Since its inception, the mantra of Mastersball has been ‘bully hitting and manage pitching’. Those who have been with MB a long time will surely remember Todd Zola and Jason Grey giving such advice to many a forum poster and practicing what they preached in their expert leagues. Spend a lot on offense and throw enough pitching against the wall and some is bound to stick.
This was – and still is – a winning strategy but took some patience and some intestinal fortitude to put into practice. The nature of the pitching that you could pick up and stream in was such that quite often you were reaching for the agita relief afterwards.
Things are a bit different this year, however. So far the 2011 baseball season is being referred to as the year of the pitcher in many fantasy circles. Up to now, hitting (particularly power) is down and pitching is up. There is a plethora of useful pitchers available even in deep leagues, so much so that the bottom of fantasy staffs isn’t nearly the black hole it was in years past.
While there is some good depth in the starting pitching ranks, it’s always nice, and many fantasy players try, to snag one of the top hurlers to anchor their staff. Hence, players like Tim Lincecum, Cliff Lee, and Clayton Kershaw are coveted and highly sought after on draft day. But have they proven to be the most valuable as the season is playing out? In short, no.
The top of the pitching mountain sees two representatives each from the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies. Obviously, not the aforementioned Lincecum or Kershaw; nor Lee. In order, they are Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson, Cole Hamels, and Roy Halladay. How have each done and how will they fare for the rest of the year?
Jair Jurrjens has eight victories to show in 13 starts to go along with a 1.14 WHIP and 2.11 ERA. This sets up Jurrjens for an 18 win season. There are other good numbers to go along with these. Jair has lowered his HR/9 by better than 50% and his HR/FB and BB/9 by just under 50%. BABIP has alternated from .300 to about .270 each year and this year is at the low range while the strand rate has jumped 12%. Jurrjens has lowered his fly-ball rate by better than seven percent while his ground-ball rate has increased by nearly four percent.
But there are a few blemishes to go along with the good. Most glaring is the strikeout rate, which was never that good, has plummeted to 5.35 – the lowest since he joined the Braves. While ground-ball and fly-ball rates have gone in the right direction, line-drives have increased by four and one-half percent. Hitters are swinging at almost two percent less of his offerings while making contact almost four percent more. Combine that with a fastball that is 1.7 miles slower than last year and under 90 MPH for the first time in the big leagues, and I believe Jurrjens is prime for a correction upward in both WHIP and ERA – especially if his historically low BB/9 heads back to his norm which is north of 3.10.
The next pitcher on the list, Tommy Hanson, has won eight of 14 starts in 2011. He has posted a 1.03 WHIP and 2.48 ERA in garnering those victories. Helping him to that low ERA is a good homerun rate of 0.65 which is in line with his major league mark and a strand rate that has jumped about seven percent over 2010 but still within line with 2009. An increase in ground-ball rate along with a decrease in fly-ball rate has offset a two percent increase in HR/FB. Tommy has a BABIP under .300 every year as a professional so while that could be his baseline this year’s .240 is 35 points lower than 2009’s level.
2011 has seen Hanson’s bases on balls increase to 2009’s level (3.24/9) while at the same time his strikeout rate has increased significantly and now sits at 9.61/9. The previous two years were 8.18 and 7.68 in 2009 and 2010, respectively. While his fastball velocity has dropped a tad, it is still sitting above 91 MPH. Hitters are swinging at fewer of Hanson’s offerings and contacting even fewer year over year. He will be scratched from his next start but due to the ability to get strikeouts at new levels, I envision Hanson maintaining strong production throughout the year if he can stay healthy. In fact, Hanson is now on the DL.
Cole Hamels has made 15 starts on the season and has been victorious in nine of them with only two losses and seems a lock to surpass his career high 15 wins in 2007. A WHIP of 0.93 leads the National League and a 2.51 ERA is right near the top. Cole’s strikeout rate is nearly the same as last year but has dipped just under 9.0/9 while he has improved bases on balls by just under one walk per nine innings. The 27 year old is sporting a .260 BABIP – an improvement three years in row – and when hitters do manage to get on base they are left there three quarters of the time. A reduction in Cole’s homerun rate by 58% has also gone a long way in supporting his ERA.
Hamels has reduced the number of line drives allowed four years in a row and, at the same time, increased the number of ground balls allowed. The first big change in these rates occurred in the 2010 season and that corresponds with the introduction of a cut fastball into his arsenal. With the success Cole had with this pitch last year, he has increased his use of it in 2011. Since 2009 his fastball use has decreased from 59 to 47 percent while the cutter has gone from zero to 22 percent. The velocity on his fastball has increased almost two miles since he first started using the cutter and now sits squarely at 92 MPH with his cutter coming in at 89 MPH. This pitch has been part of the resurgence of Hamels since a disappointing 2009 season and should enable Cole to stay on the path to becoming recognized as one of the game’s top aces.
The undisputed ace of the Philadelphia Phillies staff entering 2011 was Roy Halladay and he hasn’t disappointed winning nine of 15 starts with only three losses and four complete games. A solid 1.04 WHIP and 2.51 ERA rounds out the surface numbers. Underneath, we see an increase in strikeouts per nine from 7.86 to 9.07 year-over-year. Match that with just over one walk and one-half homerun per nine innings and you have the makings of another ho-hum Roy Halladay season – the kind that every pitcher wishes they could have. Even BABIP and strand rate are boringly consistent with past seasons. Line drives are down a few percentage points while ground balls and fly balls – particularly those on the infield – are up. Additionally, HR/FB has been cut by more than one-third.
The 34 year old is in his prime and showing no sign of letting up. His fastball velocity is still right at 92 miles per hour and a cut fastball, his primary pitch, is at 91 MPH like the past couple years. All his secondary pitches have been consistent in their speed as well. It all adds up to another typical Roy Halladay season and there is no reason to believe it will end differently.
The Philadelphia Phillies are the leaders in the National League East followed by the Atlanta Braves. Each team has gotten where they are largely due to the strength of their pitching. The four aces in this deck have a lot to do with who is holding the winning hand.