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January 26, 2012

The Keeper Reaper

Starting Pitchers for 1/26/12

by Mike Petriello

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Another week, another round of starting pitchers to discuss in the Keeper Reaper…

Ervin Santana | Los Angeles Angels
Sh
allow: NO
Medium: NO
Deep: NO
AL-only: NO
Super Deep: BORDERLINE

I don’t know why I find it surprising that 2012 is going to be Ervin Santana’s eighth year in the Angel rotation already, but 203 starts later, only infielder Maicer Izturis outranks him in seniority among the current club. It helps that he’s coming off a good season, though, because after a sizeable stretch of alternating good and bad years over his career, Santana finally broke that curse by tossing a career-high 228 1/3 innings of 3.38 ERA/4.00 FIP ball in 2011.Despite a lackluster 11-12 record, that kind of run prevention over such a large amount of innings, along with a decent K/BB mark of nearly 2.5, made Santana a reliable, if unspectacular, starter in most leagues.

But what is he, exactly? Though 2011 was arguably the second- or third-best year of Santana’s career, he’s never been able to come close to matching his breakout 2008, when he went 16-7 and struck out nearly 4.5 as many as he walked, adding up to a 3.30 FIP. That performance earned him a four-year contract extension, but after a 2009 season largely lost to arm trouble, he’s put up two good-but-not great seasons since. It’s pretty easy to point to the fastball velocity which peaked at 94.4 MPH in 2008 and hasn’t touched 93 since, and maybe it’s as simple as that. Santana appears to be compensating by changing his pitching style, as his slider usage has increased while he’s relied on the fastball less, and for the first time in 2011, he induced more grounders than flies. Otherwise, his peripherals over the last two seasons have been essentially the same, even if the win/loss record (which he has little control over) hasn’t been.

I suppose there’s an argument to be made that with another year of health, Santana’s lost velocity might return, but I wouldn’t really bank on it. Looking at his career, it’s 2008 that’s really the outlier, so if the 2010-11 Santana is what he is now, that’s a solid mid-rotation starter but not someone to build your staff around. On Tuesday of this week, our own Derek Carty was asked if Santana ranked fourth in AL keeper status behind James Shields, Josh Beckett, and C.J. Wilson. Derek said yes, and I can’t really disagree. He’s worthy of a roster spot in the later rounds, but don’t lose much sleep over him as a potential keeper.

Vance Worley | Philadelphia Phillies
Sh
allow: NO
Medium: NO
Deep: NO
NL-only: NO
Super Deep: BORDERLINE

I’ll admit that I saw Worley pitch just twice last year. The first time, in person at CitiField on May 29, was a three-inning, twelve-hit, eight-run debacle that got him shipped off to the minors for several weeks. The second, on television in Los Angeles on August 10, went only slightly better: six earned runs in four innings, though the leaky Dodger bullpen helpfully let Worley avoid the loss.

Since I saw the only two starts all season in which Worley allowed more than four earned runs, you’ll excuse me if my initial impression of him wasn’t exactly favorable. It’d be a mistake to judge any player on two appearances, however, and Worley managed to rip off nine straight wins after that Mets game, surging to 11-1 before dropping his final two decisions. While we hardly need to explain the folly of relying on wins again, the streak vaulted Worley onto the radar of fantasy players everywhere, and that alone brings value.

Beyond the idea of perceived value, though, Worley was actually pretty good in his first full year in the bigs. It’s hard to hate on 8.13 strikeouts per nine, and despite not generating an overwhelming amount of grounders, he managed to keep the ball in the yard, leading to a FIP of 3.32 that wasn’t all that far off his ERA of 3.01. The odd thing, however, is that Worley was never really much of a strikeout machine in the minors—6.9 per nine in 76 games—and a large amount of his whiffs in the bigs last year came looking rather than swinging. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself—they still count as outs, you know—but it’s also not a great indicator that he’s presenting swing-and-miss stuff, backed up by the fact that his swinging-strike percentage was a middling 5.5 percent.

With Roy Oswalt on the way out, Worley is set to be the fourth starter in Philadelphia, and on a team that looks to have at least one or two more years left in their current window of success, he’s well-positioned to have a decent year in 2012. I would imagine that you’ll see fewer strikeouts and perhaps a less shiny win/loss record, but with nothing else in his 2011 performance seeming unrepeatable, Worley’s a nice enough piece to add to your staff.

Ricky Romero | Toronto Blue Jays
Sh
allow: NO
Medium: NO
Deep: BORDERLINE
AL-only: YES
Super Deep: YES

Behold the power of ERA: last year, Ricky Romero struck out fewer than he did in 2010, lost two additional games, saw his home run rate explode, and had his FIP increase from 3.64 to 4.20. Yet because his ERA sank from 3.73 to 2.92—largely due to an unsustainable .242 BABIP—he made the All-Star team and garnered some down-ballot Cy Young support.

That’s not to suggest that Romero didn’t have a good year in 2011, because of course he did have that ERA and he did win 15 games over 225 innings while pitching in the tough American League East. After years of being known as “that guy the Blue Jays drafted over Troy Tulowitzki”, Romero has become one of the more reliable starters in the league, prospering as one of the few players to come to the bigs and outperform generally underwhelming minor league stats.

Romero provides value as a young lefty who can eat up innings while collecting a few strikeouts but still allowing Jays fans to dream that he still has that next step left in him—after all, he’s only entering his age-27 year, and he posted a career-best fastball velocity last season. I also gave him a slight bump in the rankings for no other reason than name recognition, because it really does feel as though the wins and ERA are making people regard him as something slightly more than he is. Expect regression in that ERA next season but not so much that he won’t be a solid member of your rotation.

Ryan Vogelsong | San Francisco Giants
Sh
allow: NO
Medium: NO
Deep: NO
NL-only: NO
Super Deep: NO

Vogelsong was another user request from last week, and a great one at that, since the 33-year-old righty shocked everyone by making the All-Star team five years after his last big-league appearance. Despite a solid 13-7, 2.71 campaign for the Giants, all we can really say with certainty one year later is that Vogelsong is a 34-year-old righty, albeit a newly-enriched one thanks to the two-year, $8.3 million deal he agreed on with San Francisco following the season.

Let’s get one thing out of the way immediately: Vogelsong is not going to post a sub-3.00 ERA again, at least not if you believe in any of the advanced run prevention metrics. Using FIP, his 2011 was a 3.67 campaign. If you prefer SIERA, it was 3.97. If you’re more of a FRA type, then mark it at 4.03. All of the varied systems think that Vogelsong’s true ERA overstated his true impact by about a run or more, and that’s probably a lot closer to his true performance level. Even if that’s not quite as sexy as the 2.71 ERA he ended up with, run prevention in the high-3.00s or low-4.00s from a back-end pitcher is still plenty valuable for a big-league club.

But as we have to ask every week in this space, is being a solid big-league performer the same thing as being a solid fantasy option? In this case, I’m inclined to say no. The 2011 edition of Vogelsong was one who was good in most areas but above-average in few. Striking out 6.9 per nine is decent, but it’s hardly great, and the same goes for a 3.06 BB/9. Vogy did do a solid enough job of keeping the ball in the park—helped in large part by his home park, of course—and induced grounders at a nearly 50 percent clip. So if he’s able to replicate what was, by all accounts, a career season, he’ll once again be a worthy back-end option. It’s the danger that he can’t repeat that performance, based on his minimal track record and peripherals that don’t match the ERA, that make him a risk. It’s not completely out of the question that regression makes him look like a bust in 2012. Draft him to fill out your roster, not as a priority keeper.

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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