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January 31, 2013

The Keeper Reaper

Starting Pitching for 1/31/13

by Paul Sporer

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Last week’s in-depth look at a couple of players went well, so let’s try it again this week using two pitchers who were both on my list to be covered and recently requested by commenters. 

Gio Gonzalez | Washington Nationals
Shallow (30 keepers): Fringe
Medium (60 keepers): Yes
Deep (90 keepers): Yes
NL-only (60 keepers): Yes
Super Deep (200 keepers): Yes

Gonzalez’s situation would change if trouble were to come his way as a result of the Miami New Times report from earlier this week, but from everything I’ve read, he’s not in grave danger like other players, including Alex Rodriguez, who reportedly were supplied by the clinic suspected of distributing performance-enhancing drugs. Gonzalez is a pitcher I have been tracking dating back to his first stint with the White Sox, through his multiple trades, and finally through his debut with the A’s. He has come along slowly and, even after a brilliant age-26 season, he is still not a finished product. 

We finally saw Gonzalez slice into his bloated walk rate last year, as he cut it below 10 percent for the first time in his career and paired it with a career-best 25.2 percent strikeout rate—two improvements that led directly to his breakout campaign. Despite all of that, and even though he logged his lowest pitches-per-plate-appearance figure ever (3.89), Gonzalez actually threw 2 2/3 fewer innings last year than he did in 2011, over an equal number of starts (32). This appears to be the result of pinch-hitter considerations in the National League and other factors beyond his control. Looking at the game log, we find:

  • On July 24, he was pulled after seven with just 87 pitches because he was pinch-hit for with two on, two out, and a 5-1 lead over the Mets. 
  • On Sept. 22, he was pulled after seven with just 90 pitches as the Nats had a 10-2 lead over the Brewers and he was set to lead off the bottom of the seventh. 
  • On April 24, he was pulled after six innings and 91 pitches with two on and one out in a 0-0 tie. His pinch hitter, Chad Tracy, hit a two-run single. The Nats would win, 3-1, over the Padres. 
  • On April 17, he was pulled after seven innings and 91 pitches in the midst of a 1-0 gem against Houston. This was a normal substitution; his lineup spot was not up in the bottom of the seventh. 
  • On Sept. 5, he was pulled after seven innings and 93 pitches when his lineup spot came up in an 8-0 blowout over the Cubs that eventually ended, 9-1. The Nats were leading 6-0 to start the bottom of the seventh, when back-to-back home runs from Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa brought on the rout. 

Those are just five examples in which situational needs—from the nuances of managing in the senior circuit to the desire to conserve a young hurler’s bullets in a blowout—cost Gonzalez innings. 

And, in addition to a potential increase in counting stats resulting from a bump in his innings total, there are other areas in which Gonzalez has the talent to improve. For example, in the near term, issuing free passes to fewer than 8.5 percent of the batters that he faces seems a reasonable goal. Gonzalez deserves keeper consideration in all formats, though you may have to squeeze him out in shallow leagues, where similarly talented pitchers with a longer track record of performance could be available.

Max Scherzer | Detroit Tigers
Shallow (30 keepers): Fringe
Medium (60 keepers): Yes
Deep (90 keepers): Yes
AL-only (60 keepers): Yes
Super Deep (200 keepers): Yes

Although Scherzer garnered far less attention than other pitchers who enjoyed breakout campaigns in 2012, he actually stacks up well against many of them, including Gonzalez. On the surface, it may appear that Gonzalez had the upper hand, because the southpaw bested Scherzer in ERA (by 0.85), WHIP (by 0.14) and wins (by five), but a closer look shows they weren’t quite that far apart. Scherzer topped Gonzalez handily in strikeout rate, 29.4 percent to 25.2 percent, and his 7.6 percent walk rate was significantly better than Gonzalez’s 9.3 percent mark, which—as I mentioned earlier—was the lefty’s best effort to date.

So what caused the disparity in their results? 

Scherzer was thrashed in April to the tune of 7.77 ERA in 24 1/3 innings, while Gonzalez had a minute 1.82 ERA in 29 2/3 frames. That accounts for the large discrepancy in their basic rate stats for the entire season, and while I’m not trying to diminish Gonzalez in the slightest, I hope that this illustrates Scherzer’s potential value going forward. 

Here is what they did, from May through the end of the regular season:

Here, Scherzer again dwarfs Gonzalez in the base skills, and the ERA and WHIP differences disappear. (I didn’t score the win-loss record in favor of either, because Scherzer had a better percentage while Gonzalez had more wins.) I’ll reiterate that this isn’t a “slam Gio” party, but a “praise Max” event. If you were impressed with Gonzalez, then you ought to pay attention to Scherzer’s improvement, too. 

Consistency has always been the missing ingredient with Scherzer, but while his 2012 season included both peaks and valleys, he finally strung together five consecutive months of quality work. In doing so, Scherzer took a major step toward becoming the top-of-the-rotation stud that many dreamed of when he fanned 32 percent of the batters that he faced in his first two professional seasons. After leading the majors in strikeout rate last year—and ranking second in total strikeouts to teammate Justin Verlander— Scherzer is ready to be a fantasy ace. You should value him as a top-level pitcher in your keeper leagues.

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

2 comments have been left for this article.

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The BP Wayback Machine... (01/31)
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