Kings of Command
Walk, strikeout and home run rates key determining factors
I don't like wins.
Yes, I know those are two of the five prominent rotisserie pitching categories, which makes them important, but chasing past years' numbers in either can be a foolish venture. So many factors go into determining a pitcher's performance in either category, including defense, run support, bullpen, strength of opponent, luck, whether he woke up on the right side of the bed -- that's a lot of variables, isn't it?
A parallel to illustrate the point: What you're reading is a finished fantasy column -- just as wins and ERA represent a pitcher's "finished product." But as with pitching, many factors go into the work you read on these pages. Many people work hard behind the scenes to perfect writers' works -- copy editors, fact-checkers, researchers, creators of stats Web sites, heck, even the fine folks who prepare my chicken parm sandwiches. (Writing on an empty stomach is tough!) So I'd like to take a moment to thank those individuals for their efforts, because they're certainly appreciated.
Bringing that parallel back to pitching, think Mark Buehrle didn't appreciate Dewayne Wise's defensive contribution on the afternoon of his July 23 perfect game? Buehrle surely owed Wise a beer for the center fielder's gem of a catch, because the pitcher is not in the history books without it. Just goes to show how one dazzling play can radically change your perception of a pitcher's performance.
It's for that reason that, instead of targeting just wins and ERA, I'll look behind the scenes at a pitcher's underlying talent for his true sense of worth. Yes, WHIP matters, strikeouts matter, so don't overlook those, but a pitcher's command numbers -- especially his rates of walks, strikeouts and home runs allowed -- typically paint the best picture. Those who draft based on those numbers, generally speaking, should experience more success in 2010 than those who picked a team based only on 2009 wins and ERA.
What I'm looking for are baselines for a pitcher in each of those rate statistics, and I call those who qualify my "Kings of Command."
"Kings of Command" baseline numbers
Innings pitched: 50 or more
Strikeout rate (K's per nine): 6.0 or more
Walk rate (BBs per nine): 3.0 or less
Command rate (K's per BB): 2.5 or more
Home run rate (HRs per nine): 1.5 or less
Fly-ball rate (FB percentage of all balls in play): 45 percent or less
Why the addition of fly-ball rate this season? Simple: The greater the rate, the more the risk of untimely home runs, and therefore the greater the potential hit to the pitcher's ERA and WHIP. Restrictive is the goal.
Of the 664 pitchers who appeared in a big league game in 2009, only 55 met all the above criteria. That group included both Cy Young winners (Zack Greinke and Tim Lincecum), all four 19-game winners (Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia, Justin Verlander and Adam Wainwright), and each of the top 11 fantasy starting pitchers and three of the top four fantasy closers as judged by the Player Rater.
However, the list of qualifiers also included the following 10 names. They had command numbers comparable to the other fantasy standouts, yet their rotisserie statistics -- in particular wins, saves and ERA -- left much to be desired. Their talent apparently wasn't lacking, but their roto results were. With a bit more luck, might they stand out as potential 2010 values?
Something to think about: Eight of last year's 10 "Kings of Command" choices finished among the top 100 pitchers on the Player Rater, four within the top 50 and two -- Josh Johnson (15th) and Wandy Rodriguez (20th) -- in the top 25. Every one of these 10 names, therefore, should find a place on a fantasy team, even in mixed leagues.
