Three strikes

The Baltimore Sun

I had no clue.

When I look back at the ways I judged pitchers in my first few years of fantasy baseball, that's how I sum it up. Sure, I had read my Bill James, so I knew that strikeout-to-walk ratio was a better predictor of wins than winning percentage itself.

But the numbers by which we're taught to rate pitchers are surprisingly crude. Wins and ERA, the primary statistics considered in Cy Young Award voting, depend on many factors that have little to do with how well a pitcher throws. Even outstanding talents can be undermined by a poor offense or defense, a homer-friendly park, bad luck or, most common of all, injury.

I experienced a eureka moment when I first read Ron Shandler's thoughts on pitchers. He broke their performance down to three key points: Pitchers should have the stuff to throw the ball past hitters, the control to keep themselves out of trouble and the ability to keep balls out of the seats.

Almost a decade later, that remains the profile I seek. This tends to describe the best pitchers in the game, the ones we all know about. But you might be surprised how many pitchers - especially good middle relievers - also fit the template.

As I did with hitters a few weeks ago, I'm going to lay out the questions I ask and the data I look for when assessing pitchers for fantasy. But be warned. Pitchers will break your heart, even if you're using the best possible tools to rate them. They're simply too fragile and too dependent on others to be safe commodities.

These are the main questions I ask of a pitcher: Can he get the ball by hitters? Is his control a problem? Does he keep the ball on the ground? Is he headed for an injury? If he has already been injured, how likely is he to recover? How good is the defense behind him? Will he pick up extra wins because of a good offense? If he is a reliever, does he have a shot at saves, even if he isn't the closer now? Was he particularly lucky or unlucky last season?

The statistical markers for the first three questions are borrowed from Shandler. I look for pitchers who strike out at least six batters per nine innings, maintain a strikeout-to-walk ratio better than 2-to-1 and give up fewer than one homer every nine innings. You can get away with guys who miss by a touch on any of the three markers, but those are sound guidelines.

If a guy maintained the same excellent skills in 2007 as he showed in 2006 but saw his ERA rise by a run per game, he's probably due for a rebound. Jake Peavy was the perfect example coming off 2006, and he won the National League Cy Young Award last year. You also want to look at batting average on balls in play against pitchers. Pitchers who allow averages well over .300 in this category are usually unlucky.

Health is the primary factor that makes pitchers less reliable than their offensive peers. Other than Warren Spahn and Greg Maddux, it seems they all face serious injuries at some point. Teams know this and shelve their best pitchers at the slightest hint of elbow or shoulder trouble. So even if your fantasy ace avoids catastrophe, he's liable to miss a few weeks of any given season.

For this reason, I rarely sink a huge chunk of auction money into one pitcher. I prefer to cobble together a staff of lesser-known starters with good skills. This means I rarely have a blow-away great pitching staff, but I also rarely face a disaster.

If you're trying to figure out who might get hurt, vigilance is the best solution. Be afraid of any pitcher who generates persistent reports of "minor" elbow or shoulder soreness (the Detroit Tigers' Jeremy Bonderman comes to mind). Also beware of any young pitcher who threw significantly more innings last season than ever before (the Cleveland Indians' Fausto Carmona). Finally, look out for pitchers who have gradually lost command (Carlos Zambrano of the Chicago Cubs).

Don't be afraid to draft a pitcher returning from Tommy John (ligament-reconstructive) surgery. It's a very reliable procedure. Just know that his command might not be optimal at first. Be more wary of pitchers returning from rotator-cuff problems. For excellent general writing on injuries, check out Will Carroll's stuff at BaseballProspectus.com.

You can figure out whether a guy pitches in front of a good offense. Starters for the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Tigers, etc., are likely to win more games than equally skilled pitchers on the San Francisco Giants, Orioles, Seattle Mariners and Pittsburgh Pirates.

I haven't found a great statistic to measure team defense, so I take a rough glance at the fielders behind each pitcher with an emphasis on infielders for ground-ball pitchers and outfielders for fly-ball pitchers. If you're a sinkerball pitcher, for example, you would rather have Troy Tulowitzki at shortstop than Hanley Ramirez.

For smart rankings of individual fielders, look to The Bill James Handbook 2008. Many smart people are working on defensive measures, so I would imagine this area will improve.

On the relief side, look for overpowering setup men who pitch behind veteran closers with shaky skills. I'm surprised how many of these guys can be had for a few bucks in the average auction. Jonathan Broxton of the Los Angeles Dodgers, for example, will strike out two-thirds as many batters as a lot of good starters and have a better ERA and walks and hits per inning pitched. And he could easily become the closer this season or next. How is that not worth $5?

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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