A few weeks back, I put out the call on Twitter for Fantasy owners to nominate this season's most enigmatic players. It turns out there were enough who have had inscrutable performances that I couldn't cram them all into one column.
I tackled the hitters first, but now it's time to try to figure out of some this season's more perplexing pitchers. As is probably the bent of Fantasy owners, and human beings in general, there's a slant towards grappling with the negative here, as six of the eight pitchers highlighted have frustrated owners, rather than pleasantly surprised them. In each case, though, I'll dig through the player's stats and try to make sense of the past five- and-a-half months. And with many of us already in "plan for 2014" mode, I'll size up how I'd approach each of these pitchers in next year's drafts.
Note: All stats are current through games played on Tuesday, Sept. 17.
Patrick Corbin, Diamondbacks
Story behind the numbers: On the surface, the narrative behind Corbin's season looks pretty simple: he overcame some apparent bad luck from his rookie season on hit balls (.324 BABIP) and on flyballs in particular (13 percent home run-to-flyball ratio). To judge by his K/9 (7.6 in 2013 vs. 7.2 in 2012) and BB/9 (2.3 vs. 2.1) ratios and his ground ball rates (48 percent vs. 46 percent), Corbin appears to be the same pitcher he was a year ago, but in understanding the lefty's season, as well as his future value, there's more to consider. Corbin has added more than 1 mph to his fastball velocity this year, and it could be a factor in a swinging strike rate that shot up from 9 percent to 12 percent. If he can reverse a downturn in the proportion of strikes that were foul balls, perhaps Corbin can become a strikeout-per-inning pitcher, while still maintaining an ERA close to 3.00.
2014 draft status: A top 20 starter. Think this year's Chris Sale, but with a better chance at getting run support.
Francisco Liriano, Pirates
Story behind the numbers: Few pitchers have offered Fantasy owners more extremes of frustration and elation than Liriano, but 2013 has been a mostly smooth ride. With less than two weeks of the season to go, Liriano sports a career-best 67 percent quality start rate, as he has had only a few meltdowns. Liriano hasn't always been able to stay healthy, so when his tenure with the Pirates began with him breaking his right arm -- not on the mound, but while playing with his kids -- it was easy to expect another miserable season from him. Having reworked his delivery and pitch selection, all but abandoning his four-seamer for his sinker, Liriano has pitched with greater control and rediscovered the ground ball tendencies that were present in his best days with the Twins. Since his season debut on May 11, Liriano ranks seventh in Fantasy points among all starting pitchers.
2014 draft status: With his history of injuries and inconsistency, Liriano doesn't have the same value as other top starters, but he's still a top 20 starter going into next year.
David Price, Rays
Story behind the numbers: Price's average sinker velocity is down from 96 to 94 mph, according to BrooksBaseball.net, and correspondingly, Price is far from his recent standard of approaching a strikeout per inning. Even with a more modest K-rate, Price has been effective this season, particularly so after returning from a left triceps strain that landed him on the disabled list for a month and a half. In the 15 starts since activation, Price has gone 7-4 with a 2.52 ERA and a 0.92 WHIP. While batters have had an easier time making contact against him, Price has issued only 11 walks over his last 110 2/3 innings, and he has allowed a single home run since the beginning of August.
2014 draft status: It's too soon to know whether the changes in Price's profile will be long-lasting, but it won't matter too much. The risk of a persistently pedestrian K-rate does take Price out of the top five starters going into 2014, but he's still worth drafting as your No. 1 starter.
Jeff Samardzija, Cubs
Story behind the numbers: After posting a 2.58 ERA in the second half of last season and then following it up with 3.34 ERA through the end of this June, Samardzija seemed to have established himself as a must-start option. From July forward, Samardzija has been anything but reliable, offering owners a 5.81 ERA and a 1.53 WHIP, the latter of which is 33 points higher than his mark from the first three months. The one-time Notre Dame wide receiver has been hurt by homers, allowing 1.4 per nine innings since July, and he's been wild, too, with a 3.8 BB/9 ratio. Given that Samardzija's ground ball rate has been steady throughout the season, the explosion in his homer rate looks fluky. ESPN.com's Home Run Tracker backs up that hunch, as it categorizes half of his homers allowed during his cold streak as having only "just enough" distance (as opposed to a normal ratio of around one-third). Samardzija's inconsistent control is something to watch, but he looks primed for a significant rebound next season.
