Sunday, February 24, 2008

Draft Guide: Starting Pitchers

There is no more frustrating, exacting, and thankless fantasy baseball task than evaluating starting pitching. You can put in tons of work, examine flyball/groundball ratios, park effect, strikeout rates, and ERAs adjusted for defensive foibles, but one twinged ligament and Chris Carpenter, your second round 2007 pick, just imploded your entire staff.

Only 10 starting pitchers were ranked in the top 50 in Yahoo standard 5x5 leagues. Only one was within the top twenty -- Jake Peavy, who you should never forget has two mediocre years on his resume, one of them in 2006. Keep this dearth of pitchers in the top 50 list in mind when you're deciding how many premium selections to spend on starters. Offensive players tend to be more durable, more dependable, and you need a heck of a lot more of them. Assuming your league has a rational maximum number of innings, say between 1300 and 1600 for a 25-man roster, you're really only going to want somewhere between five to seven starters over the course of a year. Contrast this with the likely nine to thirteen starting position players, and backups, you're going to need.

Then again, bad starting pitching can hurt you a lot more than an ineffective outfielder you took a flier on in round twenty. I'll give you an example. My second year of fantasy baseball, I started Roger Clemens, Chris Carpenter, and someone I can't remember on opening day. Each gave up ten or more runs. Even worse, Clemens took a grounder off his hand and missed a few weeks. It was a month before my ERA and WHIP recovered. Juan Pierre, no matter how god awful his power numbers are, isn't going to subtract home runs from your total. You need to minimize risk without spending high draft picks. That's a tall order. Even worse, with an innings cap, you have a small pool of players who you are counting on for a disproportionate percentage of four categories (obviously, not saves).

So, what's the upshot to all of this? If you're going to draft starting pitcher early, say in the first three rounds, there must be no documented problems with the pitcher you're selecting. Even then, I'd advise against it, unless someone slides a tad too far. Remember those years when Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson looked like sure things and then got hurt? Yeah, that can happen at any time, to any pitcher.

In the mid to late rounds, you're looking for bargains. One-K-per-inning SPs who got unlucky in the "wins" category. WHIPs that look unusually low for the ERA (if you see a 1.2 WHIP and a 4+ ERA, that pitcher probably was really unlucky). Avoid pitchers who eat innings without contributing a good K-rate and ERA/WHIP numbers. Guys like Jon Garland are great for real life teams, but he's an innings eater with mediocre ratios who doesn't strike anyone out.

Also, know when to cut bait. Every year there are 10 to 15 undrafted SPs who outperform players that went in the first six or seven rounds. Every. Year. You want those guys, and if you're spending high and mid level draft picks on underperformers, you won't have the roster flexibility to grab them. There's a hidden benefit to drafting Johan Santana. You don't need or want another fucking SP until round nine or ten. Keep that in mind.

Know what to ignore. Ignore wins. Wins are a function of how many runs a team scores for a pitcher. The greatest pitcher of all time could lose every game. Get players with good ratios, close to a K-per-inning strikeout rate, and hope that the wins come your way. You can't predict wins. Don't try. If all things are equal, get the player on the better team, but all things are almost never equal.

Unlike every other draft guide, we're going with tiers consisting of three rounds, rather than four. There just isn't enough differentiation in the mid rounds to make our usual format workable. Keep in mind that with five SPs per MLB team, we're leaving quite a few guys off our list. Below are the fellows you want to target and the players who are overhyped and should be slid down your board.

Tier One (Rounds 1-3)

We've already offered you an extensive article as to why Johan Santana is a better bet than Jake Peavy. To summarize: Peavy has two bad years on his resume, Santana has a far superior career WHIP and marginally better K and ERA rates, and Santana is removing himself from the loaded AL Central in favor of the more pitcher friendly NL East.

