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Best Pitchers of the 21st-Century: Part 1

Who are the best pitchers of the 21st-century?

This is the first installment of a three-part series that will examine the top pitchers the 21st-century has had to offer.

Let me be clear, I am not attempting to discuss which of the current young arms of this generation will ultimately prevail as the greatest pitcher of (at least the first quarter) of this century.  Therefore, you won’t find David Price, Steven Strasburg, or Matt Harvey on this list.  To make this list, a pitcher has to A) Have accumulated at least 30.0 career WAR, B) Not have accumulated the vast majority of his career WAR value in the 20th-century, C) Cannot have a career ERA over 4.00 and D) Cannot have been primarily a relief pitcher.

These criteria mean that, for example, Roger Clemens, who won two of his seven Cy Young awards in this century, and even though he accumulated 30.5 WAR since 2001, will not be on this list because the overwhelming majority of his career value (78%) occurred in the 20th-century.  Also, if you throw a broken bat at Mike Piazza, I’m just not very inclined to add you to my list in the first place.  Have a nice retirement, sport.

I narrowed my list down to 25 pitchers because, quite frankly, no one cares who the 26th, 27th, and 28th best pitchers of this century have been.

Although I used WAR as my starting point, this is not simply a list of the top 25 accumulated WAR’s since 2001.  I have also taken into account peak value, hardware won (Cy Young awards / MVP’s), and few others stats, both old and new(ish):  wins, complete games, earned run average, ERA+, and WHIP.

The pitchers who are most likely to rank high on this list are those that have A)  Been real, real good  B) Had the good fortune to begin their careers just as this century got started, and C)  Have enjoyed a  continuous run of success (as opposed to being really good every three years or so.)

Some of the pitchers who are on this list are still quite young (Felix Hernandez, for example), and will undoubtedly rank higher on a list like this in 5-10 years.  But this list reflects where a pitcher has been to this point, not where he may ultimately end up.  Other pitchers (Johan Santana, for example), are more likely to have dropped a bit in 5-10 years, simply because some of these young pitchers may overtake them.

Some of the win totals or strikeout totals I mention for a particular pitcher might not reflect that pitcher’s career totals, because we are only taking into account what a pitcher produced in this century, not what he has accomplished during his entire career.  Some pitchers on this list began their careers in the late-20th century, but I am not counting their 20th-century stats.

Finally, when I say that a particular pitcher was the best pitcher of this century, obviously I mean to this point, but it would be boring to continue to add, “to this point” to each declarative sentence, so I won’t do that.

No, seriously, who are the best pitchers of the 21st-century?

All right, here’s the list, with a bit of explanation of how they got here:

Roy Halladay

Roy Halladay (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1)  Roy Halladay –  Halladay was the best pitcher of the 21st-century, and it’s not particularly close.  His career WAR of 65.4 is the highest on this list.  His 190 wins in this century ranks second only to C.C. Sabathia’s 205.

His 2.93 ERA also ranks second.  His 65 complete games are by far the most of anyone on this list.  No other pitcher reached even 40 complete games.

He won two Cy Young awards, finished second in the voting twice, third once, and fifth twice.  For seven consecutive seasons, he increased his strikeout totals each year, topping out at 220 in 2011.

During his final six seasons, he never walked as many as 40 batters in a year.  In 38 post-season innings, Halladay allowed just 28 base-runners, and posted an ERA of 2.37.

Halladay was probably one of the top 30-40 pitchers of all time, and should someday be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

2)  Johan Santana – It’s possible that Santana may become one of the great, nearly forgotten pitchers of this century.  His career as an everyday starting pitcher was brief, and during some of that he toiled out of the media spotlight in Minnesota.

Yet, a case can be made that Santana should one day be enshrined in Cooperstown.  Like Halladay, Santana won two Cy Young awards.  He also finished third in the voting two other seasons, and he finished fifth in the voting one other time.

He led the A.L. in WHIP for four consecutive seasons, posting a WHIP below 1.00 in three of those years.  He also led the league in strikeouts three times, while striking out over 200 batters for five straight seasons. He won three ERA crowns, and led his league in WAR for pitchers three times, finishing second another time.  He has also thrown the only no-hitter in Mets history.

His 50.6 WAR ranks fourth-best this century, and is higher than several pitchers already in the Hall of Fame.  He has been the best left-handed pitcher in the 21st-century.

3)  C.C. Sabathia – It would have been easy to have ranked Sabathia ahead of Santana.  He has been one of this century’s workhorse pitchers since he debuted in 2001.

English: CC Sabathia

English: CC Sabathia (Photo credit: Wikipediabathia has been one of the ultimate workhorse pitchers since his rookie year of 2001.

Sabathia’s ERA of 3.60 ranks just 19th-best on this list, but let’s remember that he’s pitched in the tough A.L. East for the past five seasons.  Sabathia has a Cy Young award to his credit, and has also finished in the top five in voting for that award in four other seasons.

A durable pitcher, Sabathia has notched over 190 innings pitched eleven times over the past twelve seasons, and has never pitched fewer than 180 innings in any season during his entire career.

He is just one of three players to have made over 400 starts in this century.  His 205 wins are also the most in the 21st-century.  His 54.4 career WAR is second only to Halladay’s, and he is also the only pitcher over the past 13 years to accumulate over 2,000 strikeouts.

Entering his age 33 season in 2014, it’ll be interesting to see how much gas he has left in the tank.  He’s probably not in Hall of Fame range yet, but with another couple of useful seasons, he’ll certainly be in the conversation once he retires.

4)  Roy Oswalt – Oswalt enjoyed a seven-year run of excellence at the beginning of this century that was rivaled by only a handful of other pitchers.  From his rookie year in 2001, and through the next six years, Oswalt posted the following ERA+’s:  170, 144, 148, 124, 144, 150, 140.  After a couple of mediocre seasons, he posted an ERA+ of 145 in 2010 at age 32.  Seven seasons of at least a 140 ERA+ in ten years is a remarkable accomplishment.  Almost as remarkable is that few people seemed to notice it.

While Oswalt never won a Cy Young award, he did finish in the top five in voting in five seasons.  His career ERA of 3.36 is among the top ten since 2001, and if you remove his final, ill-advised 90 innings when he attempted to make a comeback pitching for Texas and Colorado (of all places), his career WAR would be over 50, about the same as Johan Santana.  Oswalt’s closest career comps are probably Bret Saberhagen, David Cone and Ron Guidry.  Nice company, don’t you think?

5)  Tim Hudson –  Hudson has toiled away exceedingly well without much fanfare for a decade and a half.  Eight times in this century, Hudson has reached an ERA+ of at least 120.  His 174 wins since 2001 (he has 205 wins dating back to 1999), are the fourth-highest total among the pitchers on this list.  His 2,475 innings pitched are among the top five.

His 47.4 WAR since 2001 is ranks sixth on my list.  If you remove his injury-shortened seasons, Hudson has averaged right around 15 wins per year  since the beginning of his career.  While seldom one of the very best pitchers in the league, Hudson has often been the most reliable starter on his team, and has finished among the top ten pitchers in WAR in six seasons.

Similar to pitchers like Jimmy Key, Bob Welch or Orel Hershiser, Hudson may not be in line for Cooperstown immortality, but he has produced a yeoman’s career of solidly above-average work that should not be easily dismissed.

