Tagged: St. Louis Cardinals

A (Brad) Penny for Your Fantasy Team

by Eno Sarris //

Two starts into his 2010 season, Brad Penny sports a 0.79 ERA and a 0.64 WHIP. Sample size caveats obviously apply. But can Penny dip into the Dave Duncan fountain of rejuvenation and enjoy a big year? Let’s take a look at his career both recent and long-term, as well as the effects of the Cardinals’ pitching coach.

To tamp down expectations, one only needs to realize that Penny is likely to strike out batters at a below-average rate. He’s only struck out more than the major league average three times in his 10-year-plus career, and not once since 2006. Since then, his strikeout rate has been on a three-year decline.

In Boston in 2008, the combination of his declining strikeout rate, increasing walk rate, an unlucky .336 BABIP and 64% strand rate (usually around 70% across baseball) led to his career nadir. That low point sent him packing from the American League and seemed to signal the end of his fantasy value. Not so. Back in the National League last year (and a nice pitcher’s park, as the Giants’ home park had a .970 park factor for home runs), Penny again found relevance that he’s continued to provide this year. How did he do it?

Taking a look at the Bloomberg Sports Fantasy Tool, we get our first clue in the graph for Penny’s WHIP in 2009. He slowly whittled that number down to a more respectable 1.40 level by the end of the year, mostly by returning to his historical levels of control. His full-year walk
PennyWHIPGrab.jpgrate was 2.65, compared to his already better-than-average 2.88 number. He also got lucky in San Francisco, where his .211 BABIP and 81.8% strand rate evened out his Boston struggles.

It wasn’t just luck that provided some of his boost in San Francisco, however. With the Giants, Penny had a 53.8% groundball rate, which followed his career trend of inducing groundballs. Derek Lowe has already showed us that someone can survive – and even thrive – with a sub-standard strikeout rates if it comes paired with great control and lots of dead worms. Through his first two starts this year, Penny has upped the ante by walking a miniscule 1.29 batters per nine and inducing 60% of his contact on the ground.

Of course, you don’t put up a sub-one ERA and WHIP without some luck, and Penny’s been lucky this year. He won’t continue to put up a .222 BABIP or 81.8% strand rate for sure. But Penny does have something on his side: Duncan. The Cardinals pitching coach has been helping Penny with a mystery pitch, which different classification systems call a split-finger or a cutter. As with Kyle Lohse, Chris Carpenter and Joel Pineiro before him, Duncan seems to have helped Penny work on a sinker and induce more groundballs. 

The Duncan Effect has been pointed out before, and even demonstrated statistically by Steve Sommers on Fangraphs.com, but it’s worth looking at Penny’s two starts this year in comparison to his last two starts in of 2009. First up, a graph of his last two starts
PennyMovement09.gifin 2009, courtesy of Texas Leaguers. Notice that green bunch of diamonds in the middle, lacking much movement, and also the number of purple squares. Penny was throwing his slider (green diamonds) about 7% of the time, and his changeup (purple squares) 15.2% of the time in late 2009. Mostly, Penny was all fastballs (red squares, 67.3%).

Fast forward to the beginning of this year, after a spring of tutelage from the new pitching coach. He’s given up the slider, and now throws the changeup 24.6% of the time. Instead of relying too heavily on his fastball (43.3% this year), he’s also throwing a new pitch that Texas Leaguers calls a sinker (11.8%). All in all, the mix looks very different; removing a rather straight group of pitches which he couldn’t command well (55% strike percentage on sliders) is a good

It’s all a little confusing because pitch f/x databases are all getting better at calibrating their classification systems. One system might call a pitch a cutter, another might label that same pitch a two-seam fastball, another might call it a sinker. In the end, though, the fact that Penny is moving away from his four-seam fastball and adding new pitches is important. Even though the fastball velocity has returned to his early career levels, that pitch only garnered a 5.6% whiff rate last year. Compare that to the 10-13% whiff rates he’s getting from his changeup, curveball and sinker this year, and you see that the decision to throw fewer fastballs was a good one (though again sample size caveats apply).

