StrategyJanuary 31, 2011

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2 Up, 2 Down: Starting Pitchers - 3 comments

By Josh Shepardson

Many fantasy owners closely follow the adage “Don’t draft pitching early.” The idea behind this line of thinking is that pitching is rather volatile from year to year, and that investing in a premium arm early is riskier than investing in a premium bat. I, for one, follow this line of thinking unless an ace level starter becomes a relative bargain. Two starting pitchers covered this week are being drafted well after pick 150 according to Mock Draft Central’s most recent average draft position (ADP) coverage, and they have the potential to produce like top-40 starters. Conversely, two starting pitchers covered this week are being overdrafted thanks to solid surface stats last year that mask underlying stats that paint a more accurate picture of their true skills.

Welcome back to the Cafe’s annual “2 Up, 2 Down” series, where Cafe members highlight two players per position expected to outperform projected draft slot, as well as two players that should not be drafted at their typical rank.

2 UP

Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals

Before the emergence of super ace wunderkind Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals fans salivated at the thoughts of Jordan Zimmermann pitching near the top of their rotation. Drafted in the second round of Major League Baseball’s 2007 amateur draft (pick 67 overall), Zimmermann, the Division III University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point product, debuted amongst the Nationals’ top-10 prospects at number seven overall in The 2008 Baseball America Prospect Handbook. After thoroughly dominating the New York Penn League (Short Season Single-A) upon signing in 2007, Zimmermann racked up impressive numbers split between High Single-A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg (the bulk of the season, 106.2 of 134 innings pitched, spent in Double-A) and found himself atop the Nationals prospect list in The 2009 Baseball America Prospect Handbook. The following season, 2009, Zimmermann won the Nationals’ fifth starter spot and tossed 91.1 innings that were largely marred by bad luck and hid his true level of skill. He mustered a 3-5 record as a starter while posting a 4.63 ERA and 1.36 WHIP, which hid sparkling peripherals that include a K/9 greater than one per inning pitched (9.07), a superb 3.39 xFIP, 2.86 BB/9, 3.17 K/BB and an acceptable 43.5 groundball percentage (GB). He finished the season on the disabled list as he was shutdown early due to an UCL tear that required Tommy John surgery.

After spending much of the season rehabbing in 2010, Zimmermann was able to toss 35.2 mostly great innings in the minors, and another seemingly ho-hum 31 innings at the Major League level. Armed with the same four-pitch arsenal he featured pre-Tommy John surgery that includes a fastball that’s average velocity is just over 92 MPH, a slider, curveball and changeup, Zimmermann continued to pound the strike zone upon his return to the bigs (2.90 BB/9 and 62.2 percent first-pitch strike compared to a 58.8 percent first-pitch strike league average), and record solid strikeout numbers, 7.84 K/9, all the while inducing more groundballs at a 48.9 GB rate. Unfortunately for him, the balls that were hit in the air left the yard at an absurd (and likely unsustainable) 22.2 percent of the time (HR/FB). Pitching in a fairly home run neutral (if not slightly favorable toward pitchers) home ballpark according to Bill James’ ballpark index measures, Zimmermann should see his HR/FB rate settle in near league average as he regains more of the command he featured pre-surgery (the control already appears to be back as he’s not issuing many walks). The biggest question surrounding him this year is just how many innings he’ll be allowed to pitch, having only thrown a total of 66.2 innings in both the minors and majors combined last year. My guess is somewhere between 135-150 innings, with anything more being unlikely as there is nothing to gain for the Nationals from taxing his young arm. Right now he is being drafted on average at pick 261, or in or after round 22 in a standard 12-team league, which is an absolute steal as he’s going around the time of the bland veterans with little to no upside and the relievers being drafted as potential saves vultures. As you’d suspect, Jordan Zimmermann will be featured on many of my squads this year. Come draft day, I’ll be willing to reach a few rounds in order to secure his services in the hopes of cashing in on an ERA that closely matches his career 3.57 xFIP, a WHIP a tad lower than his career 1.35 mark with some more BABIP luck (.313 career BABIP) and a near strikeout-per-inning K/9 in the 8.50-9.00 range (career mark of 8.75 K/9).

Brett Anderson, Athletics

Another pitcher coming at a bargain basement price in early drafts over at MDC is Brett Anderson, who is being scooped on average at pick 185. The biggest scare with Anderson is that he spent time on the DL early last year with elbow tightness and elbow inflammation (he also concluded the year with a DL stint, but that was for a hyper-extended knee, thus less a concern). Being a young arm coming off a huge innings spike from 2008 to 2009, he was a likely candidate to miss time last year, and while I knew the risks, I, as well as many others drafted him anyways. Anytime an elbow injury is the reason for a DL stint for a young arm, the red flags need to be waving at least a bit. In Anderson’s case, however, pick 185 isn’t much of a risk (round 15-16 in standard 12-team leagues) for a guy who is capable of finishing the season as a top-35 hurler.

With a juicy four-pitch repertoire that includes a fastball that averaged 92.1 MPH last year (no small feat for a southpaw), slider, curveball and changeup, Anderson is a pitcher to covet. Three of his four pitches posted positive run values last year, according to his FanGraphs page, meaning he’s a guy that can work through the lineup multiple times successfully. Beyond the obvious risk of injury to his elbow, another knock on Anderson was his lowish 6.1 K/9 in 2010, a mark that he bested in 2009 at 7.70 K/9, pointing to previous success and possible future success. Other than his low strikeout rate, there is almost nothing not to like about Anderson’s peripherals as he posted an otherworldly 1.76 BB/9, exceptional 54.6 GB percent, and a 3.41 K/BB. A 3.75 xFIP in 2010 suggests that Anderson was a bit lucky (2.80 ERA), likely largely due to a 5.9 HR/FB. However, it is important to note that McAfee Coliseum is a place where flyballs go to die at the warning track, suggesting he may be capable of posting a lower than league average HR/FB thanks to his spacious digs. Like Zimmermann, Anderson is a great target for owners willing to take a pitcher with some risks and willing to sacrifice some innings pitched for spectacular ratios at a cheap price. With such a low draft round, the risk seems well worth the potential payoff. In short, buy buy buy on Anderson in 2011.


