Chicks dig the long ball, and so do I. That’s just one of the many reasons I prefer evaluating hitters to pitchers. From a ranking perspective, hitters are more predictable and stable from year to year. In addition, they tend not to be as infected by the injury bug. Because of this, I approach pitchers a tad different from other fantasy writers when creating my ranks for h2h leagues.
Most notably, I completely disregard wins. Wins are too unpredictable; some of the best fantasy pitchers this year will undoubtedly be guys with low win totals because they play on crummy teams or are flat-out unlucky. Devaluing these guys for such arbitrary reasons is ludicrous. Second, I don’t think about trying to sweep the pitching categories each week when creating my draft board. During the season, I let my Monday/Tuesday starters do the talking. If they post good ratio performances, I hold my borderline starters back. If they have poor early week outings, I release the hounds and try to win strike-outs and wins. You can manage a pitching staff on the fly: good match-ups will always be out there. That is why you don’t grab pitchers early. Other reasons include: Chris Carpenter, Erik Bedard and Ben McDonald.
So, what do I like in a pitcher? Good ratios and strikeouts. I love Ks because, even if a pitcher has a bad outing, he’ll likely get a good amount of Ks, so there is some certainty there. When you are looking at week-to-week fluctuations, anything you can be certain of is incredibly valuable.
In terms of draft strategy, I tend to make my first eight to ten selections hitters. Because the Lincecums, Halladays, and Greinkes are off the table by the double-digit rounds, it’s important for me to identify the best undervalued pitchers. In year’s past, anyone willing to listen to my rants knew I was infatuated with the furry Aaron Harang, no matter what he looks like. Last year, I loved Javier Vazquez in March and was happily rewarded when he paid off nicely throughout the season. Quite simply, you can get pitchers who end up in the top 10 late in your draft (Vazquez, Greinke, and Verlander to name three); you can rarely do so with hitters.
Now, let’s talk about closers. People tend to devalue closers in h2h leagues, viewing them as one-category wonders that can’t be trusted to either retain their job or finish games consistently from week to week. While the latter half of that statement might be true, that doesn’t mean closers lack value. Every week you have to maximize your results in the pitching categories. If you win ERA (the tie-breaker in most leagues), you only need to win five categories total (because you own the tie-breaker). So, if you lock up ERA and saves, all you have to do is win three of the remaining eight categories – or post a .325 winning percentage. It ain’t pretty, but that’s how trophy…let me finish, wives are earned. With closers, it’s important to remember that there is always safety in numbers. However many RP or P spots you have, you should have a closer for each of those spots. So long as you have at least one great closer and several fringe closers, you can pretty much guarantee your team will win at least one category.
The Rank and File
Last year, readers were perplexed by how high I ranked Javy Vazquez. Well, we all know how that turned out. This year, similar doubt has been raised – by a Sox fan, no less – concerning my Jon Lester ranking. I have him as a top 10 pitcher, and could easily see him finishing in the top five. Depending on how his ADP shakes out, I’m hoping to make him my horse for 2010.
Lester has posted amazingly consistent numbers over the last two years (2009: 3.41 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 2008: 3.21 ERA and 1.27 WHIP). However, something incredibly important to fantasy sets his 2009 campaign apart: 225 Ks (an increase of about 70 from 2008). That is a huge number; the fifth most in the majors last season. What’s more, I think that ERA can come down to the 3.10 – 3.20 area. His BAbip was .314 last year – not hugely unlucky, but still unlucky. Even without the Sox’ winter upgrade on their defense (Cameron in center pushing Ellsbury to left, Beltre at third), this number would have likely dropped. With the new additions, it should be even lower. Look what happened last year in Texas for instance. If his WHIP remains, the Ks should be there and the ERA should improve. I’d be very comfortable with Lester as my first pitcher off the board. Furthermore, I think you can wait on him a bit and pass on guys like Lincecum, Greinke, Haren, and King Felix.
Another pitcher I am particularly high on is Yovani Gallardo (he’s my 13th ranked pitcher among starters, above Cliff Lee, Chris Carpenter and Josh Becket). I don’t know what’s not to like about a pitcher who finished in the top 10 in Ks, while pitching the least amount of innings of that group. Sure he went 13-12 last year, but, remember, wins don’t really matter. What matters are the Ks (204), ERA (3.73) and WHIP (1.31). While his 2009 ratios are actually slightly worse than his career averages (3.57 and 1.29), this is entirely attributable to his second half numbers (3.86 ERA/1.42 WHIP in July, 5.24 ERA/1.49 WHIP in August and 5.51 ERA/1.65 WHIP in September). How much of this horribleness is due to the fatigue/injury that landed him on the shelf at the end of the season is hard to say. At the very least, some of it was. If Gallardo is healthy he should be dominant. Call me crazy, but I think Gallardo could end up being a better starter than Sabathia this year.
