OpinionFebruary 13, 2009


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2 Up, 2 Down – Starting Pitcher Edition

By Ray Flores

The long-held belief that starting pitching is a deep commodity is a tried-and-true theory when musing on draft days past. However, with the options seeming infinite, there is a lot of background noise in the starting pitcher market as to which pitchers present true values or sunken draft picks. For instance, a manager who drafted Aaron Harang over Tim Lincecum last season in the same round they were predicted to be taken, suffered at the wrong end of an opportunity cost. For that reason, I’ll give you two starting pitchers I feel should be moved up and two that should be moved down on your cheat sheet.

Up:

Ervin Santana – Angels

Somewhat overshadowed by Cliff Lee’s rags-to-riches story from fantasy waiver wire starter in April to American League Cy Young award winner, was Ervin Santana’s breakthrough 2008 campaign. Like Lee, Santana had likely gone undrafted in most leagues following a mediocre 2007 season where he posted an atrocious 5.76 ERA and a 1.55 WHIP in 150 innings of work. After a solid rookie and sophomore year with the Angels, 2007 was meant to be the season where “El Meneo” (Spanish for “The Shaker”) was to continue his steady progression to the next milestone in his career, but his career took a detour where the possibility of cracking the Angels’ 2008 starting rotation was in doubt. 2008 was another career detour for Santana: a turnaround that was nothing short of magical. He closed out April with an ERA of 2.48, a WHIP under one thanks to only 9 walks allowed in 40 innings and soon he found a new home on many fantasy rotations. When the 2008 regular season drew to a close, Santana improved in just about every category across the board, with a 3.49 ERA, a WHIP just under 1.12, and 214 strikeouts in 219 innings. Notorious for pitching horribly on the road, Santana finished virtually a run better away from Angel Stadium, with a 3.02 road ERA as opposed to a 4.03 home ERA. Santana also showed marginal improvement in increasing his ground ball rate (38.8% in 2008 from 35.6% in 2007) and in lowering his fly ball rate (41.5% in 2008 from 45.7% in 2007). All in all, Ervin Santana turned in a season worthy of the title “staff ace” and his surname which he shares with pitching stud and fellow Venezuelan, Johan Santana.

The question hovering over Santana’s head is if his magical 2008 turnaround is indicative of things to come or is simply smoke and mirrors. A strong harbinger that Santana can build upon last season’s success is the fact that he streamlined his mechanics and approach. Instead of incorporating all four pitches in his usual repertoire, “El Meneo” very sparingly threw his curveball or change-up and relied on two pitches: a fastball and a slider. The key for him in being reliant on dialing up just those two pitches was to improve his arm angle in his delivery, such that his slider had better downward movement to either fool the hitter or hit the edges of the strike zone at the very least. The byproduct of the improved arm angle was a marginal (but crucial) uptick in the velocity of both his fastball (a mid-90’s offering) and his slider (a hard slider in the mid-80’s). By simplifying his approach, Santana’s location was markedly better and so was his pitch movement in getting more hitters to bite on pitches down and away, the signature of a terrific slider. In doing so, “El Meneo” improved his strikeout rate and cut down his walks at an astronomic pace to pitch longer into ballgames and in the process, he got himself into more situations where he was in line for a victory.

While questions abound over Ervin Santana’s ability to duplicate a season like 2008, his median draft position (MDP) is at 96, which equates to a bookend eighth-round pick in a standard 12-team league. If his MDP is indeed a trend of the majority of this year’s upcoming fantasy drafts, Santana will be drafted at about the same time where names such as Daisuke Matsuzaka and A.J. Burnett come off the board. Santana is neither the injury risk, nor the walk magnet that both Matsuzaka and Burnett could present, and in fact, the beauty with Santana is he had pitched nearly 500 innings in the three years prior to 2008 without any glaring red flags for injury. Even if Santana’s draft stock moves up a round or two where established aces such as Roy Oswalt, James Shields, and John Lackey could typically be drafted, I’ll rate Santana over all three of the aforementioned pitchers, for his 200 strikeout potential and his mechanical adjustments being the sign of continuous improvement. The best part of all is “El Meneo” has plenty of room for improvement. He’ll turn 26 this season and he can still better himself in his day game performances (a 4.40 ERA in 57.1 innings). If he does that, on top of continuing his across-the-board improvement, there will be one nickname that will be above “El Meneo” or “The Other Johan” attached to Ervin Santana… and that’s “Magic”, as in Ervin “Magic” Santana.

