The On Deck Circle

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Archive for the tag “Justin Verlander”

Best Pitchers of the 21st-Century: Part 2

This is the second of three installments in this series.  If you want to go back and read the criteria I used to compile this list, or to find out who the top ten pitchers of the 21st-century have been, here’s link to the first post.

In this second installment, you will find that some of the pitchers listed were household names in the late-20th-century as well.  This does not contradict my prior sentiment that the purpose of this list is to highlight those players who are of more recent vintage.

Although I don’t necessarily want this list to reflect a Hall of Fame ballot of retired players, the fact of the matter is that some of the players we might normally consider of pre-9/11 vintage actually spent around half or more of their careers toiling in our current century, performing at a high level.

Each pitcher included on this list, then, was chosen on a case-by-case basis.  This might satisfy some of you, and annoy others, but any list of this sort is going to include a certain amount of built-in subjectivity.  But I am confident that every player on my list deserves to be included, even if their particular ranking is open to debate.

Pedro's return!

Pedro’s return! (Photo credit: andrewmalone)

11)  Pedro Martinez – Like Cy Young straddling the 19th and 20th centuries, and, therefore, being one of the best pitchers in both centuries, Pedro’s accomplishments and career represented some of the finest pitching in both the 20th and 21st centuries.

Pedro’s career WAR of 86.0 is 9th best since the end of WWII.  It was almost evenly divided between his pre-2000 seasons (40.3) and his post 2000 seasons (34.0.)  Depending what you want to do with his year 2000 season, which was his best (11.7 WAR), either century can be viewed as his best.

So let’s split the difference and take half of 2000 and award each half to each century.  He ends up with around 46 WAR for the 20th-century, and 40 WAR for the 21st-century.  That 40.0 WAR ranks 11th-best which, in part, explains why he ranks 11th on my list.  His WAR in this century most closely resembles that of Justin Verlander, so Pedro obviously pitched to a very high level through about the year 2005.

Pedro won the Cy Young award in 2000, finished 2nd in the voting in 2002, placed 3rd in 2003, and 4th in 2004.  In 2005, pitching for the Mets, Pedro’s WAR of 7.0 was third best in the N.L.  In 2003, pitching for Boston, and despite pitching in the toughest division in baseball during a hitter’s era, Martinez surrendered just seven home runs all season.

In the 21st-century, (even if we exclude his superlative 2000 performance), Pedro posted  a win-loss record of 94-44 in 198 starts, striking out 1,336 batters in 1,249 innings pitched.  His 1.089 WHIP (slightly better than Kershaw’s 1.092) is the best this young century has to offer.   And his 3.23 ERA is most similar to Felix Hernandez’s 3.20.

A case can be made, once we figure in the era, the ballparks in which he pitched, and the quality of the competition, that Pedro Martinez was the greatest pitcher of all-time.  I certainly have no problem ranking him in the top five.

English: Mark Buehrle takes a sign during his ...

English: Mark Buehrle takes a sign during his 2009 perfect game. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

12)  Mark Buehrle – In a way, Mark Buehrle is the very opposite of Pedro Martinez.  Where Pedro burned bright, Buehrle is a 60-watt bulb.  But we need lots of those 60-watt bulbs to get through the day, and no pitcher in this century has been more dependable than Mark Buehrle.

Buehrle is the only pitcher in the 21st-century to have pitched over 200 innings in each season.  His WAR of 54.0 is third-best, behind only Halladay and Sabathia.

In fact, Buehrle’s 54.0 is nearly identical to Sabathia’s 54.4.  Buehrle’s 2,829 innings pitched ranks first since the year 2001, as do his 426 starts.  His 182 wins rank third most.

Although Buehrle has never in any given season been the best pitcher in his league, he does have four seasons of over 5.0 WAR to his credit, including a career high of 6.1 in 2007.  Buehrle has also been named to four All-Star teams, and has won four Gold Gloves.

So why doesn’t he rate a bit higher?  His 3.84 ERA and his 1.276 WHIP are both among the highest of all the pitchers on this list, and he also has the most losses (141.)  Buehrle has been a reasonably valuable pitcher, and ranking him in the top dozen seems about right to me.

13)  Jered Weaver –  Jered Weaver of the Angels has been one of the more underrated pitchers of this century.  His 1.143 WHIP is 5th best among all active pitchers, and his ERA+ of 127 matches Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez (as well as Kevin Brown, Stanley Coveleski, Tom Seaver and Bob Gibson).  In four of his eight seasons, he has posted an ERA+ north of 130.

Jered Weaver

Jered Weaver (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Weaver’s career ERA of 3.24 in this century is about the same as those posted by Felix Hernandez, Pedro Martinez, and Brandon Webb.

