May 13, 2011
Value Picks in the Rotation
Jon Garland, Los Angeles Dodgers (11 percent ESPN; 12 percent Yahoo!)
Color me surprised that Garland's ownership rates are so low. The right-hander has turned in four consecutive quality starts, starting with a complete game gem against the Atlanta Braves on April 20. Since then, he has not been quite as dominant and his control was a little spotty, but overall he still maintains appeal in deep mixed leagues with an average strikeout rate and a slightly above-average walk rate.
Garland will not maintain a 3.66 ERA going forward, but should end up in the 4.00-4.25 area. Thus far, BABIP has been his savior (.245), but a slice of that could be explained by a dramatic shift in fly balls allowed: 45 percent this year compared to 30 percent last year and 34 percent since 2002. The fly balls mean more home runs, but Garland would need to pitch very poorly for his home run per fly ball rate to spike up significantly above the 10 percent average.
Jesse Litsch, Toronto Blue Jays (2 percent ESPN; 2 percent Yahoo!)
Last week, I was not comfortable recommending any AL-only pitchers. Reader npb7768 came up with a list of five, including Litsch. After some consideration, I realized I had overlooked Litsch. Now, a week later, it is apparent that Litsch is not only fit for AL-only leagues, but mixed leagues as well.
What impresses me most about Litsch is the jump in strikeout rate. His rates were mediocre in his first two seasons in 2007 and '08, at 4.1 and 5.1 respectively. A pitcher's strikeout rate is one of the quickest statistics to stabilize, requiring roughly 150 batters faced (via FanGraphs Saber Library); Litsch has faced 174 batters thus far. Additionally, Litsch showed similar strikeout rates in the minors, finishing with an aggregate K/9 at 7.5. While major league hitters are certainly tougher competition, Litsch's current K-rate is believable.
Another good sign from Litsch is his 47 percent ground ball rate. In tandem with his increased walk rate, he can help himself by inducing double plays. As the research of Matt Swartz and Eric Seidman illustrated, ground balls are more helpful to pitchers with higher walk rates.
Litsch currently has a 4.14 ERA. Believe it or not, I am a believer in Litsch and expect that ERA to trend slightly downward. Given the above ownership rates, he should be available in your league.
Jake Arrieta, Baltimore Orioles (13 percent ESPN; 10 percent Yahoo!)
Arrieta has looked strong thus far, posting a 7.7 K/9 and 3.6 BB/9 to go along with a 4.17 ERA. He looks vastly improved when compared to his performances from last season, when his strikeout and walk rates were nearly identical (4.7 and 4.3, respectively) and equally as unflattering. His popularity has skyrocketed in ESPN leagues, jumping from two percent to 13 percent within the last week. His 4.17 ERA is indicative of what to expect going forward, which is good enough for deep mixed leagues.
Doug Fister, Seattle Mariners (1 percent ESPN; 4 percent Yahoo!)
Fister was hammered for 14 hits in five and two-thirds innings of work on Saturday. I certainly attribute a lot of that to bad BABIP luck, but 10 of the 35 balls put in play were line drives. Additionally, he struck out only one batter, indicating that he was around the zone and quite hittable. Fister does not strike out many batters to begin with, so starts like these are not impossible.
An interesting note to consider is the Mariners' defense. They rank near the bottom in regular old defensive efficiency and park-adjusted defensive efficiency. However, as Conor Dowley pointed out to me on Twitter, the erasure of Milton Bradley and Ryan Langerhans should help improve the defense somewhat (addition by subtraction).
Regardless, Fister has good enough peripheral numbers (5.7 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 44 percent ground balls) and pitches in a very spacious home ballpark. He is fine in AL-only leagues.
Jason Hammel, Colorado Rockies (17 percent ESPN; 10 percent Yahoo!)
Hammel took a line drive off of his calf in his last start against the New York Mets, but is assured he will make his next scheduled start. Hammel was good but not great, allowing four runs in seven innings, striking out five and walking two. The concern, at least for me, has been his decline in strikeouts. Presently, his 5.4 K/9 represents a steep decline from last year's 7.1 and 2009's 6.9.
