How to improve your pitching stats

What numbers must you reach and which pitchers can help you get there?

Updated: May 1, 2013, 3:52 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

It is the age-old question in fantasy baseball: When, if such a date could be nailed down exactly, do your league standings begin to matter?

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Today, let's see if we can answer it.

In order to do so, let's first provide you 2012 average team statistical contributions across ESPN standard 10-team mixed leagues, so you can set, roughly, your full-season categorical goals. The chart below shows what the average team by standing in the given category had last season:

Though your league's current standings might exhibit wider ranges from first to 10th by category -- the 26-games-per-team average thus far, a considerably smaller sample than those 162-game numbers from 2012, influences that -- your first assignment is to compare your team's placement in each category to the chart above. Where would your current paces place you? Might your paces exceed those of the average first-place team, or fall shy of the last-place squads?

Let's assume you're on pace to match the last-place numbers in every category, and you need to improve your overall Rotisserie point total to the 80-point range -- eight in each of the 10 standard categories -- in order to win. (The average winner's total, incidentally, was 81.36 points.) The chart below tells you what, again using last year's averages, you'd need to gain from each of the nine active pitching spots on your team during the remainder of the season in order to reach that 80-point threshold. Six different start dates are used to illustrate the difficulty at each stage: May 1, May 16, June 1, June 16, July 1 and the All-Star break.

As you might expect, it's the counting numbers -- wins, saves and strikeouts -- that are the easiest to correct. Considering the ease of projecting saves and K's, at least comparative to the more volatile ERA, these might be your smartest routes to improving your slow start. Perhaps you'll only need to address one category; perhaps you'll need to attack them all.

Let's go category-by-category, in order of easiest to most difficult -- in this columnist's opinion -- to correct.

Saves

There's no easier category to fix at any stage of the season. Longtime readers might recall this personal example, but I'll repeat it to offer encouragement to owners currently lacking in saves: I once, about five years ago in a 12-team mixed league, resided in 10th place in saves around Aug. 1, only to win the category by trading for two full-time closers and picking up a third off waivers. That nine-point improvement was crucial to my team's boost in the final standings.

[+] EnlargeKevin Gregg
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesKevin Gregg has gone 4-for-4 in save chances and appears to be the Cubs' closer once again.

Look at the stats in the chart above: Even at the All-Star break, that 4.3-save necessary boost equates to 38.6 additional saves needed from your team in the season's second half. To put that into perspective, nine closers managed at least 19 saves in the second half of 2012, so adding two to your roster would've been all that was necessary to rally from last to third place. Twenty closers managed 13 or more saves, meaning adding three from that group would've gotten it done.

The impact that timing has on the equation is the method you'll need to acquire these saves. All nine closers with 19 second-half saves would've been owned in ESPN leagues at the All-Star break; pitchers like Tyler Clippard and Steve Cishek, from the group that had at least 13, might have been available as free agents.

In other words, remain mindful of your waiver wire, but as the dates in the above chart approach, you'll increasingly need to go the trade route for your saves.

Here are some potential save-getters you might be able to acquire on the cheap:

Greg Holland: That he's one of the 30 current big-league closers with a potentially more-talented arm behind him (Kelvin Herrera) spawns questions about his long-term prospects in the role; a slow start to 2013 might also have contributed to his owners' doubts. Beyond Herrera's presence, however, Holland's troubles were overblown in the early weeks. Consider that he started last year slowly, too, posting an 11.37 ERA in April, only to register a 2.08 ERA after a brief, early-season DL stint. What if Holland is merely a slow starter? He might still be capable of another 30 saves, and he's among the best sources of strikeouts from the current big-league closer crop.