The newfound pitching mix, the added groundballs, and playing in a friendlier stadium and more pitcher-friendly league than he did at this time last year – these facts all make Brad Penny a decent pickup in all formats. While he won’t be an elite pitcher all year, a season like Joel Piniero had last year is not out of the question for Penny.

For more on Brad Penny and other groundball-inducing pitchers, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools.


Bloomberg Sports 2010 National League Central Preview

By Tommy Rancel

The St. Louis Cardinals have won six of the past 10 NL Central titles. In 2010, they are once again the favorites, but will have to fend off the Milwaukee Brewers, the upstart Cincinnati Reds, and the Chicago Cubs, in what might be Lou Piniella’s last stand with the team. The Houston Astros are lacking enough firepower to make much noise and the Pittsburgh Pirates are improved, but not enough.

St. Louis Cardinals

The Cards are the most complete team in the division, led by the greatest hitter on the planet in Albert Pujols. Nearly a consensus top pick in Fantasy drafts, Pujols will likely be the top hitter in baseball once again in 2010. St. Louis also re-signed Matt Holliday, who is likely to maintain his steady numbers in the senior circuit.

Keep an eye on a pair of youngsters to provide offense behind the superstar duo. Center fielder Colby Rasmus was merely average last season, but is talented enough to make the leap to All-Star status – his Opening Day home run was a monster shot that showed his prodigious power. Third baseman David Freese had a hot start to his career, but only has 17 major league games to his credit. Both will see significant playing time in 2010. The Cards lineup packs plenty of punch, but is not a good source of speed.

The Rotation is led by bona-fide aces in Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. Behind them Brad Penny will try to replace Joel Pineiro as Dave Duncan’s new pet project. Ryan Franklin will reap the benefits of all the talent in front of him and is likely to top 30 saves pretty easily, assuming he keeps his job all year.


Chicago Cubs

Derrek Lee remains among the game’s most underrated sluggers, though a pullback might be coming, given he’s into his mid-30s. Meanwhile, other high-profile Cubs players simply underperformed last season, for a variety of reasons.

The Cubs biggest off-season addition could be hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo. The former Texas Rangers hitting guru will be reunited with former pupil Alfonso Soriano in hopes of rejuvenating the aging left fielder’s career. Soriano is ripe for at least a small bounceback after seeing his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) drop nearly 30 points from his career total.

In addition to Lee and the potentially improved Soriano, the Cubs will need Aramis Ramirez back at full strength. If healthy, Ramirez is a legit 30-home run threat in the middle of the lineup.

On the pitching side, Carlos Zambrano is nowhere near the ace he used to be. Both Ted Lilly and Ryan Dempster are safer bets. Meanwhile, Carlos Marmol goes into the season as the unquestioned closer. His walk rate remains among the highest of any closer in baseball, though, making him something of a risk.


Cincinnati Reds

Led by elite young hitter Joey Votto, the Reds should put up plenty of runs at the Great American Ballpark, especially if young outfielder Jay Bruce follows with a breakout season of his own. Outside of Bruce and Votto, the Reds offense features a member of the 30/30 club in Brandon Phillips, as well as former All-Star Scott Rolen.

Phillips is a good bet for 20/20, a mark he has hit in each of the past two seasons. Rolen, 35, can still hit, as evidenced by his 2009 OPS of .823 – but he’s also an annual DL candidate.

The rotation, led by Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang, is pretty average across the board. Johnny Cueto has the stuff to stand out, but remains too wild and inefficient with his pitches. The wild card in the Reds rotation is prized off-season acquisition Aroldis Chapman. The Cuban national with a 100-mph fastball is the Reds player you must keep tabs on all season, especially in a shallow league where he may still be available on the waiver wire. He starts the season in the minor leagues.

