Commentary

The Kings of Command: Present -- and future -- stars

Updated: February 21, 2008, 4:41 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Pitching can be so volatile.

It's a statement you have heard time and time again, often used to stress that you shouldn't invest too many dollars or high draft picks in pitching. Yet it fails to address the question: Who are the safe pitchers I should be targeting?

That's where the "Kings of Command" come in.

Using a defined set of criteria based on a pitcher's defense-independent statistics, otherwise known as command ratios, we can identify potential bargain candidates, pitchers who might provide equal production for much less than the price of an ace. It's an exercise that proved quite successful in 2007; among the 12 Kings of Command a year ago were eight standouts: A.J. Burnett, Matt Capps, Kelvim Escobar, Kevin Gregg, Dan Haren, Andy Pettitte, Javier Vazquez and James Shields. To be fair, Dave Bush and Kevin Millwood also made last year's list. Hey, you can't win 'em all.

In spite of the 2007 success, though, I'm making a couple of small tweaks to the categories this year. As I like to say, if you can't evolve with the game, it'll leave you behind.

Surely you have seen the consistent production ground ball inducers like Fausto Carmona, Chien-Ming Wang and Brandon Webb have enjoyed the past few years. If keeping the ball down is every bit as effective as throwing strikes, shouldn't that be taken into account? After all, home runs allowed per nine innings -- one of the original categories -- is tied to that. In addition, an increased number of ground balls leads to a higher probability of double plays, a pitcher's "best friend."

With that in mind, this year's revised criteria have the "safest" choices for fantasy meeting each of the following four qualifications:

Innings pitched: 50 or more
Strikeouts per walk: 2.50 or more
Home runs allowed per nine: 1.00 or fewer
Ground ball-to-fly ball ratio: 1.00 or more

The last is a new addition; gone are walks per nine (3.00 or fewer) and strikeouts per nine (6.00 or more). Those are accounted for in K/BB ratio anyway; if an 80-walk pitcher needs 200-plus K's to qualify in strikeouts per walk, well, are you really going to complain if your pitcher nets you 200-plus K's?

Of the 660 pitchers who appeared in a big league game in 2007, a mere 44 met all criteria. The group included Cy Young winners Jake Peavy and C.C. Sabathia, 20-game winner Josh Beckett, and fantasy standouts such as Erik Bedard, John Lackey, Joe Nathan, J.J. Putz and Justin Verlander. That's a virtual who's who of fantasy studs.

However, the list also included the following 12 names. They had numbers comparable to those of the aforementioned fantasy standouts, yet their rotisserie numbers (especially wins, saves and ERA) were lackluster. In other words, the talent might have been there, but the results weren't, and perhaps a little better luck could align the two in 2008. (Statistics: Innings pitched, K/BB, HR/9 and GB/FB ratio.)

Heath Bell, Padres -- 93 2/3, 3.40, 0.29, 2.81: If you are as worried about Trevor Hoffman's late-season swoon as I am, you realize Bell is a must-have handcuff to the all-time saves leader. That, by the way, is a role that was virtually unnecessary for more than a decade. Be aware of this: Bell easily beat Hoffman in all three of those ratios, plus ERA (2.02 to 2.98), WHIP (0.96 to 1.12) and batting average against (.185 to .228) in 2007.

Joe Blanton
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesDespite pitching for the A's, Joe Blanton shouldn't be on your "Do Not Draft" list.
Joe Blanton, Athletics -- 230, 3.50, 0.63, 1.58: No one will invest big bucks in a pitcher on a team destined for last place, but value-wise, Blanton is much closer to ace than also-ran. He is 27, is in his prime and has improved his walks and homers allowed per nine ratios in each of the past two seasons. Plus, with Blanton rumored to be on the trading block, he stands to see a huge boost in win potential if he winds up on a contender.

Manny Corpas, Rockies -- 78, 2.90, 0.69, 2.43: His cumulative numbers didn't do justice to how nicely he adapted to closing. From July 7 on, playoffs included, he had a 1.36 ERA, 0.82 WHIP, .189 BAA and 24 saves in 44 appearances. Corpas isn't a blow-'em-away finisher, but he is a heavy sinker/slider type who induces countless ground balls. In other words, he is a strong bet to remain consistent, a good characteristic in a closer.

Aaron Heilman, Mets -- 86, 3.15, 0.84, 1.37: I'd love to see what this guy could do in a starting role, but the Mets maintain he is more useful coming out of the bullpen. It's a niche but not a bad niche. For one, if anything were to ever happen to closer Billy Wagner, Heilman is as good a bet as anyone to step in. And even if Wagner stays healthy, which seems probable, Heilman pitches enough to help in ERA/WHIP.

Felix Hernandez, Mariners -- 190.1, 3.11, 0.95, 2.66: I don't know that I'm ever going to give up on "King Felix." Sure, his trip down the road to greatness has taken longer than expected, but he is progressing, nonetheless. Despite mild elbow concerns early in 2007, the right-hander went 10-3 with a 3.70 ERA in his final 18 starts, not a bad finish. He will turn 22 on April 8, so he will only get better from here.

Shawn Hill, Nationals -- 97 1/3, 2.60, 0.83, 1.96: No one ever gives this guy due credit, despite his 3.42 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and .235 BAA in 16 starts last season. Perhaps that is a result of his spotty injury history, the one thing about him that truly worries me. But given full health, Hill has the talent to really surprise. NL-only owners need to know his name, but mixed leaguers should get familiar, too.

