Beyond the Numbers: Winning without whiffs
Most owners consider strikeouts the most telling stat when evaluating a pitcher, but there are some who are useful without missing a ton of bats. Al Melchior examines some low-K, high-value starters ioni Beyond the Numbers.
The Reds may be something of a disappointment so far, but don't blame the rotation. Though none of their starters boasts even a league-average K-rate, they collectively own a respectable 3.89 ERA, and Johnny Cueto, Bronson Arroyo and Homer Bailey are all below the National League average ERA for starters of 3.63.
Though they lack the sizzle of high strikeout totals, the Reds -- and particularly their current top trio -- offer a useful lesson for Fantasy owners. Cueto, Arroyo and Bailey have all been thriving even though none can be counted on for Ks. Cueto and Arroyo have not walked many hitters, and Bailey has recently shown glimpses of last season's improved control, but that's only the start of the story. All three pitchers have been consistent strike-throwers, and Cueto and Arroyo in particular have been very good at racking up called strikes. This has helped each of them to be efficient enough to average more than six innings per start and each has shown the ability to get through plate appearances with fewer pitches than the major league average. In fact, Arroyo leads the majors with 3.20 pitches per plate appearance. Strikeout pitchers are often hard to come by in Fantasy, but these hurlers show us that you can still get quality performances without Ks.
The key is to find pitchers who fit the Arroyo/Bailey/Cueto mold. In a phone interview just prior to spring training, Reds pitching coach Bryan Price articulated the philosophy that he looks for his pitchers to adopt. Price likes pitchers who don't waste pitches and have a plan for setting hitters up. It's no wonder that the Reds lead the NL in percentage of strikes thrown and percentage of called strikes. Price specifically cited Cueto as the member of his staff who most "gets it," and he gave Bailey credit for improving in his ability to pitch efficiently and with purpose. Each member of the "ABC" crew can help owners in Fantasy, particularly in Head-to-Head formats, due to his ability to pile up innings. Because getting called strikes is a part of that formula, any potential gains in swinging strike rates can make these pitchers sleepers in the strikeout category, making them more valuable in Rotisserie formats as well.
Fooling batters into taking strikes is a skill, and Vance Worley and Lance Lynn are two of the best recent examples of pitchers who have upped their strikeout rates -- and their overall Fantasy value -- by improving in this area. Below are eight more pitchers who have been above average at getting called strikes and have been highly efficient as a result. Because their swinging strike rates are not as impressive, these pitchers may not get their due in Fantasy, and that's something that you can take advantage of. Here's the rundown on where the value lies for each of these pitchers, along with their pitches per plate appearance (P/PA) and called strike ratios. In sizing up these data, bear in mind that a typical major league starter is averaging 3.83 P/PA and called strikes on 18 percent of his pitches. (All data are for games through Tuesday, May 1. Called strike data are from StatCorner.com)
Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals (96 percent ownership rate, 3.46 P/PA, 22 percent called strikes): Zimmermann is no secret in Fantasy, but with an 83 percent activation rate, there are still owners who don't consider him a must-start. Despite a low strikeout rate, Zimmermann is a top 30 starter in both Rotisserie and Head-to-Head formats, as his sharp control makes him a stud for WHIP and ERA. He also ranks sixth in the NL in innings pitched, and without an innings limit this year, he should be a reliable source of innings throughout the season. Better yet, Zimmermann's swinging strike rate has not eroded since last year, but a drop in his foul ball rate may be putting a damper on his Ks. If the fourth-year pitcher can revert to his normal foul ball rate, owners could get a windfall with some unexpected strikeouts. Even with a mediocre K-rate, Zimmermann deserves to be started every week.
Ross Detwiler, Nationals (53 percent ownership rate, 3.70 P/PA, 21 percent called strikes): Detwiler's ownership rate has skyrocketed in recent weeks, so I probably don't need to sell most owners on his virtues. Basically, I'm talking to myself here, because prior to doing the research for this column, I was not a believer. For those other doubters out there, Detwiler started to make gains with his control last season, though they were easy to dismiss, given that this hadn't been a strength during his minor league career. It's premature to assume that Detwiler will maintain his high called strike rate, but it's worth watching, as Worley's breakout in this regard seemingly came out of nowhere. Detwiler has had some success getting whiffs in the past, so if the lefty can keep getting hitters to look at balls in the zone, he could be a surprise source of strikeouts and innings.