Weaver has never won a Cy Young award, but he does have a third-place finish (20-5, 2.81 ERA) in 2012, and a second-place finish (7.0 WAR, 18 wins, 2.41 ERA) in 2011, along with a league-leading 233 strikeouts in 2010.

Weaver has been a key member of the Angels rotation for the past eight years, and has averaged over 4.0 WAR per year for his career.

A three-time All Star, Weaver currently ranks 8th in fewest hits surrendered per nine innings among active pitchers.

The reason he doesn’t rate a little higher is because his overall career value doesn’t quite yet match some of those pitchers listed ahead of him, and because he’s never won any significant hardware.  If, health permitting, he continues to pitch at his current high level of effectiveness, he will certainly move up on this list in the future.

14)  Curt Schilling – Yes, like Pedro Martinez, Schilling had greater value in this century than might be expected, considering his career began back when answering machines and VHS players were all the rage.

In fact, about half of Schilling’s career WAR of 80.7 has been accumulated since 2001.  In his 192 starts in this century (about 44% of his career total), Schilling posted a win-loss record of 106-51 (a .675 win-loss percentage) and an ERA of 3.50.  If that ERA seems a bit high, remember that his home ballparks included Arizona’s desert launching pad, and hitter-friendly Fenway Park.

In 2001, 2002 and 2004, he finished runner-up in the Cy Young voting each season.  Although he never led his league in WAR in any particular season this century, he did finish 2nd in each of those three seasons.  He also averaged over a strikeout per inning, striking out 1,377 batters in just 1,358 innings pitched.  His WHIP of 1.12 is also outstanding.

Schilling’s 41.3 WAR is ninth-best this century.  What keeps him rated lower than some other pitchers on this list is that, like Pedro Martinez, he made fewer than 200 starts, while most other pitchers on this list made around 270-350 starts this century.  In short, three or four highly effective seasons is not unusual among the pitchers on this list.

While I believe that Schilling had a Hall of Fame-worthy career, his overall career value isn’t entirely relevant to the purpose of this list.

As a side note, I wish Curt Schilling well in his battle against cancer.  The news came as a shock to me, and I wish him a full and speedy recovery.

English: Jake Peavy

English: Jake Peavy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

15)  Jake Peavy – During the first decade of this century, Jake Peavy was one of the best pitchers in the National League.  Four times he posted an ERA under 3.00, leading the league in that category twice, and four times posting an ERA+ between 133 and 171.

For three consecutive seasons, Peavy struck out over 200 batters, leading the league with 216 in ’05, and 240 in ’07.

In 2007, Peavy won the N.L. Cy Young award while leading the league in wins (19), earned run average (2.54) and strikeouts (240.)

While pitching for the Padres in his first eight seasons, Peavy posted a record of 92-68, with an ERA of 3.29.  If he’d continued to pitch at that high level, he would probably rate higher on this list, but other than his one nice season with the White Sox in 2012 (5.2 WAR) Peavy’s basically been a league-average pitcher for most of the past five seasons.

In his entire career, Peavy has a win-loss record of 132-98, and a career ERA in 305 starts of 3.51.

Peavy will be entering his age 34 season in 2014, so he’s young enough that he might still accumulate some additional career WAR, but his best seasons are probably behind him.  It would be in his best interests to return to the N.L. where he enjoyed his greatest success.

16)  Carlos Zambrano –  In some respects, Zambrano’s career is similar to Peavy’s.  Zambrano’s career record was 132-91 in 302 starts, with a career ERA of 3.66.  Pitching at Wrigley is certainly tougher than pitching in San Diego, which, in part, accounts for Zambrano’s relatively high WHIP of 1.331.

English: Carlos Zambrano of the Chicago Cubs p...

English: Carlos Zambrano of the Chicago Cubs pitching (cropped). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Zambrano does have a somewhat higher career WAR than Peavy, 38.2 to 35.8, but Zambrano never won a Cy Young award.  He did, however, finish 5th in the voting three times.

Zambrano was also that rare species of pitcher who was also a switch-hitter.  In fact, Zambrano was an outstanding hitter for a pitcher (or even when compared to many middle infielders.)  For his career, Zambrano batted .238 with 165 base-hits, including an astonishing 24 home runs.

If you add Zambrano’s 6.3 WAR he accumulated for his hitting, he becomes a 44 WAR player, which would rank him in the top half-dozen on this list.  For four consecutive seasons, from 2003-06, inclusive, he averaged 5.75 WAR per year.

