Tagged: pitcher

Matt Shoemaker, pending fantasy star

How does one apologize for not writing for more than a month and a half? It’s hard, man. Maybe one does not apologize to one’s readers. Maybe one’s readers accepts that it is what it is.

You know what else is what it simply is? Matthew David Shoemaker, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim’s right-handed reliever-turned-starter.

Every baseball season often produces more questions than answers. Namely: Who is Matt Shoemaker? Where did he come from? Why am I writing about him if he’s not that good?

Let us rewind to 2012. A mysterious figure emerged from the mist of the Seattle Mariners’ bullpen to dazzle us– or maybe just me, given he never really received the recognition he deserved. Maybe he had a right to be ignored: he posted a 4.75 ERA and 1.42 WHIP in 30-1/3 relief innings. If you don’t know how this fairy tale ends, it goes something like: goes largely unnoticed in 2012, is drafted outside the top 75 pitchers on average in ESPN drafts in 2013, and eventually emerges as a borderline fantasy ace by the name of Hisashi Iwakuma.

There’s a lesson to be learned. Iwakuma’s horrid statistics as a reliever muddied his season numbers. In hindsight, a 3.15 ERA for the year is solid, but a 2.65 ERA is better, and that’s what Iwakuma posted strictly as a starter. Yet fantasy owners who opted only to scratch the surface saw mostly unsightly ratios.

The same fairy tale manifested itself in a different form in 2013 that would make the Brothers Grimm proud. The Cleveland Indians’ Corey Kluber emerged from the bullpen in May, albeit after only half a dozen innings, many more than that in 2012. Kluber’s season, however, began with aplomb — and by aplomb, I mean “a handful of horrible starts.” Starts horrible enough to sully his numbers for the year (3.95 ERA). But the peripherals were there at season’s end: 8.28 strikeouts per nine innings, 2.09 walks per nine, 3.12 xFIP. In case you haven’t kept track, Kluber has more or less assumed the role as Cleveland’s staff ace this year, posting a 2.95 ERA with more strikeouts than innings.

I will now shortsightedly assume, without any kind of research, that this kind of thing happens every year. Every year, there’s at least one player who emerges from the bullpen and becomes an ace. Sure, you have the Chris Sales and Adam Wainwrights of the baseball world, who make a gigantic, whale-sized spash, but you also have the Iwakumas and Klubers, who basically don’t make a splash at all and probably sit on the side of the pool with their feet dangling in and shirts still on.

So I’m calling it: Mr. Shoemaker will be 2015’s reincarnation of this fairy tale.

In keeping the trend alive, a look at Shoemaker’s stats tell you… well, in the way of anything positive, not much. He has somehow notched seven wins despite a 4.54 ERA and 1.30 WHIP, so that rules. Worse, his WHIP was, like, 1.42 before his most recent start. So, bad season stat line? Check.

Meanwhile, he has struck out 9.68, and walked only 1.87, hitters per nine innings. It would behoove me to point out that these numbers dwarf those posted by Kluber in 2013, during which Kluber existed primarily in a gelatinous state of Emerging Star. It would also behoove me to point out that a reader with a discerning eye would notice that Shoemaker has a still-lackluster 4.37 ERA and 1.28 WHIP as a starter, fitting the mold of “maybe his season numbers are ruined.” It would further behoove me to point out that he is suffering the misfortune of a .350 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which, if normalized to a more reasonable .320, would produce a 1.20 WHIP. A league-average .300 BABIP? A 1.14 WHIP. So, distorted stats as a starter? Check.

Perhaps the most important, and valid, question at this point is whether or not Shoemaker can sustain what he’s doing. Small sample size caveats abound here, but I think the results are still substantial, if not due for regression. For all pitchers who have thrown at least 60 innings, Shoemaker ranks 11th in swinging strike percentage (11.9), one spot behind Stephen Strasburg, the MLB strikeout leader, and three spots ahead of his teammate Garrett Richards, who has done all kinds of breaking out this year. Shoemaker also ranks 9th in hitter contact allowed (73.5 percent), sandwiched between Gio Gonzalez and, yes, Richards. Thus, even given small sample size caveats, Shoemaker is among excellent company. The walk rate may suffer; it’s hard to say, and even harder still given that I’m on an airplane over central California with no internet. But, given the browser tabs I still have open, I can tell you that Shoemaker’s percentage of pitches thrown in the strike zone, according to FanGraphs’ data, trails only Clayton Kershaw and Mets reliever Carlos Torres among the 10 names ahead of his on the swinging strike percentage list. That bodes well for projecting his control going forward. (PITCHf/x, however, portends another story, as his zone percentage trails six of the eight names ahead of his. But when the names you trail are Felix Hernandez, Masahiro Tanaka and Kershaw, I’d say you’re not doing so bad for yourself.) So, solid peripherals? Check.

