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January 24, 2013

The Keeper Reaper

Starting Pitching for 1/24/13

by Paul Sporer

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There’s no general theme for today’s Keeper Reaper; instead, I’m going big with a pair of 500-word breakdowns on a pair of intriguing National Leaguers.

Jordan Zimmermann | Washington Nationals
Shallow (30 keepers): No
Medium (60 keepers): Fringe
Deep (90 keepers): Yes
NL-only (60 keepers): Yes
Super Deep (200 keepers): Yes

The oft-underrated second fiddle to Stephen Strasburg started to get noticed with his big 2012.  Now two years removed from Tommy John surgery, Zimmermann finally put in a full season with 32 starts, 196 innings, and some impressive results. His 2.94 ERA was baseball’s 10th-best mark among qualified starters; while he was 20th in WHIP, his 1.17 mark was actually the 13th-lowest figure if you count ties.

With a 94-mph four-seamer and 87-mph slider, Zimm has the stuff and pedigree to be a heavy strikeout guy, but he believes that strikeouts run his pitch count up too high and cost him innings (though, in general, strikeouts don’t actually elevate pitch counts). As he discussed in this 2011 interview, conducted after his fifth start of the season when he had registered just 14 strikeouts in nearly 30 innings, he is more than content working for a groundball out instead. It was more of the same in 2012; his strikeout rate stayed almost exactly the same (19 percent, which is league average for starters). His groundball rate jumped four percent to 43 percent while his fly-ball rate tumbled from 42 to 33 percent.

Despite his insistence that he is completely fine eschewing strikeouts for groundballs, we know there is an extra reserve of strikeout potential in that arm, not only because we saw it in his 91-inning rookie season when he fanned 92 but also because we saw him use them as a weapon in the second-half. In the first-half, he fanned about 16 percent of the batters he faced with a 50 percent groundball rate but flipped in the second-half, striking out 22 percent of batters with just a 36 percent groundball rate. For the record, his 2.77 first-half ERA bested his 3.11 in the second-half.

Perhaps he wanted to prove his point about pitch conservation just to make sure he was right. He averaged nearly 6 2/3 innings per outing in the first half, disposing of batters in 3.6 pitchers per plate appearance. The innings dropped to 5 2/3 per outing in the second half while the P/PA jumped a half pitch to 4.1. It may not seem like much, but over a full season it could be another 30 innings and a difference of nearly 400 pitches on his arm. Of course, it’s not necessarily the added strikeouts that caused the lessened efficiency.  It’s much more likely that the reduced groundball rate and the increased walk rate (1.8 to 2.2 BB/9) are the culprits.

Zimmermann is still learning how to be an Adam Wainwright or Cliff Lee type where he is both pitch-efficient and a strikeout pitcher. He’ll get there, but it might not start to click until 2014-2015. For that reason, it is too difficult to fully recommend that he be kept in medium-sized mixers. Talent isn’t dispersed evenly, so we can’t just look at average draft positions to determine a keeper value, so he gets a “Fringe” value for those leagues as I can easily envision a team with four strong hitters wanting to keep a pitcher for their fifth but having Tim Lincecum as their supposed ace and deciding that Zimmermann better fits the bill.

Mat Latos | Cincinnati Reds
Shallow (30 keepers): No
Medium (60 keepers): Yes
Deep (90 keepers): Yes
AL-only (60 keepers): Yes
Super Deep (200 keepers): Yes

Latos zoomed through the minors, getting markedly better each year and spending just 47 innings in Double-A before reaching the big leagues for good in 2009. His 51-inning rookie season was nothing to write home about, but his sophomore campaign was incredible, and it was a driving force behind the Padres contending for most of the year. His numbers suggested he might be due for a bit of regression, and it came, yet you would’ve thought he imploded to hear some folks tell it. That simply wasn’t the case on any level.

In fact, after a rough April (4.98 ERA in four starts), he posted a 3.28 ERA the rest of the way with great peripherals. He’d actually pitched to a 6.20 ERA in April of 2010, making his 2.92 final mark that much more impressive. His trade to the Reds wasn’t validation of the chatter about his allegedly unspectacular 2011, though; San Diego collected an absolute mint in return, and the Reds got the front-liner they sought. There was concern over whether or not Latos could hack it outside of Petco and in the hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark despite just minor degradation in 2011 and peripherals that were actually better on road trips during his magical 2010. 

Unsurprisingly, these concerns grew louder when Latos labored through April (sensing a pattern?) in 2012. He had a 5.97 ERA in five starts despite dropping seven shutout innings at home against the Giants into the mix. Latos may have a preparation problem where either he doesn’t start getting ready for the season early enough or doesn’t take Spring Training seriously enough. He has a 5.73 ERA in 71 career April innings with an 18 percent strikeout rate that is easily his worst in any month. He has a 3.12 ERA in his other 568 innings spanning the other five months with a 24 percent strikeout rate that only dips below 24 in one month, August’s 22 percent.

This is a 25-year-old fringe ace that only needs to iron out something above the shoulders to greatly improve. Mind you, there are no guarantees that he does that ironing out, but I would rather bet on mental intangibles coming together than having to project skills gains, even from someone who shows the potential for said skills. Latos has three years of the skills on the table. Oh, and for those worried about the strikeout rate drop, I’d point out that removing the Aprils from the last two years shows a consistent 23 percent strikeout rate in both seasons for the five months that he actually seems to be trying. That is a drop from 2010’s five-month rate of 27 percent, but the main point is that I’m not concerned. There is strikeout-per-inning potential in his arm.

His strikeout talent and three-year track record is enough to warrant a recommendation across the entire 60-keeper format, especially if you built a team in a mold I’m accustomed to where you wait until the eighth round or so for your first pitcher and thus Latos is your de facto ace.

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

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