You might begin to notice a theme in my rankings, which is especially evident in my Rickey Nolasco ranking (17th overall among pitchers). Though he pitched just 185 innings last year, Nolasco had the 14th most strikeouts (195). Other starters that averaged a K-per-inning include Verlander, Lincecum, Greinke, Vazquez, Lester and Gallardo. Not bad company. Sure, Nolasco’s ERA (5.06) was putrid; however his WHIP was very nice (1.24). While this discrepancy has something to do with a slightly unlucky .322 BAbip, it has much more to do with his horrendous start to the season. In April/March Nolasco posted a 6.92 ERA and 1.69 WHIP; in May he posted a 12.23 ERA and 1.98 WHIP. After a short stint in Triple A in June, Nolasco returned to the Marlins and did not post a WHIP above 1.22 for any month in the remainder of the season. Seeing how he pitched more innings after his brief demotion (141.1 vs. 43.2), I’m going to take these improved numbers as a sign that Nolasco is ready to turn the corner.
As I’ve noted, pitching annoys me because outside factors, including luck, league, defense, etc. seem to play a huge factor in success (and those are clearly hard – if not impossible – to determine). For example:
So, who do you think is the better pitcher (of course you know they are the same player)? It’s not all that clear if you don’t look at ERA, yet people will assume that Cole Hamels’ 2008 was far better than his 2009. In actuality, his 2008 simply was luckier than his 2009. So what can we expect in 2010? Expectations and pitching and baseball don’t mix, but I’d like to assume that his BAbip will be closer to .300, which should drive his ERA/WHIP down. If that is the case, (the royal) we could see an average of his 2008 and 2009 numbers, maybe a 3.60 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP. Do those look like real good numbers to you? They should. I think Hamels could be a steal in 2010.
What did Chad Billinglsy’s 2009 teach me? That you can never sell high fast enough on pitchers. First half: 3.38 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 119 Ks; second half: 5.20 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 60 Ks. Those differences are rather stark, especially when placed against his 2008 campaign (3.14 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 201 Ks). His WHIP actually went down in 2009, yet his ERA went up almost a full point. Sure his Ks decreased slightly (201 in 200 IPs in 2008, 179 in 196 IPs in 2009), however that can’t account for his jump in ERA. You know what can? Luck. Given Billinglsy’s steady WHIP (1.38 over his career, but not higher than 1.33 since 2007), I’m going to bank on a 2010 return to a normal, usable ERA. Like Hamels, Billingsley appears to be someone you can get a bit later on who should help you with, at the very least, Ks.
When I run my numbers on pitchers, an odd name (for many reasons) pops up: Ubaldo Jimenez. Jimenez had the 12th most Ks (198) last year (finishing just behind Josh Beckett). He also added a 3.47 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP – great ratios for any ballpark, let alone Cold as the Rockies Field. An even more impressive feat is that he managed those numbers after posting a 7.58 ERA and 2.11 WHIP in March and April. I don’t think that Jimenez is getting the respect he deserves as a legitimate 200-k pitcher with solid ratios and win potential. I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up more valuable than Beckett, Clayton Kershaw, Josh Johnson or Chris Carpenter. If given the chance (and the right spot), I think you should draft Ubaldo with confidence (I ranked him as the 22 best pitcher).
I have a love/hate relationship with Wandy Rodriguez. I touted him last year as a true sleeper and was confident he would deliver (he did: 3.02 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 193 Ks). Unfortunately, I’m not as confident about the 2010 edition. In 2009 WandyRod pitched more innings (205) than he ever had before (182 was his previous best). This increase in IPs, coupled with his injury history, makes him incredibly hard to rely on. If there were no health concerns and WandyRod was a bit younger (he’s 31), I’d have no problem ranking him in the top 15, close to Cliff Lee, Chris Carpenter and Gallardo. The question marks surrounding his heath, however, suggest that he is just outside of that tier (though still in the top 30 pitchers).
One pitcher I’m not buying is Rick Porcello (76th ranked pitcher). In his first major league season, the Tigers’ righty posted a 3.96 ERA and 1.34 WHIP in 170.2 IPs. What’s not to like about that? Not much, except I left out his paltry K numbers (89). That was lower than Mike Gonzalez, Brian Moehler, Carlos Marmol, Michael Wuertz, Rafael Soriano and many others. I think his ratios resulted from, at least in part, a somewhat lucky BAbip (.279). I don’t think this number will stay so low in 2010. Even if Porcello’s ratios stay around his 2009 numbers, they aren’t that great and he clearly doesn’t add anything to Ks. While he has some upside, as he is just 21, I’m not a believer just yet.
