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October 27, 2011

The Keeper Reaper

Starting Pitching for 10/27/11

by Mike Petriello

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Once again, today’s list of starters is entirely generated from your requests, and I’ve tried to hit a few new teams that don’t get much discussion around here. Keep ‘em coming!

Bud Norris | Houston Astros
Shallow: NO
Medium:
NO
Deep: BORDERLINE
NL-only:
 YES
Super Deep: 
YES

Admit it: you never really think about Bud Norris. He’s the number three starter on the worst team in baseball, he’s lost double-digit games in each of the last two years, and he was never a top-rated prospect. He’s just a guy. Right?

Perhaps that’s unfair to Norris, because he’s shown an impressive ability to miss bats in his short career, with his 10.5 percent swinging-strike percentage last year topping that of both Josh Beckett and Justin Verlander, tied for 13thin baseball. And that was actually the lowest rate of Norris’s three years in the bigs, but since he compensated for that with by far the lowest walk rate of his career, the resulting 2.51 K/BB was a new best for him, and that makes him valuable.

There’s two concerns here, however. First and foremost, the Astros are atrocious and don’t figure to improve much any time soon. This shouldn’t reflect poorly on Norris’s ability as a pitcher, but in the world of fantasy where wins do matter, we’ve already seen the effect a lousy supporting cast can have on his record. Norris also left his last start early (and skipped his final scheduled start) with shoulder discomfort, though all indications are that it’s not serious and the Astros were merely being conservative. Of course, Norris was less effective in the second half (.808 OPS against) than he was in the first half (.678 OPS), so it’s worth keeping an eye on.

Felipe Paulino | Kansas City Royals
Shallow: NO
Medium:
NO
Deep: BORDERLINE
AL-only:
YES
Super Deep: 
YES

Heck of a year for Paulino, right? Traded from Houston to Colorado for the mediocre Clint Barmes last offseason, Paulino was unable to keep the ball in the park as a Rockie and was designated for assignment before being traded to Kansas City in late May. I remember at the time I advocated the Dodgers going after him on my own blog, reasoning that his 25 percent HR/FB rate was unsustainable (as was a .455 BABIP, which, come on) and that a player with such a live arm could still be useful.

Paulino ended up becoming essentially the most useful KC starter, keeping an identical 8.59 K/9 rate to the one he posted in Colorado, but walking less and slicing his HR/9 rate by more than half helped him achieve a 3.51 FIP over 124 innings—an incredible value considering that the Royals picked him up off the scrap heap for essentially nothing.

If anything, Paulino improved as the season went on, despite the fact that he exceeded his previous season high by over 40 innings pitched. In his final four starts, he had a 31/7 K/BB, and while it’s worth noting that he did face the Mariners, Twins, and White Sox in three of those starts, it’s still hard to argue with that kind of production.

If there’s a concern at all here, it’s that while Paulino’s season was solid, he’s on his third team in the last twelve months and he doesn’t have the greatest track record, so there’s no guarantee he can repeat this. (Also, he somehow managed just four wins, which again, matters a whole lot more in fantasy than in the real world.) He’s still a great buy-low candidate, just not someone worth overbidding on.

Tim Hudson | Atlanta Braves
Shallow: YES
Medium:
YES
Deep: YES
NL-only:
YES
Super Deep: YES

At 35 years old and in his second full season back from Tommy John surgery, all Hudson did was have possibly the finest season of his career. Despite seeing his ERA jump from 2.83 to 3.22, Hudson increased his K/9 rate by 1.1 over 2010 while simultaneously lowering his walk rate, leading to a career best 2.82 K/BB and a career best 3.44 SIERA.

Hudson, using his slider more than ever, continued to be one of the most extreme groundball pitchers in the majors, contributing to a below-average HR/9 rate. Even when the Braves collapsed in September, Hudson wasn’t a main culprit; though he did have a tough outing against the Cardinals on September 11, he had a 32/11 K/BB and 3.79 ERA in six starts over the final month.

So sure, Hudson will turn 37 next year, and that’s always a bit worrisome. But with the exception of his one big arm injury, he’s been a reliable, dominating starter for over a decade now, showing no signs of slowing down. What’s not to like?

Matt Garza | Chicago Cubs
Shallow:
YES
Medium:
YES
Deep: YES
NL-only:
YES
Super Deep:
YES

It’s hard to look at Garza’s first year in the National League as anything but a massive success; despite his pedestrian (and, you know, meaningless) 10-10 record on a lousy Cubs team, he rode a career-best K/BB ratio to a stellar 2.95 FIP. It certainly helped that his swinging strike percentage, usually in the 7-8 percent range, jumped to 11.2 percent.

So what happened? It’s easy to point to Garza’s move from the AL East to the NL Central, and that’s probably part of it. But even more interesting is that Garza increased his fastball velocity to a level he hasn’t seen since 2007 and used it far less than he ever has, mixing in more curveballs, changeups, and sliders. In each of the last three years, Garza threw his fastball at least 71 percent of the time, but that dropped to 53 percent as he gained confidence in his secondary offerings; his slider ranked as the seventh most valuable in baseball.

If there’s one benefit to Garza’s .500 record, it’s that it hurts his perception. That doesn’t help him, of course, but it could certainly help you, if that lowers his value in the eyes of others to where he is easily obtainable.

Josh Johnson | Florida Marlins
Shallow: BORDERLINE
Medium:
YES
Deep: YES
NL-only: YES
Super Deep: YES

Similar to our look at Adam Wainwright last week, if Johnson is healthy, he’s one of the elite pitchers in baseball. The question, of course, is “what is he when he’s not healthy?” Johnson made just nine starts in 2011 before missing the rest of the season with soreness in his right shoulder, though he has thus far avoided surgery. He reportedly threw batting practice earlier this month and should be ready to go for spring training.

There’s really no need to discuss Johnson’s on-field performance here, since we know that when he’s right, he’s one of the best.  Really, your keeper decision here is all about the price it would require and your tolerance for risk. If keeping Johnson is going to require a high draft pick or a large fee, then it’s worth wondering if you can take that risk on a guy who has made more than 25 starts just twice. Johnson is clearly a high-risk/high-reward play and worth it if the situation is right, but just make sure you’re not risking your season on him being healthy.

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

Related Content:  Bud Norris

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Spinning Yarn: Can We ... (10/26)
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