February 23, 2012
Preseason Value Picks
Starting Pitchers for 2/23/12
It’s a fun time of year, isn’t it? Pitchers and catchers have reported to camps across Arizona and Florida, Frank McCourt is set to be exiled on a rocket into the sun—from what I understand—and fantasy drafts are really starting to get moving. Remember, it’s fun to look for the big trade as the deadline approaches over the summer, but the overwhelming majority of leagues are won and lost now, when keepers are decided upon and draft strategies are solidified. Here’s a look at four starting pitchers who may not be first round picks but should be on your mind when draft day arrives. As always, feel free to suggest others in the comments.
Is there a more underrated starting pitcher than Minnesota’s Scott Baker? There’s a pretty good argument to be made that if he’s not at the top of that list, he’s at least in the picture, because that ADP (taken from mockdraftcentral.com) has him in the neighborhood of Ryan Vogelsong and Mike Leake. That’s not exactly the neighborhood that you refuse to walk through at night, but, well, let’s just say the schools there aren’t very good. Baker never gets much love because he seems like the stereotypical Minnesota starter that the Twins love to collect: guys who get by far more on command and pitchability than they do with velocity or elite talent (think Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn, Brian Duensing, etc.). Baker seems to fit the mold because doesn’t throw that hard (topping out around 90-91 miles per hour) and because he’s put up an ERA north of four in three of the last four seasons; even his name—“Scott Baker”—makes you yawn just thinking about it.
But that’s unfair to Baker, who has been a two-to-three win pitcher dating back to 2007 and who belongs to a group of just 24 pitchers who have managed to keep a swinging-strike percentage of 10 percent or higher dating back to 2008 (now there’s a neighborhood you want to live in, littered with Sabathias, Hamels, Lincecums, Harens, and Kershaws). Despite winning fewer than 10 games for the first time since 2007 as Minnesota sank to the bottom of the division, Baker took a big step forward in setting career bests in ERA (3.14), FIP (3.45), K/9 (8.2), and K/BB (3.84).
The concern you should have with Baker is that he missed two months of 2011 between two separate DL stints due to elbow soreness, meaning that he didn’t make a start after August 8 (though he did return in September for two scoreless relief appearances). Baker managed to avoid surgery and is reportedly healthy heading into camp, which is a good sign, and PECOTA is cautiously optimistic, anticipating a slight decrease in strikeouts but still enough to keep his K/BB in the 3.5 range.
Beachy has been a hot topic around the fantasy world this offseason, and with good reason. Anytime you have a guy who went undrafted in most leagues breakout to the tune of 169 strikeouts in just 141 innings, people are going to wonder if he can do it again. In fact, Derek Carty and Michael Jong wondered just that in yesterday’s NL East Season Preview, and while each admitted there was a large degree of uncertainty with Beachy, both were largely optimistic that he’ll be able to deliver a productive (even if not quite as good) year in 2012.
PECOTA likes what it sees as well, suggesting that Beachy will strike out a batter per inning with a nearly-identical ERA to what he posted in 2011, and even gives him a 55 percent improvement rate. Sorting by K/9, the only pitchers who pitched a majority of 2011 in the big leagues as starters that the system sees as outperforming Beachy would be Tim Lincecum, Brandon Morrow, and Stephen Strasburg, and that’s pretty nice company to be in.
While Beachy’s short track record is a legitimate cause for caution, there’s potential there that the other starters in his dollar range just don’t have. I know I’d certainly prefer him at these rates over the Gavin Floyds, Erik Bedards, Colby Lewises, and Ted Lillys of the world. There’s a risk that can’t be discounted, but if you want to win fantasy leagues, there are times where taking that chance is necessary. Judging by all the information we have, Beachy is worth that risk.
Way down in the $1 fun bin of mixed leagues, along with the likes of Carl Pavano and Tim Stauffer, is Anibal Sanchez, whom I looked at back in December. At the time, I suggested that despite his big strikeout season (202 in 196 innings), Sanchez may yet be undervalued heading into 2012. Now that draft day is getting close, it appears that this may indeed be the case, and it’s not hard to see why; his 8-9 record was hardly inspiring, and the big-ticket Marlins additions this year pushed him even further out of a spotlight he never really had in the first place.
After years of shoulder issues, Sanchez has now had two consecutive full seasons of health, and BP2012 offers some insight into his newfound effectiveness:
He put less emphasis on his secondary offerings last year, opting to go with his two best pitches, a lively low-90s fastball and hard slider, nearly 60 percent of the time, and even more often against righties. The change led to the NL's fifth-best strikeout percentage (24 percent) and a 41 percent increase in Sanchez's SO/BB ratio.
Like Beachy, the big question is whether Sanchez can maintain his big step forward. PECOTA sees regression in strikeouts to 7.5 per nine, and that’s fair, since Sanchez’ career rate is 7.6 and it was at just 7.3 over 2009-10. You won’t win a lot of bets by predicting that Sanchez is going to rack up over 200 whiffs again, but even if you split the difference, you’re looking at a pitcher who should be in the 8.0-9.0 per nine range. That’s valuable, and there’s a good chance that his other peripherals take a step forward as the Marlins move into a new (and reportedly pitcher-friendly) park. Plus, the team has upgraded their offense, defense, and bullpen with the additions of Jose Reyes and Heath Bell. All that for $1? Yes, please.
I know, I know. All Yankee fans can look away in disgust at this point. This isn’t exactly a recommendation for you to suddenly slot Burnett high on your draft board, but if you’re looking for value… well, look at it this way: everyone hates A.J. Burnett, right? The five-plus ERA over the last two years, the heightened homer rate, the on-field arguments with his manager, the desperation of the Yankees to eat his salary if it meant getting him out of town—they’re all valid reasons to dislike him.
It also means, however, that there’s more than a few fantasy owners who would rather draft Carol Burnett than A.J., and as long as we’re talking about the very end of the roster, that may be short-sighted. For all of his flaws, Burnett is still an effective strikeout artist—one who whiffed just under a man per inning last year—and now he gets to leave the toughest division in baseball and replace it with an NL Central full of Astros and Cubs. (Here it should be noted that the PECOTA figures above were generated while he was still expected to be a member of the Yankees.)
Really, Burnett’s underlying strikeout, walk, and hit peripherals weren’t terrible last year; he was crushed by a brutal 1.47 HR/9 rate. Simply getting out of Yankee Stadium (where his OPS-allowed was more than 100 points higher than on the road in 2011) and into one of the majors’ best parks at suppressing homers, PNC Park, should help him greatly. That’s not going to turn him into some sort of All-Star, of course, especially since even an improved Burnett on a lousy Pirates club isn’t likely to match the 11 wins the Yankees bashed out for him last season. But I’ll say this: if you can withstand the hit to your ego from the other league owners laughing at you, there’s value in strikeouts and innings coming from a zero-cost investment.