The 2013 Turks: Pitchers
Identifying some of the notable fantasy pitching performances for the 2013 season.
They're baaaaaaaack …
After a one-year absence, "The Turks" have returned.
No, no, this isn't hailing the return of the Donald Faison character from the TV show "Scrubs." (Sorry if I got your hopes up.) For those unfamiliar -- presumably longtime readers will recall -- "The Turks" are my set of postseason awards for (mostly) more unusual baseball feats. They spawned from the nickname with which colleagues saddled me following the consumption of a whole Bull's BBQ turkey leg during the summer of 2005; in truth they're just an excuse to again publish my now-retired Twitter avatar.
With "The Turks," anything goes. Some of these are reused honors, others new. Some are insightful, others silly. Some reward feats of strength, others air grievances. But they run the gamut of Major League Baseball in 2013 -- OK, the 2013 MLB season minus 12 days -- and they are, to put it simply, facts that I enjoyed this season.
As "60 Feet 6 Inches" is our pitching-oriented column, today's honors focus on pitchers. Hitting honors will be doled out in Thursday's "Hit Parade." Neither column this week, however, includes rest-of-year rankings. With 12 days remaining there is negligible difference between these and my weekly Forecaster rankings, which were both published this past Friday for Week 24 (the current scoring period) and will be again this coming Friday for the final week, and contain more matchups-oriented detail. Next week's columns will include early rankings for 2014.
And now, "The Turks"!
The Pedro (fantasy's best pitcher): Clayton Kershaw. First, a little perspective on the award's name: Pedro Martinez might be a familiar name to veteran fantasy baseball owners; he has two of the nine best single seasons in baseball history in terms of ERA+ (1999 and 2000), best illustrated by the fact that his 2.07 and 1.74 ERAs in those years came in seasons during which the American League's overall ERAs were 4.86 and 4.91. Owning Martinez represented a substantial advantage regardless of draft price. Another illustration: He fetched a $50 bid in the 2000 American League version of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) auction … and promptly earned it by posting an ERA nearly two runs better than any AL qualifier (Roger Clemens' 3.70 was second), 72 more strikeouts than any AL'er and, to this day, the greatest WHIP of any qualified pitcher in history (0.74).
Suffice it to say that Kershaw has been worth his draft price -- he was the No. 2 pitcher and No. 13 player selected overall on average -- even if his year wasn't quite Pedro-esque.
Kershaw is the No. 1 pitcher and No. 5 player overall on our Player Rater with 12 days remaining in the season, and he leads the majors in ERA (1.94), WHIP (0.93), quality starts (25) and quality start percentage (81 percent). Perhaps most importantly, he has been a model of consistency: Using Bill James' Game Score metric -- a preferred one of mine for measuring fantasy reliability -- he has the majors' most starts of 50 or better (27), 60 or better (21) and 75 or better (10).
Most encouraging to Kershaw's dynasty/keeper-league owners, he has been impeccably maintained by his Los Angeles Dodgers, averaging 104.7 pitches per start (11th-most among major league qualifiers), only twice all year throwing more than 120 pitches in an outing and boosting his per-start average to a career-best 7.19 innings. He'll be fantasy's No. 1 pitcher entering 2014 as well.
The Jamie Moyer (for the best value comparative to draft price): Matt Harvey. Again, some award-name perspective: Moyer, though hardly a superstar, was constantly a pitcher who never garnered much draft-day respect. In local leagues of mine, he would routinely sell for $5 or less … only to finish with two 20-win campaigns, three sub-3.50-ERAs and five 20-quality start seasons during the meaty, 1997-2003 portion of his career. Plus, it's yet another opportunity to get the name Jamie Moyer into my column; I'm perpetually rooting for a Moyer comeback, even if only to assure that there's still a player older than me in Major League Baseball.
Harvey's season might be over and his immediate future in doubt, but despite the will-he-undergo-Tommy-John-surgery-or-not debate, he remains the No. 6 pitcher (and No. 5 starter) on our Player Rater, despite not having made an appearance since Aug. 24. If he was truly pitching through elbow discomfort for any period this season, his feats become all the more impressive. With 12 days to play, he has the majors' third-best ERA (2.27), second-best WHIP (0.93), third-best strikeout rate (27.7 percent) and sixth-best quality start percentage (76.9). Best yet: He was the No. 60 pitcher -- and No. 42 pure starter -- selected on average during the preseason.
