The Texas Rangers have put the vise grips on the ALCS, going up 3-1 in the series by beating the New York Yankees 10-3 in Game 4 on Tuesday night. The turning point came on Bengie Molina’s three-run home run in the sixth inning, turning a one-run deficit into a two-run lead.
In the year of the pitcher — and the playoffs of the pitcher — the A.J. Burnett–Tommy Hunter matchup looked seriously out of place. It lived up to that billing, with Hunter getting through just 3.1 innings, and Burnett struggling through six innings. Burnett was in and out of trouble, with the same problems that have plagued him all year: three walks (one intentional) and a hit batter, a wild pitch and a stolen base allowed.
Still, it looked like Burnett might give the Yankees six innings of two-run ball. With Nelson Cruz on first base and one out in the sixth inning, Ian Kinsler flied out to center field. Cruz, with the base-running aggressiveness Texas has shown throughout the playoffs, tagged up and went to second base.
With two outs and first base open, Yankees manager Joe Girardi elected to intentionally walk the lefty David Murphy with Molina on deck. Putting an extra man on with the lead in the sixth is an unorthodox move, and it didn’t work. Molina hit the first pitch, an up-and-in fastball, down the left-field line for a three-run homer. Before that, the Rangers had a 33.7 percent chance of winning. After the Molina homer, it went up to 73.3 percent. The swing of almost 40 percent was easily the biggest in the game.
This graphic shows the locations of the pitches that Bengie Molina has hit for home runs over the past two seasons. The one in bold is the pitch from A.J. Burnett on Tuesday night.
Up-and-in pitches can sometimes handcuff a batter, but over the past two years Molina has had no problems with them. Many of his home runs have come on pitches in this location. In the graph to the right, you can see the locations of the pitches he has hit for a HR, with the one against Burnett marked. The graph is from the catcher’s perspective.
The second-largest win percentage shift happened in the top of the fifth when the Rangers’ Mitch Moreland hit into a double play. Molina had just hit a single, so Texas had one on with no outs while down by just one run. The Molina hit translated into a 42 percent win percentage for Texas, but when Moreland hit into the double play, that fell to just 31.3 percent.
The third-largest win percentage came in the bottom of the second inning on Robinson Cano’s controversial home run. That play took the Yankees’ win percentage from 52.9 percent to 63.1 percent. At the time, Burnett was cruising; he had struck out three of the first six batters with no signs of the command issues he would show later in the night. It was the first time the Yankees had struck first in the series, and with what looked like a solid Burnett on the mound versus a shaky Hunter — two batters later Lance Berkman almost hit another solo HR — the Yankees must have felt like they had a better than 63 percent shot at the game.
But that is not how it played out. Now the Yankees will need three straight wins against the Rangers. It’s not where they wanted to be, but the Yankees are set up with their best three starters all on normal rest.
In the American League playoffs, all four teams have a lefty as their ace — CC Sabathia, Francisco Liriano, Cliff Lee and David Price — and using Pitch f/x, we can isolate data on one pitch that makes these southpaws so successful. Let’s start with Sabathia, who is relying on a new weapon this year.
This year, Sabathia posted his lowest strikeout rate (7.46) and highest walk rate (2.80) since 2005. Those are still good numbers, but not the great levels he posted from 2006 to 2009. Sabathia has made up for it, though, by posting a 50.7 percent ground ball rate, the best of his career.
Sabathia’s Pitch f/x numbers can actually give us some insight into this change. Between 2007 and 2009 (the years covered by the Pitch f/x data), he threw his sinker just 9 percent of the time, but in 2010 he threw it more than 17 percent of the time. This came mostly at the expense of his four-seam fastball, which gets more strikeouts but fewer ground balls than the two-seam variety.
Here are the locations of all of Sabathia’s sinkers put in play coded for either grounder or non-grounder.
Against right-handed hitters, when the pitch is either low or away, it gets a high number of grounders. When he leaves it up and in or in the heart of the plate, righties can get the pitch in the air. Against lefties it is much tougher, and almost all balls in play off the sinker were grounders.
