Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Starting Pitching Blues: Fantasy Strategy

Rany Jazayerli, one of the baseball minds over at Baseball Prospectus, said in 1998:

"The injury rate of pitchers, in particular young pitchers, is astonishing. Pitchers are several times more likely to get injured than hitters, and for every prospect that becomes a successful major league pitcher, a dozen more have their careers stalled or ended by injury. This is a reality of baseball that has persisted since the game was invented; the act of throwing a ball overhand is inherently unnatural, and the repetition of throwing, even with excellent mechanics, can lead to inflammation or injury to the muscles of the rotator cuff, or in the ligaments that hold the elbow in place."

Pitching in 2008

Spring training isn't even in full swing yet, and there are already injuries to report for the 2008 season. Not surprisingly, they are injuries to starting pitchers, the most important and concurrently brittle parts of baseball organizations today.

Kelvim Escobar and Curt Schilling, important arms from two of baseball's deepest, most talented rotations, are going to miss time in 2008 due to injury. There hasn't been a pitch thrown in the Cactus League or the Grapefruit League, and there's already talk about a DL stint for Escobar and a prolonged absence for Schilling, if he's not done for the season.

Fantasy owners need to be mindful of the inherent danger of drafting starting pitching, which is unlike any risk that drafting a position player presents. By the nature of what they do, pitchers are just never more than one pitch away from the operating table. Throwing a baseball is simply an unnatural motion, and it will lead to problems for almost all pitchers at some point.

In real baseball, teams need good starting pitching if they want to have any chance at postseason success. That bulldog ace can be the difference in losing a series in 6 games and winning it in 7. Those 14-15 innings over two starts can make a world of difference in baseball playoffs, but fantasy baseball just isn't set up like that.

In fantasy baseball, teams obviously need starting pitching, but owners do not need to invest early picks (or big dollars for auctions) in pitching to win fantasy leagues. An owner can succeed with a big bullpen and three decent arms anchoring the pitching staff.

The beauty of fantasy is that Yahoo or ESPN doesn't care where those 7 innings of 2-run ball came from. They can just as easily come from 3 middle relievers taken in the 15th round or later, or they can come from Jake Peavy. The Padres can't throw Heath Bell out there 162 times a year, but your fantasy rotation can be built of Heath Bell types that end up putting together solid ratios in 70 or so innings.

Those 70 innings each from a few relievers pile up, and one can put together spectacular ERA, WHIP, and saves totals, while still being competitive in strikeouts and wins. Most leagues have innings limits, so again, you can get those innings from whoever you'd like, and I'd prefer to get them mostly from relievers than big starting pitchers that can easily flame out. Some owners prefer 8 starters to lock up wins and strikeouts; I'd rather chase ERA, WHIP, and saves, three stats that are more predictable and cheaper to acquire.

The choice is yours, but I speak from experience when I say that my worst fantasy teams have been those built around starting pitching. I started playing fantasy baseball in 2003, and that season Randy Johnson was my first pick. He was going into 2003 with 6 straight healthy seasons under his belt, not throwing less than 213 in any of those seasons. He seemed like a good bet, and I pulled the trigger, leaving a bat like Manny Ramirez on the table for someone else to take.

That season, Randy Johnson won 6 games and put together an ERA of 4.26 in 114 painful innings. Last season, owners took Chris Carpenter in the second or third round of drafts, and got 6 innings out of him (not good innings either) before he was lost for the season. This year, it could be Jake Peavy, projected to go in the second round of most drafts. It could be Erik Bedard in the third round, or Josh Beckett in the fourth.

All those pitchers could of course turn in brilliant 34 start seasons, but I wouldn't bet on it. At least one of those pitchers will miss time this season, and it could be completely without warning and leave fantasy owners scrambling.

Some will say, well position players get hurt too, which is absolutely true. Carl Crawford could miss 80 games this season with a torn ACL, and owners could be out their second round pick. There's no question about that and I will not dispute that notion, but I can tell you that playing left field doesn't require Carl Crawford to repeat an unnatural motion over 100 times a night, 30+ times a year.

Starting pitchers just are not as likely to make it through a full season, and they also have another distinct disadvantage when compared to position players: they can only contribute in 4 categories. Johan Santana can have a season for the ages, pitching 235 innings of 2.25 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 250 K dominance. He will contribute 0 saves, and he could end up with only 13 wins, based on poor run support which he has no control over. If you don't think so, check out Roger Clemens' stats from the 2005 season.

