product of a .373 BABIP) with an 8.5 K/9 rate, a 2.0 BB/9 rate, and a 4.2 K/BB ratio. Those stats support the notion that he’s starting to figure things out, and one would expect someone pitching that well in the high minors to at least be a serviceable arm in the majors. Certainly he’s pitched better than you’d think someone with a 6.33 ERA would.

But while the results are promising, we would be wise to temper our optimism about Talbot more than we would most players for one simple reason: we’ve been down this road before.

A vast disparity between his major- and minor-league numbers has plagued Talbot throughout his career. In 227.1 MLB innings, he has an uninspiring 5.19 ERA and a mediocre 1.2 K/BB ratio. Throughout his MiLB career, by contrast, he has a 3.81 ERA and a 2.9 K/BB ratio; if we limit it to his Triple-A experience, his 4.24 ERA isn’t terribly impressive, but the rest of his peripheral numbers (2.8 K/BB ratio) are right in line with what he did in the lower minors.

In fact, his current numbers bear a strong resemblance to those he posted in 2008—the last full season he spent in Triple-A. In 28 starts in the Rays organization, Talbot went 13-9 with a 3.86 ERA (3.03 FIP), 7.9 K/9 rate, 2.0 BB/9 rate, and 4.0 K/BB ratio. He actually had a better year in his age-24 season thanks to a lower home run rate (0.5 HR/9, compared to 0.8 at Triple-A this year and 1.5 in the majors).

But that performance didn’t translate well to the major leagues. He made three disastrous appearances with the Rays that year (11.17 ERA and 2.79 WHIP in 9.1 innings). He didn’t make it back to the bigs until 2010, after he’d been traded to the Indians. He was a serviceable, if underwhelming option for the Tribe (4.41 ERA, 4.98 SIERA), but the dramatic decline in his peripherals (5.0 K/9 rate, 1.3 K/BB ratio) was astounding. He seemed to have completely lost his ability to strike out hitters when he put on an MLB uniform.

So, to summarize: Talbot has a history of underperforming his minor-league numbers, he’s in roughly the same place developmentally that he was three years ago, and the last time he pitched this well in the minors it didn’t lead to anything. That doesn’t mean this time won’t be different—I said something similar about David Huff earlier this year and he’s worked out pretty well—but it should at least give us pause in projecting Talbot to perform signficantly made.

That doesn’t mean we can’t be cautiously optimistic. Talbot’s minor league numbers definitely show signs of improvement (albeit in a small sample size), and if he thinks he’s made progress—combined with the fact that he probably wasn’t really as bad as his 6.33 ERA him look—it’s likely that he has. But while some improvement is definitely plausible, don’t expect Talbot to have completely reinvented himself as a pitcher.

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