Here's a news flash from your Fantasy Surgeon General: home runs are hazardous to your pitching staff's health. It's obvious enough that long balls are the fastest way to explode a pitcher's ERA, but it still may be necessary to put a warning label on your more combustible hurlers. After all, there are some pretty good Fantasy pitchers, like Ricky Nolasco, Aaron Harang and Ted Lilly, who have career home run rates well above average. Even superstars like Johan Santana and Josh Beckett have had recent seasons where they can't seem to keep the ball in play.
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Don't be fooled. It is tempting to think that a pitcher with gopherball tendencies must have some compensating skill that makes it palatable to absorb all those dinger-induced runs. Whether he's a control artist like Brian Bannister or an extreme flyball, low-BABIP pitcher like Lilly, there's no way to avoid the ugly truth. With few exceptions, a pitcher who is afflicted with gopheritis will kill your Fantasy team. Because pitchers with high HR/9 rates have no advantage over other pitchers when it comes to walk rates or BABIP, they don't make up for their astronomical ERAs with lower WHIPs. Worse yet, gopherball pitchers record fewer strikeouts than their whiplash-free counterparts, so their WHIPs are actually higher.
In comparing starting pitchers with extreme HR/9 rates from the last four seasons, we see the not-so-surprising result that those yielding few homers have much lower ERAs on average. The 69 pitchers with full-season HR/9 rates below 0.73 averaged a sparkling 3.45 ERA, while the 63 pitchers with rates over 1.33 posted ERAs that were nearly a run and a half higher on average. The gopherball pitchers also missed fewer bats, leaving more balls in play, leading to more men on base. The result is an average WHIP that is 0.13 higher than that posted by the low-homer group. By the time you add up the differences in ERA, WHIP and K/9 rate, you have an enormous chasm between these two groups of pitchers. It's essentially the difference between a mixed league pitcher like Jair Jurrjens (0.53 HR/9 in 2008) and waiver wire fodder like Tim Redding (1.34 HR/9).
|# of pitchers||K/9||BB/9||BABIP||ERA||WHIP|
|HR/9 less than 0.73||69||6.67||2.87||0.299||3.45||1.27|
|HR/9 greater than 1.33||63||6.09||2.89||0.298||4.87||1.40|
When you come across a homerific hurler like Redding, the combination of high ERAs and WHIPs with average strikeout rates should be reason enough to stay away. Sometimes these pitchers disguise themselves with an aberrant BABIP, home run or strikeout rate for a season, and before you know it, a fluke can be misdiagnosed as a breakthrough. This actually happened with Redding after 2007, when an uncharacteristic 1.07 HR/9 and .280 BABIP contributed to a misleading 3.64 ERA.
So that you don't get Redding-ed in '09, here is a list of pitchers whose home run history should inspire caution, if not paralyzing fear.
Ted Lilly, Chicago Cubs: The impact of HR/9 rates of 1.22 and 1.41 in the last two seasons have been dulled by BABIPs below .275. He is unlikely to keep those quite so low, and he could regress from K/BB rates near 3.0 as well. Look for Lilly's WHIP to shoot up over 1.30 and his ERA to creep up to 4.20 or higher.
Armando Galarraga, Detroit: On a superficial level, Galarraga looked like a better pitcher than Jurrjens last year. His 6.35 K/9, 3.07 BB/9 and 3.73 ERA were nearly identical to Jurrjens', and his 1.19 WHIP was dramatically lower. As the owner of a .239 BABIP, 'Mando is due for a mondo meltdown. As far as comparables go, don't think Jurrjens. Think Vicente Padilla.
Dave Bush, Milwaukee: Three years ago, Bush looked like he could be the next Roy Halladay. Since then, his walks have increased, his strikeouts have decreased, and the long balls just keep coming. Without a .239 BABIP, Bush's stat line would not have looked much different from Brian Bannister's.
Scott Olsen, Washington: Olsen's story is essentially the same as Bush's: inexplicable skill decline masked by an unsustainably low BABIP.
Jamie Moyer, Philadelphia: Moyer didn't get any favors from BABIP, but his gopheritis went into remission with a fishy 0.92 HR/9. Especially given where he pitches half his games, a substantial increase in that rate seems almost inevitable.
Gavin Floyd, Chicago White Sox: Last season, Floyd was Galarraga's statistical clone, right down to the fluky BABIP. The good news for Floyd owners is that he wasn't as much of a home run pitcher in the minors. Now would be a good time for Floyd to take a step forward, as far as his owners are concerned. Until he does, the safe bet is to expect an ERA in the upper 4.00s and a WHIP around 1.40.
Just as the pitchers above could fool unsuspecting owners into believing in their 2008 level of performance, pitchers can also be victims of statistical fluctuations. John Lackey and Scott Kazmir are the two best examples of starters who are better buys than last year's stats would lead you to believe. Lackey experienced a near-doubling of his HR/9 rate despite there being almost no change in his GB/FB ratio. Kazmir did see his GB/FB drop by more than a third, which led his HR/9 rate to spike up to 1.36. This could signal a new approach for Kazmir or just a hiatus from his typical sub-1.00 rates.
Finally, there may occasionally be that special pitcher who is such a freak of statistical nature that he actually benefits from a high homer rate. That pitcher is Chris R. Young, whose inflated HR/9 rates in '06 and '08 were offset by BABIPs under .260. In fact, Young's BABIPs since '06 -- .232, .246 and .259 -- could stem from insanely-low GB/FB rates that were all below 0.55. Young has had the lowest GB/FB ratios in the majors, and by large margins, for each of the last three seasons. Research has shown that fewer flyballs fall in for hits than do grounders, so Young's low BABIP rates may actually be sustainable. That means, while he will give up more than his share of runs via the long ball, that effect will be neutralized by putting fewer runners on via base hits.
| 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 (BABIP) -- 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.