Thursday, March 26, 2009

Through the Wardrobe—A Fantasy Look at the Pitchers

In my previous piece, I said I tend to gloss over outfielders. If that's true (and it is), I flat out ignore pitching. Those of you looking for sturdy analysis of more than just the super-elite starters and closers should look elsewhere because I'm just going to hit the aces of the aces.

In other words, these are not the previews you're looking for (with a wave of my hand).

It should hopefully be a fun read though...


I don't qualify that with 'starters' or 'closers' because I'll be handling both. And it'll still only be about 10-15 guys period. No second tier, no third tier, no fliers.

With the hurlers, the strategy is the important part of my analysis.

Start with the basic assumption that you can't win all the categories through astute drafting if you have 10 categories at a minimum, evenly split between offense and pitching.

You might luck out and hit several jackpots that result in an absolutely dominant team, but there's simply no way to scientifically do so—baseball is too unpredictable and too dependent on intangible, immeasurable forces.

Next, concede that hitters are far easier to predict, partially because you'll have at least twice as many at-bats as you'll have innings pitched on a weekly basis in most leagues. The larger sample size allows for more normalization to expectations when a player is meeting them—a couple bad days usually get erased by a couple good ones if the hitter is good.

Meanwhile, a single bad outing from one of your aces could very well torpedo the entire week's pitching categories. Worse, it might take your guy another start or two to get things righted.

Another reason hitters seem more reliable is because they are. For whatever reason, even the best pitchers will lose a year or two to injury and/or bad performance. That doesn't seem to be the case for the top 10-15 hitters on an annual basis.

I'll acknowledge this point is debatable—what's not debatable is my personal experience and/or luck.

In 2007, I drafted Roy Halladay as my primary starter and he had an off year. In 2004 and 2005, Doc carried a little more than half his usual workload due to injury. And this is arguably the most consistent virtuoso in baseball.

Last year, the first two starters I grabbed were Aaron Harang and Justin Verlander. Harang was so bad I eventually cut ties with him and Verlander was almost worse because I rode that horse right into the burning [expletive] barn.

The story with closers is no different.

Outside of the absolute cream of the crop, it's a crap shoot. Last year, I took the electric arm of Manny Corpas and the reliably high save total of Joe Borowski. Neither held the job beyond May and Corpas was done by April if memory serves me.

Brad Lidge was perfect and Huston Street imploded. Joakim Soria became unhittable while Billy Wagner's arm exploded.

Hence, faced with one set of categories that are more accurately predictable (even if only in theory), it makes sense to concentrate on those areas and pick a couple from the pitching side to address later in the draft where bargains are available.

For me, that usually means wins, saves, and strikeouts.

Why those three? Because owners who love pitchers chase earned run average and WHIP so those guys are gone really early. Way too early for my tastes.

Wins, saves, and Ks are available well down the pitching ladder and always emerge over the course of the season via the wire (much like useful outfielders).

A guy like Chien-Ming Wang is going with the 199th pick in the average Yahoo draft despite being a virtual cinch for 15-20 wins if he makes all his starts. He won't give you much in the way of whiffs and his ERA/WHIP combo won't make anyone stop the presses, but those are dicey metrics for even the best ace (as I alluded to).

With all the turmoil at the back-end of games over the course of a 162-affair season, new closers wait in the wings on draft day and others pop up midseason. Unless you can snare one of the top guys for value, go after a discounted one later and address more pressing needs in the moment.

Sure, Jonathan Papelbon is dynamite. The thing is, you can approximate his save total and strikeouts using two or three mediocre closers that you pick up in your draft's gloaming or off waivers.

If you're punting ERA/WHIP, then why not grab Aramis Ramirez or Jacoby Ellsbury or Geovany Soto? All three are going after Papelbon on average and there are other equally attractive options.

Of course, I'm not the only subscriber to this theory so all those guys may be gone. In that case, I'm pulling the trigger because I'll jump all over a top-flight ace or closer if he's the value pick i.e. all the pieces I want who are ranked around him have been snatched.

