What defines a 'good' starting pitcher?
As statistical standards improve, perceived benchmarks should change
Baseball is a game deeply rooted in statistics, and as the years progress, those roots grow deeper with more and more advanced metrics. Each season, we seem to become a bit smarter about numbers.
We also become a little bit lazier.
Perhaps it's the lure of history -- many of us have played fantasy baseball through the entire decade-plus of the steroids era -- or something deeply ingrained from our fandom's infancy, but so many of us cling to specific pitching benchmarks and won't let go, no matter how much baseball's trends try to persuade us to.
An informal poll of friends and colleagues revealed the consensus opinion that a "good" performance is an ERA beneath 3.50, WHIP beneath 1.20 and strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio of 7.50 or higher. (Although that one varied, signaling that there may be no accepted "benchmark.") Keeping in mind, of course, that there is varied definition of the word "good"; some had different benchmarks for "excellent" or simply "OK."
For me, "good" always meant "worth having in a standard mixed-league lineup" or, from a real-game angle, "worth bringing up in conversation." And those benchmarks sounded about right, although I tended to desire better in ERA (around 3.25).
This year, we're all apparently wrong.
The following chart shows how many qualified major league pitchers have reached those specific benchmarks as well as certain more demanding numbers in each of the past three seasons. To tackle the sample-size problem -- that 53 days of season hardly equals 180-plus of 2009 or 2010 -- these statistics are only through the games of May 22 each year, balancing the samples.
Apparently, it's no longer so special to achieve a 3.50 ERA, with a 3.00 ERA in 2010-11 looking like a comparably impressive feat to a 3.50 in 2009 or earlier. WHIP standards also have elevated; the value of a 1.20 WHIP in 2009 or earlier might now be equivalent to a 1.10. Strangely enough, there has scarcely been any movement in the strikeout department; it's odd considering the presence of such strikeout-prone sluggers as Mark Reynolds, Adam Dunn and Ryan Howard.
But perhaps that's no surprise to you. After all, 2010 has been described the year of the pitcher, and looking at leaguewide averages, the 2011 ERA is 3.90, WHIP 1.30 and K's per nine 6.78, all of those even better than their 2010 counterparts. In fact, that 3.90 ERA represents a 6.3 percent drop from last year and 12.6 percent from the 4.46 league-average ERAs of 2008 and 2009.
What this pitching-rich landscape has done to our definitions of an elite fantasy starter is what's most notable. Collecting data of the top 10, 25, 50 and 100 starting pitcher-eligibles on our Player Rater from 2009, 2010 and 2011, the chart below shows how much the standards for those groups has changed:
Granted, sample sizes come into play here -- the 2009 and 2010 numbers are indeed full-year rankings and statistics -- but that's still considerable movement of those bars. A top-50 starting pitcher probably would reside on most fantasy rosters much of the year, and look at how those pitchers' average ERAs and WHIPs have trended: From 3.41 and 1.21, nearly our perceived benchmarks, to 3.25 and 1.18, to 2.77 and 1.10. It seems that this year, you want a sub-3 ERA and sub-1.1 WHIP from your starters.
And that top-25 group is most exclusive: That group has gone from a 3.01 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in 2009, to 2.93 and 1.14, down to a sparkling 2.34 and 1.01 this year.
Suddenly, it's a lot more understandable why my top-25 rankings each week are incredibly difficult to crack and why even the hottest of streaks often doesn't amount to a significant movement in the ranks.
Let's take a look at a specific member of that group, CC Sabathia (3.06 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 7.85 K/9), whom I've ranked 11th. When you think CC Sabathia, you think surefire top-10 starter, right? Not so fast. During his Yankees career, he has been remarkably consistent -- his ERAs have gone 3.37-3.18-3.06, WHIPs 1.15-1.19-1.30 and K's per nine 7.71-7.46-7.85 -- but those numbers meant a lot more in 2009 than they do in 2011. That 3.06 ERA would've ranked him 14th in 2009; it ranks him 29th this year. Yankee Stadium probably keeps his ERA in over-3 territory and therefore him out of my top 10. His two saving graces are that he's as good a bet for 20 wins as there is in baseball and has a strong second-half history (2.64 ERA the past five seasons).
