This is a favorite topic of mine. Last week I promised to apply a famous quote by Albert Einstein - "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results" - and, connect it to some thoughts on scouting pitchers. The quote itself sounds pretty simple. When you think about it, there isn't much reason to expect different results when something is repeated over and over again. So how does that apply to our favorite sport in general, and to pitchers in particular? This week we'll look at the plethora (that sounds like an Einsteinian word) of statistical formulas that are becoming increasingly popular in the fantasy baseball world, all intended to help you pick the best possible team. Going beyond ERA and WHIP, beyond strikeout-to-walk ratios, they suggest you focus in on xFIP, BABIP and some other statistical results, and you will have all the keys to success, right? Without question, they will tell you a lot, but there are a few things about that pitcher that are extremely difficult, if not nearly impossible, to quantify. I'd like to explore some of the variables you need to keep in mind when analyzing a pitcher - not to replace statistics, but to help validate them.
What the Statistical Formulas Won't Tell You
You have all heard my proclamation that it is always better to take a higher ceiling or upside over proven mediocrity. It can be difficult to assess some of the things that suggest upside, and there is plenty of talk every spring about this guy or that guy being in better shape, having a long history of injuries behind him or making some adjustments that will turn him into Cy Young. Most are to be taken with a very large grain of salt, but there are things to watch for. One of my favorites is a change in mechanics. There are countless stories about pitchers who made small changes in their motion, and were eventually able to lock in a release point - perhaps the most important thing for a pitcher with very good stuff to develop. The best stuff in the world is only a major benefit when you can throw it where you want it consistently, and release point is critical. That erratic arm can become a dynamic weapon with a repeatable motion.
Variables to Always Keep in Mind
However, while a change in mechanics is one of the most influential, there are several other variables you should always keep in mind when evaluating a pitcher on draft day, or when considering that new guy on the waiver wire who has strung together a handful of exceptional starts. Let's take a look at the list of things to check for:
• Change in mechanics: This happens constantly, even more so with younger pitchers as they get their initial mentoring in pro ball. One important thing to keep in mind, a change in mechanics can be intentional or unintentional and when it happens accidentally, the result is often negative. Some may remember how ineffective Roy Halladay was when he first appeared in the major leagues. He completely reworked his delivery and the results were dramatic to say the least. Always explore changes in mechanics, especially with young pitchers. Just like hitters who make a minor adjustment in their stance suddenly "seeing the ball better" and going on a hot streak, a pitcher can make a small adjustment and find new life on his fastball, or become much more adept at spotting his pitches.
• Change in venue: This is generally the easiest change to evaluate, though it may not be very easy to statistically predict. Mark Buehrle has been one of the most predicable pitchers in the game for years because he was able to do the same thing over and over. Now in Toronto, he will probably continue that trend, but the results could be less appealing because he will be doing it in a more hitter-friendly park. His WHIP and strikeout rate probably won't change a great deal, but his ERA could jump a bit while facing tougher lineups in a less forgiving environment. The most obvious venue factors would be something like a move from a hitter's park like Coors Field to San Diego, etc.
• Change in defensive support: This can be quite a challenge to evaluate because errors have very little to do with a pitcher's overall numbers. In fact, some of the most helpful fielders commit more errors because they have the range to get to balls other fielders would simply wave at as they bound into the outfield for a hit. A few years ago, I predicted an improvement in the numbers produced by the Rays staff because the team had acquired Jason Bartlett, then in his fielding-range prime, who could effectively limit opposing hitters.
• Change in repertoire: Pitchers learn new pitches and it can be a big influence with regard to their overall effectiveness and/or role. A good reliever can get by with two above average pitches. As a starter, if he doesn't have at least three, and preferably four, that he can throw at any time, he will probably not last. It is not always easy to predict when a pitcher will be comfortable enough to use a new pitch in a game situation, and it can even make a difference when a pitcher changes how often he uses various pitches he already has in his arsenal.
