Among starting pitchers last season, there was no bigger bargain than Kyle Lohse.
On average, he was passed over during the first 200 picks in mixed league Head-to-Head and Rotisserie drafts, yet he finished eighth among starting pitchers in standard Head-to-Head formats and 14th in Rotisserie. What made Lohse's season remarkable was that he achieved this high level of success without the benefit of a strikeout rate that was even close to the major league average.
Lohse probably benefitted from some good fortune in working his way to the upper echelons of Fantasy pitching. He may never again strand 77 percent of the runners he puts on or hold opponents to a .269 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), but he did enough good things -- namely avoid walks and work deep into games -- to put himself in the position to thrive. Chances are Lohse won't rank nearly as high among starters in 2013 (if and when he signs with a team), but some other contact pitcher just might. Lohse's skill set is not unique and it's not the only one that can help a pitcher with a low K-rate to climb the charts.
There are at least three ways that contact pitchers can position themselves to be as successful as their more contact-avoidant counterparts. Like Lohse, they can work efficiently, compensating for a lack of strikeouts with low walk totals and high innings counts. Since Lohse typifies this group, we can even name it after him: Club Lohse.
Then there is Club Hellickson. These pitchers are basically the light version of Jered Weaver. With even lower strikeout rates than the Angels' ace, they gain their Fantasy viability by inducing flyball outs at a high rate. The members of this club have their risks, because when you live by the flyball, you can also die by the flyball when too many carry over the outfield wall. To gain entry into Club Hellickson, it helps if you play your home games in a spacious park.
A less risky way to get outs on contact is to generate grounders, and that's what the members of Club Hudson (as in Tim) do with the majority of balls hit off them. Ground ball pitchers generally are far less vulnerable to homers, but when the ball stays in the park, a hitter has a much better chance of getting a base hit off a grounder than a flyball. Since ground ball pitchers may be prone to allowing hits at a higher rate, it's important that they don't issue too many walks.
For Fantasy, the ideal contact pitcher is one who is not especially prone to home runs, walks, allowing hits on balls in play or low strand rates, so some pitchers who may appear fit for membership in at least one of these three clubs may be denied admission. The number of potential heirs to Lohse's legacy is limited, so for example, Joe Saunders need not apply even though he is a good control pitcher. He simply allows too many homers. Similarly Jake Westbrook (high ground ball rates, but low strand rates), Lucas Harrell (high ground ball rates, but mediocre control), Rick Porcello (favorable ground ball and walk rates, but low strand rates), Jason Marquis (high ground ball rates, but low strand rates) and Blake Beavan (low walk rates, but high home run rates) are denied membership, even though each looks like an ideal member at first blush.
So who actually qualifies for these esteemed cliques? I have identified 17 pitchers across the three clubs (including each club's namesake) who have some relevance for Fantasy owners, though not all need to be drafted in standard mixed leagues. However, these are the starting pitchers who can be of the greatest use to owners without helping them with strikeouts. The best of them just could be 2013's version of the 2012 Kyle Lohse.
I'll lead each club off with an analysis of its namesake. Subsequent pitchers are ranked according to their likelihood of approximating Lohse's value from last season, from most to least likely.
Club Lohse (efficient pitchers with potential for high innings totals)
1. Kyle Lohse, free agent: Last season was likely a career year for Lohse, but he was also effective in 2011 with a 3.39 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. Lohse's lack of employment is probably depressing his value as much as owners' fears of a regression. He will sign eventually, and unless he misses a significant chunk of the season, he could provide decent value on a middle-round pick in standard mixed leagues. Or just maybe, Kyle Lohse could be the next Kyle Lohse.
2. Scott Diamond, Twins: Diamond has not been a strikeout pitcher on any level, but if his minor league numbers are any indication, he could improve upon last season's puny 4.7 K/9 rate. If he can do that and get some BABIP and strand rate help, Diamond would be a must-own starter in standard mixed leagues. Given that he posted a 12-9 record, 3.54 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in 2012 without especially favorable BABIP and strand rates, Diamond may be the pitcher best positioned to walk in Lohse's footsteps this year, even though he may miss a little time at the beginning of the season. His recovery from surgery to remove bone chips from his left elbow shouldn't delay him much.
3. Wade Miley, Diamondbacks: Miley hasn't always been a control artist, but he has made enough gains over the last two seasons that it's reasonable to expect that he can continue to average well over six innings per start again this year. He may give up a few more home runs, but with an above-average strand rate, he could meet or exceed last year's robust rookie performance.
4. Bronson Arroyo, Reds: It's probably unrealistic to expect Arroyo to reduce an already skimpy walk rate (1.6 BB/9 in 2012) or suddenly discover how to keep the ball in the park. However, there is plenty of room for Arroyo to improve on his .292 BABIP from a year ago, since he is also a potential Club Hellickson member who has posted several low BABIP rates over his career. He'll need to do that if he is to walk the Lohse path.
5. Mark Buehrle, Blue Jays: In his days with the White Sox, Buehrle had already shown that he can thrive in a hitter-friendly park, so owners shouldn't fret about his move to Toronto. Oddly enough, he registered his highest HR/9 rate in six years last season while pitching home games in Marlins Park. If he can reduce that rate, Buehrle can help owners with WHIP and ERA, and the Jays' lineup could help him to pad his win total. That scenario could launch Buehrle into a higher echelon.
