Fantasy Baseball Roundtable: Early-season pitching observations

by Todd Zola, MastersBall.com on April 23, 2012 @ 15:04:07 PDT

 


Last week, the Knights all agreed it was too early to take action on fast or slow stats, but that does not mean there are not players on our respective radar that we want to watch. This is facilitated by the various means baseball games are currently broadcast. As they say, there's even an app for that.

Let's focus on starting pitching. Whose early season numbers have you wanting to catch their next start on TV and what will you be looking for?

Tim Heaney takes a break from watching "Mad Men":

San Francisco Giants SP Tim Lincecum
Freakishly poor

Just wrote a ditty about Jake Peavy and how his improved cutter/slider could be the difference for sustaining his early-season success. We have merely been waiting on his health to come around, and I think he's at the point where he's finally adjusting to AL hitting and is ready to deliver something close to what Chicago desired when they acquired him.

Kyle Drabek's work on streamlining his stride toward the plate this spring has done wonders so far, and I'd really like to see his two-seamer at work. Would love to see how much he pounds the strike zone. A lack of it doomed him last year. Jason Hammel's tailing fastball has done wonders for him so far as he turns into a bargain version of Doug Fister.

Jonathon Niese, one of my preseason breakout candidates, also deserves more intent viewing from me. He's another member of the increasing cutter tribe among MLB pitchers. It's the new slider, after all.

Perry Van Hook breaks it down:

Well this question really needs to be divided at least for me into mixed league and AL/NL only leagues, because in the single-league format, waiting on almost any starter but especially a young starter - whether it's a prospect just called up like Drew Smyly or someone finally getting their first shot in the rotation like Ross Detwiler - is going to be on someone else's roster if you have waited this long for...."one more look"

In the mixed leagues I think you have to try to differentiate the unexpected from a Jake Westbrook versus Joe Saunders. I wouldn't wait on Westbrook who has emerged as the "new" Jake, having lost significant weight in the offseason and then adding a new pitch in pre-season. Frankly I expect him now to be good all year. I would be slightly more cautious with Saunders although his first two outings were excellent (this written before Saturday's third start). Saunders has always been underrated in projections and rankings but "just won" games for the Angels. He was not good at the beginning of his NL career with Arizona, but perhaps his second half (3.29 and 1.21) did portend a better approach. His one drawback is the lack of strikeouts but really when you might be talking about a matchup play or SP7 on your staff I think the wins are more important IF he can maintain acceptable ratios.

Lawr Michaels has his favorites:

Well, I had been way hot on Matt Cain, and boy is he fun of late.

I was also high on Derek Holland, so enjoying him along with Luke Hochevar and Brandon McCarthy on occasional starts so far.

On the other hand, Francisco Liriano, who is my #4 Scoresheet starter, makes me want to run and hide.

I do like watching CC Sabathia - whom I love as an anchor for my teams - and am not too worried about his early season struggles. He always does that it seems.

By June he is a different guy.

Ryan Carey adds to the list:

Chris Sale was a target of mine in a bunch of drafts this year and I am going to try and catch his next start, not only to watch him pitch again but also to see Jarrod Parker make his debut with the A's. I have been encouraged by the results from Sale. I'll be looking for Sale to cut down on the walks, but I just want to see how his stuff looks in the wake of his 11-K performance last week.

Marco Estrada had a nice start in place of an injured Chris Narveson and he'll get another turn this week to try and nail down a rotation spot. He has pitched very well when given the chance to start and I think he could take this job and run with it, so I am interested to see him pitch. In a lot of deep leagues he got grabbed this weekend, but in many of my shallow mixed leagues, he is still out there. One more good start and that will change most likely.

I have been watching Josh Johnson pitch out of concern. I will likely tune into part of his start this week to see if he is finally using the slider more and see if he is challenging hitters again. He has been very hittable, but honestly the velocity hasn't been terrible. He is an important piece for me on a couple teams, so I am still hopeful.

