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February 20, 2015

The Adjuster

Starting Pitchers

by Wilson Karaman

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On to the bump we go! While this series has previously focused on hitting adjustments in OBP and points formats, today we tackle starters in non-standard leagues. Judging by our Bat Signal data I decided to focus today on leagues that utilize a penalty for Walks, be it in ratio form (K-BB, K/BB, BB/9) or a negative point value, as well as leagues that utilize Quality Starts as a merciful counting stat replacement for archaic pitcher Wins. I’m more than happy to address any other specific player-and-format questions in the comments below, or if you’ve got a particularly unique league setup that requires a longer discussion of value you can always drop it into a Bat Signal.

In case you missed it, here are our tiered rankings for starting pitchers in standard leagues: Part I and Part II.

Previous articles in this series: Catcher, First Base, Second Base, Third Base, Shortstop, and Outfielders.

Strikeouts-Minus-Walks

Not surprisingly, the leaderboard of best K%-BB% reads as a who’s who of perennial Cy Young Award candidates. But there are also some interesting names in the mix. Beyond the higher-end options, however, points formats in particular that count pitcher Walks among the negative value categories can dramatically elevate the value of some of the more boring, real-life mid-rotation guys who post middling whiff rates but get by on command and control. There are also the handful of guys around who strike out enough batters to offset higher walk rates, and because their latter value inflation can offer draft day value in spite of rougher control.

Arrows Up

Hisashi Iwakuma, SEA
No hurler in the top 30 sees a more high-end value jump in Walks leagues than Iwakuma, whose elite control and just-enough whiff rates combine to turn him into one of the best SP2 options in town in 12-team leagues. He’s posted the fourth-best BB/9 over the past two seasons, finishing second only to Phil Hughes’ historic run last year, and makes for a strong bet to produce outsize value to his standard league ranking once again. Standard: Low-Four Stars, Walks: High-Four Stars

Doug Fister, WAS
Fister continued to roll along last season at a breakneck pace every time he toed the rubber. His 3.6 percent walk rate was tied for the fourth-lowest mark in the majors, and he’s now posted a sub-2.0 BB/9 mark in four of the past five seasons. His already-mediocre whiff rate vanished into thin air last season, and while his groundball rate also ticked south he still managed to control contact at an elite level. There’s some risk here if the strikeouts don’t rebound and he gets a little less lucky next season, but his elite control gives him a nice floor as a top-shelf SP3. Standard: High-Three Stars, Walks: Low-Four Stars

Cliff Lee, PHI
Lee’s injury concerns have tumbled him down draft boards far and wide this offseason, as he’s currently going just 37th among starting pitchers and 164th overall. The risk-reward here is extreme, nowhere moreso than Walk leagues. Lee hasn’t posted a walk rate north of four percent since 2011, and over the past six seasons he’s posted the lowest walk rate in baseball of any pitcher to log 500 innings. If he’s healthy he’s a rock-solid SP3 in 12-teamers on account of his elite Walk and WHIP numbers, and there’s room for more. The “if” is significantly larger than the strike zone, however. Standard: Three Stars, Walks: High-Three Stars

Brandon McCarthy, LAD
McCarthy was reborn in the Bronx last summer after the Yankees unleashed his cutter, and the Dodgers responded with a full buy-in despite McCarthy’s long history of health issues. Those concerns persist into next year, and they’re a large part of the built-in risk that’s kept his ADP in check. In leagues with a walk penalty he makes for an excellent mid-rotation target despite those concerns, as he’s posted a walk rate of exactly one and a half-per-nine over the past four seasons when he has been able to toe the rubber. Worst case scenario, that kind of elite control will allow you to snag a high-whiff/high-walk type of fill-in off the wire to cover for his lost starts if and when he does hit the DL. Standard: Low-Two Stars, Walks: High-Two Stars

Henderson Alvarez, MIA
Alvarez took some significant strides forward last season, both in terms of his workload and results. He lacks a put-away pitch to rack up an acceptable number of strikeouts, and that’s unlikely to change. His extreme groundball tendencies and good velocity have kept him on standard radars for the last couple seasons, but in leagues with a walk penalty he make for an intriguing back-end option. His walk rate last year was tied for 13th among starters with 100 innings, and he’s made modest, incremental improvement in missing bats each of the past three seasons. The package is enough to vault him comfortably into the top 75, and there’s upside here for a run at top-60 production in Walks leagues. Standard: High-One Star, Walks: Two Stars