Kyle Lohse, Cardinals (93 percent ownership rate, 3.62 P/PA, 22 percent called strikes): Speaking of pitchers of whom I have been stubbornly skeptical ... Lohse had a mostly successful 2011 season, as he averaged 6.3 innings per start, which was the highest mark of his career. He also set a career high in his strikes thrown percentage, which was fueled by a sizeable uptick in called strikes. Lohse is putting up similar stats through his first five starts. Of course, he is extremely unlikely to maintain a sub-2.00 ERA and a sub-1.00 WHIP, but he could approach last year's level of performance (3.39 ERA, 1.17 WHIP), which would still leave him viable in standard mixed leagues.
Brandon McCarthy, Athletics (77 percent ownership rate, 3.48 P/PA, 22 percent called strikes): After last year's breakout, McCarthy is no longer a sleeper. Owners have not been reluctant to roster him, but they have not been eager to start him. McCarthy is active in only 33 percent of the leagues on CBSSports.com, and with a 1.41 WHIP, it's understandable that owners might look to other options. However, he has yielded five more flyball base hits than what would normally be expected so far. Subtract those and his WHIP shrinks to a less frightening 1.28. Meanwhile, McCarthy continues to go deep into games regularly, and if he can get his swinging strike rate (6.5 percent) to rebound, he won't hurt you much for strikeouts.
Bartolo Colon, Athletics (83 percent ownership rate, 3.48 P/PA, 24 percent called strikes): Colon led the majors last season with a 23 percent called strike rate, which was how he could post a 7.4 K/9 rate without great stuff. He is getting batters to look at strikes even more frequently this year, but when hitters have swung, they have been making contact more often. Colon's current low K-rate could be a small sample artifact as much as anything else, as he has struck out five or more batters in four of his six starts. He is being benched by a majority of his owners, but with more strikeouts likely on the way, Colon will be worth starting in most weeks.
Joe Blanton, Phillies (15 percent ownership rate, 3.40 P/PA, 22 percent called strikes): Blanton has already gone seven-plus innings in two of his four starts, and given how efficient he has been so far, he could continue the trend deep into the season. He has stayed in the strike zone on more than two-thirds of his pitches without being hit too hard. Opponents are batting a gaudy .295 against Blanton, but he has allowed just one home run to date. Over his 67 1/3 innings dating back to last year, the former Athletic has complied highly favorable ground ball and walk rates, and he has been proficient at getting called strikes over his career. Given these trends, Blanton has a good shot at enjoying success by way of the Cueto model.
Jerome Williams, Angels (13 percent ownership rate, 3.62 P/PA, 20 percent called strikes): It has been long enough since we've seen Williams, Version 1.0, that we could easily forget that he was a fairly efficient pitcher when he came up with the Giants. The better part of a decade later, we are seeing similar form from the one-time prospect. Even though he can't be counted on a for a low walk rate, Williams has enough of a history of getting through plate appearances quickly that Head-to-Head owners could view him as an innings eater. He should also be good enough at avoiding the long ball that he could help in ERA, making him an asset in deeper mixed leagues on a weekly basis, if not standard and shallower ones.
Lucas Harrell, Astros (9 percent ownership rate, 3.63 P/PA, 21 percent called strikes): Harrell has put up good ground ball rates over his minor league career, but poor command prevented him from being a coveted prospect in Fantasy circles. So far this year, Harrell has been throwing strikes at an unprecedented rate and getting through plate appearances quickly, but he has reached strike three only 12 times in 28 2/3 innings. His past record suggests that he should get more whiffs than he has been getting, and a turnaround could mean more strikeouts in his future. Owners should not expect Harrell to be even an average strikeout pitcher, but with just a little improvement, he could be useful to more owners in NL-only leagues.
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