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September 17, 2008

Fantasy Beat

Starting Pitchers

by Marc Normandin

This week we will take a look at a few surprise starting pitchers on the Support Neutral Lineup-adjusted Value Added above Replacement (SNLVAR) leaderboards to see what we can expect from these players next year. Since SNLVAR adjusts for the difficulty of competition and measures production, it's a wonderful tool for valuing a pitcher's production, but by itself it is not predictive of future performance. For that, we have other tools, such as QuikERA (QERA) that are more accurate for measuring performance than actual ERA; when you combine the two together, analyzing pitchers becomes that much easier.

According to SNLVAR, Todd Wellemeyer has been the 28th most valuable starter in the majors this year (18th for those in NL-only leagues), and his ranking came out of nowhere. Wellemeyer split his time in 2007 between the Kansas City Royals and his current team, the Cardinals. He started 11 games and struck out 6.8 per nine, handed out too many free passes at 4.3 per nine, and gave up 1.3 home runs per nine. The converted reliever had always had issues with walks in the past-from 2003 to 2006, he gave up 5.8, 6.7, 5.9, and 5.4 unintentional walks per nine, though with his impressive strikeout totals, still managed at least a 1.5 K/BB in all but the last season.

This year has seen Wellemeyer drop a bit further from the strikeout rates we saw from him as a reliever, as he's down to 6.1 per nine. That's still above average, and when combined with the drop in his walk rates from 4.3 to 2.8 per nine, is certainly worth the trade-off. If you look deeper into his components, however, he's performing a bit over his head. His QERA, which is based off of strikeout, walk, and ground-ball rates, three things that Wellemeyer handles at or a bit above average, comes in at 4.68. Wellemeyer does get an assist as long as he's in St. Louis from his home park though, which is slanted toward pitchers, and he was not hurt by his team's league-average defense this year either. What you have with Wellemeyer if he can replicate this production-and his 2008 PECOTA forecast sees no reason why he can't-is a league-average pitcher who is going to perform a bit better than that due to his environment, and who may also pick up a few wins for you given that he's on a team with some potent hitters that's capable of contending for the playoffs. Keep him on your radar for 2009, but don't overstate his 2008 ERA when making your final decision.

The Washington Nationals haven't been able to hit or pitch worth a damn most of the season, but on an individual level, starter John Lannan has done his job admirably. Lannan is in his second year in the majors, and this time around has gone much better than the first. In 2007, the Nats' lefty struck out a paltry 2.6 hitters per nine in just 34 2/3 innings pitched following his below-average 4.5 per nine at Triple-A. This year, Lannan has improved his strikeout rate considerably, and he now sits at 5.7 per nine. Better still, he's increased this rate without giving up anything in the control department, as he's walking 3.4 batters per nine. The two things have allowed him to achieve the success he has this year-Lannan ranks 19th in the NL in SNLVAR and 29th in the majors-are his slider and his ground-ball tendencies.

The only time in Lannan's professional career that his strikeout rates were impressive was when when he struck out 7.4 per nine with Savannah in the Sally League. His next four stops in 2007 saw a drop in his punchouts as he progressed through the minors, until the 22-year-old was barely whiffing anyone in the majors. Granted, he did jump from High-A to the major leagues over the course of just his second full year in the minors, but it was clear that if he was going to stick he'd need to start missing more bats. In 2007 Lannan used a fastball (63 percent), curveball (21 percent), and changeup (15 percent), with the slider as less than one percent of his total offerings. By utilizing his slider much more often this year, Lannan has looked like a different pitcher, and has pitched like one: his distribution is now fastball (60 percent), slider (16 percent), curveball (13.1 percent), and changeup (10 percent), with the lefty also contributing a cutter (1.4 percent) on rare occasions.

Given his lefty-typical high-80s velocity, Lannan needed that slider sliding in order to mix things up and give him an edge. Jumping his G/F ratio up to 2.1 has also helped things out, as the Nationals, in spite of all of their other failings, have been around average defensively. Put all of this together with his 4.69 QERA, remember that he's just 23 years old, and you have yourself a pitcher that you should keep in mind next year, despite the fact that he plays on a team that may very well end up in last place again.

