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In 1986, history was made when the Janet Jackson released an album that would catapult her into the same stratosphere as her more famous older brother, Michael. That album, Control, was the youngest Jackson's first to reach No. 1 on the Billboard charts. With more than 14 million units sold, Control would become one of the defining albums of the era. In fact, the National Association of Recording Merchandisers the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame have listed this breakthrough hit record as one of the 200 Definitive Albums of All Time. Clearly, control is the key to success ... perhaps even fame and riches.
On the diamond, pitching success can ebb and flow like the tide. Like oceangoing vessels, control pitchers often enjoy smooth sailing, even as the waters swell and waves come crashing down. Conversely, pitchers who issue a significant number of free passes seldom sail on calm seas. Rather, pitchers with poor walk rates always seem to be bailing water, frantically trying to keeping their boat afloat.
This week's For Better, For Worse will consider the issue of control, and the pitchers that most clearly illustrate its importance. Those with spotless control have something better to offer while those that struggle to throw strikes often have things take a turn for the worse, sometimes in Titanic fashion.
Carl Pavano, SP, Minnesota Twins. As a young fireballer with the Expos and Marlins, Pavano was a high-K, high-BB pitcher. However, like many a big league pitcher before him, Pavano's control has sharpened with age. Granted, his K-rate has also fallen off to a degree, but he's a much better "pitcher" in 2010. Somewhat surprisingly, he's also been something of an unknown commodity this year, despite already having 8 wins and a useful 3.64 ERA. More impressive, though, is Pavano's impeccable control. Pavano's 3.93 K/BB is among baseball's top-10 and his 1.31 BB/9 places him in the third spot among all major league starters. With only 14 walks in 93.1 innings pitched and a 1.08 WHIP, Pavano is on the way to perhaps his finest season in the big leagues.
Dan Haren, SP, Arizona Diamondbacks. It's no secret that Haren owners are more than a little miffed about his poor start. A 7-6 record and 4.65 ERA are well below the career averages for this historically great first-half pitcher. Looking further down the rabbit hole reveals something that may come as a surprise to Haren owners. To start, Haren is still striking out a significant number of batters (109 on the year), and his 5.19 K/BB is the third best mark in the game. With only 21 walks in 108.1 innings, his BB/9 is only 1.74, which is actually better than his career mark of 1.96. Further, a BABIP of .342 is a full 39 points above his career number, so his fantasy numbers are likely being inflated by some pretty bad luck. An xFIP of 3.46 should be a clear indication to fantasy owners that Haren is still a very good pitcher being hampered by a bad team.
Cliff Lee, SP, Seattle Mariners. With all the talk about perfect games and the sustained pitching heroics of Roy Halladay and Ubaldo Jimenez, it's easy to overlook the magical season Lee is having. While a 5-3 record and 2.55 ERA look nice, the numbers that fantasy owners need to be aware of are not only stunning, they're historic. An early season injury has limited Lee to 77.2 innings, but Lee has walked, get this ... four batters. FOUR! That calculates to a BB/9 of 0.46, contributing to a major league-best WHIP of 0.93. Additionally, with 67 strikeouts on the year, Lee's K/BB sits at 16.75. To place that in context, the single season record for K/BB is held by Brett Saberhagen -- an 11.00 mark he established in 1994. Only one other pitcher (Jim Whitney) has ever had a double-digit K/BB, and that was achieved in 1884. That's 126 years ago for those keeping score at home. If control is what you need, then you... need ... Cliff Lee.
Clayton Kershaw, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers. On the surface, Kershaw is having a rather successful campaign. Fantasy owners who drafted the young Dodgers ace are smiling from ear to ear. Staring down the barrel of a gun loaded with a 7-4 record, 3.24 ERA, and 103 strikeouts, it would seem that those smiles are justified. However, a closer examination of the numbers suggests that those same owners may be grinning through tightly clenched teeth some time soon. Particularly worrisome is Kershaw's BB/9, which currently sits at 4.71, the second-worst rate among all qualified pitchers. While his superior "stuff" makes up for some of his control problems, simply stated, Kershaw has been getting lucky so far. His xFIP sits at more pedestrian 4.13, indicating that some regression could be in order. Should his control problems continue, his overall success could easily fade.
Randy Wolf, SP, Milwaukee Brewers. Wolf took a big step forward in '09, perhaps his best season as a major leaguer. With the Dodgers, Wolf posted an 11-7 record with a 3.23 ERA along with 160 strikeouts -- numbers that made some fantasy owners think that he'd finally turned the corner. The Brewers were convinced, too, signing the right hander to a lucrative free agent contract. So far, the Brewers and fantasy owners have been largely disappointed. One reason for Wolf's lack of success has been his control, or, lack thereof. His 4.50 BB/9 is the third worst rate in the game and his K/BB (1.15) is well below his career average of 2.21. Those are the kinds of underlying numbers that foretell of a bad searly son, and Wolf's 5-6 record and 5.18 ERA certainly qualify.
Mike Leake, SP, Cincinnati Reds. At 5-1 with a spiffy 2.91 ERA, it's easy to say that Leake is having a stellar rookie year, one that will surely place him in the early conversations for NL Rookie of the Year. However, all that glitters is not gold. Even a casual observer can look further down the stat line to see his less than stellar WHIP which now sits at a robust 1.41. That number isn't going to help anyone's fantasy team. Yet even more bothersome are Leake's other control numbers, specifically his 3.63 BB/9. That should serve as a warning sign to fantasy owners that Leake's season may be on the verge of getting worse. More often than not, walks will haunt, and an xFIP of 4.10 is further validation that rough times may be lurking around the corner, especially if Leake's 80.1 LOB% starts to normalize, which it likely will.
Damian Schaab is a senior writer for SportsGrumblings.com, and member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. Visit SportsGrumblings.com today to ensure total fantasy sports dominance.