Fantasy Baseball Sleepers 2012: Madison Bumgarner and 5 Pitchers to Ponder

Bryan Kalbrosky@@BryanKalbroskyCorrespondent IMarch 25, 2012

Fantasy Baseball Sleepers 2012: Madison Bumgarner and 5 Pitchers to Ponder

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    If you're going to draft one pitcher a little bit too early in your fantasy baseball draft, take a look at this list of curious pitchers and, for your own good, be sure to include San Francisco Giants left-hander Madison Bumgarner.

    This a tool kit for you to refer back to and understand that you can look at last year's stats and understand who should be set to have a good year next year due to a case of unlucky fielding behind him. The pitchers listed here were all plagued by unfortunate luck last season, but also proved that they had a lot of talent themselves. The leading example of this is young Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner.

    Bumgarner (13-13) is a pitcher who finally got a chance to show his talents at the MLB level last season. Now 21 years old, Bumgarner has secured the third spot for a San Francisco Giants team known for having elite pitching. In a thoroughly unimpressive NL West division, the pitching depth of San Francisco is translated via victories and a recent MLB World Series title.

    While 2010 was his first season in MLB, Bumgarner shined in the minors with an impressive record (7-1) in 82.2 innings pitched before getting promoted to the majors. Once in the majors, Bumgarner won seven games in 18 starts and rocked an impressive 6.97 K/9.

    The curious case of Bumgarner began in 2011, however, when Sabermetric research proved him to be one of the most statistically unlucky pitchers in the National League.

    The statistic FIP (fielding independent pitching) is defined as "a measure of all those things for which a pitcher is specifically responsible and […] helps you understand how well a pitcher pitched, regardless of how well his fielders fielded."

    In practice, it is expected to resemble his deserved ERA. And the difference between Bumgarner's FIP and ERA is astronomical.

    Bumgarner sported a 3.21 ERA, but a 2.67 FIP. This contributed to a less impressive record, at exactly .500 on the season, and a significantly less dominant fantasy season in 2011.

    It's a statistical improbability, though, for that same unlucky streak to continue in 2012. By accounting for FIP rather than ERA, Bumgarner is among a list of pitchers to consider as sleepers in the upcoming fantasy baseball season.

    The best thing about Bumgarner is he has 15 Ks and has only walked one batter in 14.2  IP during spring training thus far.

    Bumgarner is not the only one who was plagued by such unfortunate luck.

Madison Bumgarner

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    Bumgarner is an MLB scout's dream, and statistical evidence does nothing but support his cause.

    At 6'5" and 227 pounds, his size is empowering, and there are few players in MLB physically more ideal than Bumgarner. He was crafted to be a pitcher at a professional level, and that's exactly what he's doing.

    In 2011, Bumgarner's strikeout rate improved drastically from where he was in 2010. The jump from 6.97 to 8.40 was also complemented by a lower walk rate, which dropped from 2.11 to 2.02. While this seems minimal, the overall effect on his success was drastic, as his WHIP dropped from 1.31 to 1.21 and his opponent's batting average dropped from .270 to .255.

    Fanning 22.6 percent of the batters he faced, Bumgarner's fastball is now as high as 91.7 mph, and his slider has become a more important part of his arsenal. Rather than looking at his slider only 20.4 percent of the time in 2010, Bumgarner used it far more often in 2011 for a total of almost a third of his pitch choice at 32.4 percent. As he refines his slider, Bumgarner's strikeout rate will continue to improve even more.

    From May 1, 2011 on, Bumgarner sported a 2.83 ERA (better than CC Sabathia) and recorded a total of 175 strikeouts (more than Roy Halladay).

    The biggest note on Bumgarner is, of course, his FIP. 

    There are only three players in MLB who had a better FIP than Bumgarner in 2011, and their names are as follows: Roy Halladay, Clayton Kershaw and Cliff Lee.

    On pitching talent alone based on this statistic, Bumgarner had a better showing than Justin Verlander, Tim Lincecum, Sabathia, Felix Hernandez and C.J. Wilson. All of those pitchers are considered to be multi-million dollar elite athletes.

