Twisting Oliver: joining the elite

If there’s one pitcher type all owners covet, it’s a high-strikeout guy … who won’t kill your ratios with repeated six-walk, seven-run outings. It’s hard to find a guy who offers both a lofty whiff total, and a braggable ERA, and if you can land one or more of those types, your pitching staff will frighten the opposition—even if they’ll never admit it to your face. For the sake of this article, let’s use a K/9 of 8.5 and a sub-4.00 ERA as our benchmarks.

In 2009, only nine pitchers managed to do both, but last year, the year of the pitcher, 14 guys qualified. Here’s a look at that list (among starting pitchers who threw at least 100 innings):

Tim Lincecum
Jon Lester
Yovani Gallardo
Jonathan Sanchez
Francisco Liriano
Jered Weaver
Clayton Kershaw
Mat Latos
Josh Johnson
Cole Hamels
Justin Verlander
Colby Lewis
Ryan Dempster
Ubaldo Jimenez

It’s basically a who’s who of elite fantasy pitchers, although I am surprised to see Dempster’s name in the group. Only two starters topped the 8.5 K/9 mark and failed to produce an ERA under 4.00—Brandon Morrow, who actually led all starters with 10.9 K/9, and Bud Norris, both of whom we’ll soon discuss.

At first I found it a little weird that 14 of 16 pitchers with a K/9 over 8.5 also had sub-4.00 ERAs, but upon further thought, not so much. High strikeout guys typically do one of two things: either they dial back their stuff to gain more control, and in the process suffer reduced strikeout rates, or they fail to consistently harness/control their arsenal, and are sent to the bullpen. What we’re searching for in this week’s edition of Twisting Oliver, is that rare pitcher who can make the necessary adjustments without losing what makes him special—the ability to miss multitudes of bats.

What follow is a group of pitchers that Oliver thinks are 2011 contenders to join the elite, and reach the pre-determined benchmarks for ERA and K/9.

Brandon Morrow

2009: 4.39 ERA/1.57 WHIP/8.1 K/9 (69.2 IP)
2010: 4.49 ERA/1.38 WHIP/10.9 K/9 (146 IP)
2011 Oliver: 4.17 ERA/1.32 WHIP/9.2 K/9 (126 IP)

Sporting an ERA of 6.00 heading into June, Morrow reined in his stuff, and produced a 3.53 ERA/1.24 WHIP to go along with a K/9 of 11.3 from June-August, including a one-hit, 17 strikeout, complete game shutout of the Rays. He was put in the garage in September to limit his innings.

Oliver thinks … the ratios will trend downward, and the strikeouts will continue to come in bunches. If you extrapolate the Oliver numbers out using the THT Forecast for innings pitched (200), Morrow comes in as a top 50 pitcher, essentially a No. 4 starter in 12-team rotations.

I think … there’re plenty of reasons to indicate he’ll better Oliver’s projections. His xFIP sat at 3.63 last season, a significant difference from his 4.49 ERA. His BABIP of .348 was the fourth highest mark in the league. Both those numbers, combined with his productive summer, point to an ERA that could easily sit in the 3.50 range. As for that productive summer, it coincided perfectly with Bengie Molina becoming his personal catcher. The fireballer credits Molina with turning him on to the benefit of dialing down his power stuff ever so slightly, and relying more on his off-speed pitches. The result: a BB/9 ratio that went from 5.3 in the first two months, to 3.2 after, and a full inning increase in the length of his outings (from five innings to six).

Entering his age 26 season, Morrow appears ready to handle a full-season, meaning 200 innings, and 200 strikeouts, are a good bet—assuming, of course, that he stays healthy, which has been a problem in the past. There will be plenty of sleeper buzz heading into the season, so much so that he’ll probably graduate from that designation by the time your draft rolls around. That means you’ll have to reach a bit to secure his services. I think it’ll prove worth it.

Edinson Volquez

2009: 4.35 ERA/1.32 WHIP/8.5 K/9 (49.2 IP)
2010: 4.31 ERA/1.50 WHIP/9.6 K/9 (62.2 IP)
2011 Oliver: 3.99 ERA/1.36 WHIP/8.8 K/9 (107.5 IP)

After a stellar 2008 season in which he posted a 3.21 ERA and 1.32 WHIP to go along with 206 Ks in 196 innings, Volquez blew out his elbow in June of ’09 and missed the first three months of last year rehabbing it. He struggled when he returned, but settled down in August, compiling a 3.48 ERA, 1.39 WHIP and 9.1 K/9 in his final nine starts.