I hope that by now the dangers of drafting starting pitching early are clear, so I'd like to present some alternatives for owners who agree with this line of thinking.

Alternative Draft Strategy

Picks 1-6 are spent on the best available hitting talent when your turn comes up, being mindful that the top speed/power combinations will be gone after these rounds. Be sure to address potentially problematic positions like catcher and shortstop here, as those positions really dry up after the top handful of options are gone.

Picks 7-10 can be where owners start to think pitching, and grab a closer (Wagner, Cordero, Valverde, and Jenks seem like reasonably gambles here), and a bargain ace around your 10th pick, if there are any left (John Smoltz, Aaron Harang, or Roy Oswalt).

Owners should do their best not to get wrapped up in different runs that start, like a run on closers where K-Rod, J.J. Putz, Joe Nathan, and Jonathan Papelbon all go in the same round. That run just means that you will get an opportunity to grab a bat later than you would normally. It just creates a value opportunity for owners who don't get caught up in runs.

From the 10th round on, you can start to look for opportunities to draft pitchers with upside that have been discounted for whatever reason. Arms like Ian Snell, James Shields, Rich Hill, Matt Cain, John Maine, Ted Lilly, Zack Greinke, etc., provide upside potential at a good price.

Look for pitching indicators like K/BB (strike zone dominance) and K/9 for good value opportunities. Also, look at fielding independant pitching statistics "FIP", which can reveal pitchers that were unlucky in 2007. ESPN has an excellent page with statistics that can help unlock undervalued pitchers.

This strategy can work, but you will have to do your homework, it's not for those who aren't willing to find the intrinsic value of pitchers.

The important thing to remember is the price you pay dictates your returns. If you spend a 5th round pick and get a 14-8, 3.90 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, with 160 Ks, that is not a great return on your investment. If you get that production from, say, Ian Snell in the 13th round, now you have value and return on your investment. All the bargain pitches listed above, and that is not an all encompassing list, have the talent to deliver nice seasons at a good price.

Three or four pitchers of that caliber, mixed with a strong bullpen, minimizes the pitching risk that could derail an owner's season.

The bullpen arms that I would look at include the aforementioned Heath Bell, Brad Lidge, Carlos Marmol, Rafael Betancourt, Jonathan Broxton, etc. Relievers that are second in line to a mediocre closer (for example Betancourt is second to Joe Borowski) are especially attractive, as they have a chance to contribute saves down the road.

This mix of bargain pitchers with upside and power bullpen arms allows fantasy owners to draft big bats and put out a balanced, scary lineup. If an owner decides to go pitcher heavy or take arms in the 1-7 rounds, be aware that there are statistics available to help see what pitchers were overexerted in 2007.

The brilliant minds at Baseball Prospectus keep a statistical called "PAP," or pitcher abuse points. This statistic encompasses the abuse pitchers have endured in a given season, based on a calculation derived from starts in which pitchers throw over 100 pitches. For a better explanation, go here.

It's interesting to note what pitchers endured the most abuse in 2007, as Boston's Daisuke Matsuzaka tops the list. He had 9 starts of 101-109 pitches, 13 starts of 110-121 pitches, and 4 starts of 122-132 pitches in 2007. Just this week Matsuzaka admitted, "I think what happened last year was that the peak of my fatigue arrived at a time when I wasn't exactly expecting it to arrive, not at the time that it usually arrives and I think that was part of the difficulty last year."

He was overworked, and a prudent fantasy owner needs to note that and include it in Matsuzaka's valuation for 2008. I'm not saying don't draft Dice-K, I'm just saying be careful, he was the most overworked pitcher in baseball last season.

Other names that appear high on the list include Carlos Zambrano, A.J. Burnett, and Roy Halladay. These pitchers, by my estimation, represent an extremely big gamble if taken high in the draft, and fantasy owners should probably avoid them unless they are available at a price that makes sense.

The moral of the story, do your homework with pitching for your draft. You can be competitive and win leagues without Jake Peavy, Johan Santana, Josh Beckett, C.C. Sabathia, and all the other arms that will go in the first 5 or 6 rounds. Focus on what you can reasonably predict health-wise, and take the bats early that should stay healthy over the course of a season.

