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Pitching by the Numbers: A change will do you good

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Expect more strikeouts from Andrew Cashner in the future. (USAT)

I’ve always liked fastball/changeup pitchers. Sliders seem to increase injury risk above a certain threshold (roughly 20%). Curveballs I don’t like anymore because too many that are clearly strikes are called balls for being too high. That’s why we don’t see many (any?) curveball specialists. Hitters can just lay off the really good ones and hit the hangers.

Pitchers who feature the change heavily have long been knows to defy BABIP odds. Nate Silver wrote abut it in 2005 and Josh Weinstock at The Hardball Times followed up in 2011.

The tricky part is assessing the changeup in a vacuum or figuring as a general rule that changeup specialists with above-average fastballs are better bets to have success. In other words, this is the ideal profile: fastball velocity in the upper 33% of starters and a changeup rate of at least 10%.

To test the theory, let’s pull the pitchers with at least one inning per team game that qualified for that list through Thursday’s action. (All numbers courtesy of Fangraphs.com)

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Of the 18, we have nine that everyone wants to own, including the best pitcher in baseball, Harvey. Sanchez, Shields, Scherzer, Sale, Verlander, Strasburg, Buchholz and Fernandez are all must owns in every format, too (when healthy, in the case of Sanchez). Just behind them as guys you should have a spot for in every format are Holland, Lester and Parker. I understand that Parker’s full-season numbers are marginal in mixers, but look how he’s pitched since May 1 and in 2012, too.

That leaves Cashner, Volquez, Moore, Norris, Guthrie and Harrell for us to discuss.

Certainly, we must stipulate that you can throw hard and throw a lot of changeups and be terrible. But reasonably, velocity tends to correlate to fastball effectiveness and throwing a changeup over 10% of the time means that not only you but presumably your catcher and manager think the pitch is pretty good, too. But every starter has to throw something, we know. There are no guarantees, however. The quality of pitches matter.

Let’s eliminate some names. Volquez and Harrell walks too many hitters. (But I did just pick up Harrell on waivers in my 20-team 45-man roster dynasty league.) There’s nothing shocking about their limitations for us gamers when we see that. Guthrie, while useful in deep, AL-only formats, doesn’t strike enough guys out for us. Even though Guthrie’s BABIP is just .256 this year, he’s too dependent on it and that’s too low by any measure (career is .275).

What about the BABIP for the pitchers on this list? Sanchez .328, Shields .280, Cashner .286, Parker .265, Scherzer .255, Volquez .333, Sale .250, Verlander .344, Strasburg .261, Moore .269, Norris .324, Harvey .263, Lester .295, Buchholz .258, Holland .344, Harrell .295, Fernandez .256.

I’ll let those numbers speak for themselves. But I note that Holland is NOT a candidate for regression and should actually fare better for the remainder of 2013.

Cashner isn’t striking out enough hitters, but has before and has top-shelf stuff. Maybe he’ll be the outlier like Guthrie in seeming to have the components of being a strikeout pitcher, while lacking essentials like movement. But we’re a bit away from deciding that. Again, Verlander had top-shelf velocity without Ks early in his career as a starter, too. Cashner’s K upside, however, will always be limited by his ground-ball ways. (Note: I own Cashner in that dynasty league and still view him as a prized asset who I will definitely protect when we cut down to 28.)

That leaves Norris and Moore. Norris I would definitely make a move on now if he’s available also because he’ll likely be traded. Maybe you hit the jackpot by having him move to a good, NL team in a pitcher’s park. That’s worth the risk of only a free agent move, for sure.

The world has come full circle with me on Moore. In March, I made a habit of challenging colleagues that Harvey would out-earn Moore (who was ranked far higher by almost everyone). I have about 276 lunch bets coming. (These can’t be taxed, right?) That was taken by many as a slight against Moore when really it was respecting Harvey’s clear dominating stuff and auspicious 2012 debut. Now, I like Moore better than the market, it seems. He’s hit a rough patch. It’s tough to recover in season when you lack experience, though it’s possible. Long-term, I don’t alter my view on him at all. He still has ace ability. If I’m rooting against Moore now, it’s only to get him even more cheaply next spring.
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