Fantasy Spin: Anibal Sanchez or Matt Garza?

Today, we play the brand name game. According to Yahoo’s most up-to-date preseason ranks, Anibal Sanchez is ranked as the No. 154 overall player in standard 5×5, mixed league roto formats. Matt Garza is ranked No. 103 overall. Is that gap really justified? At the outset, my gut says no.

First, let’s look at the surface statistics. Here is how the fantasy numbers of Matt Garza and Anibal Sanchez compared in 2011, especially against the average qualified starting pitcher in 2011:

Player2011 RankIPWinsERAWHIPStrikeoutsK%
Matt Garza147198.0103.321.2619723.5%
Anibal Sanchez212196.183.671.2820224.3%
Qual. MLB SP Average*N/A198.212.23.701.2515618.8%

Off the bat, a few things stand out. First, Garza was the better fantasy player, but not by enough to matter. Their ERAs and WHIPs are close enough that a few extra good or bad starts for either pitcher could have a drastic impact on who ended the season with better rate stats. Although elite pitching has become more clustered in recent years, a third of a run and .02 base runners differential in ERA and WHIP are relatively marginal.

More shocking, however, might be the average qualified major league starting pitcher numbers. Would you have seriously guessed that they produced those numbers, even in the second coming of the era of the pitcher? Essentially, the league average qualified starting pitcher, in terms of ERA and WHIP, was a little better than what it took to win a fantasy league with your pitching staff in 2009. That’s down right crazy, if you ask me.

Of course, here at The Hardball Times, we preach looking beyond the numbers. Single season surface results, particularly ERA and WHIP, are generally not the best predictors of future performance. So let’s look at the overall peripherals:

PlayerK%BB%K/BBSwStr%F-Strike%FIPxFIPSIERRAeFIPxWHIP
Matt Garza23.5%7.5%3.111.2%63.8%3.323.193.313.131.20-1.22
Anibal Sanchez24.3%7.7%3.210.9%63.3%3.353.253.293.101.19-1.21

From the perspective of peripherals, we find the two players near identical. Their strikeout and walk rates, in addition to their first pitch strike and whiff rates, are marginally divergent. All of SIERRA, FIP, xFIP and eFIP agree that both pitchers flashed legit ace-type talent last season, and their expected ERAs are essentially within .05 runs per nine innings of each other no matter which ERA estimator you use. Likewise, xWHIP thought both pitchers were near identical in talent at limiting baserunners in a vacuum last season.

This confirms, at least to some degree, the initial hypothesis: that a significant gap in their rankings/ADP is not justified on functional/substantive grounds—at least not based on 2011. A comparison of their career numbers, though, with Garza pitching in the harder league and division before 2011, would certainly give Garza the rankings edge, all else considered and nothing else relevant, heading into 2011. But consider a couple of other points.

First, compare the past two years of performance by the two pitchers. They are as eerily similar as their 2011 performances standing alone:

PlayerIPWERAWHIPFIPK%BB%
Garza Past 2402.2253.621.253.7920.5%7.4%
Sanchez Past 2391.1213.611.313.3021.5%8.0%

Second, a look at both pitchers’ monthly strikeout rate and xFIP splits reveals that Sanchez was substantially more consistent in his month-to-month production:
April:
Sanchez: 23.4% K%, 3.34 xFIP
Garza: 30.5% K%, 2.09 xFIP

May:
Sanchez: 26.0% K%, 3.24 xFIP
Garza: 22.7% K%, 3.90 xFIP

June:
Sanchez: 25.4% K%, 2.73 xFIP
Garza: 16.5% K%, 3.71 xFIP

July:
Sanchez: 24.3% K%, 3.27 xFIP
Garza: 21.1% K%, 3.70 xFIP

August:
Sanchez: 19.7% K%, 3.75 xFIP
Garza: 26.1% K%, 2.98 xFIP

September:
Sanchez: 26.6% K%, 3.24 xFIP
Garza: 21.5% K%, 3.30 xFIP

These splits might be less of a concern in Roto leagues, where patience is king, rather than H2H formats, but the volatility raises some question as to where Garza’s true talents in the National League lies. Is Garza the pitcher he was in July or August? April or May? June or September? Likely, it’s somewhere in the middle, putting Sanchez and Garza on near equal footing in terms of process and talent last year and over the past two years. At the very least, Garza’s volatility is enough of a question mark to make the prospective value of the two pitchers a closer question than their career numbers would otherwise indicate.

