Pitcher preview time here at Fantasy Assembly and I could not be giddier! In the words of Homer Simpson, “woo-hoo”. Love me some pitching previewing, projecting, prognosticating and alliteration. The thing about pitching is there are a lot of things that are out of your control as said pitcher. Park factors and the defense behind a pitcher are usually the most notable uncontrollables (Yes, I do know uncontrollables is not an actual word…yet) that can affect a pitcher’s numbers. This is one of the main reasons that ERA can be, much of the time, deceiving and, ultimately, not necessarily the best way to judge a pitcher. Luckily, we now have plenty of Fielding Independent Pitching numbers (FIP, xFIP, BABIP, SIERA, etc.) to help us decide the validity of a pitcher’s ERA. It’s best to not necessarily get bogged down with any one of these stats, but rather look at all, or at least several, of these stats to get a much broader picture of what pitchers are actually doing. One stat that can especially be a bit overused when predicting a pitcher’s future stat lines is BABIP. But here is where those wily Pittsburgh Pirates come into play.
If you are unaware, the Pirates have employed more defensive shifts than any other National League team over the past couple of seasons. “Wait, wait, wait! Hold the phone, Will, I thought we were talking about BABIP, not defensive shifts?” Well, you’re right, but also wrong. Intrigued? You’re flingin’ flammin’ right you are! The thing about BABIP is that ground balls tend to have the highest affect on how much it fluctuates. What I am saying here is when we talk about a lucky or unlucky BABIP; grounders are most often the reason. That doesn’t mean fly balls and liners are not in the equations, but seeing-eye singles and the like are generally grounders that somehow find a hole in the infield. This brings us back to the Pirates and their high number of shifts. The majority of infield shifts are done to prevent balls from getting through the infield (yeah, I know, obviously). Outfielders do shift as well, but usually not as drastically, so for our purposes we are staying in the infield.
In 2014, the Pirates pitchers had the 10th lowest BABIP at .290, while also sporting the highest ground ball rate of any team at just over 50% or 3% above the next best team. First thing to be aware of here is that keeping the ball on the ground is generally good for pitchers. I know, strikeouts and grounders are certainly what I look for in my pitchers. So, in 2014, just over half of balls put into play against the Buc’s were on the ground. Now, to backtrack a bit here, while grounders are certainly good, remember that they have a better chance of becoming a “lucky” hit. The chance of them becoming extra-base hits, though? Well, that’s not as high, so, yeah; grounders are still the more desired batted ball outcome, despite the potential “lucky” hit. Alright, so that we are on the same page – grounders are good and the Pirates pitchers create a lot of them. Given those facts we can now draw some conclusions regarding the success of the Pirates shifts.
Basically we are going to do some educated hypothesizing now. BABIP can be a flawed stat (not as much as batting average, am I right?) but given that the Pirates pitchers gave up the highest percentage of ground balls and had an above average BABIP, we can hypothesize, educated-like, that their infield defense was doing something right. Obviously without watching each and every shift and the outcomes, we can only guess, but most likely this can be attributed to good defense and, more likely, to some timely well placed defensive shifts. Every team uses shifts, but the Pirates are one of the few who seem to really just get it. Some teams may go about this haphazardly, just stacking up one side of the infield when a pull hitter is up, but not giving it too much thought. The Pirates though, they do it with a Billy Haywood-esque savvy and joie de vivre. This can only help Pirates pitchers, if they can keep the ball on the ground and judging by last year’s numbers, they did just that. Now, the Pirates continued shrewdness aligning their defense could create a couple of sleepers at the starting pitcher.
