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Fantasy 101: Building A Great Fantasy Pitching Staff

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.

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).

Undervalued

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.

Overvalued

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

NameTeamAge2010 IP2011 IPIncrease
Jordan ZimmermannWAS2570.2161.190.2
Derek HollandTEX25134.122287.2
Jaime GarciaSTL25163.1220.157
Henderson AlvarezTOR21112.116047.2
Jeremy HellicksonTB24155.219337.1
Mike LeakeCIN24138.117536.2
Michael PinedaSEA23139.117131.2


Frankly, it doesn’t tell us much. Kershaw (a near-repeater on the 2012 list) rode a 33.1 innings increase to the NL Cy Young award. Other guys either improved or maintained their prior level of performance despite the innings bump, and a couple guys got hurt. Teams do however appear to be getting more conscious of their young pitchers, often shutting them down in September (i.e. Jordan Lyles) to preserve their arms. We had 12 candidates on last year’s list while the 2012 version has just seven guys qualifying.

Zimmermann of course missed a large portion of 2010 recovering from Tommy John surgery. The Nationals shut him down in late August, so I’m not as concerned about the jump in innings. Holland missed a portion of 2010 with injuries as well, and also spent time in the bullpen. He also pitched deep into October, so we’ll have to see whether that impacts him in 2012. I have to wonder. Garcia had Tommy John surgery in 2008, so there’s a risk with him given his relatively smallish size. Alvarez was impressive for Toronto last year, going at least six innings in his final eight starts and finishing with a 3.53 ERA in 10 big league outings. He’s very young, but it’s not out of the question that he’s already the team’s second-best starter. We touched on Hellickson above, but I like his mechanics and am not too worried about the jump in innings. Same for Mike Leake, who has a slightly lower ceiling than Hellickson. Speaking of ceilings, Pineda’s remains high despite the 5.03 second-half ERA. His K:BB in those 58 innings – a solid 60:19.

Second Half Studs and Duds

In baseball analysis, we talk a lot about sample size. Putting too much stock into a small handful of at-bats or innings and projecting that out over an extended period of time has an element of danger to it. That said, perhaps there are some guys who showed improvement (or decline) in a particular skill over the second half. Clayton Kershaw had an MLB-best 1.31 post-break ERA, but we’re pretty sure he’s already high on your cheat sheets. Here are a few other pitchers for your consideration:

Studs

Alfredo Aceves (BOS) – Pitching solely in relief, Aceves posted a 1.77 ERA in 56 innings after the break. Rumors this offseason have the Red Sox going the Alexi Ogando route with Aceves and penciling him into their rotation. He isn’t going to strike out 200 batters, but any starter for the Red Sox is worth monitoring.

Derek Holland (TEX) – 4.86 ERA prebreak and 3.06 post. Holland and Neftali Feliz could be a dynamite 1-2 rotation punch if things break right. Holland seemed to get better and better as the season progressed, so slot him on your cheat sheets based on his second-half numbers. Just beware the Verducci Effect here.

Ross Detwiler (WAS) – Like Ricky Romero, Detwiler was a No. 6 overall draft pick at one point in time. Also like Romero, Detwiler is lefthanded and took time to develop. Detwiler made nine starts after July 31, and in eight of them, he allowed three runs or less. Target him in NLonly and deeper mixed leagues.

Brandon McCarthy (OAK) – As of this writing, McCarthy was one of the few A’s not dangled in trade talks. The tallish right-hander posted a 3.15 ERA with eight wins and a very good 77:13 K:BB in 94.1 innings after the All-Star break. He also had a 40:4 K:BB in his last six starts, so if he can stay healthy (a big question), McCarthy could provide very good value.

Luke Hochevar (KC) – A former No. 1 overall pick, Hochevar is running out of time to fulfill that set
of expectations, but after a 3.53 ERA and solid 68:24 K:BB in 79.1 second-half innings, Hochevar could be poised for a mini-breakout.

Duds

A.J. Burnett (NYY) – His contract pretty much guarantees him a rotation spot, but there might actually be some value here. Burnett posted a post-break ERA of 6.85, but 73 strikeouts in those 71 innings says he deserved better. I’d roll the dice in deeper leagues.

Trevor Cahill (ARI) – With a 5.80 ERA, it wasn’t the best second half for the former Oakland hurler. Cahill goes from a pitcherfriendly park in Oakland to a hitter-friendly one in the desert, but what should help is a 2.0-plus GB/FB ratio. Cahill is a bit overrated based on his 18-win season in 2009, but he should settle in nicely as a No. 3 starter.

Jair Jurrjens (ATL) – Perhaps Jurrjens will be traded by the time this hits the presses, but I’ll go on record as saying he’s highly overrated. Due to injuries, Jurrjens made just seven starts after the All-Star
break, posting a 5.88 ERA. He’s made just 43 big league starts since 2009, and the strikeout rate is merely average. Don’t overpay.

Jonathan Niese (NYM) – This is a guy I like a lot. Niese posted a 5.67 ERA after the break, but that came with an excellent 46:9 K:BB in 46 innings. His season ended in August due to an intercostal injury, but his last two big league K/9IP rates are excellent at 7.7 and 7.8. He also turned just 25 in the offseason.

Ubaldo Jimenez (CLE) – The Indians gave up a ton to get him, and Jimenez rewarded his new club with a 5.10 ERA in 11 starts. In those 65.1 innings however, Jimenez fanned 62 and walked just 27, so he might have some buy-low potential heading into 2012.
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