It’s a makeshift and largely personal checklist, but so far, Shoemaker meets all my criteria for the gelantinous Emerging Star. Who knows how Shoemaker will fare during the season’s last two months, but I think he’s worth owning now despite his current stat line. As for 2015 and beyond, I like him — for now. I wouldn’t bother keeping him, as I think his value will be depressed heading into next year’s draft, so you can easily wait around for him in the late rounds, if not add him as free agency in the first couple of weeks of the season, just as many owners did with Iwakuma and Kluber the past two years.

I hesitate to say Shoemaker is a lock for success. If anything, this post is less about finding The Next Big Thing as it is finding a pitcher whose performance betrays his value. There are the Sonny Grays and Michael Wachas of the world, whose status as top prospects make them costly prospective adds. Then there are the Matt Shoemakers, whose obscurity and relative misfortune keep him out of the fantasy limelight — and, one would hope, on the clearance shelf, from which you can swipe him on the cheap.

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Need some streamers? T. Ross, Hutchison, Colon, Wood

I’ve been slacking on my streamer picks, so let’s cut straight to the chase.

Today, 5/15:
Tyson Ross, SD @ CIN
Mr. Ross is the real deal, my friends. He’s 10th of all pitchers in batters’ contact on pitches in the zone, sandwiched between the unfamiliar names of Jose Fernandez and Zack Greinke (and the players who precede him include Michael Wacha, Yordano Ventura, Julio Teheran and Max Scherzer). He doesn’t make batters chase pitches at an overwhelming rate, but they make contact on such pitches only half the time, which ranks Ross fourth only to Ervin Santana, Garrett Richards and Masahiro Tanaka. At 7.99 K/9, his K-rate should actually improve. You can really only bash him for his walk rate, but it’s no worse than Gio Gonzalez or Justin Verlander. I don’t care if it’s a road game; Ross should be owned in all leagues at this point.

Friday, 5/16:
Drew Hutchison, TOR @ TEX
I’ll be honest with you: I’m not totally sold on this matchup. Hutchison hasn’t been very impressive, but there are simply not many matchups worth exploiting on Friday. I like Hutchison for his strikeouts, and before his last start (during which he walked four), he had only walked five guys across 32-1/3 innings. His control escaped him, but if it comes back, he should be able to control a miserable Texas offense that ranks 26th of 30 teams in extra-base hits.

Saturday, 5/17:
Bartolo Colon, NYM @ WAS
Again, not crazy about this one, either. But Colon has been incredibly unlucky. The dude is walking fewer than a batter per nine innings (0.9 BB/9), so all the baserunners (and, consequently, earned runs) he has allowed are a largely a function of an elevated batting average on balls in play (BABIP). It’s hard to trust a guy who’s mired in a slump, but the luck should eventually turn in his favor. Who’s to say it won’t be this weekend? I’d take a chance. The Nationals don’t score a ton of runs, either. It’s not the best play, but it’s safer than most.

Sunday, 5/18:
Travis Wood, CHC vs. MIL
After a hot start, albeit a brief one, Wood has since collapsed in spectacular fashion, sporting a 4.91 ERA and 1.43 WHIP. So why would I ever vouch for this guy? Check out his home-road splits:

Split W L W-L% ERA GS IP H ER HR BB SO WHIP SO9 SO/W
Home 2 1 .667 2.39 4 26.1 22 7 2 4 32 0.987 10.9 8.00
Away 1 3 .250 8.02 4 21.1 31 19 2 11 12 1.969 5.1 1.09
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/15/2014.

The splits are ridiculous. They speak for themselves, although I’ll highlight the ones that are most impressive. With that said, he’s starting at home. Enough said.

Good luck and happy streaming!

Pitchers to sell high, buy low or cut bait

All right. It’s April. It’s horrifying, unless you’re doing well, and then it’s not. But, full disclosure, I’m not. Chicago White Sox staff ace Chris Sale just hit the 15-day disabled list yesterday, joining the Philadelphia Phillies’ Cole Hamels, Seattle Mariners’ James Paxton, Tampa Bay Rays’ Alex Cobb, Cincinnati Reds’ Mat Latos, New York Yankees’ David Robertson and the Detroit Tigers’ Doug Fister on my teams’ DLs. It’s killing me, really. It’s incredibly painful.

