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September 24, 2010

Fantasy Beat

Hot Spots: Starting Pitchers

by Bill Baer

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This week, we take a look at the starting pitchers that looked so promising back in March but failed to deliver. If you were fortunate enough, you did not let these arms drag your team down as they could, by themselves, have kept you out of the playoffs.

James Shields, Tampa Bay Rays

According to SIERA, "Big Game James" performed better in 2010 than in '09, going by the components that SIERA deems most important (strikeouts, walks, batted ball splits). His ERA, on the other hand, is an ugly mess this year. At 4.96, he is simply happy it is under 5.00 and that it has not prevented the Tampa Bay Rays from succeeding in the regular season.

This season Shields increased his strikeout rate without a complimentary increase in walks and his batted ball splits and pitch selection remained the same. There are a couple obvious culprits, one being his .348 BABIP. On line drives, batters have reached safely on a base hit nearly six percent more than the American League average, .771 to .714 in terms of BABIP. Batters have also reached base two percent more often on ground balls, .252 to .231. As a handful of smart baseball minds have shown, pitchers do not show a significant amount of year-to-year persistence with their line drive rate, so Shields' misfortune in this respect should be labeled a fluke and he should be expected to have a BABIP near the .300 area in the future.

The other culprit of Shields' poor performance is that ugly 14 percent HR/FB rate. The net 33 home runs he has allowed is the second-most among all Major League pitchers. However, Shields has traditionally had a HR/FB rate in the 12 percent area. With, say, 250 fly balls, the two percent difference is five home runs. With average luck, that difference would surely lower his ERA a few points but it explains only a small portion of his 2010 struggles.

Since Shields has shown either improvement or no change in the areas that we believe are most important to a pitcher, he appears to be a great buy-low candidate for next year. The less Sabermetrically-inclined players will be deterred by his ugly ERA, thus he may drop to the late rounds in drafts next year. His average draft slot was 160 in ESPN leagues, which is the 16th round in a 10-player league.

Josh Beckett, Boston Red Sox

C.C. Sabathia: 3.78 SIERA, one of the heavyweights (pun intended!) in the American League Cy Young race.

Josh Beckett: 3.78 SIERA, fantasy baseball's most disappointing starting pitcher (forecast: $21; actual: -$5; difference of -$26 per the Graphical Player 2010 and Heater Magazine).

That illustrates just how much randomness plays a role in the great game of baseball. Despite performing similarly, Sabathia has a 3.05 ERA while Beckett suffered with a 5.71 ERA.

Like Shields, Beckett saw very little change in the areas most directly under his control. His walk rate went up a bit, but not enough to merit an increase of nearly two runs of ERA from 2009 to '10.

Beckett's problem was also BABIP-related (.351), but his BABIP problems translated into terrible strand rate issues (only 63 percent compared to AL average 72 percent). Oddly, fly balls have dropped in for hits nearly six percent more often than the AL average, .207 to .140. He has also been terribly unfortunate with line drive BABIP, .803 to the AL average .714.

Is the fly ball BABIP due mostly to bleeders dropping in or screamers off of the Green Monster? Compared to last season, doubles have taken up a larger percentage of his overall hits allowed and his opponents' ISO jumped 40 points. As Matt Swartz wrote on Twitter on Wednesday, "There's a difference between bad luck = bloops falling in ([Cole] Hamels '09) vs. bad luck = good pitches hit hard ([Joe] Blanton '10)."

Beckett appears to fall in the latter category with Blanton. While you should certainly expect Beckett's BABIP to regress to the league average, the quality of those hits may continue to rise unless he alters his approach.

Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants

The winner of back-to-back NL Cy Young awards was, in most ESPN leagues, the first pitcher drafted and often the only pitcher taken in the first round. Lincecum has not justified that risk as he has gotten worse across the board: his strikeout rate decreased, walk rate increased, HR/FB doubled, BABIP increased, and he lost some velocity on his fastball.

Timmy was expected to be worth $33 but thus far has only produced $14 per the GP2010 and Heater (the figures are based on single-league 5x5). Still, Lincecum has not been worthless -- his strikeout rate is still awesome and he is still among the best in the game, ranking 12th in SIERA among all MLB pitchers with at least 100 innings of work. The best part is he is only 26 years old.

Unlike Shields, who is not in the upper echelon of pitchers, or Beckett, who has shown some performance and durability issues, Lincecum is easy to stand behind even though the struggles. Most pitchers would love to have a down-year include a 9.6 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, and 3.25 SIERA. While he may not be taken first among pitchers next year, he is still an easy top-fiver.

Zack Greinke, Kansas City Royals

Another Cy Young winner leaving fantasy owners wondering what could have been. That is not to say that he has pitched poorly. Although Greinke's strikeout rate dropped from 9.5 per nine innings last year to 7.2 this year -- which is as low as it has been since 2006 -- he still has a 3.77 SIERA, certainly a respectable figure.

However, the young right-hander was projected at $27 but has only produced half of that. His average draft position of 26 -- mid-third round -- certainly has not been justified. I would not be surprised to see Greinke fall to the 40-50 overall range in next year's drafts.

Next week's column will focus on the surprising starting pitchers, but it is important to note how fickle starting pitchers are. Even when you think you have a sure thing, the great unknown can sprint in and turn your fantasy baseball season upside down. As a general rule of thumb, your risk-to-value ratio (however you want to define that) is less favorable with pitchers than with position players, so taking a pitcher early in your draft may not be such a great idea unless you have done your homework. 

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

Related Content:  James Shields

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