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Beyond the Numbers: Are park factors always a factor?

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For the last four years, I have been writing the By the Numbers column, and it will be back for a fifth year.

In this space, however, I am taking a step beyond my usual data-centric approach. This is the first-ever installment of Beyond the Numbers, a series in which I will try to explain some of the crazier, more confounding stats that I come across. The focus will usually be on a single player or a small group of players, but in piecing their stories together, I will also look at other players who might be in the same boat. The ultimate aim is to see what lessons we can learn about how to better assess their Fantasy value.

This week it's the White Sox pitching staff that gets the under-the-microscope treatment.

Over the last three seasons, they have had an uncanny ability to make their launching pad of a home park look neutral, if not quite biased towards pitching. From 2009 to 2011, only 248 of the 548 homers hit at U.S. Cellular Field were notched by the visiting team. Despite playing in one of the best stadiums for homers, the White Sox had the 11th-highest HR/9 rate in the majors last season. All of the other teams that play in extreme homer parks -- the Yankees, Rangers, Rockies and Reds -- ranked among the seven teams with the highest HR/9 rates. If you think the Pale Hose achieved this distinction by loading up on ground ball specialists, you'll need to find another explanation. According to FanGraphs.com, the White Sox had only the 17th-highest ground ball rate in the majors last year.

When setting Fantasy rotations from week to week, park factors play a role in making start-or-sit decisions for many owners. If the White Sox have found a way to blunt the impact of their home stadium, that could give us reason to rethink the importance we assign to park factors. Last season, the Sox made a strong case for reconsidering a park factor-based strategy, as none of their primary starters (Mark Buehrle, John Danks, Gavin Floyd, Jake Peavy and Philip Humber) allowed more than 1.05 HR/9 at home last year. Also, all but Danks compiled flyball BABIPs well below the American League average of .137, so they were good at avoiding doubles and triples as well. Even the team's most Fantasy-relevant relievers -- Sergio Santos, Matt Thornton and Chris Sale -- were adept at minimizing extra bases.

Thornton attributes his team's ability to cheat opponents of extra-base hits to pitching coach Don Cooper. According to Thornton, Cooper's philosophy is simple: "If you're going to miss, don't miss over the plate." Thornton has taken Cooper's approach to heart, coming inside frequently, especially against righties. Humber and Buehrle were also loathe to leave the ball over the middle of the plate, and perhaps not coincidentally, they owned the lowest extra-base hit rates (as a percentage of total hits) among the White Sox's starters last season. In fact, they ranked fifth and sixth, respectively, in this category among AL starters for 2011.

In recent seasons, the White Sox's staff has shown that pitchers don't have to be victims of their home stadium's park factors. For Fantasy owners, one implication is that White Sox pitchers are not as risky at home as one might think. Humber could be the target of suspicion in Fantasy circles, since last season's 3.75 ERA and 1.18 WHIP were lower than what many expected. But given that he has a knack for locating his pitches on the outside edge of the plate, he shouldn't be much of a home run risk. Buehrle has done a great job of avoiding extra base hits as a member of the White Sox, and with the move to the Marlins' spacious new park, his ERA and WHIP could be among the best in his career. Buehrle's new pitching coach, Randy St. Claire, likens his ability to spot his pitches to that of another resourceful southpaw, Tom Glavine.

The impact of the White Sox's unusual success extends beyond the South Side. Avoiding extra-base hits is a tendency that can be owned by pitchers who aren't extreme ground ball specialists or don't have the advantage of playing in a pitcher's park. Here are five other starters who have been giving up fewer extra-base hits than you might think, given their home park environments and/or ground ball rates. At first glance, each of these pitchers might look like regression candidates, but they show indications of being able to stay on a roll.

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Matt Garza, Cubs: Before increasing his ground ball rate dramatically last season, Garza was prone to giving up the long ball, even though his home park was pitcher-friendly Tropicana Field. Both with the Cubs and Rays, Garza has had a knack for avoiding flyball hits inside the park. A view of his pitch location heat map on FanGraphs.com reveals that he tends to locate his slider low and in on lefties and away against righties, and given that he used the pitch more frequently in 2011, it is no surprise that Garza got more grounders and allowed far fewer homers. He is still fairly flyball-neutral, though, and he pitches his home games at Wrigley Field, but that doesn't mean Garza is due for a fall after last season's breakout. If there is an owner in your league that feels like he got "stuck" with Garza, now is a good time to buy low on the solid No. 3 mixed league starter.

