Wednesday, March 17, 2010

My strategy: Pitcher evaluation (Part 4 of 7)

This is the fourth in a seven-part series documenting my fantasy baseball strategy. Part three discussed how I evaluate hitters. Now we'll flip the script and look at pitchers.

Last spring, Edwin Jackson likely went undrafted in every fantasy league outside of Detroit. But on April 7, 2009, he tossed 7.1 strong innings of one-run ball in his first start for the Tigers. Suddenly he was on many fantasy baseball managers' radars as someone who was worth considering for a roster spot. However, if you were in the Urbana Premier League (UPL), Edwin Jackson was already long gone.

So what's my secret? Do I really have a special method for evaluating pitchers, or did I just get lucky last year with Dan Haren, Javier Vazquez, Wandy Rodriguez, Edwin Jackson, Joe Nathan, Brian Wilson, Dan Qualls, and J.P. Howell? Well, I've always admitted that luck is a significant part of fantasy baseball. But when we're talking about accumulating stats over a 6-month period, I also think you need to put yourself in position to be lucky.

As mentioned in my keeper theory post, it's easier to predict how players will perform this season than next season. Something similar can be said when comparing hitters to pitchers. While it's difficult to predict how hitters will perform in any given season, it's even tougher to predict pitchers. 

But picking pitchers is still 50% of roto baseball, so we need to have a strategy for it. In the UPL where I play, there are six pitching categories: W, L, K, S, ERA, and WHIP. Below is how I study the categories when evaluating a pitcher. 

Walks and hits per inning pitched (WHIP)

When I study a pitcher's stats, I begin with WHIP. A pitcher is supposed to make it hard for batters to even reach base, and WHIP is the best measure we have in this department. Really, my WHIP strategy isn't complicated. I tend to look for guys who I think can have a season WHIP of 1.20 or less. 

Strikeouts (K)

After WHIP, I look at strikeouts per nine innings (K/9). My thought here is that a pitcher with a high K/9 can be more than good. He can be dominant. After all, when you strike out a batter, the batter has no chance of reaching base (barring a swing at a pass ball or wild pitch). But even a weak grounder to the pitcher gives the batter a chance.

One thing to keep in mind is that pitchers with high K/9 ratios tend to throw more pitches and suffer more wear and tear. Just think how each strikeout requires at least three pitches, whereas a groundout could happen on the first pitch. However, I don't worry about this too much unless a pitcher has already shown some significant history of injuries. (For example, I wouldn't be too interested in Ben Sheets or Rich Harden at this point. But if either of them were converted to a closer, like Kerry Wood, then that could be a different story.)

In terms of K/9 ratio, I like to see at least 8 K's per 9 innings for a pitcher. Anything less than 7K/9 usually gets me thinking about a replacement.

Saves (S)

I place a high value on saves, mainly because this stat is not quite as difficult to predict as some of the others. If you know that a pitcher is the established closer for a team, then presumably if he stays healthy he'll rack up some saves.

By now it should be self-evident why I also value dominant setup men. First off, they can help out with WHIP and K's. Second, they're potentially in line to become a closer and hence pick up saves as well.

Earned run average (ERA)

Honestly, if a pitcher has a low WHIP, then I'm not too concerned about his ERA. The only exception is if I notice that the pitcher gives up a high number of home runs. In that case, a pitcher could have a low WHIP and still sustain a high ERA, which would be troubling in the long run.

Wins and losses (W/L)

Do you want to know a dirty little secret about the UPL? Wins and losses are garbage categories. This is true for any league that counts W's and L's instead of quality starts (QS).

I find W and L so hard to predict that I've taken to ignoring them. They're basically just luck. I would have argued for getting rid of these categories, but then I realized that the middle of the UPL Baseball scoreboard is kind of a fun place to have a roulette wheel.

Some people get caught up in whether a pitcher is on a good team or not. Part of the thinking here is that if a pitcher is on a good team then he'll pick up more wins, or if he's on a bad team he'll pick up more L's. I try to avoid that thinking. I'm more focused on whether the pitcher has a low WHIP, high K/9, and then perhaps if he's in a hitter-friendly park or not. Whether his team is slated to win 60 or 100 games doesn't really concern me too much.

American League vs. National League

Yes, I tend to favor NL starting pitchers over AL starting pitchers. If everything else is equal, then I have to believe that NL starters getting a weak-hitting pitcher at the plate once every nine at-bats instead of a talented DH makes a difference over the course of a season. However, this isn't a primary consideration.

I also pay attention to the division that a starting pitcher plays in. Will he being going up against elite offenses on a regular basis, or is he in a division with relatively weak offenses and pitcher-friendly parks? Again, this is only a minor consideration; and it's not a factor when thinking about closers.

