During the early days of the 2009 season, many people involved in fantasy baseball were obsessed with Cliff Lee. Not the player himself. But rather the ideal.
The question, “Who is the next Cliff Lee?” was posed again and again, referring to a player hanging on the waiver wire expected to emerge, dominate, and stick to a fantasy roster for good.
For a while, it looked like Cliff Lee would become the new Chris Shelton, as in a player who serves as an object lesson to fantasy players everywhere. (In Shelton’s case, we mean a player who has a strong April and then fades into obscurity.)
But Cliff Lee may not be the most influential ballplayer for those in fantasy leagues. That honor now seems to belong to Joe Saunders.
Joe Saunders doesn’t give statheads much to like. He strikes out less than five batters every nine innings. He’s fairly meager in allowing walks—about 2.5 per 9 in the last three years—but not at a level where anybody would call it an elite skill. He gives up enough fly balls and home runs (about one every nine innings) to pose some concern.
If pitchers control three outcomes—a strikeout, a walk, and a home run—Saunders doesn’t do any of these things well enough to support great success in the major leagues. And yet, despite the naysayers, Saunders has emerged as one of the most valuable pitchers in fantasy leagues, with a 22-9 record and a sub-3.5 ERA since the beginning of 2008.
Now, anytime a pitcher flashes great results and so-so skills, the retort eventually becomes, “Well, what about Joe Saunders?”
Well, what about him? And what about Matt Palmer, Matt Harrison, Zach Duke, and any other pitcher who can’t prevent balls from being hit in play?
These guys may all be tempting to grab based on recent success. As Saunders shows, it’s certainly possible for a pitcher to overcome the absence of strong peripherals and pitch or luck into having value.
A couple years ago, another low-skill pitcher, Brian Bannister, gave an interview that briefly excited the statistical community by teasing that smarts could possibly cover shortcomings. Bannister struggled thereafter, but he’s back now, with a 3-1 record and a 1.8 ERA heading into tonight’s battle with Cliff Lee.
On the other hand, we have to point out Armando Galarraga, who may just as well been Joe Saunders’ twin last year. Last year, Galarraga had a 13-7 record and a 3.74 ERA despite having similarly iffy skills. This year, Galarraga teased us with a good start, but has since collapsed, allowing 21 runs in the last 17 innings he’s pitched.
That’s the danger with any pitcher who is allowing the ball to be hit into play, or can’t eradicate the dangers associated with walks and home runs. It’s a tightrope dance with the fates of luck.
Personally, we prefer perennial underachievers like Javier Vazquez to perpetual overachievers like Joe Saunders. With Vazquez, your downside is a good amount of strikeouts and a very good WHIP. Unfortunately, wins and ERA don’t always follow. But with overachievers, your upside is capped and your floor is wrecked ratios.
Being risk-adverse won’t always pay off. There’s no way of knowing who will equal Joe Saunders’ success this coming season. Frankly, we’re still not sure whether Joe Saunders himself can keep this up. And that’s the point. If there’s something you don’t know, sometimes it’s best to just leave it alone.