Ricky Nolasco – Marlins

While Cliff Lee and Ervin Santana were waiver wire wonders who led the line on a number of fantasy managers’ pitching staffs from April onward, Ricky Nolasco emerged as a mid-season revelation from the waiver wire and likewise carried fantasy rotations with an unprecedented sensational run. A season removed from elbow injuries that derailed his 2007 campaign, Nolasco was set to start the 2008 season as a reliever and possible candidate for the Marlins’ closer job. Only a few weeks into the season, Nolasco was pressed into starting duty and he was greeted with three of his first five outings by surrendering six runs, reaffirming the idea that he was a bit predictable and prone to the homerun ball. The former Chicago Cubs pitching prospect had a less than desirable 5.05 ERA a few days into June last season, but then Nolasco embarked on an incredible stretch that one would associate with fantasy starting pitcher royalty, by posting a 2.95 ERA, 143 strikeouts and just 16 walks in 140.1 innings. The Marlins’ emergent ace lowered his 5.05 ERA over that span to just a 3.52 ERA mark to go with a cumulative 1.10 WHIP in 212.1 innings. Nolasco had even picked up 15 wins en route to an emphatic milestone year.

So, how did Ricky Nolasco flip the switch into a dominant pitching beast? Unlike Ervin Santana’s addition by subtraction approach, Nolasco benefited by learning and incorporating a new pitch into his repertoire: a cut fastball. Nolasco was very much a two-pitch hurler, throwing a plus fastball-curveball combo, which was preferable enough for reliever duty, but might not have been adequate enough to cut it as a starter (no pun intended). Coupled with the fact that his velocity was back to where it was prior to 2007, the end result was Nolasco’s rampant 140-inning tear. While a 143-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio is quite a tough ask for him to extrapolate over 200 innings, Nolasco carried the reputation dating back to his minor league days as a pitcher capable of displaying fantastic command who could average a strikeout an inning or better. The only weaknesses that could come back to bite Nolasco is his homerun rate being a tad steeper than desired (he gave up 28 homeruns in 2008) and the fact lefties still hit him hard (Nolasco surrendered 20 of those 28 homeruns to lefties). The silver lining is that Nolasco made inroads in pitching to lefties, limiting lefties to a .238 batting average against and a .432 slugging percentage last year, as opposed to a .338 batting average against and a .546 slugging percentage in his rookie season.

Nolasco has been a relatively quiet target in mock drafts so far, with a MDP of 124 and in a standard 12-team league, Nolasco can be had for an early 11th round pick. While a fair share of fantasy managers will be flocking for the next Tim Lincecum in drafting Joba Chamberlain or David Price based on their reputations as former top-billed prospects, Nolasco appears to be a strong #3 fantasy starter in any manager’s rotation. Although his massive workload jump and only two years removed from elbow troubles, Nolasco could cause some hesitation, the risk for Nolasco’s services in the 11th round or lower should be tolerable enough to buy into his upside.

Down:

Carlos Zambrano – Cubs

Carrying a reputation as a strikeout-intensive workhorse since 2003, Carlos Zambrano has substantial name value that resonates among a fair share of fantasy managers because of his track record. However, Zambrano’s value is mainly stuck to only that name and track record, which could overlook the mercurial Chicago Cubs ace’s gradual decline in his peripherals. The writing was perhaps on the wall after a 2006 season, where Big Z posted a career-high regular season K/9 of 8.83 (210 strikeouts in 214 innings), but his walk rate jumped up precipitously from 86 walks in 2005 to 115 free passes in 2006. The healthy spike in strikeout rate came at the expense of his control, which was something that needed correcting for 2007. Zambrano’s walks still remained an issue last season, but the most worrying thing of all was a K/9 that was more reminiscent of his 2003 season (7.36 K/9), while his ERA had taken another step back, nearing a 4.00 ERA at the end of the 2007 season. Zambrano made greater inroads in slashing his walk rate last season (72 walks in 2008 as opposed to 101 in 2007), but at the further expense of his strikeout rate, amassing just 130 strikeouts in 188.2 innings of work. At that point, Zambrano was just par for the course amongst all Major League pitchers in both of his walk and strikeout ratios. In fact, the burly pitcher was so ordinary that he was basically a back-end fantasy starter to use in spot starts only.

The main cause attributed to Zambrano’s statistical decline has simply been his workload history starting to take its toll on his arm. As a matter of fact, 2008 was the first season Big Z failed to throw a 200 inning season as a full-time starter, breaking a streak of five consecutive seasons where he logged over 200 innings in the regular season, not factoring in his playoff appearances. With increased mileage on his arm, Zambrano has experienced a velocity drop off in his fastball, which does not bode well for a power pitcher in maintaining or increasing his strikeout rate. Furthermore, Zambrano’s reputation as a durable workhorse could be merely reputation and nothing more, having experienced a shoulder strain last season that placed him on the disabled list for only the second time in his Major League career.

In mock drafts to date, it seems that Zambrano’s name value has not suffered terribly, as his MDP has the Cubs starter going in the ninth round over the majority of this season’s drafts. Unless Zambrano’s velocity returns to the level of where it was before, drafting him with a middle round pick could very well end up as an unnecessary investment in a late round or waiver wire quality pitcher. Only Zambrano’s perceived value is the reason why his draft day price is likely to be inflated.