Oliver thinks … his recent tendency to give out free passes at alarming rates will be fixed, or at least improved enough to keep his ratios in check. After racking up a 5.3 BB/9 the past two years, the system projects that number to be a full point lower this season, mirroring the 4.2 BB/9 he possessed in 2008.

I think … he stands to see significant improvement in that area as well, which should help him last deeper into games, giving him plenty of opportunities to rack up wins for a Reds team expected to contend for the NL Central crown. He was clearly experiencing elbow issues in 2009, no doubt altering his throwing motion and contributing to the wildness. Last year, he was pitching on a 12-month layoff, and was predictably rusty in the finer points of pitching, like locating pitches with consistency.

Now that he’s fully healthy and will be properly prepped heading into the season, there’s no reason to think his walk rate won’t return to previous levels. Also working in his favor were an inflated .326 BABIP, and an xFIP of 3.87, which was actually lower than the number he posted during his breakout 2008 season. Pitching half his games in Great American Launching Pad does him no favors, but Volquez took steps to combat that last season, registering a career-high 53.9 groundball percentage. As for the strikeouts, those should be of no concern: He’s posted a K/9 above 8.5 every year in Cincinnati, and his fastball averaged 93.8 mph in ’10, a tick above where it was at pre-TJ surgery. If he can manage 180 innings, Volquez represents top 25 upside, with a top 75 price tag.

Rich Harden

2009: 4.09 ERA/1.34 WHIP/10.9 K/9 (141 IP)
2010: 5.58 ERA/1.66 WHIP/7.3 K/9 (92 IP)
2011 Oliver: 4.19 ERA/1.36 WHIP/9.6 K/9 (135 IP)

It’s no surprise Harden pitched just 92 innings for the Rangers last year—that’s kind of his thing—but what was surprising were the outlandishly high ratios and the falling K/9 rate, all of which represented career lows. On the plus side, he did post a career high BB/9 of 6.1 percent. Oh, wait …

Oliver thinks … Harden’s capable of replicating his 2009 line in Chicago. With seven very successful, albeit very abbreviated, seasons on his resume, it’s certainly understandable why the system isn’t willing to write the frustrating hurler off after one bad year. Further supporting Oliver’s hope of a bounce-back: Harden is returning to McAfee Coliseum, where he holds a 2.98 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 302.1 career innings.

I think … there are two ways to look at this:

Glass half full: He’s only 29 years old, giving hope to the possibility last year was just a bad year; nothing more, nothing less. When he was sent down to Triple-A on a rehab stint, Harden had a 13.1 K/9, and, most importantly, walked only 3.1 hitters per nine. So the ability seems to still be there. His walk rate in the bigs was so out of line with his career average of 4.1 that it’s reasonable to think his control issues were a result of a correctable mechanical or mental flaw. Plus, there’s the return to Oakland, a much more pitcher-friendly ballpark than Arlington.

Glass half empty: Not only were his numbers down in nearly every single relevant category, and startling so at that, but he lost two miles an hour each off his fastball and slider—basically the only two pitches he throws. As a result, his swinging strike percentage fell to 7.7, down from 15.1 in ’09. He was once considered a groundball pitcher, but Harden’s fly ball percentage rose for the fourth year in a row, coming in at an extreme 51.2 percent. He may only be 29, but he has more than 800 innings on his already fragile body, and judging from the loss of velocity and control, he’s starting to break down. Oakland hasn’t even committed a spot in the rotation to Harden, and a role in the bullpen has been discussed.

The verdict: Argument B is much, MUCH stronger, but at the price he’s going to cost you (free), Harden is worth a bench stash if you’re playing deep. You know, just in case.


Jorge de la Rosa

2009: 4.38 ERA/1.37 WHIP/9.4 K/9 (185 IP)
2010: 4.22 ERA/1.31 WHIP/8.4 K/9 (121.2 IP)
2011 Oliver: 3.89 ERA/1.32 WHIP/9.2 K/9 (156 IP)

The wildly unpredictable hurler won 19 of 22 games over the final four months of ’09, compiling a 3.94 ERA with a 9.4 K/9. He started last year in much the same fashion, winning three of his first four starts and posting a 3.56 ERA/1.21 WHIP/8.0 K/9 line in the process. A torn flexor tendon in, fittingly, the middle finger on his pitching hand cost him all of May and June, but he returned to record a 3.56 ERA and 1.21 WHIP over his final 14 outings.