With word Tuesday that Harvey will attempt to rehabilitate his elbow without surgery, his fantasy prospects become somewhat clouded. You've surely heard the story about Roy Halladay opting against surgery in September 2006; he had 16 wins, 21 quality starts, a 3.71 ERA and 1.24 WHIP the following year, his second of a six-year run during which he placed in the top five in his league in Cy Young balloting in each. There's hope for Harvey yet, especially as one of the most promising young pitchers with four top-shelf pitches in his arsenal, but at the same time he'll enter next season with the distinct possibility of any setback costing him a lost 2014 and part of 2015.
The Renoir (for the best off-the-waiver-wire pitching buy): Jose Fernandez. This award itself might seem somewhat obscure, but it's a cap-tip to the 2012 story in which a $7 garage sale buy included an original Renoir painting; the point being that Fernandez was the most productive pitcher of 2013 scooped from the bargain bin. Though the season's concluding 12 days might push him down a couple of spots, Fernandez resided fourth among pitchers on our Player Rater despite having been shut down for the year for the past week. He's the hands-down top choice for National League Rookie of the Year honors, he posted the second-best ERA of any pitcher aged 20 or younger since World War I, and he's one of the most attractive assets in dynasty/keeper leagues. That he was capped at a mere 172 2/3 innings and a 93.2 pitches-per-start average, sixth-lowest among ERA qualifiers, only eases any long-term worry that he's being overworked at a young age.
As for the frustration that Fernandez's season was ended prematurely, damaging his head-to-head owners' chances of a championship, consider how substantial his contribution getting you there was: He had eight wins, 12 quality starts, a 1.43 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and 30.8 percent strikeout rate in 13 starts from July 1 forward. There's a compelling argument to be made that he could be a top-five starter in 2014.
The "Jekyll and Hyde" (for first-half excellence followed by a second-half swoon): Jeff Locke. No pitcher who has made at least 10 starts in either half has experienced an ERA split as extreme as Locke's; he had a 2.15 ERA in 18 starts before the break to earn an All-Star berth, but slipped to a 5.43 ERA in 11 starts thereafter, including a brief demotion to the minor leagues. Unfortunately, this caused more harm to his fantasy owners than expected; as his ownership percentage rose during midsummer, so, unfortunately, did his ERA.
Locke's Fielding Independent Pitching score (FIP) told the real tale: He had a 3.80 before the All-Star break, and 4.19 thereafter, revealing that his true self is probably someone in the middle, especially if he can't improve what was a 1.55 K-to-walk ratio in the first half and 1.46 in the second.
The "Hyde and Jekyll" (the previous one in reverse; terrible first half followed by great second half): Ubaldo Jimenez. This is the kind of award fantasy owners love, especially those who play in head-to-head formats, as the critical, championship-deciding matchups come during these September weeks. Jimenez not only had the greatest ERA turnaround of any pitcher with at least 10 starts in either half, dropping a 4.56 first-half mark to 1.83 in the second; he has won all three of his September starts thus far, each a quality start, with a 0.42 ERA, 1.03 WHIP and 26.5 percent K rate. What made the difference for him was discussed in greater detail last week; the summary is that Jimenez has made some mechanical tweaks that have resulted in a higher average fastball velocity in his past five starts (92.9 mph) than during his first 24 of the season (91.3 mph).
That is a small sample, though, and maintaining the improvement through the remainder of the year is an important step toward assessing his 2014 fantasy potential. Jimenez will warrant careful attention -- specifically to his velocity and command -- once camp opens, as extending it into the spring might make him a value pick.
Zito at home: 15 G, 6 QS (46.2 percent), 4 W, 3.71 ERA, 1.43 WHIP.
Zito on road: 13 G, 0 QS (0.0 percent), 0 W, 9.56 ERA, 2.27 WHIP.
It's that 1.43 WHIP at AT&T Park that disqualifies Zito from the honor; the truth is that he has never pitched well enough at any stage to earn our trust for more than the rare spot-start opportunity at home. It's Strasburg's splits that might surprise:
Strasburg at home: 14 GS, 11 QS (78.6 percent), 5 W, 1.55 ERA, 0.84 WHIP.