*Note: this just happened in my second and last draft—it totally screwed me. Guys I figured would be available much later were going all over the place (Pablo Sandoval went with the 74th pick) so I ended up with two aces (Peavy/Liriano) and two fantastic closers (Rivera/Soria). Meanwhile, I have Ryan Theriot at shortstop. Oh well.

With that in mind, here are the pitchers (both starters and closers) who I keep an eye on because one will eventually fall into a position where he becomes the best option for my strategy:


1. Johan Santana, New York Mets—234.1 IP, 16 Ws, 206 Ks, 2.53 ERA, 1.15 WHIP

As much as I love Tim Lincecum, even I have to admit that Santana makes more sense as the first arm off the board.

Had it not been for the Mets' implosion in the bullpen last year, the Cy Young may very well have landed in Johan's hot left hand. I'm not saying it would've been right because the Freak still kept pace with the New York southpaw while pitching for one of the worst teams in baseball.

But voters overvalue wins and Santana saw quite a few vaporize when handed to the firemen (who were more like arsonists).

Add those Ws onto his record and people would've made more of a fuss out of the similarities in the other peripherals between Johan's '08 campaign and that of the Franchise.

Having grabbed both Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz in he offseason, it looks like we'll see what Santana can do with an effective relief corps. He's already got a far better offense (understatement of the year) than Lincecum so the table seems set of quite a feast.

2. Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants—227 IP, 18 Ws, 265 Ks, 2.62 ERA, 1.17 WHIP

If Lincecum is on 20 of 30 teams in Major League Baseball, he's the No. 1 pitcher taken in almost every draft. He's already going first in a whole bunch despite pitching in front of an offense that will be mediocre if the best-case scenario materializes.

At worst, it could make some minor league assembly of splinters ferocious by comparison. And I'm a die-hard fan of the Orange and Black.

Having said all that, I'd take Lincecum first in a heart beat because he's the big ticket for my favorite franchise and there's is nothing negative to say about the guy. Absolutely zero. And he'll be 25 in June so the best is yet to come.

The funny thing is—because winning the Cy Young has thrust Tiny Tim into the national spotlight—you're beginning to see a bunch of people opining on how it's only a matter of time before Lincecum blows out his arm or breaks down a la Pedro Martinez. They range from clueless to well-informed.

And they're all wrong.

I'm not saying Lincecum will NEVER break down—as I said, almost every pitcher hits the shelf sooner or later. What I'm saying is that, in SF, we've been hearing the awkward delivery song-and-dance ever since the youngster was drafted.

We've also been hearing how he's never iced his arm, never had any sort of discomfort, and how his delivery has been specially designed to minimize the strain on his arm rather than overwork it. Again, there are no guarantees in life—the theory behind the motion could be totally wrong.

But so far so good and, considering how long Lincecum's been using it, perhaps his unique mechanics have earned the benefit of the doubt?

3. Roy Halladay, Toronto Blue Jays—246 IP, 20 Ws, 206 Ks, 2.78 ERA, 1.05 WHIP

I'll say it again—Hallady is arguably the most consistent top-flight guy on the bump in all of MLB. Last season was a masterpiece even by Doc's lofty standards so don't expect a repeat.

But his ERA will always be in the neighborhood of 3.00 and his WHIP will almost always be south of 1.30. Those are insane numbers considering how explosive the American League can be with the designated hitter the AL East in particular.

Halladay will be 32 in May so his age isn't yet a big concern, even more so because his strikeout total jumped by almost 70 from '07 to '08. That's not exactly a reason to worry age is dulling Roy's effective edge.

Obviously, it would indicate quite the contrary.

Since the Yankees, Rays, and Red Sox have all cranked it up a notch, I'm a little hesistant putting a pitcher who must face all three on a regular basis this high. Ultimately though, that's been the rub on Halladay for years and it has yet to really hinder his production.

4. CC Sabathia, New York Yankees—253 IP, 17 Ws, 251 Ks, 2.70 ERA, 1.11 WHIP

I know, I just said I didn't like sticking an AL East hurler this high. The difference is Sabathia doesn't have to face the best lineup (on paper) because he pitchers in front of it.