6. Matt Harrison, Rangers: Harrison has already performed at a surprisingly high level, given his low strikeout rates, so he would probably need some luck to take another step forward. He would have to maintain the 77 percent strand rate from last season and also get some BABIP help in order to be a top Fantasy pitcher. It's not likely, but it could happen.
Club Hellickson (flyball pitchers with low BABIP rates)
1. Jeremy Hellickson, Rays: The 2011 American League Rookie of the Year put up impressive strikeout rates in the minors, but as a major leaguer, he has found a more subtle recipe for success. Hellickson owns a career .245 BABIP (as opposed to the major league norm in the .290-to-.300 range), which has been helped by high popup rates and a .109 BABIP on flyballs. Though he has probably pushed the BABIP envelope about as far as it can go, if Hellickson can improve his control or home run rate and provide 200-plus innings, he could be a top 30 starting pitcher or better.
2. Tommy Milone, Athletics: Milone wasn't actually that much of a flyball pitcher last season, compiling a flyball rate of just 40 percent. However, he was better-than-average at inducing popouts in the upper minors and he turned in a 10 percent popout rate last season. Still, Milone managed to end up with a .313 BABIP. Though he doesn't have a history of low BABIP rates from the minor leagues, he profiles as a pitcher who could post low rates. His history suggests he's almost a lock for a BB/9 below 2.0, and with O.co Coliseum as his home park, he could cut down on last season's 24 home runs allowed. There's lots of room for improvement here, making Milone a strong candidate to be relevant in standard mixed leagues all season long.
3. Jason Vargas, Angels: Vargas has already found Fantasy success without the benefit of strikeouts, as he was a top 30 starter in standard Head-to-Head leagues and a top 40 starter in standard Rotisserie leagues last year. He is not likely to surpass those levels this season, but he could approximate them. Vargas benefitted from highly favorable BABIP and strand rates in 2012, but his 12 percent home run-to-flyball ratio was suspiciously high. The lefty has put up popout rates of nine percent or higher in each of the last four seasons, so his BABIP shouldn't increase by much, and a reduced homer rate would help his ERA and WHIP.
4. Jeremy Guthrie, Royals: Guthrie's flyball tendencies have been mild, but that hasn't kept him from getting into trouble with the long ball. Then again, having spent five seasons with the Orioles and then enduring a stint with the Rockies, it's no wonder that Guthrie has suffered from high HR/9 rates. In 91 innings with the Royals, he allowed just nine homers, and he finished with a .271 BABIP that was not far off his career norms. Guthrie gets enough popups and is sufficiently miserly with walks that he could be a surprising source of low ERA and WHIP.
5. Barry Zito, Giants: Admittedly, including Zito here is something of a stretch, as he walks too many batters to be a strong candidate to overcome his low strikeout rate. Over the last six seasons, though, only six pitchers with at least 1,000 innings have compiled a lower BABIP than Zito. If Zito unexpectedly cuts back on home runs or gets some help from a high strand rate, he could be a mixed league streaming option, if not quite a Fantasy rotation staple.
Club Hudson (ground ball pitchers with potential for low home run rates)
1. Tim Hudson, Braves: Because of his surprising 2012 season, Lohse has been the focus of this column, but long before Lohse's success, it was Hudson who was a Fantasy stud despite a lack of strikeouts. He could gain upper-tier status again. Hudson will have to maintain his favorable ground ball and walk rates, but he will also need to get his strand rate back in the upper 70s, where it was three seasons ago.
2. Trevor Cahill, Diamondbacks: It might not be fair to include Cahill in this analysis as he cracked the 7.0 K/9 threshold last season, though just barely. Still, with a career rate of 5.9, owners are at risk if they're expecting Cahill to be even an average strikeout pitcher, even if he is still in the growth phase of his career. Should Cahill take a step backward in his K-rate, he had already shown back in 2010 that he can be a top 20 starting pitcher when endowed with favorable BABIP and strand rates.
3. Paul Maholm, Braves: Hudson's teammate hasn't been quite as prodigious at inducing grounders, but he has been consistently effective at preventing home runs nonetheless. Maholm was a top 50 starter in Head-to-Head leagues last year, and he got there without the benefit of a highly favorable BABIP or strand rate. If luck is more on his side this year, he could rank considerably higher.
4. Clayton Richard, Padres: Richard's strikeout rate has fallen in each of the last two seasons, but if it can rebound just a little, there's hope for him to be a contributor in standard mixed leagues. Even with the fences coming in at PETCO Park, it's hard not to imagine that Richard won't reduce his 13 percent home run-to-flyball ratio from last season.
5. Henderson Alvarez, Marlins: Alvarez's sophomore season was a disappointment, but in moving from Rogers Centre to Marlins Park, he should be able to reduce his home run rate substantially. At 23 years of age, owners can expect that Alvarez will continue to develop and improve both his strikeout and walk rates. He doesn't need to be drafted in mixed leagues this spring, but don't be surprised if he improves enough to merit an early pickup.
6. Jordan Lyles, Astros: Prior to last season, Lyles' numbers in the upper minors didn't match the prospect hype he had received. While it doesn't show up in his ERAs, Lyles did take a step forward during his stints with Triple-A Oklahoma City and the Astros last year. He made dramatic improvements in his ground ball rate while continuing to be a reliable strike-thrower. That alone makes Lyles a sleeper in AL-only leagues and a possible force in mixed leagues this coming season.
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