Zambrano enjoyed some very good seasons, and he was a fine hitting pitcher.  His high career WHIP, his lack of one or two truly great years, and his relatively high ERA, along with a career that was effectively over by age 29, prevents Zambrano from breaking the top 15 on this list.

Chris Carpenter

Chris Carpenter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

17)  Chris Carpenter –  Chris Carpenter is a tale of two pitchers.  There was the Chris Carpenter who pitched for the Toronto Blue Jays from 1997-02, a pitcher who posted an unspectacular record of 49-50 with a 4.83 ERA in 135 starts.  His ERA+ during those years was just 98, slightly less than a replacement level pitcher.  He accumulated just 7.5 WAR over those six seasons.

Then Carpenter got hurt and missed the entire 2003 season.  It was the best thing that ever happened to him.  The Blue Jays, having grown weary of their once highly touted prospect, gave Carpenter his unconditional release.  Carpenter then signed with the St. Louis Cardinals, and an ace was born.

If you go back and take a look at the numbers I listed for Pedro Martinez in this century, you’ll find that Chris Carpenter’s numbers as a St. Louis Cardinal were eerily similar.  Carpenter made 197 starts of which he won 95 and lost just 44.  He recorded a very solid ERA of 3.07, including an ERA+ of 133.  His WAR was about 32.0 to Pedro’s 34.0.  Carpenter’s WHIP was a little higher than Pedro’s, but was still an excellent 1.125.

Carpenter won the N.L. Cy Young award in 2005, going 21-5, with a 2.83 ERA, and a league-leading seven complete games for the Cardinals.  He also struck out 213 batters, and had an ERA+ of 150.

The following season, he finished 3rd in the Cy Young voting, leading the league in shutouts (3) and WHIP (1.069.)

In 2009, he finished 2nd in the voting for that same award with a 17-4 record, a league-leading 2.24 ERA, and a spectacular ERA+ of 182.

At ages 35 and 36, he led the N.L. in starts each year with 35 and 34, respectively.  He averaged 231 innings pitched during those two seasons, winning 27 games while losing 18, with a cumulative ERA of a still solid 3.32.  Carpenter retired after his age 37 season with 144 career wins and 94 losses.

But Carpenter lost three full seasons due to injury, and was ineffective early in his career.  Still, Carpenter was one of the N.L.’s premier pitchers for about half a dozen years.  When healthy, from ages 29-36, he was a true ace.

Andy Pettitte

Andy Pettitte (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

18)  Andy Pettitte – It may surprise you to learn that Pettitte was just 28-years old at the turn of the last century, though he’d already pitched for the Yankees for six seasons.  In fact, though, fully two-thirds of Pettitte’s 18 seasons occurred during the 21st-century.

In fact, Pettitte’s 156 wins are the seventh most among all pitchers since the year 2001, as are his 330 starts.  His 2,065 innings pitched rank 8th in the 21st-century.  His 98 losses are tied for tenth place. Surprisingly, he had but two complete game shutouts in his final twelve seasons.

Pettitte’s 35.6 WAR most closely resembles Jake Peavy’s, while his .614 win-loss percentage most closely resembles Roy Oswalt’s .615.  Pettitte did have the advantage, though, of choosing to pitch for highly competitive teams for the last nine years of his career, teams that usually provided him ample run support.  Thus, a moderately high 3.77 ERA during that span still resulted in far more wins than losses.

But Pettitte’s best season this century did not happen while pitching for New York, but, instead, in Houston.  In 2005, at age 33, he produced an outstanding 2.39 ERA (ERA+ of 177) in 222 innings pitched.  He won 17 games, and finished fifth in Cy Young voting.  He ranked 6th in A.L. Cy Young voting for the Yanks in 2003, with a record of 21-8, despite a 4.02 ERA.

Only once in this century did Pettitte finish in the top five in WAR for pitchers in any given season.  In the post-season, Pettitte posted an 11-6 record after the year 2000, with a 3.53 ERA in 153 post-season innings.  And no one ever had a better game face, especially in the playoffs, than Andy Pettitte.

Overall, Pettitte was a very good, but seldom a great pitcher, in the 21st-century.  I would have no problem if someday he is enshrined in Cooperstown, though he would never get there if  his 21st-century numbers were the sole basis on which his career were to be evaluated.

English: Donald Zackary "Zack" Grein...

English: Donald Zackary “Zack” Greinke, an american Major League Baseball starting pitcher, delivers against the Baltimore Orioles in the first inning of a baseball game, Wednesday, July 29, 2009, in Baltimore.

19)  Zach Greinke – Having just turned 30 years-old, Greinke should have a lot of baseball left in him.  And if his future performance is anything like some of his finest past seasons, he’s going to put together one very fine career.

