Erik Bedard is on pace to strike out more batters (271) than any AL pitcher has since 2000 (Pedro, 284). You probably didn't know that (I didn't until I just looked it up), because Bedard plays for the fourth place Orioles, and is just 24th in the majors with 12 wins.
Bedard is having a breakout year, but he isn't exactly new on the scene. He has been the Orioles' ace since 2005 (although, before this year, calling someone the Orioles' ace was like telling them they're the wittiest FanHouse commenter), and won 15 games last year.
But things have been different for Bedard in 2007, as he's been the second most valuable starter in baseball (behind Peavy). I thought I'd take a look at how he got here.
Erik Bedard (actually, according to Wikipedia, it's Érik Bédard) was born in Ontario, and didn't play competitive baseball until he walked onto the team at Norwalk Community College. There he became a junior college All-American, and impressed the Orioles enough for them to take him in the 6th round of the 1999 draft.
Bedard was sent to the GCL Orioles (Rookie), where he pitched very well in 29 innings, striking out 41 and allowing only 20 hits, with a 1.86 ERA. Along with the strikeouts, one of the impressive parts of Bedards minor league resume is that he never gave up HRs, and that was true immediately, as he allowed only one longball in the GCL.
In 2000 Bedard was promoted to Delmarva (A), and continued to impress, going 9-4. He only made 22 starts, as he began the season as a reliever, eventually moving into the rotation because of injuries (HT: USA Today). He had his faults- his ERA (3.57) rose, and his strikeout rate declined (from 12.7 SO/9 to 10.6). But he showed some important signs of improvement, as he significantly lowered his walk rate (from 4.03 BB/9 to 2.84), and continued to be very stingy with homers, allowing only 2 in 111 innings.
The next year Bedard, now 22, pitched for Fredrick (high A). He actually missed six weeks of the season with a shoulder injury, but he was brilliant when he was healthy, going 9-2 while striking out 130 in 96.1 IP. He continued to not allow home runs (0.37 HR/9), lowered his walk rate again (to 2.43), and allowed only 68 hits. His ERA was 2.15, with an impressive K/BB ratio of 5:1.
After 2001, people started paying attention. He finally cracked the Baseball America Top 100, coming in at 90th. He was listed as Baltimore's top pitching prospect. He also was mentioned in trade talks the Orioles had with the Phillies regarding Scott Rolen, but nothing came of that (obviously).
Bedard had Tommy John surgery in September 2002, and only pitched 19.1 innings in '03, in Rookie and A-ball. (He did strike out 26 batters, but as a 24 year old at those levels, that's not terribly impressive.)
Bedard won the 5th spot in the Orioles 2004 rotation out of spring training, but actually started the year in AAA, as the Orioles didn't need their 5th starter until April 10. I doubt the Orioles really knew what to expect from Bedard- his had barely pitched since June 2002, and that was at AA. The results were mixed, as Bedard went 6-10 with a 4.59 ERA (not bad for a 5th starter, really). As one would expect, his peripherals moved in the wrong direction. The most disturbing of these trends was his walk rate, which was all the way up to 4.7 BB/9. His strikeout rate, although not what it once was, was very solid considering the level of competition, at 7.9 SO/9.
Bedard got off to a tremendous start in 2005, going 5-1 with a 2.08 ERA in his first 9 starts. He was clearly a different pitcher than in '04, as he cut his walk rate in half (to 2.08 BB/9), and also decreased his HR/9 (0.85 to 0.45), while his K rate held steady. But, as seemed to be the trend at this point, his season was cut short, as he went on the DL with a strained MCL on May 26.
This injury was a huge step back for Bedard. After missing almost two months, he came back and was not the same pitcher he had been. He went 1-6 the rest of the year, with a 5.40 ERA. His walk rate went right back up to 4.67 BB/9, and his hit rate increased, as did his HR rate. After posting a 3.7 K/BB ratio before the injury, it was down to 1.7 afterwards.
In 2006, everything finally came together for Bedard. First and foremost, he managed to go the whole year without going on the DL. In 196.1 innings (55 above his previous high), he went 15-11 with a 3.76 ERA. His performance was right inbetween his two halves of '05. He got his control back, lowering his walk rate to 3.2 BB/9. An important aspect of his '06 performance was significantly increasing his ground ball rate, from 40% in '05 to 49% last year.
This year, Bedard has made the jump from being the best pitcher on the Orioles to become one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. He actually got off to a slow start, with a 6.09 ERA in April, but has gone 9-2 with a 2.20 ERA since. There are two main reasons for this improvement- one being completely his doing, the other having very little to do with him.
The first reason, obviously, is the fact that he decided to start striking everybody out. From FanGraphs, here is his K/9 for each year of his ML career:
Well, then. The way he made the jump this year from 7.8 K/9 to 11.0 is actually very interesting. He has actually gotten to two strikes on less hitters this year (44%) than last year (55%). But once he gets there, he's been filthy. This year, once Bedard has two strikes on a hitter, he gets the K 53% of the time- last year that number was 37%.
As I mentioned before, part of Bedard's improvement can be attributed to a factor beyond his control, that being the Orioles' defense. In '04, '05, and '06, the Orioles ranked 18th, 17th, and 26th, respectively, in the majors in Defensive Efficiency. Because of this, Bedard had above average BABiPs (Batting Average on Balls in Play) all three years. Here is a graph of his yearly BABiPs.
This year the Orioles rank 8th in baseball in Defensive Efficiency. This has allowed Bedard's BABiP to go from .320 last year to just .292 in 2007.
Bedard's BAA (Batting Average Against) has gone from .261 last year to .214 this year, a drop of .047. About 60% of that is due to the increased strikeouts, while the other 40% is due to the Orioles' improved defense.
According to Jeff from Cot's Baseball Contracts, Bedard will have accumulated 5 years and 171 days of service time after next season, leaving him just one day short of qualifying for free agency. So, unless he signs an extension, Bedard will be a free agent after the 2009 season. Although he'll turn 31 in March, 2010, and the club that signs him will probably be paying for his decline, Bedard should do quite well for himself if he decides to become a free agent in a couple years.
Information for this article taken from Baseball Reference, Baseball Prospectus, The Baseball Cube, Baseball America, Cot's Baseball Contracts, Wikipedia, and FanGraphs. Pictures taken from here, here, here, and Mr. Irrelevant; all graphs taken from FanGraphs.
Last week's profile: Hanley Ramirez
Erik Bedard's Career Statistics