What I’m saying is I’ve spent more time than I’d care to admit frolicking in free agency, trying to figure out which early-season studs are legit or not. I’ve been pondering various buy-low situations as well. So I jumped into a pool of peripherals and PITCHf/x data to look for answers.

The list below is not remotely exhaustive. It’s mostly players I am watching or already using as replacements for my teams. Here they are, in no particular order.

Jake Peavy, BOS | 0-0, 3.33 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 9.25 K/9
Peavy’s prime came and went about five years ago, so, full disclosure, I don’t know as much about him off the top of my head as I should. But I do know one thing: he doesn’t strike out a batter per inning anymore. In his defense, batters’ contact rate against him is the best it has been since 2009, his last truly good year. So maybe he will strike out a few more batters than last year, but I think it’ll be closer to 2012’s 7.97 K/9, not 2009’s 9.74 K/9. The WHIP is atrocious;  the walk rate is through the roof. If there’s a guy in your league who will pay for what will end up being the illusion of ERA and strikeouts, by all means, trade him. He’s owned in 100 percent of leagues but doesn’t deserve to be.
Verdict: Sell high

John Lackey, BOS | 2-2, 5.25 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, 8.63 K/9
Another Boston pitcher, another bad start to the season. I like Lackey a lot more, though, for a variety of reasons. One, last year’s renaissance was legitimate. Two, he’s not walking many batters right now, so his unspectacular ratios are more a result of an unlucky batting average on balls in play (.333 BABIP) than incompetence. Three, his swinging strike and contact rates are currently career bests. Again, we’re working with small sample sizes here, and this could easily regress. But considering his velocity is also at a career high, I don’t find it improbable that Lackey actually does better than he did last season. If an owner in your league has already dropped him, put in your waiver claim now.
Verdict: Buy low

Jesse Chavez, OAK | 1-0, 1.38 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 9.69 K/9
Talk about unexpected. Chavez, who has been relevant about zero times, is making for an intriguing play in all leagues. It’s a given he will regress, especially considering the .242 BABIP, but his improved walk rate could be here to stay, as he is pounding the zone more than he ever has in his career. The strikeouts are somewhat of a mirage, but it looks like he can be a low-WHIP, moderate-strikeout guy, and that’s still valuable.
Verdict: Sell really high, or just ride the hot hand

Nathan Eovaldi, MIA | 1-1, 3.55 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 8.17 K/9
I wouldn’t call Eovaldi a trendy sleeper, but he certainly was a sleeper coming into 2014. It was all about whether he could command his pitchers better — and, like magic, it appears he has, walking only 1.07 batters per nine innings as opposed to 3.39-per-nine last year. The swinging strike and contact rates are concerning, as they are the lowest of his career, so it’s hard to see his strikeout rate going anywhere but down. However, he’s throwing 65 percent of his pitches in the strike zone, highest of all qualified pitchers. So there are two ways to look at this. His control has probably legitimate improved. Unfortunately, even the masterful Cliff Lee only threw 53.3 percent of pitches in the zone last year, and I am hesitant to claim Eovaldi has better control than Lee. This could be a “breakout” year of sorts for Eovaldi, but I’m using that term liberally here. He’s only owned in 20.5 percent of leagues, so this makes him more of a ride-the-hot-hand type, like Mr. Chavez above.
Verdict: Eventually drop, ideally before he does damage to your team

Mark Buehrle, TOR | 4-0, 0.64 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 6.11 K/9
Look, I have had a long-standing man crush on Buehrle, but this is ridiculous. You know better than I that these happy dreams will soon become nightmares, not because Buehrle is awful or anything, but because regression rears its head in occasionally very brutal ways.
Verdict: Sell high

Alfredo Simon, CIN | 0.86 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, 5.57 K/9
Something isn’t right here. A 0.81 WHIP and… fewer than six strikeouts per nine innings? As you become more familiar with sabermetrics, you quickly realize certain things don’t mesh. A low WHIP combined with the low strikeout rate is one of those things. I can tell you without looking that his BABIP is impossibly low — and, now looking, I see I’m right: it’s .197. Tristan H. Cockcroft of ESPN is all about Simon, and in his defense, Simon’s PITCHf/x data foreshadows some positive regression coming his way in the strikeout department. But it can only get worse from here for Simon. However, I think he has a bit of a Dan Straily look to him, and that’s certainly serviceable.
Verdict: Sell high, or just ride the hot hand

