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Behind the Numbers: Pitchers to Target and Avoid

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.

As we approach the season's midpoint, in many leagues owners are already out in front of the actual major league teams in assessing strengths and weaknesses as well as the probability of a fantasy league title. A lot of the questions I get are along the lines of "I'm in third place. Here's my roster. Should I make a run, and if so, what are my strengths and weaknesses?"

If you're wondering which pitchers to target and which you should hold onto, we'll look at several this week, and I'll look at a few prospects who could help come July.

This week, we'll look at one of my favorite pitching metrics, swinging strike percentage (SwStr%). SwStr% measures the percentage of a pitcher's total pitches that a hitter swings at and misses. So, if Masahiro Tanaka throws 100 pitches and generates 15 swings-and-misses, that's a SwStr% of 15 percent. Tanaka, incidentally, leads all starters with a 14.0 SwStr% while Minnesota's Kevin Correia brings up the rear at just 4.6 percent. The ability to generate whiffs from opposing hitters is an indicator of dominance, and that should be reflected in a pitcher's ERA, we would think. With a 2.11 ERA, Tanaka is surely in the dominant class, while Correia's 5.02 ERA indicates he certainly is not.

Here we will take a look at pitchers with an above average SwStr% but a below average ERA and vice-versa. This could be an indicator of a coming strong second half, or in the latter case, could be cause for concern.

Of the 94 pitchers that qualify for the ERA title, 20 had an above-average SwStr% with a below average ERA. Amazingly, precisely another 20 had a below-average SwStr% and a below average ERA. We'll look at 10 in each category.

The "Sleepers" - Above Average SwStr%, Below Average ERA

PLAYERSwStr% ERA
Ervin Santana, Braves12.64.15
Edwin Jackson, Cubs11.75.12
David Price, Rays11.33.81
Homer Bailey, Reds10.84.68
R.A. Dickey, Blue Jays10.34.04
Tim Lincecum, Giants9.64.90
Zack Wheeler, Mets9.53.93
Justin Masterson, Indians9.44.75
Marco Estrada, Brewers9.15.22
Justin Verlander, Tigers9.04.82

Ervin Santana -
Santana is admittedly struggling, posting a 5.96 ERA and 1.55 WHIP over his last eight starts. Still, only the aforementioned Tanaka and Stephen Strasburg have a higher SwStr%, and Santana's 3.21 xFIP indicates that better days are ahead. With an 8.2 K/9, 2.7 BB/9 and a career-high groundball rate, Santana should turn things around shortly.

Edwin Jackson -
Jackson has always been one of my more frustrating players to watch and own, with 2014 no exception. Jackson has a 7.47 ERA over his last three starts (15.2 IP), but that has come with an 18:6 K:BB, so he's missing plenty of bats. The big issue has been the long ball (seven in his last six starts). Controlling that will lead to better results. I'm guessing Cubs pitching coaches have noticed this as well.

David Price -
Price has a 43:4 K:BB over his last four starts. It's safe to say his 3.81 ERA will continue to drop.

Homer Bailey -
Bailey has regressed a bit this year, but overall, the ratios remain solid - 8.1 K/9, 2.9 BB/9. Bailey has a 3.69 ERA in his last six starts, and with his velocity holding up over last year, that's probably his floor in the second half. Bailey is 28 and in his prime, and a top-20 starter ranking over the final three months isn't out of the question.

R.A. Dickey -
Dickey has seen things go south since his Cy Young performance in 2012, as his K/9 rate has dipped from 8.9 to 7.3 in that time while his BB/9 has risen from 2.1 to 3.9 in 2014. Turning 39 could certainly be part of the reason for the decline, but in the couple starts I've watched, his control and command of both the knuckleball and fastball have been spotty at best. Sure, batters are swinging and missing while the knuckler is dancing, but he's putting too many guys on base, and considering Dickey has always been prone to the long ball, that's trouble. He could struggle to put up a 4.50 ERA the rest of the way.

Tim Lincecum -
Lincecum is five years removed from his last Cy Young, and he's settled into more of a back-end rotation type as he's stepped into his age-30 season. Lincecum has shown brief flashes of his former dominance, but with his velocity declining in each of the last three years, it's really tough to see things changing around significantly any time soon. The consistency just isn't there.

Zack Wheeler -
We'll see what Wheeler does for an encore, but he certainly rose to the occasion in Miami top-prospect Andrew Heaney's major league debut, tossing a three-hit shutout in his last start. Wheeler has improved his K/9 from 7.6 to 9.0 over last year, and while his 3.6 BB/9 remains high, that rate is just 2.2 in his last six starts. He should be a very good No. 2 to Matt Harvey's No. 1 the next several years.

