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July 3, 2009

Fantasy Beat

Regression is Not Regret

by Marc Normandin

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We're about halfway through the season, so now is as good of a time as any to check the QuikERA leaderboards to see who should be doing what. There have been some significant changes on both ends of the board as sample sizes have increased and the more severe cases have leveled out. That doesn't mean we don't have any pitchers way over or well under their expected performance levels though; we will take a look at a few of each today.

Ricky Nolasco was sent down to the minors after a start on May 22 that saw his ERA balloon to 9.07, the highest it had been all year. On the basis of his underlying performance, he did not deserve that high of an ERA, but he was giving up too many homers and failing to strand enough baserunners to be anywhere near his adjusted numbers, so the Marlins felt a respite from major league hitting might help him heal whatever ailed him. The trip did the trick, as Nolasco came back up for a start on June 7, giving up just two runs over seven while stranding 11 of 13 baserunners. He also avoided giving up a homer, and in fact did not allow another long ball until two starts later. Nolasco finished the month of June with 33 innings pitched and 33 strikeouts against just five walks, surrendering a pair of homers while stranding nearly 70 percent of his baserunners, which was still a below-average mark, but was well above his previous rate.

His numbers still look pretty ugly if you don't adjust them, though, as his current ERA is 5.99. However, his QERA is 3.70, and his FIP is 3.65; combine those two figures with the work he did in June-which looked very similar to what he did last year in spurts-and you can see that it's time to get excited about Nolasco again. Those of you who were patient and held on to him can congratulate themselves, while those of you in need of a pitcher might want to start bargaining with his owners before he regresses any further towards his deserved numbers.

Jamie Moyer looks to be improving as well, but the difference between his actual ERA (6.05) and his QERA (4.81) may be a bit exaggerated. That's because QERA does not take home runs into account, and the one thing that has hampered Moyer during all of 2009 is the long ball. He gave up five homers in just 23 April innings, and then nine homers over six starts in May, giving him a rate of 2.4 homers allowed per nine, or one every 15.8 at-bats. If Moyer had kept that pace up all year, he would end up allowing 52 bombs over 200 innings pitched, assuming he survived each start long enough to get to that many frames. Happily, things have slowed down in June, and Moyer had his best month yet, pitching 30 innings, averaging six whiffs per nine (nearly three times his walk rate to boot) and allowing five homers. Three of those came in one game, and Moyer luckily had the bases empty more often than not, which allowed the Phillies and Moyer to win 5-4 that time out.

Which Moyer should we expect going forward? The more successful version had a few more punchouts and a better walk rate with fewer home runs allowed, which are three of the major things to look for in a pitcher's performance. Opponents did not hit him as hard, with a line of .283/.339/.504; that looks iffy until you see what he gave up in the two months prior (.321/.374/.570). If we assume he has fixed his issue with homers to some extent, we're looking at a guy capable of posting an ERA in the mid-to-high fours, and on this team that should pick him up some wins. I think giving him a shot comes down to two things-how deep your league is, and how badly you need those extra innings, strikeouts, and potential wins. In my main league, Moyer may be the best starting pitcher left available; if you're in the same state of desperation, you may want to consider it, but be warned that his recovery from early struggles is not a definite thing. It's just as likely that he struggles to be consistent for the rest of the year as it is that he pitches like it's June the rest of the season.

Scott Baker looks like he has been struggling all year, but a lot of his problems came early on. He failed to hit the five-inning mark in two of his three April starts, but still managed to allow seven homers during that short time. While giving up 4.4 homers per nine isn't realistic unless you're Jose Lima, Baker's larger body of work from May didn't look too pretty either (1.7 HR/9). Like Nolasco, things started to click in June: 39 1/3 IP, 8.0 K/9 with under two walks per nine, and-most important-just three homers allowed. QERA says that Baker should have an ERA under 4.00 at the moment thanks to his strikeout rate (7.2) and walk rate (1.7 per nine), but it isn't taking into account the fact that he has as many homers allowed as unintentional walks. His FIP is a little less exciting at 4.45, and that even adjusts for his below-average strand rate.

For Baker, it comes down to whether you believe he has put the home run issues behind him. He struggled with the long ball back in 2006, but managed to stay under one per nine in both 2007 and 2008. He cut down on the homers by allowing fewer fly balls in June: his G/F ratio in April was 0.3, 0.5 in May, and 0.7 in June. It's obvious he's a fly ball-oriented pitcher, and if his history is any indication, that won't change soon either; his June G/F rate was higher than in any season of his career. Another month like June would convince me that he's figured things out, but until then, you may want to split the difference between Baker's QERA and FIP, putting him down as an above-average pitcher, but not a potential stud the way that his K/BB indicates.

Not to pick on Twins' pitching too much, but if you can explain to me why Nick Blackburn still has a 3.10 ERA, then I'm all ears. Blackburn doesn't walk very many hitters-just 2.2 BB/9 on the year-but he also rarely misses bats. He's more than one walk per nine under the average walk rate, but three strikeouts per nine under the average. This hasn't caught up to him at all; in fact, he started out struggling, but has seen his overall ERA fall in five of his last seven starts. Essentially, Blackburn can thank the Twins for lasting as well as he has; they rank fifth in the majors in Defensive Efficiency, converting 70.4 percent of balls in play into outs. That conversion has been even higher for Blackburn, who has benefited from a BABIP of .288, which is also under the league average. Thanks to the high quality of the Twins' defense, it has not mattered that such a huge percentage of Blackburn's opponents put the ball in play.

Blackburn is not a ground ball- or fly ball-oriented pitcher, and is instead smack in the middle. This has worked out for him well enough, though, as the Twins' infield defense is average at three positions and excellent at third (Joe Crede's at +11.1 runs via UZR), and the outfield (Denard Span's at +3.7, Carlos Gomez at +1.2, and Michael Cuddyer at -4.4) does more good than harm when Delmon Young isn't out there. As long as the Twins can keep up their solid defensive play, Blackburn may just be able to prop up that ERA throughout 2009. Both adjusted systems may dislike him, but you can't argue much with the way he has cheated the system.

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