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Draft Starting Pitching: A Few Tips and Tricks

David Regan

David Regan is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner, including the 2015 Baseball Article of the Year.

Like any fantasy position, we can only draft starting pitching based on what we think we know. No one is always right, but being right more often than our opposition is what results in fantasy trophies. I wish this article contained a previously unrevealed holy grail of pitching metrics designed to predict the future, but alas, such a metric does not exist. Could any metric have predicted the following?

*Cliff Lee - 6 wins
*Lance Lynn - 18 wins
*R.A. Dickey - NL Cy Young winner
*Tim Lincecum - 5.18 ERA
*Jake Peavy - 219 innings!

Instead, we can focus on what we think will lead to future success (strikeout rate, advanced metrics, velocity, etc.), try and avoid injury risks (unless the price is right), and simply hope for the best. In this piece, we will look at four topics and try and help you find guys to target and others to avoid.

Verducci Effect Candidates

Named for the well-known Sports Illustrated columnist, Tom Verducci, The Verducci Effect is predicated on the concept that young pitchers (<= age 25) who experience innings spikes of 30 or more year over year are at an increased risk for injury. It would be interesting to do a historical analysis on whether this hypothesis is valid, but the theory is sound. Just don't shy away from a particular guy using his appearance on this list as your sole data point.

A quick review of the 2012 candidates

Very good year: Jordan Zimmermann
Injured: Jaime Garcia, Michael Pineda
Maintained performance: Jeremy Hellickson, Mike Leake
Took a step back: Derek Holland (also missed a month with shoulder issues), Henderson Alvarez

There is not much to glean from this data given the small sample size of the candidate pool, but perhaps if, during your draft, you had Pineda and Pitcher B valued equally, this data could have swayed you to Pitcher B.

2013 candidates
* Age is as of 4/1/13

Name Age 2011 IP 2012 IP Incr.
Chris Sale 24 71 192 121
Stephen Strasburg 24 44.1 159.1 115
Jose Quintana 24 102 184.2 82.2
Felix Doubront 25 87.2 161 73.1
Alex White 24 91.1 158.2 67.1
Lance Lynn 25 109.2 176 66.1
Jarrod Parker 24 136.1 202 65.2
Alex Cobb 25 120 177.2 57.2
Joe Kelly 24 132 179.1 47.1
Matt Harvey 24 135.2 169.1 33.2

Sale moved from a bullpen to a starter role last year and he did it quite well. He certainly has the talent to repeat in 2013, but the innings and the 4.22 ERA in his final nine starts have me wondering whether another low-3.00 range ERA is in the cards. Consider dealing Sale if he gets off to a hot start. Strasburg, I am not concerned about given the kid-gloves treatment. Quintana probably winds up in the rotation, but after a 6.75 September ERA, it is not a given. After some hiccups, Doubront finished strong (21 strikeouts in his final two starts), so he will probably break camp in the rotation. I am more worried about the walks and home runs as opposed to the innings. White missed three months of 2011 due to a finger injury, and considering he is a big kid, I am not worried about the innings. The trade out of Colorado to Houston should also help his cause.

Lynn is an interesting case, having pitched his way to All-Star status in the first half and then losing his rotation spot in August while finishing with 18 wins, a 3.78 ERA, and 180 strikeouts. Normally that guarantees a rotation spot the following year, but that may not be the case here. Lynn will come to camp as a starter, but he will have to prove himself and inspire confidence that he can make it through the season without running out of gas.

Parker was coming off Tommy John surgery in 2011, thus the cap at 136.1 innings. I am a little worried about the innings given his age and injury history, but it is worth noting that he did finish with a 2.63 ERA in his final six starts. Cobb was decent in 2012, but he is not guaranteed a rotation spot and looks to have a ceiling as a No. 4 starter. Kelly is another Cardinal who will have to compete for a spot. He showed flashes last year, but his minor league track record is uninspiring. Harvey was shut down early in September, so it seems he was managed well. Not worried here. He could be the team's best pitcher in 2013 should R.A. Dickey be traded.

