The New Year couldn't come fast enough for Brad Penny. After a promising start that saw Penny collect four wins and a 2.89 ERA by the end of April, the 2008 season went downhill fast. He made three visits to the DL and only pitched 57 1/3 over the last five months, picking up just two more wins while giving up 54 earned runs along the way. The New Year means a fresh start for Penny. His balky shoulder permitting, he can turn over a new leaf while making his first go-around in the junior circuit.
For Penny, health issues and inconsistency are nothing new, but then you could say that about seemingly any pitcher this side of C.C. Sabathia and Johan Santana. That's why Penny typifies the risks associated with ranking pitchers for Draft Day. Even in mixed leagues, there are simply not enough pitchers whom you can count on to provide 180 quality innings. At some point in the draft, you will have to take a chance on a skilled pitcher who may or may not break down, or on a workhorse who, in all likelihood, will give you 200 innings of dreck. As with the risky hitters we reviewed in two installments in December, the trick with ranking these kinds of pitchers is to establish an explanation for their inconsistencies, assess the amount of risk and reward they will provide in the coming season, and compare the potential payoff against the most comparable options.
This week, we will take a look at Penny's draft prospects, along with five other hurlers who could use a new beginning in '09.
Brad Penny, Boston
2008 SP Rating: 223rd
The story behind the season: Penny's skill profile fell apart and his shoulder woes were the most likely culprit. Normally a pitcher with consistent command of the strike zone, Penny posted a career-low K/9 rate and his worst BB/9 rate since his 2000 rookie season.
Projected 2009 SP Rating: 67th
2009 draft list cohorts: Jeff Francis, Randy Johnson. It's odd to think that the 45 year-old Big Unit has the most upside of this group, and the upper bound of his projected performance just improved by virtue of moving to AT&T Park. Francis represents the safest option of the group, but that's not necessarily a point in his favor for mixed-league owners. Because any of these pitchers would be a late-round pick, there are plenty of suitable replacements should you miss out on them. You might as well take Johnson at this point in the draft, because he could provide 170 Ks to go with a sub-4.00 ERA and 1.20 WHIP, if he can manage 180 innings. Penny can match Johnson in wins and ERA, but if both are at their best, Penny will fall short in Ks and WHIP. If Johnson is off the board, Penny is a better pick than Francis or other similar low-risk, low-return options like Jon Garland or Mark Buehrle.
Owners in AL-only leagues have a tougher dilemma, as the stakes in making the right choice between Penny and Buerhle are higher than if you were filling in the last space in your rotation. Unless you are very confident in the production you are getting from your top two starters, it's hard to justify putting Penny in the middle of your rotation when there is substantial risk of getting only 100-140 innings or another 5.00-plus ERA.
Aaron Harang, Cincinnati
2008 SP Rating: 90th
The story behind the season: Harang's command of the strike zone wasn't as sharp as usual, but he had even bigger problems with gopher balls. The home run-a-thon even continued into September (he gave up six taters in 41 innings), though few noticed, as it was masked by a BABIP-aided 3.07 ERA over the final month.
Projected 2009 SP Rating: 38th
2009 draft list cohorts: Yovani Gallardo, Matt Cain. Harang's projection is predicated on some improvement in both his command and his home run rate. While the first of these is completely reasonable to expect, a shrinking HR/9 rate is no sure thing. Harang's ground ball-to-flyball ratio was his lowest in six years, and the drop from 2007 was especially notable. Unless he can keep the ball down like he did in previous seasons, it seems unlikely that Harang will finish with an ERA much below 4.50. Gallardo and Cain might not match Harang's strikeout totals, but then again, it wouldn't be a shock if they did, given their developmental paths. Both of these young pitchers have very good shots at sub-4.00 ERAs. With less risky options like these -- plus others, like Ted Lilly and Javier Vazquez -- there is little rush to take Harang as a No. 4 mixed league starter or No. 3 NL-only starter.
Erik Bedard, Seattle
2008 SP Rating: 89th
The story behind the season: Health and control issues led to a much-maligned season, but there were some bright spots buried in his 81 innings worth of stats. While Bedard took a big step back from his breakthrough '07 season, his skill stats, ERA and WHIP were roughly comparable to those he posted in '05 and '06, when he was still considerably better than league average. Who knows if he could have pitched even better over the course of whole season with a healthy shoulder? Bedard will have a chance to show us in '09. Another piece of encouraging news is the below-average BABIP, which was supported by a career-highest 43 percent flyball rate.
Projected 2009 SP Rating: 41st
2009 draft list cohorts: Lilly, Max Scherzer, John Danks. With improved health and a low BABIP trend, Bedard could provide Seattle fans with some much-needed good news. The promise of a comeback season does come with the risk of continued health problems. Danks and Lilly are more reliable sources of 180-plus innings of mixed-league quality work, but neither is a threat to reproduce Bedard's outstanding 2007 results. With a mid-90s fastball and improving control, Scherzer has the goods to emulate Bedard's best numbers, but inexperience and an uncertain role make him a dicey pick. In contrast to Harang, Bedard is worth taking over his draft list cohorts, because the potential reward of getting his best performance is worth the risk of another injury-plagued season.
