This Week's Scouting Tip: The State of Pitching - Gaps Tell the Story
The regular season is nearly complete. Some teams will be heading to the playoffs, and other teams will be busy planning for next year. So what have we learned about the art of pitching circa 2011? Are there trends in this facet of the sport that should be clearly understood by the fantasy owner? Absolutely!
Perhaps the most critical trend involves the depth of the starting pitching. There are 30 major league teams - well, if you count the Cubs and Astros etc. Back in the day when there were considerably fewer teams, most used only four man rotations, and having to use a fifth or sixth option in the rotation was considered a crisis, so depth on the mound was still considered potentially problematic. Where does that leave today's teams which routinely use five and even six man rotations, and with injuries and the need to find better options at the back of the rotation, will sometimes field 10-12 or even more pitchers to begin a game at some point during the season? It leaves gaps … a huge disparity between that first starter and the fifth (or sixth, or seventh) starter. For the typical fantasy owner, at least in relatively deep leagues, it presents a smorgasbord of options - some good, but most not so good - for filling out a fantasy rotation. Just like the major teams, most fantasy teams will have a solid first and maybe even a solid second starter, but how the rotation shapes up beyond that usually determines whether you are figuring out how to win it now, or find yourself in that planning mode.
The Phillies are a good hitting team, but since very few teams could match the middle and back of their rotation, they breezed into the playoffs. The Braves are in the hunt for a playoff spot because they can pitch every day. You can certainly name others. Pitching every day - that is a phrase I use pretty often when I evaluate major league staffs, and fantasy staffs. Can the team put itself in a position to win every day, or do you find yourself saying, "ok, they should win this one and maybe this one this week, but the chances aren't very good on this day or this day." As a fantasy owner, your goal should be to avoid those gaps and run out a pitching staff that "can" win every day.
Believe it or not, there are fantasy teams that include guys like Clayton Kershaw, or Justin Verlander, or Ian Kennedy, and some pretty solid hitting that won't win their leagues this year. Like some major league counterparts, they had a good chance to win when that pitcher took the mound, including solid peripherals and a few strikeouts - but on the days in between, it was a crapshoot. Draft with the intent of giving yourself the chance to win every day. You can't fill your roster with aces, but that's all right. Just remember, it is almost always the middle down that determines success. Therefore, try to minimize the gaps between the top of your rotation, and the bottom.
Over the course of the season, I have tried to share some insights on how to build that championship staff … how to recognize the flavors of the week, spotting high ceiling or the dreaded "potential," organizational tendencies like rushing young pitchers or waiting until that prized arm is ready, keys to long term success, and the reasons for always taking upside over proven mediocrity to name just a few. It's been a great season. Hopefully the ideas we have shared will make 2012 even better!
Again, for the player section of this week's Notebook, I would like to throw out some general observations, or reflections if you will, this time on some National League pitchers, their 2011 performance, and maybe a few thoughts on what to expect next season.
A Journey Around the National League
The Phillies are the perfect example of our gap analysis. Yes, the top of their rotation - Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee - are exceptional. However several other quality teams can roughly approximate the performance of those two. It's the Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt, and Vance Worley side of the equation that sets them apart. Second tier teams cannot run pitchers of that caliber out to the mound on days three through five. Hamels would arguably be a #1 on quite a few teams. I don't think Worley can match this season and Oswalt is probably in the twilight of his career, but they will be a handful again in 2012.
Excellent timing describes the Atlanta pitching timeline. As longtime leaders like Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe age gracefully, their exceptionally deep collection of young arms is on schedule to fill in. Arodys Vizcaino is an eye-popper, Julio Teheran is coming along, and others like Mike Minor and Randall Delgado can also contribute. They really need to find a way to keep Jair Jurrjens healthy, and don't be surprised if Brandon Beachy goes in a deal to plug a hole in their lineup. Then there is the bullpen duo of Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel who effectively makes Braves games eight inning affairs.