Josh Beckett, Red Sox: Many pointed to Beckett's .252 BABIP from last season and said that his 2.89 ERA and 1.03 WHIP were too good to be true. It is reasonable to expect Beckett to give up more hits this year, but not as many as you might think. He used his cutter more often and did a good job of keeping it away from righties. That likely helped Beckett to experience a dramatic decrease in flyball hits, including homers, and he induced popups at a higher rate as well. Owners have legitimate reasons to be concerned about Beckett's durability, but when he does pitch, they can expect him to perform at a level not far off from last season's.

Matt Harrison, Rangers: Despite mediocre strikeout, walk and ground ball rates, Harrison was a surprisingly robust Fantasy option last year. Opposing hitters slugged just .374 against the lefty, and they hit all of 13 home runs off him all season. Harrison has posted flyball BABIP rates below league average for three straight seasons. Though Rangers Ballpark in Arlington is one of the easiest parks in which to hit a homer, Harrison does a good enough job of staying down in the zone to keep extra-base damage to a minimum. Despite a history of unimpressive peripherals, he should be viable in standard mixed leagues again this year.

Doug Fister, Tigers: Fister may not pitch for Don Cooper, but he seems to have taken his philosophy to heart. Last year, he started pounding his fastball in on righties, and batters swung and missed on it nearly twice as often as they did the year before, according to PitchFX data on BrooksBaseball.net. Fister was not only aided by an increase in strikeouts, but also by a miniscle home run rate, which he was able to maintain even after leaving the AL West. Though his flyball BABIP last year was slightly elevated at .150, his career rate is just .119. Fister may have left his pitchers' paradise in Seattle behind last July, but he continues to be more effective at limiting extra-base hits than his middling strikeout and ground ball rates would suggest.

Jason Vargas, Mariners: Vargas, on the other hand, does continue to get the benefit of playing home games at Safeco Field, but his ability to limit extra base hits goes beyond the impact of park factors. Even though Vargas is decidedly flyball-leaning, his 1.0 HR/9 rate away from Seattle over the previous two years has been respectable. Vargas has also put up a flyball BABIP below the league average -- including an .096 rate in 2011 -- in each of his years with the Mariners. Because of a lack of strikeouts, Vargas can't be trusted in standard mixed leagues every week. Bear in mind, though, that 40 of his 64 starts (63 percent) going back to 2010 have been of the quality variety, a rate just below Ervin Santana's and higher than Brandon Morrow's. Vargas is worthy of streaming onto a standard mixed league roster when you're unsure of the other alternatives.

While the five pitchers above are all poised to deliver more value than expected, the next five pitchers could be disappointments. Each has either had trouble in preventing extra-base hits or profiles to have more difficulties this season.

Zack Greinke, Brewers: Fantasy owners have good reason to be tantalized by Greinke's superb strikeout and walk rates, and those numbers alone suggest that he could be due for a second Cy Young Award. However, there's a reason that Greinke had a less-than-elite 3.83 ERA and 1.20 WHIP last year. He has compiled flyball BABIPs over .150 in each of the last three years, and over those seasons he has coughed up 128 doubles. Unless Greinke can induce weaker contact when batters connect, he is going to have to miss even more bats to be a true Fantasy ace.

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Ricky Romero, Blue Jays: Romero shaved nearly a full run off his 2010 ERA to finish with a 2.92 mark last year, and this spring owners took him off the board within the first five rounds in many mixed leagues. He became a Fantasy favorite, even though last year hitters batted .192 on flyballs in play (which doesn't include the 26 homers they mashed) against him. Romero kept his opponents' batting average to .216 due to an extremely low line drive rate, but that is more likely to regress than his extra-base rate. If that happens, Romero won't perform like the No. 2 Fantasy starter that many owners drafted him to be, and there will be more outings like the difficult one he suffered in Cleveland on Thursday.

