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August 27, 2013

Five to Watch

Positive Regression Candidates

by Craig Goldstein

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When it comes to starting pitching, my philosophy has long been “it’s always available.” Even when it comes to deep/dynasty leagues where the talent is scarce, finding pitching depth isn’t as difficult as it might seem. With that in mind, we turn our spotlight to five pitchers who have struggled—to varying extents—in 2013, but who have the ability, history, and peripheral statistics to pique our interest. Note that, unsurprisingly, two of these pitchers appeared in the Starting Pitchers section of BP’s Mid-Season Outliers, which should be a good source if you’re looking for anyone beyond the five mentioned in this article.

Jeremy Hellickson, Rays
It’s been a rough season for pitchers who have made a habit of outperforming their FIP, and Hellickson has been chief among those types. He’s also been chief among those having a rough season, including last night’s putrid performance (2 2/3 IP, 7 H, 5 ER, 2 BB, 1 K). The interesting part though, is that unlike some of the others listed, Hellickson is actually producing better peripherals than he ever has, so instead of just relying on past performance, we can say that he’s actively getting better.

Despite the 5.00+ ERA, Hellickson’s FIP sit sat a career best 4.11. He’s seen an uptick in strikeout rate (18.2 percent in ‘13 from 16.7 percent in ‘12) and a downturn in walk rate (6.3 percent in ‘13 from 8 percent in ‘12), and improving in those two areas generally foreshadows better numbers overall. We could look to his batted ball data, but even there, we see improvement in his numbers. His line-drive rate is down, and while his fly-ball rate has increased marginally, his HR/FB is down. His infield-fly percentage is up as well, which would normally manifest itself in a lower BABIP, and therein lies the true culprit. Or one of them, anyway. His BABIP has seen a 45-point spike, and while his previous profiles wouldn’t necessarily beget the low BABIP he had been receiving, this might be a bit of an overcorrection for Hellickson.

The other area where he’s been hurt badly is his LOB percentage. His 68 percent clip is a bit below the league average but well below his career average of 78 percent. While that career average might be seen as unsustainable, a drop to five percentage points below the league average probably isn’t something we should anticipate going forward either. Another reason to buy a bounce back? While we generally try to separate pitchers from their defense, it’s worth noting that the Rays are generally one of the best defensive teams in the league, so some of Hellickson’s “luck” might be by design.

When it comes to valuation, it’s hard to gauge where Hellickson checks in. He’s someone we had begun to trust to just be...different. While the numbers may not have made sense, they made sense for him. Just when we begin to trust, our world gets turned on it’s head, but that’s baseball for you. Perhaps proving my own naivete, I would rank Hellickson similarly to where he was ranked entering 2013, relying on his progression as a pitcher and a return to the luck he had experienced thus far in his career.

Edwin Jackson, Cubs
Last week, a friend and Cubs fan asked what was wrong with Jackson. Admittedly, I hadn’t been paying a ton of attention to Jackson’s season, but a cursory look at everything but his win-loss record and his ERA said everything was fine. While many have learned to look past one bad year or even just ugly surface stats, there are plenty of owners who still cling to the basics, as I found out when discussing Matt Cain in an NL-Only league recently.

Jackson has one of the larger discrepancies between his ERA (5.00) and his FIP (3.58), and that alone should get your value-senses tingling. Add in the fact that he’s generating ground balls at 52.5 percent (1.92 GB/FB rate), and limiting home runs (0.69 HR/9) and this appears to more a case of bad luck for a consistently-inconsistent-but-talented starter. His K% has dipped to just under 18 percent from 21 percent in 2012, but he’s right in line with his career rate, and posted a similar FIP in 2011 when he had almost identical walk and strikeout rates. To top it all off, Jackon’s LOB rate is a dismal 61 percent. Compare that to his career 70.5 percent clip, or even better, to the league average 72 percent rate, and all signs point to better surface stats for Jackson in 2014.

Always a guy that has been available, if not in free agency, then cheaply in trade, Jackson has the ability to provide league average or better statistics in bulk innings. That’s not something that should be overlooked when building depth on one’s pitching staff in deep leagues. He’s someone to target in 14-team leagues or deeper, and a solid FA/stream option in shallower leagues.