Liriano has recaptured his pre-Tommy John magic and is pitching like it’s 2006 again. His 3.07 xFIP is the best in the American League, and nearly equal to Roy Halladay’s MLB-best 2.99 mark. Along with Jon Lester, he is the only starting pitcher to strike out more than a batter per inning while also getting more than 50 percent of their balls in play on the ground — the holy grail of strikeouts and grounders.
A huge key has been his amazing slider, which he is throwing more this year (34 percent of the time). Correspondingly, his fastball percentage has dropped; it is now below 50 percent, putting him in the bottom 10 among starting pitchers in fastball frequency. Sliders are typically thrown more often to same-handed batters, but Liriano’s is so good he can still throw it against right-handed hitters 30 percent of the time. When he does throw it, he gets an extraordinary 22 percent swinging strike rate, compared to just 11 percent for the average lefty’s slider to a righty. Here is how Liriano’s slider’s swinging strike rate varies by the pitch’s horizontal location compared to the average; shaded regions are standard errors of the estimate.
He can really handcuff righties with inside sliders. The amazing thing is that Liriano throws the pitch 65 percent of the time with two strikes, so even though it’s a predictable pitch in certain situations, hitters still can’t touch it.
Price throws a ton of fastballs. His reliance on the pitch — throwing it 74 percent of the time — is second only to Justin Masterson’s 78 percent among qualified starters. How can Price get away with throwing his fastball so often? Because it averages 94.5 mph; only Ubaldo Jimenez, Justin Verlander and Josh Johnson throw harder fastballs. As we all know, there is typically a positive relationship between fastball velocity and fastball success.
Below is a two-paneled graph that shows a comparison of the velocity of Price’s fastballs to league average, and second, the average number of swinging strikes per pitch on fastballs based on their speed for Price and for all fastballs.
Price throws his fastball nearly 5 mph faster than average — and he rarely throws a fastball slower than about 90 mph, roughly the league-average fastball speed. Looking below this, you can see that Price’s success is above and beyond the speed on his fastball. Even though he throws his fastball very often, batters have a hard time making contact with it, even compared with fastballs of the same speed. There may be something deceptive about his delivery or life on the pitch that makes it harder to pick up coming out of his hand.
Lee has been throwing his fastball less often in recent years — as he throws his cutter more often — but it is still his best pitch. By FanGraphs’ pitch valuation system, it was the second-best fastball in the game, and over the past three years has been far and away the best.
This value comes from Lee’s amazing ability to command his fastball. His pitches are in the zone more often than anyone else’s, and he starts at-bats with a strike 70 percent of the time, again tops in the league. Here is a plot that shows the density of his fastballs in two inch by two inch squares, with darker color indicating more pitches in that area.
Lee is able to get his fastball in the strike zone frequently. There is remarkably little spillover out of the zone. Beyond that, he also does a good job keeping his pitches on the outer half of the plate. The result of that per-pitch command is Lee’s 0.79 walk rate. The last starter to post a BB/9 below one over a whole year was Carlos Silva in 2005; that year Silva had a 3.39 K/9, this year Lee has a 7.76. Lee combines his historically low walk rate with a respectable strikeout rate, and the result is dominance.
Last time FanGraphs checked in on David Ortiz on TMI RJ Anderson noted that Ortiz was in the midst of a horrible April: Ortiz hit just one HR and had a dreadful 0.232 wOBA. RJ noted that during April 2010 and Ortiz’s poor 2009, Ortiz was having trouble contacting on inside pitches and consequently was not generating as much power to right field, where as a typical pull-hitter Ortiz generates much of his power.
Since then Ortiz has been great, hitting 16 HRs since the calendar flipped to May and posting a wOBA of 0.439. It looks like he has returned to his better 2007-esque numbers. How has he done that? To investigate the change it’s best to compare his numbers this year to his disappointing 2009.
First thing to note is the rate at which he makes contact with pitches that he swings at based on their horizontal position (where they cross the plate).
You can see that compared to 2009 Ortiz is making more contact with inside pitches. He is making contact less on outside pitches and his overall contact numbers are down this year — leading to his very high strikeout rate; over 30 percent — but it also looks like he is making contact with the right pitches.