I don't think there is another, potentially more exciting pitching staff than the one the Washington Nationals will put on display next year. Stephen Strasburg is a once-in-a-generation talent - and I don't apply that tag lightly. Jordan Zimmermann is not all that far behind, and he has quietly hidden in the shadows as he takes each step forward. I think Ross Detwiler is a huge sleeper for next year, and a lot of people have forgotten how many games Chien-Ming Wang won just a few years ago. Brad Peacock or Tom Milone could push someone like John Lannan into the #5 slot - that's Phillies territory. And they have Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen to shorten the game a la Atlanta.
The Mets could have a very difficult time matching up in the pitching-rich East with R.A Dickey probably their most reliable starter. Maybe Johan Santana can make it back, but his days as a certified ace are probably over. Jon Niese and Mike Pelfrey along with Chris Capuano (if he's back) and Dillon Gee demonstrate the other side of that gap equation - they just don't come close to the top tier. And, the Mets will have some questions to answer in the end game. Can Bobby Parnell be the stopper? He has to display some consistency first, and the options behind him are questionable at best.
Where would Florida be without the amazing second-half provided by Javier Vazquez? I think we can safely assume he will never wear an AL uniform again. But let's face it, their fortunes as they move into their new park all center around Josh Johnson. He's as good as it gets when he's healthy. Will he ever get and stay that way? He's a risky proposition at best these days. Ricky Nolasco will likely continue to perform below his talent level, what new? And, the rest of the rotation options are far across that gap chasm so they will need someone, or several some ones, to step up. Who closes? Leo or whatever his name is today Nunez isn't the guy, and Edward Mujica is a marginal option. They have some huge questions to answer in the end game.
Milwaukee will gladly shorten their rotation for the playoffs - that was always the plan. They have some quality arms, but Zack Greinke and Yovani Gallardo can be prone to underperforming, and Shaun Marcum is a bit fragile. Randy Wolf is serviceable, but Chris Narveson isn't much help. They need depth, and consistency from the top of the rotation guys, especially Gallardo, to dominate the division. Without it, despite a heavy hitting lineup that could be missing Prince Fielder, they are vulnerable. They rolled the dice for this year and will hope to bring it all together in the post season. Next year could be more challenging. John Axford has been a nice story, and he should continue to anchor their bullpen. Some help getting to him could be in order.
If Adam Wainwright is back to 100%, the Cardinals could be a major force next season. Losing him for the year is probably the only reason they didn't find their way to the top of the division. Chris Carpenter had an off year, but there have been some positive signs he'll be back. I'm not sure Jaime Garcia is as good as some people think, and Kyle Lohse is more smoke and mirrors than anything else. Like the Brewers, they need to find some back of the rotation help - Wainwright bumping everyone else down a notch will be a huge help - and they need to settle the bullpen roles. Please hurry Shelby Miller, and look for Jason Motte to get a full blown look next year. He has the tools.
The Reds are an enigma. Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez have talent, but they also have question marks regarding durability and focus respectively. Bronson Arroyo eats innings and provides fans in the bleachers with souvenirs - good PR I guess. Homer Bailey remains frustratingly erratic while Travis Wood and Mike Leake are really only gap-fodder back of the rotation guys. Dontrelle Willis? We love you, but you still fall well short of the performance level the Reds need. So where does Aroldis Chapman fall in this scenario. My guess is closer. Let him air out that 105 mph fastball over short stretches - that will be his best opportunity to shine.
Somewhere in Pittsburgh a light went off recently. The most successful small market teams have learned that success comes from quality drafting and investing in those picks. The Pirates are on that path now. James McDonald has significant upside, but Charlie Morton, Kevin Correia and the other Pirates rotation guys are pretty much just placeholders for the real high ceiling guys like Jameson Taillon and this year's top draft pick Gerrit Cole. In fact, with Matthew Moore graduating to the big leagues, Taillon might inherit my "top pitching prospect in the game" tag - he's a monster. Joel Hanrahan has been a huge boost in the bullpen, but they will need to bridge the gap to him. The Pirates are still a year or two away, but they have laid the foundation.
The best thing the Cubs can say about their future success is that they play in the same division with Houston. Matt Garza was a step in the right direction, but the steps got a lot steeper after that move. Carlos Zambrano is surely gone, that could help. So, that leaves Ryan Dempster, a middle/back of the rotation type, and the others - low upside guys like Randy Wells, and the rest of the pretenders, show us why such a huge gap exists. They just aren't very good. The Cubs probably need to clean house and unload some contracts from both the mound corps and their position players. It's likely to be a process that could last a few years, but that's Cubs baseball after all.
