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March 22, 2013

Raising Aces

Pulling the Pin

by Doug Thorburn

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As a die-hard fantasy baseball fanatic, I am aware of the pressing decisions to be made over the next two weekends. I have been playing in a trio of leagues with my college buds that extend back over a decade, including keeper leagues in AL- and NL-only as well as mixed-league formats, and our two most critical drafts are this Sunday. At the risk of salting my own game in the event that my league-mates are reading this article, I want to address an issue that can make a big difference on draft day: pitcher blow-ups.

Paul Sporer and I discussed these players during Part Two of the Towers of Power podcast on pitchers last week, referring to them as “grenades” who can blow up a good month's worth of ratios with a single disaster start. The podcast generated a bunch of questions about the grenade concept, and I was inspired to cover it in more detail by reader C.C.:

Is there an article in which you expound on this subject? Or is there somewhere on the website where I could see this statistic as I plan my strategy for an auction draft and want to avoid the Luke Hochevars of the world? … I can probably just look at ERA/WHiP statistics, but it would be nice to see those guys that killed you in 20-30% of their starts.

Locating these IEDs of fantasy destruction requires scouring game logs or crawling through the Play Index at baseball-reference, but C.C.'s suggestion has motivated me to do the leg work for your fantasy-drafting purposes. It’s easy to overlook the intricacies of the baseball season when preparing for draft day, while immersed in spreadsheets of full-season stats and projections. During the season, though, there are days when a pitcher just doesn't have it, and the inability to line up the gears of his delivery results in misplaced pitches and crooked numbers on the scoreboard. For the fantasy manager, these “blow-ups” can have a lasting impact on the league standings.

Consider the effect of a “typical” disaster start. Let's say that it's the end of April, and your team is staying on pace for the league's 1400-inning limit for pitchers, so you have amassed about 235 innings thus far. You team has a respectable 3.49 ERA at the end of the month, until your number-four starter gets knocked around to the tune of six runs over four innings. It's not a crushing blow, but the team ERA jumps to 3.65, and you probably lose a point or two in the standings in the process. The impact is doubly devastating in the event that you play an A.J. Burnett on the day that he coughs up 12 earnies without escaping the third inning.

The ripple effect of an early-season Blow-Up Start (BUS) can linger into the summer, altering the trajectory of your fantasy team and potentially changing the decision-making paradigm during trade season in keeper leagues. One or two of these games are unavoidable each year, but a team that runs into multiple landmines in April and May will face a long climb back to respectability.

For simplicity, we defined a blow-up start as any that involves five or more earned runs charged to the starting pitcher. It's an admittedly crude tool, as five-run starts come in many different shapes and sizes, but the results reveal some important outliers. In general the worst pitchers have the most blow-up starts, and fantasy managers will have no problem avoiding the pitchers who perpetually explode, but there are a handful of pitchers who finished the season with a respectable stat-line even though the path to those numbers was full of land mines.

Here are the BUS routes for the period from 2010 to 2012:

BUS 2010 - 2012

 

BUS

GS

BUS %

Nick Blackburn

29

71

40.8%

Luke Hochevar

24

80

30.0%

Gavin Floyd

24

90

26.7%

Jeremy Guthrie

23

93

24.7%

Randy Wolf

22

93

23.7%

Ervin Santana

22

96

22.9%

Bronson Arroyo

22

97

22.7%

Francisco Liriano

21

83

25.3%

Jason Vargas

21

96

21.9%

Justin Masterson

21

96

21.9%

Nick Blackburn is in a class by himself, both in terms of the volume of BUSes as well as the frequency. Hopefully the readers already know to avoid getting Blackburned, but this chart should put the final nail in his coffin. Most of these pitchers are buried far enough down the depth charts to avoid temptation, but the Floyd Grenade stands out among this group, with a three-year run from 2010 to 2012 of seven or more BUSes per season. Floyd ties for the second-largest BUS count in baseball over the last three years, and his BUS frequency is also among the worst in the game.

There is much more intrigue when looking at the patterns higher up on the draft board. The top pitchers in the game have predictably low BUS rates, with clubhouse leader Justin Verlander checking in at just eight percent of his starts over the past three years. Taking a look at the list of top 40 starting pitchers in fantasy baseball this season, the big guns of the top 10 maintain BUS rates that hover around 10 percent, but there are some notable exceptions who miss the mark more than 15 percent of the time.

