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What Can Shaun Marcum Do For The Mets?

The Mets added a free agent starter today, agreeing to a deal with former Brewer Shaun Marcum. Marcum is a solid starter, but what exactly will he bring the Amazins?

Christian Petersen

It looks like the Mets have finally signed a big-name medium-name free agent this offseason, as Jon Heyman is reporting that the Amazins have agreed to a deal with right-handed starting pitcher Shaun Marcum.

The signing is reported to be a one-year deal, and is pending Marcum's physical. The dollar value is not yet known.

So with the specifics (or lack thereof) out of the way, let's talk turkey: What kind of pitcher are the Mets getting in Marcum? Remember, this is a guy that the Brewers were willing to trade Brett Lawrie for before the 2011 season, just so they could pair him at the top of a rotation with Zack Greinke.

Truthfully, and I know this sounds like a cop-out, but I think Marcum is going to be very much the same kind of pitcher he was over his last two seasons with Milwaukee. I know, crazy. Hear me out, though.

We'll start by talking about the number of innings Marcum will pitch in 2013, because that's the biggest concern with the right-hander. Coming into his age-31 season, Marcum is seen as an injury risk, as he missed about two months of the 2012 season with tightness in his pitching elbow. He suffered through Tommy John surgery back in 2009, but threw almost 400 innings in 2010 and 2011 before only managing 124 in 2012.

Initial reaction to the trade on Twitter is that Marcum shouldn't be expected to contend for the ERA title in 2013. In other words, he won't put up much more than 150 innings in 2013. Perhaps this is an overreaction. Marcum has started 20 or more games in five out of the last six seasons, a stretch which included his TJ surgery. Unless a second surgery is on the docket, and I suppose it could be, I'd expect Marcum to miss a little bit of time to rest a balky elbow, but should toe the rubber 20 or more times again in 2013.

If I had to make a probabilistic prediction, I'd go with a 40% chance he pitches between 150-175 innings, a 30% chance he pitches between 125-150 innings, a 15% chance he pitches less than 100 innings, a 10% chance he only pitches 100-125 innings, and a small 5% chance he pitches 200+ innings.

So what will those innings be like?

Again, I imagine they'll be a lot like the innings he's thrown in his past two years with the Brewers. He's coming into his age-31 season, so it's not like he's perched precariously on the edge of 35 near the end of his career. He's got some time left. And it's highly unlikely he's the type of pitcher who will lose a lot of mph on his fastball ... since his fastball is notoriously slow to begin with. (But we'll talk about that more in a minute.) At the same time, he's more than two years out from Tommy John, and he's no spring chicken either, so I wouldn't put a lot of money on Marcum becoming something new, or developing some kind of hidden potential. He probably is what he is.

From a stats perspective, Marcum has been pretty much the same pitcher every season he's been a starter. He strikes out about 20% of the guys he faces and walks between 5%-8%. Home runs are an issue, as Marcum has pretty much always given up more than one per nine innings over his career. And his ERA usually sits around his career average of 3.76, while his FIP lands closer to 4.00 (4.25 for his career).

To summarize, Marcum manages to bring an ERA that's slightly better than league average, despite a FIP that's not quite as good. 2012, in particular, was a down season for Marcum, as his FIP was actually 5% worse than league average in his two-thirds of a season. While his strikeout numbers were the best of his career (20.7% K-rate), his walks went up and his homer rate remained high. A pure repeat of 2012 wouldn't be a disaster, but the Mets are probably hoping that the injury affected his pitching, and that his skills are closer to 2010 or 2011 than 2012.

Marcum also shows some consistency in inducing outs on balls in play, according to FanGraphs' BIP-Wins metric, though this item can be a little, uh, sweaty. Basically, this stat indicates how many wins a pitcher earned as a benefit of outs on balls in play, kind of a component opposite to FIP. Early in his career, Marcum had very high scores, but has stayed on the positive side of the ledger in every full season he's pitched. The Brewers weren't exactly known for sparkling defense over the past two seasons, so perhaps there's something to the fact that Marcum is really inducing contact that results in outs. Unfortunately, the Mets' 2013 defense doesn't project to be anything special, so it remains to be seen if this is a team that can really benefit from Marcum's (maybe-real) balls-in-play skills.

And that kind of dovetails into a brief scouting report on Marcum, who uses a slow fastball to set up a very nice changeup. Marcum's fastball is *really* slow, as PITCHf/x has it at close to 87 miles per hour over his career, with the change coming in about seven miles per hour slower than that. The changeup, as well as a slider he throws about 20% of the time, are Marcum's out pitches, and it's nice to see he's got one for righties and one for lefties.

Frankly, with this kind of "stuff," Marcum should be looking at a much lower strikeout rate, but he does a good job of picking his spots and confusing hitters. Again, since it's unlikely that his stuff will diminish, even with injury concerns, it's possible that his aging curve may be a bit flatter (and therefore less pronounced) than pitchers who rely on heat.

In the end, it probably all boils down to that surgically repaired elbow and whether it can hold up. The Mets are getting a pitcher likely to post league-average or slightly better performance so long as his arm doesn't fall off. When healthy, expect Marcum to be a serviceable third starter on a team like the Mets, who relies on a changeup and solid control to get hitters out. In many ways, he resembles a right-handed version of the Mets' other veteran starter quite a bit.

My personal opinion is that the Mets got a solid piece in Marcum and, depending on the money spent, may have gotten a bargain. If he stays healthy, he could even be flipped at the deadline for more young talent. If the elbow explodes, well, at least the Mets only have him on a one-year deal, and the team has pretty solid depth behind him in the rotation. I, for one, will get a kick out of seeing guys flail at a lot of slow changeups this season, between Marcum and Johan Santana.

All data from FanGraphs.