Proponents of waiting on starting pitchers in a fantasy draft or auction will tell you that there are plenty of quality options available on the cheap, several of whom will deliver like their high-priced counterparts providing their owners a great value. That group, which I consider myself part of, is correct (he says modestly).
Of course it is easy to throw that notion out, wait for the season to play out and then go back through and cherry pick the biggest improvements. A much more difficult task is identifying them beforehand, rostering them on the cheap and then gloating about their massive improvements at season’s end. That’s where I come in, or more importantly where this article comes in.
The 2011 Starting Pitcher Guide that I will be releasing later this winter will have a full-length piece on this very topic, but today I will look at the biggest leaps from 2009 to 2010 and share a few names from the list that will be contained in the aforementioned Guide.
There is neither a set statistical criteria nor a hard age range for identifying candidates set to make the leap in 2011 as the 2010 leapers ranged from age 22 to 30 averaging out at 25. Some had success in 2009 and elevated into the elite in 2010 while others were below average and jumped several levels landing in the very good to elite range.
I identified 11 leapers in 2010. They posted an average ERA+ of 97 in 2009 followed by an average of 139 in 2010, yielding an average jump of 42 points topping out at 75 and no lower than 22. Rookies were eliminated from the study as they don’t have a base year to go off of and predicting rookie success of a pitcher is a minefield not worth traversing.
The 2010 Leapers
|Player||Team||Age||2009 ERA+||2010 ERA+||Diff|
$ – pitched in Japan for 2008 & 2009, ERA+ in 2009 column is 2002-2007 total (217 IP)
* –pitched just 1 IP in 2009, ERA+ in 2009 column is 2007-2009 total (60 IP)
+ – pitched as a reliever in 2009, ERA+ in 2009 column is 2005-2009 total (281 IP)
(Note: Removing these 3 from the sample would actually improve 2010 ERA+ gains, so rest assured they weren’t included just to boost the strength of the leapers. These are unique circumstances, but all 3 received some form of praise for their potential coming into the 2010 season.)
The role of the ERA+ stat is merely an aid to identify seasons worth consideration, there wasn’t an ERA+ floor or ceiling used for inclusion on the list. No one paired an artificially inflated ERA+ with a lousy skillset and made it onto the list. The group averaged 190 innings pitched with 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings and 3.0 walks per nine innings.
2011 Leap Year Candidates
The full-length piece in the SP Guide will delve a bit deeper into the 2010 leapers, but in this space I would rather spend more time on looking at some of the 2011 candidates worth eyeing in your leagues. The goal is to find pitchers capable of posting significant improvement in their stat line that would yield a 20+ point improvement in their ERA+ taking them from middling or even below average to among the league’s most useful and best starting pitchers.
For candidates with poor ERA+ performance to date, I am looking for guys who can take that leap from waiver wire fodder to reliable every week starter in all league formats similar to what Ian Kennedy (75 ERA+ before 2010) and Colby Lewis (73) became when they posted 111 and 116 ERA+ figures in 2010 with above average peripherals.
For candidates with average or slightly higher ERA+ performance to date, I am looking for guys who can take that leap to stardom. In 2009, David Price and Jonathan Sanchez were at best spot starters in mixed leagues or inconsistent backend starters in AL/NL-Only leagues with a promising foundational skill or two, but they weren’t yet ready to be relied upon as top end staff anchors. In 2010, they parlayed those intriguing skills into a more polished arsenal, were fortunate enough to have the luck break in their favor and both emerged into upper tier starters. Price even contended heavily for the American League Cy Young award.
Here are three pitchers capable making a big leap forward in 2011:
Derek Holland, Texas Rangers – The 24-year old southpaw has shown glimpses of quality within his 196 major league innings across two seasons despite posting a 5.52 ERA and 1.46 WHIP. Those numbers will no doubt push people away as will his Word Series collapse, but I am drawn to his 2.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio buoyed by 7.4 K/9. He actually had 8.7 K/9 in his 10 starts spanning 47 innings last year, but it isn’t nearly a large enough sample to expect that level going forward. With a ceiling capable of topping 8.0 and floor just over 7.0, Holland could be a great strikeout guy, but if not he should be no worse than a quality top 50 option (48 SPs had 7+ K/9 while qualifying for the ERA title).
