Thursday, June 14, 2007

the hope of a promise fulfilled

this page first mentioned sean marshall two years ago, though it could not then have predicted his meteoric rise past whole levels of the cub farm system and into the cub rotation. indeed, this writer lobbied against it -- here, here, here and here -- as signal of a bad baseball club's willingness to expose promising but unprepared prospects to the maw of the majors in an effort to save the asses of incompetent management by catching lightning in a bottle.

of course, that didn't work out as the cubs had planned -- the cubs bombed horribly, marshall struggled, and andy macfail and dusty baker were sacked. the young lefthander added to his long injury history with a "strained oblique" in mid-july that was only later -- after a labored september return -- surreptitiously recharacterized as a rotator cuff tear which, much like kerry wood, marshall opted not to have operated upon. recovery from such a tear is often problematic, and marshall indeed missed the early part of this season to join the team for his first start on may 23.

what has happened since has been dazzling -- five starts of 2.12 era and 1.00 whip with a batting line against of 216/258/328. no cub starter has been more effective in the last month (though rich hill continues to sparkle), and marshall's output has done much to assuage the inevitable mean reversion of ted lilly, ryan dempster and jason marquis in that time -- boosting the club to a 12-15 record in their last 27, a record they would almost certainly have worsted without his input.

last night was the best example yet of marshall's resurgence -- going eight strong innings with no walks and on a very efficient 94 pitches, he kept the opposition on the ground (13 groundball outs against just seven flies and a single k) and off balance with the help of journeyman catcher koyie hill. his exemplary curve and heavy fastball kept seattle guessing much of the night.

the big question, of course, is whether or not it can continue. marshall has never been the greatest of strikeout pitchers -- though he has been good nonetheless in his career, marking 9.2 k/9 in 274 minor league innings coming into this year, including 8.7 in very limited experience at triple-a. marshall will need to continue to produce strikeouts to succeed at the highest level, and his recent work suggests that he may very well do just that -- posting 27 in these last 34 innings (7.1 k/9).

but the essence of marshall's game is control -- limiting walks, avoiding the home run by getting groundballs. his success in the minors is due as much to his fairly frugal 2.8 bb/9 as to his ability to miss bats. and that is the most promising aspect of these last five outings: following a rookie year in which an intimidated and sometimes injured pitcher issued 59 walks in 125.2 innings (4.2 bb/9), marshall has given away just seven (1.9 bb/9) this year -- and it has made all the difference.

any truthful assessment must point out that things are indeed going a bit too well -- marshall's babip comes in at just .253, which is likely to revert (though he is far from the luckiest cub pitcher to date, being outpaced most notably by hill and jason marquis). and of course injury will remain always in the close background for a pitcher with marshall's history.

but a gentle push back to babip normalcy will not undo marshall -- his success is more real than ephemeral if he can maintain his walk and strikeout rates, which -- to judge from his thin portfolio of minor league experience -- should be quite sustainable. it would appear to this page that -- though it is early -- marshall may at 25 be coming of age in the majors, having survived an ill-advised baptism by fire in 2006. this page can only hope that he has become, following on the heels of rich hill and blazing a trail for sean gallagher, justification for its optimism regarding the young flower of cub pitching which it sees as the only realistic avenue toward anything beyond continued organizational futility.

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