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Mound Musings: Swing and a Miss

Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson

For more than 25 years, pitching guru Brad "Bogfella" Johnson has provided insightful evaluation and analysis of pitchers to a wide variety of fantasy baseball websites, webcasts and radio broadcasts. He joined RotoWire in 2011 with his popular Bogfella's Notebook.

Swing and a Miss, He Struck Him Out!

I get asked all the time what I look for first when evaluating the fantasy relevance of a starting pitcher. There are actually several things I look at in a package, but if I had to narrow it down to one thing, it would be strikeout potential. Does the pitcher generate swinging misses? Can he frequently get that big strikeout when that's what he needs to get out of a serious jam? Is there a likelihood that the pitcher's strikeout rate will improve going forward? Those are just some of the criteria. Let's take a look …

Strikeouts are good, it's a scoring category, but there are other good things …

The path of the present among so many pitchers across so many organizations is to "pitch to contact" and supposedly lessen the stress of going for strikeouts. I can understand that. If the hitter consistently puts the ball in play after only a couple of pitches, the starter can theoretically last longer, making today's sometimes highly suspect bullpens less likely to come into play. On the surface, it seems like a good idea, but in practice it doesn't always work out according to plan.

From both a real game and a fantasy perspective, those strikeouts, which admittedly require more pitches to obtain, have a lot of built in advantages, and pitchers typically do what they feel they need to do in order to reduce the number of runs allowed. When you're in a jam, a strikeout can come in very handy. But beyond that, those strikeouts can be pretty useful in avoiding jams altogether. If you pitch six innings (18 outs), and record 10 strikeouts, that means batted balls only had a chance of finding grass eight times. I don't know about you, but I hate watching an inning where base runners came from every direction as ground balls snuck through a deficient infield, and fly balls dropped between two outfielders before one bad pitch put three or four runs on the board. Give me the strikeouts.

Therefore, when people ask what I look for in a pitcher, strikeout rate is always very close to the top of the list. If they aren't high strikeout pitchers today, I probably see the potential for better in the future. With the exception of a dropped third strike – okay, I'll take my chances with those – not many bad things can happen to a pitcher when the umpire rings up a hitter. That said, I want to lead my league in strikeouts. There are some factors to the contrary, but I think you can see how strikeouts can also be a very positive influence on ERA and WHIP (assuming the strikeouts aren't accompanied by too many walks). In some ways a high-strikeout starting pitcher can be a four-category fantasy producer. Make being among the leaders in the strikeout category a mission on draft day and I think you'll find that your chances for success will benefit.

Here are things to consider when evaluating the potential for strikeouts:

1. Strikeout pitchers are generally capable of working up in the strike zone. That makes it important for the pitcher to be comfortable working up and to have either a lot of movement or a lot of velocity, or both. One of the things that will chase me away from a pitcher in short order is constantly being up in the zone without having the stuff to make it work. If you don't have the movement and velocity to live up there, even a small mistake in location will land on another planet.

2. Now that I have demanded a lot of velocity, I am going to temper that by saying I also want a couple of pitches with low velocity, but delivered with the same motion and arm speed. If you can throw a fastball at 101 mph you will generate some strikeouts. If you can consistently mix in a couple of other quality pitches in the 85-90 mph range that look exactly like that 101 mph fastball when they leave your hand, you will fill the score sheet with K's. Changing speeds has the added plus of called third strikes when the hitter is so fooled, he just watches.

3. So, going further, even a guy with an average strikeout rate can induce a swing and a miss at a critical point in a game when the outcome hangs in the balance. In truth, that's the basis for pitching to contact – pitch to contact when you can, and get the strikeout when you must. Again, it's a good theory, but not all pitchers are comfortable with or capable of making it work consistently.

4. I have to mention walks too. By definition, a strikeout pitcher pitches away from contact, and that usually means nibbling on the corners, and pounding away at the very top of or very bottom of the strike zone. Walks will happen. Just keep in mind that while walks are not good, they are generally less damaging than hits, and your high strikeout rate will hopefully strand many of the extra base runners who reach via a free pass.

