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May 31, 2009

Prospectus Idol Entry

Fantasy Pitchers: Three Up, Three Down

by Tyler Hissey

The recent case of Justin Verlander exemplifies why focusing on the right statistics can pay dividends in Fantasy. Verlander posted an ERA closer to a touchdown than a field goal in April but produced solid peripherals and displayed impressive heat. He was the perfect buy-low candidate and has since rewarded owners with a dominant May performance.

With so much advice easily accessible, it's become increasingly difficult to buy low and sell high to such an extreme. But in case your league mates aren't paying attention, here are six more pitchers whose to-date performances aren't indicative of their true talent levels.

Three Up:

Jon Lester: Entering the season, many felt that Lester was approaching Fantasy stud territory. The Boston Red Sox southpaw went 16-6 with a 3.21 ERA and 1.274 WHIP in 210.1 innings pitched in 2008, his first full campaign. His 6.50 K/9 rate wasn't anything special, but he cut his BB/9 percentage to 2.82 and only allowed 14 home runs. Since he had control and command issues at times in the minors, it was encouraging to see him surrender just 55 unintentional walks. Continuing to build up arm strength after overcoming cancer, his average fastball velocity rose from 88.9 MPH in 2007 to 92.1. He generated more sink on his heater, inducing ground balls at a 47.5% clip, a 13.1 improvement from '07.

Lester ranked 22nd in the majors with a 3.64 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), which essentially measures what a pitcher can control, so his Fantasy success wasn't a mirage. Although his Expected FIP (xFIP) of 4.19 indicates that he had good luck on home runs and fly balls (7.0 HR/FB%), the improved velocity and ground ball rate made him an early pick in many drafts.

Lester hasn't given owners what they were hoping for yet. After surrendering five runs in six frames in a loss against the Minnesota Twins on Tuesday, he's now 3-5 with a 6.07 ERA and 1.601 WHIP in 10 starts.

But if there's an owner in your league losing patience, try to grab the 25-year-old Lester on the cheap. He's missing bats at the best rate of his young career, ranking third in the American League with a 9.40 K/9 rate. While the ERA and WHIP may look scary, each will almost certainly drop sharply. The 25-year-old hurler simply hasn't had luck on his side, as evidenced by his major-league-leading .374 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and 17.5 HR/FB%; since the home run/fly ball mark is significantly greater than 11%, it's clear he's been unlucky in this regard. According to HitTrackerOnline.com, he's allowed six "just enough" homers, tied for tops in baseball. Lester's also had to face some dangerous lineups; among pitchers with 50.0-plus innings, he ranks 12th with a .769 Opponents' Quality OPS.

Boston's team defense has struggled (.678 DER, 23rd in majors), but as Lester's BABIP regresses closer to the staff total of .316, his Fantasy numbers should improve accordingly. His 4.66 FIP is nearly two full runs lower than his ERA, and his xFIP is even better at 3.87.

Lester's average fastball velocity is up slightly to 92.8 MPH, so his struggles appear to be due to a few rough innings and factors beyond his control. Plus, run support shouldn't be an issue for him; the Red Sox are fifth in the league with 5.39 RS/G. If he maintains the peripherals-and the defense improves, especially at shortstop-he could rack up wins in bunches going forward.

Carl Pavano: Out to prove that he's more than a punch line, Pavano latched on with the Cleveland Indians this winter. The veteran right-hander proceeded to get lit up in his first outing with the Indians, allowing nine of the 12 batters he faced to reach base and score. While it wasn't an ideal start to the next chapter in his career, he's rebounded nicely.

Pavano is 5-4 overall with a 5.50 ERA and 1.419 WHIP in 10 starts. Excluding the abominable debut, his statistics look respectable at first glance and even better up close. His rates of 7.44 K/9, 2.10 BB/9 and 3.54 K/BB are acceptable, and he's inducing ground balls at a 47.4% clip. Pavano has also been unlucky-his .351 BABIP ranks fifth in the majors, and his 65.2 LOB% falls below his career average of 69.9. His 3.78 FIP is 1.72 points lower than his ERA, the third-largest gap in baseball. He's also right behind Lester with a .766 Opponents' Quality OPS.

Pavano is always an injury risk, of course. If he can maintain his peripherals, though, there's no reason why he wouldn't be worth a flier in A.L.-only and deep mixed leagues. Despite the poor record, the Indians are scoring runs in bunches (5.7 RS/G), so he could get you some wins if his luck changes.

