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February 18, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Value Picks in the Rotation

by Bill Baer

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In this week's installment, we will be looking at some pitchers with large gaps between their 2010 ERA and SIERA, and trying to determine whether their results were fluky or if we should expect that kind of production forward. You can find the SIERA leaderboard (min. 100 IP) by clicking here.

Garcia had the seventh-highest gap, just over a full run, between his ERA and SIERA (2.70-3.73). The third-place finisher in the 2010 NL Rookie of the Year balloting, Garcia impressed by pairing an ability to miss bats (7.3 K/9) with a bunch of grounders (56 percent). If you were lucky enough to nab Garcia before he became a household name, you reaped many benefits as he was a roto godsend.

A cursory glance at Garcia's BABIP shows nothing out of the ordinary, but when you separate the various batted ball types, you learn a bit more. His BABIP on ground balls was 35 points below the NL average, 40 points below for fly balls, and only 14 points above for line drives.

Garcia routinely pounded the outside corner to induce those grounders, a staple for disciples of Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan. Various studies (such as this and this) suggest that Duncan has a legitimate effect on his pitchers. J.C. Bradbury's study suggests that Duncan helps lower his pitchers' ERA by 0.35 runs.

The vast majority of fantasy baseball players are going to fall into two buckets: those who are skeptical (or ignorant) of sabermetric analysis, and those who are not. The buckets are intentionally broad. The first group will see the gaudy ERA and the high finish in the Jackie Robinson award voting, and will most likely be willing to overpay for Garcia's services either by drafting him earlier or by paying more money at auction. The second group will see the huge gap between his ERA and SIERA (or their other retrodictor of choice) and assume his 2010 season was a fluke, never to be repeated.

The truth is that, including environmental factors and the "Duncan Effect", Garcia lies in the 3.30-3.50 area in terms of ERA (essentially splitting the difference between his ERA and SIERA). Traditionalists will overrate him, and saberists will underrate him. Know who you are playing with and draft accordingly.

Buchholz led all pitchers with a 1.96 gap between his ERA and SIERA. His sterling 2.33 ERA was backed by mediocre strikeout and walk rates and fluky peripherals—a .266 BABIP, six percent HR/FB, and a 79 percent strand rate. Although Buchholz provided great value in standard roto leagues, I am skeptical of Buchholz going into 2011.

Most of the favorable BABIP comes from line drives, as Buchholz's was 80 points below the AL average. As pitchers do not have a lot of control over line drives, expect a regression in this area. Elsewhere, Buchholz maintained a ground ball BABIP about 45 points below the AL average with an impressive 51 percent ground ball rate. The Red Sox infielders played great defense, including the always reliable but now departed Adrian Beltre. The addition of Adrian Gonzalez should help offset at least some of what was lost in Beltre's move to Texas.

PECOTA suggests Buchholz will have a dramatic increase in strikeouts, which will help him maintain a 3.65 ERA. If you buy it, then Buchholz's place near the top-100 overall players (he is #103 in Matthew Berry's rankings) is justified.

In a comment on one of his articles last year, Matt Swartz called knuckleballers "BABIP-prevention wizards". Dickey, with his knuckleball, posted a .276 BABIP that helped lead to a 2.84 ERA—a full 1.2 runs lower than his SIERA. As you may expect, the knuckleball accounted for nearly 85 percent of Dickey's pitches.

Dickey induced quite a bit of ground balls—55 percent to be exact. The weaker contact and the low walk rate (2.2 per nine innings) helped keep runners off the bases and runs off the scoreboard. While it is not likely that he repeats his 2010 season (PECOTA puts him at a 4.23 ERA in 2011), he is still an above-average pitcher with some value.

In standard roto categories, Dickey should be good for ERA and WHIP, but is not likely to help much in terms of wins and strikeouts. Although he is unique as a knuckleballer, you can find cheaper pitchers of similar skill freely available.

Despite his great campaign last year, the realistic range of production for Dickey is quite small; I prefer to go for high upside with cheaper players. Now that Dickey is more established, or at least has more of a positive track record to go on, he may not be cheap at auction, or may be taken earlier in drafts, and it's pretty clear that his upside as a knuckler is only so high. I want to find this year's Dickey, not pay for last year's Dickey.

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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Transaction of the Day... (02/17)
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Fantasy Article Fantasy Beat: Scoreshe... (02/18)
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