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April 13, 2011

Fantasy Beat

A Plethora of Young Hurlers

by Craig Brown

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There’s been a little bit of bandwidth expended on the abilities of left-handed starter Zachary Britton. Allow me to join the chorus lined up to praise his talents.

To proclaim Britton a ground ball machine is actually underselling his ability to entice hitters to keep the ball on the dirt. His rates going back to 2008 are astronomical:

Year

League

Lg AVG GB%

Britton GB%

2008

Single-A

28.4%

64.7%

2009

High-A

31%

68.1%

2010

Double-A

31.7%

64.8%

2010

Triple-A

28.9%

62.2%

Britton doesn’t just get a few more ground balls than league average—he generally doubles the percentage. Another thing that is nice to see is that he has been fairly consistent with the ground ball rate as he has progressed through the Baltimore system. Obviously, it’s something we would expect—a ground ball pitcher is a ground ball pitcher—but when you’re outpacing the league average by that much, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a one year spike. That is not happening here.

The ground ball rate has helped him at all levels. Aside from a shaky start in rookie ball as an 18-year-old–he made 11 starts after signing as the Orioles third round selection in that year’s draft and posted a 5.29 ERA—he has kept his minor league ERA below 3.70 in each of the next four seasons. Baltimore wisely brought him along slowly, starting and keeping him at a level for each of his first four professional seasons. It was a methodical climb up the organizational ladder, but one that probably helped his development. Last season was the only time in his entire career he moved teams, and that was to make the jump from Double-A Bowie in the Eastern League—where he posted a 2.48 ERA with 68 strikeouts and 28 walks in 87 innings—to Triple-A Norfolk. Work like that earned a five-star rating from Kevin Goldstein entering this season.

Helping Britton is his ability to get a few strikeouts. For his minor league career, he whiffed solid 7.3 per nine. That hasn’t translated to the majors as he has struck out just eight batters while walking six in his 13 2/3 innings of work.

It’s early, but it certainly feels like Britton can continue to have success. Of the 50 batters he has faced in this young season, 36 of them have put the ball in play. That is a 72 percent in play rate, which is slightly above the major league average of 69 percent. (Obviously, we’re dealing with a small sample size. One fewer ball put in play and two percentage points are shaved off his in play rate.) Of those 36 balls in play, 20 of them have been ground balls. R.J. Anderson gave him a glowing review in his first start.

There are a couple of things to like about Britton and his ground ball rate. First, he’s going to keep the ball in the yard. Once again, we’re dealing with small sample sizes (I feel like I have to note this for the first month of the season) but he has yet to be taken deep in his first 13 2/3 innings of major league work. Second, on the occasions he finds himself in a bit of a pickle, he can rely on his ground ball tendencies to rescue him with the double play. So far this season, he has found himself in 11 opportunities to pick up a twin killing and has converted three of those chances. His 27 percent conversion rate ranks him sixth among American League starters. I would imagine he will remain in the top ten for most of the season.

Bad defense is kryptonite to a ground ball pitcher and what will work against Britton is the Oriole infield. Going around the horn, only J.J. Hardy can be described as above average with the glove. Brian Roberts has been hampered by back issues the last couple of seasons, but even prior to his injuries he was pretty much a run of the mill defender with so-so range. Let’s be nice and say that Mark Reynolds at third won’t improve the O's defensive efficiency at all.

Despite all of the bouquets I’ve been tossing his way, Britton won’t continue to enjoy the extreme amount of success he has found in his first two starts—he owns a .194 BABIP and has stranded over 92 percent of all base runners. Still, with his skill set, it would be foolish to bet against him. If he is available in your league—and he is currently owned in 56 percent of ESPN leagues and going quickly—then he is worth the add in all fantasy formats.

Another newcomer to the starting rotation taking fantasy by storm—at least in the early going—is Rangers right-hander Alexi Ogando. Ogando’s story is an interesting one: selected by Texas in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft in 2005, he was a failed outfielder who used his powerful arm to quickly make the transition to pitcher. Shortly after Ogando joined the Rangers, he was implicated in a marriage-for-visa fraud, and was banned from entering the United States until last year.