It's not as though Peavy's a slug. With 240 Ks to Santana's 235 (219 to 223.1 innings, respectively), they're both well above the K-per-inning mark of excellence. Santana is probably a mid first round pick at this point. If the three big shortstops -- and A-Rod, David Wright, and Chase Utley -- are off the board, I'd be very tempted to go with Santana and hope that a big bopper 1B makes it back to me in round two. Peavy is definitely a late second round pick: just write down his 2006 statistics on a piece of paper and glue that to your computer screen if you are tempted to grab him any earlier than that.

Tier Two (Rounds 4-7)

Brandon Webb's inning and pitch count is a bit of a worry. I'd wait till round four or, even better, five. Guys that throw 200+ innings or 3500+ pitches a year or two in a row tend to break down. He does, however, play in the NL and has been remarkably consistent. His near 200 Ks isn't so great when you figure he pitchers 240+ inning. This is a guy you're selecting due to track record, not potential. What does that mean? He won't be sliding to you later than he should. If a pitcher manages to maintain a 200+ innings rate into his late twenties or early thirties, I start to worry less about his breaking down to overuse (although any pitcher can always break down, this fear eases a little after they've established their ligaments are made of iron).

Erik Bedard's seemingly never-ending trade to Seattle is finally done. He'd be a strong number three, and a likely early third round pick, if he hadn't gotten dinged up late last year. A 2.73 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, and 158/192 innings to strikeout split are all phenomenal. Assuming he stays healthy, someone is getting a steal in the fourth or fifth round. Remember that his 2007 injury wasn't to his pitching arm.

Cole Hamels has only two years on his resume, but they're pretty darned good years. He shaved his ERA and WHIP down considerably to 3.39 and 1.12 (stellar). He's averaging about a strikeout an inning over the last two years. He plays in the NL, and there's no real injury blips on the horizon -- as opposed to his injury history. He also hasn't been worked to death. I'm seeing this as his career year. He doesn't have the pedigree of the three guys in front of him, but he probably will soon. He's been pestered by the injury bug, but there's an upside: his innings have been limited. He looked great going down the stretch in 2007, and that has me convinced that he's primed for another jump in innings and performance this season.

C.C. Sabathia is in a contract year, he's fat but healthy, and he's consistently very good (but not Santana-esque). He should be gone in round four or five.

Josh Beckett plays in the AL East. That's my first problem with him. He has exactly one year I'd consider great (2007). That's another problem. He had a shitty 2006. That's strike three. His lifetime ratios aren't all that impressive, and he plays in Fenway rather than Petco. I've seen him as high as number three on draft charts. You can't count on twenty wins again, and there's nothing else on paper justifying that high of a price. Let someone else take him.

John Lackey has been up around 3500 pitches a year for a while now. He's been above, or right around, 200 innings for five straight years. His ratios have been going in the right direction and his Ks dropping for three straight years. Hmmm, I don't like the innings or pitch count. He'll be gone probably in round five, but I wouldn't take him before mid round six.

Justin Verlander came out of nowhere to throw a fuckload of innings in his mid 20s. I thought he'd break down last year. Now I think he'll break down this year. If you want to roll the dice, think round six.

Aaron Harang is another guy whose hype seems somewhat inexplicable. Lifetime ERA above 4.0, and he's never been below 3.73 in a season. His K rate in the last few years is near one an inning, which is good, but he also throws a shitload of pitches/innings every year. I'd stay away, but he'll be gone by round six.

Chris Young: Now you're talking my language. Petco, plus a reasonable number of innings pitched (hovering around 170 innings the last few years), and four years of sinking ERA and WHIP numbers (now 3.12 and 1.10), are all big plusses. I list him down here because this is where he's likely to go, but I actually think he's got a decent chance to be a top five starter at the end of the year.

Scott Kazmir was traded for Victor Zambrano. And the Mets threw in a minor league. Chew on that for a few minutes. A 1.38 WHIP gives me pause. Over 200 innings in his early 20s makes me blink. Awesome K rate, but can you count on him to stay healthy? Not with earlier than a seventh round pick, you can't (but he'll go much higher).