2014 draft status: Samardzija was a top 30 starting pitcher through this season's first three months, and he can return to a similar level next season. Owners probably won't be knocking down walls to draft him next year, but he should deliver good value if taken among the first 40 starters.
Yovani Gallardo, Brewers
Story behind the numbers: Throughout his career, Gallardo's main asset in Fantasy has been his strikeouts, but he hasn't helped in that category in 2013 (7.0 K/9), even during his recent resurgence. Gallardo is getting swinging strikes on a meager 7 percent of his pitches, and it's the second straight year he has experienced a decrease of more than one percentage point in that measure. Perhaps not coincidentally, he has also lost roughly 1 mph of average fastball velocity in each of those seasons, too. While Gallardo has thrived lately due to low BABIP and walk rates, unfavorable line drive and strikes thrown rates suggest that won't be a long-lasting formula for success for him.
2014 draft status: At 27, Gallardo seems too young to be in the decline stage of his career, so maybe he can regain his effectiveness, if not his velocity. Given his recent trends, Gallardo is a risky pick and should be avoided until the later rounds in standard mixed leagues.
Jake Peavy, Red Sox
Story behind the numbers: Last year, Peavy had his best season since 2008, not only due to his newfound durability, but because he also reversed a trend -- likely not of his own making -- of allowing a high batting average on ground balls. Dips in Peavy's swinging strike (from 11 to 9 percent), strikeout (from 8.0 to 7.4 K/9) and ground ball rates (from 37 to 34 percent) have probably contributed to Peavy's ERA cresting over 4.00, but that mark has also been amplified by a slightly subpar 69 percent strand rate. Peavy also missed more than a month with a fractured rib, but even if we can assume that he will be able to stay healthy next season, the deterioration of some of his peripheral stats leaves him with less value on Draft Day 2014 than he had coming into this year.
2014 draft status: Peavy still has good control and should continue to be useful for a low WHIP, but he's just hittable enough to be risky to trust as a top 30 starting pitcher (where he ranked in ADP for this year). Look to Peavy to be a solid middle-of-the-rotation option to target in the latter stages of the middle rounds.
Kris Medlen, Braves
Story behind the numbers: After going 9-0 with an 0.97 ERA as a starter last season, Medlen had nowhere to go but down, but even so he was drafted on average among the top 25 starting pitchers. That was even the case in Rotisserie leagues, in which his RP eligibility was of no use. As it turns out, Medlen didn't quite match his preseason expectations, as he currently ranks 42nd among starting pitchers in Fantasy points, but bear in mind, he has been penalized by receiving one of the lowest levels of run support (3.45 runs per nine innings) in the majors. Aside from a ground ball rate that has sagged from 54 to 47 percent, Medlen's skill indicators have held steady from a year ago, and the only cause for concern going forward is that he won't be able to sustain a 77 percent strand rate.
2014 draft status: Medlen will be one of the better pitchers with moderate strikeout rates and should be taken in the early portion of the middle rounds not far behind Jordan Zimmermann, who has similar appeal.
Jeremy Hellickson, Rays
Story behind the numbers: A year ago, Hellickson finished as a top 60 starting pitcher, even though he posted mediocre strikeout and walk rates and allowed home runs at an alarming pace. What he was able to do, just as he did in his 2011 AL Rookie of the Year campaign, was avoid ground ball base hits and strand the runners he did allow at a very high rate. Those are both factors that can be difficult for a pitcher to control, and neither have worked in his favor this season. Hellickson's strand rate has shrunk from 82 to 64 percent, while batters have increased their batting average on grounders from .208 to .299. While his luck has taken a sharp turn for the worse, Hellickson has improved in areas where he does exercise a high degree of control, like throwing strikes and inducing whiffs.
2014 draft status: While Hellickson is an improved pitcher, he may never reach the heights of his first two seasons again, given how reliant he was on favorable strand and BABIP rates. Despite a poor 2013, he is still worth a late-round grab.
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