2011 Overachievers: Pitchers

The 2011 season is in the books, and what the final results were mean little in terms of projecting for the 2012 season. What’s more important is determining how a player reached their final stat line, and whether or not their production lines up with the components. A few players, both hitters and pitchers, stand out as being aided by some good fortune in one way or another. When prepping draft cheat sheets, keep in mind their 2011 surface stats may not have been all they were cracked up to be.

*Position eligibility determined by Yahoo! Default settings: 10 games played, or 5 starts

Jeremy Hellickson- SP- Tampa Bay Rays: 13 Wins, 117 Ks, 2.95 ERA, 1.15 WHIP

This year’s American League Rookie of the Year is talented enough to make skills gains that will make me look foolish for discounting him on draft boards. That said, the 2011 version of Hellickson was quite lucky, and if he doesn’t make skills gains will continue to need the luck of the Irish to maintain his rate stats.

Hellickson entered 2011 as the top rated prospect in the Rays organization by Baseball America, John Sickels, and Kevin Goldstein, amongst others. In spite of a fastball that sits in just the low-90s and occasionally straightens out, he ranked atop these lists for a variety of reasons. While his fastball doesn’t have premium velocity, especially from a right handed pitcher, he locates it well. He also throws a change-up and a curveball which grade out as plus pitches, and like the fastball, he locates each pitch well. The final influencing factor for his ranking on prospect lists was his results. Hellickson paired elite strikeout totals with miniscule walk totals at all rungs of the minor league ladder, and toyed with hitters in general.

This season, in the majors, he didn’t strike out many batters, and his walk rate was higher than it had been at any stop he’d spent extensive time at in the minors. The walk rate, 3.43 BB/9, isn’t all that bad, but the 5.57 K/9 was a far cry from what was expected from him after he’d struck out better than a batter an inning in his minor league career. Looking at his pitch-by-pitch results, it’s easy to see the reason he failed to rack up strikeouts. Neither of Hellickson’s fastballs missed bats. His four-seam fastball resulted in hitters whiffing 4.6 percent of the time. When he opted to throw his two-seam fastball, he induced fewer empty swings (3.6 percent whiff rate). His best swing-and-miss offering was his change-up, which had an 18.7 percent whiff rate. It was also his off speed pitch of choice, and he threw it 32.5 percent of the time. The only other pitch he threw with any regularity, meaning not including his cutter that was thrown just 1.3 percent of the time, was his curveball (10.9 percent usage). The curveball was thrown for a strike roughly half the time, and lagged behind the change-up in swinging strikes (12.7 percent whiff rate). If he hopes to boost his strikeout rate, throwing a fastball that threatens to avoid bats would be a good starting point.

Ranking just behind Hellickson’s low strikeout rate as a reason for pause is his flyball tendency. Only 35 percent of balls put in play by opposing hitters were groundballs. Pitchers like Jered Weaver are able to get away giving up flyballs due to their ability to strike batters out. Pitching to contact, and allowing line drives and flyballs is a recipe for disaster. Both line drives and flyballs lead to more extra base hits than groundballs, and in the case of flyballs, lead to inflated home run totals. One interesting tidbit that stands out looking at his batted ball data is an abnormally high pop up rate of 16.2 percent. Perhaps it will turn out he owns the skill of popping batters out, but it will take more than the 189 innings he pitched this year to determine whether that’s the case, or merely a matter of chance.

Hellickson’s a talented young pitcher, and a great guy to own in keeper and dynasty leagues, but one that’s unlikely to yield a profit in re-draft leagues next year. in the most statistically knowledgeable leagues, all it takes is one owner buying into his 2011 season, or his ability to make huge strides, for him to be over drafted. Don’t be that guy. There are too many talented pitchers to rely on continued good luck, or massive leaps in controllable skills at the cost Hellickson will command.

