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Mound Musings: The Year of the Pitcher

David Regan

David Regan

David Regan is a five-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner, and was named the 2010 Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year.

Twenty-ten has been tabbed "The Year of the Pitcher."

National League pitchers dominated American League hitters to the tune of a 3-1 win in this year's All-Star game. If not for Jose Bautista's improbable run at 40 home runs, we might not have a single hitter threatening that plateau this year, as here we are on Aug. 5 and only six other players have 25 or more home runs. Baseball's drug testing policies have theoretically made the chemically-enhanced slugger a relic of years gone by. Other anecdotal evidence could be said to include year-by-year total ERA:

2007: 4.46
2008: 4.32
2009: 4.31
2010: 4.15

As a point of reference, that number was 4.76 in 2000.

We'd be naοve to think that declining usage of performance-enhancing drugs across the league isn't at least partly a factor in the increasing success of pitchers limiting runs scored. In addition, we have three starting pitchers making a run at a sub-2.00 ERA – Josh Johnson (1.96), Roy Halladay (2.17) and Adam Wainwright (2.19). All have xFIPs (remember xFIP is a metric designed to predict a pitcher's future ERA based on underlying skills) near or above 3.00, so it's unlikely we'll see the first sub-2.00 starter's ERA since Roger Clemens' 1.87 in 2005. Still, having this many pitchers pitch this well is unusual. All evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, truly points to 2010 as the “Year of the Pitcher”.

Nice and all, but what does all this mean for fantasy purposes? Here are four things I thought of (note that some of these will be more obvious to you than others depending on your fantasy league(s) and experience):

Be Aggressive with Pitching Prospects

Most of us knew about Jeremy Hellickson before his big league debut on Monday. Perhaps fewer of us were surprised when he held the Twins to two runs over seven impressive innings. This year, though, has proven we need to look beyond the big names. A quick look at some of the rookie pitchers making an impact (Mat Latos just missed qualifying based on his 50.2 IP in 2009):

Jaime Garcia, STL –
Along with Jason Heyward, Garcia will factor into the NL Rookie of the Year award at year's end. No, he won't maintain a 2.53 ERA (we're already seeing a correction), but in hindsight, this is exactly the type of pitcher you should have targeted in drafts/early-season waiver wires. Former top prospect, recovered from Tommy John, throws left-handed and gets to watch Carpenter and Wainwright while sitting in the vicinity of Dave Duncan.

Barry Enright, ARI – See below on Enright. I missed the boat in my NL-only league, but the Double-A numbers were quite good – 8.0 K/9, 1.5 BB/9.

Jonathon Niese, NYM –
I've been on this bandwagon for awhile. Niese did a good job in the minors in keeping the ball in the ballpark and near the strike zone. Doesn't hurt he's left-handed, either.

Mike Leake, CIN –
I pounced here in my NL-only auction and got him for a buck at the end of the auction. He's come back to earth after a great start, but this is Exhibit A as to why you always invest in first-round picks. Not all will turn out like Leake, but the odds are better.

Stephen Strasburg, WAS –
I paid $550 for a 2010 Bowman Strasburg autographed card, so I'm all in. I also have a few Mark Prior rookies if anyone is interested.

Brian Matusz, BAL –
Will be undervalued in next spring's drafts. Grab him now in keeper leagues if possible.

Jake Arrieta, BAL –
Probably the fourth-best young Orioles starter behind Chris Tillman, Matusz and Zach Britton (see below). Stuff doesn't wow me, so I'm not buying outside AL-only formats.

Thomas Diamond, CHC –
Member of the Rangers' formerly famed prospect set dubbed the “DVD trio” along with Edinson Volquez and John Danks. In our 2009 player outlook for Diamond, we officially moved him into "bust" status, but hold on. An improbably good year for Triple-A Iowa (3.16 ERA, 8.7 K/9) has him on the Cubs rotation. One 10-strikeout start later, he should REALLY be on your radar.

Dan Hudson, ARI –
Hudson had a 10.4 K/9 in Triple-A this year, so while he allows too many flyballs in relation to his tough home park, Hudson also minimizes baserunners with his excellent command. He should be a solid No. 3-type starter in Arizona.

Jeanmar Gomez, CLE –
1.50 ERA in two starts. Not the biggest upside, but a fine AL-only play the rest of the way as it appears he has a shot at a permanent gig.

Obviously, some of those names (Strasburg) are slightly bigger than others (Enright), but if you need a pitcher, speculating on prospects rather than overpaying for established starters by opening a hole in your offense could be the way to go. Do I think Barry Enright is going to maintain a sub-3.00 ERA? With a so-so GB%, a 6.3 K/9 and having to pitch half his games in Chase Field, it's unlikely. Still, there's value in a pitcher like that, who, if he stumbles, can be let go and replaced by Option B.

