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August 14, 2009

Fantasy Beat

Productive Pitchers

by Marc Normandin

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We're always looking for the signs to find the next productive pitcher. It seems like no matter how many aces you acquire through the draft, trades, or sheer luck, that you still can never have too much pitching, so even when we're sitting pretty we're on the prowl. One thing I like to do before the draft is to check and see which pitchers turned a corner in the second half. Those are the guys the people you play against are more likely to forget about, as their season numbers do not reflect what may be their true talent level going forward; it's a good way to stock up on high-quality pitching during some of the middle rounds. It's also a good thing to look at during this time of year, as the season is winding down and you have to concentrate mostly on playing the right guys to keep things moving for you until the end. Not all of these pitchers are as good as advertised either though, so you want to keep an eye out for the potential clunker.

The 20-year-old Clayton Kershaw has a lot of talent, talent which we saw in flashes during the 2008 season. During the first two months he looked to be doing much of what he did the previous year, with 8.8 strikeouts per nine, 5.1 walks per nine, and 0.8 homers per nine, along with a 4.34 ERA. In the 75 2/3 innings since then, Kershaw has whiffed 9.3 while posting an ERA of 1.55, bringing his overall season ERA well under 3.00 and guaranteeing him a lot of being picked early come drafts for 2010. There are a few things I have an issue with during this stretch though, as Kershaw is still struggling with his control (4.8 BB/9 after that 5.1, and just three of those have been intentional, which puts him at 4.7 UBB/9 for the year) and his homer rate during these past two plus months is unrealistic. Kershaw hasn't given up a home run since May 27, which puts his HR/9 at 0.3 and his HR/FB at 3.6 percent. That's great for now, but it's alarming for the future-Kershaw's an extreme fly-ball pitcher, and the lack of homers over this stretch is making his line look better than it should. Kershaw's going to be a great pitcher-and in many ways, he already is-but banking on that kind of low homer rate is just asking for trouble. The 4.24 ERA may be a bit high, but his rest-of-season PECOTA forecast has the right idea-four homers in his next 54 innings, for 0.7 per nine.

Adam Wainwright's PECOTA forecast looked pretty solid, but outside of his higher-level projections, it didn't look like you should have expected anything special from him. He's done a few things to change that perception though, especially since June: 8.4 whiffs per nine, just 2.4 free passes, and 0.6 homers to help him get down to a 2.23 ERA. This has helped his season line big time, as his ERA is now under 3.00 and he's approaching eight strikeouts per nine innings on the season. The extra strikeouts are also nice because Wainwright, while not an extreme ground-ball pitcher, is certainly ground ball-centric, so between the extra punchouts and the Cardinals' solid defense (ranking 14th in Defensive Efficiency) Wainwright has had his way with hitters this year. This was a pitcher I was wrong about during the offseason, as I didn't think Wainwright had ace potential, but now I wouldn't be shocked to see his ERA (deservingly) in the range of the low to mid threes next season. PECOTA doesn't have a problem with that for the rest of the season either, as it projects an ERA of 3.68 with 56 strikeouts over 69 innings.

We've been hard on Gavin Floyd in the past, because his talent level has not matched his numbers often. He either performs way over his head or gets shellacked into next week. This year though, he's turned himself into a legitimately good pitcher, and is someone you shouldn't forget about down the stretch or for next year. Floyd posted a 3.84 ERA in 2008, but it should have been around a run higher than that. BABIP regression powerbombed his ERA into a turnbuckle during the first two months of 2009, as Floyd posted an ERA of 6.12 despite keeping his homer rate at a reasonable level thanks to 69 hits in 60 1/3 innings along with his four walks per nine. Things have changed since that point though, with Floyd keeping the strikeout rate from that time but subtracting some walks (2.7 per nine) and sustaining that impressive (for Floyd and a White Sox pitcher) homer rate. After 2.2 and 1.3 the past two years, Floyd is at 0.8 homers per nine for 2009. He hasn't done this by lowering his HR/FB, but has instead given up fewer fly balls and kept the ball on the ground more often. That's what you need to do to succeed in the homer-friendly Cell, so chances are good that Floyd, while not a guy we should be looking for sub-three ERAs from, can actually pitch like the guy people thought he was with last year's numbers.

Tommy Hunter was called up to the Rangers for 11 innings in 2008, and those went about as well as you can expect for a 22-year-old rookie pitching in front of a terrible defense in a hitter's park. Hunter is a year older now though, and the Rangers front office is a year wise, with defense being one of the top priorities of the offseason and Texas now in a potential Rays-like situation of making the playoffs after purging their team of its walking defensive miscues. Hunter has a .256 BABIP over 55 2/3 innings, so his 2.26 ERA is not for real, but a lot of the other numbers are worth paying attention to. He's striking out 5.7 per nine but walking just 2.6, giving him a K/BB of 2.2. I'm a bit nervous about his homer rate though-he's giving up 0.7 bombs per nine despite nearly 42 percent of his balls in play being fly balls, though he does pick up quite a few popups (11.4 percent of all fly balls). Expect that to increase somewhat, though it's also possible he picks up another strikeout per nine (like he did his second time through Double- and Triple-A) to help offset that a bit. He's not a high draft pick or a rookie phenom, but he looks like a safe pick for your staff and the rest of 2009, especially if Texas keeps their defense intact.

Hunter isn't the only rookie Tommy making a name for himself this year, as the Braves' Tommy Hanson has had himself a pretty good season as well. Hanson turns 23 later this month, but he's already striking out 6.7 per nine while keeping the ball in the park, which is good news for a Braves rotation that has struggled to succeed as of late. He has been a bit lucky-his BABIP is a bit below average despite Atlanta's ranking 23rd in Defensive Efficiency, and he's stranded nearly 82 percent of his baserunners, exactly 10 percentage points above the average. His ERA should be roughly a run higher than it is, but that's still a pretty great start to a major league career. Just like Hanson, Hunter's a safe pick for success in 2010, and will help you for the remainder of 2009, just don't go overboard thinking that he's already arrived because of his ERA.

What do we make of Joe Blanton for 2010? He pitched horribly according to his ERA during the first two months, posting a 6.14 mark while putting up some solid peripherals (8.3 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, but with 1.6 HR/9), but has since turned things around by chopping his walks nearly in half to counter the homers that just won't go away. In addition, he's held on to that strikeout rate that came out of nowhere, punching out 7.0 per nine since June. The homers will not disappear though, which is partially his park's fault, partially Blanton being Blanton (1.2 per nine on the road in 54 innings). If he can keep his walks down and the strikeouts up, he can counter the homers and remain a useful member of your fantasy team, especially on a playoff-caliber team like the Phillies that will give him some run support and wins. PECOTA sees that somewhat, with a 4.26 ERA the rest of the year and 6.3 whiffs per nine from here on out.

Related Content:  Tommy Hanson

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