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Mound Musings: Advanced Metrics Analysis

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.

Admittedly, I'm fascinated by anything new related to pitching metrics. Clearly, as demonstrated by the last couple years of Cy Young voting, we are beyond using wins as a means of stack-ranking pitchers. Even the cranky BBWAA has warmed to the idea that things like ERA, WHIP, strikeout-to-walk ratio, and innings pitched are far more important in determining who had the best season. In the fantasy community, we always like to think we're a bit further advanced, using metrics like xFIP, K/9, WAR, VORP, SIERA, BB/9, BABIP, LOB%, etc. to separate the wheat from the chaff. We certainly use those things here at RotoWire, particularly in our annual projections.

If you want to go really deep, check out this article on pitcher release point and curve ball spin. Pretty fascinating stuff. We won't go quite to that level here this week, but I want to dive into a couple metrics that the great website FanGraphs tracks. I can say it is a great site because it is also smart enough to utilize RotoWire for its player notes. We'll look at the top and bottom 15 pitchers in each category and discuss specifically a few.

O-SWING%

Yeah we're getting fancy here. O-Swing% refers to the percentage of a pitcher's pitches outside the strike zone that a hitter swings at. In theory, you want a pitcher who can get hitters to chase balls. On the other hand, perhaps a pitcher's stuff is just so hittable (Luke Hochevar?) that hitters go up there with the mentality that they are going to be a bit more aggressive, and, therefore, they hack at pitches they'd usually take. Last year's surprise leader was Carl Pavano at 35.9 percent, so judging by some of this year's numbers below, pitchers are ahead of hitters early in the season. You should also keep in mind the small sample size caveat, but again, we're just using these numbers to facilitate a discussion.

PITCHER O-SWING%
Matt Garza, Cubs 47.1
Ricky Nolasco, Marlins 42.6
Huston Street, Rockies 41.9
Bronson Arroyo, Reds 40.2
Matt Cain, Giants 39.6
Dan Haren, Angels 38.7
Ervin Santana, Angels 37.5
C.J. Wilson, Rangers 37.1
Joe Blanton, Phillies 36.8
Luke Hochevar, Royals 36.4
Daniel Hudson, Diamondbacks 36.4
Brandon Beachy, Braves 36.2
Travis Wood, Reds 35.6
Jonathon Niese, Mets 35.4
Wandy Rodriguez, Astros 35.4


Some of these names aren't a huge surprises Cain, Nolasco, Garza, Haren, etc. Some, though, are downright head-scratchers.

Luke Hochevar:
For his career, Hochevar's O-Swing% clocks in a more realistic 25.8 percent, so we'll just have to chalk this one up to sample size given Hochevar's 5.30 ERA in three starts. On the plus side is a 12:2 K:BB in 18.2 innings, but six home runs? Hochevar was, of course, a No. 1 overall draft pick, so maybe, just maybe, he'll turn into a No. 3 starter at some point, but there's a reason that when talking about the future of Royals pitching, the talk starts with the four left-handers the Royals have in Double-A.

Joe Blanton:
Blanton remains "That Guy Who the Phillies Want to Dump to Save Payroll," and so far this year we're looking at a 10.45 ERA in two starts. Look closer, though, and you'll see a .429 BABIP, 8.7 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9 as signs he's not quite THIS bad. Mix in the fact that hitters are chasing his stuff and you have a pitcher worth targeting in NL-only leagues.

Matt Garza:
If your league isn't smart enough to look beyond Garza's zero wins and 5.68 ERA, by all means trade for him. A 20:3 K:BB in 12.1 innings combined with his topping the O-Swing% leaderboard are both solid indications that Garza is going to see a quick turnaround in that ERA.

Brandon Beachy:
Entering spring training, I figured Mike Minor was essentially a lock for the No. 5 slot in Atlanta, but Beachy deservedly won the job after a strong spring. Beachy is 24, and as such, he's never been considered one of the organization's top prospects, but it's hard to ignore the numbers:

2010 Double-A: 1.47 ERA, 12.2 K/9, 2.7 BB/9
2010 Triple-A: 2.17 ERA, 9.5 K/9, 1.2 BB/9
2010/2011 Majors: 3.33 ERA, 8.0 K/9, 3.3 BB/9

Certainly good enough to stick in the back end of a big-league rotation. Beachy won't blow batters away, but his fastball sits at a good-enough 91.6 mph on average, and his curve is pretty solid. Nice NL-only sleeper.

