Friday, March 09, 2007

Fantasy Pitchers to Watch For in 2007

Picking the sleepers in your fantasy draft is an inexact science, largely because there is a natural limit to how well you can predict a breakout season. The best you can do, perhaps, is pick guys who will break out 30% of the time instead of 15%.

This is still a reasonable edge, of course, in a game where a single breakout player can be worth quite a few points in the standings. But it's important to remember that just because someone touted Takashi Saito last year, it doesn't make him some kind of soothsayer.

Enough talk. On to the sleepers.

What to look for: Guys whose base skills have far exceeded their recent fantasy value

Examples: Jeremy Bonderman, Jake Peavy, Ben Sheets, Cole Hamels, Jonathan Broxton, Jose Valverde, Hong-Chih Kuo

It's often said that pitchers are totally unpredictable. As Baseball Between The Numbers points out, however, pitchers' skills are actually fairly consistent from year to year, but their results are not, because of factors beyond their control such as run support, team defense, and simple variance. You can throw a great pitch and induce a double-play grounder, but if it squirts through the infield because Michael Young is your shortstop, it goes as a single in the scorebook.

Fantasy guru Ron Shandler's mantra is to invest in skills rather than roles or past results, and with good reason. Numbers like strikeout rate and walk rate offer a far better prediction of a pitcher's future than his win or save total. In the case of relievers, your strategy is to draft Joel Zumaya, a flamethrower who may get save opportunities along the way, rather than Todd Jones, who has nothing going for him but the job of "closer."

What we really want is a guy who has put up good numbers in the past, and who takes it to the next level this year because of a skills breakout, a change of role, or both. Since the two most important numbers are strikeout rate and walk rate, a quick-and-dirty benchmark is a guy whose (K/9 - BB/9) is greater than 4.5. If it's simpler, you can take his strikeouts, subtract walks, and multiply the result by 2. If the final number is greater than his innings, he is a good candidate. Some examples are Kerry Wood in 2003, Ben Sheets in 2004, Chris Carpenter in 2005, and Aaron Harang last year.

Another class of breakout candidate is (relatively) young power pitchers who have top strikeout rates but have had control issues. If they cut down on walks, they can become studs. Randy Johnson is the classic example, although it's unreasonable to expect that level of improvement. Some more recent success stories include B.J. Ryan, Scott Kazmir, Jason Schmidt, and Oliver Perez (for one year anyway). This year's crop includes Daniel Cabrera and Hong-Chih Kuo, among others.

So who are the top sleepers? A few names stand out. Jeremy Bonderman fits the profile beautifully: he's a power arm who also gives up few walks, but had a mediocre ERA and WHIP owing to some lousy luck. Bonderman is just 24 this year, plays in front of a good defense, and pitches in a canyon, so he has other factors working in his favor. 200 strikeouts are certainly possible if he remains healthy, as are a 3.50 ERA and 1.20 WHIP.

Jake Peavy, despite being one of the first eight pitchers off the board in most drafts, is liable to be undervalued in drafts because he had an apparent down year in 2006, going 11-14 with a sharp ERA increase, despite having basically the same walk and strikeout rates as in 2004-05, when he was one of the top fantasy pitchers. PETCO Park still plays heavily in his favor. I think Peavy is the best pitcher not named Johan Santana this year, and he's a steal in the fourth round.

Ben Sheets is the only pitcher whose base skills can rival Santana's, and perhaps the best bet to take over the position of top fantasy hurler from Johan...if he can make 30 starts. He hasn't done that since 2004, but the reports on his shoulder are good. Over the past three years, Sheets has some absolutely sick numbers: 521 K against 68 walks in 499.2 innings. You can count on a great strikeout rate and an ERA and WHIP near 3.20 and 1.05, but you can't count on more than 20 starts. If he's healthy, though, he could return first-round value from a sixth-round pick.

Cole Hamels followed up a ridiculous AAA stint (36:1 K/BB ratio in 23 innings) with a very good MLB debut, averaging almost 10 K/9 with three times as many strikeouts as walks. His ERA was over 4.00, but his skill set is excellent. Even without any improvement, he'll be worth 200 strikeouts in a full season, and he has a great offense providing run support.

Jonathan Broxton is the embodiment of Ron Shandler's maxim of drafting skills over roles. He enters 2007 as the clear second banana to Takashi Saito, but has some of the sickest stuff in the majors and the stats to go with it. He'll come cheaply in the draft, but is one of the only relievers that's a legitimate threat to crack 100 strikeouts (97 last year), and could instantly become a top-10 closer if he inherits the job.

Jose Valverde is an example in why it's futile to analyze relievers based on one season's work. His ERA and WHIP were awful last year, but his strikeouts were off the charts as usual, and his walk and home run rates were no worse than his career marks. His career ERA and WHIP of 3.50 and 1.19 are far more relevant than last year's marks, and they set a reasonable baseline for 2007 expectations. Plus, he should have the closer's job to himself, barring an injury or extreme ineffectiveness.

Daniel Cabrera is a particularly interesting case. In a twist right out of Major League, Cabrera began wearing glasses in mid-season last year and sharply improved his command. This offseason, Cabrera had LASIK surgery, and claims he is seeing the plate even better. His August-September totals: 62.1 IP, 29 BB, 67 K, 4 HR, and a one-hitter against the Yankees. With those rates and some normal luck on balls in play, a 3.75 ERA and 1.30 WHIP are reasonable, but it remains to be seen whether he can maintain those gains. If Leo Mazzone can work his magic and Cabrera keeps his walks below 4 per 9 innings, he could be a top-10 fantasy pitcher, but those are big ifs.

Hong-Chih Kuo may be the ultimate high-risk, high-reward proposition this year. He's survived two Tommy John surgeries, but his strikeout rates both in the majors and minors have been extremely high. Though he needs to cut down on his walks, his numbers improved significantly after a move to the rotation late last year (3.07 ERA, 35 K, 7 BB, 1 HR in 29.1 innings as a starter). He enters 2007 as a spot starter, but if he gets a regular turn in the rotation, he could be a monster. At this point, he is a far better choice for a spot in the rotation than Chad Billingsley, who showed no command whatsoever last year.

One last (old) guy...Randy Johnson may seem like an odd choice for this column as he's only a couple of years removed from being the top fantasy pitcher in all of baseball. However, he's coming off a 5.00 ERA that was largely influenced by luck, is moving back to the weaker NL, and is going very late in drafts. His command numbers are down somewhat, but his strikeout and walk rates were still very respectable and should be helped by the move out of the DH league. He should return to form with a sub-4.00 ERA this year, and could pick up a lot of wins on a powerful Arizona team.

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