Look Out - Innings Cap Ahead

Kyle Gibson, MIN - The Twins entered the offseason with no fewer than four rotation spots up in the air, and while they added to the rotation over the winter, Gibson will get his chance sooner rather than later. The team's top pick in the 2010 draft underwent Tommy John surgery in September 2011, but returned to post a solid 28:8 K:BB in 23.1 Arizona Fall League innings. He will be capped at a reported 140 innings this year, so look for him in either the big league bullpen or the Triple-A rotation to start the year. By the second half, Gibson could be a solid AL-only contributor.

John Lackey, BOS - Lackey missed all of 2012 after undergoing Tommy John surgery in October 2011. He should be ready to go come Opening Day and depending on the team's offseason moves, seems likely to have a spot as the Red Sox's No. 5 starter. Lackey will be looking to rebound from 2011's 6.41 ERA in 28 starts, so if he's 100 percent and any sort of competitor, he could be a decent bargain this year. We don't know if there will be an innings cap, but at least over the season's first half, we can't expect him to go too deep into games.

Michael Pineda, NYY - He likely won't return until the season's second half, and given the sketchy history of pitchers undergoing labrum (shoulder) surgery, we remain skeptical he will be a 2013 contributor. Still, remember the promise of 2011 and monitor his status.

Cory Luebke, SD - Luebke will be barely 10 months removed from Tommy John surgery come Opening Day, so don't look for a return before May. He will likely see his innings limited this year, but keep in mind 2011's 3.29 ERA and impressive 9.9 K/9 rate and try and stash him on your DL.

Brandon Beachy, ATL - Beachy is targeting a June return, upon which he will likely see his innings capped through the remainder of the season. Beachy was pitching at a Cy Young level (2.00 ERA) through 13 starts before getting hurt, so he is worth a DL stash.

Scott Baker, CHC - Baker underwent Tommy John surgery last April, so his Opening Day availability will be determined this spring. Baker had a 4.15 career ERA in close to 1,000 innings with the Twins, so the move to the National League should allow that mark to sit comfortably below 4.00.

xFIP and ERA: Finding Hidden Gems

We won't get into exactly how it is calculated, but xFIP is generally considered one of the better metrics in predicting a pitcher's future performance. We all know how guys HAVE performed, but you bought your subscription to find out how players WILL perform. Here we will compare a pitcher's 2012 xFIP to his ERA. An ERA significantly higher than his xFIP would lead us to project that a pitcher can be expected to perform better this year. Significantly lower, and we are looking at some disappointed fantasy owners.

Sleepers (ERA higher than xFIP)

Luke Hochevar, Royals (-1.41) - It is tough to justify drafting Hochevar outside of deep AL-only leagues, but he could be in for a decent 2013 given his decent ratios (7.0 K/9, 3.0 BB/9).

Tim Lincecum, Giants (-1.36) - His fastball has lost nearly four mph from his rookie season and his control took a dive in 2012, but Lincecum could be in for a rebound in 2013. The strikeout rate was still excellent at 9.2 K/9 and he simply could not be that bad again. Or could he?

Joe Blanton, Angels (-1.32) - Blanton simply allows too many home runs to be a reliable every week starter, but he could post 200 innings of 4.00 ERA ball with 150+ strikeouts. That's valuable.

Ivan Nova, Yankees (-1.10) - The strikeout rate spiked last year, but so did his BABIP and home-run rate. If he can turn the latter two numbers around, Nova could be poised for a mini-breakout.

Jon Lester, Red Sox (-1.00) - If there is anyone who we can most expect to benefit from the return of John Farrell as manager, it is this guy right? Lester's velocity is still there and his walk rate was actually better in 2012 than in 2010 and 2011. He is a big-time rebound candidate.

