May 27, 2010

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Sometimes things just don't line up when it comes to fantasy pitchers.

After all the research, analysis, and predictions, pitchers are frustrating. They're volatile. They're inconsistent. And they get hurt ... a lot.

Strikeouts, usually one of the more "predictable" pitching categories, aren't even shaking out as expected this year. Of last year's Top 10 pitchers in K/9, four are nowhere close to replicating that performance. One of them, Max Scherzer, was so bad to start the year that he's currently in the minors.

What's the lesson here? Starting pitchers' values can swing up and down massively through the season. The key is to determine what's going very wrong (or very right) and whether the pitcher can fix it (or keep it up).

Here are a few pitchers who wear their issues on their sleeves. These guys were expected to be very good, but there's some clear reason they're not. So, what's wrong with ...

... Joel Pineiro? Rising BB/9

It all seems very simple: If Pineiro can keep his walks down and his ground ball percentage (GB%) up, he can be a solid fantasy pitcher. After 54 innings this season, it appears Pineiro forgot to write down that recipe for success on the way out of St. Louis in the offseason. His BB/9 has nearly doubled from 1.14 to 2.17.

The main culprit appears to be a sinking first-strike percentage (FS%). It's at 60.9 this year after a career-high 65.4 in 2009. The last time it was below 61 was 2006 -- when he posted a 5.24 FIP through 165.2 mediocre innings.

The good sign is Pineiro's GB% is still solid, so that's one of the two keys. If he can turn his control around, this soft tosser can be useful in fantasy leagues again.

... Javier Vazquez? Rising BB/9

Can anyone really figure out Vazquez? Obviously AL hitters are a little more talented than NL hitters, but a jump in BB/9 from 1.81 in '09 to 4.71 this year is both inexcusable and inexplicable.

This is completely out of character for Vazquez. He's currently sporting a BB/9 that would be his career high by 1.16. He hasn't had a BB/9 over 2.73 since 1999 -- when the Expos still existed. There's a dip in FS% (66.9 to 63.5), but that likely isn't enough to explain the huge jump in walks. Vazquez seems to just be making mental errors that are resulting in more walks, and a higher FIP.

He clearly has talent (8.42 K/9 this year), so keep watching his walks. If they start to decrease, jump back on the Vazquez bandwagon.

... Justin Verlander? Dropping K/9

It's starting to look like this is the real Verlander. His K/9 and contact% look eerily similar to the pre-'09 Verlander and not much like his breakout '09.

Verlander benefited from a career-high O-Swing% (percentage of pitches swung at outside the zone) and a career-low O-Contact% (percentage of times a batter makes contact with a pitch swung at outside the zone) when he produced that shiny 10.09 K/9 in '09.

His K/9 is now 8.17 and batters are making contact 81.1 percent of the time, right around his career 80.1 percent mark.

Verlander has a 3.40 fielder independent pitching rate (FIP), so he's been good, but somewhat lucky, with a .266 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Just realize that his strikeouts of last year are no sure bet to return.

... Wandy Rodriguez? Dropping K/9

Rodriguez with a K/9 north of 8.00 was an underrated, top-of-the-rotation fantasy asset in '08 and '09. However, Rodriguez with a 5.37 K/9 in '10 is basically Chris Volstad or Zach Duke. That's quite a fall from grace.

Even with the K/9 reduction, Rodriguez's 63.5 left on base percentage (LOB%) and .337 BABIP suggest his solid 3.89 FIP could be even better. His current (career-best) 51.2 GB% is also encouraging.

Since his Contact% is very close to where it was the past two seasons, it looks like the low strikeout rate is more of a fluke than a performance change.

... Zack Greinke? Dropping K/9, rising HR/9

Greinke is missing bats at a below-average rate, deflating his K/9. While it's a solid 7.29, it's a far cry from 2009's elite 9.50.

As for the nearly tripling HR/9 rate, batters are simply hitting many more fly balls against Greinke this year. His FB% is 46.7, up from 40.5 last year.

Greinke is using his fastball and changeup more, while throwing his slider and curve less frequently, which is likely a sign that he's less confident in his stuff this season. As a result, his O-Contact% has gone from 56.0 last year to 75.3 this year. That's huge, and exactly the sort of thing that results in a jump in FIP from 2.33 to 3.87.

Greinke has enough talent to be elite, but he needs to fix his other pitches (his slider was especially essential to '09's success -- rated at 20.1 runs above average) to miss more bats.

... Chris Carpenter? Rising HR/9

Carpenter's HR/9 is 1.21 this year, up from 0.33 last year and by far the highest of the "New Carpenter" era (since '05).

Carpenter doesn't have quite the gas on his fastball that he had last year (91.4 mph, down from 93.0), but his other pitches look similar. So his stuff is pretty much the same.

Carpenter is excellent at keeping the ball down (28.8 FB% this season, 28.1 career), but his HR/FB is 16.4, tied for third highest in the majors. That's simply bad luck, so fantasy owners can reasonably expect his HR/9 to sink.

John Danks -- Danks appears to have bounced back from his 4.59 FIP disaster last season. The 25-year-old has a 3.06 FIP and useful 7.42 K/9 this season.

Ian Kennedy -- Kennedy dominated a weak Giants lineup on May 19 to the tune of one run on three hits, and nine Ks over eight innings. His .248 BABIP and 4.80 FIP (3.41 ERA) suggest he's playing into some good luck, but he's definitely a strong option against weak offenses.

4.25: Brett Anderson's K/BB before he hit the DL with a forearm strain. That is the sixth-best rate in baseball. See if you can acquire Anderson cheap before he comes back next week, as he looks like a budding ace.


Brett Cecil -- Though his strikeouts have faded (5.14 K/9 in his past four starts), the boom in Cecil's boom-or-bust act is certainly promising. His 7.1-inning, two-hit start against the Angels May 24 was the second time he's flat-out dominated this year.

Clay Buchholz -- Buchholz has found his strikeout punch again (9.64 K/9 in past two starts) which is encouraging, even if it's brief. His 3.57 FIP and 0.48 HR/9 are signs of progress.


Ricky Nolasco -- Nolasco's bad luck of '09 is gone ... and now he's just bad. Things bottomed out May 21 when he allowed eight runs over 5.1 innings. He hasn't topped three strikeouts in a start since April.

Tommy Hanson -- The past two starts have been ugly (13 earned runs over 8.2 innings), but things still look solid under the hood for Hanson. Buy low.

* Statistics current through May 25

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