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How to Win: Strikeouts

Last Week on How to Win, I discussed a category in which I did particularly well last year: Stolen Bases. We'll do the same this week, with Strikeouts, before we go on to the categories in which I need to improve as much as anyone else: all the others.

Quick Overview
I love me some strikeouts. Last year, my fifth place Silver League team ran away with this category (so yeah, my other categories had some rough times). Part of that might have been amassing enough innings to eclipse our 1500 max a little early (and that after dumping every starter but David Price at some point in September), but that wasn't the whole story. Volume is half the story, though, the rest comes in the rate. Below we'll examine both halves of a winning strategy--and how going overboard isn't necessarily great for your ERA and WHIP.

2012's Top 24

1. Justin Verlander               239
2. Max Scherzer                     231
3. R.A. Dickey                         230
4. Clayton Kershaw               229
5. Felix Hernandez                223
5. James Shields                     223 
7. Yu Darvish                           221
8. Cole Hamels                        216
9. Gio Gonzalez                        207 
9. Cliff Lee                                 207
11. David Price                         205
12. Yovani Gallardo                204
13. Zack Greinke                      200
14. CC Sabathia                        197
14. Stephen Strasburg            197
16. Jake Peavy                           194
17. Matt Cain                            193
18. Chris Sale                            192
19. Madison Bumgarner        191
20. Tim Lincecum                    190
21. Ian Kennedy                       187
22. Mat Latos                            185
23. Adam Wainwright            184
24. A.J. Burnett                        180
24. Lance Lynn                        180
24. Jeff Samardzija                 180 

Most of baseball's best pitchers show up on this list and it's easy to say that the best way to help yourself in strikeouts is to get at least two of these guys. That's what I was trying to do when I drafted Price and Dan Haren. The only reason it worked out, of course, is because I soon flipped Haren for Scherzer, among others. So there was a bit of good luck. None of the rest of these guys made it onto my team, though, leaving me with a need fore a little more creativity.

High K/9 Pitchers
Not every pitcher on the list above put up huge K/9 numbers, but all had good ones--in fact, only Peavy, Cain, and Latos were under 8 K/9 and all three sat in the 7.90's. Of course, not every pitcher with a high strikeout rate pitches enough to make it onto this leaderboard. Getting those guys (and hopefully for longer stints in 2013) is a great way to patch up a fantasy rotation with a bunch of strikeouts. The way I figure, is that if I have to have some non-aces on my team, they better be handy with the whiffs. Here are a few pitchers who missed the cut when it came to innings last year but might still pad your K's next year. Everyone below pitched at least 100 innings last year and struck out at least eight batters per nine IP.

Francisco Liriano        9.59
Mike Fiers                      9.52
Felix Doubront             9.34
Marco Estrada              9.30
J.A. Happ                       8.96
Matt Moore                    8.88
Bud Norris                      8.82
Carlos Villanueva         8.76
Jason Hammel             8.62
Edinson Volquez          8.57
Jake Arrieta                   8.56
Johan Santana             8.54
Erik Bedard                    8.45
Matt Garza                     8.33
Tommy Hanson           8.30
Ivan Nova                      8.08 

As you can see, results and potential fantasy value vary wildly on this list, from the misery that was Francisco Liriano, to the health-restricted performences of Santana, Hammel, and Garza, and to the late callups of Fiers and Estrada. There are a lot of ways to get a lot of strikeouts when you're pitching, without making it to the leaderboard. (To be fair, Moore and Volquez literally just missed the cut.) It might be worth noting that my own team featured Estrada, Doubront, and Villanueva from among this group.

Not only are these players interesting draft targets (from a strikeout perspective anyway, your ERA and WHIP stats certainly cringe at some of them), you can utilize 2013's versions of them, whoever they might end up being. Of course, several of these were mid-season surprises, so there's no real knowing which injury replacements might come up and help your fantasy team as much as their real team. Here's a couple fairly drowsy sleepers, though: Chris Narveson and Scott Baker. The Brewers and Cubs are both linked to more than one name on this list, which tells me how they feel about pitchers who can get strikeouts, and both Narveson and Baker have generated their share of whiffs during their oft-interrupted stays in the Majors. Don't forget about stashable pitchers coming back from injury part way through the season, like Brandon Beachy, Cory Luebke, and Danny Duffy.

