Good morning, good afternoon, or good evening– whichever is applicable to you. Have you ever been out with your significant other and been caught with a wandering eye? I’ve fell victim to this a time or two and have worn the five-fingered outline proudly upon my face. I find no fault in admiring one’s work– after all, the skill set jumps off the page: nice skin tone, glimmering hair, all the right parts with perfect placement. While these individuals may possess the appearance of perfection, the surface fails to tell us the entire story. The Starting Pitcher landscape is very similar. You begin your preseason prep work and most go straight for the 2015 stats. Everything you need to know is right there, isn’t it? You don’t marry (or at least the majority does not) the smoke show you run across in the produce aisle without finding out a little more, nor should you draft your starting pitchers based on surface stats.
When evaluating pitchers I tend to ignore the surface stats to a large degree. By looking at them it’s inevitable, at least for me, that bias will form. I focus on pitching skill sets from the inside out with a little system I call GAWK.
- Ground ball%, or GB%. While a higher GB rate tends to lead to a higher BABIP, I’ll take the decreased HR rate any day. Obviously a higher GB% also increases the chances of a pitcher’s best friend, the double play.
- in Association with…..
- W or BB/9. Control is important. It’s hard going up and down MLB lineups without damage being done at some point. I’d prefer an option that tends not the feed the fire himself.
- K or K/9. First and foremost it’s a stat; secondly, little hurt can be done when the opposition fails to make contact.
While a pitcher’s skill set remains consistent, it’s not a given his baseball card numbers will. While it’s easy to say good pitcher/bad pitcher on a good team/bad team will win X amount of games, the truth is we’re clueless. Too many factors come into play to make it a worthwhile endeavor. ERA is also effected as much by “luck” stats than actual skill sets. How many times have you seen a pitcher with a high than average ERA and a low WHIP? In reality those numbers don’t sync up. Dig a little deeper you’re likely to see an inflated BABIP, HR/9, or a low LOB% among other things. By evaluating from the inside out you are combating many of the factors that play into “luck” head on.
In 2015 the league average for SP K/9 was 7.40, BB/9 was 2.72, and GB% was 45.2. I use these numbers to establish what is above average for each skill set. To be above average in all three phases is hard to do. Last season 21 pitchers achieved the feat using 50 IP min as the threshold. Needless to say, it’s somewhat difficult assembling an entire staff of said options. I tend to focus on it more as a deciding factor when comparing a group of comparable pitchers. In addition I’ve found this to be a useful tool when rounding out a pitching staff, by identifying targets that appear to be on the cusp of putting it all together.
Top Tier Starters Where I’m GAWKing Elsewhere
Max Scherzer – The K potential is off the charts and the control is impeccable. I like Scherzer as a Top 5 starter for me. Problem is he’s typically the 2nd arm off the board this year, and the 36% GB rate could lead to some danger. To put it in perspective: during Jake Arrieta’s historical second half his WHIP was .74 and his ERA .75. During Scherzer’s amazing 1st half his WHIP was .78 while his ERA 2.11. Jake Arrieta had a 56.2% GB rate with a HR/9 during that 2nd half of .17. Scherzer posted a HR/9 of .68 during the 1st half. Similar WHIP, but GB% and HR/9 made the difference in ERA. Scherzer seemed to struggle in the 2nd half, posting an ERA of 3.72. While he wasn’t the Scherzer you’d come to expect, his 1.10 WHIP didn’t jive with the ugly ERA mark. Once again those pesky home runs played a factor, as his HR/9 was 1.58 over the 2nd half. Fortunately for Scherzer he posted the lowest BB/9 mark of his career.
Johnny Cueto – Given Cueto’s struggles down the stretch, I’m shocked to see his SP ADP of 21. While the move back to the NL and to the best pitchers’ park in baseball should help, the underlying numbers don’t wow me. Cueto’s K/9 of 7.47 just bests the league average. Without looking I felt a bounce back in this area seemed reasonable, yet outside of his 2014 season Cueto’s never been a big source of K’s. Honestly Cueto has a Matt Cain feel to him, as a guy whose ERA has vastly outperformed his FIP. Could 2015 be the year those numbers begin to align more? As the 21st SP off the board I’d much rather someone else find out; give me the likes of Danny Salazar (24) and Marcus Stroman (25) anytime.
Michael Wacha – I feel Wacha’s 27th SP ADP is built largely on win potential and workhorse status. His GAWK suggests he’s more of a league average arm. His K/9 of 7.59 is just slightly better than league average; factor in his BB/9 of 2.88 and his K/BB rate becomes just that. Wacha is only 24 so he still has room to grow, there just haven’t been signs as of yet. In fact his K/9, BB/9 and ERA have taken a regressive trend in each of his three, albeit some partial, seasons. I realize Tanaka (31) and Iwakuma (37) have injury concerns, but if healthy I favor both over Wacha for 2015. If upside is what you prefer out of your SP 3 or 4, I even feel Taijuan Walker (48) would be a better buy than Wacha.
