Player highlight: Fausto Carmona

I’m sure you all know who Fausto Carmona is by now. He probably wracked up some serious pitching points for some of your fantasy baseball teams this year. But now that 2007 is over, we need to look towards 2008. Is Fausto Carmona a guy you should be high on going into your 2008 draft or auction, or is he unlikely to repeat his 2007 season? Let’s take a look.

Numbers

YEARAGELASTFIRSTTEAMLGGGSIPERALIPS ERAWHIPDIPS WHIPK/9BB/9K/BBxGB%LOB%BABIPHR/FBLD%
200521CarmonaFaustoIndiansAA141490.74.07N/A1.32N/A5.661.992.8556.1*73.60.3128.3311.2
200521CarmonaFaustoIndiansAAA131283.03.25N/A1.10N/A5.271.613.2752.7*80.00.26113.3313.6
200622CarmonaFaustoIndiansAL38774.75.424.701.591.476.993.741.8755.4271.430.34613.8513.17
200723CarmonaFaustoIndiansAL3232215.03.064.231.211.305.732.552.2560.0979.650.28211.1113.88
07-1H23CarmonaFaustoIndiansAL1717107.73.854.371.351.375.102.422.1059.2776.470.30512.5013.89
07-2H23CarmonaFaustoIndiansAL1515107.32.254.161.071.236.352.672.3860.7183.480.2579.3813.87

Note: Minor league stats came from Jeff Sackmann’s excellent website MinorLeagueSplits.com.
*For minor league numbers, straight ground ball rate is given instead of expected ground ball rate.

As you’ve probably heard, or can see from the above table, Carmona is an extreme ground ball pitcher. The usual knock against extreme ground ball pitchers is that they rarely are able to get a lot of strikeouts, which — I’ve mentioned before — is the most important isolated stat for a pitcher. The only guys currently playing that are capable of posting a a K/9 above 8.00 and an xGB% above 50% are A.J. Burnett, Felix Hernandez, and Francisco Liriano (who, yes, I will be talking about in the not-too-distant future).

As Carmona is left out of that elite group, we can assume he falls in more with the Derek Lowes and Chien-Ming Wangs of the world. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it means that his 3.06 ERA is far from his true skill level. Before we dig too deep into his peripherals, let’s just clear up a few things about ground ball pitchers.

Extreme ground ball pitchers

First, let me say that getting ground balls is absolutely, undoubtedly preferable to getting fly balls. This doesn’t mean, however, that ground ball pitchers are inherently better at preventing hits on balls in play than fly ball pitchers. Actually, the opposite could be argued. Check out the table below.

The first three columns are for ground balls and the second three are for outfield fly balls. The first column of each set gives the MLB-wide BABIP for that batted ball type. The second gives a modified BABIP-type figure for each batted ball type to, rather roughly, account for double and triple plays [(H-DP-TP)/(BIP)]. The third gives the percentage of total outs each batted ball type produces.

YEARGB BABIPGB DP/TPGB OUTFB BABIPFB DP/TPFB OUT
2004 0.254 0.187 0.702 0.162 0.161 0.835
2005 0.249 0.181 0.715 0.134 0.133 0.863
2006 0.253 0.182 0.714 0.162 0.162 0.835
2007 0.257 0.185 0.710 0.167 0.167 0.828

As you can see, ground balls become hits more often than fly balls do. So what is the benefit of getting ground balls, then? The primary benefit of ground balls is that a ground ball can never clear the fence for a home run. By keeping the ball in the park, the total number of runs allowed is depressed. An added benefit is that ground balls can easily get you two outs in the form of a double play. This doesn’t happen very often with fly balls. Fly balls still produce more outs, but this helps ground balls bridge the gap a little bit.

On a side-note, I couldn’t write this article without mentioning fellow-THT writer Josh Kalk’s “from small ball to long ball” blog. On Carmona’s player card, we can see that he throws 65% sinkers. This would strongly lead us to believe that he is a ground ball pitcher even if you didn’t have the above ground ball percentages to work with.