Here is a diagram which shows where Ortiz hit his non-grounders in 2009 and again in 2010. The numbers in each region are the fraction of non-grounders to that region (the first region is the infield and each ring after that 100 feet from the pervious). The color of the region is Ortiz’s slugging rate on non-ground balls hit to that region, with gray denoting zero all the way up to red, which is a rate over two.
You can see that he has nearly twice the fraction of hits to deep right (right field is the pull field for the left-handed Ortiz). Those balls in play turn into HRs and extra-base hits more than any others and show why Ortiz is doing so much better now than in 2009. Most likely, a fair number of those long balls to right are from contact on inside pitches. In addition, you can see that he has slightly few infield pop-ups (the first region) and many fewer balls in play just beyond the infield. These balls in play are most likely to be outs or just bloop singles.
So it looks like Ortiz has turned it around so far this year by doing a better job of making contact with inside pitches — even if overall he is making
Stephen Strasburg’s first start Tuesday exceeded all expectations, especially in terms of dominance: He racked up 14 strikeouts without a walk, throwing just 94 pitches over seven innings. That electrifying stuff (displayed with 17 swinging strikes) combined with pinpoint command is what makes the 21-year-old so extraordinary. For Strasburg, everything builds off his high-90s fastball; he throws both a four-seamer and a two-seamer, which he blew past batters Tuesday for eight of his swinging strikes. And his secondary pitches are great as well. He has a high-80s circle change that he locates low in the zone, and a low-80s, knee-bending curve.
On Tuesday, he had everything working. Using the pitch f/x data, and focusing on the location, pitch type and results broken up by batter handedness, let’s take a closer look at just what kind of craziness the Pirates were trying to hit.
In the graphs below, the pitches are color-coded: Taken pitches are faded, and those that are swung at are in full color. Whiffed pitches (swinging strikes) are marked with an x, and hits are circled. This leaves foul balls or outs as full color with no markings. The images are from the catcher’s perspective.
Strasburg was beyond nasty against righties. A full 50 percent of the pitches they swung at were missed, well above the league average of less than 20 percent. The two hits were opposite-field singles to shallow right, as Andy LaRoche and Lastings Milledge desperately did all they could with a pair of outside high-90s fastballs. But mostly it is tons of whiffs, on fastballs up in the zone and on changeups and curves low in the zone. Also, notice how everything is near the zone –- when he misses, it’s not by much. That demonstrates Strasburg’s amazing command; the fact that he can pitch at those velocities and with that much movement and still be so tightly around the zone with his pitches is astounding.
Against lefties Strasburg expertly keeps the ball low and away, which is where lefties typically do the least damage. The home run allowed to Delwyn Young, a change low in the zone, was an exception, and a mistake he will certainly learn from. Still, even facing opposite-handed hitters, he got a ton of whiffs on fastballs up-and-away and on curves and changeups down-and-in.
Anyone who watched the performance knows that he put on a clinic. These images tell some of the story, but he really has to be seen to be believed. It isn’t always going to go this well for Strasburg, but in his major league debut he, impossibly, exceeded the hype. This kid is special.
It has been a rough spring for a lot of pitchers, and while you can usually ignore spring training results, three guys in particular are pitching in a way that should worry you: Rich Harden (8 1/3 IP, 7 BB, 9 K, 2 HR), Madison Bumgarner (7 IP, 7 BB, 0 K, 1 HR) and Andrew Miller (7 2/3 IP, 8 BB, 2 K, 1 HR). But the most telling number can’t even be found in their stat lines.
Harden is coming off another injury-riddled season, so spring training represents an especially important tune-up, while Bumgarner and Miller are young guys looking to get spots in the big league rotation. Each of these guys have some real incentives to bring their best stuff even in games that don’t count. Walking seven guys while striking out none in seven innings as Bumganer has is very troubling, even if it is just seven innings. But even more telling is fastball velocity.
