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July 28, 2009

Fantasy Beat

Rookie Pitchers

by Marc Normandin

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Unlike the somewhat uninspired rookie hitter class, there are a few first-time hurlers worth talking about, for both good and bad reasons. There is no true standout in the group though-there hasn't been a rookie pitcher that is turning the tide of the league all by his lonesome, like we have had the past few years when people like Tim Lincecum, Yovani Gallardo, and Joba Chamberlain were called up-but there are some that you should pay attention to during these last two months of the season.

For starters among starters, you have J.A. Happ of the Phillies, who has much better numbers in the real world than his adjusted numbers suggest he should. He has been improving though, as last time he was in this space, his FIP was 5.25, about a run worse than it is now at 4.18. He's dropped his UIBB/9 from 4.1 to 2.9, and his HR/9 from 1.4 to 1.0. This makes it look as if he is maturing rapidly, but there is more to it than that. Happ had the 12th-highest opponent OPS back when I wrote about him last, and now he is down at 81st. From the look of things though, it appears as if before he was lucky, but now his performance appears much more descriptive of what to expect from him, which is a good sign for both the Phillies and owners of Happ. Of course, if he were dealt to the Blue Jays, he would move to the tougher league, but would also get out of Citizen's Bank Park, where he has allowed seven homers in 48 1/3 innings and has an ERA of 4.47. That's something to keep in mind as these negotiations between the Jays and Phillies progress (or fall apart) over the next few days. I was previously skeptical of Happ maintaining the ERA he had, but that was when he was giving up far too many walks and had issues with the long ball during his initial time as a starter. It seems that he has dealt with both of those problems, and now you can reap the benefits of it if you stuck with him.

Down in Tampa Bay, David Price has had a lot go wrong for him during his rookie season. Maybe our expectations were a bit too high given his dominating performance at the end of last year and in the playoffs, but it has not been all of his fault. First off, Price has been squeezed quite a bit, as R.J. Anderson points out after combing through PITCHf/x data. For a guy who has shown some issues walking hitters-he has 5.6 walks per nine through his first 53 innings-getting squeezed is about the last thing you need. Second, much like Happ earlier in the season, Price is facing some stiff competition; in fact, among all major league pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched, Price has the highest opponent OPS at .777. Sure, he's done some of that damage to himself with the walk rate, but again, not all of those are his fault (though it seems he cannot locate his curveball) but pitching in the American League East will cause your stats to be a little uglier than they should be. The homer rate is the real killer for Price's value-at 1.9 HR/9, and in the company of all of those walks, it's difficult to consider Price for a spot in your staff, even with the 23-year-old striking out over a batter per inning. It would be interesting to see how many of those homers resulted after Price had a strike called a ball somewhere else in the at-bat, but for now the safe thing might be to stash him away on your bench until he has shown he can move on from these early-career snags.

The A's Brett Anderson has seen his velocity increase as the season has progressed, which has helped him begin to overcome a poor first half. Whereas his best monthly ERA pre-July was 5.00 in June, he managed a 1.30 mark in July with 25 punchouts in 27 2/3 innings pitched. While this is a great sign for the young starter as far as what we can expect going forward-even without a 1.30 ERA every month, you have to love the increase in strikeouts and velocity-what might be even better to realize is that Anderson has had to face some of the toughest opponents of anyone in the majors. His .769 opponent OPS is the seventh-highest mark in the majors among pitchers with 50 innings, which may have partially been his doing earlier, but now with that extra boost on his fastball he may be able to overcome that (see July of 2009). Given his home park-Oakland is known to lower BABIP thanks to its expansive foul ground-he should be doing a bit better than that, but Oakland's Defensive Efficiency ranks just 24th in the majors. Expansive space does not help you if your team can't field the balls hit in it, so Anderson has suffered for his defense's limitations. I still like him going forward, and given his previous trouble, he may be available in some leagues, or you may have an owner thinking of selling high on him after his one great month. Pick him up if you can.

Clayton Richard still qualified as a rookie with the White Sox this year based on innings pitched, and he's a good player to look at in this article due to the ups and downs he has suffered through this year. He has not been as good at home (5.60 ERA, 1.5 HR/9) but on the road he's had more success (4.50 ERA, 0.8 HR/9). He's had stretches, including one he is in right now, where he has been dominating (16 innings, two runs allowed, 10 Ks, and four walks in his last two starts) and others where things do not go so well like the two starts prior to that (4 2/3 innings, 10 runs, four Ks, and three walks). It's frustrating as a fantasy owner to have someone pitch poorly enough that you consider dropping them, only to have them bust out with two great performances that put you in some kind of pleased-but-paranoid frame of mind. Chances are good he can't keep up the same kind of performance he gave during the last two starts, given his struggles against right-handers (.299/.372/.442 in 251 at-bats) so if you have the roster space to keep or pick up Richard-assuming you are that desperate for starting pitching-then using him in road starts might be your best shot so you can try to avoid the homer problems that the Cell presents.

Related Content:  J.A. Happ

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