When word went out during spring training before the 2009 season that Alfredo Simon was getting a look as an Orioles rotation option, I didn't know who he was and didn't have the highest hopes for the team if a pitcher with a career 5.10 ERA at Triple-A was going to be starting games. Seven earned runs in 6 1/3 innings pitched later, Simon was out for the year with Tommy John surgery.
The following year, I more or less forgot that Simon ever existed, which made the ending of the O's April 27 game against the Yankees memorable. The Birds were up 5-2 in the top of the ninth, and who comes in but the just called-up Simon - eliciting the following reactions: "Really? they're going to bring Simon in for the save?!" and "What the heck, let Simon try to close". He did. indeed. pick up the save, while touching 97 mph with his fastball. I was an immediate fan, dubbing the new flame-throwing reliever "Shutdown Sauce."
Simon showed good stuff out of the 'pen in 2010, but shaky control and a tendency to give up the long ball resulted in a 4.93 ERA. That's not exactly dominating, but I had hopes of improvement in 2011 if even just the latter point got resolved.
To start the year, Simon was coming off well-documented legal troubles stemming from a New Year's Eve shooting in the Dominican Republic and being stretched out as a starter in the minors with decent results. In Baltimore, he was back in the 'pen though, and he looked better; more strikeouts (7.2 K/9), fewer walks (3.0 BB/9), and only two home runs allowed in 21 1/3 innings pitched. Then the injuries and ineffectiveness started to mount in the O's rotation, and Simon was pushed into a starting role.
After last night's fantastic performance - three hits and a run in eight innings with a walk and eight strikeouts - against the Twins, Simon has a 4.17 ERA as a starter this season. And that's pretty much backed up by his peripherals, too. The lag between coming back from Tommy John surgery and regaining one's control seems to be in full effect, as Simon is walking just 2.3 batters per nine innings as a starter (more like what he did in the high minors in his career).
He's keeping the ball in the yard, too - 1.0 HR/9 allowed - but a bit of that is some good fortune. I argued last year that Simon giving up taters left and right was not something that would persist given his groundball tendencies, and it seems both things have reversed this season. He's been more on the neutral-flyball side, while actually giving up less than half as many home runs per flyball allowed. I wouldn't be surprised if his HR/9 comes up just a bit, especially if he doesn't start inducing more grounders, but it's certainly an improvement over his previous 1.8 HR/9.
The more confusing part though, given his stuff, is the lack of strikeout. Simon is striking out just 5.7 batters per nine as a starter. That actually lines up well enough with what one would expect from a reliever with a 6.8 K/9 in 2010 and the 7.0 K/9 this year, but not what one would expect from a guy throwing so hard.
Look at his stuff: a two-seam fastball that averages 94-95 mph even as a starter and has decent movement, a four-seamer he'll occasionally mix in to righties to good effect; a splitter that looks like the fastball before the bottom falls out, a slider that might be more of a slurve at the moment given that it's slower and has more sweeping break; and a cutter he tends to use away to righties (but not really inside to lefties, who he hasn't often thrown it to). That's a four- or five-pitch arsenal with pitches everywhere from around 75 to 97 mph.
The reason for the lower strikeout rate appears to actually be the offspeed stuff. His slider and split sometimes get left up in the zone a bit too much and even when they chase out of the zone, batters don't seem to whiff all that often on them. On average, pitchers get hitters to miss those pitches when they swing more than 30 percent of the time; Simon is doing it just over 20percent of the time as a starter. I think there's upside there, since the pitches themselves appear to be at least decent. If he can utilize them more effectively and get those whiff rates closer to 30 percent his strikeout rate should move towards the league average (7.1 K/9), allowing him to purhaps due a decent Edwin Jackson (combined 2008-2011) impersonation.
So can Alfredo Simon maintain an ERA around 4.00 going forward? Very possibly. That isn't as great as it used to be given the overall lower run-scoring environment in baseball now, but it might actually be enough to make him the team's most effective starter. And who could have seen that coming?
Daniel Moroz blogs about the Orioles for Camden Crazies and joins MASNsports.com as part of our season-long initiative to welcome guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.