Strasburg on road: 14 GS, 5 QS (35.7 percent), 2 W, 4.68 ERA, 1.27 WHIP.
This is a new trend for Strasburg, who had a lower ERA on the road than at home in 2010 and 2012, and the oddity is that he had a 12.38 ERA and 1.88 WHIP in his two starts at extreme pitchers' park Miami's Marlins Park, against the league's weakest offense. Discard those games, as well as his mediocre outings at hitter-friendly Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park and at Detroit's Comerica Park against one of the league's most loaded lineups, and Strasburg's numbers might have been more balanced. Everything about these stat lines screams "oddity," and those wondering about his 2014 prospects might be encouraged by this: He had a 3.29 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 28.3 percent K rate (10.16 per nine innings) in 16 starts following his June DL stint for a strained lat muscle. He also suffered in the quality start department during that span -- he had eight -- due to having exited two August starts early, once for an ejection (Aug. 17) and another due to a rain delay (Aug. 28).
Strasburg's 2013 just screams "bad luck."
I've Been Everywhere, Man, Award (best road performer): James Shields. Again, there's perhaps a more deserving pitcher, in this case Phil Hughes, whose home/road splits show he'll benefit if he leaves the New York Yankees as a free agent this winter, as expected:
Hughes at home: 16 G, 6 QS (40.0 percent), 6.13 ERA, 1.48 WHIP.
Hughes on road: 12 G, 5 QS (41.7 percent), 3.80 ERA, 1.36 WHIP.
Shields' splits, however, are the more relevant ones to most fantasy owners. A pitcher who has historically thrived in controlled environments (domes and retractable-roof stadiums), he has been a much better road than home pitcher this year:
Shields at home: 15 GS, 10 QS (66.7 percent), 4.73 ERA, 1.42 WHIP.
Shields on road: 17 GS, 15 QS (88.2 percent), 2.12 ERA, 1.13 WHIP.
It's this split that has limited Shields to merely 34th among pure starting pitchers on our Player Rater this season, but then so has his mere 12 wins compared to a major league-leading 25 quality starts. And while it's a minuscule sample, he has registered a quality start in both controlled environments in which he has pitched this season: Houston's Minute Maid Park (May 22) and Toronto's Rogers Centre (Sept. 1), further evidence that he's a pitcher who enjoys working indoors. The Kansas City Royals seem likely to exercise Shields' $12 million option for 2014 -- the alternative is paying him a $1 million buyout -- but if he were to somehow escape K.C. for a city like Arizona, Miami, Milwaukee, Houston, Seattle, Tampa or Toronto, he might become a more attractive pick for 2014 based upon this history.
Hard-Luck Award (for the pitcher with the most non-win quality starts): Cole Hamels (16). Go figure, for the second consecutive season this honor is bestowed upon a Philadelphia Phillies left-hander; Cliff Lee was the 2012 leader in the category (15). Hamels' 16 are actually seventh-most since 1916 (the first season for which Baseball-Reference.com has game-by-game data available) -- six pitchers had 17, most recently Felix Hernandez (2010 Cy Young season) -- and he has two more starts this year in which he can match or break that all-time record.
Hamels hasn't gone more than two starts all season without registering a quality start, and his statistics this year, with the exception of his win total (8) and run support (3.48 per nine innings), aren't out of line with any of those in his past. Teammate Lee is as outstanding a comparison as there is; he bounced back from a 6-win 2012 to win 14 games this season, despite his run support only slightly increasing (3.99, up from 3.20). Hamels might yet enjoy that kind of bump in 14, with a bit greater fortune.
Back-'em Up Award (for the pitcher most fortunate in the win category): Shelby Miller. It certainly doesn't seem like Miller benefited from extremely good fortune, but the numbers confirm it. He has 14 wins this season, 11th-most in the majors, but only 12 quality starts, a number exceeded by 84 other pitchers. In eight of Miller's 14 wins, in fact, he failed to even pitch into the seventh inning. Granted, some of that was by the St. Louis Cardinals' design, as they aimed to keep their 22-year-old budding ace's innings in check.