Chad Billingsley (3.47 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 7.80 K/9), meanwhile, narrowly made the top 25 partly because of the ballpark but also because his strikeout potential is greater than this. He has averaged 8.41 K's per nine since 2007, seventh-best among qualified starters. Without that ratio, he'd be a lot more ordinary.
Beneath the top 25, things get a bit hazier, and the demands for a higher rank are greater. Let's take a look at three such pitchers I'm often accused of "disliking":
Brett Anderson, Oakland Athletics (36th; 3.18 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 7.20 K/9): I'm a fan, and those numbers feel nearly elite, but they're not. Consider this: Only nine pitchers had a qualified ERA lower than 3.18 in 2001, 10 seasons ago; 35 qualified pitchers have a lower ERA this season. Anderson's two wins don't help matters, and his elbow problems from 2010 -- two trips to the disabled list totaling 75 days -- are what keep him outside the top 25.
Wandy Rodriguez, Houston Astros (38th; 3.41 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 7.23 K/9): The man for whom the "Wandy Line" was named, Rodriguez fits said boundary because his ratios are "just better than league-average." I've always felt that only about 40 starting pitchers regularly belonged on ESPN standard rosters.
Jeremy Hellickson, Tampa Bay Rays (52nd; 3.14 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 6.28 K/9): Two things keep him a rung beneath guys like Anderson and Rodriguez: One is the lower strikeout rate, and the other is the prospect of an innings cap, as his 155 2/3 innings of 2010 might mean 185 is about his 2011 limit. In the short term, he's really no less attractive a fantasy option than that lefty duo.
TOP 100 STARTING PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 100 starting pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
Finally, what of Francisco Liriano (5.73 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, 6.29 K/9), the hot preseason breakout pick who has struggled so far this year (despite a no-hitter under his belt)? In a season when even pitchers like Doug Fister, Charlie Morton and Josh Tomlin have sub-3 ERAs, Liriano's 5.73 ERA looks especially ugly. It's the fourth-worst mark among qualified starters, and although his May ERA is 2.52 (thanks in part to his May 3 no-hitter), his peripherals haven't exactly backed up his recent resurgence. His strikeout rate has dropped in May to 5.76 per nine, and his .154 BABIP speaks to a great deal of good fortune. Liriano's recent hot spell might be mostly smoke and mirrors and should provide a short-term selling opportunity more than restore his owners' faith. (For more on Liriano's potential going forward, check out Jason Grey's latest scouting report.)
Colby Lewis, Texas Rangers: That 6 2/3-inning, seven-hit, two run performance at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park, albeit in a 2-0 losing effort, was an important one. With it, Lewis dropped his ERA to 3.69, beneath 2010's 3.72, and kept his WHIP (1.16) beneath his 2010 number (1.19). Quite a turnaround for a pitcher who had a 6.95 ERA through his first four starts of the season, right? A somewhat favorable schedule (@OAK, @SEA, OAK, @CHW, @PHI) has helped, but Lewis nevertheless has quality starts in all five of those outings plus a 1.85 ERA, a 0.95 WHIP and 6.92 K's-per-nine and 5.00 K's-per-walk ratios, the latter two particularly remarkable when you consider he went 7 1/3 innings without a strikeout during his May 10 win over the Oakland Athletics. Lewis' slider/cutter (it has been classified as either depending upon the source) has been every bit as effective in 2011 as it was in 2010 or before that in Japan, and it's that reinvention that has made him so much safer a long-term fantasy asset. In 2010, he was our No. 29 starting pitcher on the Player Rater. A repeat isn't unthinkable.
