This Year's Arms Race
March 15, 2007

If you buy into the idea that previous year’s stats are reliably predictive of what will happen this year and that players’ stats will tend to gravitate to their individual means, then there are a number of pitchers you should be aware of.  I’ll cover both sides of the coin – pitchers who encountered bad luck last year and/or whose trends are improving and should be primed for a significantly better year this year, and then pitchers who enjoyed the best of times last year and/or whose trends are headed for hard times.

First, the good, the guys you want to spend an extra buck to get them at your fantasy auction drafts.

Number one on the list is AJ Burnett.  Last year he struggled with some scar tissue in his arm but once he got comfortable he was pretty impressive.  He’s still a groundball pitcher, he improved his control (his walk-to-strikeout ratio) to the best of his career while maintaining much of his strikeout rate despite not facing the pitcher any more.  Even more encouraging for this year is that he was really unlucky with batting average on balls in play (BABIP) which was nearly 30 points worse than his career average.  If the Jays can find anyone in the infield who can consistently catch the ball, Burnett is primed for a huge year and probably challenge for one of the top five pitchers in the AL.  Even if they can't, he's a $20 pitcher.

Ben Sheets battled injuries again, but his performance was just as affected by bad luck in the field.  His BABIP was abnormally high.  Despite his injuries, his control went through the roof.  Ron Shandler of Baseball HQ thinks he’ll win a Cy Young award if he stays healthy.  I think in a different park and with a better defense he’d be right, but Sheets will still be plenty good.

Brad Penny was very unlucky with BABIP but his strikeout rate is up and he still gets a decent number of ground balls.  The sooner the Dodgers go with James Loney at first, the better, but Penny should be a pretty good bet to match last year’s win total with a better ERA and WHIP.

I never doubt anything Dave Duncan does with a pitcher because his track record is just too good.  And at first glance maybe moving Braden Looper into the rotation might just be the challenge that breaks Duncan’s success streak.  But Looper’s groundball rate has increased in each of the last three years (a good thing with the St. Louis infield) as has his control and efficiency (the number of pitches he throws per inning).  He won’t put up gaudy strikeout numbers but Looper could very well end up as a nice end game cheap starter.

CC Sabathia was victimized by bad defense and an even worse bullpen, but his control, strikeout rate and pitch efficiency continued to get better.  If the Indians give him any kind of support (as long as it’s not the bad support they gave him last year), this guy will be worth $20-25, easy.

Another guy many people are skeptical about is Claudio Vargas, but his problems have all been mental.  In 2005 in the seven starts in which he did not give up a home run he went 4-0 in 46 innings with a 1.17 ERA, 0.956 WHIP and 38 strikeouts against just 8 walks.  When he gave up at least one homer, his WHIP was 1.690 and his ERA was 7.13.  Last year’s overall numbers don’t look that great but his control improved as did his K rate and G/F (groundball-to-flyball) ratio.  And despite pitching in a far more permissive park for home runs, his homer rate improved.  Further camouflaging his growth was a career worst BABIP.  The Brewers don’t have a good defensive team but if they can just catch the balls they’re supposed to, Vargas should have a nice breakout season.

The guy everyone is waiting to have a monster year is Daniel Cabrera.  This looks like the year to buy in.  His strikeout rate increased and he was fantastic in September.  Last year was muddled a bit by a career worst in BABIP by 20 points.  If Leo Mazzone can convince him this spring to be more aggressive throwing strikes and be more efficient with his pitches, Cabrera will win 15 games and strike out 250 batters with a better than average ERA and WHIP. 

Cabrera’s stablemate Erik Bedard won 15 games but we haven’t seen anything close to his ceiling.  Last year his G/F rate made a large jump from 1.15 to 1.70.  His control improved without losing much in his strikeout rate and his pitch efficiency increased for the second consecutive season.  The only concern is the increase in the number of innings he threw.  If he stays healthy, he could be the second or third best pitcher in the AL even though his win total might not reflect it.

Kansas City GM Dayton Moore was lampooned a bit when he signed Gil Meche this winter, but Meche showed slight-to-significant improvements in control, strikeout rate, efficiency and G/F rate last year.  If he can stay healthy – always a question with Meche – this could turn out to be a pretty good signing.

It’s sounds crazy to put Johan Santana on a list like this because he is already head and shoulders the best pitcher in baseball, but his G/F rate is increasing and last year was an off year for him when it came to balls in play.  If he rebounds back to his career average along with keeping the ball in the yard more, he could best even his 2004 season.

Another guy where health is the primary concern, John Patterson looks primed for a nice rebound.  His control is improving, his strikeout rate topped one per inning last year and his efficiency remained excellent despite his injuries.  All this bodes well for staying healthy despite an increased workload.  And if the Nationals can give him more than 3.5 runs of support per game, we’re looking at a 15-game winner minimum.  Still, that might be a tough trick to pull off with the Nats' offense.

Although it sounds like a broken record, another pitcher with a history of injury troubles, Kelvim Escobar, appears primed for a good year.  Last year he improved his control and efficiency, and saw a slight bump in G/F rate.  His fielders let him down as well - last year was his career worst BABIP.  Odds are this year will be better.

Kip Wells has always had great stuff but has never been able to focus it.  Now under the tutelage of miracle worker Dave Duncan, he should show some growth just on the strength of that alone.  But he is also coming off by far his worst year in BABIP despite a sizable increase in G/F ratio.  If he can regain some semblance of control and K rate, could be a nice sleeper in St. Louis.  And if you doubt how good Dave Duncan really is, consider that he revived the careers of Dave Stewart, Bob Welch, Scott Sanderson, Mike Moore, Storm Davis, Andy Benes, Darryl Kile, Kent Bottenfield, Chris Carpenter, Jeff Suppan and Jason Marquis.  All but Suppan and Marquis have won 18 or more games under Duncan and all of them have had their career best years under his guidance. 

