How much should pitchers beware the gopher ball?
During the mid-'90s, one baseball video game claimed it was as "real as Radke." That phrase refers to Brad Radke, who had a penchant for giving up the long ball, as he gave up 72 homers in his first two seasons in the majors, in 1995 and 1996. Thus, the commercial featured Radke on the mound constantly watching his homers leave the field, while a conga line of hitters circled the bases.
Not long after those commercials aired, though, Radke would go on to win 20 games and finish third in AL Cy Young voting. However, thanks to the commercial, Radke's reputation as a gopher ball pitcher stuck (or at least the line "real as Radke" did), but he eventually carved out a solid 12-year career with the Twins. Sure, he wasn't a star, but most years, he was a useful enough fantasy pitcher.
Of course, giving up a lot of homers isn't all that helpful for a pitcher's fantasy value, but is it always a bad thing? Johan Santana led the AL with 33 homers allowed last year. Curt Schilling was tied for the NL lead in 2001 when he went 22-6. Bert Blyleven holds the major league record for homers allowed in a single season, and the top four pitchers in career homers allowed are all in the Hall of Fame (Robin Roberts, Fergie Jenkins, Phil Niekro and Don Sutton).
On the other hand, there are also guys like Wayne Franklin, Mike Maroth and Eric Milton who have led their respective leagues in recent years as well. And many times, when serviceable pitchers do land among the league leaders in homers allowed, it's often during their down years.
It's not always that way; just look at Schilling. While he gave up 37 homers in 2001, 31 of them were solo shots, so the hit to his overall numbers wasn't that bad. Meanwhile, Jose Lima won 21 games in 1999 despite giving up 30 homers that season (23 on the road, seven at the pitcher-friendly Astrodome; 25 total solo shots). He said he wasn't concerned about moving to hitter-friendly Enron Field the next year because he could just give up solo homers. That definitely wasn't the case, as he gave up a whopping 48 homers (including 27 at home, and 20 with runners on base) and his ERA jumped from 3.58 to 6.65. Lima's hubris caught up to him in a big way.
So let's look at some notable names among the league leaders in homers allowed and see what we might learn about them now and their fantasy value going forward. It's also worth noting that fly ball pitchers in hitters' parks (no matter how good they may be) will have more of a tendency to show up on this list.
Paul Byrd, Indians (20 homers): He has 34- and 36-homer seasons under his belt, the latter coming in 2002 for the Royals when he went 17-11 with a 3.90 ERA. So he hasn't let the homers bother him in the past. He throws lots of strikes (in fact, he has more homers allowed than walks this season), but he's also very hittable, and that's caught up with him this year. Byrd has never been a great fantasy option, and it's hard to think he'll bounce back enough to be useful this year.
Johnny Cueto, Reds (18 homers): Not surprisingly, the cozy Great American Ballpark hasn't been that kind to him as he's given up 11 dingers at home this year. Cueto has had his moments, but he still gets his stuff up a bit too often, leading to all those homers. In time, he'll get those homer numbers down, but not by a whole lot, at least not in 2008. He may have to take more of his lumps this year in order to be a better pitcher down the road, so I'm not very bullish on him this year. Let's just say teammate Edinson Volquez's three homers allowed this year is much more an anomaly than Cueto's 18 homers allowed.
Roy Oswalt, Astros (17 homers): He's never allowed more than 18 homers in a season, so this year's performance is very striking for all the wrong reasons. He's already given up 12 homers at Minute Maid Park, which ties his season worst. The odd thing about Oswalt is that his strikeout rate has gone up slightly and his walk rate hasn't changed a whole lot, either. He's been a lot more hittable as well, which goes a long way toward elevating his stats. Meanwhile, he's allowed just one homer so far this month, while he's racked up an ERA around 3.00. Oswalt may be on his way back, although the window to get him at a low price is closing. (For what it's worth, three Astros are in the top 10 in homers allowed: Oswalt, Brandon Backe and Shawn Chacon.)
Ted Lilly, Cubs (16 homers): He's slightly ahead of last year's pace, when he allowed 28, but at this point in his career, you know he'll give up his share of homers throughout the year. It's just a matter of whether his other stats will hold up to help out fantasy owners. After a very slow start to the season, Lilly has heated up, sporting a 2.70 ERA with 30 strikeouts in 26 2/3 innings in June. He should be fine the rest of the way, just be wary if he ends up pitching when the wind blows at Wrigley.
Aaron Harang, Reds (15 homers): This is nothing new for him, as he's allowed 28 each of the past two seasons. You can't really blame his home park for the high numbers this year (eight at home, seven on the road). In fact, he's improved on that since 2006, when it was a 20/8 home/road split. It's also hard to explain his 3-10 record, especially since his strikeout and walk rates haven't been much different from years past. However, his overall numbers have gotten progressively worse from month to month, so it's hard to think you can "buy low" on him. He may improve, but perhaps not as much as you would like.
Gavin Floyd, White Sox (14 homers): His K/BB rate has gotten better in recent starts, prompting many people to believe he's finally turning the corner and will be safe going forward. For what it's worth, Floyd has been extremely homer-happy in his career, as he gave up 31 homers in just 114 1/3 big league innings in 2006 and 2007. So the 14 in 90 1/3 innings this season is an improvement. It's actually a wonder that Floyd's ERA isn't higher despite the homers, since there were runners on base for eight of the 14. A fly ball pitcher in hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular Field shouldn't be a favorable combination, but it's worked so far. A .202 batting average against is a big help.
Cole Hamels, Phillies (14 homers): Floyd's former running mate in the Phillies' system, Hamels has given up his fair share of homers in his otherwise stellar big league career. Nine of his 14 homers allowed have come at home, which is also not a surprise. What is interesting is that 21 of the 25 homers he allowed last year were solo shots. This year, only seven of the 14 have occurred with the bases empty, despite the fact that his on-base percentage against is better than last year. Right now, there's not much to worry about with Hamels, just keep an eye on the homer totals.
Oliver Perez, Mets (13 homers): The erratic lefty is tied with Johan Santana for the most homers allowed on the Mets. But a couple of interesting things jump out with Perez's line. He's allowed 13 homers but only seven doubles (Livan Hernandez has also allowed 13 homers, but 28 doubles). He's also given up fewer hits than innings pitched, but his ERA is over 5.00. You can blame all the walks and a declining strikeout rate for a lot of his woes.
James Quintong is an editor for ESPN Fantasy Games.