WHIP it ... WHIP it good!
Last week we looked at the good and the bad (there really wasn't too much bad other than elevated pitch counts) of strikeouts. This week, the topic is WHIP and what it means to your fantasy rotation. Like strikeouts, WHIP is generally a scoring category so its important from that standpoint alone, but there are other ways WHIP can impact your pitching productivity, and there are a few things you can do to maximize the positive impact and minimize the bad. Let's take a look ...
Fewer base runners results in improved pitching productivity.
There's no question that statement is true, or will be over the long term. The problem is all the other owners in your league know that too and they may not be willing to leave the premier WHIP starters out there for you on draft day.
Knowing you will probably need to fill at least a couple of spots at the back of your rotation with pitchers who may not (or at least have not to date) displayed the ability to keep huge numbers of runners off the base paths, you have some decisions to make. Surprisingly the decisions may not be as obvious as they appear on the surface. Sometimes a guy with a slightly higher WHIP last season is a considerably better option for your rotation this year. In fact, the difference can be as close as what he's done so far this year compared to what he might do going forward.
Always keep in mind that WHIP is by definition walks AND hits. There can be a tendency to somewhat overlook the hits allowed and base decisions on walk rate. In reality, you might actually be better off reversing that and tolerating a few walks while avoiding those more dangerous hits. A walk is always one base and doesn't plate a run unless the bases are full, but a hit can be anything from an infield single to a moon shot that lands several days after launch, and after anyone else on base walked home.
And, by the way, defense is alive and well in everyday fantasy baseball, it just rarely gets accounted for in the official scoring categories. I have mentioned in previous columns that one of the most overlooked factors in predicting the success of a starting pitcher in the upcoming season is the defense he will stand in front of on the mound. My favorite example is Andrelton Simmons of the Braves. I have been watching baseball for so many years I can actually say the best defensive shortstop I ever saw was Ozzie Smith. Simmons may make me change that statement one day soon. The guy is nothing short of amazing. What that means for Braves starters (and for you if you own any) is what could amount to one less base runner per game, maybe more, not to mention threat erased by spectacular double plays and outs the no other fielder could touch. Over the course of a full season, that makes a big difference.
Don't forget about ballparks. Obviously a hitters park like Coors Field or similar can be challenging when considering pitchers who call those venues home, but it's not just the hits that will happen there, but the hits that could happen there. The more volatile the hitting environment, the more unforgiving I am of higher WHIP rates. If two pitchers have identical WHIPs, the one who pitches in a more spacious park is considerably more likely to escape with less damage than the pitcher who works in a home run haven.
Some things to consider regarding acceptable or preferred WHIP risks:
• Keep an eye on BABIP. There is some luck involved in that number to be sure but pitchers who minimize sharp contact, and play in front of better defenses typically have better "luck" than those who don't. If a pitcher has a low BABIP but everything his opponents hit looks like a rocket on July 4th that BABIP will almost assuredly even out and you don't want him on your roster when it does.
• A very low walk rate is wonderful, but ONLY if it is side-by-side with the ability to throw quality strikes. I can throw strikes. I could probably produce a reasonably low walk rate as I tossed batting practice grapefruits up there. If the walk rate comes at the expense of leaving pitches out over the plate, I will leave that pitcher out over the coals on draft day for someone else to skewer. Simply, avoid pitchers who allow more than a hit per inning regardless of walk rate.
• Be aware of defensive range - especially at shortstop and in centerfield. A blue chip fielder at those positions may make an occasional error and I can live with that. In most cases another player would have just waved at the ball as it bounded by. However, the really slick ones save pitchers almost every game, and they make the fielders around them better too since those guys have to cover less territory.
• In summary, exceptional stuff with a higher strikeout rate, fielders with extremely good range, and a more forgiving home field can make it possible to tolerate a slightly higher WHIP - the extra base runner isn't very likely to score. However, without at least one or two of those factors in play, I am usually going to be very demanding of a pitcher's ability to limit baserunners.
