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December 15, 2011

The Keeper Reaper

Starting Pitchers for 12/15/11

by Mike Petriello

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It’s been a big week for starting pitching movement, as two of the top arms have found new homes via free agency, while the market for Edwin Jackson is surprisingly quiet. As we await the announcement on which team put in the high bid for Yu Darvish, let’s start by checking in on C.J. Wilson and Mark Buehrle heading to opposite coasts before getting back to some reader requests.

C.J. Wilson | Los Angeles Angels
Sh
allow: NO
Medium:
BORDERLINE
Deep: YES
AL-only:
 YES
Super Deep: 
YES

It’s hard to think that signing the market’s consensus best starter could be something of an afterthought, though I suppose that’s what happens when you’re also bringing in the best hitter of a generation on the same day. For fantasy owners, Wilson’s move from Texas to Los Angeles is favorable if for no other reason than that he’ll continue to be able to face the punchless offenses in Oakland and Seattle several times per year, not to mention the fun of adding the lowly Astros to the mix in 2013—though with the caveat that he’ll now have to face the solid Texas offense rather than the lesser (even with Pujols) Angels collection.

Wilson will also pick up the benefit of leaving the notoriously hitter-friendly home of the Rangers to move to the pitcher-friendly Angel Stadium which, for no particular reason at all, I still think of as “Edison Field” despite being called that by just about no one during 1998-2003 span. That shift alone will immediately boost Wilson’s fortunes, which is needed because the groundball-heavy Wilson will be leaving behind Texas’ stellar middle infield of Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus. That’s not to say that the Angels don’t have a quality defense—they do, assuming they’re not really going to play Mark Trumbo at third base—just that much of their value is in the outfield, which helps Wilson less than it would a more flyball-prone starter.

This all adds up to a pitcher who might not be among the upper-level of starting pitchers but fits comfortably into that second tier along with comparables like Jon Lester, David Price, and Ubaldo Jimenez. With the boost that he’ll get from park effects alone, Wilson is clearly valuable in all leagues.

Mark Buehrle | Miami Marlins
Sh
allow: NO
Medium:
NO
Deep: NO
NL-only:
 NO
Super Deep:
BORDERLINE 

Buehrle’s a solid starter, one any team would like to have simply because of his consistency in an age of pitching uncertainty; eleven straight years of tossing at least 200 innings is hard to ignore. On a new-look Marlins team which is counting on the talented-but-injury-prone Josh Johnson to lead the staff, that sort of reliability is crucial.

That said, Buehrle is the type of pitcher who is far more valuable to a real-life squad than he would be in the fantasy world, because of the 94 pitchers who threw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title last year, only six had a lower strikeout percentage than Buehrle. From a park effects perspective, we haven’t yet seen how the new Miami park will play, though all indications are that it will be a large park that caters to pitchers (but since Buehrle routinely produces more grounders than flyballs, it might not affect him all that much anyway). Working in his favor is the fact that he’ll get away from a dreadful White Sox defenseto work with a middle-of-the-pack Marlins group that should only improve now that Jose Reyes will be pushing Hanley Ramirez off of shortstop.

An improved defense won’t help Buehrle collect more strikeouts, of course, so his main utility in fantasy is eating up a ton of innings while hopefully collecting wins, of which Buehrle has managed to put up double figures in every full year of his career. Wins are hard to count on for non-elite starters, however, so while Buehrle is probably deserving of a late roster spot, you can probably do better when it comes to precious keeper spots.

Tommy Hanson | Atlanta Braves
Sh
allow: NO
Medium:
NO
Deep: NO
NL-only:
 BORDERLINE
Super Deep: 
YES, IF HEALTHY

In a perfect world, Tommy Hanson would be thought of as one of the brightest young starters in the league, and you’d hang on to him without a second thought. In his age-24 season, Hanson increased his K/9 rate to 9.83 (the fifth-best in baseballamong pitchers with at least 130 innings) while throwing out incredibly consistent performances throughout the first four months of the season—just look at his game logs, where you can see that in his first 21 starts, he allowed more than three earned runs just three times.