Jordan Zimmermann: Zimmermann made a quick ascension through the Washington Nationals' farm system after being selected in the '07 draft. Under two calendar years away from participating in the NCAA Division III College World Series, he's already established himself as a top pitcher on the Washington staff.

Zimmermann is 2-1 with a 5.71 ERA and 1.415 WHIP in seven starts. The ERA again doesn't tell the whole story; his Fantasy value has been affected by a .343 BABIP, 15.0 HR/FB% and 66.5 LOB%. And his rates of 8.56 K/9, 2.63 BB/9 and 1.77 K/BB are solid. The 23-year-old right-hander has also showcased impressive stuff; his arsenal features a fastball that sits in the low-to-mid-90s (93.3 MPH avg.), mid-80s slider, high-70s curve and change-up.

Pitching for an awful team, Zimmermann isn't going to deliver you wins. And he's made only nine starts above Double-A while never throwing more than 135.0 innings, so he could be at risk of tiring. But if available on the waiver wire, he's worth picking up.

Three Down

Matt Cain: Despite sub-4.00 ERAs in each of the last two seasons, Cain has never provided many wins for owners. He can thank the San Francisco Giants' poor offense for that, though, because he's pitched much better than his career record shows.

It's been a different story this spring. Cain currently sports a 5-1 record to along with a 2.40 ERA and 1.32 WHIP in nine starts. On the surface, it appears the long-awaited breakout has finally come. His value isn't going to remain this high, though, as a few of his peripherals have worsened. Most concerning, his K/9 rate is down to 6.15 from 7.69 in '08. Although his BB/9 rate is in line with his career norms, the decrease in strikeouts has led to a 1.64 K/BB ratio, 73rd in the majors. He's also been fortunate, aided by a career-low .272 BABIP and major-league-leading 89.2 LOB%; his previous best full-season strand rate is 75.3%.

The 1.96 difference between Cain's ERA and 4.36 FIP is the highest in the league. His xFIP is even higher, coming in at 4.88. He's also at risk of breaking down, having worked more than 190.0 innings in each of the past three years. If there's someone in your league willing to offer decent value in return, take advantage.

Jair Jurrjens: Jurrjens went 13-10 with a 3.68 ERA and 1.370 WHIP in 188.1 innings during a fine debut with the Atlanta Braves in '08. His 6.64 strikeout rate was only decent, but his effectiveness wasn't based on any unsustainable factors; his .311 BABIP and 71.0 LOB% weren't fluky. Relying on a heavy, low-90s sinker, he produced the eighth-best ground ball rate (51.5%) in the National League. He even out-pitched his ERA, posting a 3.59 FIP. Despite the success, most Fantasy analysts feel he reached his ceiling.

Jurrjens has gotten off to another strong start, going 4-2 with a 2.07 ERA in 10 outings. If you can deal him to someone in your league, though, look to sell high. His K/9 rate has fallen to 5.16, and his .255 BABIP and rates of 3.8 HR/FB% and 84.1 LOB% aren't sustainable. While his 39.3% ground ball rate should improve, it's unlikely he'll remain a top ERA pitcher when more balls begin to find holes. His 3.75 FIP is considerably higher than his ERA-only two other N.L. starters have a larger gap between the two stats-and a corresponding 5.00 xFIP is nearly three runs worse.

Jered Weaver: Weaver was more effective in real baseball than Fantasy in '08. He turned in the best performance since his Fantasy breakout (11-2, 2.56 ERA, 1.03 WHIP) for the Los Angeles Angels back in 2006. He matched his 3.90 '06 FIP, pitching better than his 11-10 record and 4.33 ERA suggest.

The opposite is true for Weaver right now. Although he's only 3-2, his 2.52 ERA and 1.07 WHIP rank among major league leaders. He's also near the top with an 85.4% strand rate, however, and has the fourth-lowest BABIP in the A.L. Plus, his K/9 rate is down to 6.68 from a full-season best of 7.74 in '08.

Weaver also has a noticeable difference in ERA and FIP (4.03); only five hurlers rate lower than his -1.51 ERA-FIP. When neutralizing homers, his xFIP is worse at 4.74.

Savvy owners shouldn't be fooled. If possible, try to exploit the laziness of your league mates who don't do their homework by making moves with the aforementioned pitchers.

(Stats through 5/27; courtesy of Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs, the Hardball Times, HitTrackerOnline)

Related Content:  Fantasy Drafts,  Era,  Peripherals

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