Fantasy fallout: Big Unit signs with Giants

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Is Randy Johnson all washed up, or could he be a key part of your 2009 fantasy draft? (Icon/SMI)

I don’t give Brian Sabean credit very often, but his signing of Randy Johnson this weekend to a one-year, $8 million contract was a steal. While Johnson will be 45 in 2009, he is still a very effective pitcher. Check out his 2008 fantasy line:

+------+-----+-----+----+------+------+-----+----+
| YEAR | AGE | IP  | W  | ERA  | WHIP | K   | SV |
+------+-----+-----+----+------+------+-----+----+
| 2008 |  44 | 184 | 11 | 3.91 | 1.24 | 173 |  0 |
+------+-----+-----+----+------+------+-----+----+

What’s more is that Johnson could actually see an increase in value in 2009, especially moving to the Giants.

Fallout: Johnson

Numbers

For sections that are divided, the left section shows his numbers with his previous team (Yankees in 2006 and D’Backs in 2007 and 2008) and the right shows his league and park-adjusted numbers—essentially his numbers if he had pitched as a Giant. The numbers on the right are also adjusted for the quality of batter faced, a new adjustment that I’ll be explaining in more detail next week. Suggestions for improving the clarity of these tables are welcome.

+------+-----+-------+------+-----------+-----------+-----------+-------+-------+
| YEAR | AGE | IP    | ERA  | QERA      | K/9       | K/BB RI   | xGB%  | HR/FB |
+------+-----+-------+------+-----------+-----------+-----------+-------+-------+
| 2006 |  42 | 205.0 | 5.00 | 4.07/3.79 |  7.6/ 8.1 | 0.39/0.54 | 40/43 | 12/10 |
| 2007 |  43 |  56.7 | 3.81 | 2.53/2.21 | 11.4/12.3 | 1.52/1.79 | 40/42 | 14/10 |
| 2008 |  44 | 184.0 | 3.91 | 3.58/3.31 |  8.5/ 9.1 | 0.67/0.84 | 40/42 | 12/ 9 |
+------+-----+-------+------+-----------+-----------+-----------+-------+-------+

Note: I use QERA as opposed to the usual LIPS ERA because it is much easier to compute and is similar enough to LIPS for our purposes.

If you’re new to THT Fantasy Focus and are unfamiliar with True Home Runs (tHR) or any of the other stats I’m using, check out our quick reference guide. These stats provide a much clearer picture of a player’s talent, so it’s well worth taking a couple of minutes to learn them.

When most people think of the Giants these days, they think of a terrible, terrible offense. This is absolutely true, and it will likely keep Johnson’s win total down, but his skills are still very strong. I’m sure those who drafted Johnson in the 20th round last year were more than pleased with his 3.91 ERA, but this was actually a little unlucky.

Both LIPS ERA and QERA thought he should have posted a 3.58 ERA, and once we make all of our adjustments, QERA puts him at 3.31. That’s a huge difference—one that could have made Johnson a top 10 pitcher. In addition, his K/9 would have risen by 0.6 points, resulting in 13 more strikeouts.

Furthermore, AT&T Park deflates homers by 14 percent while Chase Field inflates them by 15 percent. That’s a huge swing, apparent in Johnson’s HR/FB numbers above. While his BABIP would rise a little bit with our adjustments (.313 to .327 in 2008), the Giants did post a 3.0 UZR in 2008 while the D’Backs were at -3.5. Overall, I think Johnson’s QERA serves as a good estimator of his actual ERA with very few adjustments necessary once we take HR/FB and BABIP into consideration.

Risk
There are a few concerns with Johnson, though. The first is injuries. Johnson pitched just 10 games in 2007, although he did bounce back for a long 2008 campaign. Still, it’s been said that the cartilage in his knees has thinned over the years, and he has a history of back trouble as well (accounting for his missed time in 2007 and a 15-day DL stay in 2008).

His age is also a concern. At age 45, we have few comparables for Johnson, so we’re a little less certain about the age curve we’ll need to apply.

Stuff
Still, his “stuff” remains pretty good, and even a moderate drop-off could allow the Unit keep his ERA under 4.00. Keith Law at ESPN had this to say about his stuff:

He’s been pitching for a few years with reduced stuff, but his fastball is still solid-average at 89-93, and his slider remains sharp, at 82-86 mph with good tilt and late depth to it. His third pitch, a splitter, is a weaker offering; he gets on top of the pitch, but it has a slow dive rather than the hard bottom more often associated with a splitter. Right-handed hitters can time the pitch because its drop starts early.

I’m actually bigger on Johnson’s fastball than Law, as it gets more than 10 inches of horizontal movement and nearly eight inches of vertical movement (and at times can get up to 15 inches either way). While it sits at just 91 MPH or so (on average), that’s still a great fastball. I’m not quite as big on the slider as Law is because it really doesn’t seem to get a whole lot of movement, but I agree with him on the splitter. It gets a lot of horizontal movement and okay sink, but it starts to drop very early in comparison to the fastball (click for a visual depiction of the trajectory).

Overall
Overall, if Johnson stays healthy enough to reach the 170 innings Bill James projects (or even the 158 innings Marcels projects), he could very well be a top 12 or 15 pitcher. I could definitely see a 3.50 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 160 strikeouts, and 10-12 wins. It should be noted, though, that CHONE is much less optimistic on the playing time at just 110 innings.

So far, I’ve seen Johnson taken as early as round 17 and as late as round 23 in mixed league mock drafts. At that price, Johnson figures to be a steal if he stays healthy and won’t hurt you much if he doesn’t.

All in all, Johnson looks like a great pick this year.

Fallout: Giants pitchers

With the signing of Johnson, the Giants’ rotation looks like this:

  1. Tim Lincecum
  2. Randy Johnson
  3. Matt Cain
  4. Barry Zito
  5. Jonathan Sanchez

Last year, the Giants filled the fifth spot with the likes of Patrick Misch, Matt Palmer, Brad Hennessey, and Kevin Correia (now with San Diego). Aside from maybe Misch (who posted good Triple-A numbers in 2007 but dropped off considerably in 2008), none are really fantasy considerations, so while this move hurts all their value, it really doesn’t make much difference to fantasy owners. Noah Lowry could also be healthy in 2009, but he would be a terrible fantasy bet.

Jonathan Sanchez, however, could be the player indirectly affected the most by this signing. The Giants are now talking about the possibility of trading Sanchez, which could hurt his value if he goes to an American League team like the Yankees or Rangers. The Rockies, even in the National League, could be a bit of a downgrade.

Just about any move would cause him to allow more home runs, and a move to the AL would cause his strikeout rate (which he draws a lot of his value from) to drop by half a point.

Perhaps the most disturbing news of all, though, comes from an MLB.com article that states “if Lowry’s fit, Sanchez would be bumped from the rotation into the bullpen and could be expendable.” Sanchez to the bullpen? With Zito and Lowry in the rotation? Maybe a little premature, but perhaps I should retract my Sabean compliment from earlier. He really doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing.

Sanchez’s wins would likely increase by going to another team, and if he lands with someone like the Marlins or Cubs, he could see an uptick in value. That might be best for him if there’s a risk of him getting stuck in the bullpen with the Giants.

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