Justin Verlander

Justin Verlander (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

6)  Justin Verlander – With eight full seasons under his belt, Verlander has certainly demonstrated that he has been one of the finest pitchers of this century.

Though his 40.7 WAR ranks just tenth overall, that’s primarily because some of those who rank higher have pitched in several more seasons than has Verlander.

I have little doubt that in a couple of years, he should probably rank among the top five in WAR in the 21st-century.

Over the past five seasons, Verlander has been about as dominant as they come, winning the Cy Young / MVP award in 2011, finishing second in Cy Young voting in 2012, as well as three other top ten finishes in the voting since 2006 (the season in which he was also voted A.L. Rookie of the Year.)

Verlander has topped 200 strikeouts in each of the past five seasons, pacing the league in that category three times.  He has also averaged 225 innings pitched over the past seven years, leading the league three times in that statistic.

Verlander’s career ERA+ of 127 is the same as Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, and Curt Schilling.  Entering his age 31 season in 2014, it will be interesting to see if Verlander can continue this run of dominance he has established over the past several years.  If so, he may be regarded 80 years from now as one of the very best pitchers of the 21st-century.

Cliff Lee

Cliff Lee (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

7)  Cliff Lee –  Cliff Lee doesn’t walk batters.  Other pitchers in baseball history, such as Greg Maddux and Bret Saberhagen, were fantastic control pitchers, but Cliff Lee may have them all beat.

Over his last 121 starts, Lee has walked a total of just 120 batters, averaging slightly less than one walk per start.  He has not walked as many as 45 batters in a year in any of his past seven seasons.

In 2010, he walked just 18 batters in 212 innings pitched, also leading the league with seven complete games.

Not merely a control pitcher, Lee has struck out over 200 batters in each of the past three seasons, averaging right around a strikeout per inning.

Cliff Lee has had a bit of an odd career in that he showed promise early on, posting an 18-5 record in 2005, but then he crashed and burned, pitching poorly in ’06 and even worse in ’07.  At that point in his career, at age 28, Lee’s career hung in the balance.

Then Lee posted a fantastic comeback in ’08, with a record of 22-3 for Cleveland, leading the league in wins, ERA, ERA+, and winning the Cy Young award.  Since that season, Lee has continued to refine his craft, posting the second highest WAR of his career just last season (7.3.)

Lee’s overall WAR in this century, 42.4, has been topped by only about a half-dozen other pitchers on this list.  In addition to his Cy Young award, he has four other top ten finishes in the voting for that award.  The question is, can Lee continue this run of excellence in the coming years?  He will be entering his age 35 season in 2014, so it remains to be seen.

8)  Felix Hernandez – I was tempted to rank King Felix ahead of Cliff Lee, but here’s why I didn’t.  While Lee and Hernandez each have 86 career losses, Lee has 139 wins to Hernandez’s 110.  Now, I’m well aware of all the arguments regarding the value of wins as a statistic, and I’m also aware that Hernandez has made 42 fewer starts in his career than Lee has, but Lee’s .618 win-lost percentage is vastly superior to Hernandez’s .561 mark.

I don’t think a difference that large can simply be attributed to run support, or lack thereof, or a dramatic difference in each team’s respective bullpen.  I think Cliff Lee has simply been a slightly better pitcher than Felix Hernandez as been.

Lee also has a slight lead on Hernandez with a WAR of 42.4 to King Felix’s 38.7.  Lee’s WHIP, 1.19, has also been slightly better than Hernandez’s 1.20, and we have to keep in mind that Hernandez has had the advantage of pitching in the vastness of Safeco Field over the past nine seasons.

This is not to cast aspersions on Felix Hernandez.  He has a Cy Young award to his credit, along with a second, a fourth, and an 8th-place finish.  And, entering his age 28 season in a couple of months, he could now just be hitting his stride toward what could easily be a Hall of Fame-worthy career.

If he merely pitches as effectively over the next half-dozen seasons as he has up to this point, he will have earned a trip to Cooperstown.  It wouldn’t hurt his chances, however, to move on out of Seattle to a market where he might receive more attention, not to mention more run support.

Clayton Kershaw

Clayton Kershaw (Photo credit: SD Dirk)

9)  Clayton Kershaw – There may be some readers who object to Kershaw being on this list at all, as he’s only been in the Majors for six seasons.  There will be others who wonder why I didn’t rank him higher.

Kershaw has quite possibly produced the finest six-year stretch of any pitcher in baseball in this century.  Over the past five years, he has posted ERA’s, in order, of 2.79, 2.91, 2.28, 2.53, and last season, 1.83.  Not too shabby.

Although he won’t turn 26-years old until next month, he already has 1,206 career strikeouts, and has led the league in K’s in two of the past four seasons.  He has led his league in WHIP for three years running, and has accumulated as much WAR in six years (32.2) as Matt Cain (a fine pitcher in his own right) has accumulated in nine seasons.

Over the past three seasons, Kershaw has won two Cy Young awards, while finishing runner-up in the middle year.  Kershaw has averaged over a strikeout per inning in his career, and has also averaged about three strikeouts for every base on balls.  Clearly, all that stands between Kershaw and a prominent place in baseball immortality is continued good health.

10)  Brandon Webb – Brandon Webb is one of those pitchers who was well-respected at the time, but who will probably never quite get the recognition he deserves for his career accomplishments.  To begin with, let’s consider the fact that Webb toiled in the desert air out in Arizona, where balls carry nearly as well as they do in the high altitude of Colorado.  In other words, Webb pitched his home games in a hitter’s park in a hitter’s era.  Yet, he accomplished some remarkable things.

Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon Webb

Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon Webb (Photo credit: Al_HikesAZ)

Webb pitched just six seasons, but somehow, he accumulated a higher WAR (33.3) and more wins (87) than Kershaw.  Also, while Kershaw’s ERA+ is a lofty 146, Webb’s was a very similar 142, and Webb pitched 139 more innings in his career than Kershaw has done to this point.

Webb won the 2006 N.L. Cy Young award, and then finished runner-up in the voting in each of the next two seasons.  His ERA+’s in his six full seasons were:  165, 128, 125, 152, 158, and 140.  Over a five-year period, from 2004-08, inclusive, Webb averaged nearly 230 innings pitched per season, which obviously took a toll on his right arm.

After 198 career starts, over which he posted an ERA of 3.27, Webb was unable to come back from a shoulder injury, and he retired from baseball at age 30.

That’s a look at the first ten pitchers on my list of the best pitchers of the 21st-century.  In the second installment of this series, we’ll take a look at pitchers #11-#20.

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The Greatness of Clayton Kershaw

Is it possible that a 25-year old starting pitcher, with barely a half-dozen seasons under his belt, is already one of the most taken-for-granted veterans in the Majors?

Clayton Kershaw

Clayton Kershaw (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m writing, of course, of Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw.

As a Mets fan, I’ve been in awe of our own great pitcher, Matt Harvey (The Dark Knight of Gotham.)  Every pitching performance of his is an event to be savored.  I can think of perhaps only two or three other pitchers in Mets history who’ve generated this kind of buzz and displayed such overwhelming dominance at this point in their careers.

Then I recall that Clayton Kershaw is just a year older than Matt Harvey, and has already been just as dominant, perhaps more so, for about six years now.

