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This Year's Cliff Lee? Jarrod Washburn

A couple days ago, I was all set to do a post on baseball's most surprising pitcher. Life got in the way, and I got sidetracked. In the interim, this Mystery Pitcher improved to 3-0 with a great performance (while under the weather, no less). He then got serenaded by an army of top-shelf baseball writers, including Dave Cameron, Geoff Baker, David Pinto and Rob Neyer.

Well, better late than never. Jarrod Washburn is the new Cliff Lee.

First, let's address the reasons why a breakout season for Washburn might seem like a long shot.

He's 34.
He's struck out 5 batters per 9 IP (give or take a percentage point or two) in each of the past 6 years.
His walk rates have been tidy but hardly Maddux-esque at 2.5 to 3 a game.
His BABIP this year is a bound-to-regress .224.
His stuff is, was and always be average at best.
He's Jarrod Freaking Washburn.

As a point of comparison, Cliff Lee was five years younger when he had his breakout season in '08, with significantly higher strikeout rates, significantly better K/BB rates, and a dominant fantasy season (and very good, if not quite dominant real-life season) in the not-too-distant past (2005).

The biggest similarity connecting the two pitchers is their extreme flyball rates. Few pitchers in all of baseball put the ball in the air more often than Washburn (0.66 FB/GB rate over the past 5+ seasons) or Lee (0.61 in that same span). Those tendencies leave a pitcher vulnerable to inflated home run rates in a homer-friendly park. Luckily for Washburn, Safeco Field is not Coors Field, keeping his HR rates down to just a tick above average since coming to Seattle in 2006.

The bigger problem for Washburn with the Mariners has been the woeful outfield defense behind him. Specifically the defense in left field. Opposing managers routinely stack their lineup with right-handed hitters when the lefty Washburn takes the mound. That makes flyballs more likely to travel to left field and left-center than anywhere else. As Mariners fans can tell you–while gritting their teeth in agony–left field at Safeco was patrolled for five years by one of the worst defenders in baseball, Raul Ibanez.

Lee was susceptible to the same potential problem last year. But unlike Washburn, who had to contend with Ibanez in left and a mishmash of suspect outfielders in right flanking the very capable Ichiro Suzuki, Lee had stellar defender Grady Sizemore in center and above-average defenders Shin-Soo Choo and Ben Francisco manning the corners. The nominal fourth outfielder was so spectacular with the glove that he got into 134 games, despite putting up a ghastly .307 OBP. That player, Franklin Gutierrez, was probably the best defensive corner outfielder in the game last year.

So what happened when an extreme flyball pitcher gave an outfield full of good-to-crumbelievable fly-catchers a chance to run down would-be doubles and triples? We got a career year for the ages, and a Cy Young award for a player who just a year earlier had rolled up a 6.29 ERA, thrusting his future with the Indians into doubt and making him a reserve pick at best in even the deepest roto leagues.

This off-season, the Mariners brought in a new GM, Jack Zduriencik. Long viewed as a scouting master (possibly a scout master too, who knows), Jack Z showed his willingness to incorporate numerical analysis into his decision making, hiring Tony Blengino to head a deep and talented staff of number crunchers. The M's quickly found that defense remained an undervalued asset in baseball, even after the Rays had harnessed a massive improvement in defense (and pitching) to chop 270 runs off their runs allowed total and roll to the AL pennant in 2008. The new Moneyball, or whatever you wanted to call it, defense was it–the new obsession of stathead analysts and the new undervalued commodity praised by the savviest ballclubs.

Soon after taking the helm, Jack Z and the M's pulled off a 12-player trade that on the surface, seemed to cost them a very good short reliever (J.J. Putz) and a basket of other stuff, with just no-name prospects, Aaron Heilman, and two guys who can't hit coming over in return. Ah, but those last two players also happened to be two of the best defensive outfielders in the game. One was Endy Chavez, a career light hitter who even past age 30 retained some great wheels and terrific range afield. So legendary was Chavez's defense, that 99|PERCENT| of baseball fans probably know him for a single play: The Catch. Chavez would be the Mariners' new left fielder, providing an upgrade that projected over a full season, could amount to three wins or more of improvement over the departed Ibanez. Meanwhile, Ichiro moved to his more comfortable spot in right field, opening the door for that second pickup to take over in center.

That player? The very same Franklin Gutierrez.

Just like that, the Mariners had completely revampedtheir defense, in the process giving their pitching staff a big lift. Shrewd M's fans are still hoping for even more improvement once Manager Don Wakamatsu comes to his senses and benches butcher shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt in favor of Ronny Cedeno. But for an extreme flyball pitcher like Washburn, the stage has already been set for a massive year-over-year improvement.

As Cameron noted at USSMariner after the latest Wash-out, the M's lefty was all over the place last night against the Rays, in a good way. He threw all kinds of pitches at all kinds of velocities, keeping Rays hitter wildly off balance and in the process racking up a very un-Washburn-like nine strikeouts. Paramount to that success was a newly developed change-up, which Washburn, in Jamie Moyer over-30 fashion, seems to have fashioned into a new and very effective weapon.

Now here's the part where we go beyond what the numbers might suggestion and introduce a little intuition. Through three starts, Washburn has pounded the strike zone, with 17 Ks and just four walks in 21 innings. Is it possible that a 34-year-old pitcher, after 11 years of mediocre to decent-plus results, can make such a dramatic turnaround? I contend it is–if he knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that any flyball he gives up has an excellent chance of landing in someone's glove, instead of being Ibanez'd into another double.

Take the new change-up, combine it with the complete elimination of any need to nibble, throw in the already offense-suppressing confines of Safeco, and you have a recipe for a huge season.

Finally, for roto players, one piece of advice. Last year, Cliff Lee went in the 4th reserve round of AL-LABR, about as deep a league as you can get. In an AL-only league I joined this year just before Opening Day, with rosters just as deep as LABR's, Washburn went in the 5th reserve round. With the growing obsession of fantasy owners to protect pitching ratio categories, we've seen a run on good middle relievers and set-up men. Sometimes we can get too cute with that strategy, especially in a 5x5 league, which further rewards good starting pitching.

Do yourself a favor: spec on one veteran starting pitcher a year in the reserve rounds that nobody else wants. Even if his past numbers look ugly, he can't hurt your ratios on the bench. And if you see a potential Cliff Lee season in the making, you can always slot him right into the lineup. Look for any possible catalyst for change–a new pitch, a new team, a new park, or especially an improved defense behind him.

And if said pitcher just became teammates with Franklin Gutierrez...double down.