2007 season

To most fantasy owners, Fausto Carmona came out of nowhere this year. He pitched a little for the Indians last year, but looked wholly unspectacular with a 5.42 ERA, mostly in relief appearances. He had been a pretty highly touted prospect as recently as Spring Training 2006, but it seemed like people forgot about him after he was unimpressive in his rookie campaign.

Still, this doesn’t answer the question we’re really trying to get at: how legitimate was his 2007 season?

Well, his ERA was 3.06, but his LIPS ERA was more than a point higher at 4.23. Why was this? Well, we can see that his BABIP was above average at .282 and his LOB% was above average at 80%, which I think explains a great deal of it. Were these numbers based on his skill, though, or was some form of luck involved?

Defense and BABIP

To answer this question let’s check out the Indians’ defense.

TEAM+/-RKRZRRKOOZRKIF RZRRKIF OOZRKOF RZRRKOF OOZRK
Indians-18110.80411313140.73614186110.86391625

Carmona really wasn’t aided much by his defense. They clearly look like one of the worst defenses in the American League, and their infield (which he relies upon the most with all those ground balls) is actually the worst. This causes us to look on at his .282 BABIP with either amazement or confusion. League average this year was .306, and Carmona was well below it despite the fact that he is an extreme ground ball pitcher with the worst infield in the American League behind him.

This might prompt some to say that Carmona has some sort of control over his BABIP beyond the relatively small effect most pitchers have. I, however, am skeptical.

While his BABIP looks good in light of the fact that he is an extreme ground ball pitcher, this is actually a strike against him, in my opinion. He is an extreme ground ball pitcher, and as we noted before, ground balls become hits more often than fly balls do. I have a hard time seeing Carmona overcoming this to the point where his BABIP is actually .024 better than league average, all while having the AL’s worst infield behind him. To me, that smells more of luck than it does of skill.

If we check out his BABIP on ground balls, we see that it is .218, well below the .239 league average mark and not what we would expect given that infield. That’s 9 hits above average, and adding those onto his actual BABIP would bring it up to .296.

If we look at his 14% line drive rate, we see that it is well below league average, which was 18% this year and has been 19% over the past 4 years. I think this has a lot to do with that low BABIP. On the surface, it looks like he has the ability to keep his line drive rate that low as it never exceeded 14% in either half of 2007, in 2006, or in AA or AAA in 2005. I, again, I’m skeptical.

From 2004 to 2007, pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched and a ground ball rate of 50% or greater had a combined line drive rate of 17%. While extreme ground ball pitchers do seem to have the ability to allow fewer line drives than normal pitchers do, Carmona’s line drive rate still looks too low.

All of this being said, I just don’t think Carmona’s BABIP is legit. I think it is due for an increase next year, especially if the defense doesn’t improve (which we’ll examine a bit later).

2007 season… again

Okay. Now it’s peripheral time.

Carmona posted a 5.73 K/9 this year and really turned it on in the second half with a 6.35 K/9. If we focus simply on his 2005 minor league numbers, we see that there isn’t much of a difference between them and his 2007 rate, which might lead us to believe Carmona is in for a small regression. However, in 2006 he put up a 6.99 K/9 in nearly 75 (mostly relief) innings. Looking at that, the drop to the 5.73 K/9 as a full-time starter looks very reasonable.

Because he was just 21 when he posted those minor league rates, and because his past two years worth of strikeouts rates seem to mesh well, and because his second half of 2007 was the best of all, and because he is now getting older and nearing his prime, I think it would be safe to say that Carmona’s strikeout rate should remain pretty stable, or at least won’t drop off. I think there’s a decent chance it’ll get above 6.00 in 2008, but I wouldn’t bank on it going too much higher.

In the minors, Carmona posted elite walk rates. He struggled a bit with it in the bullpen last year, but this year it improved to an acceptable level. I don’t doubt Carmona’s ability to one day get it under 2.00 in the majors, but I don’t know if that day will come in 2008. It actually rose into the high 2′s in the second half of this year, and it would be difficult to project it coming down nearly 3/4 of a point from there in 2008. Still, a BB/9 under 2.50 seems fairly likely.

