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Out of Left Field: Throw Me a Curveball

This week saw two great pitchers elected to the Hall of Fame, my childhood hero Tom Glavine and the inimitable Greg Maddux. Neither election was exactly a surprise. 

The pitchers we’ll encounter in this article, however, were surprises. Pleasant ones, too. What can we expect from them going forward? Let’s take a look, and keep in mind that whatever we think we know now, we’ll probably know more in a month or two. All of these are guys to keep checking in on until draft day. 

Anibal Sanchez was not supposed to be the second-best pitcher on his team, certainly not over Justin Verlander, but that’s exactly what happened. He ratcheted his K/9 up to 9.99 (a career high, and a nice improvement on a strikeout downturn in 2012), but that can’t be the whole story. He put up the best ERA and FIP of his life in a tough environment, and did it with a normal .307 BABIP against and a 78.2 LOB% that wasn’t far from his career average. Nothing here looks like smoke and mirrors.

I’d bid aggressively on Sanchez. The upside is a repeat or near repeat of 2013, and the probable downside is a repeat or near repeat of 2012—still a very good pitcher on a great team. It’s not often you get safety and upside in the same pitcher and don’t have to draft him in the first three rounds. 

Clay Buchholz was never this exciting before, even in 2010. And, well, I’m not that excited still. Yes, his FIP of 2.78 says good things about his 1.74 ERA, but his 3.41 xFIP doesn’t. His 7.98 K/9 is good but not elite, as is his 2.67 K/BB. What was truly elite was his 0.33 HR/9…which doesn’t seem like a repeatable number for anyone. 

Has Buchholz turned a corner? Yes. Will he be a good fantasy pitcher in 2014? Probably. But I don’t expect an ace-level performance. With chronic health concerns, a shiny ERA, and a sky-high Boston profile, he has the indicators of someone who will be overvalued on draft day. Pay for him as your number four starter or not at all. 

Ricky Nolasco was once one of my guys…I just knew his performance would catch up to his peripherals. Then in 2012 his peripherals finally fell to his performance level and I figured it was time to forget about ol’ Ricky.

Unfortunately, it’s still time to forget about ol’ Ricky, because going from pretty horrible to not bad isn’t that exciting, and his new situation isn’t going to do him any favors. Minnesota’s park will help offset the problems of switching leagues and facing DH’s…or it would if Nolasco’s 2013 weren’t already propped up by friendly parks. The Twins aren’t exactly elite hitters, so don’t expect a lot of wins. He’s a back-end fantasy starter at best, but the free press of a new contract is likely to have him higher than that on someone’s draft board. It shouldn’t be yours.

Ubaldo Jimenez is the sort of pitcher I need to be very, very careful with. I mean, just look at all those strikeouts (9.56 K/9). Who cares about those walks (3.94 BB/9), right? Yeah, Jimenez’s control is a red flag, but his resurgence still looks very real. In fact, when you look at his FIP, his strikeout rate, his walk rate, and his HR/9 rate, the only year that looks out of place in his stat line is his awful 2012. I think you can bid with confidence, especially if he lands in a favorable situation. But, don’t expect much in WHIP….

Patrick Corbin is likely to get dismissed as a first-half fluke, which is more or less fair. But not all that accurate. Yes, he declined in August and melted down in September, but he saw his BABIP skyrocket and his LOB% crater. I’m not going to argue that he’s the ace he masqueraded as in the first half, but I’m not writing him off either. He regressed to a pretty good overall mean for the season. With normally distributed luck (and perhaps less fatigue) he’s a good mid-rotation play for any fantasy squad.

Scott Kazmir may not be back from the dead, but his career is. I don’t know what happened or how, but you don’t put up a 9.23 K/9 and 2.68 K/BB by accident. Though his ERA was lousy at 4.04, his 3.51 FIP and 3.36 xFIP suggest he could do better. Oakland is a great place for him to do so, and he’s an excellent mid-round target for early-round fantasy value. 

Jhoulys Chacin wasn’t always a no-strikeouts, low-walks guy, but that’s what he transformed into last year. It made him a better pitcher, but not someone you want to give innings to in a capped format. It’s hard to survive any pitcher with a 5.75 strikeout rate, let alone one who pitches half his games in Coors. Head-to-head leagues are a different story though, especially if you’re savvy about using him on the road. You can expect a nice, low cost too, which is always cool.

Francisco Liriano, it’s good to see you again. It’s hard to believe that it was 2006 when Liriano burst onto the scene, but I guess it has. It’s been a long road of injuries and walks (with a great 2010) since then, but Liriano looks back. The walks got under control, the strikeouts still showed up, and his ERA, FIP, and xFIP were separated by no more than 0.20 points. He looks legit, and I’d totally draft him as my number three pitcher…maybe even number two. No, number three because of this cautionary tale: he was even better in 2010.

Travis Wood is not a person you want to draft next year. His 2013 K/9, BB/9 and BABIP are all pretty much the same as his 2012 numbers, but his ERA improved by a full point. Why? Probably because his HR/9 went from 1.44 to 0.81. That’s probably also why his FIP improved dramatically (but to a still-bad-for-fantasy 3.89) but his xFIP barely twitched, going from 4.62 to 4.50. Long story short, it took a lot of luck for Wood to be fantasy relevant last year, and it’ll take a lot of luck for him to do it again. 

Well, I’m out of space and time for surprise pitchers, so I guess you’ll just have to tune in next time for the final installment of Out of Left Field, in which I assess the pitching world’s 2013 disappointments. How could you miss a party that fun?

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