Fight for 15

I mentioned in part one of my top 15 starting pitchers for 2012 that deciding on the 15th guy was a bit of a task.  I had several guys who I felt could have reasonably been slotted there and eventually landed on Johnny Cueto.  There is no denying the fact that he hasn’t really earned his 2.05 ERA this year, as evidenced by his 3.87 xFIP and 3.78 SIERA.

That said, he is far from a shlub at the same time.  He has seen an 11% increase in his groundball rate to 53% with only some deterioration to his strikeout rate (down from 6.7 to 6.2 K/9).  In fact his strikeout rate has been up and down all season, but it was at a very impressive 8.1 per game over the last month.  The great part is that the uptick came without any damage to his groundball (held at 53%).

The 40-inning sample over the last month is small in the grand scheme, but I do believe Cueto can hold the groundball gains while also working his way into a consistent strikeout rate between 6.7 and 7.2.  I wasn’t merely blinded by the shiny ERA when I ranked him 15th, rather I believe in his talent and have been impressed in the starts of his I have seen this year.  That said, I stand by the fact that there were many candidates for the spot and I wanted to address them for those who were wondering.

Here they are in reverse order:

Jaime Garcia (STL) – It was more of a cursory thought to put him in at the 15-spot.  The quickness of the thought has nothing to do with the fact that he had a poor stretch in August.  If I was going to put him there, a bad month wouldn’t have dissuaded me, just as a great month wouldn’t elevate someone undeserving like Mark Buehrle into the discussion.

In the end, Garcia just didn’t stack up against a host of his peers.  He did have some modest gains on his breakout rookie season toting a near-3.0 K/BB while sustaining most of the 56% groundball rate we saw last year.  The WHIP is still problematic at 1.36, but the climb in hit rate might be linked to a worse infield defense for the Cards which they will hopefully address this offseason given their rotation.

Josh Beckett (BOS) – Beckett was easily identifiable as a regression candidate who in turn could be a fantasy star because of how much last year’s 5.78 ERA depressed his value.  He has exceeded even my wildest expectations with a 2.49 ERA and 0.98 WHIP in 174 innings, but a lot of it has been his BABIP, LOB% and HR/FB rates swinging all the way back to the opposite end of the spectrum this year.  For as unlucky as he was last year, he has been equally as lucky this year.

That said, the skills remain strong (8+ K/9 yearly saved 2006’s 7.0; K/BB below 2.6 just once in career) and as a part of the Boston Red Sox he should always have a shot at a nice win total as long as he stays healthy and makes 30+ starts.  But he is also a perpetual risk for at least a spell on the disabled list or a skipped start or two and his wildly inconsistent BABIP, LOB% and HR/FB rates in the face of the solid skills make it hard to put him in the top 15.

C.J. Wilson (TEX) – Who had this one pegged?  Just as he appeared to be coming into his owner as an ace late inning reliever, it was announced that Wilson would shift to the rotation and become a full-time starter.  Few, if any, had high expectations for this experiment yet he put together an impressive 204-inning debut as a starter last year with lone wart being his league-leading 93 walks.  Alas many remained skeptical, myself included calling for a 4.00ish ERA, for various reasons.  Wilson made significant improvements across the board and he is now a strong option atop a fantasy staff, but at 30 he lacks both the skill and upside of top 15ers.  However, that is a more of a commentary on how strong the pitching pool is these days as opposed to a knock on Wilson.

Yovani Gallardo (MIL) – Often when you see a young flamethrower fanning one or more batters per inning, his walk rate is around four or five a game.  While he may have electric stuff that can fool even the best big leaguers, he rarely knows exactly where it is going himself resulting in plenty of free passes, too.  If this type of pitcher is to become a reliable frontline starter and reach his true potential, you will see that strikeout rate tick down yet remain strong, while the walk rate sees major improvement.

This profile explains Gallardo who saw his strikeout rate dip to 8.2 after marks of 9.9 and 9.7 in his first two seasons.  His walk rate has improved drastically year to year, too, starting at 4.6 in 2009 before dropping to 3.7 last year and a much more palatable 2.7 this year.  At 25, Gallardo hasn’t yet reached his ceiling and we could still see him jump another level or two.  He’s getting better, but the best is yet to come.