Clay Buchholz, Red Sox

Clay Buchholz has been carefully placed in this article immediately following Brett Anderson as his numbers, and average draft position of 95, serve as a cautionary tale of falling in love with surface stats such as ERA, and team-dependent stats such as wins. On the surface, it would appear Buchholz had a major breakout in 2010, posting a sterling (no life long rival Yankees’ John Sterling pun intended… ok so maybe just a little) 2.33 ERA with 17 wins. Unfortunately for Buchholz, looking under the hood paints a totally different picture. In 2009, Buchholz was able to post a 4.09 xFIP with 6.65 K/9, 3.52 BB/9, 1.89 K/BB and a 53.8 GB rate. So what of his 2010 campaign? Well, in short, he regressed almost entirely across the board (with his slight improvement from a 3.52 BB/9 to a 3.47 BB/9 mark being his lone saving grace). His 2010 featured a 4.20 xFIP (a far cry from his 2.33 ERA), 6.22 K/9, 1.79 K/BB and a 50.8 GB rate.

So how was he able to post a better ERA (2010: 2.33; 2009: 4.21) and WHIP (2010: 1.20; 2009: 1.38) in 2010 than in 2009? Well, it would appear a great deal of that had to do with a .261 BABIP in 2010 as opposed to .279 in 2009 (both marks seem low for a groundball pitcher when considering groundballs have a higher average on balls put in play than flyballs) and a greater than 10 percent difference in HR/FB (2010: 5.6 HR/FB; 2009: 15.7 HR/FB). Going into the 2011 season, I’d expect a year from Buchholz which more closely matches his 2009 surface stats than his 2010 ones. Taking into consideration he loses master gloves-man Adrian Beltre at the hot corner, who is replaced by 2010 starting first baseman Kevin Youkilis (he of the negative 1.4 UZR rating in his last season of substantial playing time at third base which came in 2009), and the groundballer might actually post lesser numbers in 2011 than he did in 2009. Let someone else pay for Buchholz’s 2010 “breakout” and chuckle to yourself on draft day.

Matt Garza, Cubs

2011 has already been an eventful year for Matt Garza as he changed uniforms, and leagues, thanks to a deal that sent him from the 2010 American League East Champion Tampa Bay Rays to the National League Central’s Chicago Cubs. The change from leagues, and getting out of the meat grinder that is the American League East, should certainly be looked as a positive move for Garza. In the words of ESPN college football analyst Lee Corso, “not so fast my friend,” for those viewing the move as entirely beneficial to him. Garza moves from a home ballpark, Tropicana Field, that suppressed runs by a significant margin in 2010, and posted a slightly better than neutral (favorable for pitchers, to be clear) home run mark, to one that significantly amplifies run scoring and home runs in Wrigley Field (or as Jeff Gordon calls it, Wrigley Stadium).

As Garza is an extreme flyballer (35.8 GB rate in 2010), potential owners should be extremely concerned about the change in home ballparks. Looking at Garza’s numbers last year paints the picture of an average innings eater who gets credit for being more than he is thanks to his 3.91 ERA and 1.25 WHIP last year. Last year saw Garza sport a 4.51 xFIP, a mediocre 6.60 K/9, which unlike Anderson’s low mark, isn’t far off from an established career 7.10 K/9 that is largely aided by an 8.38 K/9 in 2009 (his only season above 7.5 K/9, let alone above 8.0). One would guess that he’ll likely post a greater than 6.60 K/9 facing National League lineups that feature the pitcher, but I wouldn’t bank on more than a 0.50 K/9 increase considering the difference in K/9 for pitchers in the National League proved to be just 0.56 K/9 greater than that of their American League counterparts (the largest difference of the last decade according to this data). While Garza may be the type of pitcher capable of beating his xFIP year in and year out, as he has bested it in each of the last four years and has a career ERA almost a half run lower than his xFIP, I’m willing to guess his new home park may change those fortunes and reveal him to be a starter who posts an ERA north of 4.00 with a mediocre, at best, WHIP and average strikeout totals. All-in-all, Garza doesn’t warrant being selected as a number three type starting pitcher, as his current average draft position of 109 at MDC suggests.

Josh is a recent college graduate from SUNY Cortland where he majored in Sport Management. You can catch up with Josh in the Cafe Forums where he posts as B-Chad.
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3 Responses to “2 Up, 2 Down: Starting Pitchers”

  1. cdoody says:

    Another great article Josh. Another thing I look at when drafting pitchers is league size and the ability to stream. In smaller leagues, I dont mind waiting to draft a pitcher because I know there will be atleast some quality match-ups available to stream (as long as the bench isn’t too deep). In bigger leagues where I need to hit a innings limit I don’t mind using by 4th-9th rounds to draft 2-3 or so pitchers if I can get some quality there. Best of luck this season and look forward to reading your articles. Can’t wait for your sleepers!

  2. User avatar AquaMan2342 says:

    why didn’t you get in on the holics mock

  3. B-Chad says:

    Well, I didn’t get an e-mail notifying me I had PM’s on here for two messages (guessing Yahoo! deemed them junk mail?). I believe one of them was the holics mock and the other was the ranking, which was kind of disappointing. Oh well, I enjoyed it a lot last year.


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