    With his young age and impressive skill set, expect Bumgarner to take the leap next season and snag him early in all of your fantasy drafts. All he needs to do is grow a beard like his teammate Brian Wilson, and he'd be one of my favorite players in MLB.

Brandon McCarthy

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    Another pitcher who will have a positive improvement from last season will be Brandon McCarthy.

    I wrote about McCarthy last week and called him a legitimate low-end scenario comparison to what Zack Wheeler’s MLB potential could be when he gets called up to the big leagues. This was considered to be low expectations for McCarthy, but I don’t think he has reached his potential yet.

    As he enters the 2012 season, McCarthy is the kind of pitcher one should be targeting in the mid-to-late rounds of upcoming fantasy drafts. McCarthy is on the older end of the spectrum to be considered a typical fantasy sleeper, but as we learned, Bill James found that the peak age range for a baseball player is 25-29 years old.

    Now at 28 years old, McCarthy is coming off his best season to date. While that season was an unimpressive .500 season (9-9) by record, his non-team-affiliated statistics were much more impressive.

    McCarthy's K/9 rate rose from 2007 (5.22) and 2009 (6.01) to a much more notable value in 2011 (6.49), and his walk rate fell from 2007 (4.25) and 2009 (3.33) to a much more manageable rate in 2011 (1.32).

    All signs are pointing to his improvement, as his WHIP lowered from 2007 (1.56) and 2009 (1.36) to 2011 (1.13), and he began to force more ground balls (46.7 percent, rather than his 35.8 percent in 2007).

    As McCarthy began to develop some speed on his fastball (up from 88.9 mph to 90.9 mph) and to look more at his curveball than his slider, his success began to become even more apparent. Even though his ERA was as high as 3.32 at the end of the season, his FIP rate was as low as 2.86. This is on par with Sabathia (2.88) and even better than AL MVP Justin Verlander (2.99).

    Everything else you need to know about Brandon McCarthy in order to fall in love with him can be read here, as ESPN covered a great piece on his remarkable (and statistic-friendly!) journey.

Brandon Morrow

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    When you watch Brandon Morrow pitch, he looks like an ace on the mound every single time.

    Yet something about his statistics never quite translates to MLB success at a mainstream level. His name is never included on any "best of" lists, it's nearly impossible for him to get any All-Star love and he gets no marketability playing for Toronto in a division that features the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays.

    That shouldn't stop you from drafting Morrow at the very second you get the opportunity to in your next fantasy baseball draft.

    Morrow is not a sexy name (he's not even the current staff ace in Toronto). He is, however, a Sabermetric curiosity mandatory for analysis before we continue any longer in this slide.

    Morrow was highly touted coming into baseball and was considered to be a top prospect by Seattle before the M's shipped him to Toronto. Since he was called up from Seattle (too early) in 2007, Morrow recorded only eight wins in three different seasons and 141 games.

    Perhaps a change of scenery was necessary, because since he’s gotten to Toronto, Morrow's numbers have only improved. In his two seasons, he has recorded 21 wins in 56 games.

    Morrow still has not reached his full potential, either.

    Last season, he was decent (11-11) in 179.1 innings of play. His home run rate was a tad high (1.05), but his walk rate was very low comparatively (dropped from as high as 7.11 BB/9 in 60 games in 2007 to 5.68 BB/9 in his last year with Seattle; in 2011 it was as low as 3.46 BB/9). His accuracy ought to be controlled, but with a fastball that can get as hot as his can (career average of 94.2 mph, as high as 95.5 mph in 2008), such issues are to be expected.

    My favorite stat on Morrow is his strikeout rate. With a K/9 as astronomically high as 10.19 last season, it's a surprise anyone can get around to hitting on him. The 10.19 rate was not a fluke; his MLB career average was 10.06, and in 2008 he was fanning 10.44 batters a game. At 10.19 K/9, Morrow had the second-highest K/9 in MLB, behind only Zack Greinke and ahead of both Cy Young award-winners Clayton Kershaw (9.57) and Justin Verlander (8.96).