Middle Tier Starters I’m GAWKing At
Michael Pineda – 2015 was another TARnished season for Mr. Pineda, finishing with a 4.37 ERA and 1.23 WHIP. If you GAWK long enough you’ll see a silver lining of sorts. Pineda posted an 8.74 K/9 and showed impeccable control, posting a 1.18 BB/9. Throw in a 48.2 GB% and Pineda is one of 21 pitchers who exceeded league average in all three stats. While Pineda does give up his fair share of hard contact, I feel a correction in his 14.7% HR/FB rate and a regression in BABIP from .332 will make Pineda a very strong SP 3.
Clay Buchholz – Aside from some health concerns Buchholz had a nice 2015. He posted a 3.26 ERA over 113.1 IP, with 107 K’s and a respectable 1.21 WHIP. As of today Buchholz is the 77th SP of the board with and ADP of 284. Buchholz exceeds league average across the board: 8.50 K/9, 1.83 BB/9 and a GB% of 48.3. Durability is certainly a concern as Buchholz has never reached 200 IP in a season; regardless, at this juncture it’s nice to find that type of skill set for a SP 5/6.
Rick Porcello – Year one of the intensely questioned 5 yr/95M deal did not go as planned – 4.92 ERA with a 1.36 WHIP and 149 K in 172 IP. Looking from a GAWKing standpoint, 2015 was an encouraging year for Porcello. The K growth from 2013 returned as Porcello posted a 7.80 K/9, a career best. In addition he posted his second straight sub 2.0 BB/9. Despite a second consecutive year of GB% decrease, he still managed to hover over league average at 45.7%. As the 87th SP off the board and an ADP of 322, I see enough in the underlying skills to suggest Porcello could begin to establish a baseline closer to the 2014 version which produced 200+ innings pitched and a respectable 3.43 ERA.
End Game Options Worth GAWKing At
Brandon Finnegan – Finnegan dabbled as a SP last season. While the 4.71 ERA paired with a 1.33 WHIP doesn’t wet the pallet, an 8.44 K/9 and a 54.3 GB% makes one salivate. Finnegan does have concerns as we head into Spring Training: first and foremost he doesn’t have a job, secondly his BB/9 of 3.94 needs vast improvement. Unproven pitchers can greatly improve in various areas as baselines have yet to be set. Assuming Finnegan earns a rotation spot and can move the BB/9 below 3 you could have yourself a mid 3 ERA arm with 150 K potential.
Jon Gray – It’s really hard to promote a Rockies pitcher. Home starts by all intents and purposes should be thrown out the door, thus you’re rostering an arm essentially only for road starts. Gray could be the exception. While his 5.53 ERA and 1.62 WHIP make one gag and cringe, the 8.85 K/9 and 3.10 BB/9 are both solid considering he’s only two years removed from college. Gray should be a lock for the rotation out of spring, and while Colorado doesn’t offer many appetizing matchups, the NL West offers some nice pitching venues, and the NL in general will have 5-6 really bad teams. As the 123rd SP off the board with an ADP of 441, it’s clear not many share my excitement regarding Gray.
Jeremy Hellickson – Even more painful than promoting a Rockies pitcher is suggesting the Jeremy Hellickson can be a fantasy commodity. Once again the surface would suggest there’s nothing to see: 4.62 ERA, 1.33 WHIP and 121 K over 146 IP. He did manage to best league average in K/9 and BB/9, and his GB% of 42.4%, while still below league average, marked a career best and perhaps a change in approach. Hellickson is a lock for the Phillies rotation, and while it was four years ago, don’t forget Hellickson did manage a high 2-low 3 ERA for a two-year period. I’m not suggesting for a second Hellickson will return to those levels. However, given the skill set and perhaps a little luck I could see a mid 3 ERA over 170 IP with 150 K’s.
The SP landscape has changed in fantasy. Last year the NFBC set a record with 11 SP among the Top 50 in ADP. This year that number is 18. Among the Top 100, 27 are starting pitchers. These changes will lead to adjustments in draft strategy and ultimately a much broader knowledge of the SP pool will be needed. After you get outside of the top two tiers in SP, the surface stats all begin to blend together. That’s where knowing the underlying skills and identifying those who will break out and those who will break down makes all the difference. While GAWKing in public may get you a slap on the face, doing so with the starting pitcher pool could very well win you a title.
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