Pitchers Who Should Maintain or Improve as 2009 Continues
This list of hurlers who have posted solid to superb numbers to start the season contends that these guys, who all shouldered heavy expectations to begin the season, should continue to enjoy success or possibly improve, based on their peripheral numbers.
I, as always, rely heavily on walk and strike out rates, batting average on balls in play, hit distribution (line drive, flyball and ground ball percentage), and contact rates in forming my opinions.
I also have added a new number, called FIP, which is a fielding independent pitching statistic, taking into account only those numbers a pitcher actually controls: HR, BB, HBP, and Ks, all in a per inning formula.
Set up on a scale closely equivelant to ERA, it provides a different perspective on a pitchers results in the early going.
Thanks to fangraphs.com for the stats, particularly FIP, and go here to read Dave Cameron's full explanation of this "new" metric: http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/pitcher-win-values-explained-part-two
As always, comments or questions are welcomed.
1. Jon Lester
Let's get these first two guys out of the way right off the bat: Jon Lester (and as you will soon see, Tim Lincecum) have been the victims of the worst "luck" so for this year among major league pitchers.
At 25, and coming off a season where he posted 16 wins with a 3.21 ERA, expectations in Boston and in Fantasy circles were sky high for Mr. Lester in 2009, especially because he improved as 2008 went on.
This gave rise to the idea that he was gaining strength after his battle with cancer, and could be counted on to anchor a rotation.
So far in 2009 Jon has struck out more batters than during any other season, with a 9.4 K/9. Combined with a reasonable walk rate of just more than three batters per nine innings, Lester's K/BB ratio is tops in his career at 2.95. This success has led to a FIP of 4.65, much lower than his ERA of 6.07.
Lester's allowing about four percent more flyballs this year than last, but this is not a paradigm shift, and his line drive percentage is only .2 percent higher than it was last year.
Where Lester has been victimized is on balls in play and homeruns. With batters enjoying a major league high .374 BABIP against him, there always seem to be men on base when Lester's on the mound. This has led to his ghastly 1.60 WHIP.
Further, Jon's being dragged down by the fact that 17.5% of the flyballs hit off him have become home runs, a number that is 6th highest among major league pitchers. He, like all pitchers, deserves some of the blame for the gopherballs,
Lester's career bests in making batters swing and miss and other positive numbers prove to me that Jon can still excel at the major league level despite his still limited track record, and just needs to be patient through this frustrating period.
As his other numbers level, his WHIP, ERA, and FIP will fall. In the final analysis, Jon Lester may not provide the season he did in 2008, but there's plenty of evidence to suggest he'll turn things around this year.
2. Tim Lincecum
You read that correctly: Lincecum, who has already been dominating the NL West in 2009, stands to continue his mastery and possibly even improve as 2009 rolls along
There is no question this young man is a star. He is striking out more than 11.5 batters per nine innings. Combined with only walking 2.62 batters per nine, Tim's K/BB ratio is a sterling 4.42.
Here's where things get interesting though: He's only allowed one home run. This means that, for now, Tim's FIP is a god-like 1.75. Some may point to this as a sign of his dominance.
While I agree with this, no pitcher can sustain those rates. Some of the flyballs Lincecum allows will find their way into the bleachers. As this happens, his ERA (currently at 3.03) may balloon a little, and his FIP will surely rise.
However, there is contrary evidence here. Batters have reached base on almost 37 percent of the ball in play against Lincecum, the second highest rate in MLB so for this season.
This is due to a line drive percentage allowed of 24.5 percent, almost four percent higher than last year. Still, his huge strikeout rate makes Tim's WHIP 1.19, which is excellent.
This presents a chicken or egg scenario, as the question remains: are batters making better contact, or have there been an inordinate number of line drives that is due to fall as the season continues?
I haven't watched enough of Tim's starts to answer that. Batters are making contact with more of Lincecum's pitches in the strike zone (2008: 84.1 percent; 2009: 89.1 percent), so are driving the ball more often.
