January 5, 2012
The Keeper Reaper
Starting Pitchers for 1/5/12
As I write this, my Twitter feed is flying with rumors that Carlos Zambrano may finally be on his way from Chicago to Miami. We’ll see if that ends up happening and what the on-the-field implications might be, but from a pure entertainment angle, I don’t see how you can root against this. This is the same Marlins club that was so stodgy they sent down Logan Morrison because he’s a pain in the behind on Twitter; now they might add the notoriously mouthy Zambrano to a mix that now includes Ozzie Guillen? Bring it on.
As for the Reaper, reader requests are always welcome, and I just wanted to clarify one question I saw in the comments in recent weeks; this column is about keeper decisions. For many of these pitchers, I’d love to have them on my team, but in shallower leagues keeper spots are so slim that if you’re not an elite performer, it’s likely not going to be enough to get kept. In other cases, you could be excellent but due to other circumstances—lack of name recognition, injury concerns—it could make sense strategically to not keep the player and attempt to buy low on them. There are so many different permutations of leagues with different rules out there that each decision needs to be individually made to suit your situation.
When you look at Josh Beckett’s BP player card, it’s hard not to be struck by the sheer amount of injuries he has fought through over the years with a whopping 30 entries in the database since 2002. While many have been minor or variations on the same theme—nine of those entries were for the finger blisters that plagued him for years, and which he’s largely been free of since 2007—when a pitcher like that reaches the dark side of 30, continued health is nearly as important as continued performance. For Beckett, coming off a disastrous 2010 that included a 5.78 ERA and nearly three months of back woes, it was fair to wonder if he’d seen his best days.
To Beckett’s credit, he proved the doubters wrong with a bounce-back 2011, pitching nearly 200 innings with a swinging strike percentage of 10.5 that was his best since his Florida days and which ranked 16th in baseball. Despite dealing with his usual assortment of maladies—a sore elbow in April, the flu in June, a tender knee in July, a bad ankle in September—Beckett managed to stay healthy enough to post a career-best 2.89 ERA, even if it wasn’t quite backed up by a 3.58 FIP. Interestingly enough, Beckett got the job done in a different way than he had ever done before, because for the first time in his career, he allowed more fly balls than grounders.
So what’s ahead for 2012? Again, health is the primary concern, and while it’s a great sign that his troublesome back didn’t flare up in 2011, all of the minor issues that set him back make it hard to think that he’s suddenly found the fountain of youth, particularly as he turns 32 next year. There’s also some concern that his career-low BABIP could rebound toward his average of .290, though all that means is not to expect a repeat of the sparkly ERA from last year. Still, even if that’s the case, Beckett’s a solid fantasy starter if healthy, one who can collect strikeouts, and one who is backed by a quality club. His health risks drop him a tier for me, but he’s certainly worth a spot.
Ah, the wonders of home run rate. Myers succeeded for years in Philadelphia as a relatively decent innings-eater, generally striking out enough to overcome his large gopherball problem. After an injury-plagued 2009, he landed in Houston on a reasonable one-year deal. Voila! Myers struck out about the same as he had in his last healthy year with Philadelphia and walked slightly fewer, but in large part due to a home run rate that was just 0.8 per nine—this, after being below 1.18 exactly once in his career—he was rewarded with a surprising 14-8, 3.14 campaign. That was good enough to get him a contract extension, some Cy Young notice, and some amount of positive fantasy attention.
Unfortunately for anyone who might have been counting on him, Myers followed that up with a 2011 that featured a nearly identical K/BB rate and BABIP yet with a home run rate that returned to its usual lofty norm, and the 30-year-old finished a disappointing 7-14, 4.46. If you can accept that he was never as good as he seemed in 2010, then nor was he as bad as those marks make him look in 2011. Always a subject of trade rumors, Myers finished the season on a tear—51/15 K/BB over his final ten starts—and he’s largely the same as he ever was. A useful back-end pitcher for a real club? Sure. A late-round flyer for your fantasy team? Why not. A keeper? Not likely.
Masterson’s an interesting case because he was very good for the Indians last year, providing a top-25 FIP in 216 innings while being one of the hardest pitchers in baseball to take deep, allowing just eleven homers in that time. For Cleveland, that’s great, and it makes their targeting of him in the 2009 Victor Martinez trade look wise.
But while Masterson’s style may help to bring him success in the American League, it does limit him somewhat in your fantasy league. Striking out 6.58 per nine is decent but hardly elite, and that’s a number which has decreased in each year since 2009. No one in baseball threw their fastball more often than Masterson last season, and since he’s only a two-pitch pitcher it’s difficult for him to generate swinging strikes. His success largely depends on the infield behind him, and there’s some question about just how good the Cleveland middle infield can be; BP’s Defensive Efficiency rated the Cleveland fielding unit as middle-of-the-pack, though most fielding metrics don’t like shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, and second baseman Jason Kipnis is still a somewhat raw converted outfielder.
A few weeks ago, our own Derek Carty picked up Masterson in the 14th round of a 5x5, 15-team mock draft, and while that’s just one draft incredibly early in the offseason, that does seem about right for him. In most leagues, that’s not quite enough to warrant a keeper spot, though he’ll absolutely provide value.
In his first full year back from August 2009 Tommy John surgery, Zimmermann put up a 2011 that can only be termed as a success, providing 161 1/3 innings of 3.16 FIP ball to the Nationals. Particularly encouraging, given that we know that control is often the last thing to return after a zipper, is that Zimmermann walked only 1.73 batters per nine—better than his career minor-league rate of 2.8. Had he picked up the two additional outs he needed to qualify, his FIP would have placed him right in between Tim Lincecum and Jared Weaver, two names you might have heard of.
There’s still room for progress here, and the good news is that Zimmermann began to show it as last season went on. On the surface, striking out fewer than seven per nine is hardly dominating, but take a deeper look. Prior to the All-Star Break, that number was 6.4; post-break, it was 8.2. Even better, he managed to do that without losing control, to the point where his K/BB was an excellent 42/10 in his final eight starts.
Considering that Zimmermann was a strikeout machine in the minors—more than one per inning—it’s not hard to see that he’s slowly improving as he gets further away from his surgery. In 2012, with another full year behind him, Zimmermann should be set loose by the Nats and is in great position to move into the upper echelon of National League starters.