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Pitching by the Numbers: Analyzing April

Michael Salfino
Yahoo Sports

We’re about through with the first month of the season. I’ve always believed that the top players generally reveal themselves quickly. That does not mean that they won’t regress from their lofty levels, it just means that they are likely to remain quite good. The key takeaway here is that the most surprising pitchers thus far on the plus side can be traded for at a discount because their owner often does not really believe to the degree he or she should.

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Yu better? You bet. (USAT)

That doesn’t mean though that we have enough of a sample yet. It is, however, all that we have. I have about a 60 percent confidence level in these numbers now. In another month, I’d have 80 percent confidence. I won’t have much more than that for pitching projection purposes at any point during the season.

Let’s look at Matt Harvey, who you all know I loved leading up to drafts, especially if you follow me @MichaelSalfino. Many still insist in coming up with reasons that he will regress to the middling mixed-league starter that most projected he’d be in March. I already have a very high confidence level that Harvey is for real because small samples have more meaning when they are uniformly good.

But how do we best measure early season performance? Similar to what we did in the preseason, we’ll rank starters who qualified for the ERA title through Thursday by how they ranked in just three stats: isolated slugging allowed (slugging average minus batting average, which isolates extra-base hits), strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio. We used three-year data then, or data from at least 29 starts in the period. Now we’re only using 2013 stats. Here’s the current top 20, with one pitcher (Yu Darvish) pretty much lapping the field.

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Not many pick-up opportunities here. But Colon is only 22 percent owned and that should be much higher despite the low K/9. His ERA and WHIP are likely to help you. Ryu is only 66 percent owned. Maholm is now 88 percent owned, so few leagues are sleeping on him. I was wrong about Buchholz, it seems. He looks like the classic, post-hype sleeper. I didn’t believe as fully as I should in Minor’s second-half surge. He’s a legit mixed-league foundation starter now, I believe, though ideally he’d strike out about a half batter more per nine innings.

Let’s look at some other notables, with their “power” rank.

Ervin Santana is 23rd. He’s always had talent but has had a very up-and-down career. He’s currently 52 percent owned and I can think of many worse guys to get now. I would cut him at the first sign of trouble though because his velocity is still down considerably from his career peak and he’s up to 40 percent sliders, an untenable rate for his already reconstructed elbow.

Hisashi Iwakuma is 26th, one spot ahead of Stephen Strasburg. But he’s 82 percent owned now -- and definitely for real.

I wouldn’t worry about Strasburg, whose first-pitch-strike rate is too low, under 60 percent, and that’s an issue with the entire Nationals rotation except for Ross Detwiler.

Jordan Zimmermann is 76th on my list mostly because the Ks have disappeared. R.A. Dickey is 84th mostly because he’s lost his control. This is very concerning. But Dickey has been hampered by a broken fingernail (murder for knucklers) and neck and back troubles that have cut his trademark velocity off the pitch. But Dickey is also 38. I would hold, but concede I may be being stubborn.

Jonathan Niese is a huge disappointment to me at 91st because his K/9 has cratered. I will watch his upcoming starts closely, as should all his owners.

I get questions all the time about Jarrod Parker, who I once really liked. But he’s 105th out of 112 qualifiers. He can’t be active now in mixed leagues.

Ian Kennedy is 82nd. His velocity is actually up. But Kennedy is not a guy who can withstand an increase in walk rate (3.23 from 2.38) because of all the extra-base hits (93rd in ISO allowed).

Kris Medlen is 64th overall and 91st in K/9. We have to wonder if his 2012 was a fluke. His velocity isn’t much different but was never good and his secondary offerings are now being pounded. I don’t like curveball-dominant pitchers because umps don’t call them strikes as much as they should (they call them high). So batters can just take them unless they hang. How many curveball specialists at starter have there been in the last 10 years?

David Price (56th overall) has a very high ISO allowed (96th at .202). But you can argue with that stat at this point more than the others that this is a sample-size issue. ISO allowed is also hurting Matt Cain (43rd overall). I worry less about them than if they were struggling in the other categories.

Let’s just back out ISO allowed and see who drops and falls the most. Now Jake Peavy, who had been 21st, is No. 1. Price moves up to 31st, still disappointing. Marco Estrada, who my preseason model really liked with sample size caveats, moves up to No. 15. Cain is 19th. Ryan Dempster goes from 87th to 16th. Jeremy Hellickson goes from 111th to 62nd (still shaky, plus Hellickson is always bad at ISO allowed). Doug Fister takes the biggest hit, droping from 41st to 74th. Medlen drops 27 places all the way to 91st. Justin Masterson has also been really helped by ISO allowed but that’s a good stat for him because he’s so ground-ball dominant.
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