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October 20, 2011

The Keeper Reaper

Starting Pitching for 10/20/11

by Mike Petriello

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I have to say, I’m very pleased with the positive response we’ve had for the Keeper Reapers columns. I hope you’re finding it helpful–I know I am, simply because of the research on these guys. I’m about 15 deep in reader requests, which I’ll start chipping away at today and over the next few weeks, along with some names of my own. If you haven’t seen your suggestion discussed yet, keep in mind that I’m trying to have an even split between AL and NL to satisfy people in both leagues. Feel free to suggest more names in the comments.

Oh, and not that anyone asked, but since I’m writing this while I’m watching introductions for Game One of the World Series… Rangers in six. MVP will be Michael Young (because of course it will be), LVP will be whomever at FOX is forcing me to listen to whatever a “Scottie McCreery” is butchering the national anthem right now.

Mat Latos | San Diego Padres
Shallow: BORDERLINE
Medium:
YES
Deep:
YES
NL-only:
YES
Super Deep:
YES

When I first thought of Latos, I had a subconscious feeling that he’d been thought of as a disappointment this year, but I couldn’t quite place my finger on why. Because the Padres weren’t in contention in 2011 as they had been in 2010, perhaps? Because his ERA rose and his win/loss record went from four games over to five games under? Perhaps all of that contributed, but a look under the surface shows that Latos was only moderately less effective in 2011 than he had been in his breakout 2010; look at his FIP, which rose only from 3.00 to 3.16.

The perception also might be because Latos got off to a slow start, missing the first part of April with shoulder soreness and then allowing five homers in his first three starts after returning. By the All-Star Break, he was 5-10 with a 4.04 ERA—again, numbers we shouldn’t put much weight behind, but numbers that the public sees nonetheless. In 14 starts after the break, Latos put up a 92/24 K/BB and lowered his OPS against from a pre-break 720 to an excellent 582; he was particularly effective in September, when he struck out at least eight in each of his five starts without ever allowing more than three earned runs.

If there’s a sense that Latos dropped off last season, all the better for you; you know better, and that might help you pick him up at a reduced rate. For a pitcher who doesn’t even turn 24 for another two months, Latos has two excellent seasons under his belt and enough talent to take the next step as he matures.

Ivan Nova | New York Yankees
Shallow: NO
Medium:
NO
Deep:
BORDERLINE
AL-only:
YES
Super Deep:
YES

I like Nova well enough, and it’s indeed hard to ignore a 16-4 record, but there’s definitely a severe case of “overrated because of wins and pinstripes” going on here. Set aside the generally meaningless win/loss record for a second, and tell me that a guy who doesn’t miss bats (just 5.3 strikeouts per nine in 2011, down from 5.6 per nine in 2010) and has a decent-but-not-stellar walk rate (3.1 per nine this year) really excites you. Nova never really rang up high strikeout rates in the minors, either, with his best performance being 115 whiffs in 145 2010 Triple-A innings, so he can’t just point to the tough competition in the AL East.

Pitching is not entirely about strikeouts, of course, and Nova did do an acceptable job of keeping runs off the board and staying in games long enough to pick up those wins, but his 3.70 ERA was a bit more optimistic than his 4.01 FIP and 4.29 SIERA. Useful enough, but on a typical team—one that doesn’t support him with the second-highest run support in baseball, as the Yankees did—that 16-4 could easily be a 12-11. Nova’s certainly worth a roster spot (assuming, of course, that the arm trouble which forced him out of the ALDS doesn’t turn out to be something major), but let someone else overvalue him because of the wins.

Max Scherzer | Detroit Tigers
Shallow:
NO
Medium:
BORDERLINE
Deep:
YES
AL-only:
YES
Super Deep:
YES

When you see a pitcher’s ERA jump nearly a full run from one season to the next, as Scherzer’s did from 3.50 to 4.43 this year, the obvious reaction is, “what happened?” In Scherzer’s case, not a whole lot; since we know better than to blindly trust ERA, we can see that his SIERA score has been basically identical in each of his three seasons as a starter, always falling between 3.63 and 3.69. While his strikeout rate declined again, which is somewhat disconcerting, his walk rate fell as well, leading to his best K/BB rate of the last three seasons.