Oliver thinks … he’s in for a career year. With a strikeout rate projected to once again exceed 9.0, and the continued decline of his ratios, the system ranks De la Rosa just outside the top 50 starting pitchers. If he can remain malady-free, 200 innings—and thus a top 30 ranking—are possible.

I Think … the best is yet to come for DLR, but not necessarily in the strikeout department. According to his .278 BABIP, he was a tad lucky last year, but his HR/FB ratio was inordinately high at 15.8, a four point increase from 2009. If that number regresses to somewhere in the neighborhood of his career norm (11.7), De la Rosa could post a HR/9 under 1.0 for the first time in his career, thanks primarily to his increasing ability to keep the ball on the ground and out of the thin Colorado air. Last year, he produced a 1.81 GB/FB ratio, which ranked among the top 15 best marks in the league.

The reason for the improved ratio—it had never been above 1.31 with the Rockies—can likely be traced to his use of a change-up as his preferred second pitch instead of a slider. According to PITCHf/x, he used his change-up, which has a heavy sink to it, 29.4 percent of the time in 2010, as opposed to only 8.7 percent in 2009. The use of his slider went in the other direction, from 23.5 percent in ’09 to five percent last season. That proved to be a good thing, as his groundball-inducing change-up was one of the best in baseball.

The modified repertoire could have played a role in his falling strikeout rate, though, as the power fastball/slider combo he previously used is more conducive to high whiff totals. All that said, even if his K/9 hovers around 8.0, I’d still draft DLR as a top 50 pitcher simply based on the improving peripherals.

Daniel Hudson

2009: 2.32 ERA/0.94 WHIP/ 10.1 K/9 (147.1 IP in the minors)
2010: 2.45 ERA/0.99 WHIP/7.9 K/9 (95.1 IP)
2011 Oliver Line: 3.84 ERA/1.23 WHIP/8.4 K/9 (170 IP)

One of the White Sox’ top pitching prospects entering the 2010 season, Hudson was called up in July, surrendered 11 runs in his first 15 innings, and was promptly traded to the Diamondbacks. Hudson then made 11 starts for Arizona to close out the season, endearing himself to fantasy owners by compiling a 1.69 ERA, a 0.84 WHIP, and a 7.9 K/9. Kenny Williams, I’m sure, was not pleased.

Oliver thinks … he’s the real deal, and ready to perform like a No. 2 starters in 12-teamers. Coming in as the 24th ranked pitcher—directly ahead of Chris Carpenter, Ricky Nolasco and Chad Billingsley—Hudson will likely be drafted much lower, providing the opportunity for major value on draft day.

I think … I’m all in. Hudson dominated at every level in his brief stint in the minors, averaging a lofty 10.6 K/9 while walking just 2.9 guys per nine, and that ability translated nicely in his first extended big league action. The hulking hurler (6-foot-3, 225) registered a fastball velocity of 92.5 in ’10, and showed excellent secondary pitches, especially his change-up, which ranked as the most valuable change in the game according to Fangraphs linear weights.

The ERA expectations do need to be kept in check, though. Despite the sub-2.00 ERA in Arizona, his xFIP hovered around 3.75, and he received good fortune in his BABIP (.245), HR/FB rate (7.1), and strand rate (83.1-percent, fourth highest mark in the league). An increase in homers especially could be of concern, as his 45.5 flyball percentage coupled with a HR/FB rate expected to regress to the mean, could lead to a long ball problem similar to what Dan Haren suffered from last season. While that’s reason to exhibit a modicum of restraint come draft day, the K/9 upside, polished repertoire, and low walk rate (1.8 BB/9 in Arizona), are enough to make me throw caution to the wind, and draft Hudson as a top 30 starter.

A quick look at a few other candidates:

Gio Gonzalez

2009: 5.75 ERA/1.71 WHIP/9.9 K/9 (98.2 IP)
2010: 3.23 ERA/1.31 WHIP/7.7 K/9 (200.2 IP)
2011 Oliver: 4.24 ERA/1.42 WHIP/8.6 K/9 (177 IP)

Gonzalez suffered a big drop-off in his K rate between ’09 and last year, but as you’ll notice above, it was accompanied by a precipitous drop in his ERA, which more than made up for the decreased strikeouts. Pick a category, any category (other than K rate), and Gonzalez made positive strides in 2010, lowering his BB/9 by a full point, down to a manageable 4.1, and increasing his groundball percentage for a third straight season. He also showed improved effectiveness in all three of his pitches. Since he’s still only 25, look for Gonzalez to take another positive step in his development, and while the ERA will probably be closer to 4.00 than 3.00—his xFIP came in at 4.18 last year—there’s a good possibility his K rate rebounds and reaches the 8.5 K/9 threshold.