Ian Kennedy, Padres
Here are some fun facts. In 21 starts for Arizona, Kennedy posted a 5.23 ERA and a 4.57 FIP. In four starts with San Diego, Kennedy has posted a 3.20 ERA and a 4.72 FIP. This would imply that while the things Kennedy can ostensibly control have gone from bad to slightly worse in San Diego, his surface stats are improving. However, Kennedy’s FRA in Arizona was 4.95, and it sits at 4.91 in San Diego, so if we include defense, sequencing, batted ball distrubition and some other info, we can see he’s been basically the same pitcher.

While that is probably exactly enticing you to go get Kennedy, one of the things I expect to him to iron out in his time in San Diego is the increase in walks he’s experienced. He’s seen a bump in his walk rate from 6% in 2012 to nine percent in 2013 (and he’s actually been worse while in PETCO), his career average is a hair under eight percent and his previous two seasons in Arizona both checked in at 6.1 percent. His history, combined with a ballpark that will allow him to attack hitters without fear of being hurt by the home run like he was in Arizona, give me hope that he can see a return to an ERA below 4.00, if not below 3.50 in the generous environs that PETCO provides.

We’ve seen PETCO lead to fantasy value for such luminaries as Eric Stults, Tim Stauffer, Jason Marquis and others. Kennedy currently has more talent than any of those named had when they joined the Padres and should be able to take advantage of his situation at least as well as they did. I wouldn’t go so far as to recommend him in 10-12 team leagues, but anything deeper and he should warrant serious consideration as a bounce-back candidate.

Lance Lynn, Cardinals
Now, I can’t imagine this will be a tough sell on most of you, given the great value that Lynn has provided to most owners over the past couple years. That said, he’s very quietly posting an ERA north of 4.00 in 2013, which isn’t exactly what people signed up for when they drafted him.

While he’s a known commodity, and a highly thought of one at that, Lynn might still be undervalued. He’s currently sporting a 3.20 FIP and a well above average 22% strikeout rate that is actually down from 2012’s 24 percent. His walk rate is basically the same, and while he doesn’t carry the same groundball rate as some of the others mentioned on this list, he’s done a stellar job of keeping the ball in the park throughout his career. While his HR/FB is four percentage points lower than it was last year, a small regression in that area wouldn’t sink the overall improvements he should see based on his peripheral stats.

While much of my focus tends to shade towards deeper leagues, Lynn is the type of guy who should be targeted in all leagues and will likely be had at the cheapest prices in 10-12 team leagues.

Edinson Volquez, Padres
Another fantasy non-factor due to a tepid win-loss record and an ERA that has left him in the fantasy trash can (or at least refuse-adjacent, but then again…), Volquez is yet another example of the type of player who can add depth to a rotation without costing much of anything at all. Like others on this list, Volquez has a marked difference between his ERA (6.01) and his FIP (4.19) that would lead us to believe that a bounce back is in order. But it’s worth looking closer at the other components that would imply a positive regression.

First of all, Volquez will make approximately half his starts in the pitcher’s paradise that is PETCO park. While he’s managed to squander that massive advantage this year, we shouldn’t necessarily assume he’ll do so again next year. Add to that a healthy ground-ball rate of 48 percent (1.63 GB/FB) and a solid league-average 10.4 percent HR/FB, and there’s no reason that Volquez should be working with such a brutal ERA. While his strikeout rate declined a jarring four percentage points from 2012 to 2013, his BB percentage dropped 1.5 percentage points, which, in theory, would balance the decline in strikeouts, at least a bit. The drop in strikeout rate is worrisome certainly, but if anything I would anticipate a return to his career rate, near 21 percent, (from 17.6 percent in 2013) as well as a corresponding bump in his walk rate.

So, what does that leave us with? A starter inconsistent enough in his career to be vastly undervalued, coming off the worst surface stats of his career, pitching in the best pitcher’s park one could hope for, who should see an increase in strikeouts compared to 2012. I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t mind buying at a discount. Once again, Volquez is a deep league value buy only who won’t be of much use in 14-team leagues or shallower.

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

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