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June 5, 2009

Fantasy Beat

Rookie Hurlers

by Marc Normandin

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There are few things as damaging to your team's fortunes as rookie pitchers. This is not to say that all rookie pitchers are bad, or that you will never get anything productive out of them, but generally speaking they can be trouble. You either drafted them as sleepers, or picked them up after they rattled off a few solid starts in a row, and your emotional investment in them is high because of it. Many owners are willing to stick with them once the league begins to adjust to them, hoping that they will bounce back, and come on just as strong as they did to start their major league career. You don't just want them to do well, you need them to do well, because hey, it makes you look smart.

That's why this week we are turning our attention to rookie pitchers that have found residence in their team's rotations this year. Four rookie starters with a minimum of 50 innings pitched have an ERA under 4.00 right now, so those are the ones we'll take a look at, since they have the most to lose were their situation to reverse itself.

First up, Jeff Niemann was driving a lot of Rays fans up the wall during the earlier part of the season, as his ERA stood at 10.13 after his first start against the Orioles, and then hovered in the 5-6 range for a month (and five additional starts) afterward. Since then though, Niemann has seen his ERA drop bit by bit, until he finally made his way under the 4.00 mark with this week's start against the Royals (9 2 0 0 1 9, Jaffe-style for IP, hits, runs, walks, and Ks). Niemann now fits perfectly into that category of someone who has shown you what he is capable of—both good and bad—and now is a good time to make a decision about which direction he's more likely to take.

Watching Niemann's early starts made you think two things: first, that Jeff Niemann sure loves his fastball, and second, that Niemann doesn't get anyone to swing and miss on pitches. We can take a look at that second part in this table. First, some terms: Str% is Strike percentage, StL% is Strikes Looking percentage, and StS% is Strikes Swinging percentage, which is based of off swings and misses.


Date  Str%  StL%  StS%
4-11  53.2  26.0  30.8
4-16  64.9  20.6  38.5
4-22  58.1  24.0  25.0
4-27  53.2  30.0  80.0 
5-02  60.5  23.9  45.5
5-07  53.8  19.0  25.0 
5-13  59.1  30.8  37.5
5-18  68.2  22.7   5.9
5-23  68.9  25.8  62.5
5-28  63.5  27.3  66.7
6-03  69.0  31.9  59.1

Niemann has nearly doubled his StS% from earlier in the year during his past three starts, and coincidentally did so after his May 18 start against the Athletics where essentially every pitch was hit—32 balls were put into play against him, but he gave up just eight hits and three runs in spite of it. I'm not sure if Niemann realized how lucky he was and decided to do something about it, or if the Rays' coaching staff took him aside to let him know he's lucky to have his defense behind him, but he's been doing something differently these past three starts. His current FIP is 5.00, but if he continues to make hitters swing and miss that number will drop. An ERA under 4.00 might not be as sustainable in the long run, but Niemann could be a guy that will help you more than hurt you. Just keep an eye on his swings and misses to see if he's for real.

April was a rough month for Rick Porcello, capped by a start against the Yankees where he gave up six runs in just 3 2/3 frames. He finished the month with an ERA of 6.23 and just 5.0 K/9, and with as many walks (six) as homers, or 2.5 per nine—which is great in the first case, but not so much for the second. Porcello is in his age-20 season, and won't even be old enough to legally drink until this offseason, so it's no surprise that he struggled in his first taste of big-league action. The Tigers stuck with him—as they have for many young hurlers this decade—and were rewarded for their patience in May, with Porcello throwing 30 innings, whiffing 20 (6.0 per nine), walking three per nine, and giving up just one homer this time around, a vast improvement over the beatings he took in April.