"Kings of Command" master list
Over the years, readers have frequently e-mailed requesting full lists of all pitchers who met all of the "Kings of Command" criteria. Listed below are the 55 pitchers who did in 2009, in alphabetical order, along with their 2010 teams:
Alfredo Aceves, Yankees
Brett Anderson, Athletics
Andrew Bailey, Athletics
Josh Beckett, Red Sox
Joe Blanton, Phillies
Chris Carpenter, Cardinals
Todd Coffey, Brewers
Ryan Dempster, Cubs
Pedro Feliciano, Mets
Gavin Floyd, White Sox
Jason Frasor, Blue Jays
Jeff Fulchino, Astros
Zack Greinke, Royals
Roy Halladay, Phillies
Cole Hamels, Phillies
Jason Hammel, Rockies
Aaron Harang, Reds
Dan Haren, Diamondbacks
LaTroy Hawkins, Brewers
Felix Hernandez, Mariners
Trevor Hoffman, Brewers
Phil Hughes, Yankees
Josh Johnson, Marlins
Hiroki Kuroda, Dodgers
John Lackey, Red Sox
Brandon League, Mariners
Cliff Lee, Mariners
Jon Lester, Red Sox
Tim Lincecum, Giants
Ryan Madson, Phillies
Nick Masset, Reds
Edward Mujica, Padres
Joe Nathan, Twins
Ricky Nolasco, Marlins
Darren O'Day, Rangers
Darren Oliver, Rangers
Roy Oswalt, Astros
Carl Pavano, Twins
Tony Pena, White Sox
Chad Qualls, Diamondbacks
Mariano Rivera, Yankees
Wandy Rodriguez, Astros
CC Sabathia, Yankees
Johan Santana, Mets
James Shields, Rays
John Smoltz, Free agent
Joakim Soria, Royals
Huston Street, Rockies
Matt Thornton, White Sox
Javier Vazquez, Yankees
Justin Verlander, Tigers
Adam Wainwright, Cardinals
Randy Wolf, Brewers
Michael Wuertz, Athletics
Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals
Brett Anderson, Oakland Athletics: My "sleeper of 2010" when we did our New Year's predictions, Anderson has been generating quite a bit of buzz in early drafts, due more to his 3.03 ERA and 1.12 WHIP after July 1 last season than any attention I might have given him. There's a danger that the hype machine might ultimately make him overpriced, but as a pick anywhere after, say, the 13th round of mixed leagues or the top 30 starting pitchers, Anderson is a bargain bet.
Why he should improve: What's not to like? He's a ground-ball specialist (50.7 percent of balls in play), righties can't touch him (.682 OPS), and he calls one of the game's better pitchers' parks his home. There isn't much downside evident here.
Joe Blanton, Philadelphia Phillies: I know what you're thinking: He plays in Citizens "Bandbox" Park. That's a legitimate gripe. His homers-per-nine ratio (1.38) was highest of the qualified group, he served up almost as many fly balls (234) as grounders (238), and his home run/fly ball percentage (11.1) was ninth-highest of the group -- that's not necessarily an aberration when you account for his park. This isn't a future Cy Young candidate, but he's also not as bad as the Phillies made it seem last October when they appeared fearful of trusting him as their No. 4 playoff starter.
Why he should improve: He's 29 years old, young enough for a little more growth, and is coming off a season in which he registered a career-high 7.51 K's per nine. He also had a 3.21 ERA after July 1.
Gavin Floyd, Chicago White Sox: Another pitcher who calls a homer-friendly ballpark his home, Floyd's rates of walks, strikeouts and home runs allowed, as well as his WHIP, all improved in 2009 from the year before, yet he won six fewer games and had an ERA almost a quarter-run higher. Much of the ERA issue was a product of a miserable start, because from May 22 on, he had a 2.97 ERA in 22 starts.
Why he should improve: A 69.7 percent strand rate, 12th-lowest among qualified starters, didn't help, nor did the six leads his bullpen blew. Floyd's 3.94 strikeouts per walk in the second half, by the way, was his best at any stop in any season in his professional career.
Cole Hamels, Phillies: What a contrast between Hamels in the 2008 postseason and Hamels in the 2009 postseason. He was 2008's October ace, but during the 2009 World Series he was vilified in the media for openly venting his frustrations with his performance. Perhaps the attention that made Hamels a candidate to be overpriced last spring will make him underpriced now, because October memories tend to be freshest in drafters' minds.
Why he should improve: All his command rates, plus his batted-ball percentages, were almost spot-on to his 2008 numbers, and the Phillies' defense still performed well above average, meaning his .321 BABIP, which was 59 points higher than the year before, was likely an aberration.
Jason Hammel, Colorado Rockies: What's most appealing about this right-hander is that no one is going to give him any credit for what was actually a surprisingly useful 2009. Had you scooped him up to use in road games, you'd have squeezed seven wins, a 3.13 ERA and 1.19 WHIP out of him, and while his full-season home numbers left much to be desired (5.73/1.62), he did lower those to 4.01 and 1.29 in seven second-half Coors Field starts, five of which were quality starts.
Why he should improve: His curveball played wonderfully in the National League, and his strikeouts per walk spiked in the second half of the year (3.43) -- that would represent his best in any full professional season. At minimum, he's a good speculative NL-only pick.
Hiroki Kuroda, Los Angeles Dodgers: Injuries ruined his 2009 and might deflate his draft-day price tag, but when he was healthy, Kuroda flashed command in his first two seasons in the U.S. (3.08 K's per walk), well within range of his final five in Japan (3.95). He also has fairly balanced splits -- no more than 84 points' OPS differential between home/road or versus righties/lefties -- and didn't show a drop-off in skills following either of two disabled-list stints in 2009.