Kershaw made his MLB debut at age 20 on May 25, 2008 against the St. Louis Cardinals.  In six strong innings, he struck out seven, walked just one, and surrendered five hits and two earned runs.  Of his 102 pitches, 69 were strikes.  His ERA after that first start was 3.00.  He has not posted an ERA that high in any of his past five seasons (including this one.)  His lone mistake that day was a double to some guy named Pujols.

Through 1,142 career innings (a fair sample size), Kershaw’s career ERA+ of 146 ranks 5th best all-time among starting pitchers since 1900, behind only Pedro Martinez, Lefty Grove, Walter Johnson and Smoky Joe Wood.  Including this season, he is enjoying his 3rd straight year with an ERA+ of at least 150.  By way of comparison, Sandy Koufax reached that level of dominance in each of his final four seasons.

Speaking of Sandy Koufax, until this year, Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax ranked #1 and #2 in fewest hits surrendered per nine innings in their careers (6.555 and 6.791, respectively.)  This year, Kershaw has squeezed in between Ryan and Koufax, now claiming second place all-time at 6.767 per nine innings.  Granted, Koufax tossed about twice as many innings in his career as Kershaw has to date, but, then again, Kershaw has been a much more dominant pitcher in his first half-dozen seasons than Koufax was.  In fact, Koufax was about Kershaw’s current age before he finally began to turn the corner in what had been to that point a very mediocre career.

Kershaw, with a career record of 74-44, has already won one Cy Young award, was the runner-up last year, and has an excellent chance to win another this season.  He is on his way to winning his third consecutive ERA crown, and will probably lead the league in WHIP this year for a third straight season as well.  He has also given up an average of just 5.8 hits per 9 innings this year, one hit per nine below his already fantastic career average.

Astonishingly, in his 1,142 career innings pitched, Kershaw has surrendered just 859 hits.  Another way of looking at this is that Kershaw has tossed 283 hitless innings in his career, the equivalent of pitching an entire season, and then some, without giving up a hit.

And lest you think that perhaps Kershaw has a walk rate that might not be quite as impressive as his hit rate, Kershaw’s career mark of 3.0 walks per nine compares favorably (though very similarly) to Koufax’s career rate of 3.2 walks per nine (not to mention Nolan Ryan’s much higher rate of 4.7 walks per nine innings.)

Since his rookie year of 2008, Kershaw’s WAR has gone up virtually every season as well:  1.4, 4.7, 5.5, 6.5, 6.2, 7.1 (thus far in 2013.)  His 31.4 career WAR (generally a cumulative stat), works out to an average of around 5.5 per season.  I’ll leave it to you to estimate where he might finish among the all-time WAR leaders if he enjoys perhaps another decade of good health.

There’s a real chance that before he’s done, Clayton Kershaw will rate among the top five left-handed pitchers in baseball history.  It would be unfortunate if, outside of L.A.,  baseball fans failed to notice Kershaw’s greatness due to our sports media’s current obsession with scandal, blame and shame.

Addendum:  I just learned a couple of hours ago of the elbow injury that Matt Harvey has suffered.  The brittleness of pitchers is something that we are constantly reminded of and, despite our hopes going forward, obviously no pitcher is guaranteed a long and healthy career.  Not Matt Harvey, not Clayton Kershaw, not any of them.  All we can do is enjoy their talent while we have them.  

Matt Harvey: A Baker’s Dozen Starts

You may have noticed that Mets phenom Matt Harvey is off to an incredible start to his career.  The big right-hander has made thirteen major league starts, and, to this point, he has been nothing but dominant.  Relatively small sample size, yes, but his numbers are staggering.  Take a look at his pitching line below:

Innings Pitched: 81, Hits: 48, HR: 6, Strikeouts: 95, Walks: 32, ERA: 2.21, WHIP: 0.984, K’s /9 IP: 10.5

Notice the unbelievably low number of hits surrendered, the high strikeout totals, and the fantastic WHIP.

This got me to wondering about the first 13 starts of several other famous pitchers in MLB history.  Can we draw any valid conclusions to what Harvey has accomplished so far?  Is there historical precedent for such a dominant beginning to a MLB career for a starting pitcher?

I took a look at several pitchers, some active and some retired.  A couple are in the Hall of Fame.  How much success did they enjoy at the beginning of their careers?  Here’s what I discovered.  Which of the following, if any, do you think is the best match for Matt Harvey’s career to this point?

The number in parentheses after the pitcher’s name is his age at the time of his MLB debut.  Matt Harvey, by the way, was 23-years old.

Tom Seaver:  (22)

IP: 101.2,  Hits: 85,  HR: 11, Strikeouts: 59, Walks: 25, ERA: 2.41, WHIP: 1.08, K’s /9 IP: 6.5

It may come as a surprise that Seaver did not immediately begin his career as a big-time strikeout pitcher.  His K rate of just 6 1/2 per nine innings is decent for a young pitcher, but not spectacular.  Certainly, Seaver’s rate is nowhere near as impressive as Harvey’s.  Keep in mind, thought, that a stigma still existed among hitters in those days regarding striking out.  Some batters used to choke up on the bat with two strikes on them.  Does anyone still do that?

Dwight Gooden:  (19)

IP:  82.2, Hits:  57, HR: 1, Strikeouts:  96, Walks:  35, ERA:  2.61, WHIP:  1.12, K’s /9 IP:  10.6

Doc Gooden’s first thirteen starts do bear a striking resemblance to Matt Harvey’s fledgling career.  In virtually the same number of innings, Gooden’s strikeouts and walks are essentially the same as Harvey’s.  Gooden was unbelievably stingy with the long ball, however, surrendering just one to Harvey’s six.  But Harvey was even tougher to hit than Gooden.  Harvey’s lower WHIP is primarily the result of nine fewer hits surrendered in about one less inning pitched.

Roger Clemens: (21)

IP:  78.2, Hits: 101, HR: 9, Strikeouts:  68, Walks: 17, ERA:  5.13, WHIP:  1.50, K’s / 9 IP:  7.5

Just looking at that bloated ERA suggest Roger wasn’t quite ready to establish himself at the Major League level when he first arrived.  The same is true of his WHIP, though his K rate is promising, and obviously improved as he matured.  Clemens first 13 starts do not match up well with Matt Harvey.

Mark Prior:  (21)

IP:  79,  Hits:  61,  HR: 11, Strikeouts:  96, Walks:  30, ERA:  3.65, WHIP:  1.15, K’s / 9 IP:  10.6

Again, as with Gooden, not entirely dissimilar to Harvey, though the homer rate is considerably higher for Prior.  Prior’s WHIP is impressive, but still not in Matt Harvey territory.  His K rate per nine matches up well with both Gooden and Harvey, though.  And that’s 13 more hits for Prior in two fewer innings pitched than Harvey.

Kerry Wood:  (20)

IP:  79.1, Hits:  56, HR:  5, Strikeouts:  118, Walks:  42, ERA:  3.40, WHIP:  1.24, K’s / 9 IP:  13.1

Holy smoke, look at that K rate per nine innings.  That’s unbelievable.  Respectable WHIP, homer rate, and a decent ERA as well.  Higher walk rate leads to a higher overall WHIP than Harvey.  Harvey has allowed 80 base-runners in 81 innings pitched.  Wood allowed 98 base-runners in 79 innings.  Clearly, aside from the strikeouts, Harvey has been a much more polished pitcher than was Kerry Wood.