Yovani Gallardo, MIL | 1.46 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 6.93 K/9
This is a disaster waiting to happen. Like Simon, his strikeout rate is low, but for Gallardo, it is deservedly so: his swinging strike and contact rates are, by far, career worsts. Meanwhile, his ratios are buoyed by a .264 BABIP and 89.8% LOB% (left-on-base percentage), despite his 74.7% career LOB%. The Brewers will fall with him. Sell high, and sell fast.
Verdict: Sell high

Shelby Miller, STL | 3.57 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 8.34 K/9
Miller is the first pitcher on this list in whom owners actually invested a lot. Be patient. The 98.3-percent of owners who didn’t cut bait before his last start were surely rewarded. I imagine he’s leaving his pitches up in the zone, given his increased percentage of pitches thrown in the zone coupled with his home run rate. Speaking of which, he shouldn’t be walking five batters per nine innings when he’s throwing more than 50 percent of his pitches in the zone. He’ll be fine.
Verdict: Buy low

Homer Bailey, CIN | 5.75 ERA, 1.87 WHIP, 11.07 K/9
Two words: .421 BABIP. Yowza. Again, owners invested way too much in this guy. Perfect buy-low opportunity here if you know your fellow owner is impatient.
Verdict: Buy low

Drew Hutchison, TOR | 3.60 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 10.80 K/9
I’ll be honest, I was surprised to see Hutchison’s xFIP stand at 3.43. It seems like he has been much worse — but has he really? The walks are problematic but not unmanageable (see: Matt Moore), and they’ve actually shored up a bit in his last couple of starts. Moreover, he is still striking out batters at an elite rate, and the PITCHf/x data supports his success, albeit probably not with quite as much success as he’s having now. As for the WHIP? A .365 BABIP sure doesn’t help. Hutchison was once a highly-touted prospect. Your window of opportunity to gamble on this live arm may be closing if he can keep his ERA down.
Verdict: Add via free agency, sooner rather than later

Time to panic? Pitcher edition, week 1

Should I panic? How can I even tackle this question right now? The breadth of pitchers who performed poorly so far is astonishing, so it’s understandable why you might want to not start the Philadelphia Phillies’ Cliff Lee in his next start or cut ties with Chicago White Sox closer Nate Jones all together. There are times you should panic, and there are times you should remain calm. I’m here to help you tell the difference.

Disclaimer: I get kind of annoyed when analysts waffle with guys, like, “well, I know he’s going to fall apart, but I’ll give him one more chance”. NO! You know he’s going to fall apart, but you’re giving yourself an out! I’m drawing a line in the sand, across this line YOU DO NOT — also, Dude, Chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature. … Wait, where was I? Anyway, I’m not letting myself off the hook. I am here to make the impulse decisions with (and maybe for) you, because sometimes, these impulse decisions make or break a season. Unfortunately, making them really early in the season is an absolutely horrifying experience.

Alex Cobb, SP (TB)
Dilemma: He was less than sharp, and although he gave up only five hits in five innings, he managed to walk more batters than he struck out (four to three). This is highly unlike Cobb, and that’s why I’m more inclined to think it was a case of first-start jitters rather than the beginning of a depressing trend.
Verdict: Don’t panic.

Homer Bailey, SP (CIN)
Dilemma: Lots of hits with as many walks as strikeouts. It was ugly, but he did face the Cardinals, which is no easy task. It’s hard to cut Bailey loose with how much you invested in him on draft day (outside of keeper leagues), but his breakout last year didn’t come out of nowhere, to which his second-half-of-2012 owners can attest. Unfortunately, he faces the Cardinals again in his next start. I’m not one to sit a guy early in the season, and I think it’s Bailey who will make adjustments the second time around, not the Cardinals.
Verdict: Don’t panic.

Stephen Strasburg, SP (WAS)
Dilemma: A 6.00 ERA?! Yeah, but 10 strikeouts in six innings and only a 1.167 WHIP. He got pretty unlucky, and that will happen from time to time. I would be more amped about the other batters he humiliated.
Verdict: Don’t panic.

CC Sabathia, SP (NYY)
Dilemma: Well, uh, he looked horrible. Against the Astros. It’s fine and dandy that he struck out a batter per innings and only walked one, but his fastball has become too hittable with that diminished velocity. I expect the trend to continue, and I think the solid strikeout total is the result of a free-swinging, hapless Astros offense. Remember, I said these are impulse decisions I’m making here. With a bevy of young pitching talent on waivers, I say…
Verdict: Panic.

C.J. Wilson, SP (LAA)
Dilemma: Kind of the same as Strasburg’s. High strikeouts and lots of hits sounds like an old wives’ tale about bad luck on balls in play that I’ve heard many a time. Wilson is not a second-tier starter anymore like he used to be, but he’s solid, and there’s no reason to fret.
Verdict: Don’t panic.