Actually, first let’s start with a pitcher who is no longer on the Pirates. Why? Well, because it will show how the Pirates can aid a good ground ball pitcher. Did you know that Edison Volquez finished as a top 50 starting pitcher in 2014? I know, I sure didn’t, at least not until moments before writing this. Yep, according to Yahoo!’s final 2014 rankings, Volquez was the #41 starting pitcher in fantasy baseball last season. Volquez had a ground ball rate of 50.4% and a .263 BABIP. That is a fairly low BABIP. In fact, that was second lowest BABIP in a season for Volquez and the only other time he had a lower one, was when he only threw 50 innings back in 2009. A lot of things can come into play when it comes to BABIP, but I like to think that the Buc’s defense and shifts helped suppress that number leading to his 3.04 ERA. Volquez’s xFIP, FIP and SIERA were all over four, so leaving Pittsburgh may not bode well for Volquez or his chances of landing in the top 50 of starting pitchers. I say “may” because Volquez went to Kansas City where the Royals were, arguably, one of the best defensive teams in 2014. I think a regression is coming for Volquez, but I also still think he will still outperform his FIP data in 2015 and he may be a regular in Field of Streams.
While the Pirates lost Volquez, they added A.J. Burnett. Returning to the Pirates is a smart move for both the Pirates and for Burnett. I’m not going to sugar coat it folks, Burnett’s 2014 was not good. His previous two seasons in Pittsburgh though, quite good. I mean, he wasn’t a Cy Young contender or anything, but he pitched darned well. There are a few factors that could have contributed to the statistical eye sore that was Burnett’s 2014 pitching line. First off, Burnett pitched home games in Philly, which is generally not friendly to pitchers. Secondly, not only do the Phillies have a terrible home park for pitching, but they also had one of the worst defenses in the league, which wouldn’t aid Burnett’s 50% ground ball rate, much. The third factor was that Burnett was pitching through injury. Of course, there is also the fact that Burnett was 37. Suffice it to say, there was good reason for Burnett to struggle in 2014. Some people might also point to the fact that he was fairly bad prior to going to Pittsburgh, but that doesn’t help the case. The common thread with his only two seasons of fantasy goodness in the last seven seasons – is Pittsburgh.
Burnett is 38, so I can understand perhaps not buying into him returning to a sub-3.50 ERA, but I think somewhere around 3.75 is attainable. The only reasons the age is a bit of concern for me is the injury factor and the drop in velocity, but the bottom line is Burnett knows how to pitch in Pittsburgh; Plain and simple. In his previous two seasons in the ‘Burgh, Burnett posted ground ball rates of 56.9% and 56.5%, respectively. That number dropped to 50%, but even 50% will play in Pittsburgh with all those defensive shifts. Burnett has experienced a slight drop in velocity but still posted 8.00 K/9. Even if that drops, it will not be too significant. Plus the Pirates in general should be good, so he can get you some wins. I think 12-15 wins is within reach with a 3.70 ERA, a 1.27 WHIP and a 7.8-7.9 K/9. Those numbers are money for a guy with a current ADP in the 23rd round.
Burnett may be the best value out of Pittsburgh, but a close second in that category might be his rotation mate, Francisco Liriano. It is very easy to lose Liriano in the proverbial shuffle, but he has put up back-to-back seasons of fantasy goodness in Pittsburgh. Over those two seasons, Liriano posted a 3.20 ERA, a 1.26 WHIP and a K/9 of 9.40. 9.40 K/9?! That is not a typo, folks. Unlike Volquez, though, the advanced numbers point to those being somewhat sustainable numbers. One of the bigger drawbacks that drive down Liriano’s value is the fact he has not pitched over 162.1 innings in either of those seasons. For roto leagues though, that K/9 still leaves you with a good amount of Ks, right? Liriano strikes guys out and gets a lot of ground balls (pause for swooning) and with all these Pirate shifts, that combo is almost as good as the pizza-pretzel ones. Like Burnett, Liriano knows how to pitch in Pittsburgh and the Pirates know how to shift to their pitchers strengths. I’m telling you, you can get double-digit wins, good Ks and an ERA in the mid threes from a guy currently being taken, on average, in the 16th round.
I don’t think many people are reaching to grab any of the above three pitchers, but I am certainly keeping them on my radar. The good news about all of this though is that if you want ’em, it doesn’t look like you’ll have to do any reaching. Now, while I only talked about a couple of Pirates pitchers here, keep all of this in mind when streaming, as the Pirates have a treasure chest of streaming options at the back-end of the rotation as well.