Pitching ruled the year once again, as for the fifth consecutive season, Major League Baseball’s collective ERA dropped – this time, all the way to 3.94, the lowest mark since 1992 (3.75, the year of Greg Maddux’s first of four consecutive NL Cy Young awards). We had the noteven 24-year-old Clayton Kershaw winning the first of what could be a handful of trophies, while in the American League, all Justin Verlander did for an encore after being a unanimous choice for the AL trophy was be named MVP. Rookies such as Michael Pineda, Craig Kimbrel, Jeremy Hellickson, and Brandon Beachy broke onto the scene and are now huge parts of their teams’ futures.
All that said, 2012 is a new year and that is ancient history. You are presumably buying thismagazine because you want some insight into at least two things when it comes to starting pitchers: breakout candidates and pitchers poised for regression. We’ll touch on each of these elements at some point in this piece.
Component Numbers and Looking Beyond ERA
Prior-year ERA is just one data point when evaluating projections. In any given year, pitchers can pitch above or below their true skill set for many reasons – the defense behind them, luck (good or bad) on batted balls, and the quality of the team’s bullpen to name a few. Before we look at a few guys to target (and avoid), a few definitions:
xFIP – A metric used to approximate ERA, but takes into account only those things (walks, strikeouts and home runs) that a pitcher can control.
BB/9IP – Walks per nine innings
K/9IP – Strikeouts per nine innings
HR/FB – Home runs as a percentage of flyballs allowed. 11 percent is about league average.
Component numbers: The aforementioned BB/9IP, K/9IP, etc.
BABIP – Batting average on balls in play. Around .300 is league average, so as a general rule,
consider a mark greater than .320 signifying “bad luck”, and a sub-.280 mark “good luck”. Do recognize that there are some pitchers who are able to consistently maintain a sub-.280 BABIP (Jered Weaver is a recent example).
Zack Greinke (MIL) – He’s not far removed from an AL Cy Young award, but after a 3.83 ERA last year, Greinke might be able to be had for a slight discount on draft day. With an MLB-leading 10.5 K/9IP and solid control (2.5 BB/9IP), he was as good as ever last year.
Brandon Morrow (TOR) – Raise your hand if you’ve been disappointed as a Morrow owner in the past. Me too. That said, I can’t ignore his AL-best 10.2 K/9IP last year or his personal best 3.5 BB/9IP. On the flip side, hitters knocked out fewer groundballs and more line drives than in prior years. Morrow interestingly threw his slider far more often last year and it was his best pitch. Combine that with a 93-95 mph fastball and you have 200-strikeout potential. It’s just a matter of whether you can stay patient during the bad times.
Chris Capuano (LAD) – With an xFIP last year of 3.00 and the move to a semipitcher’s park in Dodger Stadium, a healthy Capuano is a solid NL-only target along with new teammate Aaron Harang. Cross your fingers and hope the team scores a few runs for him.
Gavin Floyd (CHW) – Floyd has underperformed his component numbers in each of the last three years, but he’s also made 30-plus starts in each of the last four. Most impressive to me – a 2.1 BB/9IP versus a 3.0 career mark. He also has a good chance at being traded, perhaps to a far more pitcher-friendly ballpark.
Derek Lowe (CLE) – That 9-17 record is ugly, but Lowe’s notoriouslyhigh groundball rate remained steady along with his velocity, and he actually posted a higher strikeout rate than in years past. On the flip side, Lowe walked more batters and appeared to be getting less sink on his fastball. He should do fine in the AL Central and be a decent AL-only value.
Jeremy Hellickson (TB) – Michael Pineda was the best AL rookie pitcher I saw last year, but Hellickson’s 2.95 ERA gave him the hardware. Watch for a number closer to 4.00 this year considering his 5.7 K/9IP and 3.4 BB/9IP led to a 4.72 xFIP.
Jered Weaver (LAA) – He’s still good, but considering how impressive Ervin Santana looked at times last year, Weaver might be just the fourth-best pitcher on his own team. Okay, perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but the Angels’ very good outfield defense makes up for his flyball tendencies and helps mask a less-than-elite 7.6 K/9IP.
Doug Fister (DET) – He’s not a hard thrower, but Fister generates a lot of groundballs and his control is impeccable. That said, with a so-so 6.1 K/9IP and .272 BABIP, he’s probably more of a high-threes ERA guy versus high-twos.
Jeff Karstens (PIT) – Similar profile to Fister above. Karstens seemed to have the league catch up to him, posting a 6.56 ERA after July 31. Don’t draft him expecting a 3.38 ERA again.
Ryan Vogelsong (SF) – Prior to 2011, the last time Vogelsong logged significant big league innings, he posted a 6.50 ERA (2004). So, with an xFIP of 3.85, expect his ERA to regress closer to 4.00 next year.
The Verducci Effect
Named for the well-known Sports Illustrated columnist, Tom Verducci, The Verducci Effect is predicated on the concept that young pitchers (25 years or younger) who experience innings spikes of 30 or more year over year are at an increased risk for injury. It would be interesting to do a historical analysis on whether this hypothesis is valid, but the theory is sound. Just don’t shy away from a particular guy using his appearance on this list as your sole data point. A quick review of the 2011 candidates:
Great year: Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner
Injured: Phil Hughes, Jon Niese
Maintained performance: David Price, Mike Minor, Mat Latos, Gio Gonzalez, Jaime Garcia
Took a step back: Travis Wood, Jhoulys Chacin
Was never that good anyway: Brett Cecil
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