Travis Wood:
Wood is doing his best to partner with Roy Oswalt and Tim Hudson to erase the "short pitcher" bias. I admittedly fall into that boat on occasion, but Wood looks to be for real. He had a 1.77 ERA in the minors in 2009 and followed that up with another strong season in Triple-A in 2010 before finishing the year with the Reds and posting a 3.51 ERA and solid 86:26 K:BB in 102.2 innings. Wood was a second-round pick in 2005, so this isn't quite coming out of nowhere, but unless he has another couple starts like his last (seemingly flukish) start against Arizona, he's not going to stick around once guys like Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey return from the disabled list.

Now for the trailers. These are pitchers whose offerings out of the zone aren't swung at as frequently. Could this be because batters are waiting for a pitcher's less-than-stellar stuff to come in over the middle of the plate? Could be that, could be early season sample size, or perhaps it's just a way a pitcher works. Maybe the pitcher is known as a strike-thrower to the point that batters know they are eventually going to get something good to hit if they stay patient. Let's let the numbers tell the story:

PITCHER O-SWING%
James McDonald, Pirates 11.8
Brad Penny, Tigers 14.6
Max Scherzer, Tigers 15.7
Kyle McClellan, Cardinals 17.9
Jhoulys Chacin, Rockies 18.7
Jesse Litsch, Blue Jays 18.8
Brett Anderson, Athletics 19.3
Chris Tillman, Orioles 19.6
J.A. Happ, Astros 20.2
Aaron Harang, Padres 20.5
Brett Myers, Astros 20.5
Chris Carpenter, Cardinals 21.0
Scott Baker, Twins 21.2
Jason Marquis, Nationals 21.4


The only surprising names here are Chris Carpenter and Brett Anderson, two of baseball's best. We'll give them a pass based on their track records.

James McDonald:
I'm still pretty bullish on McDonald based on his minor league history and impressive time in Pittsburgh a year ago, but he's obviously off to a slow start. McDonald started slow in L.A. last year, so maybe that's just his M.O.

Kyle McClellan:
Dave Duncan can do wonders, but McClellan isn't quite this good (2.25 ERA), as evidenced by his appearance here, a 3.48 xFIP and a pre-2011 track record as nothing more than a so-so middle reliever. He could still be a 4.25 ERA type, which has value, but there will be bumps in the road.

Brad Penny:
Penny's velocity is down more than two full mph over last year, this flyball rate is up and he's been erratic more than ever this year. Other than that, he's had a great start. I'm done with him.

Jason Marquis:
Marquis is in a contract year, so if you believe in that stuff, he may be worth $1 in NL-only formats. Other than that, he's one of baseball's more unreliable starters.

Chris Tillman:
Tillman is a nice talent, but he's far from a finished product. He benefited handsomely from a .185 BABIP in his first two starts. While the upside is there long-term, I'm not sure he's going to provide a ton of value in 2011.

Z-CONTACT%

This measures the percentage of a pitcher's strikes that the batter makes contact with when he swings. Clearly, the lower the better, as, again in theory, less contact is preferred to more contact for a pitcher. We won't see only elite pitchers on this list, however, as they could potentially get batters to chase more pitches, and thus not need to throw as many strikes.

PITCHER Z-CONTACT%
Chris Narveson, Brewers 75.0
Edwin Jackson, White Sox 76.4
Anibal Sanchez, Marlins 79.1
Bruce Chen, Royals 79.6
Jered Weaver, Angels 80.0
Jesse Litsch, Blue Jays 80.0
Jorge de la Rosa, Rockies 80.4
Roy Halladay, Phillies 80.5
Tim Lincecum, Giants 81.5
Jaime Garcia, Cardinals 81.6
John Danks, White Sox 81.7
Max Scherzer, Tigers 82.3
Joe Blanton, Phillies 82.4
David Price, Rays 82.7
Josh Tomlin, Indians 82.7


Hey, there's Mr. Blanton again!

Another interesting list. On one hand you have a handful of aces (Weaver, Halladay, Lincecum, and Price). You have Edwin Jackson off to a hot start, de la Rosa who knows how to rack up the strikeouts and a guy in Max Scherzer who could seemingly throw a no-hitter at any moment if he channels his stuff for a full nine innings.