Milwaukee Brewers

While Pujols and Holliday might be the NL’s top 1-2 punch, the Brewers duo of Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder are not far off. Braun has averaged 34 home runs in his three big league seasons, while Fielder has topped 45 home runs in two of the past three years. There is nothing to suggest anything less from each in 2010. New addition Carlos Gomez should provide fantasy value with his stolen bases, but he’s also an OBP drain who should be batting at the bottom of the order.

Rickie Weeks will return to the top of the order after missing most of last season with a wrist injury. Weeks looked poised to break out in 2009 before the injury, and had an excellent spring showing no ill-effects from the surgery. If he can finally play a full year, he could be primed for a breakout.

Yovani Gallardo is the unquestioned ace of the pitching staff, but he is followed by several question marks. Randy Wolf was signed to be the #2 starter, but buyer beware on Wolf this season. In the bullpen, At age 42, Trevor Hoffman is still going strong, but because of his age, he’s not a sure thing to last the season. One sneaky note about the Brewers: The addition of Gomez in center and slick-fielding Alcides Escobar at short should greatly improve the defense. Teams like Tampa Bay, Seattle and Texas have already shown us how a jump in a team’s defensive skill can go a long way toward improving run prevention – and thus the fantasy stats of a team’s pitchers.


Houston Astros

The Astros spent money this off-season, but on the wrong players. Pedro Feliz was signed to be the team’s third baseman, but he’s a lousy hitter who shouldn’t be rostered. The Astros also spent big bucks on Brandon Lyon and Matt Lindstrom, leaving Houston with two overpriced, undertalented options for the closer spot. Lindstrom gets first crack, but you might consider drafting a top set-up man like Chicago White Sox lefty Matt Thornton a few rounds later, and focusing on offense and starting pitching at that point in your draft.

Lance Berkman is in his contract year, and remains the team’s biggest offensive threat. He’ll start the season on the DL with a knee injury, though. Hunter Pence has 25-home run power and could be a 20/20 threat if improves his stolen base percentage (58% career). Michael Bourn is a budding lead-off man, and is a fantastic source of steals (102 steals since 2008), though he provides little power

The rotation is led by Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez. Oswalt battled injuries last year while Rodriguez was one of the few bright spots for the team in 2009. Both pitchers are likely to benefit from new shortstop Tommy Manzella’s slick fielding. The rest of the rotation looks shaky at best.


Pittsburgh Pirates

Andrew McCutchen is the team’s best offensive weapon after less than one full major league season. McCutchen showed decent power and has an outside chance of pulling off a 20-homer/40-steal campaign. Go get him.

Beyond McCutchen, the Pirates have some interesting former top prospects that have yet to live up to potential, as Lastings Milledge and Jeff Clement finally get chances to prove themselves as everyday players. Last year’s breakout Garrett Jones blasted 21 home runs in 82 games, but can he maintain a home run to fly ball rate of 21% over a full season? It’s a long shot, but you have to love his two homers on Opening Day.

The rotation has a few nice back-end guys like Paul Maholm, Ross Ohlendorf and Zach Duke, but none is a front-line starter. Beware of them in NL-only leagues, as there is a possibility of them becoming trade candidates come July – especially Duke. Octavio Dotel is the team’s closer, but has battled injuries this spring and is a trade candidate for the summer as well. If something should happen with Dotel, keep an eye on Evan Meek as a potential source of cheap saves.

For more on Albert Pujols and the rest of the NL Central, check out Bloomberg Sports’ kits.

Brad Penny: Draft Day Sleeper

By Erik Hahmann

A handful of moves made this off-season could prove very valuable to major league clubs, even if they lack the buzz of signing a Matt Holliday or John Lackey. The Cardinals’ signing of Brad Penny to a one-year contract is one such move.

Looking at Penny’s raw 2009 numbers may make you think I’m out of my mind. Penny’s fantasy stats in Boston were especially awful, as the big right-hander posted a 5.61 ERA in 24 starts. But more advanced metrics show that he pitched much better than that.  Penny posted an unusually high batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .336 with the Red Sox. That figure was 33 points above his career line, leading to more runs scoring as a result of luck, defense and other factors out of his control. His Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), a measure of factors such as strikeout, walk and home run rate that a pitcher can better control, was a much more respectable 4.49 for the Red Sox.