Over seven innings a pitcher throws about 60 fastballs, and a given pitcher’s fastball speed does not vary by much, so 60 fastballs gives a pretty good picture of a pitcher’s true talent. And fastball speed is tremendously important. The average fastball that is swung at is missed 14 percent of the time, and on average each additional 1.25 mph increases this rate by 1 percent. More swinging strikes mean less contact and more strikeouts. Not surprisingly, there is a clear trend showing that pitchers who throw faster perform better.
This is especially troubling for Harden and Bumgarner, whose fastballs have been noticeably slower during spring training. Last Monday the two pitchers actually faced off in the Ranger’s spring training park in Surprise, AZ, one of the few springing training parks with the Pitchf/x system.
Harden’s fastball was sitting in the 88 to 91 mph range topping out at 92.1 mph. His average speed last year was over 92 mph. Bumgarner worked in the 88 to 90 mph range, topping out at just 91 mph. He was regularity above 90 mph last year in the minors, and his fastball is his best pitch. However, his velocity did start to fade towards the end of last season, which makes his lack of velo this spring even more concerning. Some pitchers can succeed with a slower fastball, but the reduced speed coupled with the very poor performance is not encouraging.
Miller is a cautionary tale for Bumgarner about what can happen when a pitcher’s velocity goes away. Once an elite prospect who could regularly throw 95, his average fastball just 90.9 MPH a year ago, and his stock has tumbled significantly. A disastrous spring certainly won’t help get him back in the Marlins plans.
It’s always possible these guys are still a step behind after a long winter, and that their velocity will return. But when trying to figure out which spring training stat is most telling for pitchers, start with fastball velocity.
On June 2 of last season, heading into the top of the ninth inning with the Toronto Blue Jays up 6-4 over the visiting Los Angeles Angels, Toronto manager Cito Gaston sent Roy Halladay back to the mound. Halladay already had thrown 116 pitches in the game.
Modern pitch-count orthodoxy would have had Halladay out of this midseason game at least 10 pitches earlier. So the question stands: Why would Gaston send him back out?
Obviously, Halladay is not some young pitcher who needs to be babied, but even so, 116 pitches is a lot. Why tempt fate with one of the game’s best pitchers and potential trade bait (with the trade deadline less than two months away) for a team that almost certainly would not be making the postseason?
In the end, Halladay closed out the game with 133 pitches, giving his team the victory. Did Gaston put Halladay’s arm at risk, or did he realize that not all pitchers are the same?
Those questions are relevant, but we’re here to demonstrate something else: Not all pitches are created equal.
There is a growing belief that high-stress at-bats are more taxing than those in relatively low-pressure situations — and therefore that pitch counts from the two scenarios should not be treated the same. If a pitcher can breeze through easy innings in one gear and then kick it up to another gear when needed, raw pitch counts might not be the best tool to assess workload, either in an individual game or over the course of a season.
To test this theory, we need some measure of what we mean by pressure. We use a metric called Leverage Index, developed by statistician Tom Tango. Leverage Index (LI for short) quantifies the impact of every situation based on how the outcome will affect a team’s odds of winning a particular game. It is scaled so the average situation is always 1.00.
For example: An at-bat in the bottom of the ninth with two runners on and one run separating the teams will have a huge LI; the outcome of the at-bat will greatly affect the likelihood of either team winning the game. On the other hand, an at-bat in the middle of a 10-0 game with two outs and no runners on has a minuscule LI.
Let’s return to Halladay’s game against the Angels. Heading into the seventh, the Jays were up 6-0. Through those first six innings, because of the big lead and a dearth of Angels baserunners, Halladay faced just two at-bats with an LI of more than 1 and many with LIs less than 0.5. The 75 pitches Halladay threw through those six innings overwhelmingly occurred during low-leverage at-bats.
That all changed in the seventh inning, when the Angels managed four runs off him; as a result, his pitching changed drastically. He started throwing his curveball much more (19 times in 58 pitches in the seventh through ninth innings, compared to just 14 times in 75 pitches through the first six frames). It worked, as the contact rate on his pitches dropped from 72 percent to 60 percent and he struck out five batters in the final two innings, slamming the door and preserving the victory.
Those last 58 pitches likely were more taxing on Halladay than the first 75. With the game close in the late innings, Halladay shifted from pounding the zone with sinkers and cutters to get weak contact to throwing his breaking ball and trying to hit the edges of the zone to get strikeouts.