Just last season, Greinke led the N.L. in win-loss percentage by going 15-4 for the Dodgers (.789.)  Since having been liberated after seven years in Kansas City, (where he was 60-67 despite pitching at least reasonably well in all but one season), Greinke has gone 46-15 over the past three years.

Greinke has averaged eight strikeouts per nine innings in his career, during which he has made 259 starts, tossed 1,670 innings, and posted an adequate 3.65 ERA.  Three times he has fanned over 200 batters in a season, and he’s always had excellent control, having never walked more than 56 batters in a season.

His finest season by far, and one of the very best of this century, occurred in 2009 while he was pitching for the Royals.  At the age of 25, he led the A.L. with a 2.16 ERA in just under 230 innings, brandishing an astonishingly high ERA+ of 205.

There have been only 37 seasons in baseball history where a pitcher has topped an ERA+ of 200, so that is quite an achievement.  His WAR for the year was a Pedro Martinez-esque 10.4.  For his efforts, Greinke won the A.L. Cy Young award that season, despite just 16 victories.

Health permitting, Greinke is now in the right ballpark and in the right league to finally run off a string of seasons, health permitting, that will allow him to move up much higher on this list over the next half-dozen seasons.  Even if he never tops his 2005 season (and he doesn’t have to), he should be able to further solidify his reputation as one of the 21st-century’s best pitchers.

cole hamels

cole hamels (Photo credit: artolog)

20)  Cole Hamels – As with Greinke, Cole Hamels is entering his age 30 season in 2014.  To this point, he’s often been a near-great pitcher, producing high-caliber pitching for the Phillies over the past eight seasons.

You can count on Hamels to make over 30 starts per year, pitch 215-220 innings, strike out over 200 batters (which he has done in three of the last four years), walk fewer than 60, and post a WHIP around 1.14.

On most teams, he would be the staff ace, but on the Phillies deep staff, he’s been their #2 or #3 starter to this point.  His 99-74 record masks his true value, and his 33.8 WAR is close to Pedro Martinez this century (though Hamels has made more starts.)

Hamels has averaged 8.5 K’s / 9 innings in nearly 1,600 innings pitched, so his stuff is among the best in the N.L.  He has received a reasonable amount of Cy Young attention, finishing in the top ten in voting three times.

With a little bit of luck, Hamels could be in line for his first Cy Young award and 20-win season as early as this 2014.  But even if he never quite pitches with the degree of luck and run support he might need to garner that hardware, he’s plenty good enough to continue to rate among the dominant pitchers in the National League for years to come.

I hope you have enjoyed this second installment of the Best Pitchers of the 21st-Century.  Next time, I’ll post the final five pitchers in this series.

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Soundtrack for Baseball: July, 2012

This is my third offering in a sporadic series in which I mix baseball analysis with some of my favorite music artists.  Let’s call this one “The Blues Edition.”  (Please ignore any commercials that may appear.  For “Full Screen,” click the icon on the lower, right-hand corner of each video.)

The relationship between the analysis and the songs is tenuous at best, but it amuses me nevertheless (as do bright, shiny objects and fire trucks.)

Here were my offerings for April and May (June somehow slipped by me unnoticed.)

The point of these posts is to create a video-blog of the highlights (and low lights) of the baseball season.  I’ll leave it to other bloggers to address this season’s stats and stories in a more traditional fashion.

So let’s begin.

Has any PHEENOM ever made such a huge impact in his first full season as Mike Trout has done this season?  The list of players who were great right out of the gate, and who went on to have fantastic careers, is not a very long one.  That list would include, for example, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Frank Robinson, Alex Rodriguez and a handful of others.

Add Mike Trout to that list.  Sure, it’s true that Trout’s future is yet to be written, but other than the possibility of injury, there is no reason to think that we’re not looking at the next Stan Musial or Mickey Mantle.

All Trout has done so far is hit a league-leading .351 to go along with a circuit-pacing 78 runs scored in just 80 games.  Oh, and did I mention he’s also stolen the most bases in the A.L. (35) while being caught an absurdly low 3 times?  How about that 180 OPS+, also the best in the junior league.

The fact is, pitchers have to learn to stop “Messin’ with the Kid.  Here’s a direct appeal to MLB pitchers from Junior Wells and Buddy Guy, so listen up.

Meanwhile, up in New York, the Yankees have added both age and depth to their first-place team by trading for Seattle’s most famous icon (and, no, I don’t mean Starbucks.)

Ichiro Suzuki has been a fixture in the Mariners outfield since he burst on the Major League scene in 2001.