Shaun Marcum (MIL) – I have nicknamed him “The Anti-Booster” as he has seen his strikeout and walk rates both erode despite leaving the hardest division on the planet for the much cushier NL Central.  The losses have been marginal (0.3 K & 0.5 BB), but it still interesting to someone with his skill get away from the AL Beast and not experience a spike in performance.  Sure, his ERA improved over a half of a run, but that’s clearly artificial when you look at the complete picture.  He strikes me as someone who will chronically be underrated and while he may never have that transcendent season that would bring deserved respect, he will continue to be a strong #2 fantasy asset coming at the price of a #3 or at least at the very end of the #2s.

Ian Kennedy (ARI) – After showing last year why he was so hyped as a Yankee farmhand, Kennedy has shown incremental improvement in his skills, but monumental improvement in his results.  Flyballs and specifically the home runs that result from them were his big issue last year, but he sliced 5% off of his flyball rate this year and with that his HR/9 dropped by 25% to 0.9 per game.  He has no doubt advanced a bit in 2011, but he can’t quite be relied upon for a sub-3.00 ERA going forward just yet.  He might not even be the top choice on his team for 2012.

Daniel Hudson (ARI) – His season is all the more impressive when you consider that he had a 5.30 ERA on May 1st after he allowed three runs in seven innings against the Cubs.  Since then he has gone 157 strong innings with a 3.10 ERA still hitting some bumps in the road which is what you would expect from a 24-year old in his first full season in the majors.  Some fantasy managers might be upset with the loss of a full strikeout down to 6.9, but the savvier manager is happier about the sub-2.0 walk rate.  An 8% dip in flyball, 7% of which went directly to his groundball, is arguably the most impressive development for Hudson this year.  For now he simply doesn’t have the track record to merit a top 15 position just yet, but this is a growth stock that is definitely worth buying into for the immediate future.

Ricky Romero (TOR) – Despite the huge dip in ERA from 3.73 to 3.01, Romero has essentially been the same pitcher in 2010 and 2011.  The main differences in his season have been a 40-point drop in BABIP and a massive 11% jump in LOB%.  That LOB% jump more than covered his 3% in HR/FB resulting in the improved ERA.  I am still a huge fan of the 26-year old lefty and feel that he has plenty of growth potential going forward.

Whether he deserved it or not, the improved results have paid huge dividends especially since he was underrated coming into the season.  I mentioned in my SP Guide that he was being listed behind the likes of Trevor Cahill, Jhoulys Chacin and Jeremy Hellickson at ESPN and he has thoroughly outclassed all three with Hellickson being the only one anywhere near him in results thanks to a wholly undeserved 2.90 ERA (4.24 FIP, 4.51 xFIP & 4.42 SIERA).

Matt Garza (CHC) – I may have reacted like a jilted lover when it came to forecasting Garza for 2011.  After diving headfirst into the front seat of his bandwagon for 2010 and projecting an elite season, I was left cold and unimpressed by essentially a repeat season (0.04 ERA & 0.01 WHIP improvements) replete with a nearly two strikeout dip and a third straight year of declining groundball rate.

I was worried about the new flyball-heavy Garza heading into Wrigley Field, even in light of the inherent National League strikeout boost.  Two straight years of 1.1 or worse HR/9 and a rising flyball rate would spell trouble in the Windy City especially when combined with Garza’s fiery attitude.  But he changed.  He has seen a major uptick in strikeouts with a career high 9.3 mark, but most importantly his groundball rate skyrocketed up 11% to 46%, a career high for a full season, yielding career-best 3.52 ERA that isn’t even as low as it should be given how well he has pitched.

Career worst BABIP and LOB% rates have teamed up to keep his ERA nearly a half run higher than his components suggest (3.16 xFIP & SIERA).  He had displayed little variance in his year-to-year BABIP and LOB% during his first three full seasons which is why this year screams aberration.  If his strikeout and groundball rates aren’t also aberrations, he might finally be in line for that huge season I saw coning in 2010.

Zack Greinke (MIL) – His was the name I heard most when it came to that 15 spot or being included somewhere within the top 15.  I definitely understand it and he was on the list during various iterations.  I made the move to Cueto late leaving Greinke on the outside, but the more I look at it the more I think a change may be in the offing.  I didn’t just look at his ERA and slot him 16th, I am well aware of the fact that he has been much better than his 3.93 ERA.

All of his component skills scream a sub-3.00 ERA, but he has struggled with runners on for a second straight season and his four years of HR/FB fortune seems to have bit back hard all at once this season with a 14% mark.  In the end, 10.4 K/9 and 5.1 K/BB rates are downright nasty and they carry the day as he should definitely improve going forward just as did as the 2011 season wore on.

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