Twisting Oliver: Identifying potentially undervalued pitchers

Any good projection system requires some sort of map to help you navigate its many twists and turns.

Last week, I made a somewhat ham-handed attempt at providing some directions for identifying undervalued batters. As I discovered, though, finding your way around is a bit more like following a pirate’s treasure map than it is like downloading directions from MapQuest. The directions aren’t always clear and sometimes you need to get a little creative. Unfortunately, sometimes that leads you down paths you never really meant to explore.

With that in mind, I’m overhauling my approach. Instead of using Average Draft Position as an indicator of other’s expectations, I’m using other projection systems. I’m also scrapping the way I ranked players, and going with something that’s a little more straightforward.

For each of the pitchers I highlight in this article, I have used two ranking systems. The first takes a pitcher’s average projected rank in ERA, WHIP and strikeouts (the three 5×5 categories that Oliver projects) and orders them based on their collective average rank in those categories. That will be referred to as 5×3 from here on out. The other one does the same thing with rate stats K:BB, HR/9, ERA and WHIP, and then attempts to measure the impact of those by including a pitcher’s rank in projected innings pitched. I’ll call that one Rates+. Both of those rankings will be in parenthesis next to the pitcher’s name. I then did the same thing using the projections at Fangraphs (Marcel, CHONE, ZiPS and Fans) and took the average of those.

And just so I’m clear, the rankings to which I refer are mine, and are not literally the product of Oliver (which I had no part in creating). Our projection system does not attempt to rank players overall, but by downloading the spreadsheets and devising your own formulas, it certainly facilitates your ability to do so.

I apologize for taking so much time to explain myself, but I just wanted you to understand what I mean when I say things like “Oliver is probably going to end up proposing to Colby Lewis.”

Since we’re finally on the subject, I may as well start with Oliver’s projections of Mr. Lewis.

Colby Lewis (6, 5×3; 5, Rates+)

If you’re like the millions of others who don’t follow the performances of major leaguers who move to Japan, you probably had forgotten about the man slated as the No. 3 starter for the Rangers. In two seasons there, Lewis led the league in strikeouts twice, compiling 369, while walking just 46 and registering an ERA of 2.86. For those of you who forgot your calculators, that’s a K:BB of 8.02 against competition generally considered to be the rough equivalent of Triple-A. Those are the kind of numbers that make Oliver drool. Oliver projects top 10 finishes in ERA, WHIP and K:BB, putting him in the top six in both my ranking systems. CHONE puts him in the top 25, but the other projections barely even consider him draftable (and Fans doesn’t even provide a projection). I grabbed him in the final round of both the drafts I did last weekend, which seems pretty standard. If Lewis comes even close to meeting his projected line of 3.09 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 165 strikeouts, he’ll be a steal even if you draft him in the teens.

Jake Peavy (9, 5×3; 17, Rates+)

Coming after Lewis, this may be a bit of a letdown. Obviously, you know all about the former Padres aces. But after a move from pitching in the most pitcher-friendly park in the more pitcher-friendly league and into one of the more hitter-friendly parks, it’s understandable that his stock has taken a bit of a hit. Oliver doesn’t seem worried. His cumulative rankings in the other four projections are 33 and 37, respectively. Oliver projects an ERA of 3.37 (16th best), a WHIP of 1.21 (24th) and 169 Ks (31st). His projected HR/9 rate is .85 (141st), but that’s actually lower than his career mark of .90. There’s no reason you should be shy about taking him in the 10th or 11th round, or about where he’s currently going in Yahoo drafts.