Kevin Gregg: Incredibly, Gregg, scooped right off the free-agent scrap heap in mid-April, appears to have emerged as the Chicago Cubs' new closer, thanks to four consecutive converted save chances. He's no safe bet in terms of ERA/WHIP -- make sure you do your homework to determine whether he'll do more damage than good to your ratios -- but he's also available for the mere cost of a free-agent pickup in 40.7 percent of ESPN leagues. Sometimes, it's pickups like these, even as short-term fill-ins, that do the most to correct your poor standing.

David Hernandez: He's not closing yet, but considering the recent struggles of J.J. Putz, Hernandez is a smart pitcher to stash. Putz has blown three of his past six save chances with a 5.40 ERA in seven games during that span; Hernandez has a 2.93 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 11.31 K/9 ratio during his Arizona Diamondbacks career.

Strikeouts

The reason strikeouts gets the nod over wins is simple: K's are much, much more projectable a category of the two. Wins are largely unpredictable; strikeout-getting pitchers are far more identifiable.

[+] EnlargeMax Scherzer
Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesMax Scherzer continues to be a good source of strikeouts, and it appears his other stats will catch up to his normal levels soon.

Still, unlike saves, strikeouts have a time limit for those looking to improve. Looking at the chart above, the 11.4-K improvement required from June 1 forward equates to 103 additional K's needed from your nine pitching spots the remainder of the year. Using last season's numbers, that's effectively the difference between R.A. Dickey (169) and Clayton Richard (68), meaning that you'll probably need to acquire at least two strikeout-getters to address the problem after that date.

Using the May 16 numbers -- or a 76-K necessary improvement from your staff -- we're talking about the difference between Dickey (198) and, say, Wade Miley (122) or Jonathon Niese (122). That comparison makes it seem that May is the most critical time of year to correct a strikeout deficit.

Of course, strikeout improvement can be as simple as swapping a closer for a strikeout-getting starter; in many cases that's your best route, if you're already in good standing in the saves category or have some to spare.

Some potential strikeout artists you might be able to acquire on the cheap:

Max Scherzer: He's annually among the leaders in K-per-nine ratio -- his 13.21 number is second thus far -- and his "slow start" can be explained as simply as the 2.35 between his ERA (4.02) and FIP (1.68), the fifth-largest margin in the majors. Scherzer started last season slowly, too, but from May 1 forward he had a 3.14 ERA and 1.16 WHIP … plus a whopping 204 K's.

Jeff Samardzija: He was fourth in the game in K-per-nine ratio in 2012 (9.27) and ranks fifth thus far in 2013 (11.23), and he has the advantage of being underrated because he's a member of the Chicago Cubs, which hurts his "win potential." Samardzija seems much more likely to approach 200 innings this year after tallying 172 2/3 last season; that's another reason to target him via trade.

Wins

I hate targeting wins, but manipulating the categorical standings is sometimes every bit as simple as swapping your closers for starters, who stand the better chance at quickly racking up wins.

[+] EnlargeDerek Holland
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezDerek Holland's overall stats may not overwhelm anyone, but he could get a lot of wins with the Rangers' offense behind him.

It's also sometimes as simple as trading your starters from bad teams -- like the aforementioned Samardzija -- for those on good teams -- like Scherzer -- or by simply arranging your daily or weekly lineups to maximize your team's number of starts. (Whether your league has a cap on starts influences that, however.)

The early returns make it clear that the Detroit Tigers, Oakland Athletics, Baltimore Orioles, St. Louis Cardinals, Atlanta Braves and Cincinnati Reds should be consistent sources of wins, accounting these teams' combination of run production and/or bullpen support; those in need of wins generally want pitchers from these squads.

Some potential "winners" you might be able to acquire on the cheap:

Derek Holland: He has four quality starts in five games, but only one win to show for it, and any of his past fantasy owners might be concerned that in his career he has never posted an ERA under 3.95 or WHIP beneath 1.22. What those skeptics might not have noticed, however, is that Holland improved his K-to-walk ratio in each of the past two seasons, and thus far it's at a career-best 3.11. He continues to hone his command, and he might be the sneakiest 15-win candidate out there.