Nevertheless, Penny was cut by Boston and subsequently signed by San Francisco.  The move back to the NL, where Penny had great success over the first nine seasons of his career, proved to be beneficial career move. Away from the much tougher American League East, he posted a 2.59 ERA in 41.2 innings pitched with the Giants. This time, Penny benefited from good luck, posting a microscopic .211 BABIP in San Francisco, and a 4.19 FIP that showed the true performance gap between his stints with the Red Sox and Giants to be much smaller than his 3-runs-lower ERA suggested.

Still, those 41.2 IP are what earned Penny his chance with the Cardinals and pitching coach extraordinaire Dave Duncan. The list of pitchers Duncan has helped turn around while in St. Louis is impressive, with Chris Carpenter and Joel Pineiro the two most prominent recent examples. Duncan teaches his pitchers to throw a sinking fastball, with the goal of generating more outs early in counts and preventing home runs and other extra-base hits. In a recent LA Times article, Pineiro said: “Duncan has all his guys throwing sinkers. He just said, ‘I want you to trust it and throw it.’ ”

Coming into last season, Pineiro hadn’t posted an ERA below 4.33 or an FIP below 4.41 since 2003. A full season in the Duncan Pitching School would change that: Pineiro’s fastball usage, which had been above 60% just one time in his career, jumped to 71% last season, most of them of the sinking variety. That big increase in sinkers resulted in his groundball percentage rocketing to 60.5% – after never topping 47.5% in his pre-St. Louis days.

Other recent reclamation projects of Duncan’s include Todd Wellemeyer and Kyle Lohse. In 2008 Wellemeyer, a fringe swingman and reliever to that point, won 13 games for the Cardinals, posting a 3.71 ERA and a K/BB ratio of better than 2:1. That same season, the newly acquired Lohse, who’d never posted an ERA below 4.18 in his previous seven seasons, enjoyed the best year of his career under Duncan, going 15-6 with a 3.78 ERA. 

Penny owns a better pedigree than Pineiro, Lohse or Wellemeyer; he’s also thrown fastballs at least 70% of the time in five different seasons, which should make for an easier transition to the Duncan system. Penny should benefit from a strong offense behind him this season, led by Matt Holliday and Albert Pujols guy. He also figures to benefit from facing some weak offenses: four of the Cardinals’ five division rivals ranked among the bottom 10 of baseball in runs scored.

Would-be Penny owners have may reason for concern on the defensive front. The Cardinals defense struggled last year, as the team ranked just 18th in MLB in Ultimate Zone Rating, a stat that measures the number of runs a fielder saves on ball hit into and around his assigned area of the field. Still, St. Louis’ team mark of -17.8 (every 10 runs saved equals one win gained in the standings, so -17.8 means the Cardinals’ defense added nearly two losses to the team’s ledger) was scarcely worse than the -16.3 total put up by the Red Sox, Penny’s employer for most of last season. The Cardinals are also optimistic that highly regarded third base prospects David Freese could prove to be a defensive asset as a first-year starter in 2010.  

Penny does have a track record of injuries, with two straight ugly season on his ledger (he posted an abysmal 5.27 FIP with the Dodgers in 2008). Those factors add up to a B-Rank of 361 for this season, with a positional ranking of 137. That ranking sandwiches Penny between Homer Bailey and Brandon McCarthy (shown below using Bloomberg’s Draft Kit feature). 


Penny List.jpg 

Brad Penny should be available near the end of most drafts. If he can click with Dave Duncan the way so many others have over the years, he will be an absolute steal come draft day.

For more information on Brad Penny and hundreds of other players, and for dozens of tools to help you dominate your fantasy league, check out Bloomberg Sports’ fantasy kits.