As I thought about a potential topic for this week's effort, I got to thinking about how each year it seems more and more difficult to add value in this space. Websites like FanGraphs, RotoWire, of course, and Baseball Prospectus are continuing to push the envelope in terms of player analysis. Brooksbaseball.net has a pretty interesting Pitch F/X tool that I'm starting to look into to see if there's any meaningful information I can pull into this weekly piece. Another aspect to note is that you all are getting smarter, leading to the expectations that the analysis that you're paying for needs to be similarly smarter.
On one hand, that does make it tougher for us as analysts, but it also keeps us on our toes and minimizes stagnation and regurgitating the same analysis over and over.
The first three things I consider with regard to pitchers are:
Does he miss bats? We traditionally go with strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) to measure this, but there's a push in some circles toward strikeout percentage. K% is calculated simply as number of strikeouts divided by number of batters faced. Some pitchers face more batters per inning than others, so this helps to better compare apples to apples.
Does he find the strikezone with regularity? Similarly, we're going to move toward BB% here.
Does he generate a lot of ground balls? Last year's major league average was in the 44-percent range for GB%, so any significant (say, +/- four percentage points) variance from 44 percent is notable. This may sound obvious, but all things being equal, we prefer a pitcher who generates a lot of ground balls because ground balls don't turn into home runs (excepting those of the inside-the-park variety).
One good way to identify under/overvalued assets is to compare xFIP (A regressed version of "Fielding Independent Pitching" that takes into account items a pitcher can control - K, BB, HR) to ERA and find pitchers who are significantly under/over when subtracting ERA from xFIP. That's easy and we can do that in a future article, but I decided to break out my Excel skills and approach it a little differently.
I took all starting pitchers who qualified for the ERA title last year (94 total). For this subset, I found the following averages:
GB% - 45.4 percent
K% - 18.6 percent
BB% - 7.0 percent
Pitchers were given the following numerical scores for each category:
GB% - +2 if at least four percentage points higher than 45.4 percent; -2 if at least four percentage points lower than 45.4 percent
K% - +5 if at least four percentage points higher than 18.6 percent; -5 if at least four percentage points lower than 18.6 percent
BB% - +4 if at least four percentage points higher than 7.0 percent; -4 if at least four percentage points lower than 7.0 percent
The different weightings for each category are simply my thinking that strikeouts are the most important pitcher attribute, followed by walks and lastly by ground balls.
We then add these scores and determine who comes out looking like an ace, and who falls into the Jason Hammel category.
The "Big Four"
Just four pitchers tallied a score greater than five, and they are no surprise:
Roy Halladay - 11 - Not a big surprise to see this guy atop the list. Halladay probably would have won the 2011 NL Cy Young award if he'd won a couple more games, but Clayton Kershaw was the deserving winner.
Cliff Lee - 9 - Funny how $24 million a year can sometimes seem like a bargain. Lee is a safe bet to repeat in 2012.
Felix Hernandez - 7 - He's only making an average of $16 million a year in his current deal, rising to $20 million by the final year (2014). Imagine if he were reaching the open market this winter, something he would have done had he not signed his five-year extension in January 2010.
Cole Hamels - 7 - Hamels hits the open market this winter. I'm sure his agent is reading this and will use this analysis in his pitch to prospective teams.
You'll note that Halladay's score is the maximum possible per this analysis and it should come as little surprise that he's at the top here. Some big names are certainly missing, including the two Cy Young winners form 2011, so let's see who's in the next tier.
Note that each of these pitchers scored a "5" in this rating system, with each netting that 5 as a result of their strikeout rate.
Zack Greinke - Greinke led the group with a 28.1 K% and was better than average in BB% and GB%. He looks poised for a huge free-agent year and is right near the top of my list of starters who can dethrone Clayton Kershaw as NL Cy Young winner.
Clayton Kershaw - Even though he just turned 24, it's hard to imagine Kershaw getting better in 2012. Will the offense provide enough support? Will Dee Gordon's defense at short be adequate? My favorite Kershaw trend is in his BB% the last three years: 13.0, 9.6, 5.9.
Anibal Sanchez - It's a bit of a surprise to see Sanchez in this elite group, but his 24.3 K% ranked eighth in the league and his GB% and BB% were about league average. With the team upgraded around him, expect more of the same in 2012.
Yovani Gallardo - Like Kershaw, Gallardo has taken the next step in his development by improving his control. His BB% the last three years: 11.9, 9.3, 6.8.
