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2012 Draft Prep: Pitchers due for a dip

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Advanced stats have been a boon for baseball analysts, and even front office types, as metrics like WAR, wOBA and VORP have hit the mainstream and are no longer mistaken for obscure governmental agencies.

However, these measures apply to Fantasy in a limited way at best. The same cannot be said for xFIP, which stands for Expected Fielding Independent Pitching. This lone metric can not only help Fantasy owners to size up one pitcher against another, but help to provide clues as to how a pitcher's performance can change in the near future.

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xFIP was created by Dave Studeman of The Hardball Times as a modification of FIP, which in turn, was created by Tom Tango and Clay Dreslough, and it attempts to reflect elements of a pitcher's performance that ERA sometimes fails to do. ERA, in addition to being a standard category in Fantasy, is often used as a measure of a pitcher's overall skill and value, but it doesn't just represent what a pitcher accomplishes on the mound. While a pitcher's ability to avoid contact, prevent baserunners and keep the ball in the park are all reflected in ERA, it also captures the roles played by defense and luck. xFIP, which is based on strikeouts, walks and homers, provides a picture of a pitcher's performance that controls for these external factors.

By providing an estimate of what a pitcher could do independent of defense- and luck-related factors, xFIP often alerts us to pitchers who could be due for a change in their fortunes. For example, while a 2.27 ERA from 2010 told us that Felix Hernandez was the best starting pitcher in the majors, a 3.18 xFIP from that season suggested that he wouldn't necessarily be the best option for Fantasy owners going forward. Hernandez posted similar strikeout, walk and home run rates in 2011 compared to the previous year, but his ERA soared to 3.47. Last season's 3.21 xFIP indicates that Hernandez was, in fact, very much the same pitcher that he was in his Cy Young year, but the outcome was something a little less than Cy-worthy.

xFIP is also helpful for finding pitchers who are poised to improve, as was the case for James Shields, Justin Masterson and Edwin Jackson last year. I will save these for an uncoming column on sleepers, leaving the focus for now on pitchers bound to disappoint us in 2012.

We can identify several pitchers at risk of a downturn with xFIP's help, but the metric can lead us astray in some cases. xFIP assumes that all pitchers will have a normal home run per flyball rate (HR/FB), and it also ignores that some pitchers are better than others over the long term in stranding baserunners and avoiding hits on balls in play. In compiling a list of starting pitchers to approach with caution on Draft Day, we really need two lists: one set of pitchers for whom xFIP raises a red flag and another set for whom xFIP sets unrealistic expectations.

Let's begin with those pitchers that xFIP gets right. (ERAs and xFIPs in parentheses are from 2011.)

Jeremy Hellickson, Rays (2.95 ERA, 4.61 xFIP): Hellickson focused less on strikeouts and more on inducing contact last year. It's a formula that worked well enough to earn him the American League Rookie of the Year Award, as much of the contact he allowed resulted in harmless popups. Hellickson owned the second-highest popup rate (13.8 percent) in the majors, which helped him to hold batters to a .224 batting avearge on balls in play (BABIP). Only Jered Weaver and Ted Lilly have compiled popup rates of 13 percent or higher more than once over the past four seasons, so it's not a strong likelihood that Hellickson will get so many easy outs again. Even if he does, he is still due for a BABIP increase of 30 points or more. xFIP likely overestimates Hellickson's decline, but don't be surprised if he performs more like a No. 4 or 5 starting pitcher in mixed leagues this year.

Jered Weaver, Angels (2.41 ERA, 3.63 xFIP): After averaging more than a strikeout per inning in 2010 and jumping out to a 1.86 ERA in the first half last year, many consider Weaver a Fantasy ace now. However, he did not sustain that high K-rate, and his early season exploits in 2011 were fueled by extremely favorable strand and HR/FB rates. While he continued to strand plenty of runners in the second half, more balls left the building. Weaver is unlikely to leave four of every five runners on base again this year, and that could render him a disappointment. He is still worth drafting as a No. 1 starter, but not until well after the true aces (i.e. Roy Halladay, Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Cliff Lee) come off the board.

