Commentary

Kings of Command

Examining peripheral numbers to find the true best pitchers in baseball

Updated: February 29, 2012, 3:57 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

These days, there really is no such thing as a sleeper.

Advances in statistics spoil many surprises, particularly on the pitching side, and for all the overtures about there being "tons of pitching," it's becoming increasingly difficult to unearth a hidden gem in the late rounds … which is the very argument those owners who make the "pitching-rich game" claim use as supporting evidence for their case to ignore the position until the later rounds.

Statistics like the ones cited in this column were once largely regarded as obscure. It was analysts like Ron Shandler who, shortly before the turn of the century, helped bring them to the mainstream. Shandler's "LIMA Plan" (Low Investment Mound Aces), a wildly successful fantasy strategy especially at the time of its invention, shares traits with the ones discussed here.

Today, "command" statistics are widely considered mainstream. You'll find an increasing amount of fantasy owners citing these numbers over traditional Rotisserie statistics each year, and fantasy analysts everywhere will routinely cite traits like strikeout rate, fly ball rate and FIP (fielding independent pitching score) in their research. We're spoiling your sleeper-seeking, but at the same time enhancing your success rate picking projected later-round gems. Now it's up to you to decide whether revealing them works to your detriment … or still provides the advantage you need to go hitting first, pitching later.

This is the 12th season I've published a list I call "Kings of Command" -- though it previously thrived under a different title -- and while in 2001, the year in which I created my initial list, most of the 10 names might have been thoroughly unexpected, this year's list might seem like household names. Today, the obscure has truly become the familiar.

The lessons, however, are no different today than they were 11 seasons ago.

You want to draft pitchers who excel at the traits in which they have control: Strikeouts, walks and home runs (though in this space prevention of risky fly balls, rather than simple home run totals, is paramount). These are the command numbers, hence the title "Kings of Command."

You do not want to draft pitchers solely looking at basic Rotisserie statistics like wins and ERA, because of the outside influences that affect them.

Here's a wise exercise: Whittle down a pitcher's statistics to simply WHIP and the five criteria detailed below and make your draft decisions accordingly. I promise you'll be more pleased with the results than had you heavily weighed things like wins, ERA or specific standing on the 2011 Player Rater.

Let's provide you a head start. Pitchers who qualify for inclusion in the annual list meet each of the following five minimum baselines:

"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
Fly ball rate (FB percent of all balls in play): 45 percent or less

"Kings of Command" master list
Over the years, readers have frequently requested the full list of pitchers who met all of the "Kings of Command" criteria. Listed below are the 82 pitchers who did so in 2011:

Mike Adams, Rangers
Homer Bailey, Reds
Scott Baker, Twins
Grant Balfour, Athletics
Daniel Bard, Red Sox
Brandon Beachy, Braves
Josh Beckett, Red Sox
Matt Belisle, Rockies
Joaquin Benoit, Tigers
Madison Bumgarner, Giants
Matt Cain, Giants
Chris Capuano, Dodgers
Chris Carpenter, Cardinals
Bartolo Colon, Athletics
John Danks, White Sox
Marco Estrada, Brewers
Kyle Farnsworth, Rays
Doug Fister, Tigers
Gavin Floyd, White Sox
Yovani Gallardo, Brewers
Jaime Garcia, Cardinals
Matt Garza, Cubs
Zack Greinke, Brewers
Roy Halladay, Phillies
Cole Hamels, Phillies
Joel Hanrahan, Pirates
Dan Haren, Angels
Blake Hawksworth, Dodgers
Felix Hernandez, Mariners
Greg Holland, Royals
Daniel Hudson, Diamondbacks
Tim Hudson, Braves
Philip Humber, White Sox
Casey Janssen, Blue Jays
Josh Johnson, Marlins
Ian Kennedy, Diamondbacks
Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
Hiroki Kuroda, Yankees
Mat Latos, Reds
Brandon League, Mariners
Mike Leake, Reds
Sam LeCure, Reds
Cliff Lee, Phillies
Matt Lindstrom, Orioles
Kameron Loe, Brewers
Wilton Lopez, Astros
Cory Luebke, Padres
Jordan Lyles, Astros
Ryan Madson, Reds
Shaun Marcum, Brewers
Sean Marshall, Reds
Cristhian Martinez, Braves
Brandon McCarthy, Athletics
Jason Motte, Cardinals
Edward Mujica, Marlins
Brett Myers, Astros
Juan Nicasio, Rockies
Jeff Niemann, Rays
Jonathon Niese, Mets
Ricky Nolasco, Marlins
Eric O'Flaherty, Braves
Alexi Ogando, Rangers
Will Ohman, White Sox
Darren Oliver, Blue Jays
Roy Oswalt, free agent
Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies
Jake Peavy, White Sox
Michael Pineda, Yankees
David Price, Rays
J.J. Putz, Diamondbacks
Mariano Rivera, Yankees
CC Sabathia, Yankees
Anibal Sanchez, Marlins
Max Scherzer, Tigers
James Shields, Rays
Joakim Soria, Royals
Zach Stewart, White Sox
Drew Storen, Nationals
Huston Street, Padres
Justin Verlander, Tigers
C.J. Wilson, Angels
Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals

Last season, 662 pitchers appeared in a big league game, and of those, only 82 met all five criteria. That group included: Both Cy Young winners, Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander; all five pitchers to win 19 or more games, Kershaw, Verlander, Ian Kennedy, Roy Halladay and CC Sabathia; 17 of the top 20 starting pitchers and three of the top five relief pitchers as judged by the Player Rater.

However, the list of qualifiers also included the 10 names below. They compared favorably to the aforementioned fantasy standouts in the command categories, yet their Rotisserie numbers -- particularly wins and ERA -- were disappointing. On skills alone, they deserved better, so might they be due for greater fortune in 2012?

This season, however, I'm varying the list, ranking the 10 in order of how attractive a bargain I consider each. A higher ranking means the player is that much more likely to exceed his 2011 five-Rotisserie-category value in 2012.

1. Zack Greinke, Milwaukee Brewers: He's perhaps the most familiar name to have ever made a "Kings of Command" list, but also perhaps the most relevant example in the column's history. Everything about Greinke's 2011 fits the classification of bargain candidate with monstrous statistical growth potential. His fantasy stats were relatively ordinary: 3.83 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, which ranked 58th and 31st out of 94 ERA qualifiers. His peripheral statistics, however, were outstanding: 10.54 K's-per-nine ratio that ranked first, 4.47 K's-to-walk ratio that ranked sixth, 26 percent miss rate that ranked sixth, 2.98 FIP (fielding independent pitching score) that ranked ninth and 2.56 xFIP (expected FIP) that led the majors.

Perhaps this could explain the disparity: He registered the eighth highest BABIP (.323), fourth highest home run/fly ball percentage (13.7 percent) and 25th highest left-on-base percentage (69.8 percent), numbers that deviated noticeably from his career norms. Greinke still possesses his 2009 Cy Young Award ability, as evidenced by his nine wins, 2.59 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 15 second-half starts.

He's No. 1 on this list for a simple reason: He might very well return to Cy Young form this season, with a little help from a so-so Brewers defense.

2. Jonathon Niese, New York Mets: Six pitchers who logged 150-plus innings last season managed a FIP more than a run lower than their ERA; Niese was one of them. He had a 3.36 FIP compared to his 4.40 ERA, thanks to a 3.14 K's-per-walk ratio that ranked him 32nd among 107 pitchers with 150-plus frames. Though Niese will never be mistaken for a Cy Young winner -- he's a far cry from Greinke in terms of skills despite his No. 2 ranking -- he's a strike-throwing specialist who calls a previously pitching friendly ballpark his home. I say "previously" because the Mets brought in the fences at Citi Field this season, and we don't yet know the impact upon offense at that venue. But Niese might be the Mets starter least affected: He had a 28.3 percent fly ball rate and a 53.9 percent ground ball rate last season.

