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The advent of sabermetrics has heightened the bar for finding pitching gems -- a point Todd Zola illustrates well in this Insider piece -- and these days, if you're not using some sort of advanced metric to formulate a pitching plan, you're at a disadvantage.
But here's a fair follow-up question: Exactly what stats should I be using?
"Command" statistics -- things like strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed, which are ones pitchers most easily influence -- are a good place to start. Analysts like Ron Shandler, whose "LIMA Plan" (Low Investment Mound Aces) developed in the late 1990s shares similar traits with those listed below, helped bring them to the mainstream many years ago; newer statistical categories such as FIP, xFIP and SIERA were also created heavily weighting these pitching skills. FIP in particular has become a popular, quick, one-size-fits-all such measure.
It's for that reason that each spring, I compile a list of 10 pitchers who, thanks to meeting a specific set of criteria in these command categories, are attractive bargain candidates for the upcoming season. None of these players is tabbed for his performance in such standard Rotisserie categories as wins or ERA; these are irrelevant categories that don't properly identify pitching skills.
I call this list "Kings of Command," and it takes a select list of pitchers who possess the greatest ability to control their own destiny, and picks 10 individuals from that group as breakout candidates. Past lists have identified previous-year underperformers who excelled in the season in question: Jake Peavy (2012), James Shields (2011), Cole Hamels (2010), Josh Johnson (2009) and Mike Mussina (2008) are just five such examples. And, yes, those lists were populated by a handful of busts, just as there might be a bust on the list below. The track record of these lists' success, however, remains more extensive.
Pitchers who qualify for inclusion in this annual list meet each of the following five minimum baselines:
Batters faced: 200 or more
Strikeout rate (K% of batters faced): 16 percent or more
Walk rate (BB% of batters faced): 8 percent or less
Command rate (K's per walk): 2.50 or more
Ground ball rate (GB% of all balls in play): 42.5 percent or more
If you've read this column in past seasons, you'll first notice a few key changes to this year's criteria: The command numbers have migrated to per-batters-faced rates rather than per-inning, and ground ball rate has replaced fly ball rate. The former provides a more telling tale of a pitcher's skill, eliminating any assumption that a pitcher faces an identical number of batters per inning, a point made excellently by Joe Sheehan in recent years. The latter, meanwhile, does a better job of emphasizing a pitcher's ability to induce weaker contact; using fly ball rate ignores the possibility that said pitcher might have also afforded a high rate of line drives, which might have contributed to his poor Rotisserie stats. Remember, there's greater debate as to what constitutes a fly ball versus a line drive rather than between a ground ball and either of the other two.
Last season, 652 pitchers appeared in a big league game, and of those, only 84 met all five criteria. That group included: Both Cy Young winners, R.A. Dickey and David Price (who earned 59 of the 60 first-place votes and 19 percent of the total points in the Cy Young balloting); and each of the top six pitchers on our Player Rater, Dickey, Fernando Rodney, Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Craig Kimbrel and Price, as well as 16 of the top 22.
Not one of those 2012 fantasy studs was picked for the list below; it'd serve no purpose. The point is to pick 10 who didn't excel rotisseriewise in 2012, pitchers who fell outside the top 50 pitchers on our Player Rater. These 10 compared favorably to the aforementioned fantasy standouts in these command categories, with their skills hinting they deserved better fortune.
These 10 "Kings of Command" are listed in alphabetical order, along with their statistics in the above categories, and a look at what they'd need to do in order to break through in 2013.
His 2012 rotisserie statistics might be the worst I've ever seen in the 13 seasons in which I've written this column: He had three wins in 24 games, 18 of them starts. He had a 6.20 ERA. Ouch. Still, that means Arrieta will be cheap in AL-only leagues -- he was a $1 buy in the recent League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) auction -- and let's point out that, excluding his innings-pitched total, his statistics in the other command categories listed above were all better than those of Ryan Dempster or Ryan Vogelsong, two top-50 pitchers on our Player Rater. It's cherry-picking, yes, but it's difficult to ignore that Arrieta was done in by miserable luck: He had a .320 BABIP, a 57.3 left-on-base percentage and 14.5 home run/fly ball percentage. That's tough to do.
What would spawn a breakout? More than anything, winning a rotation spot, which is not going to be easy. Arrieta faces an uphill climb in that quest, then he'll need better fortune if he does emerge. It'd also help if he could develop a quality pitch to use against lefties; they hit .292 against him last year.
His chances of doing so? The worst of anyone on this list, but fantasy owners occasionally need to take chances. Arrieta is a speculative final-round AL-only pick, or someone to monitor in-season if he falls short in his rotation fight.