Others: Masahiro Tanaka, NYY (Standard: Three Stars, Walks: High-Three Stars); Collin McHugh, HOU (Standard: Low-Three Stars, Walks: Three Stars); Matt Shoemaker, LAA (Standard: High-Two Stars, Walks: Low-Three Stars); Tanner Roark, WAS (Standard: High-One Star, Walks: Low-Two Star); Bartolo Colon, NYM (Standard: Zero Stars, Walks: One Star

Arrows Down

Sonny Gray, OAK
Gray produced something of an uneven first full season last year, but in the end it added up to a top-25 effort among all starting pitchers in roto formats. Judging by the early returns, NFBC managers are comfortable investing heavily in another step forward in 2015, as he’s currently going as the 18th starter off the board. In leagues penalizing free passes, however, managers will need to show a bit more restraint. After posting a minor league walk rate north of three-per-nine Gray’s been right around there throughout his Major League career to date. It’s not an obscene rate, but given the lack of elite strikeout numbers to offset (his whiff rate checked in 60th last season) it’s enough to put a modest dent in his standing. Standard: Low-Four Stars, Walks: Three Stars

Zack Wheeler, NYM
There’s never been much question about Wheeler’s pure stuff, but his quest to harness it consistently has been an ongoing process in his young career. He has consistently put more than 10 percent of opposing batters on base via the free pass, and he was right on that figure last season. There’s a lot to like here, and certainly cause for optimism that a jump forward is imminent. But the persistent control issues are likely to limit his upside to that of an SP3 this season, with a more realistic floor in the SP4 range. Standard: High-Three Stars, Walks: Low-Three Stars

Yordano Ventura, KCR
Ventura’s high-octane debut and generally sound results gave fantasy players much to dream on, and they’re clearly slumbering away this offseason, as he’s currently knocking on the door of a top-30 draft position. His true 80-grade fastball still has a tendency to wander off on its own path, however, and there isn’t quite enough secondary development yet to keep hitters fishing beyond the limits of the strike zone with regularity. The lack of an elite whiff rate lets his modest walk rate play up right now, and that’s bad news for managers in Walk leagues. Standard: Three Stars, Walks: High-Two Stars

Danny Duffy, KCR
Ventura’s rotation-mate has had an even tougher time translating his plus raw stuff into consistent strikes over the course of his career. He made some very commendable strides in his quest to do so last season, but in leagues with Walk penalties the unfortunate realities are that he still has a ways to go, and those improvements came at the expense of a strong strikeout rate. The overall package Duffy showed last season was certainly more playable for fantasy purposes, but his walk rate still checked in 115th among starters with at least a hundred innings, while his whiff rate was just 83rd. Standard: High-Two Stars, Walks: Low-Two Stars

Jarred Cosart, MIA – Cosart quietly made some solid strides in developing into a useful back-end AL-only rotation option last summer, finding the zone more often and missing more bats while riding strong groundball tendencies to 13 Wins and a half-decent ERA. But there’s just not a lot to see here if Walks count against you. In an encouraging development he found the strike zone more often last summer, trimming his walk rate to single digits after walking 11 percent of batters in his career in the high minors and over 14 percent of the guys he faced in his rookie season. But that rate still remains quite high given a quite poor whiff rate, and his K-BB% checked in an ugly 144th out of 149 starters who threw 100 innings last year. Standard: Two Stars, Walks: High-One Star

Others – Francisco Liriano, PIT (Standard: Low-Three Stars, Walks: High-Two Stars); Shelby Miller, ATL (Standard: High-Two Stars, Walks: Low-Two Stars); R.A. Dickey, TOR (Standard: High-Two Stars, Walks: Two Stars); C.J. Wilson, LAA (Standard: High-One Star, Walks: One Star); Trevor Bauer, CLE (Standard: One Star, Walks: Low-One Star)

Quality Starts

While predicting pitcher Wins is best left for roulette wheels, managers in Quality Start leagues have the advantage of largely getting what they paid for in their starters. There’s a much more direct correlation between starting pitcher ability and Quality Start outcomes than there is where Wins are the goal, which on balance is a good thing in that you can factor the category into your value equation with much more cost-certainty. For those predisposed to punt top shelf pitching and rely on lady luck to deliver an outsized Win total, the switch is a little harder to digest.

