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April 16, 2010

Fantasy Beat

Hot Spots: Starting Pitchers

by Bill Baer

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Value Picks 2009 PECOTA Games '09
Starting Pitchers Throws W Sv IP H HR ERA WHIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 K/9 BB/9 HR/9 Starts Relief
Jeff Niemann RH 13 0 180.2 185 17 3.94 1.35 6.2 2.9 0.8 5.9 3.2 1.0 30 1
Kevin Millwood RH 13 0 198.2 195 26 3.67 1.34 5.6 3.2 1.2 5.2 3.3 1.2 31 0
Ryan Rowland-Smith LH 5 0 96.1 87 9 3.74 1.18 4.9 2.5 0.8 4.7 3.1 1.0 15 0
Justin Masterson RH 4 0 129.1 128 12 4.52 1.45 8.3 4.2 0.8 6.5 3.6 0.8 16 26
Carl Pavano RH 14 0 199.1 235 26 5.10 1.37 6.6 1.8 1.2 5.7 2.1 1.2 33 0
Subscribe to Heater 2007-09 in Rotation 4.43 1.39 6.6 3.1 1.1  
Heater Magazine 2007-09 in Relief 3.94 1.36 7.7 3.8 0.9  

Last week, we tackled a few National League pitchers that should be given more attention. This week, we will look at American League hurlers.

Jeff Niemann, Tampa Bay Rays

Niemann is owned in less than 10 percent of ESPN fantasy baseball leagues. Chances are you can still snap him up if you are looking to fill a void created by an injury or a rough start to the 2010 season.

Nothing about Niemann is flashy. He has the typical low-90's fastball plus curve-slider-change repertoire; he does not strike out a lot of hitters and nor does he walk very few, and he did not exactly challenge anyone for the AL Cy Young award last year. However, he projects to be a solid Major League contributor, well above replacement level.

He is off to a good start to the 2010 season having tossed seven strong innings against the Baltimore Orioles on April 13. As you can see by his K/9 rates, he pitches to contact. On April 13, Oriole hitters only swung and missed five times -- four times against the fastball. Niemann, at 6'8", has a release point that hovers around the 7-foot mark, giving downward tilt to most of his pitches.

Niemann will start against the Boston Red Sox on Monday, April 19. Only Marco Scutaro and Adrian Beltre have gone to bat against him more than three times, neither with much success. J.D. Drew is the only one to notch an extra-base hit off of Niemann.

Kevin Millwood, Baltimore Orioles

Millwood is owned in about 4.5 percent of ESPN leagues. He may seem like a strange suggestion, considering he is expected to regress heavily from last season when his 4.72 SIERA did not back up his 3.67 ERA. He benefited from a low .279 BABIP, which helps explain part of the disparity. Prior to 2009, Millwood had a rough three-year stretch with the Texas Rangers in which his ERA ranged from 4.52 to 5.16. You are probably struggling to see the diamond in this piece of coal, I presume.

Millwood is no diamond. Despite his strong two starts so far in 2010, he will regress. However, he will not regress back to "4.52 to 5.16" as those numbers were compiled with unsustainable BABIP and strand rates. More likely, he regresses somewhere between 3.67 and 4.52 in terms of ERA (assuming no exorbitant bouts with luck). He induces more grounders than fly balls and has average strikeout and walk rates. Average is what you are going to get from Millwood, and that will be just fine if you are searching for starting pitching depth in your fantasy league.

Ryan Rowland-Smith, Seattle Mariners

Smith is owned in just over one percent of ESPN fantasy leagues. He missed more than three months between April 10 and July 24 last year due to right elbow tendinitis, limiting him to only 15 starts. Prior to 2009, Rowland-Smith had mostly been used as a reliever out of the Mariners' bullpen with good results.

He has had a bit of a shaky start to the 2010 season, allowing eight runs (seven earned) in 12 innings in two starts, both against the upstart Oakland Athletics. In both starts, he allowed one home run and only struck out one, but his more recent start on the 12th is concerning because he walked five batters in seven innings.

However, Rowland-Smith is a good buy-low candidate if you already own some strikeout-heavy pitchers or can afford to drop a few K's for ERA and WHIP. He is a fly ball-prone pitcher in a very spacious home ballpark with baseball's best defense behind him.

Justin Masterson, Cleveland Indians

Masterson is owned in under three percent of ESPN fantasy leagues. His 4.52 ERA last year is better than it looks, as his 3.89 SIERA attests. While he battled control issues at times in 2009, he struck out more than eight batters per nine innings between Boston and Cleveland. He profiles better as a reliever but should be more than adequate as a starter. He throws primarily fastball-slider but will mix in the occasional change-up as well.

Hitters swing and miss at about nine percent of his pitches, which is in the same echelon as Tim Lincecum and Roy Halladay. That's not to say he possesses the same stuff, but he has the ability to rack up the strikeouts and work his way out of jams. PECOTA is bearish on his strikeout rate rather harshly but is otherwise optimistic about his 2010 as a starter.

Masterson is off to a great start in 2010, having allowed only three runs in 11 innings with a fantastic 14-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His next start will likely come on April 20 in Minnesota against the Twins.

Carl Pavano, Minnesota Twins

Pavano is owned in over 24 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues. He is a familiar name to many due to his injury history -- he threw only 345 innings between 2005-09 after his incredible 18-win campaign with the Florida Marlins in 2004.

If you have not yet jumped onto the Pavano bandwagon, you ought to as he may be better than the Pavano we saw with the Marlins. You may be skeptical, but his campaign last year was not helped by his ERA. In over 199 innings between Cleveland and Minnesota, he compiled a 5.10 ERA. His .335 BABIP is partially to blame for that. SIERA gives him a pass, putting him at 3.92.

Like many veteran pitchers who have had to reinvent themselves, Pavano has harnessed his control almost perfectly. Last year, he walked fewer than two batters per nine innings while striking out over six and a half. So far in 2010, he is once again off to the races. In two starts against two legitimate offensive teams in the Angels and Red Sox, Pavano has allowed just two earned runs in 13 innings with ten strikeouts and a measly one walk. Two out of every three of his pitches has gone for a strike, great signs for sure.

Pavano will make his third start against the Kansas City Royals on Sunday, April 18. The Royals' offense has been hot as of late, but that should not deter you from picking up Pavano if he is available.

Bill Baer is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bill's other articles. You can contact Bill by clicking here

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