But after 11 1/2 years in Seattle the former MVP has finally been granted his wish to play for a team that could well find itself in the World Series this year.

Ichiro has accumulated over 2,500 hits in his MLB career along with a career batting average of .322.  The ten time All-Star and future Hall of Famer has won 10 Gold Gloves, three Silver Sluggers, and has led the A.L. in hits seven times.  He has been a one-of-a-kind player in his generation.

Yet Ichiro is also 38-years old, and clearly isn’t the player he once was.  His OPS+ of 82 this season is unimpressive, while his batting average is just .261.  Though it’s true he still has some value, it is clear he is no longer able to do “The Things That {he} Used To Do.”

I’ll let the immortal Stevie Ray Vaughan spell it out for you.

I wasn’t sure he could do it again.

I’m talking about the Tigers Uber-Ace, 29-year old Justin Verlander.  Last year, he won both the Cy Young award and the MVP award.  It was perhaps asking too much for a repeat performance, yet Verlander is not far off last year’s pace.

Granted, Verlander won’t finish this season with a 24-5 record, as he did in 2011.  His record currently stands at 11-7, but he has pitched better than that. Verlander leads the A.L. in innings pitched, complete games, and fewest hits surrendered per nine innings.  His ERA is just .23 higher than last year.  He is second in his league in strikeouts, starts and WHIP, while also leading the league in WAR for pitchers.

Verlander is a polished pitcher with a solid arsenal, but his bread and butter pitch is an old-fashioned 100 mile per hour fastball.  His is the ultimate power arm.  His nickname should be the “Smoking Gun,” ’cause that’s what he brings to the table.

So let’s dedicate this next song, “Smoking Gun,” performed by the smooth as silk Robert Cray, in honor of Verlander’s awesome right arm.

When we were kids, our best pitcher would always pitch the most games.  Sounds logical, right?  In the Majors, of course, things are much different.  Sure, it’s true that a relief pitcher will probably appear in more games than a typical starting pitcher.  That’s the nature of the job.  But, apparently, it doesn’t necessarily follow that even your best relief pitcher will lead the staff in appearances.

That honor is often enjoyed by the specialist of all specialists, the situational lefty.

He doesn’t have to be particularly good, mind you, just left-handed.

Situational lefties are the summer school teachers of the bullpen.  They’re willing to do the job, and there just ain’t that many others to choose from with their particular mix of modest self-esteem and masochism.

Which explains (though it doesn’t excuse) why lefty Tim Byrdak of the Mets leads the entire Major Leagues in appearances (as of August 1st.)

In 55 appearances, Byrdak has managed to accumulate a paltry 30.1 (not entirely effective) innings pitched.  His ERA on the season is 4.45.  Apparently, his “situations” have been a bit more challenging for Byrdak than he would like.

But once a Major League manager gets an idea in his head, or develops an irrational affinity for a particular player, there’s just no turning back.  So manager Terry Collins runs the 38-year old Byrdak out there about two out of every three games (actually, Byrdak has recently missed a couple of games with a sore knee) and hopes for the best.

Good baseball strategy?  Who cares.  It’s what’s de rigueur these days in Baseball Land.  Obviously, it’s simply impossible to love mediocrity too much.  Does it backfire sometimes?  Sure, love is like that.

So here’s an ode to loving someone or something too much by the late, great, blind Canadian blues artist, Jeff Healey.

Someday, I’d like to meet an actual Padres fan.

The San Diego Padres were one of baseball’s expansion teams in 1969.  Forty-three years after their founding, not only have they not won a World Championship, but they’ve won only one World Series game.  (Andy Hawkins beat the Tigers’ Dan Petry, October 10, 1984, 5-3.)

They’ve also never reached the 100-win plateau in any season, topping out at 98 wins in 1998.  In fact, they’ve topped 90 wins in a season just four times since the first man walked on the moon.

During their existence, they have lost 520 more games than they’ve won.

Their only league MVP winner, Ken Caminiti in 1996, turned out to be a steroids user, was arrested in a Houston hotel room for possession of crack cocaine, and died prematurely at age 41.

If that’s not enough to give a baseball fan the blues, I don’t know what is.

Sure, other MLB teams have suffered long droughts of futility, but, other than Tony Gwynn, can you give me one reason the Padres haven’t been baseball’s most superfluous team?

The question is, “How Many More Years” will the Padres offer so little in the way of hope and success to their (presumably loyal) fans?

Perhaps it’s time for a little Howlin’ Wolf as an antidote to this historically uncompelling franchise.

With that, my friends, we come to the end of this edition of a “Soundtrack for Baseball.”  I hope you enjoyed it.  We may do it again in another month.

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.

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