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2012 Draft Prep: Finding positive in inconsistency

by | Data Analyst
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When assembling our Fantasy rosters, we ultimately want our draft picks and auction dollars to yield the most productive pitchers possible. All things being equal, though, we'd like our hurlers to be dependable as well. Especially in Head-to-Head leagues, where an erratic pitcher can ruin an entire week with a horrendous start, consistency has its allure.

Not all inconsistencies should be treated the same way. Last season, David Price had a poor month of July, but it appeared to be simply the evening out of some statistical fluctuations (namely in his home run per flyball ratio). Other times, pitchers are slow out of the gate once they return from a health-related absence, much like Ubaldo Jimenez was early last season when he came back from a thumb injury.

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Then there are pitchers like Derek Holland, who seem to actually be two pitchers in one -- a good version and a bad version. Holland and Justin Masterson turned in very similar seasons last year in terms of Fantasy value, but Masterson had relatively few outstanding performances and total meltdowns. Conversely, Holland tossed four complete game shutouts to go along with four games in which he failed to pitch more than 3 1/3 innings.

Many times, though, when a pitcher like Holland unexpectedly blows up and then looks like Roy Halladay his next time out, there's a reason behind it. In Holland's case, he had pitched exceedingly well against the poorer teams he faced but frequently got clocked when facing the likes of the Yankees and Rays. Even if that tendency continues into 2012, it doesn't make him undraftable in standard mixed league formats. In fact, it may even give him a little extra value in leagues with reserve slots. If owners are cautious with Holland for the weeks in which he faces tough opponents, they will get the "good Holland" in his other weeks without taking the risk of having to eat the stats of the "bad Holland."

There are several types of "manageable inconsistency," and I'm highlighting three of them here. First, there are the Holland types who have feasted on weak lineups but have given Fantasy owners headaches when they face a stiffer challenge. The second group consists of pitchers who have lopsided splits against either righties or lefties, dominating hitters on one side of the plate while getting pasted when facing hitters on the other side. Finally, there are the pitchers who have been especially vulnerable when starting in hitter-friendly venues.

We'll take a look at a quartet of pitchers in each group. Many of the dozen pitchers featured here have value in deeper mixed leagues, and all have the potential to be useful in those formats, at least in selected weeks. It's just all in how you use them.

Inconsistency based on quality of opposing team

Shaun Marcum, Brewers: In his first season in the NL Central, Marcum fattened up against weaker divisional rivals like the Astros, Cubs and Pirates, but he couldn't muster a sub-4.00 ERA against either the Cardinals or Reds. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Marcum's ERA against under-.500 teams over the last two years (3.11) is 84 points lower than his mark against teams that were .500 or better, whereas a typical split would be in the 50-to-60 point range. Fortunately, Marcum should continue to get plenty of easy starts within his own division this year. Given his recent history, owners in standard mixed leagues should consider sitting him when he has a strong lineup to face.

Derek Holland/Colby Lewis/Matt Harrison, Rangers: Even with the Angels adding Albert Pujols this offseason, the Rangers should have the most potent lineup in the AL West hands down. That puts Texas' pitchers in an enviable position, since they will never have to face most of the toughest hitters in their own division. All three of the returnees to the Rangers' rotation -- Holland, Lewis and Harrison -- posted lower ERAs within their division than outside of it last year. Each one also compiled an ERA against losing teams that was at least a run lower than their ERA against teams that reached the .500 threshold. Holland and Lewis are both close enough to being borderline starters in standard mixed leagues that owners have reason to sit them with unfavorable matchups. Harrison can go undrafted in those formats, but given his success against some of his weaker opponents, he is an ideal pitcher to stream into your rotation when a favorable matchup is on the horizon.

Inconsistency based on lefty-righty splits

Jeremy Hellickson, Rays: Much has been made of Hellickson's low strikeout rate last year, but he was really only a contact pitcher when he faced lefties. His command was superb against righties, as he struck out 78 batters with only 25 walks. Versus lefties, Hellickson's K-to-BB ratio was a horrifying 39-to-47. According to PitchFX data from BrooksBaseball.net, Hellickson had less horizontal movement on his curveball against lefties, and as a likely result, he generated whiffs at a rate nearly half of what he got against righties. As impressive as he was overall, winning the AL Rookie of the Year Award, he is young enough to get substantially better, especially against lefties. Still, until we see some evidence that he is making progress, Fantasy owners -- especially in shallower formats -- should look for alternatives in weeks when Hellickson is set to face lineups with significant lefty threats, like the Yankees, Red Sox and Indians.