I am going to tune into Mat Latos' next start, because he's been killing me so far and I need to see it with my own eyes just what's going on with him. I am concerned I have to admit.

Stephen Strasburg is worth watching anytime he takes the mound. I still think he's going to blow that arm out again someday. I just hope I'm wrong and he lasts for a long time. Baseball needs him.

Lord Zola's Wrap-Up:

There are two pitchers I am particularly interested in watching. However, before I discuss this, I want to address a more global point that seems to be the buzz nowadays.

Analysts, by nature, want to find a reason for everything. And, of course, they want to be correct. At one point, talking about BABIP, for example, was niche analysis; now it is pretty much conventional. Presently, a pitcher's velocity is being used in an effort to explain performance and with the proliferation of Twitter, these reports are basically real-time and picked up by your favorite news gathering service. Obviously, a loss in velocity is used to explain a subpar performance.

But here's the problem. While a drop in velocity could be the cause of a pitcher's woes, there is more to it than that. And probably more importantly, a pitcher's velocity isn't recorded via a means that compares apples to apples, at least not yet.

It is fairly well known that radar guns have a degree of error and can be off a couple of mph either way. In addition, there is a difference between mph from when the ball leaves the pitcher's hand and when it crosses the plate. A scout is trained to calibrate his gun and record readings the same way every time, so while the absolute readings may be off, they can be compared, at least internally by his organization, on a relative basis. Stadium guns are not as rigidly deployed. Processes such as PITCHf/x are helping to produce more accurate numbers, but this data is not always available real-time and is not always what is tweeted into cyber-space.

Not only is it misleading to take a gun reading at face value, but it is more trouble if this reading is compared to something like last season's average velocity. This early in the season, just about everyone not named Justin Verlander is probably a tick or two below what they will be throwing for the bulk of the summer.

The take home message is while using a pitcher's velocity, on paper, is a viable (if not obvious) means to help analyze performance, it is not the be-all-end-all. I would be willing to bet that pitchers have endured lower April velocities for, I don't know, over 100 years. But, with the advent of social media, it is just being more widely reported.

A guy I am quite interested in watching, admittedly spurred on by reports of lower velocity is Felix Hernandez. That said, keep in mind this is someone whose spring was interrupted by two flights across the globe as well having to face the same squad three times in a couple of weeks. Say what you want about the Athletics, they are still an MLB team with MLB hitters. It only makes sense that King Felix would alter his arsenal, especially the third time facing Oakland. Sure enough, according to Fangraphs, Hernandez average velocity is off a couple of mph from last season and his pitch selection is a little different. But his K/9 and BB/9 are both BETTER than last season's, so I am not only not worried, I am highly encouraged by these early season results and more comfortable than ever that Hernandez is an elite hurler. Anyone who points towards a drop in velocity and a lower ground ball rate than normal does not understand sample size and bias (Oakland hits a bunch of fly balls). If the King Felix owner in your league is guilty of overanalyzing his April plight, assuage his guilt and take Hernandez off his hands.

The other pitcher I am most interested in watching is Tim Lincecum, mainly because this whole velocity issue is at the crux of his recent performances and I want to learn the best way to read the numbers and interpret the data, to stay ahead of the curve. I think actually watching Lincecum pitch is crucial to catch stuff the numbers alone may not be revealing.

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About Todd Zola, MastersBall.com

Focusing primarily on the science of player valuation and game theory starting in 1997, Todd Zola and Mastersball carved out an important niche in the fantasy industry. In 2006, Todd became the Research Director for fantasybaseball.com, and in 2009, he relaunched Mastersball and is now a managing partner.

Todd competes in Tout Wars and the XFL, and has been a multiple-time league champion in the National Fantasy Baseball Championship. He has been a contributor to the fantasy content at MLB.com and SI.com, is a frequent guest on Sirius/XM and Blog Talk Radio and is an annual speaker at the spring and fall First Pitch Forum symposiums.

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