Booms and busts: starting pitchers
By Jay Jaffe
Over the past two weeks, I’ve rolled out a new position-by-position series, offering my personal picks for hitters I expect to break out (“Booms”) or decline (“Busts”) in 2013. Having gone all the way around the diamond, it's time to turn my attention to the mound.
As with the hitters, I don’t have hard-and-fast criteria for including these starting pitchers on my lists, and I won't promise that they'll help you rule your fantasy league — or conversely, lose their jobs and lead you to the league's basement. These aren’t particularly fantasy-targeted assessments because I rarely think about pitcher wins, though on the other hand, I do think plenty about strikeouts, and spent lots of time looking at ERA estimators of all varieties.
These are established players whom I’ve studied and have reasons for earmarking for better or worse. Particularly favorable or unfavorable projections, ERA estimators pointing in the wrong direction, changed circumstances such as trades, new roles and recoveries from injury may all come into play. The players here are listed alphabetically within each category. I'll get to relievers in a separate article.
Josh Beckett, Dodgers: As I noted last year, Beckett has exhibited a strange even year/odd year pattern over the course of his career reminiscent of oft-injured two-time Cy Young winner Bret Saberhagen. He's been healthy and effective during odd-numbered years (3.27 ERA, 3.43 FIP, 0.8 HR/9, 20 DL days/year), but less so in even-numbered ones (4.56 ERA, 4.16 FIP, 1.2 HR/9, 29 DL days/year). Last year was no exception, particularly amid a situation in which he'd already been pre-cast as one of the villains of Boston's late-2011 collapse. Beckett finished the year 7-14 with a 4.65 ERA for the Red Sox and Dodgers.
The calendar has turned, but that's not my only reason for touting him here. Whether or not his escape from Boston's fishbowl environment was responsible for him posting a 2.93 ERA over his seven starts in blue — compared to his 5.23 mark over 21 starts in red — he'll be much further from the center of attention in an overstuffed rotation already featuring Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and so many other storylines. More importantly, he'll have the advantage of pitching in the NL West instead of the AL East, and facing pitchers instead of DHs. With a fastball that's lost about four miles per hour off his 2007 peak, he needs to alter his approach at least somewhat, but the new surroundings will afford him the opportunity to do so. Even if he doesn't make 30 starts — a level he's reached just twice in the past five years — he should be a quality cog in the middle of L.A.'s rotation.
Yu Darvish, Rangers: Darvish held his own during his first stateside season, but his final numbers — a 3.90 ERA in 191 1/3 innings — only hinted at his in-season improvement. Though his first 21 starts, he walked 5.0 hitters per nine, endured a .313 BABIP and lasted an average of 6.4 innings per turn, making quality starts just 48 percent of the time; his ERA for that stretch was a gaudy 4.57. His last eight starts, from Aug. 12 onward, were all quality ones, as he cut his walk rate to 2.4 per nine, caught breaks in the BABIP and home run departments, and lasted an average of 7.2 innings en route to a 2.35 ERA. In both stretches he struck out more than 10 hitters per nine; his final mark of 10.4 was second in the league, while his 0.7 homers per nine ranked fourth.
Given so many weapons with which to attack hitters — seven distinct pitches thrown at least 98 times during the season, according to PITCHf/x data — on both sides of the plate, I expect the 26-year-old righty to maintain some amount of that late-season improvement over the course of a full season. He could trim a run off that ERA if he doesn't catch any bad breaks and at least enter the Cy Young discussion.
Tim Lincecum, Giants: Before putting together a stellar postseason run out of the bullpen as he helped the Giants to a World Series win, the two-time former Cy Young winner was one of baseball's most frustrating enigmas in 2012. His 5.18 ERA was ugly enough on its own, but in the context of pitcher-friendly AT&T Park, his 67 ERA+ ranked among the 10 worst showings of the post-1960 expansion era, and the third-worst of the post-1993 wild-card era. Whether it was shedding too much weight last winter, losing his confidence or struggling with his unorthodox mechanics, he turned in the highest home run and walk rates of his career (1.1 and 4.4 per nine, respectively, up from 0.6 and 3.3 per nine during his first five seasons). Both of those problems were exacerbated by an 18 point increase on batting average on balls in play (.316, up from .298 prior).