Justin Masterson -
Off a breakout 2013 season, the Indians reportedly made Masterson a "very competitive" contract offer that ended up being declined. It's a move that the right-hander might regret, as he's regressed this year to the tune of a 4.75 ERA and 1.48 WHIP. Significantly, Masterson's fastball velocity has dipped 2.5 mph over last year. With a 4.7 BB/9, all signs point to trouble, or perhaps an injury with Masterson. I'm not all that optimistic.

Marco Estrada -
With 24 home runs allowed in 15 starts, Estrada is giving Bert Blyleven's all-time single-season home run record (50, 1986) a run for its money. Estrada otherwise looks like a budding No. 2 starter with a solid 81:28 K:BB in 89.2 innings. Estrada posted a 1.3 HR/9 last year, so getting this year's 2.4 mark down to a manageable level is certainly possible, but I'm not using him outside of NL-only leagues until he can figure out how to keep the ball in the park.

Justin Verlander -
At the ripe old age of 31, Verlander is at the top end of the decline phase of his career, but he's not a 4.82 ERA pitcher, either. Sure, the velocity is down, but this just means that he needs to figure out how to be more of craftsman on the hill instead of the MVP-caliber pitcher who blew away batters with upper-90s heat. He's still generating a fair amount of swings-and-misses, and given his past performance and overall competitiveness, I'm optimistic that he can at least post a 3.50 ERA the rest of the way.

The "Busts" -
Below Average SwStr%, Above Average ERA

PLAYERSwStr% ERA
Mark Buehrle, Blue Jays6.12.32
Tanner Roark, Nationals7.62.79
Henderson Alvarez, Marlins7.72.39
Nathan Eovaldi, Marlins8.03.52
Jesse Chavez, Athletics8.22.71
Alfredo Simon, Reds8.42.92
Kyle Gibson, Twins8.43.25
Phil Hughes, Twins8.53.40
Sonny Gray, Athletics8.72.91
Jered Weaver, Angels8.73.47

Mark Buehrle -
Buehrle's regression has already begun, as he's 0-3 with a 3.26 ERA in his last three starts after starting 10-1 with a 2.10 mark in his first 12. The key has been a regression to the mean in Buehrle's HR/9 rate, as he's allowed three homers in his last three starts after surrendering just two in his first 12. With a 0.45 HR/9 rate still quite low compared to his 0.99 career mark, expect the ERA to continue to rise. Of course, we all saw this coming (I hope).

Tanner Roark -
After moving ahead of Taylor Jordan in the rotation pecking order, Roark hasn't looked back, posting a 2.79 ERA in his first 15 starts. He also posted a 1.51 mark in 53.2 innings for the Nationals last year, so perhaps this is less than flukish. He does a good job limiting walks, and (usually) long balls, and it would not be surprise to see him stick in the rotation the rest of the way. That said, with a 3.82 xFIP, it's probably best to expect an ERA just north of 4.00 from here.

Henderson Alvarez -
Alvarez is an interesting case as a hard-thrower (93.7-mph fastball) without a lot of strikeouts or swings-and-misses. On the plus side, he has improved his K/9 each of the last two seasons:

2012: 3.8
2013: 5.0
2014: 5.8

That's still pretty low and suppresses Alvarez's fantasy value, but with excellent control and more than a 2.5 GB/FB ratio, the pieces are in place for Alvarez to develop into an elite starter IF he can improve his secondary offerings and miss more bats.

Nathan Eovaldi -
I've always liked Eovaldi's stuff - his fastball is among the best in the game, at least in terms of velocity. He's made great strides with his control this year, going from a 3.4 BB/9 to 1.5, but the strikeouts are a bit low at 6.9 K/9. Bottom line: he needs to find an out pitch against left-handers. Eovaldi is striking out 16 percent of lefties versus 21.5 percent of right-handed hitters. I think Eovaldi can maintain his 3.52 ERA, but to take it to the next level, he'll have to work on missing more left-handed bats.

Jesse Chavez -
With a slightly below-average SwStr% and a 3.49 xFIP, it's not terribly surprising to see Jesse Chavez come back to aarth a bit recently:

First 10 starts: 2.71 ERA, 8.4 K/9, 2.1 BB/9

Last 5 starts: 3.90 ERA, 6.9 K/9, 3.0 BB/9

Given Chavez is 30 without much of a track record of success. Expecting much more than a 4.00 ERA the rest of the way is probably wishful thinking.