Ricky Romero- SP- Toronto Blue Jays: 15 Wins, 178 Ks, 2.92 ERA, 1.14 WHIP

After three full major league seasons Romero has proven himself to be a groundball inducing, innings horse. However, he’s not a player that should be relied on to post a sub-3.00 ERA. Ricky Romero circa 2011 wasn’t much different than the 2010 incarnation, if the huge gains in ERA and WHIP would suggest otherwise.

For the second year in a row, Romero made strides with his control, but sacrificed strikeouts for that gain. The solid 178 strikeouts he compiled were a product of volume, 225 innings pitched. In head-to-head leagues without innings caps, all strikeouts are created equal. Those in traditional roto leagues with a reachable innings pitched cap can’t view strikeouts through the same lens. In leagues with innings pitched caps, Romero’s league average 7.12 K/9 is nothing special, and requires outstanding ratios or a big win total to prop it up.

Romero delivered on the outstanding ratios this year, but should thank his BABIP and strand rates for that. His .242 BABIP was almost 50 points lower than the league average of .291. A low percentage of line drives allowed helps explain the better than league average rate to a certain degree, but his low pop out rate makes 50 points seem excessive. He also bested the league average strand rate of 72.5 percent by a wide margin, boasting a 79.2 percent mark. Combined, his low BABIP and high strand rate helped him out produce all of his advanced metrics which suggested his work should have resulted in a high-three to low-four ERA.

Setting an ERA expectation in the mid-to-high-threes for 2012 is prudent. If that turns out to be the case, Romero will be a pedestrian fantasy contributor. There will be plenty of pedestrian options to draft for cheaper than Romero, do so.

Jair Jurrjens- SP- Atlanta Braves: 13 Wins, 90 Ks, 2.90 ERA, 1.22 WHIP

The Braves are no fools, and they are shopping Jurrjens around the league. It’s rumored they are looking for a premium prospect, and were said to have contacted the Royals about the availability of Wil Myers by trade. That rumored trade didn’t happen, and while some question the wisdom of Royals General Manager Dayton Moore, apparently he can get past rosy surface stats and see Jurrjens isn’t a staff anchor.

Jurrjens has the lowest strikeout rate, 5.33 K/9, of the three pitchers highlighted in this article. He also has the most major league experience of the three, and has failed to reach league average in any of his four full seasons in the majors. His 2011 rate was the worst of his career, and may have come as a conscious effort to walk fewer hitters (career best 2.61 BB/9). Walking fewer hitters is always a good thing, but when a pitcher is already a drag on the strikeout category, it doesn’t cause celebration to break out amongst his owners.

Four years into Jurrjens tenure as a Brave, it’s pretty safe to say his first year 51.5 percent groundball rate is an outlier. He has never induced more than 43 percent groundballs in any other season. I’ll avoid beating a dead horse, but suffice it to say, a low strikeout rate and low groundball rate aren’t an ideal pairing.

It’s possible that the biggest knocks on Jurrjens are unrelated to his play on the field, and those are his injury history and diminishing velocity. Jurrjens has missed significant time the last two seasons. This season he threw 152 innings, and the year before he threw fewer totaling 116.1 innings. His supporters will point to the injuries being less bothersome because they have been to his lower body, and not his arm, elbow or shoulder. They have a point, but missing time isn’t a good thing regardless of the reason for it. Jurrjens has never been a flamer thrower, but his average of 89.1 mph on his fastball in 2011 makes him something of a soft tosser. It also narrows the gap on velocity between his fastball and change-up. That’s no bueno. The gap between the two pitches was less than six mph this year, and threatens the effectiveness of the change-up.

There is absolutely nothing appealing about Jurrjens in fantasy leagues. He’s not a safe bet to produce in any standard 5×5 categories, but he is a lock to underwhelm in strikeouts. He’s ownable in deep mixed leagues, and NL-only formats (assuming he’s not dealt to an American League team in the offseason). Be sure to commend the owner in your league that drafts him. It is always good to reinforce the misguided drafting of league mates.