Where Scherzer ran into trouble this year was with an abnormally high home run rate, which jumped to 29 this year after allowing 20 in each of the last two seasons. It’s worth noting that four of those came in a windy Yankee Stadium in his first start of the season, and Scherzer’s performance improved as the season went on—as did his velocity, which was lower than usual at the start of the season. Before the All-Star Break, Scherzer had a 2.53 K/BB (96/38); afterwards, that increased to an excellent 4.33 (78/18).

Heading into his age-27 season, Scherzer has put up three solid seasons but hasn’t been able to take that next step into stardom just yet. Until he rights his decreasing strikeout trends, he’ll be a solid mid-rotation starter but perhaps not more than that.

Adam Wainwright | St. Louis Cardinals
Shallow:
BORDERLINE
Medium:
YES
Deep:
YES
NL-only:
YES
Super Deep:
YES

This is a tough one, obviously, because we don’t need to break out the stats to show that Wainwright was one of the elite pitchers in baseball before his injury. Yet after missing the entire season due to Tommy John surgery, his status is uncertain. If there’s anything in Wainwright’s favor here, it’s that the early date of his injury means that he’s on track to be ready for the start of 2012, unlike most pitchers who get injured partway through a season and then miss part or all of the next. So far, signs of his recovery are good; he began throwing bullpen sessions (though not at full speed) over a month ago, and there was actually some small discussionabout him trying to get on the postseason roster, though that was obviously far-fetched.

While it’s far from a given, the track record for pitchers coming off of Tommy John surgery in recent seasons is excellent, and with just over a full year before Opening Day to recover, Wainwright looks to be ready for 2012. His potential alone makes him a likely keeper in most leagues, but be wary that we haven’t seen him in a game situation yet, and he’s likely to be limited as far as pitch counts go, at least early on.

Charlie Morton | Pittsburgh Pirates
Shallow: NO
Medium:
NO
Deep:
NO
NL-only:
NO
Super Deep:
NO

After Morton’s absolutely atrocious 2010 (2-12, 7.57 ERA), his much-celebrated attempt to rework his mechanics to mimicRoy Halladay’s delivery (intentional or not) seems to have paid off; Morton evened his record at 10-10 and sliced his ERA nearly in half. So why am I less-than-bullish about him?

For one thing, his strikeout and walk rates actually went in the wrong direction from 2010 to 2011, resulting in his striking out one fewer and walking one more per nine than he had in his terrible 2010 campaign. His improved results came largely because he became more of a ground-ball pitcher this year, improving that rate from 47 percent to 59 percent, and this new emphasis on keeping the ball on the ground helped reduce his HR/FB rate from an astronomical 18.1 percent to an excellent 5.8 percent. That’s great in the real world but doesn’t help you much in fantasy; like Nova, he’s not offering much in the way of peripherals, yet unlike Nova, he’s not getting as much assistance from his team to pick up victories.

Besides, he underwent hip surgery last weekand is expected to miss up to six months, possibly causing him to miss the early part of the 2012 season. There’s an argument to be made that Morton was pitching hurt this season and improved despite the injury, so perhaps there’s further progression to expect here when he’s full healthy. That could be worth a late-round flyer, but it’s not something I’d want to spend a keeper spot on.

Jeff Niemann | Tampa Bay Rays
Shallow: NO
Medium:
NO
Deep:
NO
AL-only:
YES
Super Deep:
BORDERLINE

Despite missing about six weeks with a back injury, the massive Niemann had his third straight solid season for Tampa Bay, slightly lowering his walk rate while confounding the advanced run metrics, as his ERA (4.06) fell in between his SIERA (3.79) and his FIP (4.13). He improved by a good deal in the second half of the season, increasing his strikeout rate and reducing opposing OPS numbers as compared to the first half of the year as he recovered from his injury.

Headed into his age-29 season in 2012, Niemann seemingly is what he is at this point: a consistent back of the rotation type without a whole lot of projection left. There’s value in that, of course, though perhaps more in the real world than in fantasy. Watch closely, however, because the Rays are deep in starting pitching and are likely to deal a starter for a bat, so if Niemann escapes the AL East and ends up somewhere friendlier, that could make him look a bit more appealing.

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

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The BP Wayback Machine... (10/20)
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Fantasy Article The Keeper Reaper: Fir... (10/21)
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