Then there are a handful of head-scratchers:

Bruce Chen
Chen surprised last year with a 4.17 ERA in 140.1 innings, this despite pedestrian peripherals 6.3 K/9, 3.7 BB/9. Based on that alone, we can't predict much lower than a 4.50 ERA for 2011. Chen's rates were 88.2 percent and 89.4 percent the last two years, so we'll chalk this one up to early season sample size. Chen, though, is worth a couple bucks in deeper leagues. Just be sure to spot start him as appropriate.

Chris Narveson
I'm not quite sure yet if Narveson is Doug Davis or something more. He's certainly looking to be more this year with 13 scoreless innings and a 14:4 K:BB. Narveson has never been a pitcher to miss a ton of bats (7.3 K/9 last year), even in the minors. Pitchers with an 88.6 mph average fastball (career) aren't normally worth targeting, but with the Brewers offense, Narveson could be a contributor in the wins, ERA and WHIP categories in deeper leagues. Narveson's career Z-Contact% is 87.8, so it's far too early to conclude that his skillset has changed significantly.

Josh Tomlin
Tomlin owners have to be quite happy (though did anyone have him active for both starts?), as the Cleveland right-hander is 2-0 with a 2.63 ERA. This comes despite a 7:6 K:BB in 13.2 innings. Tomlin put up a 5.3 K/9 in 73 innings last year, so he hasn't exactly proven the ability to miss many bats. Per FanGraphs (sorry, haven't watched enough Indians games to verify first-hand), Tomlin has introduced a slider into his repertoire, so perhaps that will help him become a serviceable AL-only guy, but don't expect much more from a pitcher who averages 87 mph with his fastball.

Jesse Litsch
Like many Tommy John survivors, Litsch's command has been slow to return, but through two starts, he does have a 2.38 ERA with an 11:6 K:BB in 11.1 innings. We have to assume the BB/9 will trend toward his solid 2.5 career mark, so Litsch remains at least interesting. Something worth watching is he's throwing his slider and curveball two mph faster over last year. I'm not sure how much that ends up impacting his ERA, but as I say interesting. Brandon Morrow (elbow) is due back in 7-to-10 days, so either Litsch or Jo-Jo Reyes will find himself in the bullpen or Triple-A soon. Expect Reyes to get the boot, but each likely will have another start or two to impress.

And now the Z-Contact% trailers:

PITCHER Z-CONTACT%
Matt Garza, Cubs 96.4
Brandon McCarthy, Athletics 96.1
Jason Hammel, Rockies 96.0
Kyle Lohse, Cardinals 95.9
Matt Cain, Giants 95.0
Brett Myers, Astros 94.7
Wade Davis, Rays 94.6
Tim Hudson, Braves 94.6
Barry Enright, Diamondbacks 94.6
C.J. Wilson, Rangers 94.1
J.A. Happ, Astros 94.0
Jon Lester, Red Sox 94.0
Kyle Drabek, Blue Jays 94.0
Josh Johnson, Marlins 94.0
Scott Baker, Twins 93.8


Josh Johnson:
He likely drops off this list after Wednesday's near no-hitter.

Matt Garza:
Interesting year so far from Garza: 20 hits allowed in 12.2 innings, but also a 20:3 K:BB ratio. Of course, when 54.1 percent of balls in play go for base hits, that's not optimal for a an ERA. Basic rule: when you're striking out more than 14 hitters per nine innings, your future prospects are good.

Jon Lester:
Through three starts, Lester's velocity and strikeout rate are both down. He's also benefited from a .260 BABIP, and while I'm inclined to ignore all this based on his track record, it's something worth watching. On the plus side, Lester also started slowly in 2010 (4.71 ERA), so maybe we're seeing a trend.

Tim Hudson:
Hudson generates so many groundballs that maybe his appearing here isn't the worst thing.

Brandon McCarthy:
Good and bad with McCarthy so far this year.

The good:

He's not on the DL.
A 0.59 BB/9
No HR allowed
A 49.1 GB%
91.3 mph average fastball 89.5 mph career average

The bad:

4.1 K/9
Appearing on this list

As you can see, more positives than negatives, so I'll remain slightly optimistic here.


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