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May 28, 2008

Fantasy Beat

Rooked by Rookie Pitchers?

by Marc Normandin

In a week where both Clayton Kershaw and Jay Bruce made their debuts, it only makes sense to take a look at a few young players this time around. Let's cover some rookie starting pitchers who may or may not be worthwhile additions to your club; though none of them have the talent or standing of someone like Kershaw, it's important to fill out your roster with useful pieces as complements.

The term "rookie" implies that a player is young, but that is not always the case. Take Braves rookie starter Jorge Campillo, for instance. The 29-year-old has major league experience, in the sense that he had thrown 17 2/3 innings in the majors across three different seasons, but he officially remained a rookie as of Opening Day, 2008. Following 15 appearances out of the pen this year, the Braves stuck Campillo in their rotation. He went six innings with seven strikeouts against no walks in his first start, and four innings with three punchouts and again no walks in his second. He left the second early due to some blisters on his pitching hand, which is a problem, but it also might improve your opportunity to scoop him up out of free agency or off the waiver wire.

Campillo was signed out of the Mexican League in early 2005 by the Mariners, only to wind up having to undergo Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow. The Mariners took him off of the 40-man roster after 2006, and though he pitched in 2007 for the team, they released him again after the season, after which the Braves signed him to a minor league contract this winter. PECOTA did not expect a whole lot from him, forecasting a 5.04 ERA in 87 1/3 innings pitched with 4.4 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9, but he's outperforming that over his first 31 1/3 innings: 7.8 K/9, 1.4 BB/9, and no homers allowed. If he can keep up the strikeouts and stay stingy with the walks and homers, he'll blow away his 90th-percentile forecast. It's players like this who come out of nowhere who help you win your league, so take a chance on him.

Nick Blackburn debuted in 2007 with the Twins, throwing 11 2/3 innings with an ERA of 7.71. The Twins stuck with the 26-year old though, putting him into their rotation for 2008. Ten starts later, Blackburn has put up a 3.55 ERA, although there are some problems with his performance that need to be taken into account. First, he's striking out just 4.8 hitters per nine innings pitched. Granted, he is also just walking 1.6 hitters per nine, an excellent figure that has helped him to have over three times as many strikeouts as walks despite a below-average K rate, but the fact of the matter is that he doesn't miss many bats, and it isn't a new problem for him.

Second, though Blackburn has low walk rates, he's very hittable thanks to a tendency to stick in the strike zone, as a Pitch f/x chart from Josh Kalk reflects. The Twins defense has been converting 69.3 percent of batted balls into outs, a figure which ranks only 24th in the league, and that isn't going to do him any favors. That's evidenced by Blackburn's current .339 BABIP. As a result, despite walking well under two hitters per nine, Blackburn's WHIP is 1.41 thanks to 11.1 H/9. That means that his ERA won't stick in the mid-threes: his QuikERA, a better predictor of future ERA than ERA itself, is 4.34, and that doesn't factor in how hittable he is, or the problems of the Twins defense. Right now, he's a perfect sell-high candidate for the optimist in your league, thanks to that sparkling ERA, but move him soon, before that value starts to wane.

Deciding what to do with Luke Hochevar has been as difficult for fantasy owners as it has been for the Royals to figure out this year. He has plenty of potential, reflected in the fact that he was a first-round draft pick twice, the second time going first overall to the Royals, and he ranked as the 72nd-best prospect on Kevin Goldstein's Top 100 Prospects of 2008. However, he's also very raw, walking 5.2 hitters per nine. Throw in the fact that he's pitching for a Royals team that's hitting like it's 1968, and you've got yourself some problems to think over before adding him to your own roster.

Let's focus on the good for a moment: Hochevar is striking out 6.5 batters per nine, and his G/F ratio is 1.8 thanks to grounders on 55 percent of his batted-balls. His 75th-percentile PECOTA forecast gives him a 4.37 ERA and 3.5 Wins Above Replacement Pitcher (WARP), while his 90th-percentile projection puts him at a 4.06 ERA with a league-average 4.1 WARP. Both of those projections assume he induces roughly 10 percent fewer groundballs than he is currently averaging.

Now, for the bad: those high-end forecasts both assume his walk rate is close to half of what it currently is, and when you combine his poor walk rate with the at-best average Royals' defense, Hochevar is allowing far too many baserunners to be consistently successful. He's also allowing liners at a rate well below the league average, one that will probably climb closer to the mean as the season progresses. When this happens, we will see his .280 BABIP jump up as well, meaning even more baserunners if he doesn't find a way to control his walks beforehand. In the end, it seems like avoiding Hochevar makes sense, at least until he figures himself out. He can do more damage to your rate stats than he can help them, and with the Royals offense scoring 3.5 runs per game, depending on him to give you m/any wins would be foolish.

Phil Dumatrait is another semi-surprising rookie who has found success in 2008, though expecting that success to last a long time is a bit of a problematic proposition. He sports a 4.05 ERA despite pitching in front of the second worst defense in the majors; the Pirates are only converting 67.5 percent of all batted balls into outs, which is better than only the Reds (Dumatrait's former organization, coincidentally). Right away we see an area where we can expect Dumatrait to worsen in, as his .288 BABIP doesn't jive with the Pirates tendency to let balls through holes and rattle into the gaps.

That number is also below the expectations we should have for him on the basis of his own performance, as his liner rate of 20.4 percent should translate into a BABIP of around .324. Since line-drive rate correlates with BABIP better than any other type of batted ball, we can figure out just where a pitcher or hitter should be. Adjusting for that-simply by adding .12 to a pitcher's line-drive percentage-gives you his expected BABIP (eBABIP). In Dumatrait's case, that makes his opponents' line jump from .253/.354/.385 to .289/.390/.421, assuming that all of the hits we've added are singles. As you can see, even without the adjustment, Dumatrait has no issues with letting runners on base. His 5.4 walks per nine are just a tick below his strikeout rate of 5.8, and the only thing besides a BABIP fluke that has kept him successful in the early goings is his homer rate of 0.6 per nine.

PECOTA's forecast for Dumatrait makes more sense when you look at where he should be relative to where he is, as his weighted mean projection is for a 5.69 ERA, a 1.65 WHIP, and almost as many walks (52) as strikeouts (59). Even more concretely, in scouting terms Dumatrait lacks an out pitch; he's essentially a fastball/slider guy who occasionally mixes in a curve or changeup. It's tough to get by as a starter with two pitches, especially when you don't control either of them very well. If you want to resurrect unhappy memories from past fantasy leagues (or Royals fandom), his most comparable player via PECOTA is Chris George. If you've been eying Dumatrait's ERA and/or hoping for his peripherals to turn around, you should sell or avoid before things get worse.

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