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How to Win: WHIP

It's time to WHIP your roster into shape. Let's WHIP up a great pitching staff. Who's the majority WHIP of your fantasy team? And as many other cliched puns on WHIP as you can think of. Now that we've gotten that out of our systems, we can all agree never to speak of this again.

Another thing we can agree on is this: WHIP is a great category. After all the team- and luck-dependencies of Runs Scored and ERA, WHIP should come as a breath of fresh air. It's not that there isn't any luck that goes into the process--there certainly is--but there isn't nearly as much of it. WHIP tells us a lot about a pitcher's true talent level, which is nice--we can trust it. The only downside is that everyone else can trust it and the opportunity to game this system is a lot less than it could be. The good news, though, is that we get to list 24 pitchers below, precisely because we can expect most of them to be among the league leaders. To give you a little extra edge, the minimum IP for these guys is just 120, so maybe some of them will have slipped through the cracks of your opponents' preparation. 

 2012's Top 24

1. Kris Medlen                       0.91
2. Jered Weaver                   1.02
2. Clayton Kershaw             1.02
4. Matt Cain                            1.04
5. R.A. Dickey                        1.05
6. Justin Verlander              1.06
7. Kyle Lohse                          1.09
8. Jake Peavy                          1.10
8. David Price                          1.10
10. Madison Bumgarner     1.11
10. Cliff Lee                              1.11
10. Brandon Morrow           1.11
13. Cole Hamels                     1.12
14. Gio Gonzalez                    1.13
15. Chris Sale                          1.14
15. CC Sabathia                      1.14
15. Marco Estrada                1.14
15. Felix Hernandez            1.14
19. Mike Minor                      1.15
19. Stephen Strasburg         1.15
21. Mat Latos                         1.16
22. Hiroki Kuroda               1.17
22. James Shields                1.17
22. Jordan Zimmermann 1.17
22. Johnny Cueto                1.17
22. Mark Buehrle                 1.17
22. Jon Niese                        1.17 

Did you notice the freebies? Thanks to the miracle of rounding, a six-way tie brought us to 27 names. Lucky us. By the way, when I searched for pitchers who threw at least 120 innings, I got 121 entries. The worst WHIP belonged to Ricky Romero--an ugly 1.67. More usefully, perhaps, the median number is 1.27 and is shared by many; the 2012 average was 1.31. Interestingly, as recently as 2009, the league average was 1.39. So don't be too impressed with WHIP's in the 20's. Baseball isn't the same game as it was half a decade ago, and you get to have higher expectations from your pitchers.

WHIP comes from two places, obviously enough: walks allowed and hits allowed. A pitcher with a consistently low WHIP probably keeps both of them pretty far down, most of the time. That said, one is much easier to control than another, and it is, you guessed it, that walk rate. Who's keeping their walks down? Let's see:

BB/9 

1. Cliff Lee                                1.19

2. Bartolo Colon                      1.36

3. Blake Beavan                       1.42

4. Kris Medlen                         1.50

5. Bronson Arroyo                  1.56

6. Joe Blanton                         1.60

7. Scott Diamond                    1.61

8. Kyle Lohse                           1.62

9. Tommy Milone                   1.71

9. Wade Miley                         1.71

10. Clayton Richard              1.73

11. Mark Buehrle                    1.78

12. Tommy Hunter                1.82

13. Marco Estrada                 1.89

14. Dan Haren                       1.94

15. Jordan Zimmermann    1.98

15. CC Sabathia                      1.98

Of these pitchers (all those under the arbitrary milestone of 2.00/9 with at least 120 IP), most had helpful WHIP's. Some had very helpful numbers. A couple were...not so helpful: Beavan, Blanton, and Richard were barely better than average (for their inning count), while Milone and Haren were both worse than average. For Haren, it seems to be related to his injury issues last year. For Blanton, it seems to be that he's chronically too hittable. The others could have had similar issues, or they just could have gotten a few bad bounces on balls in play.

A couple more names stand out to me on this list: check out Zimmermann and Sabathia riding the end of it. Right now, they are the 23rd and 20th starters off the board at MockDraftCentral, giving both triple-digit ADP's. Keeping their walks down and pitching in front of powerful offenses seems like a recipe for more success than they're being given credit for. 

Miley's presence here is also interesting. When I see a young starter have surprising Big League success, I'm usually a little hesitant. Usually someone like that has great stuff, no idea how to harness it, and the league will figure him out by his second season. A good red flag for a guy like that is, of course, his walk rate. Miley's kind of the opposite, and that makes him interesting. Especially for this category.

I'd also like to use this opportunity to plug Marco Estrada. Again. Look how good he is! 

 Good WHIP, Lousy ERA

If WHIP and ERA are siblings, WHIP is the quiet, studious one and ERA is the high-drama, high-energy one. Guess which one gets more attention? Guess which one we'll vote Most Likely to Succeed in the end? A pitcher with a great ERA will never fly under the radar. Even Joe Morgan will notice. Someone with a good or great WHIP, but a mediocre or lousy ERA might just escape some notice. Not only that, but just about anyone is more likely to underperform their true talent in ERA than overperform it in WHIP. Peavy, Bumgarner, Sabathia, and Estrada all had top-20 WHIP's, but ERA's in the 3.30's. Mike Minor was right there with them in WHIP, but sported a 4.16 ERA.

Some more pitchers on the WHIP leaderboard but closer to the middle of the pack in ERA include: Latos, Kuroda, Shields, Buehrle, Niese, Jason Vargas, Miley, Doug Fister, Zack Greinke, Ryan Dempster, and Travis Wood.

After Wood, we start getting past WHIP's of 1.20 and into the territory where both numbers are in the middle of the pack. To make a real mark in team WHIP, a pitcher has to be very good indeed, because the median is so low.

A Few Final Words 

The best thing you can do for your team WHIP is to be aggressive when you bid or draft. Jump an extra dollar or an extra round on one of those pitchers with a helpful WHIP, even if they came with a marginal ERA last year. The band of successful pitchers in this category is pretty small. As pitching has gotten better in the last couple years, so have the numbers required to win your fantasy league. Because WHIP is so (relatively) predictable, I suggest aiming high and getting multiple good-to-great WHIP starters, and peppering your staff with relievers who get saves or strikeouts and--quietly--don't walk anyone. 


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