Ricky Romero, Blue Jays (-0.91) - Romero could not find the strike zone for most of 2012, but his velocity was still fine and perhaps now that he does not have to carry the staff, he can relax and return to form.

Justin Masterson, Indians (-0.78) - Masterson has started a Josh Beckett-like trend of alternating good and bad seasons. The bad: 2010 and 2012. The good: 2011. Now three data points do not make a trend, but expect Masterson to be a little better this year.

Rick Porcello, Tigers (-0.70) - His xFIP has declined in each of the past three years, so he has to be ready to break out, right? Porcello's strikeout and groundball rates are also trending in the right direction and he is amazingly entering just his age-24 season. I am on board (again).

Others: Mike Leake (-0.76), Adam Wainwright (-0.71)

Potential regressors (ERA lower than xFIP)

Jered Weaver, Angels (1.37) - He is still very good, but it's worth noting that Weaver's strikeout rate and velocity has dipped in each of the past two seasons. He is still a top fantasy commodity, but if he regresses from 20 to 15 wins, his value plummets.

Aaron Harang, Dodgers (1.34) - Should be a solid NL-only again in 2013 if used correctly and if he actually stays in the NL.

Jeremy Hellickson, Rays (1.34) - Solid minor league track record, but has significantly outperformed his xFIP in each of the last two years. Will you gamble on him making it three? I probably would.

Kyle Lohse, Free Agent (1.10) - By any measurement, 2012 was a career year for the 34-year-old Lohse. He can be expected to regress somewhat in 2013, but Lohse should still be good for another couple solid seasons.

Matt Cain, Giants (1.03) - Ace material.

Ross Detwiler, Nationals (0.94) - Detwiler should be a solid back-end of the rotation starter, but do not expect a 3.40 ERA again given his so-so strikeout rate (5.8 K/9).

Johnny Cueto, Reds (0.87) - I like him, but I would not overpay based on his 19 wins last year or 2.31 ERA the year before. Unless he can start missing more bats, I would expect the ERA to rise to the 3.00 or above range.

Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals (0.84) - A little lucky in 2012, but we can still expect him to continue to get stronger and develop into a solid No. 2-level starter.

Others: Matt Harrison (0.84), Ryan Vogelsong (0.78)

Swinging Strike Rate: The Higher the Better?

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of advanced pitching metrics out there these days, but we only have so much room in this magazine, so the focus here will be on swinging-strike rate (SwStr%). We can define this simply as the percentage of pitches a hitter swings and misses on. Even more simply, we can postulate that a higher rate for pitchers correlates with a lower ERA and more overall success. Here are a handful of pitchers with rates above league average (9.1% in 2012) who maybe did not have the overall success we would have expected. Continue to monitor this metric versus a pitcher's ERA in-season as well to see if you can find a hidden gem.

SwStr% and ERA in parentheses

Matt Moore (11.8%, 3.81) - That is a fine ERA, but I think Moore can be so much better this year. In fact, it would not surprise me to see him as the team's second-best starter.

Tim Lincecum (11.3%, 5.18) - Him again. He will be better folks…I think.

Bud Norris (10.4%, 4.65) - Love the career 8.8 K/9 rate, but too many flyballs and walks has limited his success. Moving to the AL won't help either.

Jeff Samardzija (12.1%, 3.81) - It was a breakout season, but the peripherals (9.3 K/9, 2.9 BB/9) suggest he could be even better in 2013. It is also likely he will be stretched past 200 innings after being limited to 174.2 last year.

Edinson Volquez (10.1%, 4.18) - Volquez has not had a BB/9 rate under 5.0 since 2008, so he will likely continue to frustrate unless he figures that out, which seems unlikely. Still, if he's on, he's tough.

Joe Blanton (9.6%, 4.81) - When you are around the strike zone as much as he is and you generate a healthy SwStr%, you should be more successful. Maybe in Anaheim he will be, but Blanton has not posted a sub-4.71 ERA since 2009.