David Price - By dropping from 19 wins to 12 last year, Price was perceived as taking a step back, but it was anything but. Price fanned more hitters, walked fewer and generated more ground balls. He's also a workhorse having made 65 starts the last two years.
Matt Garza - Garza has notched at least 30 starts in each of his four full big-league seasons, and with an xFIP of 3.19, last season was his best yet. His GB% jumped from 35.8 to 46.3, and if he can bump down that 7.5 BB% a notch or two, we're talking true No. 1 starter potential.
CC Sabathia - Tons of innings, but apparently he can still handle it and perform at a high level.
Mat Latos - The ballpark change clearly hurts his value, but he should also get better run support and probably has another "next step" or two in him.
James Shields - Has three years and $28 million left on his contract. A huge bargain.
Madison Bumgarner - Started throwing his slider harder and with more frequency last year, resulting in a bump in his K% from 18.2 to 22.6. Also young enough to take another step forward.
None are huge surprises, though we'd certainly take pitchers like Greinke and Kershaw over Sanchez, Latos and Garza. Sanchez is probably the biggest surprise.
Others With a "3" or Above
4: Dan Haren, Brandon McCarthy, Doug Fister, Ricky Nolasco
Seeing McCarthy with the likes of Haren and ahead of Verlander and Lincecum speaks to how well he pitched in 2011. The A's top starter tossed a career-high (by far) 170.2 innings in 2011, notching solid peripherals - 17.8 K%, 3.6 BB% and actually staying healthy for most of the year. He's a poor bet to accrue that many innings in back-to-back years, but if he can somehow stay upright, the upside is certainly there.
3: Brandon Morrow, Justin Verlander, Michael Pineda, Josh Beckett, Jon Lester
Morrow is always interesting due to his ability to miss bats, but whether he ever puts together 200 consistent innings is anyone's guess.
2: Jordan Zimmermann, Ricky Romero, Jaime Garcia, Tim Hudson, Justin Masterson, Derek Lowe, Tim Stauffer, Chris Volstad, R.A. Dickey, Luke Hochevar
1: Carl Pavano, Tim Lincecum, Gio Gonzalez
Yeah, when you see Pavano and Lincecum in the same category, a snicker is in order, but the numbers are what they are. Lincecum gets dinged due to a 9.6 BB%, a mark that's risen each of the last two years from 7.5 to 8.5 to 9.5. Not a good trend. Verlander is a top-three starter in most leagues but ranks lower here due to a low 40.2 GB%. Of course, with spacious Comerica Park and Austin Jackson patrolling center field, we're not too worried about Verlander, as long as he doesn't induce too many ground balls to third base.
Chris Volstad has a chance to succeed in Wrigley Field due to his 52.3 GB% and 6.8 BB%, though he doesn't miss too many bats. I'm a little skeptical of the Cubs' infield defense this year, however. Tim Stauffer looked good against the Dodgers on Wednesday, so he should be fine. As for Jordan Zimmerman, expect his innings to be limited to 180 this year before the training wheels are taken off in 2013; but I like him quite a bit long term.
Zeros or Less Who Are a Surprise
Jered Weaver, Ian Kennedy, Max Scherzer, Shaun Marcum, Ubaldo Jimenez
Weaver is as fly-ball pitcher who benefits from a strong Angels defensive outfield. Kennedy is similar, but he actually bested Weaver in his BB% and K%. Scherzer is another fly-ball pitcher, but we covered Comerica Park and Austin Jackson when talking about Justin Verlander earlier. Jimenez had a rough transition to the American League last year, particularly as evidenced in his 9.5 BB%. I think he'll rebound in 2012.
The Worst of the Worst
Jason Hammel was in a league of his own with a -9 score, but we also had six -7 scores:
Jake Westbrook, Charlie Morton, Wade Davis, St. Louis Opening Day starter Kyle Lohse, Bronson Arroyo and John Lannan comprise the rest of this less-than-illustrious list. At least these guys lasted long enough to qualify for the ERA title, but the only pitcher here who is intriguing at all in terms of upside is Davis. He's competing with Jeff Niemann for the Rays No. 5 starter job, with no clear front-runner at this point. Morton continues to get opportunities despite a 5.11 career ERA, but eventually prospects like Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon will give the Pirates pitchers worth monitoring from a fantasy perspective.
Regan, a five-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner, was named the 2010 Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year.
Follow @vtadave on Twitter.