No strategy is perfect, but I believe a value pitching focus puts fantasy owners in the best position to succeed in 2008. Here's to another epic season of baseball, good luck to all fantasy owners.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Angels Trade Rumor: Khalil Greene

In recent weeks, there has been speculation in the media, as well as on message boards and blogs suggesting that the Angels could consider acquiring Padres shortstop Khalil Greene to replace departed shortstop Orlando Cabrera.

Most of the speculation centers around an Angels offer of center fielder Reggie Willits, infielder Erick Aybar, and either pitcher Joe Saunders or Ervin Santana.


At this point in time, it's assumed that Erick Aybar has the inside track to become the Angels starting shortstop in 2008, but he will be battling it out with Maicer Izturis. Those two players present an interesting situation for the Angels, since both players seemed better suited to be utility players for different but equally valid reasons.

On one hand, Aybar represents the prospect that has yet to establish himself in limited opportunities. He began his professional career with a lightning start, posting a .326/.374/.469 line in 67 games, good for an impressive .843 OPS in his first year in rookie ball at age 18. He followed that season up with a nice season at A ball, posting a .308/.331/.436 line at a still very young 19 years old.

His third season has been his finest as a professional, posting a .330/.359/.485 line at high A ball. He counterbalanced a mediocre walk rate with a good contact rate of 88%, (A rate above 90% often, but not always, indicates a .300 hitter), and this was a recurring theme throughout his time in the minors.

I much prefer to see players with high walk rates and poor strikeout rates, as this can be indicative of a player who waits for his pitch and may strikeout as a result of working deep counts. Players like Adam Dunn and Jason Giambi are excellent data points to support this notion, so I'm not thrilled to see Aybar being the opposite. He's a player that may make contact at a higher rate, but is not necessarily hitting pitches he should be swinging at (see Kendrick, Howie).

Maicer Izturis, the Angels other internal option to play shortstop, has shown a better understanding of hitting in his major league service. Izturis is more disciplined at the plate, showing greater skill than Aybar in two key aspects of hitting: avoiding the strikeout and swinging at a pitch he can handle. The numbers support this, as he has a career contact rate of 88% and a career walk rate of 9%. (At the major league level, Aybar has posted a contact rate of 83% and a walk rate of 4%, although in a very small sample size),

Izturis has a problem staying healthy, as a result he's logged a season high of only 399 plate appearances. He's had extensive hamstring problems, and he seems stretched as a starting shortstop. That's not a knock against Izturis, as being able to plug a bench player into a lineup and know he has hitting ability as well as versatility (he plays multiple infield positions) is incredibly important. He's just a step below being good enough to be a starter for the Angels, but he's an excellent option during an injury or to come off the bench.

At this point, Aybar does not seem ready to be a full-time major league player. His stints in AAA and the major league club just haven't impressed enough to be confident in him as a starting shortstop for a club with World Series aspirations. He was below replacement level in 2007 with the Angels (.211 EQA, which is well below the .260 league average), and he also seems stretched as anything more than a utility player at this stage of his development. He is certainly capable of more, but he needs to develop and at the same time not be a 650 at-bat liability for a club that has spent money to win now.


Khalil Greene has 2 years left on his contract, and according to a Foxsports.com update, " San Diego's efforts to sign Greene to a long-term deal have not been fruitful. He may leave for an East Coast team after the 2009 season, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports."

With this in mind, the Padres may try to trade him if they can't lock him up to a long-term deal, and the Angels appear to be a natural trade partner given excess of outfielders and infielders.

Reggie Willits appears to be a good fit for the Padres, as he can play all three outfield positions and be a flexible 4th outfielder. This can be invaluable for the Padres, as he could be backing up injury plagued Jim Edmonds and aging Brian Giles. Willits' offense will not suffer at all from being at Petco, as he is a singles hitter that walks a good amount, and that lead to a good OBP. He showed his best defense in left field, and he could at least be adequate in the other slots as a backup.

Aybar presents an inexpensive option with upside to replace Greene at short for many years to come. That alone could make him attractive for a team who's not known for making big splashes in free agency.

Another potential part of an offer, either Joe Saunders or Ervin Santana, must be carefully accessed in the context of the hyperinflated pitching market. Even though Saunders isn't a highly projected starter, he's serviceable and young. Ask Carlos Silva how much that's worth in free agency.

