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June 16, 2009

Fantasy Beat

Opponents of Quality

by Marc Normandin

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One thing we sometimes forget to look at when dealing with small samples is the quality of competition each player has faced. There are plenty of pitchers who have traditionally been solid, but who have struggled during the first half of 2009, and in some cases you can blame their having to face stiff competition. Thankfully, Baseball Prospectus has an easily accessed custom statistic report for just this very thing. The report displays standard information such as innings pitched and number of opponents faced, but also shows the aggregate batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS of all the batters faced by that pitcher. This list shows the top 20 in opponent OPS, minimum 50 innings pitched:


Name                IP      AVG/ OBP/ SLG    OPS
A.J. Burnett       80.2    .271/.351/.449    800
Brad Penny         66.0    .273/.348/.436    784
Fausto Carmona     60.2    .265/.341/.440    781
Koji Uehara        55.2    .265/.340/.440    780
Jeremy Guthrie     73.1    .265/.340/.437    777
Josh Beckett       82.1    .268/.345/.432    777
Andy Sonnanstine   70.1    .269/.347/.426    773
Dallas Braden      81.0    .269/.340/.433    773
Andy Pettitte      79.2    .265/.344/.427    771
Jon Lester         81.1    .264/.338/.430    769
Joba Chamberlain   63.1    .263/.344/.423    767
J.A. Happ          51.0    .259/.345/.422    766
Armando Galarraga  69.2    .263/.338/.424    763
Gil Meche          75.1    .265/.341/.421    762
Jered Weaver       90.2    .260/.336/.422    758
Brett Anderson     64.0    .262/.333/.425    758
Tim Wakefield      76.0    .264/.342/.416    758
Justin Verlander   86.1    .264/.336/.421    756
Matt Garza         84.1    .258/.341/.415    756
Bartolo Colon      55.1    .263/.335/.420    756

A.J. Burnett was supposed to avoid being a victim of Yankee Stadium v2.0, but that was before he stopped inducing significantly more grounders than fly balls. This year has seen Burnett's G/F drop to its lowest point since 2002, and to go along with that he has also stopped getting hitters to pop up on fly balls. Sure, it doesn't help that he's faced the stiffest competition in the league according to this stat report, but at the same time, Burnett's not doing himself any favors by handing out free passes to 4.6 hitters per nine. Combine that with the homer rate, and it's easy to see why Burnett hasn't had an easy time of it for his new team. I'm not so sure Burnett is going to have a serious rebound during this season, as he's fooling fewer hitters-his strikeouts have dropped by over one full K per nine, and opponents are swinging at fewer pitches out of the zone while making more contact. Getting his walk rates back under control would be a good first step, but as it is he has actually been a little lucky, as his FIP is over a half-run higher than his ERA; improvement would move him from the level of a 5.00 ERA pitcher down to his current level.

Brad Penny is an intriguing name on this list for two reasons. First, he hasn't been that bad since a bad April: since May 3, Penny has thrown 48 1/3 IP with 7.1 K/9, 1.7 BB/9, and just 0.6 HR/9. He's also posted a 4.10 ERA over that span of time, because he allowed the opposition to hit .299/.335/.472 against him. That isn't all Fenway's fault either, as opponents posted an Isolated Power of .204 against him on the road. The Red Sox defense hasn't been that great this year, and that shows up in Penny's BABIP, which is at .345 despite a liner rate of just over 18 percent. When you face the hitters Penny does as a pitcher in the AL East, and your defense ranks in the bottom third of the league in converting balls in play into outs, you're going to see lines like the one he has allowed since May 3. I mentioned that there were two reasons that made Penny intriguing; the second is that he is the most likely Red Sox starter to be traded, as John Smoltz should be making his return soon, and the Sox also have Clay Buchholz waiting in the wings in Pawtucket. Were Penny to be traded to a team with even an average defense-or just sent to the NL, where the opposition would not be as tough-you would most likely see his numbers improve, giving Penny some extra value.

It's somewhat shocking that J.A. Happ's numbers are not worse than they are, considering the opposition he has faced. Despite the 12th-highest opponent OPS in the majors, he's allowed a line of just .210/.308/.387. You can thank Philadelphia's defense for that, as they rank 10th in Defensive Efficiency. Happ certainly isn't doing it with style on his own: his 6.5 K/9 is fine, but his UIBB/9 is an unhealthy 4.1 per, and he's giving up 1.4 homers every nine as well. His home park is somewhat to blame, as he's given up five homers in 82 at-bats there (or one every 16.4 at-bats), but he's got enough good luck going in his favor to superficially balance that out. Happ has an FIP of 5.25, 1.72 runs worse than his actual ERA. He's stranded 83.6 percent of his baserunners (the league average is 71.7 percent, and below-average starters are not my first pick to significantly and deservingly beat out the average) and has been worse since moving into the rotation (.229/.333/.333/.476, 105 at-bats) from the bullpen (.184/.273/.263, 76 at-bats). Do not be fooled into thinking that he can sustain that ERA, especially not as a full-time starter in that park.

Jered Weaver has been fantastic the past two months, despite being stuck against some of the most difficult competition in either league during that stretch. He's piled up 90 2/3 IP with an ERA of 2.08, 7.4 K/9, and 2.4 UIBB/9 on the season, and allowed opponents to hit all of .184/.246/.298 since the calendar switched over from April. His FIP is higher than his ERA by over a run, but that still puts him at 3.31, a place that many others pitchers would love to be in. It's a little confusing that he has been able to maintain such a low opponents' line, since the Angels are not playing well defensively this year (ranking 24th in Defensive Efficiency), but the number of fly balls he gives up has something to do with it. Weaver's getting fly balls on just under half of his balls in play, and has allowed a line of .128/.123/.312 on them. That, along with the success on the few grounders he has induced, has been the reason he has outperformed expectations. Weaver has pulled a start against the AL East six times already this year, out of his 13 starts. With 24 more games to go for the Angels against AL East clubs, chances are good that he'll see a few more before the season ends, so the onslaught of talented competition may not subside. Weaver has been fine so far, so even if he were to pitch to the level of his FIP, he would still be one of the more valuable starters in the AL. My one concern is that he is much better at home (.160/.193/.257) than on the road (.261/.340/.435), but that's mostly a heads-up for people playing in head-to-head leagues.

Gil Meche has been one of the top starters in baseball this year according to his FIP of 3.00; sadly, between the quality of his opponents and the Royals' poor defense (25th in Defensive Efficiency), he hasn't been able to get his actual ERA in that area. Still, there's nothing wrong with his 3.70 mark for fantasy purposes, especially if he continues to strike out as many hitters as he is while Kauffman acts as a tough place for hitters (1.45 HR/G on the season). Meche has allowed a .445 slugging percentage at home, but just one home run; this shouldn't be a surprising turn of events, given the people manning the outfield spots for the Royals. Willie Bloomquist hasn't been very good in center, while Jose Guillen has been awful in right, and it shows in Meche's splits. A few more balls landing in outfield gloves would allow for his strand rate to climb toward the league average and put his ERA closer to his FIP, but unless the Royals add new outfield personnel, the chances of that working out are slim. Even so, if the level of his competition goes down some he may be able to improve. He's one Royal starter you don't want to give up on, no matter how inept the defense behind him is.

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

Related Content:  Brad Penny,  A.J. Burnett,  J.A. Happ

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Premium Article Under The Knife: Big N... (06/15)
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