Some Notable Rotation Ramblings:
• I suppose if you have a bullpen that rarely gets the job done a manager can be tempted to overwork his quality starting pitchers. Such would seem to be the case with Chris Sale. A few days after throwing a career-high 127 pitches he finds himself on the disabled list. Hopefully it's a short-term thing.
• Despite a shaky infield defense, Rick Porcello is giving every indication that he is finally coming into his own. He is never going to be a huge strikeout pitcher and losing the glove of Jose Igleslas at shortstop for the season was a big blow, but I like Porcello more and more all the time.
• It's true I tend to avoid pitchers who wear Cubs uniforms, even Jeff Samardzija who I like quite a bit, but I keep wondering if Jake Arrieta can somehow grab the golden ring and consistently display some of the promise he showed a couple of years ago. I am doubtful, but intrigued, and he should get his chance soon.
•Each week I throw out a pitcher who is rolling along but is hinting to me that an adjustment is in the cards. This time around I am going to point the finger at the Dodgers' Zack Greinke. He has put together some solid numbers, but he still loses focus and leaves mistakes out over the plate leading to a somewhat inflated home run rate. As always, he has skill but I would sell high.
• Waiter. I'll have some of whatever Mark Buehrle is having. One of my all-time favorites is having a renaissance season, and while I really don't think he can keep it up, I would really enjoy it if he did. It's not all smoke and mirrors by-the-way. I have watched a few innings and while his command has always been good, this season it has been borderline surgical.
• The Braves are certainly looking forward to the imminent return of Mike Minor from the disabled list. Be sure to put his name on the bumped up value list with that Andrelton Simmons guy lining up behind him. With solid performances from Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, Ervin Santana, and even Aaron Harang, they have weathered their injuries very well but he is a nice boost.
• In the category of pretty amazing, I mentioned a couple of weeks ago just how impressed I have been with Masahiro Tanaka and I'm going to mention it again. Here are a couple of facts that really sing his praises. In his four starts (29.1 innings) opponents are batting .079 (5-for-63) when they have two strikes, and he has had a three-ball count just 11 times. Wow!
• And finally, speaking of Harang, can you believe it??? 19 red came up AGAIN! If you read last week's column that reference will make sense.
The wheels go round and round - and in some cases off. Jose Valverde is out as the Mets closer and Kyle Farnsworth is in. At least for now. I do believe Vic Black could work his way into the food chain if he could throw strikes ... Tommy Hunter continues to look shaky but Baltimore doesn't have much in the way of solid options. He's probably going to continue to get chances ... Even the Braves' always reliable Craig Kimbrel has struggled lately. The dreaded "shoulder" word has come up and even though his velocity hasn't suffered, his performance has. This is one to keep a close eye on ... Before the season began I mentioned the possibility that the Pirates could decide to use Mark Melancon in the ninth to more easily manage Jason Grilli's workload. Grilli has already blown three saves so a Melancon handcuff might be worth considering ... The Blue Jays would like to be handing the ball to Casey Janssen in the ninth but his back has been acting up delaying his return from the disabled list. Sergio Santos will carry on awhile longer but his command has been pretty shaky ... Luke Gregerson and new big contract Sean Doolittle are sharing the end game duties in Oakland, but watch this one carefully. I have a hunch Doolittle could start seeing more opportunities ... Like so many teams, the Angels have got to be worried about their closer. Ernesto Frieri has allowed five home runs in 10 appearances so despite good alternatives a change is possible ... The Yankees got David Robertson back and he should step back into the closer's role, but they also found that Shawn Kelley can be an adequate back-up plan ... In Houston, it appears Josh Fields may be starting to separate himself from the pack. None of their options are superior choices so if he can maintain the momentum he has going he could be the guy at least right now. It could be a fluid situation all season so you need to be flexible.