For Better, For Worse

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Last week FBFW looked at how a so-called second half surge can be used as an indicator to predict a breakout performance by a hitter in the following season. We saw it is possible to identify batters whose overall production will increase the following season. This week, we'll use a similar approach to evaluate pitchers, to see if there is a leading indicator for a breakout season around the corner.

While ERA and WHIP ratio improvements can be an indication of improved overall performance, other factors can come into play to skew those statistics. Improved team defense or even a run of good luck can easily lower both stats, rendering those statistics poor assessment tools for fantasy purposes. When considering ERA and WHIP ratios it is always better to look for the underlying reason for their improvement before accepting them as an indication of a pitcher's improvement.

One such underlying skill is the strikeout rate per nine innings pitched (K/9IP), a clear indicator of the dominance of a pitcher. While there may be a little luck involved there, the ability of a pitcher to make batters swing and miss is clearly a desirable attribute. For starting pitchers a good benchmark for strikeouts would be a rate of 6.00 or better. For relief pitchers, I like to see the bar raised a little higher, to 7.00 or better.

Conversely, a lower rate of walks per nine innings pitched (BB/9IP) indicates the pitcher's command of the strike zone. Any starting pitcher who regularly walks more than three batters per nine innings has command issues and needs to be considered carefully by the fantasy manager before addition to the roster.

The ratio of strikeouts to walks is another way to consider the overall command of a pitcher. A good pitcher will have a minimum ratio of three strikeouts for each walk.

The last skill that should be checked is the rate of home runs per nine innings pitched (HR/9IP). You can look at groundball and fly ball rates for pitchers too, as a pitcher who gives up the home run ball too often is someone you want to avoid in the fantasy game.

Using these numbers as our threshold we will compare the statistics from the first and second halves of the 2007 season to see what pitchers "crossed over" into breakout territory. Then we'll look at the first half statistics of this season to see if a breakout actually occurred.

Scott Baker, Minnesota Twins: Baker slashed more than two runs off his ERA during the second half of '07, dropping from 5.71 to 3.44. The most significant reason for the improvement was a dramatic decrease in his home runs allowed rate, which dropped from 1.38 to 0.69. Baker also lowered his walk rate, which, in turn, improved his ratio of strikeouts to walks from 3.42 to 3.59.

Without a doubt, these improvements set the stage for Baker to have a breakout year in '08. An injury caused Baker to miss the month of May, but he started off hot in April, and I would venture to say that his breakout season is underway. There has been a further improvement to his skill numbers, with his strikeout rate increasing from 6.4 to 7.4, which have further improved his strikeout to walk ratio again, to its current 4.86.

There is a red flag attached to Baker's season though, as he is again giving up the long ball at an unacceptably high rate. So far it has not hurt him, and if he continues to keep the walks down and dominate batters as he has, Baker's breakout should continue to unfold over the second half of the season.

Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies: Some would argue that '07 was Hamels' breakout season, and that the second half of '06 forecast his arrival. But it was in the second half of last season that Hamels really put it all together and crossed over into elite pitcher territory. The high strikeout rate and corresponding low walk rate have been there since '06, but in last year's second half he learned how to keep the ball down in the zone and avoid giving up the gopher ball. Hamels allowed 20 home runs in the first half of '07, but only five in the second half.

This season he is the ace of the Phillies' staff, with an ERA of 3.15 overall, and at home he is even better at just 2.79, despite the fact that he's given up 12 of his 18 home runs allowed at Citizens Bank Park. The low home ERA despite the home runs speaks to his soaring confidence and shows that he is challenging hitters to swing at his best stuff. Hamels should continue to dominate hitters in the second half of the season and would make a fine trade acquisition for the fantasy manager in need of pitching.

Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals: Wainwright stands 6-foot-5 and has the appearance of a power pitcher, but in reality he requires pinpoint control to harness his pitches. Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan helped Wainwright to gain that control last season, resulting in an increase in strikeout rate and reduction of his walk rate, which served to lower his ERA from 4.66 in the first half of '07 down to a stellar 2.71 in the second half. During April and May of this season Wainwright posted sub 3.00 ERA totals and a record of 6-3, continuing the trend that started last season. But a June finger injury has derailed his breakout season for the time being. He is expected to return in August, and provided his finger is fully healed, should be able to pick up where he left off.