That said, he still whiffed an impressive 9.2 per nine (or 23 percent of all hitters), and pitched much better in the second half than the first before shining in the postseason. His spring has been rocky thus far, in part due to a blister that cost him two starts, but he still has enough time to be ready for the regular season. Unless he's concealing an injury — or is in fact a real-life Samson whose haircut weakens him even further — I'm willing to bet on his ability to bounce back, particularly given improved conditioning. He won't contend for the Cy Young, but he'll get back to the business of being a pitcher opposing teams would prefer to avoid, and head into free agency a desirable commodity.
Ryan Dempster, Red Sox: I've hailed Dempster as an underrated pitcher for the past few years due to his durability and consistent ability to miss bats. Since returning to the rotation in 2008, he has struck out 8.2 per nine, and had reeled off four straight 200-inning seasons before quad and lat strains sent him to the DL twice last year. After a .242 BABIP-driven 2.25 ERA in 16 starts with the Cubs, he flopped mightily upon being traded to the Rangers, putting up a 5.09 ERA in 12 starts, and failing to last even six innings in three of his final four, making him a key culprit in Texas' late-season collapse. Heading toward his 36th birthday (May 3), the Red Sox signed him to a two-year, $26.5 million deal, and it's tough to find anyone who thinks he's likely to flourish in Fenway Park or the AL East, particularly given the continued recession of his groundball tendency.
The Sox have no shortage of question marks in their rotation; while I'm optimistic about rebounds for Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz given the return of former pitching coach/new manager John Farrell (though not enough to include them above), I'm pessimistic enough about Dempster to wonder how long a leash he'll get if he doesn't take to his new surroundings, particularly given the dazzling spring of Allen Webster.
Francisco Liriano, Pirates: Two years ago, coming off a strong rebound for the Twins, Liriano looked like an undervalued and misunderstood soul who had a reasonable chance at recovering the dominance of his rookie season. A pair of 5-plus ERAs and two changes of scenery later, it's much tougher to be optimistic that he'll ever get it together. While he continues to miss bats (9.6 stikeouts per nine), he has walked more than 5.0 hitters per nine in each of the past two years, and not even a couple of months under the White Sox' Don Cooper — widely hailed as one of the game's top pitching coaches — could change that. He's already gotten off to a bad start with the Pirates by breaking the humerus of his non-throwing arm horseplaying with his kids; that forced the team to restructure his contract and will likely keep him out until late April. Between the pressure to reach bonus incentives that would have otherwise been guaranteed were it not for his mishap, continued overreliance on his slider and a shrinking groundball rate, he's got enough red flags to offset any theories about the benefits of a change of scenery.Ervin Santana, Royals: As I've written before, the problem with Kansas City's bid for relevance isn't so much that James Shields is not an ace, it's that the pitchers behind him aren't even midrotation caliber, and that's definitely true of Santana, who's certainly being paid like he is ($13 million for 2013, with all but $1 million paid by his new team). Last year, he yielded a major league-high 2.0 homers per nine en route to a 5.16 ERA, the third time he's been in the fives in the past six years. While it's reasonable to think his 18.9 percent rate of homers per fly ball will regress, he's actually moving to a more homer-conducive ballpark. According to The Bill James Handbook 2013, the three-year home run indices for Kauffman Stadium (81 for lefties, 90 for righties) are higher than those of Angels Stadium (78 for lefties, 81 for righties). Last year's mark for lefties in KC was an anomalous 112, which isn't what you want to hear if you're a pitcher who yielded a .262/.345/.522 line with 23 homers against them. I just don't see this one ending well.