Despite this upswing in contact, I believe Tim and his owners can expect that BABIP to fall toward the .300 average, and with that, he will enjoy greater success.
In sum, Tim should allow fewer baserunners going forward, but more home runs, but there's no reason that some solo home runs should derail him from another outstanding campaign in 2009.
3. Johan Santana
Johan is probably the best pitcher in baseball. He's been dominant for a number of years, including lat year, where his 16 wins don't speak to how great he was on the mound.
This year is no exception. While his walks are on a steady increase that began in 2005, he is striking out batters at the epic rate of 11.73/9 innings. This dominance has allowed Santana to maintain a microscopic 1.09 WHIP even while suffering from a batting average on balls in play of .319.
With a career BABIP of .287, meaning Johan usually gets many weak swings and poorly hit balls, batters are finding great luck so far in 2009.
As this reverses, Johan's 1.77 ERA may go down. Never prone to give up the long ball, Johan's FB/HR rate this season stands at six percent—too low to maintain for a whole season, so this indicates his ERA will likely go up.
Combine the two, and it's likely that Johan will maintain his current, truly awesome pace.
He's allowing very few line drives (16.6 percent of contact) but this is not out of line with some of his past seasons, and should continue.
Finally, Johan's making batters miss and chase pitches out of the strike zone with regularity. As long as he keeps doing what he's done for his whole career, expect Santana to remain probably the best pitcher in baseball.
I wouldn't be surprised if he finished the season with an ERA under two and a WHIP under one.
4. Justin Verlander
Verlander has recaptured some of what made fantasy owners drool these past couple years. What that is, is straight gas. Verlander's fastball averages 95.3 MPH this year, highest since his rookie season in 2006.
As a result of his rediscovered speed, batters are making contact only 74.6 percent of the time, a career low.
Buoyed by a 5.1 percent HR/FB rate, and a K/BB ratio of 4.5, Verlander's FIP rests at 2.27. This will rise as Justin gives up some home runs to correct this percentage.
However, like Santana and Lincecum, Verlander has been bitten by an unreasonably high BABIP: hitters are getting on at a .347 clip on balls-in-play.
As this regresses, Justin's WHIP of 1.15, should fall. Perhaps he was dealing with injuries, or just lacked the shoulder strength to really dial up his heater, but the reemergence of Verlander's fastball mirrors his rise to the fore among fantasy pitchers.
Expect him to keep up the impressive work, especially his strikeout numbers, from here on out.
5. Aaron Harang
Harang has never really felt the love from fantasy owners or commentators. He's never tabbed as a "must own" guy, but excluding last year, which was lost to injuries, Harang has been a solid contributor for a number of years.
After getting knocked around pretty badly last night, he's posted a 4.19 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 5 wins and 61 Ks in 68.2 innings.
These are generally worse than his career numbers, even though he's walking just more than two men and striking out approximately eight batters per nine innings.
Taken with a HR/FB percentage of 8.9 percent, Aaron's FIP is a respectable 4.02.
Harang's allowed so many runners, giving rise to his subpar WHIP, due to a BABIP of .349. Batters are hitting line drives 22.8 percent of the time, a greater percentage than at any other full season in Harang's career.
My prediction is that Harang still knows how to get batters out, and he'll enjoy some sterling starts to make up for his bad luck so far in 2009.
With his overall contact rate up slightly from the last few years, it may be that batters have figured him out, but this is less likely than the effect of the random outcomes of the batted ball skewing his numbers in the early-going.
Other Starters Who Should Improve
Here's a brief list of some other pitchers who were expected to perform at a level they haven't consistently reached yet in 2009 (with BABIP following name):
Francisco Liriano - .334
Cole Hamels - .357
Joe Blanton - .354
Gavin Floyd - .346
Javier Vasquez - .344
Felix Hernandez - .335
Carlos Zambrano - .333
Josh Beckett - .330