Still, facing the Rays and BoSox will be no laughing matter for the hefty lefty.

Fortunately for the Bronx Bombers, I think they've finally scored a free agent who will answer the bell and meet expectations. Sabathia got off to a slow start in 2008 and, if he does that in New York, things could get interesting. Even if that happens, I still think CC has the mental constitution to persevere.

And I don't think that will happen.

Sabathia has never worked with the luxury of a loaded lineup and an impeccable closer like Mariano Rivera. Despite working with sub-standard supporting casts (in some cases), he's posted stellar season after stellar season.

Now, he's sharing a clubhouse with some of the best in baseball as he enters his prime ((29 in July).

The only thing keeping Sabathia this low is the unpredictability of the Big Apple's influence on players and the small red flag raised by an incredible number of innings over three years by modern baseball's standards.

I don't think either will be a serious concern after the first month.

5. Brandon Webb, Arizona Diamondbacks—226.2 IP, 22 Ws, 183 Ks, 3.30 ERA. 1.20 WHIP

Here's were the inevitability of injury starts rearing its ugly head. And for no other reason than Webb's consistency—he's taken basically every start since he arrived in 2003. Since then, Brandon's never made less than 33 starts in a year.

In '03, he made 28 starts plus a relief cameo.

The dude is as steady as they come and features a sinkerball, which isn't notorious like a curve ball for destroying elbows/arms. There's really no good reason to expect Webb to miss time.

But the fact remains the human shoulder wasn't designed to throw over the top and Webb's been doing just that like clockwork for six straight years. The landscape of modern baseball is littered with Tommy John surgeries and torn labrums.

I have yet to hear of a pro pitcher who didn't have considerable and permanent damage to his shoulder once his career was over. Shoot, I have fraying of my rotator cuff from my playing days, which ended in high school.

Each individual is different and there would not be rules without exceptions. To boot, Brandon Webb is in his prime, features a pitch that never seems to lose its effectiveness, and toes the slab for a pretty good club.

There are questions at the back of the bullpen since Chad Qualls has never seen serious run as a closer and Webb's defense—critical for a guy who induces as many grass-cutters as Webb—took a hit with the exodus of Orlando Hudson, who is one of the better leathermen in MLB.

But those are minor. If you don't buy the injury bug, draft Webb without pause.

6. Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies—227.1 IP, 14 Ws, 196 Ks, 3.09 ERA, 1.08 WHIP

The top of the pitching heap is so tightly clustered that Hamels' arm concerns knocked him from No. 3 to here. Each ace is so good and durable on this list that even the possibility of missing a significant number of starts is toxic.

It's knocked Josh Beckett all the way down to No. 9 and kept Francisco Liriano off altogether.

That said, the bugaboo seems milder by the day and Cole (already 25) is almost as young as Lincecum. There's a good chance he'd bounce back firmly and quickly from even a semi-serious ding, which this doesn't appear to be.

Granted, the southpaw saw a considerable surge in innings from '07 to '08 (over 40) and fanned amost 20 extra hitters as well as walking more, which usually indicates a general inflation in pitches per batter.

With that as the background to the elbow discomfort, the sirens get a little louder.

Nonetheless, Hamels is a scintillating talent with much potential left to harness and time to do it. He takes the pill for one of the scariest offenses in baseball that may be even better with the addition of Raul Ibanez.

You don't want to be too wary in the face of all that upside.

7. Jake Peavy, San Diego Padres—173.2 IP, 10 Ws, 166 Ks, 2.85 ERA, 1.18 WHIP

Peavy represents the flip-side of the inevitable injury coin. Here's one of the most reliable arms in baseball coming off a season hampered by injury.

This is the side I like because, if you think of the injury bug as a pressure valve that must be opened periodically to avoid destruction, Peavy's just let off his steam and should be good to go for a while. Meanwhile, a guy like Webb looks ready to explode at any second.

Additionally, Jake's production looks kinda pedestrian because of the starts he lost so he should be a bargain on draft day as long as your league doesn't feature any Padre supporters.