In 2010 Ogando made seven appearances—including three starts—for Frisco in the Texas League, where he thoroughly dominated the competition with a 1.15 ERA, a minuscule 0.57 WHIP, and punch outs of 12.6 batters per nine. The Rangers quickly moved him to Triple-A, where he made 11 relief appearances, struck out 12.1 per nine and posted a 3.00 ERA. Texas realized they had a gem of a pitcher in their system and promoted him to the majors, where he threw 41 2/3 frames with a 1.30 ERA and 39 strikeouts to go against 16 walks (two of which were intentional).

As the Rangers broke camp last month, they moved him to the starting rotation, in favor of Brett Tomko, who they sent to Triple-A. (Was that really a difficult decision?)

As I noted in last week’s Weekly Planner (and mentioned by Marc Normandin earlier in the week), lack of stamina would be an issue with the Rangers converted reliever. According to data collected by Pitch f/x, Ogando did tire in his last start (where he threw a total of 79 pitches). He started strong, hitting his max speed of 95.6 mph about six pitches in to the game, before settling into his comfort zone of around 93 mph. You can see from the graph from Brooks Baseball, while he was able to live in the mid 90s for most of the game, around pitch number 65, he was barely reaching 93 mph.

He is a two pitch pitcher, featuring a four-seam fastball and a slider. While you would think that an electric fastball would set up the batter for a wicked slider, that doesn’t seem to be happening (so far) in the case of Ogando. In his two starts, he’s offered a slider 36 percent of the time, yet has enticed the hitters to swing and miss in just 3 percent of those pitches. In raw numbers, he’s collected two swings and misses in 60 total sliders thrown.

However great Ogando has been, he is living dangerously. Over 76 percent of his opponent's at-bats have ended with the ball being put in play, and the majority of those PA have ended with the ball in the air. Currently, over 44 percent of all batted-balls have been fly balls (with an additional 27 percent classified as line drives.) Despite this, he is currently limiting opponents to a .118 BABIP.

Fortunately, the diminutive sample size will allow for things to iron themselves out. Last summer, Ogando was primarily a groundball pitcher, getting a worm-burner 45 percent of the time in the minors and 44 percent of the time in the majors. Last year, when hitters made contact, it wasn’t solid contact, as he owned a .268 BABIP (although it goes without saying that all his appearances were in relief). It remains to be seen if he is one of those pitchers who can continue to suppress bats in longer outings required by a starter.

His second outing was cut short when he developed a blister and it is possible we won’t have much longer to learn about Ogando as a starter. The Rangers were emphatic that his stay in the rotation was only temporary. As the de facto fifth starter, it would figure his place would be the less secure. Plus, the fact he features only two pitches (although both of are quality) means he is probably better suited to the bullpen for the long term –although if he continues to dominate the opposition and builds stamina along the way, it will be awfully difficult for Texas to return him to the bullpen. Like Britton, he is worth the add. Don’t get too attached, though, just in case the Rangers do something crazy and make him the odd man out in a rotation shuffle.

Another rookie off to a fine start is Blue Jay Kyle Drabek. Unlike Britton and Ogando, Drabek was expected to break camp with his team, so in year to year leagues, it’s much less likely he is available. (He is currently owned in 91 percent of ESPN leagues.)

Like the other two starters profiled here, Drabek is getting the ground ball outs—58 percent of all balls in play stay on the ground—and he is also getting a ton of strikeouts. He has punched out 12 batters in 13 innings, but he has also surrendered seven walks. Going forward, it’s safe to expect things to level off for the young starter. He’ll find his command and when he does, it’s likely he’ll see a decrease in strikeouts as he will live around the plate with greater frequency.

However, the ground balls are something that will likely continue. In the minors last year, Drabek induced a grounder 49 percent of the time, well above the Eastern League average of 31 percent. He has proven particularly adept at keeping the ball in the yard as well. Last year he surrendered just 12 home runs in 162 innings of work pitching for Double-A New Hampshire.

If you have a spot for any of the three starters discussed here, and at least one is available in your league, grab him quickly. If, by some stroke of luck, all three are available, I would probably rank them Britton, Drabek and Ogando. Better act quickly: they are not going to stay on the waiver wire for much longer. 

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

Related Content:  The Who,  Triple-A,  Alexi Ogando

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