C.C. Sabathia – Yankees

Entering into a contract year, 2008 was meant to be the year the 6′ 7″, 290 pound behemoth of an ace named CC Sabathia would raise his performance to another level. There was reason for concern as well, as Sabathia hurled a grand total of 256.1 innings in 2007, which included the Indians’ postseason run the prior season where he crashed to an 8.80 ERA to go with 21 hits and an unprecedented 13 walks in 15.1 innings. Sabathia had a 64-inning increase from 2006, en route to a career-high in innings logged for a season, and notably he only turned in one season of his six prior campaigns where he posted a 200-inning year. Sabathia began the 2008 season right where he left off from a disappointing 2007 postseason, being roughed up in the first four outings that inflated his ERA to a ghastly 13.50 – in doing so, he surrendered 32 hits and 14 walks in just 18 innings. Rumors were abound that Sabathia was either tipping his pitches or his early-season struggles were more than fatigue. Neither theory proved to be worth its weight, as Sabathia’s velocity was relatively unchanged from his excellent 2007 campaign and it seemed he corrected his approach to get his control back up to scratch. After his mid-season move to Milwaukee, Sabathia reached a new performance hallmark in putting up a sparkling 1.65 ERA, a razor-thin 1.00 WHIP and a 128-to-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 130.2 innings. All in all, Sabathia turned in his career-best year in delivering a 2.70 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 251 strikeouts in 253 innings of work, a compelling reason for the New York Yankees to sign Sabathia to the highest-priced contract for a starting pitcher in baseball history. With CC changing addresses to the Bronx, a good share of fantasy pundits are confident that the Yankees’ new hired gun will enjoy the first 20-win season in his career.

Once again, the primary talking point with Sabathia is if two straight seasons of 250-plus innings will finally take its toll on him. For what it’s worth, Sabathia finished second in pitcher abuse points for 2008 in a tier of his own (second to Tim Lincecum) which could increase his risk factor of gradual fatigue possibly eating away at his effectiveness later in his career. Sabathia has proven to be more durable than some give him credit for being. Unlike Carlos Zambrano, C.C.’s velocity has remained intact in regularly registering 110 pitch count games for both Cleveland and in his “second-half rental” stint for Milwaukee, without sacrificing his excellent control.

If Sabathia’s abuse worry can be considered a non-issue given his history of managing high pitch counts with few major side effects, then it’s the possibility of a correction to Sabathia’s 2009 stat line that affects his future value. It’s academic that Sabathia’s move back to the American League will cause an inflation in his ERA and WHIP, especially pitching in arguably the hardest hitting division, the American League East. Comparing CC’s batted ball rates in the first half with the Indians and his second half with the Brewers, Sabathia experienced a healthy spike in his groundball rate pitching in the National League (50.6% as opposed to 42.6% with Cleveland in 2008) while consequently, his flyball rate dipped more than nine percent as a Brewer (27.2% from 36.4%). Even though the New Yankee Stadium cannot be accurately described a hitter’s paradise like its predecessor, without knowing extra factors such as wind patterns, etc. the Yankees’ new home will have the same exact hitter-friendly dimensions (namely the short porches in left and right field). Finally, there’s a great chance that Joe Girardi and the Yankee front office will ensure that their new southpaw ace does not exceed 220 innings for the 2009 regular season. This could entail that an approach on his career-high 251 innings could likely be out of the question and his K/9 could be more in line with the high 7’s or low 8’s instead of the strikeout-per-inning pace he was on last season. It is also worth noting that the Yankee bullpen without Joba Chamberlain would seem more suspect on paper to serve as a bridge for Mariano Rivera to close games out, which puts Sabathia’s aspirations of a 20-win season in some doubt.

Sabathia is as high in demand in mock drafts as he’s ever been thus far, earning a median draft position of 33, equating him to a third-round pick in a standard 12-team league. In addition, in some published mock drafts, Sabathia was drafted as high as the second round, usually taken as the third pitcher off the board behind Johan Santana and Tim Lincecum. Keeping in mind Sabathia’s re-adjustment to American League batting and a new ballpark, it is safe to say, Sabathia’s ERA and WHIP can revert back to where he left off in his full year in Cleveland, with perhaps his ratios climbing a bit, as he sees AL East opposition more frequently this time around. Sabathia is as solid as fantasy pitchers go, but with great replacement options to be had in later rounds such as Josh Beckett, James Shields, and Ervin Santana, where the quality of starting pitchers is arguably superior to the quality of batters on the board at those particular rounds, Sabathia would likely have to repeat his 2007 season at the least to justify investing a third round pick in him. Add in the fact that the big southpaw retained a high abuse rate over the last couple of seasons and there is some potential for Sabathia to not play up to his value.

Check out the rest of the 2 Up, 2 Down Starting Pitchers!

 
True to his name as The Artful Dodger, Ray Flores is a disgruntled Dodger fan, who makes up for it by supporting his hometown Lakers, Manchester United F.C., and FC Barcelona. While being artful doesn't best describe him, Ray is a web developer, a part-time fantasy football blogger (the game actually played with feet), and head "Wicked Wikitect" of the Cafe's Fantasy Sports Wiki project.
 
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