3. Anibal Sanchez, Miami Marlins: His accuracy and aggressiveness improved and his slider was more effective last season, and the result was a pitcher who was more of a strikeout artist than ever before, Sanchez ranking fourth among ERA qualifiers in K's-per-nine ratio (9.26) and eighth in miss percentage (25 percent). The danger, however, is that Sanchez's mere two-spot bump among starting pitchers on our Player Rater from 2010 to 2011, as well as the uncertain ballpark factors of the Marlins' move from Sun Life Stadium to Marlins Ballpark, might cause fantasy owners to expect him to spin his wheels in 2012. In reality, he's a 28-year-old in the prime of his career, and one ready to take another step forward.

4. Juan Nicasio, Colorado Rockies: He faces an uphill climb as he recovers from a broken neck, suffered when he was struck in the head by a line drive last Aug. 5, but by all reports so far this spring Nicasio has made a miraculous recovery and is on track to compete for a rotation spot come Opening Day. Numerous reports have him throwing 97 mph; that's excellent, because he averaged 94.0 mph and topped off at 97.4 mph with his fastball last season. But as this column is all about the numbers, let's sing the praises of Nicasio's: After he managed 8.92 K's-per-nine, 1.99 walks-per-nine and 4.49 K's-per-walk ratios during his minor league career, he posted 7.28, 2.26 and 3.22 numbers in those categories in his 13 starts for the Rockies. If he makes the team, he might be a steal of an NL-only deal.

5. John Danks, Chicago White Sox: He might never get any fantasy love, because he has never managed an ERA beneath 3.30 or a WHIP under 1.20, calls homer-friendly U.S. Cellular Field his home and plays for a team waving a white flag over its stadium • and not simply because they're the White Sox. Still, Danks has skills that are annually masked by his circumstances, and as he'll play most of 2012 at 27 years old, in the prime of his career, who's to say he can't take a significant step forward? He has now boosted his K's-per-nine ratio while lowering his walks per nine in each of the past two seasons, resulting in a personal-best 2.93 K's-per-nine ratio in 2011. Plus, he's reining in the fly balls; his 36.3 percent rate last season was a plus for a White Sox pitcher.

[+] EnlargeMatt Garza
Denis Poroy/Getty ImagesMatt Garza finished with a 2.46 ERA at Wrigley Field and a 4.56 ERA on the road in 2011.

6. Matt Garza, Chicago Cubs: Like Sanchez, Garza stepped it up as a strikeout artist last season, with his K's-per-nine ratio (8.95) finishing 10th best among ERA qualifiers and his miss percentage (26) finishing fifth best in the game. And like Sanchez, he did it by leaning upon an improved slider: He notched 98 of his 197 K's on the pitch and generated misses on 42 percent of hitters' swings, the eighth-best rate in the majors, against it. Garza shares an unfortunate trait with another pitcher on this list, however: Like Danks, he's on a team that won't support him in the win department. But as skills can drive ERA, WHIP and K's, and sometimes spawn unexpectedly good win totals, wouldn't you rather have the more talented pitcher than the lesser one on the higher-scoring team?

7. Brandon McCarthy, Oakland Athletics: If you're an ESPN The Magazine subscriber -- shame on you if you're not! -- then you've probably already read the article in this week's mag about McCarthy's adaptation of sabermetrics, and the performance improvement that resulted. I'm here to back up the story with the numbers: He added a cutter that devastated opposing hitters to the tune of .162/.206/.222 triple-slash rates in 99 plate appearance-enders, and as a result he lowered a disturbing 52.8 percent fly ball rate from 2009 to 32.1 percent last season. He also managed the fourth best K's-per-walk ratio (4.92) and third best walks-per-nine ratio (1.32) among ERA qualifiers. McCarthy embraces the very statistics we do, so shouldn't we follow suit and celebrate him as a fantasy stud? If there's any question surrounding him, it's his injury history: He has made five trips to the disabled list since 2007, including one for a shoulder injury last season that cost him more than a month.