R.A. Dickey, SP (TOR)
Dilemma: Wow… Wow. Six walks. That hurts. I don’t know the first thing about throwing a knuckleball, and I’m sure if you have a bad day, it can be really be bad. But six walks? At least the strikeouts are there, but if your league is anything like any of mine, you probably got Dickey on the cheap. If I saw enticing performances by Seattle’s James Paxton or Toronto’s Drew Hutchison, I may cut ties, too. Surely no one else will touch him with a 10-foot pole until after his next start.
Verdict: Panic.

Corey Kluber, SP (CLE)
Dilemma: If you follow this website, you know how much I love Kluber, and how I preemptively purchased a five-year membership to the Society. Everything about the start is concerning, but I’m too proud to cut him loose. If you got him cheap, you can let him go and try your luck later. And I truly think he will break out; his peripherals were simply too good last year, and I don’t think you can fluke your way into talent like that. But perhaps I’m wrong…
Verdict: Don’t panic.

Cliff Lee, SP (PHI)
Dilemma: Wait, is this a serious question? Look, I know that sucked, but he’s freakin’ Cliff Lee. Calm down.
Verdict: Don’t panic.

Jonathan Papelbon, RP (PHI)
Dilemma: Dude, if you wanted to know what the end of the world would look like, this is it. Except in the form of a metaphor called Jonathan Papelbon.
Verdict: Panic.

Jim Johnson, RP (OAK)
Dilemma: I’ve expressed my distaste for Johnson before. He’s simply not good, and fantasy owners are blinded by two straight seasons of 50-plus saves. He would be lucky to save 35 this year without trouble; it looks like he may not get he chance to save 20 by the end of the week.
Verdict: Panic.

Nate Jones, RP (CHW)
Dilemma: The closer role was never a lock for him to keep. It looks like he agrees. Two hits, three walks and four earned runs without recording an out. Making Casper Wells look like a Cy Young candidate.
Verdict: Panic.

Panning for gold using spring stats, pitcher edition

Here’s the second installment of my breakdown of spring training stats. You can view the first one by scrolling down like four inches to the previous post. Here is a look at a variety of pitchers in no particular order.

James Shields, KC
Important stats: 14.2 IP, 18 K, 0 BB (0.61 ERA, 0.48 WHIP)
Why they’re important: Shields is firmly entrenched as a solid No. 2 fantasy starter, but he is off to as a hot a start as anyone right now, striking out 11.05 batters per nine innings and walking nobody. Not saying he’s worth bumping up in your rankings, but perhaps he’ll give you a little more than what you expected this year.

Max Scherzer, DET
Important stats: 14.1 IP, 16 K, 2 BB
Why they’re important: It would be unjust to exclude him. He’s having an excellent start, but he’s an excellent pitcher, so this is nothing extraordinary at this point.

Chris Tillman, BAL
Important stats: 12.2 IP, 14 K, 2 BB
Justin Masterson, CLE
Important stats: 13.0 IP, 14 K, 2 BB
Why they’re important: What’s the difference between them? Tillman has a 4.97 ERA and 1.26 WHIP while Masterson is sporting a 0.00 ERA and 0.62 WHIP. Meanwhile, their underlying stats are almost identical. This is where small sample sizes can really warp perspectives. Each guy is the victim and beneficiary of batting average on balls in play (BAbip), respectively. Only difference is Masterson is giving up fewer fly balls, making him less prone to home runs and hits.

Corey Kluber, CLE
Important stats: 14.1 IP, 15 K, 2 BB
Why they’re important: Maybe you’ve caught on to the trend again: I’m focusing on guys with excellent strikeout rates as well as strikeout-to-walk ratios (K/BB). Ignore the 5.02 ERA and 1.33 WHIP; Kluber’s BAbip is a sky-high .395 over this small sample size. He’s steal dealing. Also, he has the fifth-best ground ball rate of qualified spring training pitchers. I’ve read concerns about his home runs allowed last year. Can’t hit a home run on the ground, son. (Well, technically you can, but… shhhhhhh.)

Josh Johnson, SD
Important stats: 13.1 IP, 1.05 WHIP, 13 K, 4 BB
Why they’re important: For people hoping for a comeback, these ratios (8.78 K/9, 2.70 BB/9) are the makings of a solid starter. He’s not on my radar, but I acknowledge reasons why he could be on it (aside from the fact that he used to be one of the most dominant pitchers in all of baseball).

