Commentary

Kings of Command

Take a look at peripheral numbers to find the true best pitchers in baseball

Updated: February 11, 2011, 5:30 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

I still don't like wins.

And for that matter, I'm still not a huge fan of ERA as a pitcher's primary measuring stick, either.

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Yes, I recognize that nothing has changed in fantasy baseball itself since last year, and that wins and ERA remain two-fifths of the standard Rotisserie pitching categories, and are therefore entirely relevant in determining fantasy value. But wins and ERA remain two of the weakest measures of a pitcher's performance, because of the many factors that influence those categories: defense, run support, bullpen support, strength of opponent, just plain dumb luck. Doesn't it therefore sound foolish to evaluate pitchers chasing merely last season's wins and ERA numbers?

In the case of wins, it's especially silly. With each passing season, as bullpens become increasingly deeper and more specialized, wins are growing increasingly random for individual pitchers. To illustrate that with statistics, consider that there were 2,582 "quality starts" in 2010, one of the higher numbers in any single season. Those performances, however, resulted in just 1,408 wins, or 54.5 percent. To put that into perspective, consider that 25 seasons earlier, in 1985, 57.2 percent of all quality starts (2,155) resulted in wins (1,232), or that during the decade often called the "aughts" (2000-09), 55.7 percent of quality starts resulted in wins.

It's for that reason, instead of targeting wins and ERA, I'll typically evaluate pitchers based more upon their peripheral numbers, even though many of those numbers aren't included in most leagues' scoring. Yes, WHIP and strikeouts are strong measures, but so are a pitcher's command numbers, which are rate statistics that measure walks, strikeouts and home runs allowed. In general, whittling down a pitcher's numbers to WHIP, strikeouts and the six criteria detailed below is actually a smarter way of making your draft decisions than merely looking at last season's Player Rater to see where a pitcher finished.

The six criteria below are what I use to qualify pitchers I call my "Kings of Command." They meet each of these minimum baselines in each of those rate statistics:

"Kings of Command" baseline numbers

Innings pitched: 50 or more
Strikeout rate (K's per nine): 6.00 or more
Walk rate (BBs per nine): 3.00 or less
Command rate (K's per BB): 2.50 or more
Home run rate (HRs per nine): 1.50 or less
Fly-ball rate (FB% of all balls in play): 45 percent or less

Of the 635 pitchers who appeared in a big league game in 2010, only 60 met all the above criteria. That group included both Cy Young winners (Roy Halladay and Felix Hernandez), all three 20-game winners (Halladay, CC Sabathia and Adam Wainwright), nine of the top 13 fantasy starting pitchers and the top fantasy closer (Heath Bell), as judged by the Player Rater.

However, the list of qualifiers also included the following 10 names. They had comparable command numbers to the aforementioned fantasy standouts, yet their Rotisserie statistics -- in particular wins, saves and ERA -- were plenty disappointing. Talent-wise, they deserved better. So, with a bit better luck, might they stand out as potential 2011 bargains?

Scott Baker, Minnesota Twins: Injuries are the biggest issue with Baker, who missed most of September with elbow soreness, battled tendinitis for much of the season and eventually succumbed to surgery on Oct. 20. He's expected to be fine at the start of spring training, but he warrants careful monitoring. Assuming Baker makes a full recovery, he could thrive in the Twins' new pitcher-friendly ballpark. After all, for a pitcher who probably wasn't himself for much of 2010, he had a 3.96 FIP (fielder independent pitching, on an ERA scale) and 4.02 xFIP (expected FIP), right in line with those of 2009, when he had more wins, and 2008, when he had a lower ERA. Baker did have eight wins, a 3.86 ERA and 1.31 WHIP in 15 starts at Target Field in 2010, so he has already shown he can take advantage of it.