Going forward, several interesting pitching prospects still in the minors could make their debuts this year:

Zach Britton, BAL –
One more Brad Bergeson start may be enough to get Britton in the big league rotation. Britton's K/9 rate sits at just 6.3 this season in the minors, but a sinking fastball has batters pounding the ball into the ground at Derek Lowe-type numbers – 63.1 GB%. He also commands the strike zone pretty well with a 2.8 BB/9.

Michael Pineda, SEA –
At the tender age of 21, Pineda is on the cusp of the big leagues, and I'm not sure how many people know it. He's posted double-digit strikeouts in three of eight Triple-A starts while maintaining an overall BB/9 of just 2.0. He should get the call once the Mariners realize their fans have no interest in watching the likes of Luke French and Chris Seddon.

Kyle Drabek, TOR –
Drabek has a nine-inning no-hitter and a 1.89 ERA in his last six starts. He's still in Double-A, but don't expect much, if any, Triple-A time for one of baseball's top pitching prospects.

Simon Castro, SD –
Castro is still in Double-A, and while Castro is no Mat Latos, the Padres had no problem jumping Latos from Double-A to the big leagues last year and could do the same with Castro. A 7.4 K/9 isn't overwhelming, but hard to not like most anyone's chances in Petco Park against an offense-deprived NL West.

Mike Minor, ATL –
The Braves are bursting with starters at all levels, but Minor is the most major league ready pitching prospect they have. The pitcher with the most upside is Julio Teheran, but Teheran is more of a 2011/2012 prospect having just recently been promoted to Double-A. Minor sports a 10.6 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9 while holding batters to a .171 AVG over the last month. He's an injury away from Atlanta, and with the possibly serious elbow injury to Kris Medlen on Wednesday, it could open a door for Minor.

Trade Elite starters for Elite Bats

I'll use my 10-team NL only league as an example. The most-owned hitters on our waiver wire are:

Everth Cabrera
Mark DeRosa – I guess some leagues are DEEP keeper leagues with DL slots – we have no DL
Rick Ankiel – will be FAAB'd this week
David Eckstein
Ronny Cedeno
Brett Wallace – see Ankiel
Ronnie Belliard

The ugly list goes on.

Available pitchers:

AL crossovers Dan Hudson, Joe Saunders and Jake Westbrook will be FAAB'd this week.

Others available:

Zach Duke
Chris Narveson
Rodrigo Lopez
Wesley Wright
Thomas Diamond

OK, not exactly the 1971 Orioles staff there, but maybe a couple players who can be useful as streamers. I have no idea what I would do with Ronnie Belliard or Everth Cabrera. If you had a dire need for a hitter and had a deep pitching staff and could deal say Clayton Kershaw for a comparable hitter (we'll use Carlos Gonzalez as an example), wouldn't you rather have Gonzalez and say Thomas Diamond instead of Kershaw and Ronny Cedeno? Again, assuming you have a deep pitching staff. Just something to consider.

Be Quick to Ditch Underperformers without an Impressive Track Record

I like Brandon Morrow quite a bit. Former top-5 draft pick, big fastball, just now coming into his own. Mostly, though, I'm attracted to his 10.2 K/9 and potential for an ERA far better than his 4.79 mark. However, in addition to owning him in a couple keeper leagues, I also have Morrow in a 12-team mixed league where we are allotted seven keepers. I have multiple players I'd keep over Morrow for 2011, and assuming no one wants to give anything of value for a pitcher with his ERA, Jair Jurrjens, Ervin Santana and Trevor Cahill are all available on the waiver wire. Jurrjens has the Giants in Atlanta on Thursday, so I'll probably go there.

Point being is this year seemingly more than ever, there is value to be found on your waiver wire. I don't know about you, but I've found myself doing more adds/drops involving pitchers this year more than ever simply for the fact that there are more options.

Keeper Leagues: Always Choose Hitters when Deciding Between a Hitter and Pitcher

In one league in which I'm already out of the race and looking toward 2011, I'm going to have a keeper decision between Zack Greinke and Rickie Weeks. For context, this is a 12-team mixed 5x5 league in which we keep seven players. I'm also keeping Posey, M. Cabrera, Wright, Strasburg, Kershaw (homer?) and Jeter. Greinke has obviously slipped over last year while Weeks has 22 homers to lead all second basemen. I'll probably go Weeks simply for the fact that there are so many good pitchers these days and far fewer offensive second basemen. I've always been biased toward hitters over pitchers due to issues of volatility, but I think the divide has gotten more extreme this year.