Monday, April 28, 2008

Evaluating pitchers: My checklist

Guys like Aaron Cook, Cliff Lee, Zack Greinke, and Brian Bannister come along every year. They overperform expectations by an order of magnitude, are quickly snatched off the waiver wire, and, if they have a track record of mediocrity, they typically return to it when their owners realize that lightning in a bottle doesn't tend to last an entire season.

Here's the checklist I go through when evaluating SPs with whom I not overly familiar.

1.) Rotation spot: It's fun to pick up the latest commodity, but it's not a lot of fun when they get sent down. Using waiver selections, particularly if you're in the first or second position, on players you know won't be in the majors for long is not a very good idea. Before adding a player, I always check to see if there's some reason why he won't be on the roster for a while. Almost always, there isn't, but it happens.

2.) K-rate: It all starts with K-rate. I ignore everything else until I check the K-rate. If a guy isn't somewhere close to a strikeout per inning (particularly if he's a reliever), it's a gigantic mark against him. I wouldn't say it's a death knell, but a starter with a bad K-rate is hurting you in one category even if he's helping in three others. With so many starting pitchers available, I owe it to myself to find four category contributors.

Additionally, mounds upon mounds of research has indicated that K-rate is one of the best, if not the best, easily understandable indicators of sustained pitching success. There are a few freaks out there who get by on guile, but power pitchers are the much better bet. If an SP isn't striking anyone out but has great ratios and a ton of wins, I'm going to believe he's getting lucky. And, normally, I'm right.

3.) WHIP: This gives me a good, rough approximation as to whether a guy is walking too many people. Unless he's a strikeout machine, a WHIP over 1.30 scares me. If a guy is winning games and has a low ERA with a 1.40 WHIP, he better be striking out well over a batter an inning or his ERA is going to rise and the losses pile up in a hurry.

4.) BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play): I don't overthink BABIP. With small sample sizes (for example, six starts in April) you can see gigantic fluctuations. I am basically looking for one thing: a ridiculously, unsustainably low number. If a guy has a sub-.200 BABIP and a bad K-rate, I know he's getting lucky. It has been conclusively proven (trust me) that very, very, very few pitchers are able to sustain lower than average BABIP levels throughout their career. Unless you have an elite sinkerballer, BABIP numbers are eventually going to normalize. And if a guy isn't striking out batters, those line-outs are going to eventually stop being hit directly at outfielders and those groundballs are going to find holes.

5.) ERA: Do not ever, ever, ever make ERA your main criteria for selecting pitchers. Ever. It's dependent upon too many other factors that are outside the pitcher's control: bullpen efficacy, team defense, and luck. Only after checking out everything else do I look at ERA. If the first four criteria look good and the ERA is above 3.75, I typically think I'm looking at an undervalued bargain.

6.) Career history: If a guy has only a minor-league track record to look at, I basically need to be completely awed by his minor-league numbers to think he's worthy of a roster selection in shallow mixed leagues. Guys with awesome minor league numbers who will probably see significant time this year include: Johnny Cueto, Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, David Price, Gio Gonzalez, and, right at the cusp, Jonathan Sanchez (S.F.). Unless I'm in a deep keeper league that allows me access to minor league rosters (and I don't play those types of leagues), I'm really only interested in players who might see more than two months of action.

If you go down this list and guys aren't satisfying you each step of the way, you've got to ask yourself whether you're making an informed decision or just rolling the dice. Unlike "games played," you can typically make up innings later when guys come off the DL or are inexplicably cut by impatient owners. Those earned runs and awful WHIP performances, however, are on the books for good.

These are the potentially free-agents-in-your-league SPs I currently consider good speculation pick-ups IF you need an SP ): Jonathan Sanchez (I'd only start him at home and on the road at Petco for the next month), Max Scherzer, Edinson Volquez (probably not a free agent, but you never know), Scott Baker (K-rate is a bit low for me, but everything else looks great ... except his division), and the hopefully soon to return Bartolo Colon.

As you can probably imagine, I don't find myself fishing around the waiver wire for unproven SPs rather often.


calibob02 said...

So, who is sitting on waiver wires this year who might be worth taking a chance on?

Mike Bock said...

Well, of the fellow I mentioned in my last paragraph, I'd say Jonathan Sanchez, Max Scherzer, and Scott Baker are probably the only ones available in many (if not most) leagues.