Kyle Lohse, Cardinals: After wrecking the Marlins' housewarming party on opening night, owners are already starting to flock to Lohse. He had been added to rosters in eight percent of the leagues on CBSSports.com less than 24 hours after he held Miami to a single run over 7 1/3 innings. Lohse hasn't been especially homer-prone, but he has allowed 217 doubles over his last 138 starts -- that's just over four full seasons' worth of starts. Last season's 49 two-baggers fit right into the pattern. Unless he can hold batters to a sub-.200 average on grounders again this year -- and I'm guessing he won't -- owners shouldn't expect to see the 2011 or opening night versions of Lohse very often this year.

Chris Capuano, Dodgers: Capuano's 4.55 ERA with the Mets last year wasn't too impressive, but xFIP estimates that with better luck and defense, he should have finised at 3.56. What xFIP doesn't realize is that Capuano consistently gives up more extra-base hits than a typical pitcher with his strikeout, walk and ground ball rates. Last year was the third time that Capuano had made more than 30 starts, and in each of those seasons, he has allowed at least 27 homers and 49 doubles. The two-time Tommy John survivor is fine to use in NL-only leagues, but in mixed league formats, he should only be used when facing an especially weak lineup.

Joe Saunders: Saunders is the anti-Fister. Frequently leaving his fastball out over the plate, he is routinely taken out of the park, even though his ground ball rates are slightly higher than average. Owners looking for Saunders to repeat last season's 3.69 ERA are due for a letdown. Given his proclivity for giving up homers, it strains credibility to think that he will strand 77 percent of his baserunners again this year.

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 e-mail us at fantasybaseball@cbsinteractive.com .

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

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Player News
Giants SP Jake Peavy activated Friday for return to rotation
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(2:01 pm ET) As expected, Giants starting pitcher Jake Peavy was reinstated from the 15-day disabled list Friday to start against the Nationals. To clear a spot on the roster and in the rotation, Tim Hudson went on the disabled list due to a shoulder injury.

The right-hander had a very lengthy rehab assignment. He went 0-3 with a 5.55 ERA in seven starts between Class A and Triple-A.


Mets eyeing Athletics 2B/OF Ben Zobrist, who might be off table
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(1:59 pm ET) The Mets have interest in Athletics second baseman/outfielder Ben Zobrist, but a recent Oakland surge might prevent them from trading him, CBSSports.com Baseball Insider Jon Heyman has reported.

Zobrist could be a boon to a Mets offense that ranks second-last in the National League in runs scored and managed to plate just one in a just-completed three-game series against the Cubs. He can also play multiple positions, including third base, where David Wright (back) appears likely to remain absent for quite some time.

The Mets are not alone in their interest in Zobrist. Several other teams have inquired about him.


Giants send Tim Hudson to 15-day DL due to shoulder injury
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(1:55 pm ET) The Giants placed starting pitcher Tim Hudson on the 15-day disabled list Friday due to a right shoulder strain in order to clear a roster spot for starting pitcher Jake Peavy, who was reinstated from the DL.

Hudson got off to a promising start this season, tossing 6 1/3 scoreless innings in his first start April 9. However, it's been a bumpy ride for the veteran right-hander ever since. He is 5-7 with a 5.02 ERA in his last 14 starts.


Athletics RP Pat Venditte continues to make progress
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(1:49 pm ET) Athletics ambidextrous rookie reliever Pat Venditte, who has been out with a shoulder injury since mid-June, played catch at distances of up to 90 feet Wednesday and made 40 throws with each arm.

Bob Melvin told the San Francisco Chronicle that Venditte could be throwing off the mound by the All-Star break.


Mets aren't looking to promote Michael Conforto amid offensive slump
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(1:49 pm ET) With the Mets offense in a serious slump, there have been cries for the team to promote top outfield prospect Michael Conforto to the majors, according to CBSSports.com Baseball Insider Jon Heyman. 

However, people within the Mets organization have said Conforto -- who was a 2014 first-round pick -- hasn't had enough time at Double-A and the team is reluctant to promote the 22-year-old outfielder.