Michael Pineda, Seattle Mariners: In two outings last week, he amassed a .104 batting average allowed, 10.29 K's-per-nine ratio and 14.6 percent swing-and-miss rate. Given that those two starts came against the Minnesota Twins and San Diego Padres, arguably the worst offenses in the American and National Leagues, respectively, the stats might not necessarily be eye-popping, but at the same time, let's not discredit Pineda for the efforts. Elite talents must feast upon the softest matchups, and feast the rookie did, and with those outings he now has eight quality starts in nine tries to begin his career. Two things continue his climb in my rankings in spite of his limited big-league experience: One is his pinpoint command, throwing strikes on 70.4 percent of his pitches, tops in the majors. The other is my diminished fear of his "second time around the league," a topic previously discussed in the May 3 "60 Feet 6 Inches" and a concern alleviated by his acceptable second outing against the Texas Rangers on May 4 (7 IP, 7 H, 4 ER, 0 BB, 9 K). If Pineda can hang in there after scouts get a firmer read on him, he might even be underranked here.
Jake Peavy, Chicago White Sox: There were days during the spring when, had someone said to you, "On May 18, Jake Peavy is going to shut out the Cleveland Indians on three hits," you'd probably reply, "Snore, result of a super-soft matchup, nothing big." Flash forward and, with Peavy having suffered some injury setbacks in March and April plus the Indians boasting by far the American League's best record -- you read that right -- it's actually an impressive feat. Peavy's success in two starts since recovering from shoulder problems -- a detached latissimus dorsi muscle in 2010 and inflammation in 2011 -- can be attributed to his command (zero walks in 15 innings) and diversity of his arsenal. (His fastball, slider and changeup have all been successful.) A healthy Peavy is certainly capable of a sub-4 ERA and nearly a strikeout per inning, the limitation that U.S. Cellular Field's cozy confines mix poorly with his fly-ball tendencies, and could be a bit more than that. Tuesday's outing in Texas proves an interesting test.
Tim Hudson, Atlanta Braves: I'm a Hudson fan, but as he's a low-strikeout, extreme ground baller, everything has to be going right for him to be consistently successful. That's why whispers of back stiffness, which led to a disastrous 3 2/3-inning, eight-run outing this past Friday, the worst start of his career, are troublesome. Hudson looked fine for two innings but beginning in the third afforded opponents five hits -- including two doubles and a home run -- in nine at-bats, two walks and three hit batsmen before exiting. He'll miss his next scheduled start on Wednesday and could be a disabled list candidate. Claim "we should've known" about something like this, but I'd reply, how could we? Hudson had been so good, so reliable, since Opening Day 2010; he had a 2.88 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 31 quality starts in his previous 43 tries and never went more than two straight outings during that span without a quality start. It's unfortunate luck, and the injury might be enough to derail that absurd hot streak.
Carl Pavano, Minnesota Twins: He spent all of 2010 earning fantasy owners' trust with the best control (1.51 walks per nine) and highest ground-ball rate (51.2 percent) of his entire career, and so far in 2011, he has done everything to fritter it away. Pavano's command -- specifically his 1.44 K's-per-walk ratio -- represents a career worst, his ground-ball rate (47.2 percent) has returned to his career norm (45.8, per FanGraphs) and his .295 BABIP shows that his bloated ERA and WHIP are no mirage. On a game-to-game basis, he has been both great and awful; he's the only pitcher in baseball to have at least two outings of a 70-plus game score and two of a game score beneath 20 (three of those). Target Field should help Pavano to some matchups-based usefulness, but the magic he displayed in 2010 isn't evident on a long-term basis.
Edinson Volquez, Cincinnati Reds: If he's going to fix his first-inning woes -- he allowed 20 earned runs and .432/.556/.886 rates in the opening frame in his 10 starts -- he'll do it in Triple-A, as the Reds tired of the right-hander's struggles on Monday. Some have speculated that Volquez's criticism of the Reds' offense after his Sunday meltdown might be responsible: "I think everybody has to step up and start getting some runs," he told the team's official website. "The last five games, we've scored how many runs? Thirteen in five games? It's not the way we were playing last year. We're better than that." How about that Volquez's miserable year-to-date performance was mostly behind the move? His walk rate had soared to 6.71 per nine, and he had served up nine homers in 51 innings. At this point, you can safely cut Volquez in all but NL-only leagues with deep benches.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.