About that Edwin Jackson pickup

After last season's UPL draft in March 2009, I got curious about the waiver wire and which players had gone undrafted. In doing some research, I came across a controversial article written by Michael Salfino. In it, he compared a 24-year-old Edwin Jackson to a 24-year-old Bob Gibson. He then went on to say that Edwin Jackson might come out of relative obscurity to have a breakout year similar to the way Cliff Lee did in 2008 or Esteban Loaiza in 2003.

Even now, people would look at you weird if you mentioned Edwin Jackson in the same sentence as Bob Gibson. Heck, even comparing Jackson to Cliff Lee would put you on shaky ground in most fantasy baseball circles. But can you imagine if I had gone around telling people back in March 2009 that I had read some article comparing Edwin Jackson to Bob Gibson, so now I'm going to pick him up because I think he'll have a breakout year? Yeah, I would have been mocked to say the least. Troy Patterson over at Roto Savants could give you a taste of the criticism I would have received.

But here's what the critics missed. Salfino's article wasn't trying to say that Edwin Jackson will be as good as Bob Gibson or Cliff Lee (although admittedly the Yahoo article title was a bit misleading). The article was simply reminding readers that Edwin Jackson is still young and talented. Its main message: There's still hope for Jackson to develop into a much better pitcher.

Furthermore, when I looked at Jackson's numbers for myself back in March 2009, I noticed that his WHIP from 2006 to 2008 was 1.84, 1.76, and 1.51. Those numbers were bad, but they were steadily going in the right direction. So I took a flier on him before the season even started, not in hopes that he would be Bob Gibson or Cliff Lee, but in hopes that he'd be a solid fantasy starter for my team in 2009.

Looking back on what Edwin Jackson did in 2009, for the first half he was an All-Star and then in the second half he tailed off. Overall, I'd say he was simply a solid fantasy starter for my team. That's all I wanted.

Closing time and final thoughts

Of course you want pitchers with low WHIP and high K/9. Everyone does. But where I differ is that I don't go after the "brand name" pitchers. That's because, compared to hitters, it's very tough to predict which pitchers will really perform the best from year to year, especially when you factor in injuries.

The key for me isn't so much where I focus, but where I don't. I tend to ignore W/L, quality of team, and the big names. This frees me up to focus on WHIP, K, and who I think is really ready to perform now--whether he's a steady veteran or a blooming prospect.

So far in this series we've discussed my keeper theory, my framework for accumulating points, and how I evaluate hitters and pitchers. I'd say we're ready to draft. That's next time in part five.


Chairman said...

Like I always say, better lucky than good :-)

Greg said...

I will say that the run my starting pitchers had the 1st half of last season was pretty amazing--and lucky. But I certainly enjoyed it while it lasted.

And Roland, my hope for 2010 is that once again your team is good (4th) and my team is lucky (1st).

Chairman said...

See, I'm used to being lucky and good enough. When the luck turned sour on me last season, I was at a loss. I imagine that I felt like how C-Lauff and Westy always feel :-)

But seriously. For "garbage categories," W-L was a huge factor last year. Look back at the W-L from last season, then look at the rate stats from our pitching staffs, then look at the rosters on your team and my team.

What sort of odds would have needed to bet that you were going to outscore me by as much as you did in W-L?

Greg said...

I agree that the W-L categories are as important as any other. They can make the difference between first and second. And yes, I want to win these categories just like the others.

But by referring to W and L as "garbage categories," I only mean that they're relatively hard to predict and almost not worth taking into account when planning.

RG, going into 2009, yes I thought that on paper you had the best pitching staff top to bottom. Just now I did go back and look at how last season's pitching stats turned out. My ERA was 3.37, yours was 3.43. About the same. For WHIP, I had 1.19 and you had 1.24. Mine was a bit better, but still, we were in the same ball park. As far as W-L, I had 21 more W's but 5 more L's. If we combine W-L in terms of roto points, I only edged you by 3 points in W-L. Still close.

For betting odds, I'm not sure if you're referring to my team having 21 more wins or having 3 more total points for W-L. My team having 21 more wins was admittedly unusual. But I wouldn't have thought my team scoring 3 more points in W-L was unexpected. With W-L, I really don't have many expectations, except that most teams in our league will be over .500 in W-L.

In my view, there are just so many things that can go wrong to prevent a pitcher from getting the W. First, he could pitch poorly. Or he could pitch great, but not get any run support. Or he could pitch great, get run support, but then come out in the 8th and have the bullpen blow it. Another problem could be that he gets hurt, not only ruining his chances for a win today, but also into the future. Yes, injuries are a risk for all MLB players, but I think pitchers face a higher injury risk than hitters.

This year Rup dominated in ERA and WHIP, and he was 2nd in W and 2nd in L. A great ratio. Overall, he was first in W-L. I wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't repeat as the leader in W-L, even though he has a young and talented pitching staff that should only get better.

C-Lauff might have a strategy for racking up wins. If so, I'd love to hear it. I notice that he's led the league in wins 2 of the past 3 years.