Fausto Carmona, Cleveland
2008 SP Rating: 202nd
The story behind the season: A hip injury, total loss of command and worsening luck conspired to derail Carmona's season. This disaster looked even worse when held up against an apparent breakthrough season in '07. While Carmona fully earned his 5.00-plus ERA and 1.60-plus WHIP from last season, his 3.06 ERA and 1.21 WHIP from the previous year were artificially deflated. Extreme groundball pitchers like Carmona tend to carry a high BABIP, which is no friend to ERA and WHIP. However, in 2007, Carmona was the only one of 10 major league starting pitchers with a groundball rate over 50 percent who registered a sub-.290 BABIP.
Projected 2009 SP Rating: 48th
2009 draft list cohorts: Matt Garza, Joe Saunders. This is about as close to an apples-to-apples comparison as you will likely see on a draft list. All three of these pitchers rely on ground ball outs and excellent control to have success. Though similar as these pitchers are, Carmona has distinguished himself as the biggest health and consistency risk. Saunders has the better recent skill history, but last year's performance was underwritten by a fluky .269 BABIP. Garza is not only the most skilled pitcher of this trio, but his recent performance is also the best indicator of what we can expect in '09. Despite the apparent similarities, the clear pecking order is Garza, Saunders, Carmona.
So far the tally looks like this: Bedard offers enough promise to rank at the top of his draft cohort, while owners are advised to pass on Penny, Harang and Carmona in favor of better options. These conundrums present a draft-ranking challenge for owners in all formats, even in deeper leagues, where the players you miss out on in the later rounds can be more easily replaced. Here are a couple of examples to illustrate.
Barry Zito, San Francisco
2008 SP Rating: 156th
The story behind the season: Zito hasn't been a mixed-league quality pitcher since crossing the Bay Bridge two years ago, but the extent of his demise has still been greatly exaggerated. There is no way to pretty up his performance prior to last year's All-Star Game (5.7 K/9, 5.5 BB/9), but his skill indicators after the break were comparable to those from the previous two seasons. These are not earth-shattering numbers by any means (1.4 K/BB, 0.8 HR/9), but they put him in the same ballpark with Dana Eveland and certainly ahead of Edwin Jackson or Jason Marquis.
Projected 2009 SP Rating: 106th
2009 draft list cohorts: John Lannan, Greg Smith. Eveland is probably Zito's closest comparable, but that cross-league comparison won't be relevant except in the deepest of mixed leagues. Based on last year's skill profile, Smith looks like a comparable, but he could look like a very different pitcher now that he is in Denver. As a flyball pitcher, he will have a much harder time keeping the ball in the park. His eight percent home run per flyball rate only plays in Coors Field if you have a strong tendency to keep the ball down (see Ubaldo Jimenez, Aaron Cook). Lannan doesn't have the same potential downside, and at age 24, could take a step ahead of Zito. Despite last season's debacle, the risk in taking Zito is minimal, but there is even less risk in taking Lannan over him.
Dontrelle Willis, Detroit
2008 SP Rating: 254th
The story behind the season: Willis is the ultimate risky pick for '09. He lost all semblance of the strike zone in his 24 big league innings last year, and was not especially impressive in his minor league appearances. During a steep and steady three-year slide, Willis has maintained his ability to strike batters out, but his BB/9 and HR/9 rates have gone from being his greatest strengths to his greatest weaknesses.
Projected 2009 SP Rating: 143rd
2009 draft list cohorts: David Purcey, Ryan Rowland-Smith. It speaks volumes that Willis' draft cohorts are pitchers who, like himself, will have to compete for a rotation spot this spring. He is a long way from repeating his Cy Young-caliber performance of 2005, but getting back to his 2006 form would at least make him draftable in an AL-only league, even if he doesn't provide 200-plus innings. However, Purcey and Rowland-Smith are stronger bets to pitch at that level, as both can deliver at least 140 strikeouts with an ERA in the mid 4.00s. Rowland-Smith has the most promise long-term, but his lack of experience as a starter makes Purcey the safest pick among this risky group.
Now that we've reviewed the draft status of pitchers with nowhere to go but up, we can turn our attention to the fortunes of those who had uncharacteristically good performances last year. That means you, Dave Bush and Ervin Santana. We'll cover them and a few others next time.
| Runs Created per 27 Outs (RC/27) -- An estimate of how many runs a lineup would produce per 27 outs if a particular player occupied each spot in the order; ex. the RC/27 for Miguel Cabrera would predict the productivity of a lineup where Cabrera (or his statistical equal) batted in all nine spots; created by Bill James |
Component ERA (ERC) -- An estimate of a what a pitcher's ERA would be if it were based solely on actual pitching performance; created by Bill James
Base Hits per Balls in Play (H/BIP) -- The percentage of balls in play (at bats minus strikeouts and home runs) that are base hits; research by Voros McCracken and others has established that this rate is largely random and has a norm of approximately 30%
Isolated Power -- The difference between slugging percentage and batting average; created by Branch Rickey and Allan Roth
Walk Rate -- Walks / (at bats + walks)
Whiff Rate -- Strikeouts / at bats
Al Melchior was recently a Fantasy columnist and data analyst for Baseball HQ and will be providing advice columns for CBSSports.com. Click here to send him a question. Please put "Melchior" in the subject field.