Alex Wood, ATL
Important stats: 14 IP, 0.00 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 12 K, 2 BB
Why they’re important: He had a 1.73 ERA and 0.99 WHIP in the minors with a 3.78 K/BB. He followed it up with an 8.9 K/9 in the majors, nearly identical to his minor-league rate. The Braves develop great pitchers (and they know when to deal them… looking at you, Tommy Hanson). Wood is the next in line.

There are pitchers having bad springs, too. Guess which statistic I’m primarily using to evaluate them?

Tony Cingrani, CIN
Important stats: 12.2 IP, 6.39 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 13 K, 6 BB
Why they’re important: I’m not as concerned with the ratios as I am the walks, which he’s handing out at a 5.68 walks-per-nine-innings (BB/9) clip. Strikeouts are still there, which is good, and, of course, it’s worth acknowledging the small sample size. Maybe he’s working off the offseason slumber. But I’m keeping my eye on his control.

Tim Hudson, SF
Important stats:
 13.1 IP, 1.58 WHIP, 9 BB
Why they’re important: Nothing matters here except for the lack of control. Cingrani’s walks are a bit disconcerting; Hudson’s walks (6.08 BB/9) is really worrisome, especially for an older pitcher coming back from a gruesome foot/ankle/leg injury. Perhaps it’s a bit early to predict the beginning of the end, but I’ll say it anyway: this could be the beginning of the end of Tim Hudson. It’s a shame, but it ultimately happens to everyone.

Matt Moore, TB
Important stats: 10.1 IP, 2.32 WHIP, 10 K, 11 BB
Why they’re important: He’ll always be loved for his strikeout propensity but his walk rate (9.58 BB/9) is most horrifying of all. I understand if you like him, but I will never draft him because of how he damages my WHIP — and a player with bad command is one bad-luck-BAbip away from having an absolutely miserable year.

Jose Quintana, CHW
Important stats: 6 IP, 30.00 ERA, 4.00 WHIP
Why they’re important: And the Worst/Most Humiliating Spring Training award goes to… Jose Quintana! Just look at it. It’s almost impossible how bad he’s been. But, in his defense, there’s a .586 BAbip at work here. And that, my friends, is why sample sizes this small should not be trusted. Some statistical anomalies are worth noting, but this one is simply outrageous. I am not changing my ranking of him based on this.

Other notable pitchers having bad springs, in terms of control: Zach McAllister, Dan Straily

Rookies/prospects having good springs: Yordano Ventura, KC (1.76 ERA, 0.72 WHIP, 15-to-1 K/BB ratio in 15.1 IP)… Drew Hutchison, TOR (2.79 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 16-to-1 K/BB ratio in 9.2 IP)…

Rookies/prospects having bad springs: Allen Webster, BOS, continually plagued by command issues (5.25 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 5.25 BB/9)… Archie Bradley, ARI, baseball’s No. 1 pitching prospect, also plagued by command issues, a problem he has had his entire professional career (4.32 ERA, 1.68 WHIP, 6.48 BB/9)… Trevor Bauer, CLE, allegedly on the comeback trail, but starting to doubt it (10.29 ERA, 2.43 WHIP, 6.43 BB/9)…

I said this verbatim in my last post: “Do your own research, form your own opinions.” It’s important to remember that these are incredibly small smaple sizes, meaning there’s a lot of volatility involved here. Still, some metrics can be very telling, and strikeout and walk rates can be much more indicative of future performance than ERA (or even WHIP, which can be jerked around by fluctuations in BAbip). Again, don’t put your eggs into one basket (where spring training stats is the basket in this analogy), but it’s worth remembering a name or two.

The role of luck in fantasy baseball

I apologize for being that guy that ruins that ooey gooey feeling you get when think about the fantasy league you won last year. As much as you want to think you are a fantasy master — perhaps even a fantasy god — you should acknowledge that you probably benefited from a good deal of luck. Sure, for your sake, I will admit you made a great pick with Max Scherzer in the fifth round. But did you, in all your mastery, predict he would win 21 games?

Don’t say yes. You didn’t. And frankly, you would be crazy to say he’ll do it again.

I focus primarily on pitching in this blog, and let it be known that pitchers are not exempt from luck in the realm of fantasy baseball. If you’re playing in a standard rotisserie league, you probably have a wins category. In a points league, you likely award points for wins.

Wins. Arguably the most arbitrary statistic in baseball. Let’s not have that discussion, though, and instead simply accept the win as it is. The win has the most drastic uncontrollable effect on a fantasy pitcher’s value. (ERA and WHIP experiences similar statistical fluctuations, but at least they aren’t arbitrary.)