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James McDonald, Pirates: Charlie Morton's difficulties with lefties are well-documented, but he's not the only Pirate with matchup issues. McDonald is notoriously wild, but his BB/9 rate of 3.4 against righties was respectable. That rate mushroomed to 5.3 against lefties, who also clobbered McDonald for a .302 batting average. McDonald is no world beater, even against righties, but he can help enough with strikeouts to be worth using in mixed leagues for weeks when he faces righty-heavy teams like the Brewers and Cubs.

Chris Volstad, Cubs: Volstad is currently the favorite to land the Cubs' fifth starter job, but after three straight disappointing years with the Marlins, the former first-round pick is of little interest to most mixed league owners. As a sinkerballer, it's been an unpleasant surprise as to how homer-prone the tall righty has been, but the damage has been done overwhelmingly by left-handed batters. Though he has faced lefties just 22 more times than righties over his career, Volstad has given up 49 of his 72 homers to lefties. He's lived up to his prospect billing against righties, so like McDonald, he should fare well against the Brewers, as well other teams lacking a serious lefty power threat, like the Nationals and Astros. That makes Volstad a stream-worthy option in deeper mixed leagues.

Randy Wolf, Brewers: It's not just righties who sometimes have funky splits. Wolf was tough on his fellow lefties last year, as he has been over the course of his career, but righties hit him hard. As most lineups are laden with right-handed hitters, there won't be too many weeks where Wolf won't be a risk, but he will be a viable pitcher in standard mixed leagues in a few spots. The interleague schedule gives Wolf and the Brewers the Royals and Twins as opponents, and both teams rely heavily on lefty bats for their thump.

Inconsistency based on venue

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Ryan Vogelsong, Giants: In his first exposure to the majors roughly a decade ago, Vogelsong was vulnerable to the long ball. In his most recent incarnation, he has been much better at inducing grounders, but pitching home games at AT&T Park was also a key to Vogelsong's success last year. He allowed only 0.5 home runs per nine innings at home while putting up a 1.1 HR/9 rate on the road. Even if Vogelsong regresses this year, he will be worth starting in most mixed leagues, at least in the weeks where he pitches at home.

Luke Hochevar, Royals: Remember how Hochevar finished strong last year, compiling a 3.49 ERA over his final 10 starts? An increase in strikeouts played a huge role, though we still have to see if he can sustain an increased rate into this season. What we already know from Hochevar's longer track record is that he is a much better pitcher at home, and most of his best starts down the stretch in 2011 happened in Kansas City. Benefiting from a home park that squelches home runs, Hochevar has allowed 20 fewer homers at Kauffman Stadium than on the road over his career, even though he has pitched 64 1/3 more innings at home. Hochevar isn't being drafted in many standard mixed leagues, but his splits make him a useful starter to pick up in weeks when he gets home starts.

Jason Vargas, Mariners: Like Vogelsong and Hochevar, Vargas has been reaping the benefits of pitching at a venue that does not reward power hitters. While the whole Mariners' staff gets a boost from playing at Safeco Field, Vargas is probably helped the most. With Michael Pineda gone, he enters this season as the team's most flyball-prone starter. Vargas has a career 3.63 ERA at Safeco, and that mark would be even lower if he could have stranded more than two out of every three baserunners at home last season (per FanGraphs.com). The lefty has gotten thrashed when pitching in bandboxes like Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Yankee Stadium and U.S. Cellular Field, but at home and at other pitchers' parks, Vargas has been reliable enough to use in many mixed leagues.

Josh Tomlin, Indians: After a poor second half last year in which he posted a 5.26 ERA, Tomlin has become a forgotten man this spring. He pitches too much to contact and allows too many homers to be drafted in standard mixed leagues, but last season's 1.08 WHIP shows that there is value to be had. As a flyball pitcher, Tomlin generally fares well at Progressive Field and at other pitcher-friendly stadiums, and fortunately for him, the AL Central offers two road venues -- Kansas City and Minnesota -- that are tough on power hitters. In 16 starts at those three parks, Tomlin registered a 3.43 ERA last season, allowing only nine homers over 102 1/3 innings. Tomlin is worth considering as a waiver wire pickup, even in standard mixed leagues, when he starts in these and other pitcher-friendly venues.

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 .

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