Wandy Rodriguez, The Value-Priced Johan Santana

By Tommy Rancel

Wandy Rodriguez joined the ranks of baseball’s elite starting pitchers in 2009. The Houston Astros left-hander went 14-12 with a sparkling 3.02 ERA in 33 starts in 2009. He also struck out 193 batters while topping 200 innings (205.2) for the first time.

Those are impressive numbers for any pitcher, but there is reason to believe Rodriguez can duplicate those numbers in 2010, and maybe improve them.

There is a lot to like about Rodriguez’s game. His career strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) rate is 7.5, but he has posted back-to-back seasons over 8.4. In each of the past two seasons, Rodriguez has lowered his walks per nine (BB/9) and stabilized his home run rate to less than one home run per nine innings (HR/9) – no small feat in the cozy confines of Minute Maid Park.

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In addition to his swing-and-miss stuff, Rodriguez gets his fair share of ground balls. He owns a career ground ball rate (GB%) of 43.5%. In 2009, he elevated that number slightly to 44.9%. Rodriguez had a rather normal batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .306 last year, despite some below-average fielding behind him. Looking at ultimate zone rating (UZR), Miguel Tejada, the Astros’ shortstop last season,  had the lowest UZR (-13.9) of any National League shortstop. Second basemen Kaz Matsui was rated a bit higher, but his UZR (-1.7) was still in the red at season’s end.

With Tejada now at third base for the Baltimore Orioles, Houston will turn to rookie Tommy Manzella at shortstop. What? Who? Good questions.
 
Manzella is a slick-fielding shortstop who has toiled around the upper levels of the Astros minor leagues for the past few seasons. Recently, ESPN.com writer Tim Kurkjian noted that Manzella’s defense has been major league-ready for years, but only now is the 26-year-old getting his shot. Over the past few seasons in Triple-A, he has rated above average defensively by totalzone, a metric similar to UZR.

With Manzella projected to be the team’s every-day shortstop, Rodriguez could see his BABIP creep closer toward .300 and maybe even lower. A lower BABIP could knock Rodriguez’s already stellar 3.02 ERA down below the 3.00 level.

Despite the solid control rates (K/9, BB/9) and the favorable batted ball data (GB% and HR/9) some might say Rodriguez is a one-year wonder; Bloomberg Sports disagrees. Looking at B-Rank, Rodriguez is slotted one spot ahead of fellow lefty, and traditional fantasy baseball stud, Johan Santana.

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Though Santana is behind in B-Rank, his average draft position (ADP) of 37.1 is nearly 74 spots ahead of Rodriguez (110.6). Bloomberg Sports projects Rodriguez to go 13-10 with a 3.11 ERA and 183 strikeouts in 197 innings this season. The same system projects Santana at 14-10 with a 3.31 ERA and 172 strikeouts in 193 innings.

While Rodriguez should benefit with improved defense from Manzella, Santana is likely to start the season without two of his best defenders behind him: Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes. Given the projections, the noted defensive changes, and the 2009 injury to Santana, Rodriguez is not only the better value, but could be the better pitcher outright in 2010.

Why waste a third-round pick on Santana when you could get similar, if not better, production from Rodriguez later? I don’t know about you, but I’m not a fan of paying more for less. 


For more
information on Wandy Rodriguez and other top-flight starting pitchers, check out Bloomberg Sports’ fantasy kit
.

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