High IP 
There's another route you can go, though, and this one's group of pitchers is somewhat less volatile than the group above. Finding pitchers who pitch a lot, whether they have high strikeout rates or not, can let you rack up strikeouts in bulk. This option is much better for those in head-to-head leagues, however, since heaping on the innings can hurt you badly when you start facing the IP cap. The nice thing, though, is that pitchers that teams entrust with tall innings counts year after year are usually a bit better than average, and (seemingly) much healthier--though obvious exceptions will apply. Here are the last three years' top innings eaters not found on the previous lists. All have pitched at least 600 innings since 2010.

Dan Haren                    650
Jared Weaver                648.2
Roy Halladay                640.2
C.J. Wilson                   629.2
Ervin Santana               629.1
Tim Hudson                  622.2
Hiroki Kuroda              618
Mark Buehrle                618
Bronson Arroyo            616.2
Ricky Romero               616
Jason Vargas               611
Jon Lester                     605
Trevor Cahill                604.1
Justin Masterson        602.1

Some of these guys fell off the list above--and out of fantasy's most valuable pitchers--last year through injuries, like Halladay, or a mysterious plunge in K/9 rate, like Weaver. Others, though, just don't generate that many strikeouts in a per inning basis. They can all be pencilled in for 200 IP, though, which means that they'll be of some help in those strikeouts.

It also seems worth noting that Edwin Jackson just missed being part of this group, with 598.2 IP, and he just missed the High K/9 group, with a 7.97 mark. To me, that makes him a really useful asset.

 
Relievers
Relief pitchers are a great way to pad your strikeout totals if you're worried about an innings limit. They get a lot more bang for their buck with their high rates than all but the best starters. Though they don't add a huge amount in raw total, using two or three in concert can be a sort of cobbled-together ace, Frankenstein-style. Of course, they eat up more roster spots than starters and tend to make small (or catastrophic) impacts on your rate stats without helping much at all in wins or, unless they're actual closers, saves. Since everybody's going to be snatching up closers, good or not, we'll only look at relievers not projected to close in 2013, regardless of what they used to do.

Antonio Bastardo        14.02
Ernesto Frieri               13.36 
Jim Henderson            13.21
David Hernandez        12.91
Steve Delabar                12.55
David Robertson          12.02
Tim Collins                    12.01
Jake McGee                   11.87
Jake Diekman              11.52
Jeremy Horst                11.49
Louis Coleman             11.47
Alex Hinshaw              11.44
Sean Doolittle               11.41
Andrew Miller              11.48
Joel Peralta                   11.38
Jesse Crain                    11.35
Alberto Cabrera            11.22
Wade Davis                   11.13

I made 11.13 the cutoff point, since that was Stephen Strasburg's mark last year--the best of any starter. The list goes on and on, though. Anyone on this list--or among the next large number of names with even a hint of the occasional save bears watching. Those at the very top of the list might deserve drafting even if they end up with no saves or wins at all.

(I don't know if Frieri or Ryan Madson will be closing for the Halos, so I'll include him here just in case.)

A Few Last Words
There are a lot of ways to go about succeeding in the strikeout category. One nice thing, is that, like steals, whiffs seem often to be available on the waiver wire. There are a number of less-than-excellent pitchers who rack up strikeouts and they can help your team if used right. Plus, real teams are always excited to call up a hard-throwing prospect and they can light up the real and fantasy baseball worlds long enough to help your team, even if they end up fizzling out. I do recommend a staff ace (actually, I try for two) who strikes people out in a big way. Think of Stephen Strasburg as a power/speed threat but for pitchers. If you play in a league with an IP cap, I'd avoid the innings-eaters altogether. If you don't, however--and especially if your league has barriers against streaming--I'd grab several. Strikeouts come from all kinds of places, and mixing several sources is always a good way to go. 




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