My philosophy when it comes to pitchers in fantasy baseball is that strikeouts are king. Your mileage may vary, but when I see such a drastic decline in strikeouts (and remember, strikeout rate stabilizes quickly), I worry. His pitches are all slower across the board compared to last year, but it remains to be seen if that is simple correlation or actual causation. The more conservative among you may want to limit Hammel to your NL-only leagues.
Brandon McCarthy, Oakland Athletics (10 percent ESPN; 14 percent Yahoo!)
McCarthy failed to strikeout more than four batters in each of his past three starts, but the right-hander promises great control and plenty of ground balls. With such a propensity to incite contact, nights like April 26 when he allowed 14 hits in five and one-third innings, can become a problem, but they should be few and far between. He is best in AL-only leagues, but can be helpful in deep mixed leagues to specifically help deflate your WHIP.
Jason Marquis, Washington Nationals (7 percent ESPN; 10 percent Yahoo!)
Marquis' ownership rates plummeted by 50 percent in ESPN leagues over the last week, a result of his May 4 start against the Philadelphia Phillies most likely. That, of course, is reactionary and short-sighted as Marquis is great for NL-only leagues and, like McCarthy, has some limited application in deep mixed leagues given his great control. Marquis even has an elite ability to generate ground balls (56 percent presently).
Packing Up the Bags
Homer Bailey, Cincinnati Reds (26 percent ESPN; 27 percent Yahoo!)
Bailey is too popular (read: too cool) to merit further mention. Although his first two starts have come against the Houston Astros, I think we armchair scouts can all agree he looks quite menacing.
Joel Pineiro, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (24 percent ESPN; 11 percent Yahoo!)
What is up with Yahoo! players? Get on the ball! Pineiro has looked exquisite in his three starts, inducing a lot of weak contact, particularly of the ground ball variety. Angels' manager Mike Scioscia even helped the right-hander out by specifically starting his best defensive players, which meant using Howie Kendrick in the outfield. Pineiro should be an instant grab even in the shallower mixed leagues.
Livan Hernandez, Washington Nationals (2 percent ESPN; 6 percent Yahoo!)
Hernandez is fine in NL-only leagues, but he does not merit consistent mention in these lists. Anything that can be said about him has been said already: he offers nothing in the way of excellence in any particular category, though, he is not terrible at a lot of things. Every so often, he will bomb, but that is part of the package with this highly-volatile pitcher.
Clay Mortensen, Colorado Rockies (0 percent ESPN; 0 percent Yahoo!)
MLB.com's Thomas Harding reports that Mortensen will start the first game of a two-game set against the San Francisco Giants at Coors Field. The Rockies had to make some adjustments to compensate for a postponed game against the Mets.
Mortensen's six strikeouts and six walks in 14 innings are unimpressive, but he has allowed just one run. His Minor League numbers are not inspiring either, but assuming he improves the strikeout rate in his next couple starts, he is worth a spot start or two in NL-only leagues. His staying power in the Majors is limited this year, but he will be on the Rockies' first line of defense in the event of further injuries to their starting staff.
Phil Humber, Chicago White Sox (7 percent ESPN, 11 percent Yahoo!)
White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen will be experimenting with a six-man rotation as they attempt to see what Jake Peavy has left in the tank. If Peavy pitches well and Humber does not throw at a Cy Young level, Humber will likely be bumped out of the rotation. For the time being, however, Humber is still fine in AL-only leagues. Realize, though, that he will have slightly less opportunities to pitch (roughly one start less per month than a typical starter) but most AL managers have a lot of moving parts on and off their rosters anyway.
Humber has pitched better than the White Sox could have hoped, posting a 2.97 ERA after six starts. The rest of his numbers are about average across the board, speaking to a pitcher whose ERA should end up in the mid-4.00's over a larger sample size.
Bill Baer is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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