Fantasy owners who were paying attention during the season's early stages probably remember Miller as one of the most valuable starters; he had eight wins, seven quality starts, a 2.08 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and 28.6 percent K rate (10.01 per nine innings) through his June 17 game. Since then, however, he has six wins, five quality starts, a 4.08 ERA, 1.47 WHIP and a 19.7 percent K rate (7.92 per nine innings). It's actually not automatic that he'll blossom into a clear top-20 starter as soon as 2014.
Um, I Forgot to Drink My Coffee? … Award (for the call I got most terribly wrong): Anything about Francisco Liriano. He's the pitcher I labeled "Captain Kryptonite" on Eric Karabell's and my weekly Friday Fantasy Focus appearances, due to Liriano's extensive track record of up-and-down performances. Come season's end, however, Liriano is a near-lock for top-30 starter status -- he's currently 24th at the position on our Player Rater -- and he has an impressive 16 quality starts in 24 tries, for a career-best 66.7 percent rate. Knowing what we know about Pittsburgh Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage, one of the best in the game at his craft, Liriano's comeback shouldn't have been as unexpected as I judged it; I should've known at the time I said this on June 7. And, as he's still under contract for another season, meaning he'll work with Searage again in 2014, Liriano might warrant as healthy as a top-30 starter ranking next year, too.
Row, Row, Row Your Boat Award (for the best streamer during the fantasy stretch run): Andrew Cashner. It's remarkable that, even today, Cashner remains available in more than 75 percent of ESPN leagues, despite the fact that he's the No. 42 pure starting pitcher on our Player Rater. What's more, he has five wins, nine quality starts, a 2.36 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and 20.1 percent K rate (7.08 per nine innings) in 10 starts since the All-Star break. He even kicked off the championship-matchup first week in ESPN leagues with a one-hit, minimum-27-batter shutout of the Pittsburgh Pirates on the road this past Monday.
Once an elite strikeout artist, Cashner has made substantial improvements to his command while improving his endurance. His 6.9 percent walk rate is a career best, and his 168 innings pitched are 57 more than he has thrown in any previous season. With those in mind, Cashner could mount a sneaky top-30-starter run in 2014.
Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Save Me Award (for the best mix of holds and saves production): Mark Melancon (42 saves plus holds). This one could really go to any of several players -- Kenley Jansen actually has one fewer saves-plus-holds (41) -- but Melancon gets it for a simple reason. Consider: His 26 holds through July 22 were the majors' most, and his 14 saves from July 23 forward are fifth most. If you're wondering about the significance of July 23, it was the date the Pittsburgh Pirates placed then-closer Jason Grilli on the DL with a forearm injury.
What has made the difference for Melancon this season has been vastly improved command, thanks primarily to continued polish of his cutter. He slashed his walk rate from 8.4 percent in 2011, to 6.2 percent in 2012, to 3.1 percent this season, and threw his cutter 68 percent of the time this season, limiting opponents to .245/.273/.277 rates while resulting in 68 of his 95 ground-ball outs. Fortunately, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle made it clear in the past week that the closer job is Melancon's for the remainder of this year; but which one might close next year? Ah, it might be the most compelling of the closer debates entering 2014.
Just Hold Me Award (for the best holds performer): Joel Peralta (major league-leading 37 holds). Though he rarely garners much attention outside of the marginal handcuff appeal in deeper leagues (usually AL-only and 14-plus-team mixed), Peralta has quietly become one of the most dominant forces in holds leagues of any pitcher the past two seasons. Consider: He is on track to lead the majors in the category for the second straight year -- he also had 37 in 2012 -- and his 93 holds since the beginning of 2011 rank second only to David Robertson's 96.
Robertson has already become the subject of much buzz as a setup-man-soon-to-be-closer with Mariano Rivera set for retirement this winter, but might Peralta do the same should the Tampa Bay Rays allow incumbent closer Fernando Rodney to depart via free agency? While Peralta might not possess the kind of upside that Rodney does, why should anyone doubt a Rays bullpen decision? Keep in mind that each of the past three pitchers the Rays selected to close -- Rafael Soriano (2010), Kyle Farnsworth (2011) and Rodney (2012) -- has vastly outperformed his ADP.