Homer Bailey: Like Holland, Bailey has four quality starts in five games, but just one win. That two of his starts came against the Washington Nationals -- though he did win the first one -- and another came at St. Louis' Busch Stadium, where his career statistics are terrible, hasn't helped. Again like Holland, Bailey's K-to-walk ratio has consistently progressed: His 3.56 number to date would represent a new career-high, topping 2012's 3.23.

ERA/WHIP

It's the ratio categories that are the most difficult to influence the deeper we get into the season, even if the chart above makes it appear as if the necessary improvements from those dates forward are marginal. I'd argue that WHIP is slightly easier to influence, if only because it tends to be the easier of the two ratio departments to project from season to season, but your strategy in either category nevertheless should be the same.

Let's approach it statistically: You're currently pacing for last-place numbers in either category, meaning today, your team ERA is 3.89, your WHIP 1.27. Your goal in either category, come season's end, is a 3.61 ERA or 1.20 WHIP, both of which would've placed you third in an average ESPN league last season.

[+] EnlargeMatt Cain
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesMatt Cain is a far better pitcher than his early-season stats say.

Perhaps some of the reason for your slow start in either category has been bad luck; statistics like BABIP, home run/fly ball percentage, left-on-base percentage, FIP and xFIP can help determine whether that's true. So for this exercise, let's assume that your pitchers are due some degree of regression to the mean; we'll say that your pitchers should be expected a 3.70 ERA and 1.24 WHIP from this point forward, which would've been league-average numbers in ESPN standard leagues in 2012.

In that event, you'll need one of your nine pitching spots to give you a starter's equivalent of 168 innings of a 2.68 ERA and 0.87 WHIP from May 1 in order for your team to hit those 3.61-ERA, 1.20-WHIP full-season requirements for third place. Four pitchers met both those innings and ERA requirements from May 1 forward last season; no one had that low a WHIP. The alternative is having two of your nine pitching spots giving you at least 168 innings with a 3.19 ERA and 1.05 WHIP; 13 pitchers met the innings and ERA requirements, but only two (Dickey and Clayton Kershaw) did so in both innings and WHIP.

Now let's look at June 1: Assuming the same level of staff regression in ERA/WHIP, you'd need two of your nine pitching spots to give you a 2.83 ERA and 1.02 WHIP in 150 innings apiece to rally back into third place. Four pitchers managed the innings and ERA requirements; no one did so in both innings and WHIP.

The lesson is simple: It is imperative that, if you plan to finish among the leaders in ERA and WHIP and are off to a slow start in either category, you address your team's shortcomings in either area in May. By month's end, it's time to adjust your expectations in either category downward and try to improve in other areas. In no other category does the last-place pit get deeper these next few weeks.

Some potential ERA/WHIP options you might be able to acquire on the cheap:

David Price: Understand going in that you'll need to pay a top-10 starter's price to acquire him, but bold times require bold measures, and Price's owner might be more apt to deal him today than, say, a month from now. The point is that you might have a chance to acquire him at all, whereas once Price recaptures his prior Cy Young form, he might be untouchable. Talk up his slightly diminished fastball velocity -- he has averaged 93.5 mph with it, down from 95.4 mph in 2012 -- and his bloated 1.37 WHIP. The truth is that Price's command numbers have scarcely changed, and his 3.94 FIP shows that he's due for improvement.

Matt Cain: Go bold or go home. Teams in desperate need of ERA/WHIP help must take chances, and there's nothing in Cain's profile to suggest his early-season struggles are anything more than bad location. His velocity hasn't really changed (90.7 mph average fastball this year, 91.1 mph last), and he hasn't afforded any greater rate of hard contact than he did in 2012. If you can possibly swing a trade for Cain at beneath his spot in this column's rankings, he's as brilliant a candidate to improve your ERA/WHIP as you'll find.

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