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Pitching by the Numbers: Model starters, Part 1

Michael Salfino
Yahoo Sports

While it’s generally wise to wait to draft starting pitching in fantasy baseball, that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant.

In fact, it’s the owners who find the most bang for the buck with their pitching selections who generally win leagues. And there’s a lot of bang to be found. Quite simply, the reason why we wait to draft pitching is that the opinions on them are so varied. There’s convergence of opinion on hitters. So if you merely take the highest ranked hitter in your queue when it’s your turn to draft, you’ll be fine. That’s also the reason why we have to draft hitters before pitchers. The ones we’re projecting to be good are usually projected to be good by everyone.

[Also: Dodgers pitcher Zach Greinke feels 'pretty good' after throwing session]

But pitching is different. Here, there’s divergence of opinion. Many times, you’ll disagree vehemently that the top pitcher in the queue is the best one – and rightfully so. But the risk is that given all this divergence, we’ll simply operate on a gut level to make these important decisions. And as followers of this column know, I hate listening to my gut unless it’s saying “Five Guys” or “Pizza.”

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The numbers paint Stephen Strasburg in a very pleasing light. (USAT)

So let’s kick off this first of two parts, super-sized, Pitching by the Numbers 2013 Primer by modeling starting pitchers as objectively as possible. We’re going to rank them based only on performance in a handful of categories – K/9, K/BB ratio, ERA adjusted for league and park (especially important for pitchers changing teams and leagues) and the stat that I discovered last year for fantasy projection purposes http://sports.yahoo.com/news/pitching-by-the-numbers--weak-contact-.html – isolated slugging allowed. ISO is merely the difference between the slugging average and the batting average allowed. I like it because it isolates the most damaging, run-causing extra-base hits. Pitchers with the lowest ISOs require the opponent to get more hits to score runs. Plus, it’s these singles that are most subjected to Balls in Play (BIP) variance/luck.

To be ranked, pitchers needed to average at least 6.5 Ks/9 with at least 29 starts in the period, but all stats (even in relief) are included. I’ve also noted where some select 2012 starting pitchers who did not meet that threshold of starts would have ranked if they made the requisite starts (with similar stats). The overall ranking is merely the total of the cumulative ranking in each category (lowest is best), though the individual category rank is also noted. I rank these categories instead of the actual fantasy ones because we are trying to find outliers here. Everyone knows who has done well in fantasy cats. I ignore wins because that’s a team stat.

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Now you see why I drafted Strasburg as early as I did (20th overall) in Yahoo! Friends and Family. He’s in a tier of his own. Sale has relief innings in his stats, of course, but his starting innings were mostly Cy Young-caliber. He’s a bargain in most drafts. Beachy (Tommy John surgery) is someone to grab when he comes off the DL (mid- to late-June) or to stash and save now if your league rules allow. Johnson is the most interesting name in this grouping. I really like a low ISO. But Johnson’s velocity is way down (about two MPH from peak) and he’s coming off a disappointing season. So there is risk here and thus a need to not draft his model ranking, but Johnson is still a value near his current ADP of 120. The other issue with Johnson is that he’s changing leagues and is in the AL East. But the AL East is now a paper tiger unless you’re facing the Blue Jays. So do not onerously tax pitchers in the division, and especially do not do that with Blue Jays.

[Also: Uninspired U.S. ousted from World Baseball Classic. Does anyone care?]

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I was down on Darvish last year, but he improved his control and stopped nibbling. So I have no problem drafting him at this model ranking. Luebke is another TJS pitcher and should be back soon. But you can’t draft him highly, obviously. Greinke is battling some elbow issues and I’d basically cross him off my list until he resumes throwing. Yes, if everyone did this, I’d be forced to draft him at some point. But if everyone decided to go to the same place for blueberry pancakes tomorrow, there’d be global chaos. I don’t concern myself with silly hypotheticals. Latos was my second pitcher in Y! F&F (93rd overall). I also drafted Harvey (132nd) where some might say he was a reach but where my model says he could be the steal of the draft. Of course, we have to discount for the small sample, but it’s the only sample we have. Harvey averaged 94.7 on his fastball and has one of the most devastating changeups in baseball . Why he is ranked so far below Matt Moore, for example, is a great mystery to me and one all of you should exploit when drafting. I also drafted Fiers (261st) because if I don’t respect my own model, how can I ask anyone else to? Fiers is a low-velocity pitcher who touts always are eager to discount. The meme with him is that he collapsed down the stretch. Yes, if we look at ERA (the worst thing to look at). But he didn’t collapse if we look at K/9 and K/BB (9.9 and 3.4/1, respectively), which I weight much more heavily.

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[Baseball 2013 from Yahoo! Fantasy Sports: Join a league today!]

Ogando is the tough call here. You can’t draft him at this slot, of course. But you should draft him. He’s back in the rotation, for now, and pitched well there (though not at this ranking level) in 2011. Pettitte isn’t going to pitch more than 150 innings, but he should be on a roster for all of them in all formats. Griffin and Ramirez are two more small-sample-size guys. I love them both, but prefer Ramirez who I guarantee will be a mixed-league asset this year with his low-to-mid 90s fastball and one of the best changeups in baseball. Griffin is like Fiers in that he’s engenders skepticism due to sub-par velocity. If you have them as your fifth and sixth starters in mixers, I’ll bet you’ll be fine. (And if I’m wrong, what has it cost you?) Cross Carpenter and Pineda (shoulders) off all of your lists. Dickey is the anti-Johnson. You want to move him up if you believe his knuckler was evidence of long-practiced mastery – as I do – and not some fluke. I confidently would draft Dickey top 10 among starting pitchers.

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