• Change in physical ability: When pitchers pitch hurt, they often compensate for pain or weakness by unintentionally changing their delivery and mechanics. It can lead to substandard performance, or more concerning, risk of more serious injury. Another, usually less obvious, manifestation is the power pitcher who is simply losing his power arsenal because of injuries or age. That requires a different approach and can be very difficult for some former standouts to accomplish. And, these pitchers may underperform for years while being drafted based on their previous skills - a frustrating scenario for fantasy owners.
There are other factors to be sure. Just keep in mind that your objective is not to simply evaluate past performances, but to predict the future. Statistical formulas can help you get a grasp on the past, and can suggest some statistical anomalies, but they're only useful in predicting the future so long as the pitcher in question does the same things over and over again. Otherwise, the results can and do change.
So, certainly pay close attention to the statistical evaluations that are now available. I check them continuously. However, to stay ahead of your competition, you also need to be able to identify the discreet changes that can make a young pitcher the next stellar performer, or tip you off to an impending decline in effectiveness. That's what this column is all about. If performance was static, draft day wouldn't be much of a challenge, so it's wise to look for the little things that make a big difference. And, admit it, there is nothing better than walking into next year's draft with yet another amazing "discovery" pitcher under your belt. You uncovered the major bargains in this year's draft. It's like having a crystal ball, and before long, everyone will want what you have.
Some Notable First Week Rotation Happenings
• I watched most of the Yu Darvish near perfecto against Houston. Yes, it was against the Astros, and it was early in the season, but he is primed to step into the elite pitcher category.
• Jarrod Parker wasn't terribly effective in his first 2013 start, but there was word circulating that he was suffering from a minor blister problem. I still expect him to take a step forward in his development this year.
• There were some good things in the 2013 debut of Cleveland "ace" Justin Masterson, but he still displayed shaky command, and he still lacks an effective pitch to get lefties out consistently. I'm staying away.
• I really hope R.A. Dickey can quickly get in synch with his new catcher(s) in Toronto. The four walks in his start are unlikely to herald any significant problems long term, but there can be an adjustment period with knuckleballers.
• CC Sabathia was generally in the upper 80s with his fastball in his first turn, and that's a significant dip in velocity from his normal low-mid 90s. Too early to panic, but one has to wonder if there was more than a bone spur involved when he had offseason elbow surgery.
• The Yankees' Hiroki Kuroda took a line drive off his pitching hand and left his first start in the second inning, but it looks like just a bruise so hopefully he will be fine to make his next start. You might want to monitor updates on his status.
• Matt Harvey is picking up right where he left off at the end of last season. He was extremely effective in the Mets win over San Diego and looks like he could be a shining star for a long time to come.
• A lot of people were looking for a bounce-back season for Tim Lincecum, and while the velocity is up a bit, his control - seven walks Wednesday - is still lagging far behind what it was in his dominant seasons. He's going to need to do better, and soon.
The Endgame Odyssey
The Cubs say Carlos Marmol is still their closer, despite a Marmolian effort in his first save chance. Kyuji Fujikawa ended up with a one-out save in that one, and the clock is ticking on Marmol. They are hoping he can string together a few strong outings to increase his trade value. ... Detroit is in full committee mode with matchups dictating save opportunities. I like Phil Coke, but he is still likely to give way to Joaquin Benoit when right-handers are coming up. Neither is really the answer, so there is no question the Tigers are hoping for a quick start from Bruce Rondon at Triple-A. ... I'm getting more and more concerned about the arm problems of Jason Motte. Yes, he could come back fairly soon, but Mitchell Boggs is becoming very appealing, at least for now, and if Motte misses considerable time, don't be surprised if Trevor Rosenthal turns into a sleeper gem, and gets an audition. ... In Toronto, there was some question who might surface as the end gamer in the early going, but Casey Janssen has quieted most of the discussion while Sergio Santos has not been especially sharp so far. ... The Brewers' John Axford has been a disaster in his first couple of outings. There isn't much to choose from here, but Jim Henderson could get a look like he did last season if Axford contines to implode with regularity.