Joe Blanton, Philadelphia Phillies: Blanton is the unwanted, overpaid, forgotten man at the back end of the Phillies' rotation, but it's not a deserved label. Toss out his 4.82 ERA, because much of it was fueled by an unrealistically high .321 BABIP. His xFIP was 4.06, lower than 2009's 4.07, he generated swinging strikes 9.0 percent of the time, up from 2009's 7.9, and opposing hitters made contact on only 80.9 percent of their total swings against him, down from 81.3 in 2009. In other words, Blanton was no less effective a pitcher last year than he was in 2009, and while his tendency for "gopheritis" will always keep him from being a fantasy ace, there's no reason he can't be a help in NL-only or deep mixed leagues. In fact, if he's traded, maybe he'll even take a step forward from that.

Joba Chamberlain, New York Yankees: Remember when he was widely regarded as Mariano Rivera's heir apparent? Hint: It was only a year ago. Chamberlain is now third, at best, in the Yankees' bullpen pecking order, trailing both Rivera and Rafael Soriano, and general manager Brian Cashman's admission that Chamberlain hasn't been the same pitcher since injuring his shoulder in August 2008 has many people fleeing his bandwagon. Putting him on this list isn't a signal that Chamberlain might figure into the saves mix; the chance of zero saves is significantly higher than even, say, five. But what it does is remind you that, when considering middle relievers who contribute ERA, WHIP and K's, you shouldn't breeze past him. As a short reliever, he can still reach the mid-90s with his fastball with a biting slider, and he did have a 2.87 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 9.56 K's-per-nine innings ratio after the All-Star break (postseason included).

Kyle Farnsworth, Tampa Bay Rays: Even as recently as three years ago, Farnsworth wouldn't have had a chance to make this list; his walk rate was simply too high (3.99 per nine innings from 1999-2009). But the addition of a cutter two years ago has helped deepen his arsenal, he has generated ground balls on more than 40 percent of his balls in play in back-to-back years, and he seems to have developed a better feel for his four-seam fastball. Farnsworth also has something most other Rays relievers don't: experience. He might, by all rights, be most deserving to close for the team on Opening Day.

Gavin Floyd, Chicago White Sox: Yes, I still like him, and I dream of the year he truly breaks out. Let's not forget that Floyd is still just 28 years old, with only three years as a full-time starter under his belt, so is it fair to say he's locked in at merely his 2008-10 levels? Floyd has done something impressive in each of the past two seasons: He has increased his ground-ball rate, culminating in a career-high 49.9 percent in 2010, which is a big help from a pitcher who calls one of the best home run venues in baseball his home. And secondly, he has registered a FIP and xFIP under four in each of the past two seasons, and in each of those years had brief streaks as one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. Maybe U.S. Cellular Field will always hold him back, but what if he can put it together for longer stretches?

Zack Greinke, Milwaukee Brewers: There are a lot of people who love Greinke the Brewer; my rankings show that I'm not necessarily one of them. But if you're going to build a case for him making another Cy Young run, the best way to do it is to cite his command ratios and remarkably consistent numbers in FIP and xFIP. Check out his 2008-10: He had 3.56, 2.33 and 3.34 FIP, respectively, and 3.76, 3.15 and 3.76 xFIP. In other words, there was nowhere near as stark a contrast between Greinke's 2009 Cy Young campaign and his lackluster 2010 follow-up as his wins and ERA showed. They belie his true talent, and while I'm not drafting him as one, Greinke absolutely could make a run at a top-10 season.

Dan Haren
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireDan Haren posted a 1.16 WHIP after being traded to the Angels.

Dan Haren, Los Angeles Angels: For half a decade, Haren pitched like a Cy Young contender in the first half of his seasons, but a more ordinary, No. 3-caliber option during his second halves. Then came 2010, a season that effectively flipped his career trend, resulting in a second half that was better than his first, and a full-season stat line that was rather disappointing. But while Haren's fly-ball rate soared to a career-high 40.7 percent last year, and his homers-per-nine ratio rose to 1.19, his peripherals didn't look all that less attractive than any of those from his previous four seasons. Haren adapted nicely to life in Anaheim late last year, with a 2.87 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 14 starts, and maybe he'll pick up where he left off.