Some Notable Rotation Ramblings:

I always like to include warnings. I'll compare this one to a casino trip. You go to a casino, find a roulette wheel, and put a couple of chips on 19 red. It hits. Feeling feisty, you let it ride on 19 red. It's hits again! Knowing the chances of that number coming up again in this decade are astronomical, the wise player calmly picks up his chips, leaves the table, and has a delicious steak – medium rare – with a glass of red wine to celebrate. Aaron Harang is 19 red. Just sayin'.

I'm going to also include Josh Collmenter in the warnings group this week. The Diamondbacks have inserted him into their rotation, and there has been some scrambling to pick him up in fantasy leagues. He has a funky over-the-top delivery that can be hard to pick up, but hitters do catch on, and his stuff isn't going to disarm them. He's okay in relief where he doesn't see hitters more than once a game, but starting exposes his vulnerability.

A long time ago I was really high on a right-handed starter for Toronto. The guy's name was Dustin McGowan and I grabbed him in every league I could. He rewarded me with some pretty fancy results and hints of an even brighter future, and then the injuries set in. He's back, and so am I. There is still some rust and that has led to spotty command, but if he stays healthy, there is a lot to like.

Nobody is going to be terribly surprised when I say Ervin Santana won't log 23 strikeouts every 14 innings this season, and he will probably give up a few runs in his starts throughout the year. However, I am also going to say his name will show up on the rosters of quite a few league champions. He fits in the National League and his stuff translates well. He won't be an ace, but he will be solid.

I'm going to admit I am having concerns about Stephen Strasburg. I think over the long haul he'll continue to be a very good pitcher, but those I classify as elite typically don't have roller coaster performances. When he first arrived, he was clearly elite – excellent start after excellent start with just the occasional misstep and that is to be expected. Right now you might get either end of the spectrum.

Finally, it's even becoming difficult to look forward to some of the blue-chip kids making it to the majors. Jameson Taillon is out for the year rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and now another of my favorite kids has been shut down. The Mariners top pitching prospect, Taijuan Walker, has been diagnosed with a shoulder impingement (there are those two words – pitch and shoulder). It's not expected to keep him off the mound long, but monitor his status.

This will be a regular feature in Mound Musings – observations of starting pitchers you might want to target or avoid as the season progresses. If you have someone you'd like to see covered in a future edition, throw his name out there in the comments below.

The Endgame Odyssey:

We're less than three weeks into the season and the "Hey, didn't you used to be a closer?" list is already looking like roll call at the neighborhood playground. And, I don't see that changing anytime soon. Add the Cubs Jose Veras to that "used to be" list, but keep your options open regarding his replacement. Pedro Strop is still the frontrunner but Hector Rondon is a possibility … It appears the A's may go with a committee for the time being. Ryan Cook isn't quite ready to step in after just returning from the disabled list so Luke Gregerson and Sean Doolittle will pitch in match-ups. Don't be surprised if Jim Johnson gets another shot if he can string together a few more solid outings. They paid a lot of money for him and they would prefer he fill the closer's role … The Blue Jays will welcome back Casey Janssen soon, but his balky shoulder is reason enough to keep Sergio Santos around, just in case … Speaking of shoulders, Craig Kimbrel's is reportedly sore. Uh oh. So far the indications are that it's nothing serious, but anytime shoulder and pitcher pop up in the same sentence, I start evaluating options ... We may soon find out how long the leash is on Jose Valverde. He has been knocked around in a few appearances recently and the Mets might start thinking about Vic Black or perhaps Gonzalez Germen. Neither has much ceiling but the alternatives are scarce. New York is just one possible landing spot for Joel Hanrahan whose value seemingly increases daily… This week's name to add to the closer committee in Houston is Anthony Bass. Given their other options, I actually think he might be the best of the batch. He's got more to offer than Chad Qualls, Josh Fields, or Matt Albers and I would consider him at least until Jesse Crain is healthy … Alexi Ogando just picked up a save for the Rangers, but it appears they are primarily trying to monitor the workload of Joakim Soria. They aren't going to push Soria past outings on back-to-back days, at least for a while, but he is still the main man … Koji Uehara is as reliable as they come in the closer's role, but he is also a bit fragile. He has been sidelined briefly but the Red Sox expect him back soon. They acquired Edward Mujica as an insurance policy and if you own Uehara, you might want to do the same.

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