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March 30, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Spring Hurlers

by Craig Brown

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Fantasy season opens tomorrow, but it’s not too late to consider a couple of starting pitchers who enjoyed strong springs. This article is a complimentary piece to last week’s look at the hot hitters of spring. Almost all of us have drafted our teams for the year, but these pitchers may warrant either a waiver pickup or a trade offer as we prepare for the season to start.

What follows are three pitchers who shone in an individual category in exhibition season. For consideration, starters had to toss at minimum 20 innings. Win and saves leaders are not included, because, well, it’s spring, and those stats mean even less than they normally do.

Kyle McClellan - 0.74 ERA

Technically the league best ERA this spring belongs to Roy Halladay, but yeah, we kind of know all about that guy.

When camp opened six weeks ago, McClellan figured to use his time in Jupiter this spring to prepare for another summer of coming out of the bullpen for the Cardinals. That was before Adam Wainwright was lost for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

The loss of Wainwright meant the Cardinals were suddenly short a starter. With Chris Carpenter, Jake Westbrook, Jaime Garcia and Kyle Lohse bumped forward in the rotation, McClellan has been the first choice to fill that fifth spot. He’s responded by allowing just 20 base runners in 23 innings of work, while striking out 16 batters.

McClellan throws a heavy, or sinking, fastball. (If you check the Pitch F/x data, the system often gets confused and gives him credit for throwing both the sinker and the fastball. Whatever it is, it’s the same pitch.) He also features a curve, a slider and a change. It is a full repertoire that should help ease the transition from bullpen to rotation (much like with C.J. Wilson's transition). The key, obviously, is his sinking fastball. In a Grapefruit League start on March 10, McClellan reportedly didn’t have a “feel” for his curve or his change, so he went almost exclusively with the sinker. The result was three hits allowed—two of them infield singles—and eight groundball outs. Behold the power of the sinker, that it can overcome secondary pitches that aren’t sharp enough to get the job done.

Fortunately for McClellan, his secondary pitches are usually strong enough. They need to be, because with a career 7.0 K/9 as a reliever, as good as his sinking fastball is, McClellan doesn’t miss many bats. Last summer he got a swing and a miss roughly five percent of the time when he delivered his fastball/sinker. His off-speed pitches are much more inclined to induce the batter to wave at air. His curveball is about 15 mph slower than his fastball and gets a swing and a miss almost 13 percent of the time.

As you would expect with the sinking fastball, it is all about the ground ball outs. Here were McClellan’s five most common plate appearance results from last summer in his time in the bullpen:

Groundout - 22.4 percent

Strikeout - 19.5 percent

Fly out - 16.6 percent

Single - 12.7 percent

Walk - 6.5 percent

As noted, McClellan doesn’t get a lot of swings and misses with his sinking fastball (his most common pitch, thrown almost 60 percent of the time) but he does get an above-average amount of looking strikes. Last year, 34 percent of his strikes were taken by opposing hitters, compared to the major league average of 28 percent. In addition, 28 percent of his strikeouts victimized hitters who didn’t move the bat off their shoulder for that fateful third strike. Again, that was above the league average of 25 percent. There’s just enough deception there that hitters are having just a little more difficult time measuring McClellan.

McClellan missed out on a rotation spot last summer, when Jaime Garcia edged him out in a tight spring race for the fifth starter. That worked out pretty well for Garcia and fantasy owners as he finished with 13 Wins and a 2.70 ERA in just over 160 innings. The same could happen this year for McClellan. Obviously, there will be a change in McClellan’s statistics and results when he moves from the bullpen to the rotation. However, he has the skill set and array of pitches that leads me to believe that he will easily make the transition from reliever to starter. PECOTA has made adjustments and projects him at a 3.69 ERA and 1.33 WHIP in 120 innings. If you have room, grab him for that low risk, high reward end of your bench.

Ivan Nova - 0.75 WHIP

Nova joined the Yankee rotation late last August and did well enough that he earned a longer look this spring in Tampa. Battling old timers such as Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon (and Kevin Millwood at the tail end of camp) for the last two spots in the rotation, Nova seemed to be a stone cold lock from the opening of camp. He did nothing to dispel that notion by posting a strong WHIP and 1.80 ERA with nine strikeouts and four walks in 20 innings.