I had an idea, but before I proceed, let me interject: if you’re drafting for wins, you’re doing it wrong. But, as I said, you can’t ignore wins.

But let’s say you did, and drafted strictly on talent, or “stuff” (which, here, factors in a pitcher’s durability). How would the top 30 pitchers change? Here’s my “stuff” list, which you can compare with the base projections:

  1. Clayton Kershaw
  2. Adam Wainwright
  3. Felix Hernandez
  4. Max Scherzer
  5. Cliff Lee
  6. Yu Darvish
  7. Chris Sale
  8. Cole Hamels
  9. Jose Fernandez
  10. Madison Bumgarner
  11. Stephen Strasburg
  12. David Price
  13. Justin Verlander
  14. Alex Cobb
  15. Homer Bailey
  16. Mat Latos
  17. Gerrit Cole
  18. Michael Wacha
  19. Anibal Sanchez
  20. James Shields
  21. Danny Salazar
  22. Marco Estrada
  23. A.J. Burnett
  24. Corey Kluber
  25. Brandon Beachy
  26. Zack Greinke
  27. Matt Cain
  28. Sonny Gray
  29. Hisashi Iwakuma
  30. Gio Gonzalez

Here are the five players with the biggest positive change and a breakdown of each:

  1. Brandon Beachy, up 23 spots
    His injury history has weakened his wins column projection. Consequently, the number of innings Beachy is expected to throw is significantly less than a full season. But if he managed to stay healthy for the full year (say, 200 innings)? He’s a top-1o pick based on pure stuff. If you draft with the philosophy that you can always find a viable replacement on waivers, Beachy could be your big sleeper.
  2. Marco Estrada, up 22 spots
    Estrada’s diminished expected wins is more a function of his terrible team than ability. Estrada has underperformed the past two years, Ricky Nolasco style, but if he can pull it together, he’s a top-30 pitcher based on “stuff.” And hey, maybe he can luck into some extra wins. However, if he can’t pull it together — Ricky Nolasco style — he’ll be relegated to fringe starter.
  3. Danny Salazar, up 9 spots
    Salazar has immense potential. His injury history led the Indians to cap his per-game pitch count last year, and that has been factored into his projection. But if he’s a full-time, 200-inning starter? He’s a top-25 starter with top-15 upside. Again, this is in terms of “stuff”. But is Ivan Nova better than Felix Hernandez because he can magically win more games? Of course not. Among a slew of young studs, including Jose Fernandez, Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha and so on, Salazar is a diamond in the rough.
  4. A.J. Burnett, up 8 spots
    His projection is already plenty good. But you saw how many games he won in 2013. Anything can happen.
  5. Corey Kluber, up 8 spots
    Most people were probably scratching their heads when they saw Kluber’s name listed above. Frankly, I’m in love with him, and it’s because he’s a stud with a great K/BB ratio. I understand why someone may be inclined to dismiss it as an aberration, but his swinging strike and contact rates are truly excellent. Even if they regress, he should be a draft-day target.

Here are the three starting pitchers with the biggest negative change.

  1. Anibal Sanchez, down 10 spots
    He’s great, but he also plays for a great team. Call it Max Scherzer syndrome. He carries as big a risk as any other player to pitch great but only win five or six games, as do the next two players.
  2. Hisashi Iwakuma, down 6 spots
  3. Zack Greinke, down 4 spots

Let me be clear that although I created a hypothetical scenario where wins didn’t exist, I don’t advocate for blindly drafting based on “stuff.” It’s important to acknowledge that certain players have a much better chance to win than others. Chris Sale of the Chicago White Sox could win 17 games just as easily as he could win seven. It’s about playing the odds — and unless a pitcher truly pitches terribly, don’t blame the so-called experts for your bad luck. He probably put his money where his mouth is, too, and is suffering along with you.

Here is a more comprehensive list of pitchers ranked by “stuff,” if that’s the way you sculpt your strategy:

  1. Clayton Kershaw
  2. Adam Wainwright
  3. Felix Hernandez
  4. Max Scherzer
  5. Cliff Lee
  6. Yu Darvish
  7. Chris Sale
  8. Cole Hamels
  9. Jose Fernandez
  10. Madison Bumgarner
  11. Stephen Strasburg
  12. David Price
  13. Justin Verlander
  14. Alex Cobb
  15. Homer Bailey
  16. Mat Latos
  17. Gerrit Cole
  18. Michael Wacha
  19. Anibal Sanchez
  20. James Shields
  21. Danny Salazar
  22. Marco Estrada
  23. A.J. Burnett
  24. Corey Kluber
  25. Brandon Beachy
  26. Zack Greinke
  27. Matt Cain
  28. Sonny Gray
  29. Hisashi Iwakuma
  30. Gio Gonzalez
  31. Doug Fister
  32. Jordan Zimmermann
  33. Alex Wood
  34. Kris Medlen
  35. Jeff Samardzija
  36. Mike Minor
  37. Jake Peavy
  38. Kevin Gausman
  39. Tyson Ross
  40. Patrick Corbin
  41. Lance Lynn
  42. Francisco Liriano
  43. Andrew Cashner
  44. Ricky Nolasco
  45. CC Sabathia
  46. Hiroki Kuroda
  47. Tim Lincecum
  48. Tim Hudson
  49. Jered Weaver
  50. Shelby Miller
  51. Clay Buchholz
  52. Tony Cingrani
  53. Matt Garza
  54. John Lackey
  55. Ubaldo Jimenez
  56. Justin Masterson
  57. Julio Teheran
  58. R.A. Dickey
  59. A.J. Griffin
  60. Hyun-Jin Ryu
  61. Dan Haren
  62. Johnny Cueto
  63. C.J. Wilson
  64. Ian Kennedy
  65. Chris Archer
  66. Kyle Lohse
  67. Scott Kazmir
  68. Carlos Martinez
  69. Jon Lester
  70. Ervin Santana
  71. Jose Quintana
  72. Derek Holland
  73. Garrett Richards
  74. Dan Straily
  75. Tyler Skaggs

Bold Prediction #1: Tyson Ross will be a top-45 starter

Update, 3/18/14: Word on the street is Tyson Ross’ innings will be capped this year. I have amended my prediction accordingly.

Here’s the deal. I know most people outside of San Diego don’t know who Padres pitcher Tyson Ross is. Thus, it would be a bold enough prediction for me to say he’ll be a top-60 starter. Truthfully, I think he’ll be a top-30 starter. So, for the sake of splitting the difference, I did exactly that.

BOLD PREDICTIONS FOR 2014, #1: Tyson Ross will be a top-45 starting pitcher.*
*At the moment he is shut down for the season.

Ross, 27, debuted with the Athletics four years ago and has never once been fantasy relevant. Ross got stiffed in the wins category in 2013, going 3-8 through 16 starts for the mediocre-but-not-terrible San Diego Padres despite posting a 3.17 ERA and 1.15 WHIP. Many failed to notice so, again, he was hardly fantasy relevant. But that’s only according to the masses. In the case of Ross, the masses were wrong.

For starters, his 2013 ERA and WHIP would be 100-percent helpful in the context of any league, and his peripherals indicate his performance was legitimate. The BAbip may regress a bit, but the home runs allowed and runners stranded are about league average.

For Ross, though, his most important statistic is his strikeout rate: 119 K’s in 125 innings (8.6 K/9). Admittedly, it’s nothing to phone home about. Of pitchers with at least 100 innings, Ross ranks 25th on a strikeout-per-inning basis. However, Ross allowed the seventh-lowest contact rate and recorded the ninth-best percentage of swinging strikes of the lot. Contact rates and swinging strikes are (very) highly correlated with total strikeouts, and understandably so.

Thus, Ross’ strikeouts were not a fluke — at least, they weren’t in 2013 — despite recording a meager 5.7 K/9 through 70-plus innings in 2012. What gives?

The slider gives. Ross’ was the third-most valuable of all sliders thrown as measured by FanGraphs’ pitch value metric “wSL,” or “slider runs above average.” Only Yu Darvish and Francisco Liriano extracted more value from their sliders throughout the year than Ross. (I wrote about Justin Masterson’s slider a while back — it was fourth-most effective.) Even on a weighted basis, Ross threw the third-best slider per 100 pitches, behind only Randall Delgado‘s (which benefits from a small sample size) and Jose Fernandez‘s famous wipeout pitch. Moreover, Ross’ relied more heavily on his slider this year than in any other, throwing it in one-third of all pitches, up about five percent from his career frequency.

Something must have clicked for Ross, because his slider humiliated batters in 2013. Although it does happen occasionally, I have no reason to expect Ross will suddenly lose his touch. If he can come close to repeating his 2013 performance, his 2014 will look a lot like Patrick Corbin‘s 2013, but with a better strikeout rate. Corbin finished 2013 as the No. 23 starting pitcher. That’s upside on which I’m willing to gamble.

So there you have it, folks. This segment will recur throughout the offseason and will culminate before Opening Day, so stay tuned for more bold predictions!