Felix Hernandez:  (19)

IP:  89.1, Hits:  63, HR:  5, Strikeouts:  81, Walks:  25, ERA:  2.62, WHIP:  0.98, K’s / 9 IP:  9.0

The first thing that I noticed was the relatively high number of innings pitched over his first 13 starts.  Among the pitchers on this list, only Seaver tossed more innings.  Hernandez, though, appears to have been a pretty efficient pitcher.  His walk rate is low, and while his K rate is very nice, it’s not so high that his strikeout totals are causing him to throw an inordinate number of pitches per batter.  His WHIP is second only to Harvey on this list.  King Felix was a remarkably polished pitcher at age 19, but Harvey’s K rate is better, and his WHIP and ERA are still lower.

Stephen Strasburg:  (21)

IP:  73,  Hits:  58, HR: 5, Strikeouts: 96, Walks: 17, ERA:  2.71, WHIP:  1.02, K’s / 9 IP:  10.6

Fantastic strikeout to walk ratio, and basically the same K’s per nine as Prior, Gooden and Harvey.  His WHIP is close as well.  Harvey is still tougher to hit than is Strasburg, and his ERA is slightly lower as well.  All things considered, through 13 starts, Strasburg is quite close to Harvey, though he’s not better.

Clayton Kershaw:  (20)

IP:  69,  Hits:  74, HR:  6, Strikeouts:  65, Walks:  32, ERA:  4.11, WHIP:  1.53, K’s / 9 IP:  7.2

His numbers are closer to Roger Clemens’ than to anyone else’s on this list.  Kershaw may have come up to the Majors a bit before he was ready, but it hasn’t seemed to have harmed him so far.  As with Clemens, the K rate showed potential for growth, and the K to walk ratio is quite respectable for a 20-year old kid.  The WHIP is high, revealing a hit rate higher than some of the others on this list.  Kershaw’s command wasn’t yet refined, as it was to become a year or so later.

This list could go on and on, of course.  But I have a suspicion that you aren’t going to find many debuts as impressive as Harvey’s.  Where his career will go from here is anyone’s guess.  While Prior and Gooden can be viewed as cautionary tales, and Strasburg and Kershaw haven’t been around long enough to draw useful conclusions, Felix Hernandez, now in his ninth season, has had a successful and healthy career thus far.  Let’s hope for the same for Matt Harvey, and enjoy him while we can.

Fantasy Baseball Player Ratings: The Pitchers

This is the final installment of my four-part Fantasy Baseball Preview.  In my previous post, I rated over 120 major league hitters by position, with accompanying commentary.  In this post, I will sort starting pitchers into four primary categories:  The Studs, The Near Studs, The Average Javiers, and The Cannon Fodder.  Pitchers in bold print are sleepers that I believe should be aggressively targeted.  Pitchers listed in italics are potential bust candidates.  At the end of this post, I will briefly discuss Relief Pitchers / Closers. 

I define Studs as pitchers who have already proven themselves to be true #1 staff aces that are Cy Young worthy contenders, pitchers you should consider drafting very early.  None of them are likely to be busts, unless the injury bug catches up to them.  Obviously, there aren’t that many of them.  Here they are:

1)  Tim Lincecum – Can he win a 3rd consecutive Cy Young?  Regardless, he is young and dominant.  His win total will actually go up this year.

2)  Roy Halladay – Future Hall-of-Famer could (will) absolutely dominate N.L. this season.

3)  Zach Greinke –  All that potential finally came together.  Not a fluke.

4)  Felix Hernandez – See Above, Greinke.

5)  C.C. Sabathia –  New York City pressure?  What pressure? The only sure thing in the Yanks rotation.

6)  Justin Verlander – As long as he keeps those walks under control, he’s fine.

7)  Dan Haren – I know, I know, he collapses in the 2nd half year after year.  But if finishing a season with a WHIP of 1.00 represents a collapse, I’ll take it.  And 223 K’s to 38 walks is simply amazing.

8)  Adam Wainwright – Even better in the second half last season, and still just 28-years old.  No reason to doubt he’s for real.  Only question is, will last year’s huge jump in innings pitched catch up to him?

9)  Chris Carpenter – When healthy, virtually no one is better.  But health will always remain an issue, especially for a 34-year old with a long injury history.

10)  Johan Santana –  Still has to be considered an ace until he proves otherwise.

11)  Cliff Lee – Ranking him #11 doesn’t mean he won’t win a Cy Young in Seattle this season.  In fact, he’s my choice to do just that.  Great park for him.  I’m estimating he’ll win 20 games in his contract season.

The Near Studs are pitchers who I think have a good chance to pitch well enough to garner at least some, perhaps a lot, of attention when voting for the Cy Young Award rolls around after this season ends.  These are, quite simply, the pitchers who will make or break your chances to win a Fantasy League Championship this season. All have exhibited some degree of excellence to this point, and all are young enough and (apparently) healthy enough to take a jump into the Stud category going into next season.

1)  Josh Johnson –  Has gone 22-6 since returning from Tommy John surgery a couple of years ago, averaging around 8 K’s per 9 innings.  Hasn’t turned 27 yet.  Could be in-line for a very big year.

2) Jon Lester –  A young, left-handed strikeout pitcher who hasn’t peaked yet.  Go get him, or you’ll kick yourself every time he tosses a dominant start.

3)  Josh Beckett –  The reason why I like Boston to win the A.L. East this season is their pitching depth which, despite the Vazquez signing in New York, is still better than the Yankees rotation.  Beckett has shown flashes of brilliance, has been used relatively conservatively over the years (he’s now almost 30), and is in his contract year.  Good year to grab him.

4)  Jake Peavy –  Pitched extremely well in a limited stint in Chicago at the end of last year, but he has an injury history, will now be pitching in a good hitter’s park, and will now have to cope with a DH every outing.  But even with those qualifiers, he will be a high quality pitcher.

5)  Matt Cain –  May become the best pitcher who never wins more than fifteen games, at least as long as he pitches in San Francisco.  Excellent young talent, but probably destined to always be a really good #2 pitcher.

6)  Cole Hamels –  2009 was a lost season for Hamels.  He simply threw too many hittable pitches for a guy with his stuff.  If his head is on straight this season, he will provide a nice counterpoint to his new staff-mate, Roy Halladay.  Still just 26-years old,too talented to be just an average pitcher.

7)  Tommy Hanson – Posted a 2.89 ERA in his first go-round in the N.L.  Strikes out nearly a batter per inning.  Composed, but not over-c0nfident.  Enjoy watching him grow into a true ace in the next couple of seasons.

8)  Clayton Kershaw –  Still very young (22) but has dominant stuff.  Very nice pitcher’s park, too.  Only downside, throws too many pitches to ever get to 7th or 8th inning.  If he learns to be more efficient, look out.

9)  Ricky Nolasco –  People will look at his 5.06 ERA from a year ago, and walk away.  That’s good news for the rest of us.  Cut about a run and a half from that ERA this season (which he will) and you have a 27-year old pitcher who K’s a batter an inning, has a good WHIP, and is about to bust out.