Conforto, who is a top-100 prospect, began the season at high Class A St. Lucie. He hit .283 with a .462 slugging percentage and .811 OPS in 46 games before earning a promotion to Double-A Binghamton. He is batting .327 with a .411 on-base percentage, .522 slugging percentage and .933 OPS in 30 games at Double-A.


Progress of sidelined Athletics SP Jarrod Parker pleases doctor
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(1:42 pm ET) Shelved Athletics starter Jarrod Parker, out for the year after sustaining a fractured elbow, has visited noted surgeon Dr. James Andrews, who is pleased with his progress, per the San Francisco Chronicle.

Parker will shed his sling in a week and begin strengthening exercises.


Athletics SP Sonny Gray likely no-go Sunday as well
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(1:36 pm ET) A scary bout with salmonella will very likely sideline Athletics ace Sonny Gray from another start Sunday.

"It looks like that right now," Bob Melvon told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Gray only began eating solid foods again Thursday after a five-day illness. The salmonella attacked his colon, which Gray stated swelled to double its normal size.

The source of the salmonella remains undetermined. The clubhouse has been ruled out because none of his teammates became ill.


Marlins CF Marcell Ozuna sits Friday amid prolonged hitting slump
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(1:30 pm ET) Marlins center fielder Marcell Ozuna was held out of the starting lineup Friday against the Cubs for the first time in 16 games. It was just the sixth time in 81 games he did not start.

Cole Gillespie started in center field for Ozuna, who continues to be mired in a long hitting slump. He is batting just .165 in his last 22 games.


A's OF Josh Reddick voices frustration about sitting vs. lefties
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(1:14 pm ET) Athletics outfielder Josh Reddick is enjoying a strong first half, batting .287 with a .348 on-base percentage, .469 slugging percentage and .817 OPS through 74 games. 

He has certainly earned his spot in the lineup and is starting on most nights. However, there are still some times where he begins the game on the bench when the opposition is starting a left-handed pitcher. 

Historically, Reddick is not a strong batter against left-handed pitchers. He has a career .220/.379/.662 slash line against lefties, as opposed to .262/.458/.780 against right-handers.

He is batting just .152 against left-handers in 2015 and despite the numbers not being in his favor, Reddick isn't happy when he sits against southpaws.

When talking with broadcaster Ray Fosse on the A’s pregame radio show on Thursday, Reddick voiced his displeasure about the situation and seemed to target general manager Billy Beane as the responsible party.

“I have no idea (who makes that decision). It doesn’t come from anywhere in this clubhouse," Reddick said, per CSNBayArea.com. "Everybody knows what situations our general manager puts up there. I couldn’t tell you what the difference is between me starting against one guy and not starting against another guy. … There’s probably so many numbers they could dig into their computers with and try to find one just to keep me out of the lineup.

“I know (manager Bob Melvin is) in there fighting for me. The other day I was supposed to play against (Jorge) De La Rosa, and Bob texts me at around 1:30 and told me he had been ‘trumped,’ was the word he used. I understood right away. I know it’s not Bob. He’s fighting for me to be in there every night. It still frustrates me beyond belief when I don’t play."

Beane declined to comment after CSN Bay Area sent him a text message. Although, Melvin spoke up and said the scenario did not play out as Reddick suggested.

“Sometimes I get ahead of myself because I want our guys always to know ahead of time so they can prepare,” Melvin said. “And I got ahead of myself on that one and I backtracked and I told him you’re not playing now. And maybe to an extent he thought I was so-called trumped.

“I want all my players to think I’m behind them,” Melvin said. “But we make organizational decisions organizationally. And not in just one instance, a lot... At the end of the day, it’s me that writes out the lineup card. No one tells me each and every day what the lineup card’s supposed to look like.”


Reds prospect Robert Stephenson to make Triple-A debut Friday
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(1:01 pm ET) Reds starting pitcher prospect Robert Stephenson will make his debut for Triple-A Louisville on Friday.

The top-100 prospect is one step closer to the majors after going 4-7 with a 3.68 ERA in 14 starts for Double-A Pensacola. He struck out 89 batters and issued 43 walks in 78 1/3 innings.

"Organizationally, we feel Robert is ready for the next challenge," said Jeff Graupe, the Reds director of player development, per the Cincinnati Enquirer.


 
 
 
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