The poor Astros really want to be in rebuilding mode. They have some decent looking young position players, but they would love to unload their best starting pitcher's contract (Wandy Rodriquez) and Brett Myers is in the same situation. Neither is going to lead the Astros to respectability, but Bud Norris might. He has legitimate stuff, but he'll have to stay healthy, both physically and mentally. After that, it's pretty much filler with back of the rotation types like J.A. Happ, and other than the modest upside potential of Jordan Lyles, there isn't much to look forward to on the farm. One actual bright spot is Mark Melancon's success as the closer. I have liked him since he was in the Yankees system, and even though there are still doubters, he looks like he can handle the job.
Arizona proved that excellent pitching and some hitting can beat excellent pitching and virtually no hitting - aka the Giants. I wrote the following about Ian Kennedy in August of 2007: "I like this guy a lot! Stud potential, although it may not be next year. He has great stuff and command, and he always looks like he knows exactly where his next pitch is going. You ever see a guy who pitches like masters play chess? They make a move designed to set up an attack 4 moves further into the game. That's how Kennedy seems to pitch and I love seeing that. He doesn't throw a pitch without intending for it to serve a specific purpose. Pick him up (the Yankees are trying VERY hard to avoid exposing him before he's ready but they can only wait so long)." Obviously, I feel the same way now. Wow! Follow him with a very good Daniel Hudson and then look for the arrivals of Jarrod Parker, Trevor Bauer, and Tyler Skaggs. The sun is shining brightly in Arizona.
Two years ago San Francisco won it all with dominating starting pitching and a little timely hitting. In 2011, the timely hitting disappeared, but the pitching was still there. While Tim Lincecum put up his usual numbers, he somehow wasn't the force he has been for most of his career to date. The command wasn't as sharp. Matt Cain was again solid, and again found run support lacking, ditto for Madison Bumgarner, while Ryan Vogelsong was one of the brightest surprises in the game. Jonathan Sanchez still can't find his release point, and Barry Zito still has a bigger check book than curveball. If they find even a little hitting, they'll be back, especially if Brian Wilson is healthy.
The Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw may be the best pitcher in the National League, maybe in all of baseball, but the boys in blue were also-rans in the NL West. Gap? Partially perhaps with Chad Billingsley proving again he is a middle or back of the rotation starter while Ted Lilly disappointed. Hiroki Kuroda may go back to Japan in search of offensive support, but he was solid all year. They have some interesting kids in Nathan Eovaldi, and the heir apparent to the long term closer role, strikeout machine Kenley Jansen. Kershaw is likely to win the Cy Young (probably for just the first time), but where are the #2 and #3 starters here?
Colorado has always been known as a nightmare for starting pitchers. Ubaldo Jimenez managed to overcome that definition for half a season in 2010, but he couldn't maintain that success and was dealt for the Indians complete list of quality young arms. Alex White has some future, Drew Pomeranz probably has even more, but there will be growing pains for both. Holdover Jhoulys Chacin is probably their best starter today, and Jason Hammel can be serviceable, but Kevin Millwood? Come on. The top of the rotation is a year or two away. They will likely deal Huston Street so look for Rex Brothers to get come closing consideration.
The opposite of Colorado, San Diego is where mediocre pitchers go to look good. Aaron Harang was a good example - anywhere else and he is probably waiver wire material. Clayton Richard missed most of the year, Tim Stauffer just teased fantasy owners, and Wade LeBlanc proved to be little more than a fill-in, but they do have some quality to pin their hopes on. Mat Latos just needs a little consistency, and Cory Luebke has the stuff to be a decent middle of the rotation guy, especially in that park, while Casey Kelly should be knocking on the Petco Park door soon. Will Heath Bell be back? He'd like to be, but the Padres could opt to find a new closer.
Who do you love/hate for next season? Its right around the corner you know!
For some of the most in-depth coverage of all things pitching in fantasy baseball for 2011, visit www.bogfella.com and be sure to follow @RotoWire and @bogfella on Twitter.