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Out of Left Field: Thanks for Nothing, Yovani Gallardo, and Other Stories

As far as I know, this is the real last round of the Out of Left Field miniseries, and today we’ll take a look at some of last year’s most disappointing starting pitchers and ask ourselves what they might do this year.

Check out the surprisingly good pitchers, as well as the good and bad surprises at the plate. 

Mark Polishuk wrote up why CC Sabathia is a bounce-back candidate, but what about all these other disappointments? Who’s coming back and who’s toast? 

R.A. Dickey wasn’t easy to predict going into 2013, but he sure was tantalizing. To be fair, I’m pretty sure the Blue Jays were more disappointed than his fantasy owners, but it was close. His strikeout rate dropped, walk rate jumped up, homer rate really jumped, and LOB% fell. It was a bad combination.

It would be easy to say that’s the way the knuckleball bounces, and it’s probably true to an extent. Pitch to pitch, start to start, season to season, it’s tough to know what to expect out of a knuckleballer. The good news (or bad, for your ERA) was that Dickey was able to throw 224.2 IP. It might not be reasonable to take 2013 as Dickey’s floor, and 2012 as his ceiling, but if it was, those innings would tell you that all he has to do is improve a little and be very valuable. Personally, I like to take a chance on guys that show they can pitch a lot of innings because those are the guys who are reliable in real baseball and have the most chance to work out problems. 

Is Dickey a great bounce-back guy for next year? No. I mean, who knows what’s gonna happen with that knuckler? But he’s likely to come at a nice big discount and retain sky-high upside. He’s one to watch and make a cautious bid on.

Matt Cain joined Tim Lincecum in the Disappointment All-Stars of the Giants rotation. (Though we half expected this from Lincecum, hence his absence from this article. Starting now.) But what really happened with Cain? 

Basically, he had a bad April and a bout of wildness in July. Check out his splits. You can also see that a lot of what happened was correlated with the luck-dependent LOB%: he put up a 61% in March/April (terrible) and 53.3% in July (even worse). The rest of the year, he was in the 70-85% range, which is everywhere from normal to good and probably where he’ll be going forward.

But don’t take my word for it (cue the Reading Rainbow theme song), check out these two articles from RotoGraphs, from November and last week.

Yovani Gallardo spent 2009-2012 looking like he was this close to taking the next step into fantasy stardom. I drafted him often in hopes of this, knowing that the downside of stagnancy was a K/9 hovering at around 9.00. That’s a very useful floor.

Well, he did take the next step, right through those floorboards. Confusing analogy? Maybe. More simply: Gallardo lost almost two full strikeouts per nine innings and pretty much all of his fantasy value.

He isn’t old, so maybe this isn’t the beginning of the end…but that is a big, big drop. Unless I hear some good explanation for why Gallardo lost those whiffs last year and why he’s getting them backing 2014, I’m staying a long way away. There are too many good pitchers out there to waste your time on a strikeout pitcher who doesn't strike people out.

Josh Johnson, what happened to you? You used to be so black and white: awesome or on the DL. In some ways, that made you safe: the worst you could do to my teams was to wait quietly on the DL. Then came last year and a 6.20 ERA. 

Johnson obviously struggles with health, and last year he struggled with homers too (1.66 HR/9 in 2013, 0.67 HR/9 in his career). Another red flag is that his strikeout rate dropped for three years in a row from his 2010 peak and 2012. Why they returned in 2013, I have no idea. What I do know, though, is that Johnson gets to go to San Diego to get himself figured out. He’s got talent, a great pitching environment, and a team that won’t be under pressure to toss him out of the rotation if he struggles at first. He’s chancy, but this is a great situation to take a chance on. 

Ian Kennedy is surprisingly consistent. Check out his xFIP numbers from the last four years: 4.10, 3.50, 4.13, 4.19. Now his K/9 in that same time: 7.79, 8.03, 8.08, 8.09. This isn’t a guy who went from great to terrible—this is a guy who’s decent and subject to luck. In 2011 he had very good luck (and the only outlier xFIP). In 2013, he had bad luck—and increased walks.

If he were staying in Arizona, this would be enough reason for me to leave Kennedy alone. But he’s not—in case you missed it because you were ignoring him all year because you dropped him off your fantasy team in frustration—he’s a Padre now. If he outperforms that consistently mediocre xFIP it won’t just be good luck, it’ll be park factor. He’s a great buy low candidate, and you can enjoy his consistent strikeouts too.

Jon Niese gave us two straight years of K/BB’s over 3.00, which planted him firmly on my Safe to Draft list. Yeah…no. In 2013, he posted a 2.19 K/BB, not exactly good or safe. He was pretty awful in the first couple months of the season and spent some time on the DL. I cut bait. Niese turned it around, striking seven more batters out in 66 second-half innings than in 77 first-half frames and—most importantly—allowing less than half as many walks. I’d say Niese’s short-term struggles are behind him and he looks like a solid pitcher for your fantasy rotation next year. 

Edwin Jackson was, like Niese, a relatively safe seeming pitcher, albeit for the back of a fantasy rotation. He’d give you some strikeouts and not hurt you bad in ERA and WHIP when you need some extra innings. But in 2013, his K/9 dropped by a full point (7.97 to 6.93). I can excuse the very bad luck that saw his ERA balloon to 4.98 (with a 3.79 FIP and 3.86 xFIP that were totally in line with his last few seasons), but not those lost whiffs. Plus, the Cubbies aren’t exactly winning him a bunch of ballgames. Jackson is safely waiver bait next year. But, you know, keep an eye on him…. 

Ryan Dempster might be losing his rotation slot, so I’m not going to pretend you should think of him as a quality sleeper. Also, his 4.57 ERA was not out of line with his 4.68 FIP or his 4.21 xFIP, and I’m pretty sure the Red Sox know that too. And they probably know that his 4.15 BB/9 has something to do with it. Dempster still struck out a healthy 8.25 batters per nine innings, but when you walk people like Aroldis Chapman, you should strike them out like him too. At 37, it wouldn’t be a shock at all to see Dempster declining, so don’t get too excited about his very nice 2012 coming back, even if he’s traded or otherwise slotted into the rotation.

Brandon McCarthy gave us two useful enough, low-inning seasons in a row before disappointing in the desert. He’s got great control (1.40 BB/9) and keeps the ball in the park (0.87 HR/9)…so why did he put up a 4.53 ERA? My worry is that he’s too hittable (just 5.07 K/9) for his environment. Maybe put him in a friendly park with a great defense and things would be different, but I don’t see this year working out much better than last year. There isn't enough upside here to offset the downside.

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