John Smoltz wants the Hall of Fame so bad, you can count on him to keep pitching even if he has to staple his elbow together. I've given up predicting when he'll break down. Assume he's worthy of a sixth or seventh round pick.

I inexplicably left Dan Haren out of the original version of this post, but you can read about him here.

Tier Three (Rounds 8-11)

Félix Hernández started last year on an absolute tear. Then he got hurt, and never really regained his stride. I think he puts it together this year. You'll be getting fifth round value in round 8 or 9.

Tim Lincecum just might be my starting pitcher sleeper of the year. He plays for the shit-hideous SF Giants, so you can't count on wins, but his K rate is stellar and his ERA and WHIP belie how lights out he can be. Take away three or four of the hideous games he had early last year, and that's a 3.5 ERA and 1.2 WHIP. Don't let him slide past round nine, or so.

Roy Oswalt came out today and said he wants to try his knuckleball again. His K rate has gone down each of the last three years, his WHIP rose precipitously to 1.33, and perhaps even worse: he's thrown way too many innings for me to trust a pitcher with his frame. He has a Tim Hudston-style physical breakdown written all over him. Avoid any earlier than round 10 or 11.

Roy Halladay's main problem is that he brutalizes your K rate. When a pitcher has 130 Ks in 225+ innings it's a major problem. He's actually hurting you in one of your pitching categories. In a 4x4 league, he's a fifth round pick. Here, probably tenth or eleventh.

Javier Vázquez is another giant sleeper coming into this year. Nearly a K an innings, 3.7ish ERA, and a 1.14 WHIP ... that ERA is probably coming down next year. He has no injury problems on the horizon either. He's still in his early thirties, and before he was traded to New York he was a premier SP. I'm thinking he gets back there this year. An absolute steal in round ten or eleven. I'd rather have him than Carlos Zambrano, who's had declining stats every year for a while now, and looks like a Dusty Baker-engineered collapse ready to happen.

Tier Four (Rounds 12-15)

James Shields is a bit of a puzzle. He was fairly unheralded, and he showed such tremendous improvement across the board he caught most owners off guard. Consider him a sleeper, and target him for round 12. Considering his K rate and WHIP numbers, he may end up anchoring your staff (if he can keep it up).

Brett Myers gets way too much love. Sure, his Kyle Kendrick shenanigans are funny as all hell, but he's bounced around between starting and relieving, and he threw only about seventy innings last year. I can't believe how high I've seen him in draft guides. Stay away unless you're just taking a flier on him.

Fausto Carmona has the same problem as Roy Halladay. Avoid.

Ben Sheets: Do you really want to touch this guy? How many owners has he burned? He'll go in these rounds, but he needs to be a speculation pick. Don't count on him as anything more than a fourth or fifth starter.

Daisuke Matsuzaka plays in the wrong division/stadium, but you gotta love the roughly 200 Ks in 200 innings. I'd say he's a great sleeper. No injury problems on the horizon either.

Pedro Martínez was basically the only Met who didn't explode into fiery chunks at the end of 2007. More than a K an inning is nice ... that WHIP and those walks aren't. I think he has one serviceable year left. Grab him.

Others of Note

These are guys whose projected/draft guide values are either ridiculously high, or ridiculously low, in 5x5 mixed league drafts.

Kelvim Escobar is out for months. Some auto-drafter or owner who didn't do his homework will take him early. Don't let it be you.

Matt Cain had only seven wins, mostly because he plays for a truly shitty team (perhaps the worst in the majors, at this point). You need to capitalize on that. Assume the ball bounces the other way and he doubles that win total: He has solid numbers across the board. This is how you build a good staff on the cheap.

Brad Penny may be sleeping with Alyssa Milano, but ... uh ... actually, I've got nothing. There is no comeback to that. Bravo, Brad. Bravo. He doesn't strike out enough guys, typically falls apart after the All-Star break, and last year looked liked a career year.

