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The case for making a gamble on Mat Latos

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Latos was really bad in 2015, but there's reason to think he could bounce back and be effective this season.

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The Orioles failed to make the playoffs in 2015 mostly because of a poor performance by the starting rotation. Their best starter, Wei-Yin Chen, is almost certainly leaving Baltimore. That's a problem, and it looks like one the team won't be able to address by adding someone at the top of the market like Johnny Cueto. Since the team has spent a good amount of its cash already, and is trying to spend a bunch more on a hitter like Chris Davis, any addition to the rotation will probably come either via trade or a more modest signing. One candidate for a buy-low signing is Mat Latos.

Latos was terrible last season, and we'll dive into those numbers further down the page, but that shouldn't obscure the fact that from 2010 to 2014 he was one of the most consistent pitchers in the game. In his first four full seasons (two with the Padres and two with the Reds) he posted ERAs of 2.92, 3.47, 3.48, and 3.16 while never throwing less than 185 innings. The move to a hitter's park in Cincinnati clearly didn't hurt his ERA much, and he actually contributed even more innings there - 209.1 in 2012 and 210.1 in 2013. His 2014 season was shortened by a knee injury that sidelined him until June, but he was still his usual effective self after his return, with a 3.25 ERA in sixteen starts.

That brings us to 2015. The Reds traded Latos to the Marlins, and he time in Miami was doomed from the start. Latos' knee was reportedly still bothering him in the spring and he struggled badly out of the gate before hitting the DL for a few weeks at the end of May. He pitched better when he returned, but at that point the Marlins were in full salary dump mode and shipped to the Dodgers along with Michael Morse essentially for free. He sucked pretty badly in L.A., to the tune of a 6.66 ERA in 6 appearances, and was released before being signed by the Angels and making a couple mediocre relief appearances during the last week of the season. When it was said and done, Latos threw 116.1 innings with a 4.95 ERA.

That's definitely a bad number, but there are some signs that Latos wasn't as bad as he looked. All of the hallmarks of an unlucky season are there - his career-high BABIP, career-low strand rate, and career-high HR/FB all resulted in an ERA that was far worse than what his FIP or xFIP say it "should" have been. In fact, his peripherals like K/9 and BB/9 were all pretty much the same as they've been in years prior.

Year IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% ERA FIP xFIP
2013 210.2 7.99 2.48 0.60 .299 74.6 45.1 3.16 3.10 3.56
2014 102.1 6.51 2.29 0.79 .269 72.6 37.7 3.25 3.65 3.99
2015 116.1 7.74 2.48 1.01 .307 63.8 43.9 4.95 3.72 3.69
Career 1068.1 8.08 2.65 0.84 .281 72.7 43.4 3.51 3.44 3.64

The batted ball data against Latos tells a similar story - opponents in 2015 hit an inordinately high number of line drives against him (24.2% vs. 19.1% for his career), and a low number of infield pop-ups, especially for a flyball pitcher (7.1% vs. 10.7% for his career). His velocity didn't seem to be affected by his injury either - his 91.4 MPH average on his four-seamer put him right between 2013 (92.5) and 2014 (90.7). All of these numbers are indicating that Latos was pretty much the same pitcher in 2015 that he was in the past, but batted ball luck and poor performance in "clutch" situations soured what could have otherwise been a decent year. That means he looks like a candidate to bounce back and become a bargain to a lucky team in 2016. On top of that, he's still somehow only 28 years old.

Now, the bad news. Latos is a fly ball pitcher, and we all know how that usually goes in Oriole Park. His career GB% is about 43%, which puts him in Wei-Yin Chen territory. However, guys like Chen have managed to make that work in the past, and Latos himself has done that in another hitter-friendly park in Cincinnati. Also, Latos will cost a little more than a classic Duquette dumpster dive. Fangraphs' contract crowdsourcing estimated he'd get something in the 2/$22m range. That's significant money for the Orioles, and it might be too much for the team to spend on someone that's seen as a risky reclamation project. But if the market for Latos never develops, and he could be had for less, it's something to think about.

We'll see how this offseason unfolds, and maybe the team will surprise us by going out and picking up a Scott Kazmir-type free agent starter. But if not, gambling on Latos could pay off for the O's.