By Eno Sarris //
The story on Ted Lilly has been fairly consistent over his career: fly-ball control-type pitcher with a great curveball, a decent slider, and a placeholder fastball. That sort of pitcher often is flawed but useful. Usually pitchers like Lilly will have poor home-run rates, but while they keep baserunners to a minimum, they can also usually be helpful at the back end of a fantasy rotation. Vanilla ice cream has its’ place.
But with Ted Lilly in his 35th year on this planet, it’s fair to ask when this run of usefullnes will end. Right now, he’s showing the worst strikeout rate (5.89 K/) and fastball velocity (86.4 MPH) of his career. Even paired with a great home park as he is – Dodger Stadium can help some of his flyballs die on the warning track – no WHIP is low enough to play a pitcher with a mid-fours ERA.
The bad news first. Lilly is not likely to recover his career strikeout rate (7.67 K/9). His swinging strike rate has steadily been dropping along with his fastball velocity, down from double digits earlier in his career to 7.9% this year. Since 8.5% is average in that category, he’s now getting whiffs on fewer of his offerings than the average pitcher. And while this is a small sample, swinging strike rate is a per-pitch metric. That means it’s much closer to reliable than metrics that are based on the outcome of a single plate appearance.
Then comes the worse news. If he’s not getting whiffs on those curveballs and sliders like he used to, then those pitches will be put in play. If those balls are being put in play, they are most likely going to be fly balls given his historical fly ball rate (34%, and 44% is average across the league). And, going back to beginning of last year, the Dodgers have the worst outfield defense in the major leagues. Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, and the cobbled-together left field group in Los Angeles have put together a -12.4 UZR/150 (a zone-based defensive metric), and even the second-worst Braves outfield is significantly better (-8.2 UZR/150).
We can’t look to his batting average on balls in play for much regression, then. Currently sitting at .326, it should move some, but BABIP is related to defense as well. The Dodgers are only turning 70.2% of their balls in play into outs, fourth-worst in the major leagues. We can’t expect Lilly’s BABIP to move towards his .273 career BABIP if his outfield is the worst in the majors and his entire defense is fourth-worst.
Lilly is still showing his trademarked control. Since he’s moved to the National League, even his worst walk rate has been significantly better than the national average (2.81 BB/9 in 2008, average is usually around 3.4). That 2.3 BB/9 since moving to the weaker league has helped him put up a 1.14 WHIP.
But as his fastball gets slower, and his offspeed pitches get fewer whiffs, his margin of error decreases. Once those balls are put into play, we know the defense behind him won’t help him much. Even spot-starting Ted Lilly at home is becoming an increasingly risky decision. Certainly avoid him on the road for now and don’t consider him much of a buy-low.
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- The ability to retire batters via strikeouts
- The ability to limit base-runners by avoiding the issuance of walks
- The ability to limit home runs by keeping the ball on the ground
Pitchers who do a good job at these three things are commonly assumed to be very skilled. Pitchers who do these things well but don’t have a superb ERA to match are seen as unlucky.
- Pitchers with elite ground-ball skills (above 47 GB%) including stars like Felix Hernandez and Chris Carpenter and lesser ones like Paul Maholm and Aaron Cook.
- Pitchers with above-average ground-ball skills (about 44.5%-47%) including stars like Tim Lincecum and CC Sabathia and lesser ones like Joe Saunders and Jeff Suppan.
- Pitchers with below-average ground-ball skills (about 40.5%-44.5%) including stars like Jake Peavy and Cole Hamels and lesser ones like Kevin Millwood and Kyle Lohse
- Pitchers with terrible ground-ball skills (below 40.5%) including stars like Jered Weaver and Matt Cain and lesser ones like Jarrod Washburn and Oliver Perez.
Now, let’s look at each of the categories.
by Eno Sarris //
Pitchers get injured. We all know this, and Adam Wainwright serves as a fresh reminder. Still, you might be surprised to learn that the average starting pitcher is 39.1% likely to hit the disabled list? Yes, two out of five starting pitchers will hit the DL this year, and for an average of 66 days. Let that sink in.
So we know that all pitchers are fairly likely to be injured, and that helps us avoid spending too heavily on pitching early in our draft. But once a pitcher is tabbed as an injury risk and falls in drafts, he could become a value. Hey, if all pitchers are 39% likely to hit the DL, how much worse could an injury risk be?
With that in mind, I used the Bloomberg Sports Front Office Tool to make a list. Using “Negative Durability” as a factor, I sorted injury-risk pitchers by their B-Rank for the next year. What follows are the Top 10 Injury-Risk Starters for the upcoming season. Click here to see the full list.
B-Rank / Pitcher
152 Shaun Marcum
177 Ricky Nolasco
440 Josh Beckett
670 Anibal Sanchez
748 Edinson Volquez
752 Dallas Braden
777 Brett Myers
803 Kevin Slowey
814 Jake Peavy
840 Jordan Zimmermann
Obviously, all the entrants on this list are not created equal. Shaun Marcum has averaged 169 innings over the last three seasons, Ricky Nolasco 185 and Josh Beckett 171. They may be less durable than your average pitcher, but they are more durable than the rest of this list – and that’s probably why they rose to the top. All three are projected for around 170 innings this year, and all three are generally regarded as sleepers later in your draft.
Another type of pitcher that shows up on this list are the Tommy John returners, Edinson Volquez and Jordan Zimmermann. B-Rank is skeptical about their innings totals – it projects them both for just short of 140 innings – but thinks they might be useful enough at the back end of a rotation, with ERAs around four and WHIPs around 1.3. Both have the upside to better those numbers based on their best outputs to date, but they’re also coming off major injury. Wait a little bit longer for these guys, but if you need a home run pick late, they might be for you.
Maybe the least interesting group on the list consists of injury-ridden pitchers that with less upside. Brett Myers (161 three-year IP average), Dallas Braden (152) and Kevin Slowey (136) have all averaged fewer innings than the healthier group, and don’t have the upside of the TJ survivors.
And then there’s Jake Peavy. Projected for 123 innings after averaging 128 over the last three years, he might belong in the high-upside group if you believe he can approximate his early-career work in the American League. If you believe he was more a PetCo mirage that benefited from the environs of the NL West, you’ll probably stay away. The nice thing is, he’ll be cheap if you do deign to pick him up.
And there you have your list of injury-risk starters for 2011. Naturally, they should go after the more durable at their position. But they might also provide some nice value for their cost.
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