Archive for August 27th, 2006

On pitchers

One of the fun things about playing fantasy baseball is getting to know random players very well. If it weren’t for fantasy, I’d probably know everybody who played for the Red Sox, and nobody else. And the most interesting guys aren’t the fantasy mainstays – the A-Rods, Pujols, or Big Papis. You just plug those guys into your lineup and forget about them. No, the guys I think about the most about are the fringe players. The guys who fill statistical gaps, or who fill out the bottom of your pitching roster.

Take three pitchers I drafted for my team but have since cut: Chris Young, Matt Cain, and Daniel Cabrera. I’ll remember them forever because of all the hours (well, maybe minutes) I spent poring over their biographies, stats, and play in order to decide whether I should keep them or cut them loose. (I cut them loose.)

Before delving into the trio, I should probably explain how I evaluate pitchers, or what makes a pitcher good in my estimation:

Strikeouts.

Seriously. You can tell more about a pitcher from that single stat than anything else. A pitcher strikes out a lot of batters? He’s going to be good. If he doesn’t? Chances are he’s lousy.

What about Jamie Moyer? David Wells? you ask. Greg Maddux fer chrissakes!

Enter walks. The fewer a pitcher walks, the better for the pitcher. A pitcher with a high strikeout rate and a low walk rate is a Hall-of-Famer. Clemens, Pedro, Randy Johnson. Wells and Moyer and Maddux succeed without many strikeouts because their walk rate is astoundingly low. (In 1997, for example, Maddux walked twenty batters in 232.2 innings!) But keep in mind walks allowed is not a fantasy category. So in fantasy a strikeout pitcher is worth more than a control pitcher like Maddux.

There are other factors, too. Ballpark is probably the biggest, only on WHIP and ERA. The least predictable fantasy category is wins. The one factor that influences wins is the team you play for. The more runs they score, the more likely your pitcher will pick up wins. But still, how do you explain Roger Clemens’ 13 wins in 200+ innings and with a 1.87 ERA for a pennant-winning Astros team? (That same year Chris Capuano won 18 with a 3.99 ERA for a Brewers team that won 81.) You can’t. So I don’t even try to predict them. They don’t count as far as I’m concerned.

And now…a peek into my brain:

Chris Young

All the indications were good for Young. A young arm, but at 26 not too young. A great start last season with Texas, with a late season fade. (Texas heat!) Considering the league, park, and heat, his 4.26 ERA and 1.26 WHIP were extraordinary. And a very good K rate of 7.8 strikeouts every 9 innings.

Best of all, he had been traded to the San Diego Padres in the offseason.

It was perfect! He was bound to slip under the radar with his 4+ ERA, his 13 wins. But not only did his stats suggest he’d thrive away from Arlington, he was going to Petco, one of the best pitcher’s parks in the majors and to the NL, where you could easily shave a full run off his ERA!

Certainly he didn’t disappoint. Sure there were some rough patches (a May 24 start against Atlanta when he was chased from the game in the fourth), but his ERA was 2.97 as late as July 1st.

Then something was up. A series of less-than-spectacular starts, none catastrophic, that raised his ERA to the upper 3s. Tired arm, I thought. Turns out he was probably pitching in pain, the result of a “strained right rhomboid muscle.” Whatever that is.

I like the kid. Maybe a short stint on the DL or a skipped start puts him back on track. While it’s too early to write him off as an early-season pitcher, I’ve moved on.

Matt Cain

Cain is the perfect example of how bad data sullies evaluation of a player. No, I’m not talking about the seven games he started for the Giants last year, his big-league debut, when he posted eye-popping numbers:

2-1 – 46.1 IP – 24 H – 19 BB – 30 K – 2.33 ERA – 0.93 WHIP

It is too small of a data set for predictive purposes. Only seven starts? H*ll, the Mets’ Steve Traschel has had seven-game stretches this good. Still, latent in this small set was a warning: 24 hits allowed in 46 innings pitched. That’s an average of 0.52 hits allowed every inning, too good to be real. (Sandy Koufax gave up 0.75 hits an inning, and he struck out 9.3 batters every 9 innings compared to Cain’s 5.8.) The low amount of hits allowed masked the frequency of walks – 3.7/9 innings. (Pedro’s career mark is 2.4/9 innings.) It was only a matter of time before the hits started dropping, and then the walks would get him.

H*ll, I know the danger of evaluating a player after a seven-start callup to the bigs. No the bad data I got was the hype I heard from my friends and family in the Bay Area. All they could talk about last Christmas was Matt Cain this, Matt Cain that, like he was the next Pedro Martinez.

So how is he doing? Sure enough, this year he’s up to 0.85 hits allowed every inning, and the walks up to 4.4/9 innings. His strikeouts are up, but the kid is wildly inconsistent. H*ll, he was downright bad at times. This year Cain averaged only a solitary quality start (7 IP with 3 or less ER allowed) each month this season, until this month when he had three – against San Diego, Washington, and Arizona. It’s obvious he’s not Pedro Martinez. Maybe the next Ramon Martinez…

Never, ever take advice during the offseason from a desperate fan base trying to focus away from a superstar slugger under suspicion of steroid-abuse.

Daniel Cabrera

Cabrera is one of my all-time favorite fantasy players. I really enjoyed having him on my team, only his stats were killing me. So…then…why?

Owning Cabrera means that once every five days a big surprise awaits you. The closed door on “Let’s Make a Deal.” A box with either a live cat or a dead cat in it. The tossed dice on the craps table with your week’s salary at stake.

And the morning after, the box score was a demonstration in surreal art.

I owned Cabrera way too long, for six crazy weeks. Here, for example, were the pitching stats for his first three starts:

1.1 IP – 3 H – 7 R – 7 ER – 0 HR – 7 BB – 1 K (April 7 loss vs. Boston)

5.0 IP – 3 H – 1 R – 1 ER – 0 HR – 9 BB – 10 K (April 12 no decision vs. Tampa Bay)

7.0 IP – 5 H – 1 R – 1 ER – 0 HR – 1 BB – 6 K (April 17 win vs. LA Angels)

I picked this guy because of his crazy strikeout numbers (8.75/9 IP in 2005, 9.3 this year). And his strong finish last year. He’s one of those rare pitchers that might actually do better with a dead arm – a Randy Johnson or Nolan Ryan type talent here. This year, too, he’s in the midst of a two-game scoreless streak, at 16 innings and 17 strikeouts. Love watching the guy. Will try to draft him next year, too, even though he could take down my fantasy team.

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