The bottom line is this. You should be happy to have either pitcher on your roster anchoring your staff. xFIP and SIERRA do not tell the whole story and are far from the be-all, end-all, but the consensus of the most popular ERA estimators (plus my own calculations) seem to indicate that both starters are capable and likely to repeat and outperform last year’s surface stats.

Both have the potential to be equally or more valuable than starters like Yovani Gallardo, James Shields, C.J. Wilson and Daniel Hudson, all of whom rank substantially higher in Yahoo. The only real difference between them that I see is that one is going to cost you your ninth or 10 pick, assuming no one reaches given his hype, while the other is going a full five rounds later in 12-team mixed leagues. Garza has popped up in plenty of non-expert discussions that I have had in the offseason as a trendy starting pitcher and sleeper for 2012 (much in the same way as Zack Greinke). Why pay for that name brand, when you can have the equally functional “knock off” at a fraction of the price?

As always, lave the love/hate in the comments below.

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Comments

  1. Mark Himmelstein said...

    The thing that’s been often discussed about Garza was his drastic shift in pitch usage, which could be a double-edged sword in terms of effectiveness and injury risk, but clearly produced great results last year. He threw his fastball at a by-far career low rate (but still more than 50% of the time), while throwing each of his slider, curve, and changeup more than ever before. In particular, the slider was both a difference maker and is a potential risk since he threw it more than 23% of the time after typically using it less than 15% of the time.

    I did a bit more digging a little to see if there was a similar approach-shift with Sanchez, and while there’s nothing nearly as drastic, it does seem the difference was a secondary pitch, namely the changeup. He’s relied on it more in the last three years than before, and last year, he threw it a career high 17% of the time, and according to pitch-type linear weights, it was his most effective weapon, and on a per-pitch basis by a large margin, though it hasn’t always been as effective in the past.

    One thing that gives me slight pause—his pitch distribution and distribution of pitch values was much more similar in 2009, when he had a 4.58 xFIP, than 2010, when he had a 4.04 xFIP. The differences between 2009 and 2011 seem two fold: he’s added nearly one full mph on his fastball, and perhaps related but more important: he had a career high F-Strike% despite a career low Zone%. This suggests he did a better job than ever before at getting ahead in the count, and then generating whifs on pitches outside of the zone, probably often on changeups. To me, those factors will be the keys to a repeat performance for Anibal.

    Garza, on the other hand, has always had a very effective slider, he’s just never thrown it often enough to take full advantage of it. Like Sanchez, his velocity has also been increasing over the last few years, though he started from a higher velocity base to begin with. I think this will be a key for him too, since a drop could indicate bad news for the added stress on his arm from all the sliders.

    Overall, I agree with your assessment that they’re very close, and though Garza is more expensive, I still think he’s a decent value. Independent of cost I’d prefer Garza by a hair thanks to the better velocity and more drastic approach shift, though relative to cost, I prefer Sanchez by a larger margin.

  2. Jim said...

    Another thing from a fantasy perspective: in Sanchez, you’re getting a guy who will have a lot better run support this year and more shots at ‘easier’ W’s than Garza who is going into a rebuilding franchise.

  3. Jeffrey Gross said...

    Mark,

    A bunch of good points. A few things
    1) I did some basic research a few years ago, and Zone% came out as pretty irrelevant to K% and BB%. SwStr% and FStrike%, as you might imagine, had very high relevance.

    2) Don’t use my article to try and exploit me in trades!

    In a vacuum, though, I’d agree Garza is the better pick on the basis of track record. The guy who has done it more often, and before, esp. in the AL East, is always the better choice. But I think given Garza’s offensive backing him, it’s close enough.

  4. Ender said...

    Sanchez isn’t likely to finish the year healthy and Garza might be traded to a better team.  I’ll take Garza every time.  I don’t think either have a chance to match Gallardo now that he got his control under control and improved that change up, but he will be a legit Cy Young candidate this year.

    But yeah if you use yahoo’s rankings I guess this makes sense.  It isn’t how the pitchers are actually being drafted though, Sanchez has gone before Garza in most of my drafts and mocks with decent owners.

  5. Mark Himmelstein said...

    @Jeffrey

    Oh like you would have let me get away with Sanchez for $6 if you’d had money smile. Besides, I warned you guys this would happen if you put me in a league. I’ve been reading THT Fantasy for years, so I know who all you guys like, meanwhile you guys basically know I like Matt Wieters, Erick Aybar, and Mike Minor (which was a shocker, I know).

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