Scott Downs, Toronto Blue Jays: After several seasons as a middling starter for the Blue Jays, Downs was converted into a full-time relief pitcher last season, and things just seemed to click for him. He had never posted ERA totals below 4.00 over the first six years of his MLB career. But in '07, especially over the second half, Downs crossed over into elite pitcher territory. He increased his strikeout rate to close to a batter per inning, reduced his walk rate to more acceptable levels, and most important, he was no longer victimized by the long ball, which is what did him in as a starter. Downs has continued these trends this season, where he is putting up career type numbers working out of the Toronto bullpen. Although age 32 is a little old for a breakout, Downs is certainly making the most of his.

Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants: Cain is a bit of an anomaly in that he does not quite fit the mold discussed here; however, he certainly solidified his considerable skills in the second half of '07, increasing his strikeout and lowering his walk rates. Though his ERA ticked upward slightly in the second half, his WHIP tumbled and he made modest gains in groundball percentages. While all of those skill numbers have carried over to this season, resulting in excellent strikeout rates overall, he has not been quite as good as last season just yet. Cain is trending better lately, though, and there is every reason to think that a big second half is in store for him.

Micah Owings, Arizona Diamondbacks: Owings made his MLB debut in '07 with mixed results in the first half and solid gains in the major skill categories during the second half of the season. He shaved a run off his ERA after the All-Star break, lowered his walk rate while increasing strikeouts and saw the batting average against him (BAA) drop from .282 down to .219. All signs pointed to a breakout season in '08 for the youngster, but that has not been the case thus far. His strikeout rates have been good, but his walks have ticked up a bit, and the long ball, especially at Chase Field, has victimized him. Fortunately, he is a youngster with plenty of time to turn things around. Provided he maintains his skills there are probably better days ahead for Owings.

Dustin McGowan, Toronto Blue Jays: In his first full season as a starter in the majors, McGowan got stronger and improved as the season progressed. His strikeout rates increased, and his walk rates, though still a bit high, were reduced to acceptable levels by season's end. McGowan has actually pitched better this season than his numbers show. Unfortunately, it appears that the Jays' defense has failed him on occasion as his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .316 shows. The improved skills he showed during the second half of 2007 are still in place, so there is a chance that McGowan's luck will improve and the breakout he is due will come to pass.

Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs: During the second half of '07, Marmol was practically unhittable. He struck out batters at the lofty rate of 12.5 and batters had just a .161 average against him in the second half of the season. Marmol's ERA in the second half was a microscopic 1.74. In fact, he was so dominating and impressive last season, that the Cubs were seriously entertaining the idea of making him their closer this season. As fate would have it, he has not been nearly as good in '08. While the high strikeout rate is still there, his walk rate has increased, and he has been giving up home runs in pressure situations all too often in his role as the setup man. He was dominating in April and May, but the wheels fell off in June. So it could be a case of injury, or perhaps overuse (that never happens in Chicago, right?), that has Marmol off kilter. As long as the skills are in place, there is always hope for a turn around.

Tim Hudson, Atlanta Braves: Wait a minute, how can Hudson be on this list? His breakout season was long ago. Ah, but Hudson enjoyed a renaissance of his career in the second half last season, posting numbers he has not seen in several years. He will probably never again be the dominating strikeout pitcher he once was. But last year, Hudson regained the tremendous control that he had when he was in his 20s. The key was his ability to induce groundballs. He did so at a rate far better than any other pitcher last season, 2.76 ground balls for every fly ball hit off him. Unfortunately, the feat has not carried over to this season. He has already given up more home runs this season than he did all of last year, and the incredible groundball rate has regressed back to nominal levels, all making Hudson just ... ordinary again.

Fausto Carmona, Cleveland Indians: Perhaps it is a bit unfair to include him here because of the injury that derailed him after just 10 starts. But if those 10 starts were any indication, Carmona appears to have taken a step backwards. Last season's terrific effort probably made most people forget Carmona's difficulties back in '06, when he walked batters one after another, and coughed up taters regularly. In the second half of '07, Carmona looked like the second coming of Cy Young himself. He had a second half ERA of 2.26, and struck out batters at the best rate of his career, 6.4. This season, the strikeout rate is down to 3.5, and his walk rate is up to 5.9. These are disturbingly high numbers. It is possible that Carmona's injury is the reason his numbers took a turn in the wrong direction, but we won't know until he comes back. In the meantime, if you have Carmona on your fantasy roster it is advisable to keep him benched when he returns -- until he shows that those early-season numbers were an aberration.