Porcello's May looks very similar to what Niemann has done to improve as of late, as Porcello's been less reliant on hitters taking strikes and more capable throwing pitches they are going to miss:


Date  Str%  StL%  StS%
4-09  64.0  28.1  18.8
4-19  65.1  28.6  25.0
4-24  57.6  32.7  37.5
4-29  57.3  27.9  25.0 
5-05  59.8  34.6  27.8
5-10  56.8  29.6  43.8
5-16  60.5  25.0  92.3
5-22  65.1  19.6  72.7
5-27  64.6  26.4  35.7
6-02  63.1  35.8  21.1

Things were dramatically different in May as far as his generating swings and misses from where they were in April, though he has been back down during his past two starts. Again, Porcello is just 20 years old, so if you have him on your team you should expect these kinds of ups and downs, but I think his May is a good indicator that he's capable of adjusting to major league hitters. The cases of both Niemann and Porcello remind me of one of my favorite Curt Schilling quotes: "Control is the ability to throw strikes. In the big leagues, everybody has control. Command is the ability to throw quality strikes." Niemann and Porcello both had control when they began this season, as neither starter has an abysmal walk rate, but lately they've shown that they're capable of having command as well, putting the ball where hitters want to hit it, but cannot.

Meanwhile, Josh Outman has done a great job of living up to his name for the A's, as opponents are hitting just .212 against him while he strikes them out at the rate of 7.0 per nine. The one glaring issue is his home-run rate, which at 1.2 per nine is a little high considering that he pitches in Oakland and has allowed 3.7 UBB/9. Pitching at home hasn't been the problem—he has given up a pair of homers in 22 1/3 IP there—but away games have been a different story, with a HR/9 of 1.4 thanks to five long balls in 31 1/3 IP. Outman has also stranded an above-average number of runners (77.5 percent, against the average of 71.2) thanks to a .147/.147/.206 line with runners in scoring position. He doesn't seem to walk many hitters from the stretch, walking two batters in 83 plate appearances with runners on against 20 out of 116 with no one on base, so maybe there is something to his stranding the extra baserunners he puts on.

The problem is that he's less likely to finish an inning unscathed if he keeps serving up home runs on the road, especially with his tendency to walk people. Add to that his .242 BABIP, which is well below expectations even with McAfee's anti-BABIP state factored in, and you can see that Outman is bound to regress. FIP recognizes this, and pegs him at 4.52 rather than his current 3.02 mark. Now, a 4.52 ERA isn't terrible, but it's not great, especially for a pitcher trying to get by with support from an offense as poor as the Athletics'. You could try to use him in a platoon of sorts, just pitching him in home games to play it safe for now, or you could see if you can get some value in return from someone who isn't aware he's over his head.

North of the border, Scott Richmond is also a rookie, but he's in his age-29 season. The Canadian hurler surprisingly did not play ball in high school, as his school did not offer it, but he did play in amateur summer leagues before attending three different colleges, all with baseball programs. Richmond went undrafted after college and joined the independent Northern League, eventually signing a minor league contract with the Blue Jays last year after attending an open tryout for the club. He made five starts last year, pitching 27 innings, and did well enough that the Jays used him to plug holes in their rotation caused by injuries this year.

The right-handed Richmond has been very effective against righties this year, allowing them to hit all of .176/.219/.209 on the season. Lefties have been much more of a problem though, as Richmond has been taking a beating all season: .291/.359/.624. In short, right-handers are hitting below replacement level, while the southpaws all look like lefty editions of Miguel Cabrera or something. While Richmond won Rookie of the Month honors for his 2.70 ERA in April, in May he had a 4.11 ERA. That may still be a little low though, as his FIP is 4.45, partially due to his stranding nearly 80 percent of his baserunners. It's perplexing how he has achieved that if you consider his numbers with runners on (.238/.293/.476) and with runners in scoring position (.256/.347/.535). Add to that the way lefties crush him, and you can see where problems will surface. Let a manager stack the lineup with lefties and Richmond will struggle as he did on May 13, when he took on the Yankees (three lefties and four switch-hitters in the lineup that night, with one of the two righties being Alex Rodriguez) and couldn't get out of the second inning while allowing seven hits and five runs. This is someone you're going to want to cut ties with, even though it's a shame given that he has a neat back story.

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