Halladay is not alone in shifting his strategy in high-leverage situations, although most pitchers respond by increasing the speed on their fastballs. In 2009, the average starter threw his fastball half a mile per hour faster in high-leverage situations. This might not seem like much — but most of these higher-leverage pitches come in late innings when most pitchers have lost a couple mph off the fastball. Somehow they are able to dial it up and get that speed back and then some. Justin Verlander threw his fastball more than 2 mph faster in high-leverage at-bats than when the game was not on the line. Ted Lilly, Aaron Harang and Pedro Martinez, among others, threw it more than a full 1 mph faster.
It makes perfect sense: When the game is not close or there are no runners on, a pitcher’s best stuff is not necessary, but when the game is close, it’s time to shift to another gear. These higher-leverage pitches almost certainly take more out of a pitcher than when he is cruising.
Raw pitch counts do not account for the stress a pitcher has experienced over the course of either a game or a season. It is important to track high-leverage pitches separately since pitches in those at-bats require more effort. Here are the 2009 leaders for the number of pitches thrown in high-leverage at-bats:
These guys threw the most stressful pitches in the game in 2009.
Pitcher Total Pitches Total High-Stress Pitches
Justin Verlander 3,937 408
Chad Billingsley 3,203 385
Felix Hernandez 3,632 337
Ubaldo Jimenez 3,570 331
Adam Wainwright 3,614 331
Javier Vazquez 3,315 296
Carlos Zambrano 2,843 276
Jon Garland 3,255 271
Barry Zito 3,204 268
Matt Garza 3,421 261
Verlander threw more pitches in 2009 than any other pitcher — and threw the most high-stress pitches. Interestingly, he also was the pitcher with the greatest increase in fastball velocity when the game got tight, which suggests he really worked hard to get out of those situations. A bit worrisome is Chad Billingsley, who ranked only 33rd in total pitches in 2009, yet threw more high-leverage pitches than any pitcher besides Verlander. He might have very well put more strain on his arm than his raw pitch count would suggest.
On the other end of the spectrum are workhorses Cliff Lee and Zack Greinke, ranked sixth and seventh in pitches thrown, respectively, but just 42nd and 35th on the high-stress leaderboard. They likely put less strain on their arms than you might conclude by just looking at their total pitch counts.
The closer is the strangest fantasy position. Closers provide some value with their (usually) great ERA and WHIP, as well as high strikeouts-per-inning numbers, but because they pitch maybe a third of the number of innings of a starter, this impact is hardly noticed on a fantasy squad. Instead, the lion’s share of their value is from saves. Saves, in traditional fantasy baseball, carry the same weight as any other category, but at any time just 30 pitchers – the closers – will get the vast majority of those precious commodities. Those closers will change over the course of the season – due to injuries, trades, or ineffectiveness – and when this happens players lose or gain almost all of their value.
Because closers get almost all of their value from saves, even if they post great ratios and strikeout numbers, the best fantasy closers are the ones who have the best likelihood of maintaining that role for the whole season. This likelihood depends on a number of factors: his skill, his durability, and his reputation weighted against how fast his manager will replace him, which, in turn, depends on the quality of his replacement.
Here, I assess the probable closers based on the above factors. Instead of a strict ranking, I break them up into three groups: the best nine closers, which I then slice into two sub-groups; a large middling group, from which I highlight a handful of closers; and the four team-closing situations that I see as the worst.
The Top Closers
Tier 1: Jonathan Broxton, Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon, and Mariano Rivera
These guys are undisputedly the class of the closer crop: none has ever posted an ERA above 3.15 in a full year of closing. All four have been very healthy over the past couple of years and have the closer’s roll locked down as tightly as possible. It is hard to argue for any one of these guys over the others. Broxton will probably give you the most strikeouts – his 13.5 K/9 in 2009 was the highest by any pitcher since Brad Lidge in 2004. On the other hand, Papelbon’s performance was down a little last year by giving up more walks and fly balls than normal. But all of these guys should provide at least 30 saves and have a shot 40 or more.