A late bloomer of a prospect -- he was Keith Law's No. 9 prospect overall in 2008 -- Bailey took six seasons in the bigs before ever reaching the 10-win, 30-start or 150-strikeout plateaus or posting an ERA beneath 4.00. But while he was the highest placing of these 10 names on the 2012 Player Rater, Rotisserie performance is not the reason he's an enticing breakout candidate on many fantasy owners' lists. Rather, it's that he has improved his strikeout-to-walk ratio in each big league season, culminating in a 3.23 mark in 2012 that even trumped his career minor league number of 2.43, while posting a personal-high 45.2 percent ground ball rate last season. Bailey wouldn't have met this column's criteria in any previous big league season; that shows how much he has grown as a pitcher.
What would spawn a breakout? Considering Bailey's hitter-friendly home ballpark, further improvements to his K/BB or ground ball ratios would help.
His chances of doing so? Bailey managed a 3.83 K/BB and 49.0 percent ground ball rate after the All-Star break last season, and he was once described as possessing an ace pedigree. His breakout prospects are outstanding.
Cobb entered the Rays' rotation last May en route to an ordinary 4.03 ERA, 1.25 WHIP Rotisserie numbers, but the skill that should've caught your eye was his changeup: He had the 10th-most strikeouts (55) with the pitch and 11th-lowest OPS allowed (.542) among those who threw at least 400 changeups, despite making only 23 starts (full-time starters go 30-35 times). One elite pitch can often be enough, and in Cobb's case, don't overlook that he managed a 3.16 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in his final 12 starts of 2012, which are very solid rotisserie stats.
What would spawn a breakout? One (or both) of two things: Polish on his other pitches, presumably either his two-seam fastball, which helped contribute to a 58.9 percent ground ball rate last season, or his curveball; or an increase in his miss rate on swings (19.4 percent), which probably plays off the former point.
His chances of doing so? Cobb continues to exceed expectations in each career step, so why can't they be sneaky good? He already has 12 K's compared to one walk in nine spring innings, so the seeds are being sown.
Perhaps on paper he's not as exciting an up-and-comer as his competition for the Diamondbacks' fifth-starter job, Randall Delgado and Tyler Skaggs, but Corbin's advantage is the lowest basement of the three, at least for 2013. He's the kind of sharp-command, balanced-splits type who might make a smart real-life fallback for the team if neither alternative works out, and a smart fantasy investment, too, as a back-of-your-staff, shouldn't-hurt-you type. Only two rookie starters met the "Kings of Command" criteria in 2012, Corbin and Wade Miley, and Miley, the runner-up for National League Rookie of the Year honors, has a somewhat similar profile that illustrates a potential high-end stat line for Corbin.
What would spawn a breakout? More polish on his fastball -- opponents batted .316 against it -- a few more lucky bounces and, naturally, his emerging the victor of the fifth-starter race.
His chances of doing so? The Miley comparison isn't meant to exaggerate your expectations; Corbin's 2013 upside is likely noticeably less than that, capped at NL-only appeal. But as Delgado and Skaggs have a 16.88 ERA combined thus far in the spring, Corbin is a more intriguing sleeper than you might think.
No matter what the Tigers tell you, their closer job, vacated when Jose Valverde filed for free agency the day after the team's World Series loss, is up for grabs this spring. Barring a surprise signing of Valverde or Francisco Rodriguez or Brian Wilson or Todd Jones? any member of the team's projected Opening Day bullpen could be a candidate to assume ninth-inning duties. So why not Dotel, who leads the roster in career saves (109)? Crack jokes about wildness, comparing rookie Bruce Rondon -- the team's advertised top choice -- to a young, wild Dotel, but then check the facts: Dotel posted personal bests in K-to-walk (5.17) and ground ball (43.4 percent) rates in 2012. He has become a much better pitcher, dating back to hmm his second half of 2011 pitching for Dave Duncan's staff.
What would spawn a breakout? He'd need Rondon to continue to struggle with his command, a la 1999 Dotel, then manager Jim Leyland to overlook Phil Coke, Joaquin Benoit and Al Alburquerque.
His chances of doing so? Not especially good, considering Dotel is now 39 years old and recently criticized the team's marquee player (Miguel Cabrera) publicly. But it's not unthinkable, which is why he's on the list. Remember, Kyle Farnsworth remade himself at 35 years old and earned a closer job, and Leyland has already voiced his preference for a "dominant closer," a hint that he prefers experience in the role?
Gee's improved command in 2012 was an imperative ingredient to his future success; he lacks overpowering stuff and must hit spots to thrive. Just as he did in the low minors, last season he restored his K-to-walk rate to 3-plus levels, and thanks to a two-seamer, he was able to boost his ground ball rate higher than 50 percent (51.8 percent), another crucial ingredient for a finesse type. Though Gee missed the second half of the season recovering from surgery to repair artery damage in his right shoulder, all reports on his rehabilitation have been positive, and he has already made one solid spring appearance.