Francisco Liriano, Twins: He'll be picked like a top-20 starting pitcher, but going by peripherals, he could be one of the five best pitchers in all of fantasy. Consider this: Among qualified starters, he ranked fifth in the majors in K's per nine (9.44), 12th in K's per walk (3.47), third in FIP (2.66), second in xFIP (3.06), 11th in ground-ball rate (53.6 percent) and first in swinging strike percentage (12.4). He's a strike-throwing, ground-ball-inducing machine, a brilliant combination. How can you not see Liriano's immense breakout potential?

Ricky Nolasco, Florida Marlins: Only two pitchers in baseball have thrown at least 450 innings the past three seasons combined and managed at least 8.00 K's per nine, 4.00 K's per walk and fewer than 2.00 walks per nine -- even stiffer command guidelines than the ones I use in this column -- and they're Nolasco and Dan Haren. Haren's ERA is 3.47 and WHIP is 1.14 from 2008-10. Nolasco's, meanwhile, are 4.31 and 1.20. It's almost inexplicable how Nolasco's command could be so sharp yet his results that questionable; his 3.75, 3.28 and 3.55 xFIP the past three seasons show that he's significantly outpitching his raw ERA numbers. If he's 100 percent this spring following September knee surgery, maybe Nolasco will finally put up the numbers sabermetricians have expected for years.

Jake Peavy, Chicago White Sox: As with Baker and Nolasco, Peavy's questions are rooted more in his recovery from July shoulder surgery than his actual skills, though in his case there's a concern that his skills might have diminished due to the severity of the injury. Watch him closely during spring training, as he's considerably less valuable if he's unable to meet the command criteria in 2011. After all, he calls the unforgiving U.S. Cellular Field his home, and he does have some fly-ball tendencies. There's some serious risk here, but also serious upside.

James Shields, Rays: Only two pitchers in baseball had a greater differential between their ERA and FIP (ERA being the higher number) than Shields in 2010, Jason Hammel (4.81-3.70, +1.11) and Liriano (3.62-2.66, +0.96). But that only scrapes the surface of what was a terribly unlucky season for the right-hander. He had a .341 BABIP and 13.8 home run/fly ball percentage, both of those the worst numbers among qualified big leaguers, and his 68.4 percent strand rate was the game's 12th-worst number. Shields might not be a Cy Young candidate, but he's certainly not a pitcher deserving of an ERA north of 5.00, either.

Keep an eye on, but don't necessarily invest

Chris Capuano, New York Mets: The two primary reasons not to invest, at least yet, is because Capuano has logged only 114 2/3 innings at any professional level since 2008 Tommy John surgery, taking a longer time than a typical pitcher who underwent that operation; and because the Mets aren't guaranteeing him a rotation spot entering spring training. He'll be in the mix for one, however, after posting a 4.14 ERA and 1.35 WHIP in a seven-start stint to conclude last season, and could thrive in Citi Field's pitcher-friendly confines. Keep tabs on Capuano's progress come March, as he could cost little more than a song in NL-only formats yet be a reliable back-of-your-staff type, or a mixed-league matchups option, in the best-case scenario.

Vicente Padilla, Los Angeles Dodgers: He's currently sixth on the Dodgers' rotation depth chart, meaning a probable Opening Day role as a long reliever, but the reason he bears watching is that there have been whispers that the team might consider him for a setup role, or perhaps the closer role in a dream scenario. (Yes, you read that right, hard as it is to believe.) Padilla hasn't relieved full-time since 2001, so there's no telling how his stuff will translate. His command, however, has been superb since joining the Dodgers in mid-2009, which at least provides him a good first step. Padilla will almost assuredly make it to many leagues' waiver wires to begin the year, so keep his name in mind if he starts hot.

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.