I have to admit I have a blind spot for Oliver Perez.  I've been a proponent of his since his days in the Padre minor league system.  So with that caveat, know that I might be more optimistic about him than I should.  That said, last year he stabilized the declining trend in his control and K rate, and pitched pretty well from September through the playoffs.  Also working in his favor is that he got very little offensive or defenseive support from the Pirates.  Neither of those should be an issue with the Mets so if he can find a consistent release point - and mechanics are Rick Petersen's forte - then he should turn in a profitable 2007.

Like Santana, Roy Oswalt is an odd choice for this list.  But his control is improving without much loss in K rate, his G/F is on the rise and his efficiency is improving.  If you're going to spend big bucks on a top NL starter like Carpenter or Webb, Oswalt is probably the best candidate to possibly earn more than you'll spend

One of the big ticket players the Cubs netted in their spending spree was Ted Lilly.  Most analysts see him as merely a big salary player, but his control and K rate are on the upswing and lefties coming from the AL have traditionally done quite well the first time through the NL.  

The last buy-guy is Vicente Padilla.  Even though his G/F rate is headed in the wrong direction - especially pitching in Texas - his control improved as did his strikeout rate and efficiency.  The other plus is that his BABIP was his worst since 2001.  

OK, now the guys you might want to stay away from:
Last year, Bronson Arroyo held right-handers to .206 average (.547 OPS). His BABIP was the best of his career and he also managed the neat trick of lowering his ERA despite giving up homers at a greater rate.  Part of his success was due to NL hitters’ unfamiliarity with him for the first half of the season, but in July and August they saddled him with monthly ERAs of 5.45 and 4.78.  And now the really bad news: left-handers have been increasingly effective against him, going from .768 to .831 to .838 OPS over the last three years.  Without the good fortune that shined on him last year and lefties increasingly figuring him out, this is a good year to say “no thanks”.

One of the top pitchers on most people's NL list is Carlos Zambrano, but there are several warning flags to heed.  His control is on the decline, his G/F rate is declining, his efficiency has regressed, and last year was helped by a near career best in BABIP.  

The Dodgers gave big money to sign Jason Schmidt but that doesn't mean you should.  His strikeout rate is in a 3-year decline, his control is well of his 2003-04 peak, and his G/F rate is declining.  That might have worked in AT&T Park (the toughest park in which to homer last year) but that won't play well in Dodger Stadium (7th easiest to homer in).

Jered Weaver was one of the best pitchers in baseball, but his performance has more red flags than a May Day parade through Red Square.  He threw almost three times as many innings in 2006 as 2005.  Increases that significant often result in arm injuries for young hurlers the following year.  There’s even more to consider than just this spring’s bout with tendonitis.  Last year when opposing hitters put the ball in play, they hit just .239.  League average is around .300 and even great pitchers like Johan Santana hover around .265.  Additionally, only a small percentage of the flyballs he allowed left the yard.  Once those rates regress toward the mean, his career path will look like Livan Hernandez’, who followed up his 9-3, 3.18 ERA rookie season with a 4.72 ERA and a record of 10-12 his sophomore year.

When the season ended, I was surprised that Josh Beckett finished with an ERA over 5.00.  After looking at his home run rate (36 in just 238 flyballs), it was pretty clear that he was bit unlucky.  However, his BABIP was actually the best of his career and his control took a big hit.  He'll give up fewer homers but unless Beckett does a better job of keeping hitters honest those expecting a huge rebound will be very disappointed.

Mark Buerhle’s defense let him down a little last year – his BABIP was about 15 points higher than his career average – and his home run rate increased pretty significantly.  July and September were particularly harsh.  He threw a lot of innings in 2005 (including the post-season) so maybe his inability to turn his season around was not simply a matter of bad luck but a workload that was catching up to him in the form of either a tired arm or a burned out one.  There are 28 pitchers since division play began that have thrown as many innings by the same age as Buerhle, and nearly half of them burned out before they were 30.  Just know that last year his control, K rate and G/F rate all went in the wrong direction.
Many look at Noah Lowry's season and think he just had a tough year.  That is true but that doesn't mean the struggles will end.  His control and strikeout rate disappeared, even when he supposedly re-discovered his change-up.  Worse, he became more of a flyball pitcher - especially with so many old guys in the outfield - and his BABIP was the best of his major league career.  That reverting to his career norm would just be more bad news.

The D-backs are somewhat of a darkhorse pick for the playoffs because of the return of Randy Johnson.  However, if they win it might be as much in spite of Johnson as because of him.  His BABIP has largely been steady the last couple of years in New York, but his control and K rate have been in steep decline.  His G/F rate is also in decline, which is a bad thing going from Yankee Stadium (ranked 13th for homers) to Arizona (ranked 1st for allowing homers).

I'm really not sure what the Blue Jays see in Tomo Ohka.  His control and strikeout rate are in decline, he is throwing more and more pitches to each batter, his groundball rate is in decline and all this after posting on the his best BABIP in 2006.  If there's a pitcher with disaster in 2007 written all over him, it's Ohka.  

One last guy, although this one is probably obvious.  Wade Miller is done.  From a scouting point of view, this was a guy that depended on a mid-90s fastball during his halcyon days, but due to several surgeries his fastball now tops around 87 mph.  Now he has to nibble around the plate - which is evidenced by a declining control and efficiency rate - and he's become a extreme flyball pitcher (in the 5th easiest park to homer in) and last year was his career best in BABIP.  He's having a decent spring so far, but I'd be surprised if it lasts another week.  

Good luck and may your teams exceed your expectations

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