As you can tell from his spring numbers, Nova is succeeding by limiting base hits (10 all spring) and keeping his control in check. He has had a track record of success, as he made 23 starts in Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and posted a respectable 2.86 ERA with a 1.26 WHIP early last year. He pitched nearly that well in the Bronx, finishing with a 4.50 ERA in 42 innings with a 1.45 WHIP. Part of his trouble stemmed from the fact he couldn’t go deep into games: Nova averaged 5 1/3 IP per start, yet threw, on average, over 80 pitches.

Nova features three pitches: a fastball, curve and change up. According to Texas Leaguers, his pitches thrown last summer broke down like this:

Fastball – 65 percent

Curve – 25 percent

Change – 10 percent

Kevin Goldstein rates Nova as the number eight prospect in the Yankees system and notes his best tool is his fastball that ranges in the low to mid 90s (while occasionally dialing up to 97 mph). Despite the power fastball, Nova lacks the ability to finish hitters with a strikeout. Just 3.3 percent of his fastballs were missed at the major league level and he punched out just 5.3 batters per nine innings. As you would expect from a young pitcher with an electric fastball, Nova has dealt with his share of command problems. Last summer with the Yankees, he surrendered 3.6 free passes per nine and owns a career 3.0 BB/9 in the minor leagues. Not a crippling number of walks—it's close to the last year's league average of 3.2 BB/9—but since he allows such a high percentage of balls in play (73 percent versus the league average of 69 percent) the base runners add up, as last year’s elevated WHIP will attest.

While a pitcher like McClellan keeps hitters off balance and makes up for his lack of swinging strikes by getting hitters to watch pitches in the zone sail by, Nova isn’t that type of pitcher. Hitters put the ball in play in 73 percent of plate appearances against Nova and possess an above-average contact rate of 83 percent. By comparison, McClellan has an 80 percent contact rate.

In his write-up on Nova, Goldstein also noted that he had a minimal fantasy impact. That’s the feeling here as well: PECOTA projects a 5.19 ERA to go along with a 1.6 WHIP and a meager 5.1 K/9. There’s going to be a bunch of contact, a few too many walks and, ultimately, a puffy ERA. The Yankees can overcome his pitching by scoring runs in bunches. Your fantasy team cannot. There are better options out there for the back of your rotation than Nova.

Brett Anderson, Madison Bumgarner, Gio Gonzalez - 25 Strikeouts

A trio of pitchers from the Bay area top the whiff leaderboard this spring.

Neither Anderson nor Gonzalez will start the opener for the Athletics. That job goes to Trevor Cahill, so that means Oakland’s rotation will feature three southpaws in a row. Both hurlers experienced declines in their strikeout rates last summer—Anderson missed time with elbow pain and Gonzalez set a career high with 200 innings, pitching exclusively as a starter for the first time in his career at the major league level. PECOTA is extremely bullish on Gonzalez as far as the strikeouts, projecting 198 whiffs in 205 innings. It has Anderson at 159 strikeouts in 200 innings, but with the stronger ERA and WHIP. Anderson’s control is outstanding. Gonzalez's…well, it could be better. Both starters benefit from working half their games in Oakland.

Bumgarner threw over 190 innings last summer between Triple-A Fresno and the big leagues. Throw in his post season work, and he pitched nearly 210 innings. That’s a high work rate, but Bumgarner is used to it—he threw almost 275 innings in his first two seasons combined. He rediscovered the velocity that went missing at the beginning of the year, has great control, and works in a yard that heavily favors pitcher.

In his starting pitcher rankings, Marc Normandin puts all three pretty much in the middle of the pack. I’m with him, as I rate Anderson more highly than Gonzalez or Bumgarner. If he remains healthy, he should outperform his PECOTA projection of 3.64 ERA, 1.29 WHIP and 159 strikeouts in 200 innings. 

Craig Brown is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Craig's other articles. You can contact Craig by clicking here

Related Content:  Ivan Nova,  Jaime Garcia,  Brett Anderson,  Fastball

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