Stephen Strasburg (12, 5×3; 9, Rates+)

There’s obviously some risk involved here, mainly because everyone knows about the No. 1 pick in last year’s draft, and he has no professional track record, so his projections are entirely based on his performance against college batters. That said, Oliver is about as bullish as could be on the flame-throwing National Treasure. I rate Strasburg highly, despite the fact that he’s only projected to toss 100 innings at the major league level this year. In that limited time, Oliver projects a 2.86 ERA (second), a 1.08 WHIP (second), 126 Ks, and a K:BB ratio of 4.50 (fourth). Of the four projection systems I used as points of comparison, only ZiPS bothers to project Strasburg. Although it suggests more innings pitched, it is far less optimistic, projecting a 4.18 ERA (190th), 1.32 WHIP (116th), 113 Ks and a K:BB ratio of 3.14 (33rd). Although his ADP is pretty low (179 in Yahoo), I seriously doubt you can get him that late. If you buy what Oliver is selling, making him a top-100 pick, especially if you’re in a keeper league, isn’t out of the question.

Ted Lilly (15, 5×3; 63, Rates+)

Certainly not as sexy or interesting as the other guys on this list, the Cubs lefty does provide the chance to get some value. An injury will likely cause him to miss at least a few starts at the beginning of the season, but that shouldn’t keep him from hitting Oliver’s projected 170 IP. My rankings love him in the standard roto stats, but dock him for projected deficiencies in IP and HR/9 (1.32, which is basically his career norm). Still, his projected 3.54 ERA (29th), 1.14 WHIP (eighth) and 3.26 K:BB (24th) are all solid. The other projections don’t exactly hate him, either, and I give him cumulative rankings of 37 (5×3) and 80 (Rates+). You can probably snag him in the last few rounds of your draft (he’s not going in the top 200 picks of the standard Yahoo draft), which makes him a pretty low risk.

Max Scherzer (24, 5×3; 30, Rates+)

The Tigers’ newest starter has some similarities to Peavy (moving to a more difficult league) and Strasburg (he’ll definitely be on other owners’ radars), but Oliver doesn’t seem to think there’s much to be worried about. I rank him mainly on the strength of his strikeout numbers. Oliver projects 213 Ks (fourth) and a K/9 of 9.59. His projected ERA (3.79, 63rd) and WHIP (1.29, 69th) won’t win those categories but shouldn’t hurt you much either. His cumulative ranking in the other projections are 57th (5×3) and 65th (Rates+), in no small part because no one else is predicting Scherzer will toss a career-high 200 innings the way we do. There’s no question drafting Scherzer has an element of risk attached to it, and I doubt he’ll go outside the top 200 the way he is in Yahoo drafts. Still, there’s no reason to believe he can’t be a solid No. 3 fantasy starter if he can just build a little off last season (170.1 IP).

Mat Latos (31, 5×3; 28, Rates+)

Oliver seems to think Latos will emerge as the newest Padres ace sooner than later. Although he’s projected to register just 130 IP, he earns his ranking largely on the strength of his ERA (3.48, 24th) and WHIP (1.24, 37th). His ranking isn’t especially strong anywhere else, but we don’t project any serious red flags, either. He ranks 142nd cumulatively in both of the rankings using the other projections, which generally project fewer IP and much less control. He’s another guy who’s probably worth the minimal risk that comes with late-round flyers.

Clay Buchholz (32, 5×3; 53, Rates+)

Three seasons after he burst onto the scene by throwing a no-hitter in his second major league start, Buchholz is finally expected to break camp as a member of the Red Sox rotation. Oliver seems to think he’ll earn the right to stay there. Oliver projects a better ERA (3.54, 29th) and WHIP (1.28, 61st) than any of the other projections, better strikeout numbers (7.74 K/9) than all but Fans and a lower HR/9 (.90) than all but ZiPS. Based on his breaking camp with the big club, we may even be a bit conservative on IP (150), which could mean a strikeout total closer to 150 than the 129 Oliver currently projects. It’s tough to say where someone like Buchholz will likely be drafted, but if the other owners in your league are using other projections (cumulatively 157 and 213, respectively) he may in fact be available in the last few rounds.