10)  Yovani Gallardo –  This 24-year old was used carefully by the Brewers last season, but still K’d 204 batters in just 185 innings.  Walks a few too many, but the league hit just .219 against him.  Could become a Stud as early as this season.

11)  Matt Garza –  Similar to Ricky Nolasco in that people will look at his won-lost record from a year ago and think he is a back-0f-the-rotation starter.  He’s much better than that.  League hit only .233 against him in ’09.  Could finish in top ten in Cy Young voting this season.

12)  Ubaldo Jimenez –  Although he calls Coors Field home, his fastball is so dominant, it really doesn’t matter where he pitches.  At age 26 posted a 1.23 WHIP, a .229 batting average against, and 198 K’s.  He’s a good one.

The Average Javiers are quite a mixed bag, and, of course, there are a lot of them.  Being an Average Javier doesn’t necessarily mean that this is a pitcher of relatively  low value.  In fact, a few pitchers in this category, like Javier Vazquez himself (for whom this category is named) will provide a reasonable amount of value per draft position.

In general, these are pitchers you will need to draft to round out your rotation who are either improving or are declining, but who either aren’t a complete waste of roster space, or haven’t yet proven themselves to be rated consistently higher than this category allows.  A few may improve over the course of the season to be rated as Near Studs, or perhaps even as Studs, going into next season.  But they still have a lot to prove.

1) Javier Vazquez  –  So let’s start with Javier himself.  I wrote an entire blog post about Javier entitled “A Tale of Two Pitchers.”  Javier enjoyed his finest season last year, at age 33, pitching for the Braves.  In another season, with a bit less competition, he might have won himself a Cy Young award.  So why rate him as an Average Himself?  Because although he has always had excellent control and a nice strikeout rate, his win totals and even, in several years, his ERA, seldom quite seem to match his peripheral numbers.  In other words, outside of a couple of seasons, he has never been much more, when all is said and done, than an average pitcher.  This has been especially true when he has pitched in the A.L., as he will again this season.  So draft him as a #3, and you will probably be content with his final numbers.

2)  Aroldis Chapman –  The Reds signed this Cuban defector to a six-year deal in January.  His birth-date is either 2/28/88, or 9/11/87, depending on which web-site you choose to believe.  But for all we know, he was born on 5/29/81, so he is either very young, or already over-the-hill.  He allegedly hit 102 MPH on the Radar Gun.  And he can perform open-heart surgery with nothing but a spoon.  Or something.  Anyway, know one has any idea what the Reds are going to get for their money, least of all, the Reds.  But it should be fun watching.  He may be an Ace, a Near Ace, Just Another Javier, or Cannon Fodder.  So I will allow him to settle into category #3, for now.

3) Scott Baker –  Here’s a guy we know much more about.  Baker is 28-years old, made 33 starts last year, and tossed 200 innings for the Twins.  His ERA was 4.37, which may not seem all that impressive until you remember that it was well over 7.00 at the end of May.  Which means, of course, he pitched excellent baseball over most of the final four months of last season.  Oh, yeah, and his WHIP was a very nice 1.19.  And now he will pitch his home games in what will probably be a park friendlier to pitchers.  There’s a lot to like here, but I couldn’t pull the trigger on calling him a Near Ace just yet.

4)  Roy Oswalt –  It saddens me to rate Oswalt in this category, because I think he had a chance to be a Hall-of-Famer.  But a declining strikeout rate, pitching for a bad team, and last year’s poor performance lead me to believe that, at age 32, his best days are behind him.

5)  A.J. Burnett –  Guess which three pitchers have the most second-half strikeouts over the past four years:  Sabathia, Javier Vazquez, and A.J. Burnett, all now pitching for the Yanks.  This was a very astute move by Brian Cashman to stack his rotation with guys who can get K’s during crunch time.  It also reflects his understanding that his Yanks team is usually below average defensively, something strike0ut pitchers don’t have to worry about.

But enough of Brian Cashman.  How about A.J. Burnett?  Well, Burnett, like Vazquez, will once again put up some nice strike0ut numbers, but unlike Vazquez, he will walk too many batters (97 last season) have a higher WHIP, and quite possibly get injured, to boot.  Burnett has occasional flashes of brilliance, but there is generally less than meets the eye here.  At age 33, he is good, but not great, and we have already seen his best.

6)  John Lackey –  If healthy (he has started each of the past two seasons on the D.L.), Lackey is a very solid #3 starter.  Now 31-years old, he has a significant amount of wear-and-tear on his right arm, but pitching for the Red Sox should continue to allow him to be a successful pitcher.  Expect 14-15 wins, about 190-200 innings pitched, and an ERA around 3.75.

7)  Ted Lilly –  Has been underrated for a few years now.  But at age 34, and coming off of shoulder surgery a few months ago, he is far from a sure thing.  Still, last season he demonstrated the best control of his career and recorded a very nice WHIP of 1.06.  Watch him carefully in Spring Training, and stay on top of the medical reports.

8)  Brett Anderson –  Unlike Lilly and Lackey, Anderson in very young (22).  His second half last season, during his rookie campaign, was very impressive.  But he is bound to go through some growing pains, still has a lot to learn, and pitches on a team that will give him little run support.  Also, he is not a huge strikeout pitcher.  Temper your enthusiasm with caution here.

9) Edwin Jackson –  I don’t enjoy writing this because I like this young pitcher, but I think he will be a bust this season.  He was over-worked in Detroit, and his second half numbers declined significantly compared to the first-half.  Now he will pitch in Arizona, one of the best hitter’s parks in the N.L.  Let someone else take the chance.

10)  Max Scherzer –  The pitcher Detroit received from Arizona in a swap of two young arms.  Scherzer, unlike Jackson, could enjoy his best season yet.  Even though he now has to face a DH instead of a pitcher, his high strikeout rate and relatively weak competition in the A.L. Central should allow him to enjoy a pretty successful season, if he improves his command of the strike zone.

11)  Chad Billingsley – By now, I should have been able to rate Billingsley as a Near Ace, but Manager Torre decided to conduct an experiment in human anatomy by allowing Billingsley to throw more pitches than anyone else in the known universe in the first half of last season.  After that, this young man’s arm was toast; you could see him physically laboring with every pitch through the late summer.  Maybe he’ll bounce back.  If he does, he’ll move up a notch on this rating scale.

12)  Wandy Rodriguez –  Guess how old he is?  Did you say somewhere in the 27-29 range.  Nope, he’s already 31-years old.  One fantasy baseball magazine claims the best is yet to come.  Nope, he’s as good as he’s ever going to get, and, on a bad Astros team, he might not be quite as good this coming season, considering he enjoyed almost all of his success at home last year.  A good pitcher, but not a blossoming Near Ace.

13)  Ben Sheets –  If truly healthy, which is what the A’s are banking on (at least until the All-Star break) he is actually a Near Ace, perhaps even an Ace.  But he didn’t throw a single pitch in anger (I love that phrase) last season, and, pitching for the A’s, he has his work cut out for him if he is to enjoy a successful season.  Take a late-round flier on him, and it could pay off.

