Season review: starting pitchers

It’s November and every hitting position already has been recapped. Don’t think I forgot about the men on the mound; their turn is right now. Let’s start with that chart, slightly modified:

En masse

+------+-----+------+------+--------+
| Year | SPs | ERA  | FIP  | WPA/LI |
+------+-----+------+------+--------+
| 2004 |  91 | 4.24 | 4.30 |  0.574 |
| 2005 |  99 | 4.04 | 4.12 |  0.469 |
| 2006 |  88 | 4.34 | 4.35 |  0.582 |
| 2007 |  89 | 4.17 | 4.30 |  0.722 |
| 2008 |  97 | 4.08 | 4.18 |  0.531 |
+------+-----+------+------+--------+

In a majority of the hitters’ charts, 2006 was a great offensive year, with 2007 and 2008 below it in terms of production. That trend is reflected in the pitchers’ stats, whichever one you focus upon. The one major outlier is under WPA/LI, which is WPA with the Leverage aspect removed, in 2008 when a .200 point reduction in the stat occurred. Remember that a lower ERA and FIP is better while inversely a higher WPA/LI is better. Both ERA and FIP agree that pitchers have gotten better over the last couple of years; why WPA/LI disagrees I would like to know.

I’d like to find someone out there who thinks starting pitchers have gotten worse over the last few years, because the position is as deep as it has ever been. The number of pitchers in 2008 who threw at least 150 innings, had an ERA at or below (the arbitrary) 3.75, and compiled at least 150 strikeouts was 24. The same number in 2007 is 21, and just 12 in 2006. Whether you consider that manipulating the data or not, if you looked for yourself it would be tough to argue that the starting pitcher position has gotten shallower over the past three years.

To me, that means I will take pitchers late in drafts. I know that there so many philosophies on when to select pitchers in drafts or how much money to allocate for them in auctions. Whatever I suggest with be agreed upon by some people and disagreed upon by many others. Therefore, I am not going to go into as much detail as I did in the other reviews on my general drafting strategy when it comes to pitchers. What I will say is that I never draft elite pitchers. Players you will never find on my team after a draft: Johan Santana, Jake Peavy, Brandon Webb, or any other pitcher typically taken in the first five rounds. I laugh when someone takes a pitcher in the first round, but again, that is just my opinion. Let’s move onto those risers and fallers.

Individuals

The Risers

Some pitchers who were “risers” in 2008 have been talked about ad nauseum already. I’ll create a little list of those pitchers and then talk more in-depth about more less-noted pitchers:
{exp:list_maker}Cliff Lee
Justin Duchscherer
Ryan Dempster
Ervin Santana {/exp:list_maker}
Ricky Nolasco came out of nowhere to post a 3.58 ERA in 2008. The 26-year-old certainly gets his share of strikeouts, at 7.88 per nine, but most impressive was Nolasco’s control. His BB/9 was 1.78, good for 10th in the majors! I took a quick glance at his minor league walk rates and while they were good, they were never that good, and pitchers’ walk rates usually do not go down as they move up in the minors. Nolasco had a great season, but I question whether he will be able to replicate his success.

image
With more walks than strikeouts, Fausto needs to spend more time looking at the strike zone than his glove. (Icon/SMI)

Edison Volquez had the tough job of dueling it out with Josh Hamilton, with whom he was swapped for in the offseason, and Volquez at least made it competitive with a 3.21 ERA and more than 200 strikeouts.

It is important to note that Volquez perhaps became fatigued as the season wore on; there is a dramatic difference between his first and second half splits. His first half ERA was 2.29 and his second half ERA was more than two points higher at 4.60. I’m not such a strong believer in second half splits, but for a young pitcher under Dusty Baker who saw a significant workload increase—as Volquez did—it is something to keep your eye on.

The Fallers

One-year wonder Fausto Carmona was terribly awful in 2008. Not much of a strikeout pitcher even in 2007, Carmona survived by keeping his walk totals down and inducing ground balls. In 2008, the screws completely came off. His already low strikeout rate dropped to 4.33 per nine innings and his BB/9 rate rose to 5.22(!), meaning he gave up more walks than he got strikeouts. Simply inexcusable.

Josh Beckett had a somewhat disappointing season: His ERA rose from 3.27 to 4.03 in 2008. An article by Peter Bendix at Fangraphs a couple of days ago shows how literally nothing changed between Beckett’s 2007 and 2008 peripheral stats. Expect his ERA to hang out closer to 3.27 than 4.03 in 2009.

After three years of a 3.70-3.80 ERA, Aaron Harang‘s ERA shot up a full point to 4.78 this past season. What stands out is the full loss of a point in K/9, the half-point gain in BB/9, and the increasing number of fly balls he is allowing. I don’t think an ERA under 4.00 can be expected from Harang anymore, but I also do not agree with those who think Harang’s ERA with be close to 5.00 next year either. Low to mid 4.00s sounds about right to me.

Javier Vazquez had teased fantasy owners for several years from 2004 to 2006, posting great K/BB ratios, and yet he could never get his ERA below that 4.00 mark. In 2007, Vazquez finally accomplished that feat (something he did regularly earlier in the century when in 2007 his ERA dropped to 3.74). But then he went back to disappointing again in 2008: His ERA jumped back up to 4.67. Give me a crystal ball and I might tell you what Vazquez’s ERA will be in 2009, but even that would be risky.

Hypothetical situation: a 25-year-old second overall pick who has compiled a 3.74 ERA through his first 399 career innings pitched. This pitcher sounds excellent, right? Right. The player I am referring to is Justin Verlander, selected ninth among starting pitchers in this year’s drafts. Verlander outplayed his xFIP in both 2006 and 2007, but in 2008 it caught up to him and his ERA rose to 4.84. As is a common theme among pitchers on this list, Verlander saw his K/9 level fall and his BB/9 level rise significantly. I have reserved emotions about 2009.

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