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April 22, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Early Season Pitching Surprises

by Jason Collette

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The best parts of April and small sample sizes are that they bring out some interesting stories, especially on the pitching side of the house. After all, Dustin Moseley has the fourth best ERA in all of baseball right now. There are 16 pitchers with ERAs below 2.00, a group that includes Moseley, Justin Masterson, Aaron Harang, and Matt Harrison. Meanwhile, Phil Hughes has a 13.94 ERA, and off-season sleeper James McDonald is still asleep with an 0-2 record and a 10.13 ERA. Those stories are nice, but the stories behind the stories are what are most appealing. Which of these early surprises are smoke and mirrors and which ones are sustainable?

Kyle Lohse: There weren’t many players who can say 2010 was as bad for them as it was for Lohse. He had a VORP of -7.3, a 4.92 SIERA, all while fighting compartment syndrome that caused him to miss 72 games last season. All he has done is come back and pitched some of the best baseball of his career to date. His 6.3 K/9 so far is his best effort since 2006 and he has allowed just one home run in 31.1 IP.

That kind of 0.3 HR/9 rate stands out against a career average of 0.9, but Lohse’s HR/FB rate was just seven percent last season, so this season’s four percent is not that out of whack. His career HR/FB rate is right at 10 percent, but he has been in single digits for five of the past six seasons.

The secret to his success so far comes in his vastly improved command: he has walked just four batters on the season for a 1.2 walk rate. That harkens back to his 2008 season when he had a 2.2 walk rate, a 15-8 record and a 4.30 SIERA. He has also changed what he is throwing to hitters: the table below shows how Lohse utilized his pitches in 2010 compared to what he has done this season (data courtesy of texasleaguers.com).

YEAR

4-SEAM

SINKER

SLIDER

CHANGE

CURVE

CUTTER

2010

30%

26%

19%

13%

9%

3%

2011

34%

27%

14%

20%

3%

1%

He has cut his breaking pitch usage down from 28 percent to 17 percent while showcasing his change-up more often, and the results on his balls in play have been very encouraging. The next table compares the results of at bats from 2010 to this season:

YEAR

GROUNDOUT

FLYOUT

STRIKEOUT

WALK

2010

18%

15%

12%

7%

2011

27%

15%

19%

2%

He is now 3-1 with improved K/9 and a much improved BB/9; the .207 BABIP is going to climb, but his LOB% is not terrible. I am buying this new and improved version of Lohse if he is still available, but after last night’s two hit shutout against the Nationals, the odds of his availability are rather slim.

Wade Davis: Davis won 12 games last season with a 6.1 K/9, but a 4.68 SIERA was a warning sign that made drafters a bit leery back in March. The two wins, 2.73 ERA, and 1.18 WHIP are nice for those that still plunged in, but a 3.4 K/9 is not what anyone signed up for. Davis’ BABIP last season was .272 which, while low for the AL, was not that far off the Rays’ team BABIP. It sits at .247 right now as he has taken to pitching to contact–something both Steve Slowinski of DRays Bay and Tommy Rancel of the The Process Report have recently looked at. Rancel points out how the velocity of Davis’ fastballs have varied with men on base compared to the bases empty and even with runners in scoring position, so the change in velocity is not one related to injury, but one created by design. Slowinski points out the recent history with low dominance pitchers:

Since 2005, there have been 90 starting pitchers that have posted a strikeout rate under 5 K/9 over a full, qualified season. Of those 90 pitchers, 68 of them finished the season with an ERA greater than 4.00, and half of them finished with an ERA greater than 4.40. The numbers are similar when you look at the peripheral statistics too: 77 starters finished with a FIP higher than 4.00, and half of them had a FIP greater than 4.50

Davis currently carries a 3.77 FIP, since he has given up just one home run on the season, but xFIP paints a grimmer picture at 5.09, as it assumes a 10.5 HR/FB rate. Over his last 112 innings, he has a very desirable 3.31 ERA and 1.23 WHIP, but just a 5.3 K/9 along with an average 1.0 HR/9 rate. If this new approach is the cure to the gopheritis that led to him surrendering 18 home runs in the first half last season, the low strikeout rate would be a welcome tradeoff, as his ratios are quite strong for an American League pitcher dating back to July 1 of last season.

James McDonald: McDonald was a nice NL-only sleeper thanks to an 8.6 K/9 between Los Angeles and Pittsburgh. Sadly, this season ‘s start has been wretched, as he has as many walks as he does strikeouts and he has permitted 37 baserunners in 18 2/3 innings while surrendering five home runs. His BABIP is just .323, but 47 percent of his runners are crossing home plate thanks to the home runs. Of the five homers that McDonald has given up, only one has been a solo shot, while two of them have been three-run home runs and two have been grand slams.

McDonald has been wild and batters simply are not helping him out as they did last season. According to statcorner.com, McDonald’s opponents swung and missed at 33 percent of the pitches that he threw out of the strike zone, as he got batters to expand their zone when behind in the count. This season, batters are doing that just 21 percent of the time as they are finding themselves up in the count more frequently than McDonald.

Last season, McDonald had a .194/.291/.292 slash line when pitching with runners in scoring position (88 plate appearances). This season, in just 25 plate appearances, that slash line is .316/.417/.632—that does not include the three-run homer and grand slam from last night. The 19 percent HR/FB rate will come back down, but if his control does not come back around, this ugly story will not get any prettier in the coming weeks.

Francisco Liriano: A 1-3 record, 7.40 ERA, and 1.69 WHIP are not what fantasy leaguers signed up for! He, like McDonald, has walked as many batters as he has struck out this season and has given up four home runs in just 20 2/3 innings pitched—simply inexcusable numbers for a guy with his stuff.

Liriano is a guy that has built his success on getting batters to chase his awesome changeup and slider out of the zone, but he too has seen a reduction in those areas. Last season, batters chased 36 percent of the pitches he threw out of the zone (league average is 31 percent) but this season, they’re chasing just 27 percent, identical to his rate in the rather forgettable 2009 season.

Last season, Liriano’s was at 94.2 with his four-seam fastball, but thus far he has dropped to 92.3 miles per hour. His pitch mix is not much different from his usage last year, but decreased velocity and decreased control are a deadly mix for pitchers, and this is on Liriano rather than any kind of bad luck.

He has a .266 BABIP, but has stranded just 63 percent of the 36 runners he has put on base in under 21 innings of work. The track record is there with Liriano, but the Saberhagenmetrics are in play here as his success comes in even-numbered years. He missed 2007 with surgery, was a brutal fantasy producer in 2009 with a 5.80 ERA, a 1.55 WHIP, and just five wins in 24 starts, and 2011 is off to a disastrous start as he has lost the strike zone. High risk and high reward are in play here, and unless he is hiding an injury, Liriano’s issues are very correctible in the coming weeks.

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

Related Content:  James Mcdonald,  Bad Season

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