"Old School" Kings

This year's criteria might have changed, but that doesn't mean I've forgotten our old standards, which proved so successful this past season. Here are seven other pitchers who met the former "Kings of Command" guidelines:

Scott Baker: Everyone wants Francisco Liriano, but I look at Baker's minor league numbers and command rates and won't be shocked if he's their best starter.

Jeremy Bonderman: You know the worry with him, it's the health of his elbow. That 9-1, 3.48-ERA first half demonstrates what he can do at his best, though.

Dave Bush: His command ratios continue to outperform his Rotisserie value, making him perhaps unlucky, perhaps not that good. Still, he's worth a low-risk bid.

Zack Greinke: Remember back a few years, when he was seemingly the Royals' future ace? I haven't. You shouldn't either, as good as he looked late last season.

Jon Rauch: There's going to come a point where the Nationals opt to see what they can get for Chad Cordero in trade, and when they do, Rauch will be the man.

Andy Sonnanstine: He had some long-ball issues early, but his command ratios were extraordinary for a rookie, and his minor league numbers are eye-popping.

Rafael Soriano: He's a mild health risk, but when he's on, he's capable of rivaling all but the very best closers. There's real top-10 closer upside here.

Matt Lindstrom, Marlins -- 67, 2.95, 0.27, 1.40: Kevin Gregg got all the attention at the back end of Florida's bullpen in 2007, but compare their numbers, and Lindstrom was right there with him, performance-wise, in ERA (3.09 to Gregg's 3.54) and WHIP (1.30 to 1.23). He also is the more realistic long-term bet for saves in that bullpen, meaning it's possible that, with a hot start, he will get a look in the role this year.

Greg Maddux, Padres -- 198, 4.16, 0.64, 2.15: His Cy Young days are well in the past, but even at this late stage of his career, Maddux is a crafty, consistent, reliable starter who warrants your attention. Outside of April, when the sample size is small, his ERA never ranged beneath 3.68 or above 4.43, and he is on a contending team in a cavernous ballpark. That's a valuable kind of guy to round out your mixed-league staff.

Gil Meche, Royals -- 216, 2.52, 0.92, 1.36: I admit, I wasn't a believer heading into last season, having felt he was woefully inconsistent and not exactly durable during his Mariners days. He sure proved me wrong, though, developing into a safe, consistent, middling to back-of-your-staff starter. Filling those spots correctly is critical to success, and Meche now fits the role well.

Mike Mussina, Yankees -- 152, 2.60, 0.83, 1.17: Of all the qualifiers, he was the one guy whose appearance shocked me. Including him isn't necessarily an endorsement of him from a fantasy standout, it's more a reminder not to instantly toss him on the trash heap. Here is the problem with Mussina: He is inconsistent. If you pick and choose his hot streaks, though, and grab him late, you could be pleasantly surprised.

Ian Snell, Pirates -- 208, 2.60, 0.95, 1.33: It's numbers like these that help me break the "virtual tie" that most people seem to feel exists between Snell and teammate Tom Gorzelanny, a fine fantasy choice in his own right. For me, it's Snell who is a little more dominating (7.66 K's per nine to Gorzelanny's 6.02), and his ceiling is higher. At 26, he looks like a strong candidate to vault into the top 25 starters.

Joakim Soria, Royals -- 69, 3.95, 0.39, 1.03: Besides his breakout 2007, there is little historical data on Soria on which to build a sound projection. Having watched him play, though, and accounting for his 1.94 ERA, 0.73 WHIP and .160 BAA in his final 41 appearances last year, I'd call him legit. Maybe his ERA will slide up a tad, and maybe he will have a cold spell or two, but I'd call him more than worthy of holding the closer's role all year.

The "just missed" crew

The following five pitchers met three of the four criteria and narrowly missed the cut in the fourth category. Still, they have talented enough arms to warrant a mention:

Joaquin Benoit
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesKeep an eye on Joaquin Benoit. He could make for a fine closer.
Joaquin Benoit, Rangers -- 82, 3.11, 0.66, 0.99: One more ground ball would have qualified him, but he was well within the parameters otherwise. Maybe C.J. Wilson or eventually Eddie Guardado will look like the better closer bet in Texas, but accounting for skills and health, I think Benoit is the smarter investment.

Jeff Francis, Rockies -- 215 1/3, 2.62, 1.04, 1.30: Two fewer home runs, and he would have made the cut, but he calls Coors Field home, so let's give him the benefit of the doubt. Remember those sterling division series and championship series starts last October? They were legit, and they are testament to Francis' long-term ace potential.

Yovani Gallardo, Brewers -- 110 1/3, 2.73, 0.65, 0.98: Take out his disastrous 2.2-inning, 12-hit, 11-earned run meltdown Aug. 8 at Coors, and he would have finished 2007 with a 2.84 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and .227 BAA -- ace-caliber numbers. Gallardo is absolutely capable of approaching those numbers, but with him set to miss a chunk of April, you might be able to sneak him through on the cheap.

Tim Hudson, Braves -- 224.1, 2.49, 0.40, 2.76: As he has matured as a pitcher, Hudson has become less of a strikeout artist and more of a ground ball inducer, in the mold of the Brandon Webb/Chien-Ming Wang type. He has honed his sinker/forkball combination so nicely, his 2007 success shouldn't be an aberration.

Derek Lowe, Dodgers -- 199.1, 2.49, 0.90, 3.46: Another member of the "sinkerball specialists," as I like to call them, Lowe has settled into a nice little niche in the National League, much the way Hudson has. The two are "lite" versions of Webb, Carmona or even Wang, but there is a good share of value in that type of label.

Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.