Unlike some of the other adjustments I’ve broken down in this column previously, there won’t be a ton of guys who migrate very far from their standard league rankings. But there will definitely be some guys where the perception of how good or bad their year was in 2014 may have been warped enough by Win totals that didn’t quite jive with underlying performance that there will be a legitimate discrepancy in how they’re valued heading into 2015.

I cross-checked three metrics to find some our targets here: Innings-per-start, Quality Start rate, and Quality Starts Minus Wins. That yielded a few guys on both ends of the spectrum, including the ones with a tendency to stay on the mound deep into games, keep the damage in check, and leave with nothing to show for it, and the guys who consistently scraped their way through five and booked every Win they earned (and quite possibly a few they didn’t) to inflate their standard league values.

Arrows Up

Cole Hamels, PHI
Hamels doesn’t have a ton of room to grow in an exercise like this, as he’s already 13th overall. But he earned a note here at the outset on account of just how awesome his season was last year in spite of the worst Win luck in all of baseball. Despite averaging the ninth-best innings-per-start total and the eighth-best ERA in the majors Hamels mustered just nine Wins on the season. Sixteen times he posted a quality start without recording a Win. That he still returned $23 of standard mixed league value and finished as the 18th most valuable starter despite of the poor Win total should tell you all you need to know. In QS leagues he’s a legitimate SP1 in 12-team leagues, albeit a low-end option. Standard: High-Four Stars, Quality Starts: Low-Five Stars

Dallas Keuchel, HOU
Keuchel’s 6.9 innings-per-start was good for seventh-best among starters last year, while his 72 percent Quality Start rate was 21st. He was able to post a top-50 SP season despite some moderately poor luck in the Win department, as Houston’s whiff-tastic offense left him hanging out to dry in nine of his 21 Quality Starts. Some caution is warranted with Keuchel, as he posted the strong innings total last season on the back of a best-in-baseball ground-ball rate that managed to result in a league-average BABIP despite one of the worst defenses in the game backing him up. New imports Luis Valbuena (60th out of 67 third basemen with a -6.7 FRAA last year) and Jed Lowrie (59th out of 67 shortstops at -7.8) aren’t likely to help, so some shorter, less productive outings are quite possibly in store for Keuchel in 2015. Still, given the profile and demonstrated performance he’ll be a solid bet to out-produce his standard league ADP in QS leagues if he’s going as the 62nd starter off the board. Standard: Low-Three Star, Quality Start: Three Stars

Jonathon Niese, NYM
NFBC managers have been quite bearish on Niese thus far, as he’s currently barely sneaking into the top 100 among starters and top 350 overall. He did return just six bucks of mixed league value last year across 187 innings, yet a decent chunk of that shortfall was due to his posting only nine Wins despite 21 Quality Starts. His QS Rate was tied with Samardzija and Stroman in the top 30, and while he wasn’t an iron man his IP/GS total was in the top-third of the league. PECOTA project the Metropolitan offense will be a similarly mediocre outfit next summer, but in QS leagues that won’t matter a lick. Standard: High-One Star, Quality Starts: Two Stars

Nathan Eovaldi, NYY
Outside of Hamels and Samardzija, two guys who are already borderline SP1s, no starter’s value was hurt more by a lack of contextual support than Eovaldi last year. His 20 quality starts resulted in a whopping six Wins for the entire season. There’s a lot under the hood here to provide for some draft day intrigue. Most obviously, the dude throws 97 and has managed to compile below-average whiff rates in spite of himself. He pitched to a FIP a full run lower than his ERA last year, in part by keeping his walks well in check, and was done in by an inflated BABIP and a persistent inability to strand runners - the latter failure does not appear to be a fluke at this point in his career. Regardless of his flaws, he deserved a better fate last year than the negative five bucks of value he produced in mixed leagues. Some normalized Win karma would go a long way towards rectifying that, and as recently as 2013 he was able to post a top-five QS% season. If he’s being undervalued on account of last year’s bottom line return he’ll make for an excellent target to round out your rotation in a medium-depth leagues. Standard: One star, Quality Starts: Two Stars