Based on the questions I see regarding him in my inbox, Paul Maholm's fine season hasn't been taken seriously by everyone, but he has done well for himself. Maholm ranks 23rd in SNLVAR, and, thanks to an increase in strikeouts, has managed to hit his 75th percentile PECOTA forecast. Last year Maholm was a bit unlucky, as his 5.02 ERA belied his 4.45 QERA, and this year he's turned things around by being ahead of where he should be; with an ERA of 3.68, Maholm is roughly one-third of a run better than his 4.04 QERA. That's surprising-Maholm's QERA looks nifty partially thanks to his 1.9 G/F ratio and 55 percent grounder rate, and that the Pirates are last in the majors in Defensive Efficiency, though they have managed to get to balls when he's on the mound, as his own BABIP is a league average .298.

Maholm has done a better job of keeping his base runners from scoring this year-last season, he stranded just 65 percent of his baserunners, well below the average. This year, he's stranded 77 percent of his baserunners (and allowed fewer of them to begin with), placing him nearer to the average pitcher. Maholm has given up a .262/.320/.371 line with runners on, with lots of strikeouts from the stretch at a slightly higher rate than his overall punchouts. This is a change from last season, when the Bucs' lefty struggled from the stretch, allowing a .301/.340/.472 line with a lower rate of strikeouts. More than anything, this difference with runners on has allowed Maholm to become a quality pitcher; considering the defensive unit he has behind him, the ability to "turn it on" when pitching with runners on base is a good thing for those who own Maholm in their leagues. Expecting him to post another ERA in the mid-three range may be overly optimistic, but thinking of him as a slightly above-average starter isn't a bad idea, especially if the Pirates improve their defense this offseason, which would give Maholm that much more room to work with.

Joe Saunders ranks 34th in the majors in SNLVAR, and 14th in the American League, meaning he's been on plenty of fantasy league radars this season. Given his age (27) and history with the Angels, this year's performance has come as a surprise. He has a 3.65 ERA this year, and PECOTA's 90th-percentile forecast had him down for 3.72, so Saunders has just about maxed-out expectations over his 185 innings. What makes Saunders' season intriguing is how he got to this level of performance: he doesn't strike anyone out, with a below-average 4.4 per nine, he doesn't especially keep homers from leaving the park, allowing an average 1.0 per nine, and he doesn't lean one way or the other as a fly-ball or ground-ball pitcher, inducing grounders 47 percent of the time and an average 1.2 G/F ratio.

What Saunders has done is posted a low BABIP, something that's not necessarily his statistic to control. The only positive among the numbers that Saunders does have control over are his walk rates, which were characteristically low; if his strikeout rates dropped as they did this year, you would expect less production, not more, but that's not what has happened thanks to the BABIP dip. The Halos converted 70.4 percent of balls in play into outs this year, and helped Saunders along to a .268 BABIP, well below the league average but not too far off from Saunder's expectations. Here's the thing though: Saunders' 15 percent liner rate is not something you can expect him to repeat in 2009, as it is well below the league average as well as his previous figures. Among pitchers with 125 innings pitched in 2008, just two have line-drive rates as low as Saunders: Brandon Webb, the severe ground-ball pitcher, and Tim Hudson, who also flirts with nearly three grounders per fly ball.

Last season, there were four pitchers below 15 percent, all with one thing in common (extreme tendencies) that do not relate to Saunders. As nothing else major has changed in his game-not pitch selection, strikeouts, or batted-ball info-and he isn't a severe fly-ball or ground-ball pitcher, it's tough to believe he all of a sudden has control over liners, which pitchers have little to no control over to begin with. Remember this next year on draft day, as Saunders is going to break a few optimistic fantasy hearts.

Related Content:  A's,  Joe Saunders,  John Lannan

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