14)  Kevin Millwood –  If nothing else, extremely durable.  Now in Baltimore, he enjoyed a fairly successful season last year with a 3.67 ERA in just under 200 innings while pitching his home games in a great hitter’s park.  But Millwood is now 35 and will be pitching in the toughest division in baseball, the A.L. East.  His K rate dipped to a career low last year.  Next year, he will rate as Cannon Fodder.  Steer clear.

15)  Francisco Liriano –  Last years numbers, 5-13 with a 5.80 ERA and a WHIP of 1.55 will scare away most fantasy managers.  But there are four reasons for optimism going into this season: 1. He is still just 26-years old, and will be another year removed from his elbow operation.  2. His strikeout rate last year remained pretty high despite his problems 3. The new ballpark in Minnesota should play to his strengths 4. He dominated in the Winter League.  Could pay big dividends this season.

16)  Scott Kazmir –  I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt here, because he may already be washed up at the age of 26 (!)  In a curious way, Rick Peterson, the Mets pitching coach who allegedly convinced the Mets to trade Kazmir for Victor Zambrano, may have been right about Kazmir.  He didn’t think this guy’s arm would hold up for long, and it hasn’t.  That’s not to say that the Mets received any value in return, but at least Kazmir hasn’t won a Cy Young.

17)  The White Sox Pitching Staff (minus Peavey) – Mark Buehrle, John Danks, and Gavin Floyd are the Wonder Bread of the American League.  They all pitch to contact, they all keep their walk totals under control, they are not big-time strikeout pitchers, and none of them will ever win a Cy Young award.  Buehrle is the de facto ace, despite his 105 strikeouts last season, but Danks may have the most upward potential, a relative term, given his staff competition.

20)  Jorge De La Rosa –  Not a kid at 28-years old, but I want him on my team.  He averaged over a strike0ut per inning, and he has pitched very well in the second half each of the past two seasons.  If he starts out well this season, he could have a very nice year, and may end up as a Near Ace.

21)  Carlos Zambrano –  Although he is still just 28-years old, he has logged a huge workload on his right arm over the past several seasons.  Durability is now his primary issue.  If he can make 32 starts, he is still a quality pitcher, although he still walks too many batters.

22)  Brandon Webb – Up until Spring Training of last season, he was the most durable pitcher in baseball.  So, naturally, his arm breaks down.  Now, only time will tell what he is still capable of doing on the pitcher’s mound.

23)  Matt Latos –  I like this kid.  He can strike batters out, and he will pitch his home games in the best pitcher’s park in baseball.  Should produce nice value in about 20 starts this season.  Just don’t expect many wins.

24)  Joe Blanton –  Just signed a nice (for him) contract with the Phillies.  A dependable #3 starter with no upside.

25)  Randy Wolf – Ended up being the Dodgers ace last season, and now calls Milwaukee home.  At age 33, could be a bust for the Brew-Crew this year.  Miller Park will not be nearly as forgiving as Chavez Ravine was to his fly-balls.  No chance of matching last year’s 1.10 WHIP, or his .227 Batting Average Against.

26)  Ervin Santana – Was a Near Ace going into last season, but now is a borderline Average Javier.  Unimpressive strikeout rate following elbow surgery does not bode well for his future.  Still just 27, however, and pitched pretty well in 2nd half of last season.  Watch him in Spring Training.

27)  James Shields –  A once promising young pitcher, he is now nearly in Cannon Fodder territory due to a declining strikeout rate.  Look, you just aren’t going to finesse the A.L. East.  Three straight seasons of 215+ innings may have taken its toll.

28)  Jair Jurrjens –  Where do the Braves find these guys?  This 24-year old had an outstanding 2.60 ERA last season in only his second full year.  Not much of a strikeout pitcher, Jurrjens will have to continue having some luck with balls-in-play, and will need to continue to limit his walks to be successful.  Look for a little regression, but he won’t be a bust.

29)  Scott Feldman –  Although he is only 27-years old, he has already had his career season.  His 17 wins last year, despite just 113 K’s in 190 innings, were a fluke.  Yes, he did have a nice WHIP, but look for that .250 batting average against to go up around 20-30 percentage points this year.  And, as we all know, wins are primarily a reflection of the quality of the team for whom you pitch.

30)  Dice-K – Pitched only 59 innings last season, and looked terrible while doing so.  But, at age 29, he has enjoyed significant success in his brief Major League career, and pitching for the Sox, if he is fully healthy, he should be at least a league-average pitcher, capable of winning 14-15 games.

31)  Rick Porcello – So young (21) should really still be pitching in Triple A, not because he isn’t talented but because the Tigers may do to him what they did to an also very young Jeremy Bonderman.  Porcello achieved surprising success last year, but a very low strikeout rate doesn’t bode well for him a second time around the league.  If you draft him based on last year’s 14-9 record, you will probably end up disappointed.

32)  Andy Pettitte – Is now a league-average pitcher, except in the play-offs, of course.  Now 38-years old, this (say it with me) crafty lefty should still win 12-14 games.

33)  Bronson Arroyo –  Has somehow managed to win 15 games each of the past two years, despite perfectly ordinary stuff.  His ERA after the All-Star break last year was 2.24, which is, of course, very strange.  His low K totals should be a red flag for prospective owners.

Cannon Fodder: Here they are folks.  Draft at your own extreme risk, or better yet, don’t draft them at all.

1)  Joel Pineiro –  No, it won’t happen again this season.  Just forget it.

2)  Jon Garland – Innings eater, nothing else.

3)  Derek Lowe – Just another aging veteran

4)  Mike Pelfrey –  Hey Mets fans.  No, he doesn’t have potential, unless you mean potential to get shelled.

5)  Gil Meche – Had a bit of a decent run back in April.

6)  Kevin Correia –  Who?

7)  Kyle Lohse – Nothing to see; keep moving.

8)  Brad Penny – Should be good for about eight wins.

9)  Glen Perkins – Gave up 120 hits in just 96 innings.

10)  Clayton Richard – Terrible Walks / Strikeouts ratio.  Home park may mask how bad he is.

11)  Ian Snell – Looked promising a couple of years ago, but has been dreadful past two seasons.

12)  Andy Sonnanstine –  Batters hit .311 against him.

13)  Chien-Ming Wang –  Lucky to have won 19 games in ’07.  At age 30, he is probably all but finished.  All peripheral numbers are poor.

14)  Jeff Suppan –  Yup, he’s still around.  League hit .309 against him in ’09.

15)  Brian Moehler –  Has a chance to lose 18 games if he gets enough starts.

16)  Jeff Niemann – Maybe not quite cannon fodder, but a low strikeout pitcher toiling in the A.L. East just isn’t going to find much long-term success.

17)  Brett Myers –  Year after year, he is a “dark-horse” or a sleeper.  Don’t bite.

18)  The Mets Pitching Staff (Other than Santana) –  They should collectively be known as the Wrecking Balls because of what they will do to the staff ERA.

19)  The Blue Jays Pitching Staff (With the possible exception of Ricky Romero) –  But even Romero posted a 1.52 WHIP.  See Above:  Mets.

20)  Ross Ohlendorf –  Has slight potential to climb up to Average Javier status, but not much.

21)  Carl Pavano – His comeback last year featured 235 hits surrendered in 199 innings (how did he last that many innings?)  ERA: 5.10.

22)  Justin Masterson –  Lots of people like him and hope he does well in Cleveland, but he is much better suited for bull-pen work.