Matt Cain, Giants (2.88 ERA, 3.74 xFIP): Cain has never posted an ERA that was anywhere close to his xFIP, as he has always been able to put up a lower-than-average HR/FB rate. Pitching home games at AT&T Park has helped with that, but even his home stadium can't explain how he allowed just nine home runs last season. Cain coughed up 22 long balls in each of the previous two seasons, and even with slight improvements in his ground ball rate, he should be closer to those totals this year than the microscopic one he compiled in 2011. He was a borderline ace last year, but it's safer to draft Cain as a No. 3 starting pitcher.

Ryan Vogelsong, Giants (2.71 ERA, 3.88 xFIP): Vogelsong's 2011 season was so unexpected it practically begs to be picked apart for signs of a fluke. You won't have to look too hard, as his 81 percent strand rate sticks out as a likely outlier. While rates that high are not unheard of, they usually come with a very low line drive rate or BABIP, but neither was the case for Vogelsong. There is no reason to expect him to return to obscurity, but with a lower strand rate likely to be in his future, Vogelsong should be treated as more of a late-round option in mixed leagues.

Doug Fister, Tigers (2.83 ERA, 3.70 xFIP): With the highest strikeout and ground ball rates of his three-year major league career, Fister truly was an improved pitcher last year. He just wasn't sub-3.00-ERA good. Fister is still a contact pitcher, and much of that contact comes in the form of hard liners. That's not a good profile for a low BABIP, so Fantasy owners shouldn't expect a repeat of his .277 mark. Also, with a full season away from Seattle's Safeco Field -- and more homers likely to come -- Fister could be something of a letdown in his first full year in Detroit.

Kyle Lohse, Cardinals (3.39 ERA, 4.09 xFIP): Lohse's good luck on balls in play ran out in the second half, but it wasn't enough to do sufficient damage to his overall ERA and WHIP for the year. However, the 4.33 ERA and 1.48 WHIP that he registered in 10 starts between July 19 and Sept. 12 should be more indicative of what he will do in 2012. Even though his full-season numbers from last year say otherwise, Lohse should not be drafted in standard mixed leagues.

Jeff Karstens, Pirates (3.38 ERA, 3.92 xFIP): Karstens may have been a little underrated coming into last season, so it was gratifying to see him get a chance to stick in the Pittsburgh rotation. Thanks to his low ERA and a midseason run of nine straight quality starts, though, Karstens' stock rose a little too high. He was helped out by a 78 percent strand rate, and the fact that 20 of the 22 homers he allowed were solo jobs probably had something to do with that. Don't look for Karstens to get off so easy on his homers this season. His ERA should be considerably higher, and with the Pirates having a numbers crunch in their rotation, he could ultimately be at risk of losing his job sometime during the season.

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Aaron Harang, Dodgers (3.64 ERA, 4.10 xFIP): Owners who suspected that Harang would be helped out by PETCO Park's spacious dimensions were proven right. Last season, Harang kept his ERA to 3.05 at home, as opposed to 4.70 on the road. Dodger Stadium, Harang's new home park, is close to neutral for offense, so his home splits may start to resemble his road splits. Between that and a probable reduction in his 77 percent strand rate, Harang looks strictly like an NL-only option again, just as he was in his latter years in Cincinnati.

While last season's ERAs could mislead Fantasy owners into overvaluing each of the above eight pitchers, xFIP gives the following six pitchers far too much credit. Here's why each of them will disappoint if you buy into the improvement that xFIP promises. Remember, xFIP tends to overvalue pitchers who are have chronic gopheritis, trouble with stranding baserunners, or a tendency to allow hits on balls in play. These six pitchers fall into at least one of these categories.