Unfortunately for Hanson, his 22nd start was not only poor—seven earned runs allowed in three-and-a-third to the Mets on August 6—it was his final game of the season, as he missed the last two months with right shoulder tendonitis. Considering that this was his second stint on the disabled list due to the shoulder—he’d missed two weeks in June with the same issue—and that he was unable to return even as the Atlanta season sputtered to a disappointing finish without him, it’s a serious concern for his future.

Hanson is reportedly expected to be ready to start 2012, though updates have been hard to come by and recent reports have indicated that there’s still some concern. Obviously, his health is where the story is here, so watch closely. If he’s able to go, he’s able to provide a sizable reward, so a decision on him now is all about your predilection for risk.

Doug Fister | Detroit Tigers
Sh
allow: NO
Medium:
NO
Deep: NO
AL-only:
 BORDERLINE
Super Deep:
YES

Like Buehrle, Fister strikes out very few and gets by with outstanding control and the ability to limit homers, though his two home parks have certainly helped with that. If he was never as bad as he seemed when he was going 3-12 for a terrible Seattle club in the beginning of 2011, he was also probably not quite as good as his 8-1 mark down the stretch for Detroit seemed to indicate. (It’s almost like… wins and losses are meaningless for pitchers.)

While Fister has proven to be a very capable real-world starter—only 12 pitchers over the last two years have a lower FIP than his 3.29 mark—the lack of strikeouts does tend to hold him back in the fantasy world. The good news is that he has been showing improvement in that area, striking out 4.89 per nine in 2010 with Seattle, which he bumped up to 5.49 in 28 starts with the Mariners before being traded, then up again to 7.29 for the Tigers. If he can even just hold steady at that level, he’ll vault up to the next level of starting pitchers, though I hesitate to act as though anyone can really put up a 57-to-5 K/BB mark, as he did with Detroit, and consider it sustainable. The same goes for his AL-best 0.46 HR/9 rate, so beware of regression there.

Edinson Volquez | Cincinnati Reds
Sh
allow: NO
Medium:
NO
Deep: NO
NL-only:
 NO
Super Deep:
NO 

In his first season for the Reds, Edinson Volquez went 17-6 with a 3.21 ERA in 32 starts, making many wonder if the deal that sent him from Texas for Josh Hamilton was a win for both sides. While Hamilton has gone on to stardom, Volquez has been slowed by Tommy John surgery and a suspension for PED usage, making just 41 MLB starts in the three seasons since and struggling to regain his control—walking 5.4 per nine from 2009-11.

Volquez managed to return to the Reds for a few appearances near the end of 2010 and was rewarded with rotation spot to start 2011, but his return didn’t go well, as he allowed nearly six runs per nine over his first 17 starts before the Reds finally could watch no more and shipped him off to Triple-A, partially due to some disparaging comments about his teammates. Back in the minors, Volquez found success—2.37 ERA, 83-to-29 K/BB in 13 starts—before returning to the Reds for four generally mediocre September starts.

So is the Volquez of 2008 gone for good? He certainly isn’t worth a keeper spot in any league, as you can tell by the unanimous slate of “NOs” shown above, but I’m not ready to write him off completely. He hasn’t lost any velocity off his fastball, which we generally see in the 93 MPH range, and his swinging strike percentage of 10.9 percent in 2011 is essentially identical to the 11.0 percent he had in 2008; he also allowed fewer line drives and induced more ground balls this year than he did three years ago. Really, the main issue here—along with a HR/9 rate of 1.57, which is so far above his career norms that you’d have to expect some improvement there—looks to be his continued control issues. Volquez was never much of a control artist even at his best, yet in the last three years his BB/9 rate has skyrocketed north of five, which is almost impossible to win with. Now that he’s more than two years off of Tommy John, can he get past that and get back to being a valuable big-league starter? It’s worth keeping an eye on as a buy-low option.

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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