BUS Rates, Top SP

SP Rank

 

BUS

GS

BUS %

5

Felix Hernandez

16

100

16.0%

7

Cliff Lee

14

90

15.6%

9

Yu Darvish

6

29

20.7%

15

Zack Greinke

17

95

17.9%

Felix Hernandez ranks fifth on the list, but his frequency of a BUS in 16 percent of his starts is higher than one would like from an ace. The same goes for Cliff Lee, who is an enigma. Lee shows the ability to repeat his delivery despite the presence of several mechanical barriers, but things tend to unravel for him on those days where he can't find the ideal release point.

Yu Darvish gets a pardon due to the one-year sample, and his incredible development throughout the season is reason for optimism. I wouldn't necessarily drop Darvish down the draft board due to his 2012 BUS rate, and I’m anticipating a leap forward for him in 2013. From here on out, we will consider only those pitchers with at least 60 starts on their resumes over the last three years.

There is no such excuse for Zack Greinke, who has a penchant for the occasional blow-up despite having the stuff to consistently dominate. Paul detailed Greinke's situation in the SP Guide as well as the podcast, and I encourage the readers to take a look at his assessment of the new Dodger.

SP Rank

 

BUS

GS

BUS %

19

James Shields

19

99

19.2%

21

Max Scherzer

19

96

19.8%

25

Dan Haren

19

99

19.2%

26

Doug Fister

13

85

15.3%

James Shields is likely to see his BUS fare go up in light of his move away from the cozy Tampa defense to a KC crew that ranked dead last in the AL in defensive efficiency last season. The outlook is brighter for Tiger Max Scherzer, whose second-half surge included just a single five-run BUS in his last 19 starts of the season.

The health of Dan Haren weighs heavily on his projections, as down-sloping velocity trends and persistent back issues provide plenty of reason for caution. He looks to be a prime wait-and-see candidate, mostly to avoid an April thrashing in the event that his stuff and command lags into the season. Detroit has been kind to Doug Fister, and his BUS rate is down to 13.9 percent in his 36 starts for the Tigers, raising expectations for this season.

SP Rank

 

BUS

GS

BUS %

29

Jake Peavy

16

67

23.9%

33

Tim Lincecum

20

99

20.2%

36

Brandon Morrow

19

77

24.7%

38

Josh Beckett

17

79

21.5%

We have to up the ante as we move further down the list, since blow-up starts are expected with more frequency the worse the pitchers get, so I’ve raised the bar to 20 percent as we move beyond the top 25 arms.

Jake Peavy is morphing into a different pitcher as he ages, and though he struggled to find his form when returning from his vicious detached latissimus dorsi, the Peavy of 2012 trimmed his BUS rides to five in his 32 starts (15.6 percent). Mr. Tim's Wild Ride was not much fun for the San Francisco faithful last season; his 10 BUSes were tied for second in baseball. He struggled to find his timing and trademark momentum throughout the season, and the Freak with the high-intensity delivery will need to stay in top shape in order to rediscover his Cy Young past.

Brandon Morrow is notorious for showing up as a different pitcher each day that he takes the mound, but his upside will cause somebody to overbid for his services, dreaming that this is the year that he finally puts it all together. That optimism could cause a manager to overlook a BUS or two early in the season, leaving him or her vulnerable to multiple grenade-induced wounds over the summer. Meanwhile, Josh Beckett is trying to reinvent himself as a command pitcher as the heat dies on his fastball, but he has the mechanical profile to minimize the damage as he drifts deeper into his 30s. 

On the other end of the spectrum are those pitchers who are consistent from game to game, month to month, and even year to year. These pitchers personify the “ace” label and will cost you a pretty penny on draft day, but the upside to rostering one of the top arms is that you can better afford the risk of some of the BUS drivers. And every once in a while, there comes a safe pitcher with a stable profile whom everyone doubts because he chooses to buck convention. I refer to him simply as: the Helix.

 

BUS

GS

BUS %

Jeremy Hellickson

3

64

4.7%

No other pitcher is even close to Jeremy Hellickson's sub-five-percent BUS rate. King Helix is the great equalizer, the ultimate outlier, and his unconventional success is a modern marvel to behold and appreciate.

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

Related Content:  Pitching,  Fantasy

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