Who is Clay Hensley?


The Marlins starting rotation is still not set, with only one candidate, Sean West, officially eliminated from the race. Presumably Anibal Sanchez, Chris Volstad, Andrew Miller, Hayden Penn. and Rick VandenHurk all still have a shot at filling those three spots.

Now, I think Volstad and Sanchez are locked in. But that fifth spot is in flux, and I think that Miller lost it with his latest Spring Training outing. While VandenHurk hasn’t been all that better, I think Miller’s edge has vanished. But I don’t think you can count VandenHurk as a clear-cut leader yet. Penn has been on the team’s radar because he is out of options and apparently has developed a new sinker, but that’s not the guy I think will push either Hurk or Miller.

Clay Hensley has emerged as a dark horse candidate for the fifth starting spot, impressing the Marlins by being the only guy to actually keep the ball in the strike zone. Can this trend continue? Who is this guy and what can we expect from him?

Hensley started off with the San Diego Padres in 2005, getting his first serious time in the majors in 2006. In that 2006 season, he was decent, posting a 3.71 ERA and a 4.15 FIP. While he walked more than the league average and struck out less than the average, he made up for that with home run prevention, allowing 0.72 HR/9 thanks in part to a slightly depressed HR/FB% rate (no doubt affected somewhat by Petco Park) and a 53.9% GB%. His xFIP wasn’t much worse, leading to a genuinely solid season from Hensley. At 26, you figured he might have some future as a solid back-of-the-rotation guy.

But in his subsequent years, he struggled mightily, making only ten starts and pitching 89 innings, striking out 56 batters while walking 52 unintentionally. Much of his 2008 innings came out of the bullpen and were thoroughly unimpressive. The ground ball rates also dipped slightly, as he went from 53% in 2006 to 48% and 50% in 2007 and 2008. These struggles could be attributed to the shoulder issues that plagued him during those two seasons, issues that he now claims are behind him.

That may in fact be the case. In 2009, Hensley spent time with the Houston Astros’ and our minor league systems, but it was in our Triple-A affiliate where he first impressed. Last year, Hensley made 19 starts for Triple-A New Orleans, compiling a 3.23 ERA and 3.73 FIP. Two different MLE translations have very different says about that performance, however. Minor League Splits translates that performance into a 4.77 FIP, yielding these rate stats per nine innings:

K/9: 5.5
UIBB/9: 3.7
HR/9: 0.9

Baseball Prospectus’ Davenport Translations offer a different take:

K/9: 4.6
UIBB/9: 3.3
HR/9: 1.7 (!)

These are two drastically different pitchers, a difference between a 4.77 FIP and a 5.73 FIP at the major league level. Who do we trust? I don’t think it really matters. Hensley’s repertoire seems obvious to me, even in the face of these translations. He’s a junkballing worm-killer who is not going to induce a lot of strikeouts and has average at best control. Sounds like somebody you know?

I thought Miller and Volstad as well. How much different would including Hensley be? Well, one difference between them is that perhaps Hensley will display Volstad-control (rather than Miller-control, which can barely be considered “control”) with Miller home run rates. That combination would certainly pass for a fifth starter. CHONE projects Hensley at a 4.79 FIP; ZiPS (newly introduced yesterday at FanGraphs, yay!) has him at a more pessimistic 4.96. Either way, he’d be worth very little to the team and not much different than installing the other competitors in that slot.

In terms of upside, I’d say at this point Hensley is who he is. He isn’t going to blow you away with his fastball (88-90 mph on average) and he has some fairly typical stuff. He gets ground balls, which is great, but he’ll be pitching in front of a potentially league-worst infield. Given our options, I still believe VandenHurk or Miller may be the better choice, but at best this should be a sideways move. Don’t expect improvement or decline in our pitching staff’s performance thanks to Hensley.