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February 4, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Value Picks in the Rotation

by Bill Baer

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Nick Blackburn, Minnesota Twins

Blackburn will be competing for the fifth and final spot in the Twins' starting rotation during spring training. Were it up to me, there would not be any such competition, as Blackburn's extreme pitch-to-contact style scares the life out of me. His career K/9 is 4.3, more than two full strikeouts below the American League average. To support such reliance on batted ball out-efficiency, one must be very stingy with the walks, and Blackburn is—just not as much as teammate Kevin Slowey.

This is not a Matt Cain case where he seems to magically have a .270 BABIP and a 3.25 ERA. Instead, Blackburn's career BABIP is .305 and his ERA has ranged from 4.03 to 5.42 and his SIERA 4.68 to 4.83.

Blackburn does induce a solid rate of ground balls (career average of 47 percent) but with the Twins losing two key above-average defenders in Orlando Hudson and J.J. Hardy, his career .247 BABIP on ground balls may rise even higher above the American League average .231.

Overall, Blackburn is not as bad as his 5.42 ERA portrayed him last year, but he is one of the riskiest pitchers in fantasy baseball. And the risk does not outweigh the reward—even if he happens to post a low ERA, he will still cause you to lag behind in strikeouts. Furthermore, despite the good walk rate, he is not much of a help with WHIP as his 1.4 career average illustrates. In mixed leagues, he should be avoided entirely, and only in the deepest AL-only leagues should you consider adding him.

Kevin Slowey, Minnesota Twins

After looking at Blackburn, Slowey comes out looking like Walter Johnson. His career 6.9 K/9 and 1.5 BB/9 are rates that should pique your interest immediately. In 2008, Slowey's 3.67 SIERA ranked 26th among pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched; in '09, using 90 innings as a threshold, he posted an identical SIERA in an injury-shortened season.

Slowey has an interesting trend, which is that he has a significantly above-average BABIP on all three batted ball types compared to the American League average. He induces a lot of fly balls (career average 48 percent), so those are the important ones, but have a look at each type:

 

AL Avg

Slowey

Ground

0.231

0.257

Fly

0.138

0.165

Line

0.712

0.749

Slowey is above the AL average by 26 to 37 points. With nearly 500 innings pitched in his career, a decent sample size, we may soon be able to conclude this as a characteristic of Slowey rather than variance—especially considering he has had decent defenses behind him. It may be a reason why he has finished with an ERA significantly higher than his SIERA in each of his three seasons as a regular in the Twins' rotation.

He is worth the dollar in your auction league in all formats for the strikeouts and WHIP help alone. At any higher price, be skeptical about his batted ball skills and consider finding pitching elsewhere.

Jordan Zimmermann, Washington Nationals

Zimmermann is expected to have a full-time role in the Nationals' starting rotation. The right-hander returned in late August last year after recovering from Tommy John surgery, and in his 31 innings of work struck out 27 batters while walking 10. His 4.94 ERA did not accurately depict his performance due to an unrealistic number of home runs allowed (eight). His 3.78 SIERA tells a better story, as does his 3.37 SIERA from 2009, when he had a 9.1 K/9 and 2.9 BB/9.

Due to his injury and recent fantasy baseball irrelevance, Zimmermann may be a sleeper going into the 2011 season. His peripherals match up with most of the better pitchers in baseball, and in addition consider that a high percentage of pitchers who undergo Tommy John surgery come back just as good, if not better than they were before.

Zimmermann is relevant in all formats. At the price of a dollar, he is a huge bargain—a steal, actually.

Jake Peavy, Chicago White Sox

Peavy missed the second half of the 2010 season due to a detached latissimus dorsi muscle in his right shoulder. He had surgery in July and expects to be in the Sox rotation on Opening Day, though it is certainly not a given.

Peavy is another example of an injured starter that may go overlooked in most fantasy baseball leagues. We have no way of knowing if he still has his strikeout stuff of yore, but his 7.8 K/9 and 2.9 BB/9 of last year are still great rates. Add in Peavy's natural ability to depress his BABIP (though his career .284 BABIP allowed is likely one part Petco Park and one part Padres' defense) and you have a pitcher that could surprise in 2011.

With a White Sox team that is expected to score a bunch of runs, Peavy should provide a boost in all four standard categories for starters (W, ERA, WHIP, K). Keep tabs on White Sox spring training reports—if all goes well, Peavy should be on your short list of cheap targets going into the season.

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:  Nick Blackburn,  Kevin Slowey

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