He has proven more than enough in the minor leagues (2.47 ERA, 106 WHIP, 9.5 K/9, 2.6 BB/9 in 287 IP) so it is time for him to get a full time shot in the rotation. He’s got a 4-pitch arsenal led by his breaking stuff, but bolstered by an improving changeup. His 6.12 ERA in 2009 was skewed by bad luck (5.10 FIP) while the luck broke more evenly in his favor for 2010 resulting in a 4.08 ERA backed by a 4.02 FIP. For 2011, I have Holland with a Gio Gonzalez-type season. Not so much from the 51-point ERA+ improvement angle, but Gonzalez consolidated his skills and combined them with some good luck to post a 3.23 ERA with 171 Ks in 201 innings and Holland certainly capable of that kind of season.
Brett Cecil, Toronto Blue Jays – Cecil actually appeared to be on his way toward making the 2010 list of leapers with a very strong start to the season that saw him at 7-2 with a 3.22 ERA and 2.9 K/BB rate headed into his June 15th interleague start in the normally friendly confines of PETCO Park. The train barreled off of the tracks with a three game interleague stint to close June over which he allowed 16 runs in 16 innings pumping him ERA by more than a run to 4.39. From July on, he wasn’t bad on the surface with an 8-2 record and 4.08 ERA, but his 5.5 K/9 and 1.7 K/BB showed he was well off of his early season pace.
The experience will serve Cecil well as he now has 266 major league innings headed into age-24 season. He is poised to put together a complete season as part of a formidable rotation even with Shaun Marcum. Though not overpowering, he has maintained a better than six strikeout rate in each of his two seasons while improving his control yielding a K/BB rate above the desired 2.0 mark. Where most pitchers see their value take a hit as part of the AL East, Cecil acquitted himself quite well against the beastly division posting a 3.47 ERA and 1.28 WHIP in 96 innings last year.
Cecil induces groundballs at a decent clip thanks to his solid 4-pitch repertoire that didn’t include a single negatively valued pitched according to Fangraphs.com. I project a moderate skills improvement combined with an already established groundball rate and a positive regression in his LOB% back up over 70% en route to a sub-4.00 ERA season with 140+ strikeouts in 195 innings.
Kevin Slowey, Minnesota Twins (for now) – I put the “for now” tag with Slowey because it was reported earlier this week that the Twins would be open to moving Slowey if the right deal came along. I have been a huge fan of Slowey’s for the last three years now going out of my way to own him in each of the last two only to be disappointed with the end results. Slowey has brilliant control (career 1.5 BB/9 rate), but unlike a lot of control artists, he also manages to register a good number of strikeouts (career 6.9 K/9 rate). His downfall has been a massive flyball rate that has been getting worse (career 48% FB rate, 51% in 2010) so a move out of Minnesota could severely damage his value if he doesn’t land somewhere that could absorb his flyball tendencies with minimal damage (San Diego anyone?).
After back-to-back seasons with K/BB rates of 5.0+, Slowey dipped to 4.0 last year which was still 3rd-best in the American League amongst starting pitchers with 150+ innings. It is the K/BB rates that keep me interested in Slowey and I’ll remain so as he is just 26 years old and if he can find a way to trim his flyball ways and subsequently his home runs allowed rate, then he will be well on his way to a low-3.00 ERA season. Slowey is probably the biggest risk of the three because his home run rate usually trashes his ERA taking it a half run or higher than his FIP in each of the last two seasons. Perhaps a new pitching coach with a different approach can teach him to keep the ball down a bit more without disrupting the several other things that he does well already (St. Louis anyone?) Or maybe he and Rick Anderson are already working on an approach designed to improve his groundball rate.
Either way, Slowey’s base skills combined with the facts that he is 26 and that his 2010 surface stats (4.45 ERA, 1.29 WHIP) will likely drive his price down a bit making him a worthy calculated gamble who won’t kill you at his worst and could be ready to breakout a low-3.00s ERA season with plenty of Ks and a strong WHIP.
The entire list which will be part of my 2011 Starting Pitcher Guide has 25 candidates in all so there are 22 other potential breakouts identified. There will be more details on the guide shortly after the New Year, but if you’ve enjoyed the work the last two years then you will really love this year’s effort.