23)  Manny Parra – 6.36 ERA last year.

24)  Micah Owings – Not a good one.

25)  John Lannan –  Has the occasional good outing, but 89 strikeouts in over 200 innings pitched is horrible (and he walked 68.)

26)  Kenshin Kawakami –  Undeserving of a place in the Braves rotation.

27)  Johnny Cueto – Has perhaps the greatest ability to move up a notch out of Cannon Fodder due to his youth (24) and his decent talent.  But has had two seasons in a row of ERA’s north of 4.00, and some arm problems.

28)  Doug Davis – A control, finesse lefty who walked 103 batters, and added 203 hits, in 203 innings.  Wow.

29)  Fausto Carmona –  The Indians may have the worst pitching in the A.L., and that’s saying a lot.

30)  Jose Contreras –  Approaching 40-years old, finished 6-13 last year.

31)  Aaron Cook – Somehow hasn’t been shelled all that often over the past few years.  Even managed 16 wins in ’08.  But hasn’t reached 100 strikeouts over the past three seasons, and that WHIP is steadily climbing.

32)  Zach Duke – The Pirates somehow end up with young pitchers who can’t strike anyone out.  Why is that?  Anyway, Duke has shown us his best stuff over the past few years, and his best stuff has resulted in 230 safe hits given up each of the past two seasons.

33)  Aaron Harang – Used to be underrated.  Not any longer.

34)  Nick Blackburn –  Gave up an astonishing 240 hits in ‘o9.

35)  Chad Gaudin –  Three straight seasons of ERA’s over 4.40.

I’m sure you will be able to think of other names I missed, but they aren’t going to make much difference one way or the other, are they?

Here’s a final list of pitchers that I didn’t list in any of the above categories because they just haven’t pitched enough for me the really get a handle on what they are capable of this year and on into the future.  A few of them may become Studs, or Near Studs, and the rest will be mid or back of the rotation kind of guys.  It might be another 3-5 years before we know for sure.  I’ll just list their names without comment:

1)  Clay Buchholz

2)  Chris Tillman

3)  Brian Matusz

4)  Trevor Cahill

5)  Wade Davis

6)  David Price

7)  Ryan Rowland-Smith

8)  Stephen Strasburg

9)  Madison Bumgarner

10)  Ricky Romero

As for Brandon Webb, we’ll just have to wait and see what he has on display this spring.  Obviously, he should be approached with extreme caution.

Finally, a word about Relief Pitchers / Closers. There are only three or four you can count on:  Mariano Rivera, Joe Nathan, Jon Papelbon, and Jon Broxton.  If you pay attention, you can get a good closer in the middle or even the later rounds.  I never draft a closer before the 8th round in my A.L. / N.L. mixed head-to-head, ten team points league.

This marks the end of my four-part series on Fantasy Baseball – 2010.  If you have any comments about my player rankings, or any of my other posts on this topic, please let me know. 

Future Posts: Under the Radar:  Part 3.

Then a commentary on Bud Selig’s new statue to himself.

After that, we shall see.  Thanks again for reading.

Fantasy Baseball Part II: Strategies and Tips

So let’s get right to the point.  There are a number of ways to win a fantasy baseball championship. But there are infinitely more ways to lose.  In fantasy baseball, as in war, the side that makes the fewest mistakes usually wins.

Thus, putting together a successful fantasy baseball season is less about who makes the most creative, clever decisions.  It is primarily about minimizing risks, and seizing obvious opportunities when they present themselves.

As I stated in my last post, I’ve been involved in a fantasy baseball league since the early ’90’s.  No, this doesn’t make me an expert, and I certainly don’t pretend to have a monopoly on fantasy baseball wisdom.  I can only share my own experiences that have allowed me to enjoy my fair share of success, but also, an impressive record of futility.

The strategies and tactics I’m going to share with you occur to me from time-to-time, but I don’t follow each and every one of them religiously.  There have been, however,  some self-imposed rules that I once considered inviolable that I have since discarded.

For example, for many years, Rule #1 was Never Draft Rockies Pitchers.  The thin mountain air of Coors Field meant high ERA’s and generally low strikeout totals for pitchers unlucky enough to call Coors home.

This season, for the first time, there are at least two or three pitchers on the Rockies that I would be happy to own.  Perhaps at the end of this season, if none of those pitchers live up to expectations, I’ll reinstate my old rule number #1.

So here, without further preamble, are some of my guidelines for the 2010 fantasy baseball season:

1)  Never draft a pitcher in the first round. This doesn’t mean that I don’t think any starting pitchers are worth drafting with your #1 pick.  In fact, if I have the 9th overall pick in our ten team league, and Tim Lincecum is still on the board, he would be very difficult to pass up.  But the reality is, pitchers are seldom as reliable and predictable as hitters, and you cannot afford to make a mistake with your first choice.

2)  Beware of career years outside the norm. Do you really believe Marco Scutaro will score 100 runs again?  Do you really believe Raul Ibanez will set yet another career high in slugging percentage at age 37?  How much are you willing to bet that Mike Cuddyer will match the 32 homers and 94 RBI’s he tallied last year?  All of these players are past 30 years old.  Buyer, beware.

3)  Ignore win totals. There is no strategy that will get you into more trouble than looking at a pitcher’s win total from one season and using this total to project the following season’s numbers.  For example, in 1976, Jerry Koosman finished the season with a record of 21-10, and he was runner-up to Randy Jones for the N.L. Cy Young award.

Now, if anyone other than Bill James had been playing fantasy baseball in the Spring of ’77, they would have drafted Koosman, largely based on his win-loss record, in perhaps the second round.  So what happened in 1977?  Did Koosman pitch poorly and finish with a losing record?

Well, no, and yes.  He actually pitched quite well, leading the league with 7.6 K’s per nine innings.  But the Mets as a team were terrible in ’77, offering Koosman no support at all, and he finished with a remarkably terrible record of 8-20.

That’s right, he lost 20 games the year after he won 20 games while pitching only slightly less effectively himself.  Pitchers are simply never a sure thing (see Rule #1.)

So how does one go about choosing pitchers to draft?  It’s not that hard, actually, and I have found year after year that I can begin the season with a mediocre looking staff only to have other owners in my league jealously eye-balling my rotation by the All-Star break. This brings us to item #4.

4)  Draft pitchers with high strike-out rates and low WHIPs. Dominance in the form of high K rates eventually reveals itself on the ball-field in the form of wins.  This does not contradict what I stated about how win totals aren’t important.  But if you start with wins as your base-line to project success, as opposed to high K rates and low WHIPs, you are far more likely to end up disappointed with the end results.

Let me illustrate this strategy using two examples of starting pitchers who will be drafted this spring:  Matt Garza and Scott Feldman.  Feldman, a 27 year old pitcher for the Rangers, finished last season with a promising record of 17-8 with a reasonably good WHIP of 1.28.

Garza, on the other hand, a 26 year old hurler with the Twins, finished the season with an 8-12 record despite an even slightly better WHIP of 1.26.  Who would you rather have, the 17 game winner, or the 8 game winner?

If you chose Feldman, the bigger winner, good luck to you.