In the interest of equity, the injury may not be completely behind Peavy so he might struggle with it again this year. But that's not usually the pattern for these guys—I have no statistics to back it up, but the aces seem to have stretches of three or four healthy years before encountering another hiccup.

There's also the matter of a trade. While leaving the pitcher-friendly dimensions of Petco would potentially hurt Jake's ERA, his hit and whiff rates have always reflected a pitcher who excels with great stuff rather than contact finding mitts.

Plus, the trade would presumably send Peavy to a contender and an actual MLB lineup. That's gotta help.

8. Dan Haren, Arizona Diamondbacks—216 IP, 16 Ws, 206 Ks, 3.33 ERA, 1.13 WHIP

I am not a believer in Dan Haren.

For whatever reason, I still remember the kid who came up with St. Louis and never blew up my skirt. That's totally unfair because he's produced four straight years of fantastic work.

What makes my stance on Haren even more ridiculous are the trends. Almost all indicate the 28-year-old is approaching a prime that looks better than anything we've seen yet. All the more so because he's in a division weak on offense and strong on pitchers' parks.

Consider his whiff rate's been steadily on the rise, his walk rate's been on the fade if it's been moving at all, the same can be said of his WHIP, and he's allowing fewers homers each campaign.

Furthermore, his style isn't as defensively dependent so the only concern he shares with his front-end mate Webb is the unproven Qualls in the 'pen. What I didn't say about Qualls earlier is that his stuff is filthy so neither Webb's nor Haren's owners need to lose fantasy-sleep.

And yet I don't like him as a pitcher. Go figure.

9. Josh Beckett, Boston Red Sox—174.1 IP, 12 Ws, 172 Ks, 4.03 ERA, 1.19 WHIP

As I alluded to above, Beckett falls this far because of health concerns. Like Peavy, Josh is coming off a season that saw his effectiveness limited by injury.

The difference between the two, other than the one year of age Beckett (29 in May) has on Peavy, is that Beckett's history is pockmarked with starts lost to injury. He's one of the exceptions to aces going down to injury once in a while.

Beckett seems to go down regularly and, even when taking starts, always seems to be suffering or recovering from some mallady.

Furthermore, the list of injuries that nagged the BoSox' ace in 2008 features a littany of potentially dire problems, each of which threatens to erode the very core of dominant pitching.

Beckett experience back trouble, soreness in his elbow, and then a torn obligue last season. If something had happened to his legs, Josh would've experienced substantial damage to every key element to the pitching motion.

Of course, I'm not a doctor or a Red Sox fan so I have no idea what the problems were nor how signicant. If they were just run-of-the-mill hot spots, Beckett will be no worse for the wear. If not?

Uh oh. Hard-throwers who lose movement tend to see a lot of pop-ups turn into big flies.

Honorable mention

Francisco Liriano, Minnesota Twins—hasn't quite regained pre-surgery form.

Roy Oswalt, Houston Astros—pitches in a live yard and in a division of live yards.

James Shields, Tampa Bay Rays—will eventually break through, but AL East is rough this year.

Chad Billingsley, Los Angeles Dodgers—I hate the Bums, but this guy's legit.

1. Jonathan Papelbon, Boston Red Sox—69.1 IP, 5 Ws, 41 saves, 77 Ks, 2.34 ERA, 0.95 WHIP

Papelbon didn't finish 2008 as the top rated closer in Major League Baseball, but he's probably the safest bet to finish there heading into most years. He is a 28-year-old clydesdale who closes games for one of the best teams in baseball, featuring arguably the best rotation and bullpen.

Although his blown save total, ERA, and WHIP jumped a tad last year while his K per inning ratio went down, there isn't much cause to panic. The big fella's innings increased, his walks decreased, his homers allowed decreased, and his save total increased.

And none of the fluctuations were too drastic so just consider '08 a slightly soft year that still qualifies as one of the best in baseball and keeps Papelbon right in line to be his dominating self in '09.

2. Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees—70.2 IP, 6 Ws, 39 saves, 77 Ks, 1.40 ERA, 0.67 WHIP

If you're a baseball fan long enough, you see a lot of crazy things.

When Rivera's career is over and we have several years to really contemplate, to digest what he's accomplished, Mo may go down as one of the most profound mysteries in the history of the game.

This bad dude is 39 and coming off possibly the most stellar year of a career filled with years that qualify as some of the best of all-time. He cut his WHIP almost in half from '07 (1.12), reduced his ERA by more than half (3.15), cut his walks in half (from 12 to six), saved nine extra games, and did it all without adding appreciably to his fan total.

The Sandman did this all, as he always has, with basically one pitch: the feared cutter.

This is a pitch that causes some of the best switch-hitters to go up right-handed against the right-handed Rivera because it is so decimating on left-handed swingers. Dennis Eckersley and Trevor Hoffman both recognize Mo as the best ever and trace it to this pitch.

Future Hall-of-Fame hitters openly quiver at the idea of catching it on their hands, calling it the best pitcher ever thrown.

So, yeah, he's still reliable as he closes in on 40.

3. Joe Nathan, Minnesota Twins—67.2 IP, 1 W, 39 saves, 74 Ks, 1.33 ERA, 0.90 WHIP

Nathan may very well deserve to be higher on this list, but playing baseball in Minnesota has never been the secret to geting your dues.

The fact remains, however, that Joe Nathan has been every bit the steadying influence that Papelbon and Rivera have been in recent years.

While his strikeout totals have declined, his ERA and WHIP have followed suit. Since Joe still whiffs more than a batter per inning, I think his owners and Twins' fans are more than satisfied with the development.

With a dynamite set-up crew in front of him and some fabulous young arms populating the starting rotation, the Twinkies have the pitching to compete. With Joe Mauer starting the season on the shelf and an already-weakish lineup, they'll have to do so by winning close games.

And that's good news if you can get your hot little hands on Nathan.

4. Joakim Soria, Kansas City Royals—67.1 IP, 2 Ws, 42 saves, 66 Ks, 1.60 ERA, 0.86 WHIP

A closer—from KC of all places—gets the last honored spot in this group of dominating, lights-out firemen. The Royals won 75 games in '08 and Soria saved 42 so don't worry about whether the whispers regarding the Crowns being a contender in '09 are realistic or not—it doesn't matter.

Joakim will come in a slam the door on whatever chances he gets and, since KC's pitching/hitting are still developing, most of their wins should provide ample opportunities for Soria to display his considerable wares.

In only his second year on the job (and his first full one), the Royal closer trimmed his ERA and WHIP while walking the same number and striking out fewer batters. That would indicate to me the batters aren't finding a comfort zone with el hombre despite the growing familiarity.

They're finding a way to get the bat on the ball with slightly more frequency, perhaps, but to the detriment of effective contact. Thusly, Soria's able to keep more runners of the bases despite more contact.

And that bodes well for the longevity of his reign of terror over opposing hitters.

Honorable mention

Bobby Jenks, Chicago White Sox—lost velocity in '08.

Brad Lidge, Philadelphia Phillies—perfection in '08 doesn't totally erase doubts from Houston.

Francisco Rodriguez New York Mets—high save total doesn't obscure rising peripherals.

Matt Capps, Pittsburgh Pirates—hurt in '08, but quietly one of the best and on improving team.

Kerry Wood, Cleveland Indians—only one year on the job, but moves to bigger park.

Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs—can Lou Pinella really be serious about going with Kevin Gregg?

So there you go—the overview of my fantasy approach is done.

In conclusion, I'll offer one last bit of advice—I believe that the secret to winning a fantasy championship is very similar to winning the real thing in one key regard: you put together a team to make the playoffs and then hit the prayer circuit once you're there.

By drafting wisely and staying vigilant as you manage your club over the course of the season, you can realistically control whether your club qualifies for the postseason. With so many games, you can create a plan and then address the crises as they come to satisfying results.

But once it comes down to elimination based on a single week, it's up to the baseball gods.

And they are not merciful. Good luck.

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