A.J. Burnett has actually come full circle for me. His stock is now so low due to constant injuries, he's actually become a sleeper. Good ratios, over a K an inning ... just don't count on more than 150 IP.

Francisco Liriano will probably be forgotten on draft day, except for someone who will come out of nowhere and draft him in round 8. It takes a while to recover from Tommy John surgery. If you're set just about everywhere, give it a shot, but I wouldn't stake your draft on him.

Rich Hill: Great, great value pick. He's like Chris Young light. You'll be able to pick him up on the cheap in round seventeen, and get round nine production out of him. Probably.

Jered Weaver walks too many guys and appears to be breaking down physically. Don't buy into the hype.

Ted Lilly gets no love. Good K rate, solid WHIP, excellent value.

Ian Snell's WHIP numbers scare me, but another good value pick.

Jeremy Bonderman seems like he's been on the cusp of putting it together for years now. I don't like his delivery. There's too many moving parts, and he always seems to get out of whack for innings or games at a time.

Chien-Ming Wang has the same problem as Roy Halladay and Fausto Carmona, above. Except more so. He's borderline undraftable in 5x5 leagues.

Clay Buchholz
threw a no-hitter this year. That won't happen again. He's a late round flier.

Oliver Pérez is the second biggest sleeper I have on my SP board, and a top five sleeper overall. He's a free agent next year, has one insanely awesome and one very good year (last year) on his resume, and he pitches in the NL. I had him in every league last year, and I'll probably have him in every league this year.

Dontrelle Willis was run into the ground by the Marlins at too young of an age. He's done.

Curt Schilling
is super done.

Randy Johnson wants those 300 wins. I'd take a flier on him late.

Chad Billingsley is a bit of a sleeper, but he walks too many guys. I'd rather have him in round 20 than Penny in round 12, though.



Anonymous said...

What do you think of Haren? Is he in tier two? Are you nervous about his high innings?

Mike Bock said...

My paragraph on Haren has mysteriously vanished. I shall remedy the situation with an article on him.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the update. I kind of figured you would be down on Haren. I'm in a tough spot in my 14-team keeper league (4 keepers, not tied to draft picks or anything fancy). I have Reyes, Rios and Markakis slotted and have to choose from among Haren, Kazmir, C Young, C Hart or Adrien Gonzalez for the last. (Traded away Big Papi last season down the stretch to win the league). Not sure what to do.

Mike Bock said...

I don't know if this is a dynasty league, but if you're playing past '08 I'd keep Chris Young or Kazmir, if you're set on keeping a pitcher.

Anonymous said...

Yeah -- dynasty. And you're right, I need to look past this season. Winning last year after 8 seasons in the league just tasted so good, and it's skewing my focus a bit.

Not hell-bent on keeping a pitcher. Especially because I think one of them will still be available when I pick at 14. I just wonder whether A Gonzalez has reached his Petco peak and whether C Hart can really improve on last season.

My other option is J Papelbon. I've always been one of those never-invest-in-a-closer guys, so I haven't given it much consideration, though.

Love reading your site.

Bob Taylor said...

My vote goes for Chris Young. He gets better each year. (If only he could notch some wins!)

waters96 said...

I just found your website. It has fantastic info and I love the writing style. I'm hooked. Great work, guys!!!!!

Steve said...

Hey Mike - love your work. Two weeks on from this post do you still feel Johan is a potential mid first-rounder?
Also - and I know you guys are not big H2H fans - but do you think he has the same value as he does in roto (esp in a league where its possible to stream like crazy)?

Mike Bock said...

I'm still thinking mid to late first round on Santana in most league formats.

Steve said...

Hey Mike - thanks for the reply. I've decided to follow Patrick from Fantasy baseball Generals' strategy of drafting only closers and MRs, but I agree with your view. I could have had him with the 11th pick, but the way.

Anonymous said...

Where is Zambrano?

Mike Bock said...

He didn't warrant his own paragraph. He's lumped in with Vazquez.