Jake Peavy, SFG
His QS-W differential of 13 tied for the fourth-highest differential in the majors last year, and given his poor post-season performance there may just be some additional recency bias at play here. Early drafters do appear skittish despite the prime ballpark, as his draft price has remained muted at 88th among starting pitchers at present. Peavy was excellent after landing in the NL West at the deadline last summer, logging six Wins in his 12 starts (versus just one in 20 turns for the Red Sox). He’s no rotation savior, but a reprise of last year’s across-the-board stat line with a normalized Win total would be more than enough to make him a nice, inexpensive rotation piece in NL-only play. Standard: Low-One Star, Quality Starts: High-One Star

Others: Sonny Gray, OAK (Standard: Low-Four Stars, Quality Starts: Four Stars); Tyson Ross, SDG (Standard: High-Three Stars, Quality Starts: Low-Four Stars); Andrew Cashner, SDG (Standard: Three Stars, Quality Starts: High-Three Stars); Jose Quintana, CHW (Standard: Three Stars, Quality Starts: High-Three Stars)

Arrows Down

Drew Smyly, TAM
There’s a whole lot to like in Smyly’s profile, and clearly the Rays agree since they made him the centerpiece of their David Price return haul. But one thing he’s not as of yet in his career is efficient. He averaged less than six innings a start and managed a QS in just half of his turns in the rotation as a result. The stuff is certainly good enough to warrant expectations of a step forward, and Rays should be able to take the gloves off a little bit now that he’s a full year removed from relieving. But he’s currently going off the board 41st among starting pitchers, and that’s a touch aggressive in QS leagues where he’ll remain a shaky bet to work deep enough to consistently offer plus potential in the category. The adjustment in QS formats shouldn’t be huge, but he knocks down a peg or two. Standard: Low-Three Stars, Quality Starts: High-Two Stars

Francisco Liriano, PIT
Liriano realistically isn’t hurt too badly by the swap in formats, because he presents the same liability of unbridled inefficiency. A quick surface glance might tell you he got a bit unlucky in the Win department last year, as he mustered just seven W’s despite logging 14 Quality Starts. The plot thickens, however, when you note that those 14 Quality Starts came across 29 turns. His 48% QS Rate was indeed built upon a paltry 5.6 innings a start, and he’s been at or below that 2014 average in three of the past four seasons. So while an outside chance remains that he’ll run into some good Win luck that’ll benefit standard league managers, he presents very little in the way of potential to help out in QS formats. Standard: Low-Three Stars, Quality Starts: High-Two Stars

Matt Shoemaker, LAA
Shoemaker turned in a tremendous, largely out-of-nowhere effort in Orange County last summer, but while he showed an impressive underlying skillset at the end of the day a not-insignificant portion of his fantasy value came out of some crazy good Win karma. He registered 16 Wins, good for a 10th-place tie among all starters, despite posting just 11 Quality Starts and barely clearing five innings a turn. Despite his impressively low walk rate Shoemaker worked a ton of deep counts, throwing 4.15 pitches per batter faced. In other words, he basically threw to Daniel Nava all year. It’s not a recipe for working into the sixth and seventh innings routinely, let alone the likelihood that a spike in walk rate may just be due. There are enough smoke and mirrors in standard leagues that we have him barely squeaking into the top 60 as is, and in QS leagues the collapse potential is that much greater. Standard: High-Two Stars, Quality Starts: Low-Two Stars

Drew Hutchison, TOR
Hutchison put together a nice little rookie campaign last year, staying healthy and logging almost a strikeout an inning over his 184 2/3 frames. But those innings were spread thin across a full slate of 32 starts. That works out to an average of just five and two-thirds a start, and he managed a Quality Start in only 38% of his turns. He squeezed out 11 Wins on 12 Quality Starts, which was among the thinnest margins of any starter to clear 30 starts. Toronto’s awesome offense does serve as a legitimate offset in standard formats, but in leagues that substitute Quality Starts Hutchison is best left for someone else to manage until he’s able to keep it together through six innings more consistently. Standard: Low-Two Stars, Quality Starts: High-One Star

Others: Anibal Sanchez, DET (Standard: Three Stars, Quality Starts: Low-Three Stars); Danny Duffy, KCR (Standard: High-Two Stars, Quality Starts: Two Stars); Shelby Miller, ATL (Standard: High-Two Stars, Quality Starts: Two Stars); Danny Salazar, CLE (Standard: Two Stars, Quality Starts: Low-Two Stars)

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

Related Content:  Quality Starts,  Walks,  Fantasy,  Starting Pitchers

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