Bud Norris

2009: 4.53 ERA/1.50 WHIP/8.7 K/9 (55.2 IP)
2010: 4.92 ERA/1.48 WHIP/9.3 K/9 (153.2 IP)
2011 Oliver: 4.52 ERA/1.47 WHIP/8.6 K/9 (154 IP)

Norris held a 6.80 ERA and 5.4 BB/9 through his first nine starts, went down the minors, worked on his control, and returned late in June a different man. Well, a different pitcher, anyway. Over his final 18 starts, Norris produced a 4.17 ERA and lowered his BB/9 to 4.1, while still keeping his K/9 at a healthy 8.5. His minor league numbers suggest there’s more improvement to be had in his control (3.7 career BB/9), and in 134.2 Triple-A innings, he holds a 2.67 ERA. If he learns to harness his potent arsenal, which includes a 93.6 mph fastball (average speed) and a plus, power slider, Norris could easily be a top 50 starting pitcher in 2011. Won’t cost you much to find out, either.

James McDonald

2009 Line: 4.00 ERA/1.49 WHIP/7.7 K/9 (63 IP)
2010 Line: 4.02 ERA/1.38 WHIP/8.5 K/9 (71.2 IP)
2011 Oliver Line: 4.22 ERA/1.41 WHIP/8.3 K/9 (133 IP)

McDonald was sent to Pittsburgh in August and struggled initially, but thrived in September, allowing three or fewer runs in all six of his starts. All told, in 11 starts with the Pirates, he posted a 3.52 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, and 8.5 K/9. A nice line, but there are warning flags. While his ERA impressed, his xFIP came in at 4.03 thanks to a unsustainably low 3.6 HR/FB ratio. Also, as with almost all the guys we’ve discussed, McDonald’s career BB/9 sits above 4.0, and he failed to pitch past the sixth inning in seven of his 11 starts with Pittsburgh, despite averaging 97 pitches per outing. If forced to choose between McDonald and Norris right now, I’d draft the latter, but a nice spring out of the former could easily sway my decision.

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Comments

  1. Bill said...

    Felix struck out 8.36/9, Halladay 7.86, and Wainwright was at 8.36.  They’re all pretty close, but none meet the 8.5 K/9 threshold that Chris set out in the opening paragraph.

  2. Will said...

    Max Sherzer in 2010 finished at 8.46 K/9 and a 3.50 ERA (pretty amazing numbers considering his terrible start).

    I’d put him at the top of the list for guys to reach 8.5 and <4.00 for 2011.

  3. Chris Ryan said...

    Rox Girl – Yep, the list should have included Chacin. He bounced between the bullpen and rotation a bit, but his numbers as a starter were good enough to qualify. My bad.

    Will – Love Scherzer, and you’re right, it’s amazing he ended up with those numbers despite such a dreadful first two months (6.42 ERA/7.6 K/9). The only reason I didn’t include him in the write-up was because, as you pointed out, he was basically already there last season, and I wanted to focus on some of the less obvious guys.

  4. J.Ro said...

    In the Morrow section, you mean Jose Molina became his personal catcher, not Bengie, correct?  Probably good for him that Napoli got flipped to Texas, then?

  5. Chris Ryan said...

    Oh, hah. Yeah, Jose. The one who can’t hit. 

    Even with Napoli there, I was high on Morrow’s continued success. Molina showed him the way, but, for the most part, once a pitcher figures it out, it usually stays figured out – regardless of who’s catching. That said, it’s nice to know Molina will remain Morrow’s personal handler for at least one more year.

  6. Chris Ryan said...

    Eddie – I guess it depends some on what it would cost you to keep each, but straight-up, Hudson is the better option. Zimmerman’s demonstrated the ability to strike out major league hitters (8.8 K/9), but that’s about it (4.71 ERA/1.34 WHIP in 122.1 IP). He’ll be a great value pick, but Hudson is the guy to keep.

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