2008 outlook

I don’t see too much of an improvement coming for Carmona’s peripherals in 2008. His walk rate should remain relatively the same and the strikeout rate might jump just a little bit. The ground ball rate will be, no doubt, elite. What about his defense, though?

2008 defense

The Cleveland infield figures to improve, at least a little, in 2008. If Asdrubal Cabrera gets the full-time second base job, his .850 RZR should be a big improvement over Josh Barfield‘s .784 RZR. 1B Ryan Garko (.729 RZR) and SS Jhonny Peralta (.763 RZR) on the other hand… not so much. It’ll be interesting to see who plays third, but there are a large number of players that would be an improvement upon Casey Blake‘s .708 RZR. If Blake returns, though, the simple addition of Cabrera won’t do the job.

In the outfield, Grady Sizemore‘s .881 RZR in center is unspectacular. He’s young and probably has some room to improve, though. Who knows what they’ll do with the corners. If they keep Kenny Lofton and his .878 RZR they might be in decent shape, but he won’t play everyday, and David Dellucci and his .766 mark are still hanging around. They might wind up platooning Dellucci with someone if Lofton leaves, maybe Jason Michaels (.833 RZR). In right field, hopefully Franklin Gutierrez will get the majority of the playing time. He posted an incredible .908 RZR in 578 innings. It’s a shame they can’t get that type of defensive production out of a different position.

2008 fantasy numbers

Overall, look for a marginally improved defense (if Cabrera and Gutierrez get full-time roles) and a BABIP and LOB% that regress towards league average. It’s entirely possible they’ll end up a little worse. Then, add in this peripheral line: 5.80 K/9 | 2.40 BB/9 | 60% GB. Combine these factors and you’re probably looking at an ERA around 4.00 and a WHIP in the 1.30-1.35 area.

While these are serviceable in nearly all leagues, they really aren’t fantastic. You could find a number of pitchers valued less than Carmona capable of putting up similar numbers and getting you more strikeouts. While Carmona’s strikeout rate is better than those of other ground ball pitchers like Aaron Cook and Chien-Ming Wang, it is still likely to be below league average. In a fantasy league, a 4.00 ERA and 1.30 WHIP won’t make up that value.

As far as wins go, Carmona figures to be at least moderately helpful. I don’t see him getting back to 19 wins in 2008, but he might be good for 13 or 14. The Indians offense was very disconcerting in the second half, placing 10th in the American league in runs (and were just 2 runs ahead of 12th place). With a Travis Hafner (who we will examine in the future) bounce-back and a solid addition or two they look like they could be an average-to-above average offense. I think 13 or 14 wins seems about right.

Concluding thoughts

Everything being said, Fausto Carmona doesn’t figure to be nearly as valuable to fantasy baseball owners in 2008 as he was in 2007. His ERA is likely to decline nearly a full point, his WHIP is likely to drop at least .10, he’ll miss out on five or six wins, and his strikeout rate wasn’t very good to begin with. He does figure to throw a lot of innings, which will make up for the below-average strikeout rate a little bit, but I really don’t see Carmona having immense value in 2008.

Don’t get me wrong, I could definitely see him becoming a great pitcher one day in the Brandon Webb mold, but he will need to prove that he can keep his K/9 above 6.00 and his BB/9 under 2.00. That seems like a pretty big stretch for 2008, though.

As an initial guess, I’d have to think Carmona will land outside my Top 50 fantasy pitchers for the 2008 season. Because of this, he likely won’t be worth targeting because he will surely be on the Top 50 lists of your fellow owners, possibly even as high as the Top 20. CBS has already come out with a set of 2008 rankings, and Carmona is #17 among starting pitchers. I think he’ll be long gone in your draft before you should even consider him, and his price tag at auction will likely exceed what you could smartly pay for him.

Post script: Question to the readers

What do you guys think of the player profiles so far? Are they running too long? Just right? I’d be happy to hear your opinions either via e-mail or comment.

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