Homer-prone pitchers

A.J. Burnett, Pirates (5.15 ERA, 3.87 xFIP): Burnett has already taken a severe hit to his value by losing as much as half the season to a broken orbital bone around his right eye. When he does return, though, he may not be able to sink his ERA below 4.00, as xFIP suggests he can. Burnett has been subject to chronic high HR/FB rates in recent seasons, even when he has pitched away from Yankee Stadium. Maybe pitching home games at PNC Park will help, but remember that the NL Central is loaded with good hitter's parks.

Chris Capuano, Dodgers (4.55 ERA, 3.56 xFIP): Capuano got a raw deal with his .317 BABIP last year, but owners should beware of the high HR/FB rates that have plagued him for the entirety of his career. He did a decent enough job of keeping the ball in the park at Citi Field (10 homers in 101 1/3 innings), but Dodger Stadium is a little tougher on pitchers. Capuano should improve on last season's stats, but not as dramatically as xFIP suggests.

Pitchers who don't strand many runnners

Brandon Morrow, Blue Jays (4.72 ERA, 3.53 xFIP): A year ago, Morrow looked like a strong candidate to bounce back from a 4.49 ERA, as he seemed unlikely to strand fewer than 68 percent of his baserunners again. In 2011 Morrow outdid himself, lowering his strand rate to a measly 65 percent, negating much of the value of his 203 strikeouts. Maybe it was just bad luck, but some pitchers just have trouble when they have men on base. Morrow's 21 percent line drive rate over the last four seasons provides a reason to think that he may just be one of those pitchers, as there is a strong correlation between the two metrics. Morrow's strikeouts alone might appear to make him a tantalizing choice for the middle of your rotation, but his recent track record suggests he is merely a back-end option.

Ricky Nolasco, Marlins (4.67 ERA, 3.73 xFIP): Nolasco's story is the same as Morrow's except without the benefit of the high strikeout rate. In fact, Nolasco's K/9 rate dropped dramatically last year, falling from 8.4 to 6.5. That makes him especially risky. Nolasco clogs the bases with a high rate of hits on balls in play and then he gets into jams that can't get out of, which leads to a low strand rate and an inflated ERA. The more contact he allows, the worse that problem gets. Unless Nolasco's strikeout rate rebounds, he becomes a menace to your Fantasy squad's ERA and WHIP, even though he doesn't walk many batters.

Hit-prone pitchers

Rick Porcello, Tigers (4.75 ERA, 4.06 xFIP): It may be no fault of his own, but too many of the ground balls that are hit off Porcello become base hits. This problem was especially acute last season, as opponents hit .282 on grounders against the 23-year-old. The Tigers' infield defense was a likely culprit, and with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder playing the corners, things may not get better for Porcello. Manager Jim Leyland has already suggested that Cabrera may be the designated hitter for Porcello's starts, which could help some. Still, owners waiting for Porcello to live up to his xFIP could be in for some disappointment.

Felipe Paulino, Royals (4.46 ERA, 3.74 xFIP): In his first two seasons, Paulino posted BABIPs above .340 -- rates so high that it seemed like they must be flukes. Then in 2011, he did it again, amassing a .352 mark. Royals manager Ned Yost recently told the Kansas City Star that Paulino has trouble commanding pitches within the strike zone, so when hitters make contact, they tend to really hammer the ball. It's good to know that there is an explanation for Paulino's quirky stats, but it's not an encouraging one for owners who are looking to him as a mixed league sleeper.

Glossary
xFIP: Also known as Expected Fielding Independent Pitching. It is an estimate of what a pitcher's ERA would be if it were based on factors that a pitcher can control, such as strikeouts, walks and flyballs. xFIP is a derivative of FIP, which was developed by Tom Tango.
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
GO/AO -- Ground out-fly out ratio
GB/FB -- Ground ball-fly ball ratio
Batting Average 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

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us on Twitter @CBSFantasyBB or Al Melchior at @almelccbs . You can also send our staff an e-mail at fantasybaseball@cbsinteractive.com .

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