What would spawn a breakout? Assuming his command numbers remain where they were in 2012, better luck is all Gee needs: He had a 68.9 left-on-base percentage and 12.8 home run/fly ball percentage.
His chances of doing so? Good enough, though Gee should never be mistaken for a top-25 fantasy starter even in the best-case scenario.
This year's "Kings of Command" takes some serious chances, from Arrieta to, in this case, Nova, who had a 5.02 ERA and 1.47 WHIP in 28 starts last season. He possesses some of the filthiest breaking stuff of anyone in baseball; opponents batted .200 against his curveball and slider and whiffed 130 times against them, the third-largest total in the majors. Nova also, in spite of his awful rotisserie statistics, made a few key strides: Besides the command stats, he also boosted his swing-and-miss rate (22 percent, up from 17) and kicked up the velocity on his fastball (93.0 mph on average, up from 92.6).
What would spawn a breakout? Let's talk about that fastball, which was disastrous. Opponents batted .358 with a 1.034 OPS against it, and his .344 well-hit average allowed (which measures at-bats which ended in hard contact) was the worst among ERA qualifiers, those numbers representing huge drop-offs from his 2011 performance. Nova's quest is clear: Fix the fastball.
His chances of doing so? Admittedly, it's unclear. Nova's velocity touched 94 mph in his first spring training appearance, and he and pitching coach Larry Rothschild have been working on shortening his arm action in camp, signs that he's at least addressing the problem. That's good, but it takes more than spring chatter to spawn a breakthrough. Nova must be monitored closely; he's a bench stash, the worst case has you cutting him if he doesn't improve by April.
Restored to the rotation at the onset of last year, Samardzija thrived in what was a low-pressure environment in Chicago, posting the majors' fourth-best K's per nine innings ratio (9.27) and seventh-best strikeout percentage of batters faced (24.9), en route to 17 quality starts in 28 tries and the majors' 14th-best xFIP (3.38). As a result of his breakthrough, not to mention his workload bump of 86 2/3 innings from 2011 to 2012, fantasy owners might be skeptical about his prospects for further growth. But consider what spawned it: Increased reliance and polish on his splitter, which was responsible for 100 of his 180 K's while limiting hitters to a .128 batting average, and vastly improved control, with his 2.89 walks-per-nine ratio sitting well beneath the 5.30 number he posted in his first four big league seasons.
What would spawn a breakout (in his case an additional step)? More stamina -- think 30-plus starts and 200-plus innings -- and more run support, but some better luck in home run/fly ball percentage at Wrigley (17.6 percent there in 2012) would be a plus.
His chances of doing so? Samardzija was a starter in the minors, it's not like 174 2/3 innings is excessive, and he finished on a high note, with a 2.58 ERA and 1.02 WHIP in his final 11 starts. His odds are good.
This is the second consecutive season in which Sanchez cracks the "Kings of Command 10," and in defense of the repeat appearance, it was hinted in this space last year that he might "spin his wheels." I simply got the reason wrong: It was because his Miami Marlins were awful, not because his team switched ballparks. But if Sanchez was picked last year because of underrated skills, this year he's picked for both underrated skills and a circumstance that can drive rotisserie value; these Tigers will score runs for him. Last season, Sanchez set personal bests in K's per walk (3.48) and ground ball (48.0 percent) ratios, meaning he made major advances that might've been overshadowed by his nine-win total.
What would spawn a breakout? Additional run support and/or a return to his career-best 25 percent swing-and-miss rate (22 percent in 2012).
His chances of doing so? Perhaps better than you think. The Tigers averaged nearly three quarters of a run per game more than the Marlins last season, and Sanchez had 11 quality starts and a 3.32 ERA in 15 starts (playoffs included) following his midseason change of teams.
One of five pitchers to have a FIP (3.10) more than three-quarters of a run lower than his ERA (3.94), Wainwright's Rotisserie statistics during his return campaign from Tommy John surgery were done in by unlucky breaks. He had the game's fifth-highest qualified BABIP (.315) and fifth-lowest qualified left-on-base percentage (67.8 percent), both of those numbers well outside the range of his career norms. It's understandable; his staple pitch is his curveball, and it's probable that he never fully recaptured the feel for it as he worked himself back to full strength.
What would spawn a break-, er, return to glory? It's almost entirely about the curve; will he possess the same feel for it that he had during his Cy Young runner-up campaign in 2010?
His chances of doing so? Excellent, considering he threw his curve four percent more often after the All-Star break than before it, resulting in a 3.49 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 10 quality starts in his final 18 tries.