Alfredo Simon -
Simon has made the leap from successful middle reliever to solid mid-rotation starter look easy. He's lost about a half-mph off his fastball, and his K/9 is down from 6.5 to 5.6 compared to last season's 63 relief appearances, but improved control has allowed Simon to mitigate the risk associated with a relatively high HR/9 rate of 1.13. At 33, Simon is unlikely to see a huge leap in his strikeout rate, leaving him at risk of an ERA in the 4.00 range the rest of the way if his command starts to waiver.

Kyle Gibson -
He's not a hard-thrower in today's game (91.1 mph avg fastball), but Kyle Gibson is getting by quite nicely on control and an ability to minimize the home run (0.43 HR/9). His K/9 sits at just 5.0, though his June 18 start in Fenway Park showed he might have more strikeout upside than first thought: 7 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 8 K. In fact, in his three starts before Tuesday, Gibson did not allow a run over 21 innings to go with a 16:5 K:BB. Tuesday's debacle -- seven runs in two innings -- showed his risk. Still, Gibson was a 2009 first-round pick who appears to be coming into his own at age 26, so a drastic drop-off in the second half seems unlikely. I think he's for real and that the strikeout rate can continue to climb.

Phil Hughes -
Hughes has been hit hard in two of his last four starts, but that K:BB remains eye-popping at 82:9 in 95.1 innings. Not surprisingly, the move out of Yankee Stadium has resulted in a drastic drop in Hughes' HR rate, with marks of 1.7, 1.6 and .66 (2014). Hughes' 2.75 xFIP supports his ERA, so I like his chances.

Sonny Gray -
Pretty much all of Gray's ratios are down compared to last year's 64 big-league innings, but this is the first full season for the potential future ace, so forgive him for the slight step back. Gray has put up a 4.94 ERA over his last five starts, though his last one was a win over the Rangers (seven innings, two runs, seven strikeouts). I just don't see him as an ace-level starter long-term, but more a borderline No. 2 on a playoff team at best.

Jered Weaver -
Weaver has seen his velocity decline in each of the last four years, and he's now losing a bit of his control, even if a 2.8 BB/9 is still very acceptable. A .251 BABIP has helped Weaver limit the overall damage, but if that turns in the second half, a 4.00-plus ERA in the season's second half is possible.

Prospect Watch

Dylan Bundy, SP, BAL -
Bundy has made a pair of spectacular rehab starts, tossing 10 innings of one-run ball with a 15:1 K:BB. Expect him to make at least three more starts before the Orioles consider putting him in their rotation, but it looks more and more like he could have a fantasy impact as early as July.

Kris Bryant, 3B, CHC -
There's no indication a callup is imminent, but Bryant has homered five times in six games since his promotion to Triple-A, giving him 27 this season. Yeah, he'll strike out a bit, but look for an immediate impact, potentially sometime next month.

Addison Russell, SS, OAK -
If not for a hamstring injury that has limited him to 40 at-bats all year, Russell may already be in the big leagues. If he can get another few weeks of at-bats under his belt, Russell's talent could have him in Oakland as early as the first part of August.

Mookie Betts, 2B/OF, BOS -
Betts has hit .372 in his last 10 games, giving him a .346/.432/.957 line this season. With 28 steals, he could be fantasy gold as early as July should the Red Sox choose to make room for him. He's a second baseman by trade, but that position is occupied in Boston, so the organization is looking at him in the outfield.

Christian Bethancourt, C, ATL -
Rumors of a promotion have yet to come to fruition, but it's only a matter of time. Bethancourt's glove is well ahead of his bat, but he is batting .314 in 19 games this month, so making him the starting catcher while moving Evan Gattis to the outfield makes sense. Look for him in July.

Taijuan Walker, SP, SEA -
Walker has 29 strikeouts in 30.2 Triple-A innings since returning from a sore shoulder. He has struggled with control -- nine walks in his first 21.2 innings (3.74 BB/9) -- but walked just one in a four-hit shutout Tuesday. He's also given up six home runs. His upside remains a solid No. 2 to Felix Hernandez's No. 1, but that may not happen until next year. Given the missed time and control issues, I'm not optimistic for 2014.

Henry Owens, SP, BOS -
The 6-foot-5 left-hander has surged to top-50 prospect status this year with a 1.99 ERA and 89:35 K:BB in 86 innings. Batters are hitting just .178 against him, so if he can do a better job controlling the walks (3.1 BB/9 in last seven starts), Owens could push his way to the big leagues in August.

Jonathan Gray, SP, COL -
A 2013 No. 3 overall pick, Gray is next in line once the Rockies need to pull another starter from the minors. He's been up and down a bit lately, but Gray offers top-of-the-rotation upside, even in Colorado.