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May 5, 2009

Fantasy Beat

Underperforming Pitchers

by Marc Normandin

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With one month of the season behind us, we can start to get a feel for who is underperforming on the mound. One way to do this is to use QuikERA, or QERA for short. QERA takes a pitcher's strikeout rate, walk rate, and ground-ball rate-three components that stabilize quickly in a pitcher's performance-and spits out an adjusted ERA figure that is more predictive going forward than traditional ERA. In short, it's a cheat sheet-for real life and for fantasy baseball-that tells you who is going to do better or worse in the near future.

Using QERA, we can come up with a list of pitchers who have been the unluckiest in the majors in 2009. Here are some of those with the biggest disconnect between their actual ERA and their expected performance that you should target while you can:


Name               IP   BB/9   K/9  HR/9    ERA  QERA   Diff.
Scott Baker       20.2   2.2   7.0   3.5   9.15  4.67  -4.48
Joe Blanton       20.1   3.1   8.9   2.7   8.41  4.19  -4.22
Ricky Nolasco     32.0   2.5   7.6   1.1   7.03  3.93  -3.10
Adam Eaton        21.3   3.4   8.9   0.8   7.17  4.15  -3.02
Josh Beckett      28.2   5.0   9.7   0.9   7.22  4.40  -2.82
Justin Verlander  35.0   3.1  11.6   0.8   5.66  3.19  -2.47
Jon Lester        30.0   3.0   9.9   1.5   5.40  3.31  -2.09
Rich Harden       24.2   5.1  13.5   1.8   5.11  3.06  -2.05
Clayton Kershaw   28.0   4.2   9.3   1.3   5.46  3.94  -1.52
Andy Sonnanstine  25.1   4.3   5.7   0.4   6.75  5.43  -1.32

Consider Scott Baker's lot: his peripherals are strong, as he's posted a K/BB ratio of 3.2, but he's been very, very unlucky. He's stranded just 51 percent of his baserunners, so his ERA has shot into the stratosphere, flying up alongside the eight homers he's already allowed. Baker hasn't had issues with the long ball for the past few seasons, and his current 3.5 HR/9 rate is well above his career number (1.2). Also important is the fact that his average fastball velocity is up, meaning this most likely isn't a mechanical or physical problem. Given how well everything else is working for him, this is most likely a blip that will disappear-remember Roy Oswalt last year? Baker's no Oswalt, but he is better than this, and his price is probably at its lowest in your league right now.

I almost feel dirty advocating that you acquire Joe Blanton, given that he's generally nothing exciting, but there may be a silver lining to be found in his early struggles. The highest strikeout rate of his entire career was back in 2004, his rookie season, and that was 6.8 per nine. Since then he has hovered around the league average, down near 5 or 5.5 or so, but this year he's just a hair under one strikeout per inning. Opponents are missing on his pitches outside of the zone; his outside contact is down to 44 percent, against 71 percent last year. Sadly, like Baker, his ERA has been destroyed by his 2.7 HR/9; this doesn't match up with what we know about Blanton either, so he may be worth a flyer in deep leagues if you can get him for a low price.

Ricky Nolasco may be the unluckiest pitcher out there this season. Unlike Baker or Blanton, Nolasco's home-run rate is normal, meaning that his ERA is even more of a small-sample aberration. The Marlins defense has not done him any favors, as he owns a .381 BABIP, and has stranded just 55 percent of baserunners (the league average this year is closer to 71 percent). That's strange since Florida's defense has been around the average this year; they rank 18th in the majors in Defensive Efficiency, though 11th in the NL. Those of you who were already getting fed up with his inability to deliver on last year's promise should not fret one bit, as more time will heal this rift between his QERA and ERA.

Like Blanton, no one has noticed because his ERA doesn't look so hot, but Adam Eaton has had a solid start to his year down in Baltimore. He's attacking hitters early, with nearly 66 percent of his first pitches coming in as strikes. This allows him to control the count from the beginning of the plate appearance, and in turn means he's managed to whiff 8.9 per nine, which would be his highest rate since 2001 with the Padres. That K rate won't be maintained all year, but given how solid his peripherals are-and the incredible outfield defense he has behind him-I can see Eaton being better than expected as long as he keeps some of those punchouts. Again, the cost of acquiring him will be low (or free, even, depending on your league) so he's bench-stashing material if nothing else.

Clayton Kershaw walked too many hitters for my liking last season, and though he hasn't done anything to rectify that situation, he has increased his strikeout rate again, at least improving his K/BB. It's something, and as long as he's hard to hit, you can live with the walks; despite giving up nearly four unintentional walks per nine, Kershaw's posted a WHIP of 1.29, an improvement on last season. He has been a little unlucky with allowing baserunners to score, and should have an ERA closer to 4.00. Yes, it's not quite ace-level material yet, but it's hard to argue with over a K per inning for your team.

Andy Sonnanstine had a breakout season in 2008, and looked like a quality fantasy pick in 2009 due to his low walk rates, decent enough strikeout rates, and his lack of problems with home runs, not to mention the fact that he was pitching for a competitive Rays team. This year, he has had more of an issue locating his pitches, which has led to 11 unintentional walks in 251/3 IP, and that has effectively killed his value. All hope is not lost; the root of his problem is fixable, as R.J. Anderson demonstrates with a graph of Sonnanstine's release points from last year and this. Essentially, when the Rays get Sonnanstine to step where he was on the rubber last year or whatever it is that has thrown him off at the beginning of this season, we will see the Sonnanstine of old again. Given that, he's a great buy-low candidate.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

11 comments have been left for this article.

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