April 15, 2010

Maybe Rich Harden really, really likes primetime TV.

Why else would he refuse to pitch into the seventh inning? OK, maybe he's not shortening his outings by choice. And he did technically pitch seven innings a few times last year (five times out of 26 starts), but he doesn't do it often. And he's not alone.

He's part of a collective group usually skilled in whiffs, but not longevity. Pitchers in this group have so many 35-pitch innings they are currently lobbying for a rule change that would add a bench behind the mound for short rests. They are the anti-Roy Halladays, and they can drive fantasy owners batty.

Lasting only a few innings is generally a bad thing for fantasy owners. Just ask any tortured Scott Kazmir believer. When things fall apart and pitch counts balloon there's little or no chance for a win. Plus, starters often leave runners on base to be dealt with by middle relievers, and owners don't get to take advantage of the great strikeout rate that usually comes along with these inefficient pitchers.

Limiting an excellent strikeout per nine innings statistic to five innings per start is like sending Albert Pujols to the plate with a foot-long bat -- you're just not getting the most use out of your talent.

Some pitchers are listed below along with something called "I." It's not some fancy new stat, it's simply innings per start subtracted from pitches per inning (numbers are from 2009 as 2010 is too young to field reliable figures). It saves a little space and makes it quicker to compare pitchers. A higher "I" rate equals a less efficient pitcher.

Tim Lincecum and Felix Hernandez are two of baseball's best young pitchers. Neither was particularly efficient when they started in the majors. Lincecum posted an I rating of 10.3 in his first full season. Hernandez was at 9.87. Each has progressed and they were almost identical last season (Lincecum -- 8.22, Hernandez -- 8.20). And they've done it while maintaining a high strikeout rate.

Those two represent the best-case scenario for fantasy owners. They're not the most efficient pitchers, but they meld efficiency with strikeouts.

Let's see how a select group of baseball's less efficient pitchers stack up:

Fausto Carmona, I: 12.86

Carmona bucks the trend followed by many inefficient pitchers by not striking out many. Because of that, and his walk issues, his strikeout-to-walk ratio was a miserable 1.13 last season.

Max Scherzer, I: 12.36

Scherzer has dynamic stuff and his walk rate isn't outrageous (3.33 walks per nine innings last year). He simply works very hard to get through innings. At 26, and with just 232.1 major league innings under his belt, improvement is still very much within reach.

Rich Harden, I: 12.26

Harden is what he is: An amazing strikeout pitcher (9.40 career K/9), who cannot work deep into games. Last season, 23 percent of his starts went less than five innings, while another 19 percent went exactly five innings.

Scott Kazmir, I: 12.19

Kazmir is Harden-lite, except he's two years younger and has had more success staying healthy. A troubling sign for Kazmir is that his K/9 dipped to 7.15 in 2009. That's not nearly enough strikeout payoff for the risk.

Clayton Kershaw, I: 12.02

Kershaw's first strike percentage (FS%) bears out his walk issues. It was 55.6-percent last season, well below average. That flawed approach from the start of at-bats led to his bloated 4.79 BB/9 and many short outings. He's just 22 and has plenty of room to grow.

Yovani Gallardo, I: 11.06

Gallardo's FS% was even worse than Kershaw's, at 52.6-percent. Gallardo is also young (24) and his walk problems look like a bump in the road. He didn't have a BB/9 above 3.26 at any level before his 4.56 last season.

Jorge de la Rosa, I: 10.71

De la Rosa has turned around his game from a 5.68 K/9 in 2007 to a 9.39 K/9 last year. As long as his walks and strikeouts stay high, he'll throw a lot of pitches.

Matt Garza, I: 10.51

Garza regressed as far as efficiency from '08 to '09. He saw a bump in both K/9 (6.24 to 8.38) and BB/9 (2.88 to 3.50).

Chad Billingsley, I: 10.41

Billingsley hasn't shown an ability to harness his control problems, and they're costing him innings and wins. He could be a star with a BB/9 below 3.00.

Jon Lester, I: 10.39

Lester's 9.96 K/9 in '09 came out of nowhere. He posted 7.14 and 6.50 rates in his first two major league years and only topped that 9.96 mark once previously -- in 13 innings of Single-A ball in '07. A return to lower strikeout ways could mean more efficient pitching.

Ubaldo Jimenez, I: 9.77

Jimenez will be intriguing to watch this year. Can his '09 control improvement continue? It would certainly help him extend his starts. His first two '10 outings have been six innings each.

For comparison, here are a few of the more efficient pitchers in baseball ...-

Roy Halladay, I: 6.73Chris Carpenter, I: 6.98Joel Pineiro, I: 7.11

- A good number to aim for strikeout pitchers is 10.00 or below. Lower strikeout pitchers probably need to be closer to 8.00 in order to be effective. There aren't any legitimate fantasy No. 1 pitchers above the 10.00 mark except Lester.

- The top of the list is littered with young and/or inexperienced pitchers, except Harden and Kazmir. Those two might be locked into their ways.

- The high numbers from both Kershaw and Gallardo indicate they might be a little farther away from acedom than many projected.

- Lester and Garza could be in line for big drops. They both are still learning and struck out many more batters in 2009 than they had previously.

Jorge De La Rosa -- After an offseason full of buzz, de la Rosa hit the ground running in his first start. There aren't many options at his price with such impressive strikeout upside.

C.J. Wilson -- Wilson hadn't started a game since 2005, but you couldn't tell in his 2010 debut. He posted a 10.26 K/9 in relief last season so his upside as a starter is likely around 8.50. He's worth a speculative add to see if he can keep his starting success going.

12: Strikeouts for Dodgers' knuckleballer Charlie Haeger in this April 11 start against the Marlins. Haeger's knuckler was working against Florida that day and he looked untouchable at times. Even after that outing, he's too unpredictable for regular fantasy duty.

Up:Dallas Braden -- The A's starter kicked off 2010 with a bang, striking out 10 Mariners. He followed that up with a two strikeout win against the Angels. Braden has a 5.79 career K/9, so don't look for many more double-digit strikeout games. He's a worthy streamer against his A.L. West foes at the very least.

Up: Hiroki Kuroda -- Kuroda was probably a little undervalued coming into 2010. He confounded the Marlins in his season opener with eight innings of seven strikeout, five hit ball. There's something to be said for steady pitching.

Down:Javier Vazquez -- This is what everyone was afraid of. Vazquez looked bad in his second Yankees debut. He was successful from 2006-08 in the American League, so there's no reason to think he can't produce a Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) around 3.80 and a K/9 close to 9.00. That makes him a buy low guy at this point.

Down: Clayton Kershaw -- Kershaw's progression may be a little slower than many thought as walks are still a problem and he struggles to work deep into games. He will still have starts where he dazzles though.

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