    Morrow's ERA was unusually high last season, and at 4.72 this was higher than his career average and should be considered a risk. His FIP, however, does not validate his poor play. At 3.64, his FIP suggests that he was extraordinarily unlucky and will have a much better season in 2012.

Ricky Nolasco

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    Here's an easy pick: Ricky Nolasco.

    As the Phillies get older, the Washington Nationals get younger and as the New York Mets get even worse, I continue to think that the NL East is starting to become anyone's game. The Miami Marlins open up 2012 in a new stadium with a new logo, new uniforms, a hip new coach (Ozzie Guillen) and an outstanding new shortstop who goes by the name of Jose Reyes.

    If there's one thing I'm sure of about the 2012 MLB season, it's that the Marlins are going to get more wins.

    The Marlins are a likable young club, and with Hanley Ramirez and the baseball player formerly known as Mike Stanton developing as stars, role-players such as Gaby Sanchez and Logan Morrison solidify the team as an above-average offense in the MLB.

    Josh Johnson is the ace of the club, but he was winning games without anyone's help. Now that the Marlins are becoming a force to be reckoned with in the South Beach, the depth of their staff will start to play a bigger role.

    Nolasco is the poster boy for this kind of a jump. He has had statistically impressive seasons in the past (11 wins in his rookie season in 2006, 15 wins in 2008, 13 wins in 2009 and 14 wins in 2010), but last season was the worst of his career to date.

    Nolasco's record (10-12) was below .500 for the first time in his career, and his strikeout rate mysteriously dropped from 9.49 in 2009 and 8.39 in 2010 to 6.47 in 2011. His innings production was high at 206.0 IP, but it was higher in 2008 when he won 15 games.

    We've seen Nolasco strike out batters before, so I wouldn't be surprised to see that come back in the near future.

    His ground ball rate began to improve last season, jumping from 40.0 percent in 2010 to 45.1 percent last season. This was good progress for Nolasco, whose fastball velocity fell from 91.2 mph to 90.5 mph.

    The biggest curiosity for Nolasco was his ERA. Compared to the ERA he knew when he was more successful (see: 3.52 in 2008), his season-high 4.67 ERA was a bit of an embarrassment last season. His FIP, however, was 3.54.

    This gives Miami reason to believe that Nolasco will turn his game around in 2012. If I'm a fantasy baseball owner looking for sleepers in 2012, I love the way Nolasco is looking.

Max Scherzer

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    Here's my pick to make the leap this year: His name is Max Scherzer, and he plays for the Detroit Tigers.

    I love Scherzer largely, of course, because he's playing for Detroit, and that means the Tigers' offensive production is about to explode this year with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. That means that all season long, Scherzer will be able to pitch with the lead and take off much of the unnecessary pressure from his load in the coming season.

    Scherzer was a top prospect for Arizona before they abandoned him for Ian Kennedy in an effort that landed the New York Yankees Curtis Granderson. The Tigers rightfully thought highly of Scherzer to give the Yankees an up-and-coming MVP candidate in Granderson, but the former first-round pick has been spotty since entering the majors.

    When the D-Backs first called up Scherzer, it was definitely too early for him to be ready. He went 0-4, with an ERA as high as 3.05. But even in 2008, Scherzer was fanning 27.9 percent of the MLB batters he faced. In 2007, he was striking out 50.8 percent of his batters and needed something more competitive in A+ ball.

    Since then, Schrezer went 9-11 with the Diamondbacks and 12-11 Tigers in his debut.

    Last season was his best to date, and at 15-9, he was actually relatively impressive all season long. His K/9 was at 8.03 last season, which was on par with his career average of 8.72. His BB/9 finally fell from 3.22 BB/9 in 2010 to 2.58 in 2011, and his fastball remained strong in velocity at 93.1 mph.

    The biggest concern for Scherzer will be his ERA, which was unfortunately high last season at 4.43. His FIP suggests that it was a bit of a fluke, however, as he recorded 4.14 FIP. His xFIP was even more impressive than that, at a much more reasonable 3.70.

    With Fielder in the lineup, I'm gambling on Scherzer to be a second ace to Justin Verlander this season.

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