Rick Porcello (52, 5×3; 92, Rates+)

With Justin Verlander and now Scherzer, it’s not too hard to forget about the Tigers’ 21-year-old potential ace-in-the-making. Porcello didn’t exactly blow anyone away last year, but he did make 31 starts and toss 170.2 innings as a 20-year-old, while maintaining an ERA under 4.00 (3.96). He never developed a strikeout pitch, though, and that’s probably what’s scaring most fantasy owners, as well as the projection systems. Oliver isn’t as worried. If he can toss the 200 innings we project, Oliver projects a solid ERA (3.78, 61st) and WHIP (1.27, 54th) that should be enough to overcome his anemic strikeout numbers (4.82 K/9). If he manages to develop that elusive strikeout pitch, watch out.

Ian Kennedy (60, 5×3; 51, Rates+)

The one-time Yankees prospect looks like he’ll join the Diamondbacks rotation to start the season. It’s hard to tell whether the other projections knew this, but either way Oliver is much more optimistic than they are. Oliver’s projected ERA (3.76, 58th) and WHIP (1.31, 100th) are way better than any of the others are predicting, sometimes by more than a run and in all cases, by more than .10 baserunners per inning. Combine those numbers with decent strikeout totals (7.59 K/9) and an ability to keep the ball in the park (.64 HR/9, 39th) and you have a legitimate young stud on your hands.

Other notable findings

This is where I got in a little bit of trouble last time, but I’ll go ahead of give some of the pitchers Oliver is less optimistic about.

  • Based on his projected ERA (3.84, 74th) and WHIP (1.29, 75th) that are both higher than the other projections, Cliff Lee could be less of a fantasy ace than many are counting on. Combined with his abdominal muscle injury, Lee could be headed for the dreaded “bust” label.
  • Although Oliver is hardly alone in this, fantasy owners should be aware that Chris Carpenter is roundly being predicted to fall off somewhat dramatically in IP. Oliver projects solid numbers elsewhere (2.85 ERA, 1.09 WHIP), but his projected 150 IP is hardly befitting of someone who will almost certainly go within the first 50-60 picks.
  • Oliver is also less-than-bullish on fellow Redbird Adam Wainwright. His projected ERA (3.64, 42nd) and WHIP (1.27, 55th) should be enough to worry owners, but Oliver also projects a somewhat significant drop in K/9 (7.37, down from 8.19 last year). Although the other projections are not all as skeptical of Wainwright’s ability to build on last year, all of them are predicting varying levels of regression from his career year.

If there’s one thing all the projections seem to agree on, it’s that Tim Lincecum should once again be the best pitcher in baseball. Using my rankings, he was tops across the board with the one exception being CHONE’s projections giving him a No. 3 5×3 ranking. Oliver projects a 2.86 ERA (second), 1.14 WHIP (ninth), 247 Ks (first) and a HR/9 of .47 (12th).

I realize I ignored relievers in this article, but frankly I just started to run out of space. I promise to address reliever projections in a later column. I’ll leave you, though, with notes on Jonathon Broxton and Neftali Feliz.

  • If there’s one reliever who deserves to be picked in the early part of the draft, the projections all seem to agree it’s Broxton. I know my rankings probably skew away from relievers (which is fine as far as I’m concerned), but that didn’t keep the Dodgers closer from ranking in the top 32 in both ranking systems, in all five projections. He ranked as high as 11th (Oliver) in Rates+ and as high as 14th (ZiPS) in 5×3. The combination of his ability to strike out batters (11.19 K/9 in Oliver), limit baserunners (1.16 WHIP) and keep the ball in the park (.51) HR/9) is essentially unmatched among relievers.
  • Feliz is less roundly admired, but even if he pitches out of the bullpen all year and only tosses the 70 innings Oliver projects, he’ll still be a solid reliever. He’s probably not going to get many saves, but you could do a lot worse than that combination of 3.35 ERA (15th), 1.23 WHIP (34th), 8.87 K/9 and .39 HR/9 (fourth).
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  1. Donald Trump said...

    Is this a joke, or did you write this article specifically for me.  Really, at this point in the pre-season, we are all scanning articles looking for commentary on the guys we just drafted.  My pitching staff is composed of Colby, Strassburg, Scherzer, Lilly and Latos.  As I was scrolling down, I caught myself saying ‘really?’, followed by ‘really?!’, followed by ‘no friggin way’.