Here’s why.  Feldman managed to strike out only 113 batters in just under 190 innings last season.  Garza K’d 189 in 203 innings.  That’s 76 more K’s for Garza in only about 13 more innings.  Fewer K’s mean more balls in play.  More balls in play lead eventually to many more hits, opportunities for errors by the defense, and bigger innings by the opposing offense.

Strikeout pitchers with reasonably low walk totals get themselves out of many more jams, with less damage done, than contact pitchers.  There are just far more opportunities for dominance by a strikeout pitcher than for a contact pitcher, and far more opportunities to fail for a contact pitcher, who, in Feldman’s case, also happens to pitch in one of the best hitter’s parks in baseball.  Which leads me directly to item #5

5)  Draft the Ball-Park: Look, obviously, when you are talking about great players such as Albert Pujols or a pitcher like Roy Halladay, ball-park factors are largely incidental.  Put them on any of the planets in our Solar System, and they’ll find ways to succeed.  But for many of the mere mortals out there, the ballpark they call home for 81 games during the season can make a big difference in the level of success they achieve.

In general, I like to find talented young hitters who have shown ability but still haven’t had the right opportunity, put them in a hitter’s park like Philadelphia or Texas, and you have a recipe for success.  Two players who, going into last season, fit that description exactly were Nelson Cruz of Texas and the Phillies Jayson Werth.

Neither player had previously enjoyed a full-time job with their clubs, but both men had shown solid slugging abilities in part-time or platoon stints.  Each of them blossomed into extremely valuable commodities last season as they took advantage of playing regularly in hitter-friendly parks to amass impressive numbers.  (You can look up their numbers on your own; no need to reprint them here.)

For pitchers, this strategy works just as well, but in reverse, of course.  Find young arms that have shown some talent, check to see if they pitch in pitcher-friendly ball-parks, and you will probably find a diamond in the rough (the still very young Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers comes to mind.)

TIP Alert! About a half dozen of the best pitcher’s parks in the country are in both league’s Western Divisions.

6)  Beware of catchers: Look, there’s a reason why Bill James in his book, “The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract” ranks Darrell Porter as the 18th best catcher of all time.  There just haven’t been all that many great catchers, folks.  Currently, Mike Napoli (yes, Mike Napoli) of the Angels is a top five A.L. catcher.  And Chris Iannetta of Colorado, along with his .228 batting average (in Colorado, or God’s sake?) is top ten in the N.L.

This past season, one participant in our league decided to try to corner the market on catchers, thus garnering for himself a clear competitive edge at one position.  He drafted Jorge Posada, Russell Martin, and Geovani Soto.  Soto had been named N.L. Rookie of the Year the season before with the Cubs, and Martin (Dodgers), seemed to be among the leaders of a class of solid young N.L. catchers

For those of you who followed baseball at all last season, you know Soto was a disaster, and Martin appears to be following along the career track of Jason Kendall, and empty singles hitter with a little speed.

So, needless to say, that strategy backfired.  And why shouldn’t it?  Again,  there have been fewer than fifteen great catchers in the entire history of major league baseball.

Therefore, if you don’t end up with a once-in-a-lifetime talent like Joe Mauer (a sure first-rounder) don’t panic.  There are worse fates in fantasy baseball than to end up with Yadier Molina as your starting catcher.

7)  Avoid aging players in their decline: This is especially true at deep positions like first base.  Someone will certainly draft either Lance Berkman, age 34, or Derrek Lee, age 35, over Joey Votto, age 26 due to reputation and resume.  But neither of the two veterans offer anything like the potential upside offered by Votto.

At best, Berkman and Lee will accomplish something close to what they usually offer in their average seasons.  Votto hasn’t had anything like his best season yet.

It is not a foolish gamble to bet on a player like Votto whose OPS is already extremely impressive, who plays in a good hitters park and who can only get better.

TIP AlertAvoid with extreme prejudice!

Other players / positions who fit the aging, yet still productive bill are:  Miguel Tejada at shortstop, Chipper Jones and Michael Young at third base, Benjie Molina (catcher), Raul Ibanez, Carlos Lee, Vernon Wells and Vlad Guerrerro (OF) and the following pitchers:  Carlos Zambrano, Roy Oswalt, Joe Blanton, Andy Pettitte, Mark Buehrle and closers, Francisco Cordero, Bobby Jenks, and Fernando Rodney.

8)  Beware of Over-Hyped Rookies: (Especially Pitchers) Anyone out there remember all the hype surrounding young PHEENOM David Price last season?  The next Dwight Gooden, and all that?  To be fair, most people probably drafted Price rather conservatively last season, but even those people were almost certainly extremely disappointed with his final season totals:  10-7, 4.42 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, only 128 innings pitched.

Generally speaking, it takes most young talents a couple of years or so before they really begin demonstrating their can’t-miss talent on a regular basis.  King Felix Hernandez had been hyped to the extreme for about three years before it all came together for him last season.

Sure, there are some rookies who jump right into the Big Leagues hitting line drives all over the place (Ryan Braun), or fanning ten batters in a game (Tim Lincecum)  and never look back.  But they are few and far between, and if you build a fantasy strategy based in part on acquiring as much rookie talent as you can, you are taking an unnecessary gamble.

TIP Alert! Neither Stephen Strasburg nor Madison Bumgarner will win the Cy Young Award this season.

And finally,

Strategy #9) Draft Power at the corners: Whenever I’ve had a successful fantasy baseball season, it’s often been in part because I’ve had legitimate sluggers at first and third base.  It’s not difficult at all to draft power at first base, and if you don’t, you’re sunk.  Third base can be a little more tricky sometimes because this position isn’t always as deep as it appears to be this season.

There are lots of good hitters at third base, but not necessarily a lot of big sluggers at this position.  One player I know everyone will be watching closely is the Mets star David Wright.  Last season he hit an unbelievably low ten home runs.  That’s Mark Teahen terrritory, folks.

Everyone expects Wright to rebound in 2010, perhaps doubling his homer total to twenty, or even twenty-five.  And, if he does hit 20-25 homers, lots of people will think they’ve landed a bargain if they draft Wright in the fourth or fifth round.

But think of it this way.  Evan Longoria, A-Rod, and Mark Reynolds are almost certain to hit about twice as many homers as Wright, even if Wright doubles last season’s total.  Are you willing to concede that much run production at such an important offensive position if you don’t have to?

Moreover, several other third basemen will hit about the same amount of homers as Wright, but will be drafted much lower.  Sure, Wright also brings stolen bases to the table, but I’ve never found in my league that stolen bases win championships.  Power does.  A three-run homer trumps a double-steal any day.

Now What?

Once Draft Day finally arrives, I’m quite sure that I will do what everyone else does, adjust to the circumstances of the draft.  And every draft is different.  Like a general on a battlefield, once the shooting starts, you might as well roll the battle-plans around a half dozen cigars and drop them on the battlefield, for all the good they’ll do you.

Still, a general without a plan is more likely to freeze up in a key moment, a potentially decisive situation, precisely because he wasn’t as prepared as he should have been beforehand.  I hope the tips and strategies I’ve shared with you will offer you some tactical advantage over your adversaries in your 2010 fantasy baseball season.

If you have questions or comments about the strategies and tips I’ve shared, or would like to share some of your own, by all means, please let me know.

Next blog post:  A.L. / N.L. Fantasy Baseball Player Rating Guide


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