Why he should improve: We think he'll be healthier. His most recent DL stint was for a concussion that resulted from his being struck by a batted ball, and the one before that was an oblique strain. Neither was arm-related.
Brandon League, Seattle Mariners: Though losing Brandon Morrow might someday sting, League was a nifty pickup for the Mariners, who did an excellent job bolstering their team through offseason moves. Seemingly a lost cause in snippets of his first five big league years with the Toronto Blue Jays, League broke through with the best strikeout rate of his professional career (9.16 per nine) in 2009, thanks in large part to one of the most effective changeups in the game. He's also a ground-ball machine (62.0 percent career rate on balls in play), which helps minimize his ERA/WHIP risk.
Why he should improve: Getting out of Rogers Centre, which was surprisingly homer-friendly in 2009 (12.2 home run/fly ball percentage), can only help his cause, as he has a 18.2 percent career homer/fly ball rate, outrageous for a groundballer. Though I'm not declaring it imminent, League might actually have a more appropriate closer's skill set than the incumbent in Seattle, David Aardsma, so he'd be my handcuff recommendation.
Ricky Nolasco, Florida Marlins: Perhaps no pitcher in baseball was unluckier in 2009 than Nolasco. Among qualified starters, he ranked ninth in K's per nine (9.49), 17th in walks per nine (2.14) and 14th in DIPS (defense-independent pitching score; his was 3.27) yet his ERA was a bloated 5.06.
Why he should improve: Nolasco's BABIP was .336 and his strand rate 61.0 percent; the former was third-worst and the latter worst among qualified starters. And don't try to claim that he has the dreaded "Dave Bush disease," characterized by significant problems pitching out of the stretch, because in 2008 Nolasco allowed an OPS 88 points lower with men on than with the bases empty.
Chad Qualls, Arizona Diamondbacks: The lone name to grace both the 2009 list and the 2010 list, Qualls' 2009 would have looked better if not for a rocky 16-game stretch early in the year when he had a 5.94 ERA, or if not for a dislocated kneecap that ended his season prematurely on Aug. 30. Nevertheless, Qualls' 6.43 strikeout-to-walk rate was best of any pitcher with 50-plus innings.
Why he should improve: He had a 2.84 ERA and a 0.95 WHIP in his final 25 appearances, and 2.81/1.07 in 2008, when he was healthy -- those stats earned him the closer role in the first place. Let those numbers influence your pricing of him.
James Shields, Tampa Bay Rays: It's funny what one bad year can do to a pitcher's value, especially one that ended poorly (5.16 second-half ERA). It's true, Shields wasn't quite as sharp in 2009 as he was the previous two seasons, and it's a concern that his strikeout-to-walk ratio has decreased in each of the past two years. Still, his 3.21 in the category was a top-25 number, and he's 28, meaning any age-driven decline should still be a few seasons off.
Why he should improve: The Rays might be better off with a full season of Ben Zobrist at second base, and their defense was one of the best in the game last year anyway. Shields' .317 BABIP might yet revert to the .292 marks he posted in 2007 and 2008.
Keep an eye on, but don't necessarily invest
Alfredo Aceves, New York Yankees: He was a surprisingly effective middle reliever, leading the majors in relief wins (10) and finishing 78th among pitchers on the Player Rater. Given his command numbers, it wasn't a complete fluke, though 84 innings (a full-season pace of 98 2/3 innings) and 25 outings of 30-plus pitches do make him a breakdown candidate.
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Carl Pavano, Minnesota Twins: At first glance, his 5.10 ERA last season doesn't look better than the 5.00 he had in 26 starts for the Yankees -- which, by the way, was worth $39.95 million over four years. A closer look, however, shows that his command was sharper than at any other point in his career, yet he was victimized by bad luck, with a .335 BABIP and 66.1 percent strand rate.
Why he bears watching: He had 12 quality starts, 11 wins, a 4.24 ERA and a 1.21 WHIP in 19 starts versus the American League's bottom seven offenses (in terms of runs per game) in 2009. Can you believe that? At worst, Pavano might be a matchups play.
Jordan Zimmermann, Washington Nationals: Tommy John surgery will likely sideline him for the entire 2010 campaign, but before he went under the knife, he managed 9.07 strikeouts per nine, 2.86 walks per nine and 0.99 home runs allowed per nine, impressive for a 22-year-old rookie.
Why he bears watching: Zimmermann might make a few token starts late in the year, but he'll probably be ready to go in 2011, meaning that if you can snatch him up cheap in a keeper league now, it might be well worth the investment.
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.
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