  2. Jeremiah Oshan said...

    Good thing it’s no longer April Fool’s. Well, that’s nice to read. Hopefully you didn’t have to reach too much on those guys. If not, should be interesting. I’d love to see what kind of offense you were able to build.

  3. Donald Trump said...

    It was an auction, and I had an extra $14 from selling Nelson Cruz. I didnt have to reach for any of them, getting everyone at under $5, and usually $1.  I did have to pay $13 for Strasburg, but have the option of keeping him next year (yes please).
    I spent my money on infield…
    McCann – $24
    Pujols – 55
    Kinsler – 38
    Hanley – 67
    Longoria – 50
    Our league has some keepers, so there was some price inflation, but Hanley at 67 was just absurd.

    I went extreme stars and scrubs, actually as extreme as I could go, and I probably took it too far unless I get lucky on pitching.  On pitching I also have DiceK, Bailey and Jamie Garcia, and have Stubbs, Swisher, Gutierrez, and Konerko to round out the offense, with Dotel, Lindstrom, C Perez, and F morales as closers.  So my infield is the best, but my pitching is a real crapshoot.

  4. Jeremiah Oshan said...

    At least no one will accuse you of failing to be bold. Obviously, I think your pitching staff at least has a chance to be good and your infield looks very good.

  5. Jeremiah Oshan said...

    It was suggested on another post that I use a formula that was apparently created in a Tom Tango contest: Pitching: 2*W + SV + K/5 + IP – (H + BB + ER)/2

    Since Oliver doesn’t provide Wins or Saves projections at this time, I just lopped those off and here’s what I got:

    Top 10
    Lincecum, Tim
    Haren, Dan
    Greinke, Zack
    Sabathia, C.C.
    Vazquez, Javier
    Beckett, Josh
    Lewis, Colby
    Halladay, Roy
    Hanson, Tommy
    Hernandez, Felix

    Here are where some of the other guys rank: Peavy, 18; Strasburg, 38; Lilly 22; Scherzer, 15; Porcello, 48; Buchholz, 51; Latos 60; Kennedy, 70; Lee, 34; Carpenter, 23; Wainwright, 19; Broxton, 86 (I don’t know how well the formula holds up once you take out saves and wins); and Feliz, 112.

    Most of my comments about those guys seem to stand up pretty well under that formula…

  6. tony starks said...

    No kidding. I read this article and felt the same exact way as the Donald. I didn’t have all the same guys but enough of them to make this article seem relative… especially considering it’s in an 18-team H2H league. So I drafted Lilly (177th overall), Latos (260th), and Colby Lewis (357th) not to mention Broxton who I took in the 5th round (76th overall) and Netfali Feliz who I took in the 9th round (148th overall). We only start 4 SPs and 2 RPs so most everyone goes after pitching early. And our scoring system is set-up so that the top SPs outscore the top batters. To illustrate just how important pitching is I actually passed on Pujols with the 4th pick and took Greinke (the first three picks were Lincecum, Halladay, and Felix)—but figured I could get a solid 1B in the later rounds. So I ended up getting Butler with pick #82 (was targetting Morales there but he ended up going three picks before my turn—hoping Butler will be solid) but am very happy with that strategy. SPs going around the same time were Baker, Danks, Dempster, De La Rosa etc. and I’d rather have Greinke and Butler than Pujols and one of those guys (I think). Ok sorry to be so long-winded. Loved your article though and hopefully you’re right about these guys!

  7. Jeremiah Oshan said...

    For my money, Lewis is the most intriguing guy out there right now. Good luck and thanks.

  8. T A Hoppe said...

    I’m in three leagues and Buchholz was not drafted in any of them. Neither was Latos, Kennedy.  Lilly is available in one because he’ll miss some starts.  Colby will be someone who won’t even be streamed, like the rest of the Rangers pitchers, until he strings together some Ws

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