People love sleepers; they love grabbing the guy late who outperforms everyone. To help you look smart to all your friends, I’m highlighting at least on sleeper candidate per position.
Each year, it seems that scrap heap pitchers come out of nowhere to become productive contributors… hello Mike MacDougal! In this section, I’m going to talk about some off-the-beaten-paths types that could be worth far more than their draft slot indicates.
For some reason, Matt Capps always seems to end up on my teams. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing until last year. In 2009, Capps posted a 5.80 ERA and 1.66 WHIP en route to his most saves ever (27) – go figure. In the previous two years, Capps averaged a 2.58 ERA and 1.00 WHIP, yet only 20 saves. What I find appealing about Capps is his ability to get Ks (64 in 79 IPs in 2007, 39 in 52 IPs in 2008 and 46 in 54 IPs in 2009). Because relievers pitch less innings than starters, their ratios are more likely to be decimated by bad luck and buoyed by good luck. Well, Capps had a .364 BAbip last year, which is completely out of the norm for pitchers (almost all pitchers (except for the elite relievers) tend to have a BAbip around .300). Capps’ career BAbip, you ask? .296! I say he hovers around that mark in 2010 and becomes a cheap and viable closer who can help a bit with Ks. There is one concern with drafting Capps – his health. He hasn’t pitched over 54 IPs in two years. Because you’re most likely snagging him late in drafts, however, his inability to stay healthy should be an afterthought. I wouldn’t be surprised if Capps turns in a particularly useful fantasy season (if Mike MacDougal can do it (20 saves in 50 IPs for the Nats, why can’t Matt Capps?).
Another closer who could outperform his draft slot is Billy Wagner. Like Capps, the biggest concern with Wagner is his health; he only pitched 15.2 IPs last year. Still, he was impressive in those outings, posting a 1.98 ERA and 1.10 WHIP. He also struck out 26 batters, which is where Wagner’s upside truly lies. If he is healthy, Wagner could approach 90 or so Ks, a feat he has done seven times in ten seasons. If he stays healthy, he’ll be a healthy source of strikeouts, and likely saves. While the Braves have a recent history of splitting save opportunities (they split saves between Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano last year) – and they did pick up Takashi Saito as a potential righty handcuff to Wagner – I’d be drafting Wagner with confidence and hoping for the upside.
This might be the first time someone has highlighted two Rockie pitchers in a column since Denny Neagle and Mike Hampton signed. Well, I think Jorge De La Rosa can be a very productive player for you. You’d be shocked if I told you that he had the 16th most strikeouts last year, right? Well he did. In fact he struck out 193 batters in only 185 IPs, which provides a sterling K/IP ratio. Sure his ERA (4.38) is a bit high and his WHIP (1.38) isn’t great, but you can live with those numbers when the pitcher is K-ing a batter an inning. For someone available around the same time as Edwin Jackson, John Danks, and Carlos Zambrano, De La Rosa will provide a lot of strikeouts, while not crippling your ratios.
Derek Holland’s 2009 numbers (6.12 ERA and 1.50 WHIP) wouldn’t lead anyone to tab him as a breakout candidate, right? Wrong! Though his ratios were unfortunate, his power numbers looked pretty good; he struck out 107 batters in 138.1 IPs (just about 7 Ks per nine). I’d also point out his amazing July: 28.1 IPs, 25 Ks, 4.45 ERA and 1.27 WHIP. Sure, he followed that up with two bad months, but at least we know Holland has the tools to be successful. It really is just a matter of time for the 23-yeard-old. Like De La Rosa, Holland has a horrible home ballpark, but I’m confident he can succeed. I bet he exceeds expectations this year and is a somewhat useful fantasy starter. He’s a great nab late in drafts, especially for keeper leagues.
For a 25-year-old, Clay Buchholz has been around forever. Everyone knows about the amazing 22 IPs in 2007 (22 Ks, 1.59 ERA, 1.06 WHIP) and about the relatively disastrous 2008 (72 Ks in 76 IPS, a 6.75 ERA and 1.76 WHIP). Beneath those horrible 2009 numbers, however, is an incredibly unlucky .355 BAbip. That’s enough to drive any decent pitchers’ ratios sky high. When this number came down to more normal levels in 2009 (.281), Buchholz delivered a decent season (4.21 ERA and 1.38 WHIP). What’s more, he has a minor league track record of dominance: 506 Ks in 443.1 IPs, a 2.42 ERA and 1.00 WHIP. In addition, as I previously noted when talking about John Lester, the Sox just got much better defensively this offseason. Having Adrian Beltre at third base instead of Mike Lowell will do nothing but help a groundball pitcher like Buchholz. Be confident taking him.