8. Max Scherzer, Detroit Tigers: Just to state the concern regarding Scherzer upfront, he had the highest fly ball ratio of any of the 10 on this list, with a 41.6 percent rate last season. Home runs are the problem, as he served up 29 last season and had a 1.34 homers-per-nine ratio. But if you can stomach that downside, Scherzer's upside is immense. His 2.58 walks-per-nine ratio last season not only represented a big league personal best, it was significantly beneath his 3.71 career minor league number, too. He also continued to progress in that regard after the All-Star break: He had a 4.09 ERA, which is so-so, but also a 1.23 WHIP (which compares favorably to his 1.30 career number) and 1.94 walks-per-nine ratio in 14 starts. Scherzer is also only 27 years old, so maybe he has room for growth yet.

[+] EnlargeJake Peavy
David Banks/Getty ImagWhite Sox hurler Jake Peavy is still just 30 years old.

9. Jake Peavy, Chicago White Sox: Perhaps the most remarkable fact about Peavy is that he's only 30 years old, whereas a pitcher who has endured the kind of injury ups and downs Peavy has the past four years might feel a heck of a lot older. In other words, he's still in his prime, and while his fastball might have lost a couple of ticks, his improvement in terms of command helps make up for it. Peavy's 1.93 walks-per-nine-innings ratio of 2011 was a career best, and it resulted in a 3.21 FIP that ranked 22nd among the 145 pitchers with 100-plus innings, and a 3.52 xFIP that ranked 28th. As a White Sox pitcher, he'll be subject to U.S. Cellular's homer-friendly risks, and suffer in terms of win potential. But after four consecutive seasons during which he made trips to the disabled list, Peavy's fantasy stock has plummeted, making him a bargain for perhaps the first time in years. Don't forget about him.

10. Jaime Garcia, St. Louis Cardinals: If you're looking for a brilliant combination of skills, then pair an ability to miss bats with a tendency to induce a high rate of ground balls and you have yourself a budding gem. That describes Garcia, who despite a 7.21 K's-per-nine ratio generated misses on 24.9 percent of opponents' swings, the 13th-best rate in the game, and who generated a 52.9 percent ground ball rate that ranked him 15th. Sure, he has a steep first-/second-half split, with a 2.74 ERA and 1.25 WHIP before the All-Star break compared to 3.83 and 1.42 after in the past two seasons combined, but might it be that Garcia, still only 25 years old, was merely building up his stamina in those years? If he slips far enough in your draft, it's well worth taking the chance that the "third year's the charm" -- that he's dominant through all 30-plus starts.

Keep an eye on, but don't necessarily invest

Jordan Lyles, Houston Astros: A prime contender for a rotation spot with the Astros because he's one of the more integral parts of their future, Lyles followed up on what were respectable 8.85 K's-per-nine, 2.52 walks-per-nine and 3.51 K's-per-walk ratios during his minor league career with 6.41, 2.49 and 2.58 ratios in his 20 appearances for the big club as a rookie. His 5.36 ERA, and his status as a lowly Astros pitcher, might keep him off even the deepest fantasy radars. But if he wins a job, as he should, isn't it possible he might at least help when facing the right matchup?

Jeff Niemann, Tampa Bay Rays: The Rays face a six-men-for-five-spots rotation conundrum this spring, and Niemann might be, at best, their fifth option. He profiles as a back-of-a-rotation pitcher long-term, though he's a stable investment if he can nail down such a role. Last season he managed a 2.84 K's-per-walk ratio, a big league career high and his best single-season number as a pro since he made 14 starts in Double-A in 2006 (2.90). Niemann also boosted his ground ball rate to 46.8 percent, further diminishing the risk. AL-only owners might want to stash him in the late rounds; at 29 years old, he might yet have room for growth.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com, a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league, and a 2011 FSWA award winner for Best Baseball Article on the Web. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.