Santana is a highly rated pitching prospect, and his poor 2007 wasn't as bad as it looked on paper (fielding independent stats suggest he was unlucky). He is worth a heck of a lot in a trade and should be considered a valuable trade chip.

The question becomes, is Khalil Greene worth pursuing via trade, and what is a good bidding price for him?

A quick analysis of Greene will show a couple of noteworthy things in his pedigree. First, Greene has big league power. He hit 27 home runs in 2007, and this came playing half of his games in a pitcher friendly environment (Petco Park). Petco Park was the worst ballpark in baseball for run scoring and second worse for home run hitters.

Second, Khalil has a hard time getting on base, as evidenced by his .291 OBP last season (NL average was .330). For his career, his OBP stands at .312, compared to a NL average of .329 over that same time. It is a little unfair to compare him to the league however, given his difficult home ballpark.

In Greene's case, it's better to look at statistics that have been adjusted to take away (as best as possible) the Petco Park effect. His OPS+ for his career is 101, suggesting he's been a little better than average in terms of OPS at least. His career EQA (a statistic that encompasses all offensive production) is .266, a little above the .260 universal average.

Greene's defense is open for interpretation, but I think the consensus, and the stats don't show otherwise, is that Greene is at worst an adequate shortstop defensively.

Is he worth giving up a package of, say, Willits, Aybar, and Saunders in a three for one?

It's difficult to project what Greene will become outside of Petco because the park adjusted stats still don't paint a beautiful picture of Greene's offensive capabilities.

Some will point to the 27 HR and 97 RBIs from 2007, and his severe home/road splits, to say he is worth the talent. To them I say, I caution: inexpensive young players are not only valuable in terms of what skills they possess, but they are even more valuable because they are inexpensive.

The skilled youngsters give more production per dollar than most players who have been acquired via free agency. Khalil Greene will command free agent money in after 2009, but Erick Aybar won't for several more seasons. That has serious value.

The final metric to examine is the aforementioned split stats, which look like this for Greene's past 3 seasons: .250 BA/.301 OBP/.446 SLUG totals.

Greene HOME: .227/.273/.389
Greene AWAY: .273/.328/.500
LEAGUE (adjusted): .260/.330/.420 (approximate)


Going forward, the only thing that seems certain is that Greene will provide above average power production, even if it comes with only an average OBP. His strikeout rate and walk rate suggest he has not yet mastered the strike zone at an elite level. He can hit at a high level through, no question about it. If he can duplicate his road production of .270/.330/.500 for the Angels, that would be a welcome addition to the lineup.

At the end of the day, the Angels need power production in their lineup, and they would almost certainly get that in Greene. He is a power bat at a position where power is at a premium, and he is someone that should be considered by the Angels brass.

Aybar is a mystery going forward, as he could turn into anything from Felipe Lopez to Orlando Cabrera to Jose Reyes light. He is talented enough to suggest he may just need more time to develop, he is only 24 after all.

Willits has a much lower ceiling, but he's also much more predictable. Given enough time, one can predict with relative certainly that Willits is a good bet to put up a line of .265/.365/.340, with an upside close to what he did last year (.293/.391/.344). His OBP is worth a lot, and he's a very good bench option as a result. If he could improve on his contact rate (81%), he could be an even better bat, given the nature of his hits.

Given the depth the Angels have in the outfield currently and some talent on the way (Terry Evans), Reggie Willits should be made expendable for this trade.

From the Santana and Saunders group, I say Santana should be off-limits given his potential and low salary for the next few years. Saunders would be a good option to include, as he is a valuable left-handed pitcher with a little upside.

For Khalil Greene, that Angels should offer a package of Reggie Willits and Erick Aybar to start the negotiations. If the Padres counter with Willits, Aybar, and Santana, I would come back with Willits, Aybar, and Saunders. I would ask the Padres to include an arm if I have to give up a third player, and I would probably ask for Joe Thatcher, but settle for Mauro Zarate.

I like Greene and his potential, but his price tag is only going up and that reduces the returns from this trade. The price paid will always dictate the returns, and I could see Greene becoming a $10-12 million per year player. A lot of young, inexpensive players with talent is a lot to give up, but Greene is a guy who will help the Angels win now, and the signing of Torii Hunter signals that now is the Angels' time.

I think the Angels should go for it, but if the price tag becomes too high (Santana), there is no shame in turning the deal down. Greene is very good player but he's not elite, and he could end up costing too much too soon.