January 17, 2007
Leaping over the Divide
We just finished production of this year's RotoWire Fantasy Baseball Guide 2007, going to press last Friday. For the next couple of weeks, I'm going to write about some of the issues I encountered while doing our projections.
One overriding issue is how to project starting pitchers who will be changing leagues. While it's obvious that pitching in the AL is a tougher task than pitching in the NL, just because of the DH rule, how do you quantify that? Beyond that, is there an actual qualitative difference between the leagues? My inclination is that there is such a difference, and that I haven't accounted for it enough when I project players. While I was less optimistic about Josh Beckett than most, I certainly didn't project him to give up 36 homers (a staggering 22 homers more than he allowed in 29 starts in Florida in 2005) or post a 5.01 ERA (3.38 in Florida in 2005). On the flip side, while I thought the move to the NL would help Bronson Arroyo (4.51 ERA in BOS in 2005, 3.29 in CIN in 2006), I was clearly off in terms of scale. There are countless other useful examples, notably Jeff Weaver's split performance in 2006.
On Sunday, Alan Schwarz wrote about the difference in the leagues in The New York Times. He found that, on average, starting pitchers moving to the AL from the NL saw their Adjusted ERA (ERA+) rise by about 13 percent, and pitchers going in the opposite direction saw their ERA+ improve, also by 13 percent. The sample included 57 starters, covering the years 2000-2005 as the first year in the two-year sample for the pitcher. Clearly there are other factors in the results (as Schwarz acknowledged in the article), including ballparks, defensive support and the pitcher's own development. Still, that's a fairly significant difference, one worth factoring in when doing your own projections for this season.
Here are the starting pitchers with 15 or more projected starts switching leagues this year:
From the AL to the NL
The big names are obviously Johnson and Zito. My projection for Johnson is still fairly modest, because of his age, his ballpark and his health (he might not be ready for the start of the season, after undergoing back surgery in October). Zito also has his flaws. His strikeout rate has been declining for the last couple of years, he's a flyball pitcher going to a team with a significantly worse outfield defense behind him, and he's carried a very high workload his entire career. That said, he's also never missed a start, he's going to a superb pitchers' park, and he'll turn just 29 in May--old enough to be past when most pitchers are vulnerable to arm injury, but also not where one would expect a further decline. I'm giving him a fairly significantly improved projection, in terms of ERA and strikeouts. Signing him to a seven-year deal is pure lunacy, but the Giants' insanity doesn't affect his 2007 outlook.
The pitchers that interest me more, at least in terms of getting an advantage where one might not expect it, are Garcia and Lilly. At first glance, Garcia might not seem like such a great bargain for fantasy owners this year. After all, his strikeout has been fairly middling the last two years and he gives up a number of fly balls, an unattractive quality in Citizens Bank Ballpark. Yet I can't quite put the experience of Arroyo past me when looking at Garcia. Arroyo had a declining strikeout rate and was moving into a homer-friendly ballpark, and while he still gave up a lot of homers, he clearly benefited from the move to the NL. Garcia is more accomplished (albeit with more mileage) than Arroyo, and moves into a division with more pitcher-friendly ballparks. Likewise, Lilly has his share of questionable attributes, but I think the positives outweigh the negatives. He's been able to beat the AL average ERA in the past, he strikes out a decent number of hitters to begin with, and now he'll face some below-average NL Central lineups this year. It's just too bad he won't get to face his own team.
I'm less enamored with Eaton and Lopez. Eaton in particular worries me because of his recurring finger injury that prevents him from throwing his full repertoire of pitches, and that of course it could put him back on the shelf in the future. Furthermore, he's pitched in the NL fairly recently with the Padres, and had a pretty severe home/road split in his last year with the Padres in 2005 (3.46 ERA and .257 BAA at home, 5.09 ERA and .293 BAA on the road). Lopez scares me because of his new home ballpark, Coors Field. Yes, for about four months of the season, Coors Field was defanged, most likely by their humidor usage. However, the data from the last two months of the season indicates that either their humidor shorted out, the Rockies decided it was in their best interest to not use their humidor as extensively, or the commissioner's office quietly instructed them to tone it down. At any rate, you can't rely with any sort of degree of confidence that the Rockies will continue to adjust their baseballs as much with the humidor, especially without any transparency. Thus, Lopez has to be projected as if he's pitching in a vintage Coors Field scenario, and won't improve much, if at all, despite fleeing the AL East.
From the NL to the AL
A couple of these pitchers were borderline usable even in an NL-only environment, before the switch to their new teams. Horacio Ramirez has stayed healthy once in the last three years, and has had a lousy K/BB ratio in all three of those years. Even Safeco Field won't save Ramirez--he'll have an ERA over 5.00 this year. Ramirez's former teammate John Thomson just signed with the Blue Jays. Thomson pitched only 80.1 innings last year due to fraying in the labrum of his pitching shoulder and has also battled problems with blisters on his pitching fingers. The latter might go away, but the former probably will remain as an issue. Factor in a crossover from the NL East to the AL East, and he's at best a reserve pick.
Miguel Batista might get hurt the least of this bunch due to the league crossover. Like Ramirez, he'll induce a good number of ground balls that'll get gobbled up by Yuniesky Betancourt and Jose Lopez. Also like Ramirez, Batista was really hurt by his ballpark last year (5.38 ERA/.310 BAA vs. 3.77 ERA/.265 BAA). However, Batista has been far more durable throughout his career, plus he's had some years where his component numbers were acceptable, if not good. That still makes him a borderline player at best for most fantasy leagues, but that's a step above Ramirez.
That leaves the big name of the group, Andy Pettitte. He has a successful track record in New York, so any concern of him handling the pressure there is a non-issue. However, he's coming off his worst season since 2000, one in which his ERA and HR rate both spiked, and his elbow bothered him for much of the year. The defense behind Pettitte him will also probably be much worse, as anyone who read Bill James' essay on the defensive comparison between Adam Everett and Derek Jeter in The Fielding Bible can attest. Those looking for improved numbers from Pettitte this year might end up disappointed.
A handful of pitchers didn't quite make the list above, but should also fit the criteria. Gavin Floyd isn't projected for 15 starts with the White Sox, he doesn't make much of an upgrade in ballparks, and switches over to the tough AL Central. Both Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kei Igawa will immediately step into situations where they'll likely get a lot of run support, but will also have to face the tough AL East lineups. Roger Clemens has been rumored to go back to the Yankees if he decides to pitch again, and while he should succeed there, it's worth noticing the difference between his numbers in the last couple of seasons in NY against his NL numbers. Finally, Jeff Weaver remains a free agent. After last year's first-half debacle, he'll almost certain choose to sign with an NL team if all other factors are neutral with him.