Tier 2: Jokiam Soria, Heath Bell, Huston Street, Brian Wilson, and Andrew Bailey
Outside of the Tier 1 closers, these are the guys I would be most confident in holding the closer’s job for all of 2010. Soria and Bell are the class of the group: outside of Tier 1, they have the best three-year average FIPs amongst relief pitchers. They play for small-market teams that probably won’t win a ton of games in 2010, but still should provide the opportunity for a good number of saves (thanks to playing in a lot of close games). The only concern is that either pitcher could get traded as their teams continue to rebuild, but even if one is traded, he will, most likely, retain his closing role.
Street and Wilson also have a number of years of very good performance behind them, and each has a firm hold on the closing duties for their NL West teams. Street is an extreme fly-ball pitcher in Colorado, which is a slight concern, but his strikeout and walk numbers are solid. Wilson walks more batters than any closer mentioned so far, but he gets enough strikeouts and ground balls to compensate.
Finally, Bailey does not have as long of a track record as the rest of this group and is definitely due for some regression (his ERA of 1.84 was in spite of a xFIP of 3.25, because of a lucky .234 BABIP and a 5.6% HR/FB), so I think he is right on the boundary of the top closers and the middling groups. Still, his youth, the patience of the A’s management with brief periods of poor performance, and underlying skills (an xFIP of 3.25 is still quite good) pushed him over as the last member of the top-closers group.
The Middle Tier
I put the majority of closers in the not the best, but not the worst group. Instead of explicitly ranking all closers in this group I will highlight two groups: one I think will be undervalued in some leagues and the other that I would be wary of drafting.
Potentially Undervalued: Rafael Soriano, Mike Gonzalez, and Frank Francisco
Soriano is a very good pitcher, posting ERAs of 3.00 or less in every year since 2006. But he has done so quietly and even last year shared closing duties with Mike Gonzalez. Now with the Rays, though, he should get almost all save opportunities to start the season. Gonzalez is a solid reliever with a career ERA of 2.57. He will start the year first in line for saves for the Orioles, his new organization. Both of these guys have a history of great numbers, but have never really had the starting closer’s job as firmly as they do now. This could make them undervalued.
Frank Francisco is also a solid reliever with xFIPs of 3.34 and 3.53 the last two years. He should have a solid shot at 30 or more saves for the Rangers, but he also tends to fly somewhat under the radar.
Guys I would be wary of: Francisco Rodriguez, Brian Fuentes, Ryan Franklin, and David Aardsma
Absent from my best closers list are Rodriguez and Fuentes. Both of these guys have a history of posting large numbers of saves for big-market teams, but each pitcher has had very poor performances as of late. Fuentes has only once had a FIP under 3.00, and in two of the last three years, he had a FIP over 4.00. Last year, his strikeouts fell to a career worst 7.53 K/9, while he still gives up a lot of walks (3.9 BB/9) and does not get many ground balls (36%). Rodriguez’ strikeout rate has fallen every year since 2004, while his walk rate last year was a career high 5.00 BB/9. Both of these guys could rebound in 2010, and maybe they are better pitchers than their 4.00+ FIPs of 2009 would suggest. With that said, they could very well keep the end-game jobs on their teams based on their history. Still, I would be wary of both of these guys, as they will be overvalued in many drafts.
Franklin and Aardsma were the beneficiaries of some serious luck in 2009. Franklin had an ERA of 1.92, but an xFIP of 4.27 (thanks to a BABIP of .269 and a HR/FB of 3%), while Aardsma had an ERA of 2.25 versus a FIP of 4.12 (BABIP of .271 and a HR/FB of 4%). They are both okay closers, but don’t expect – or pay for – an ERA below 2.50 from either of these guys in 2010.
The Bottom Group
Finally, we have the bottom group of closers and the team closing situations that include the worst closers and poor late-game options. These closers are most likely to lose their closing jobs due to ineffectiveness. To be clear, these are not bad pitchers, but bad when compared to their peer group of other closers.
Guys I would avoid: Brandon Lyon/Matt Lindstrom, Joel Zumaya/Ryan Perry/Daniel Schlereth, Leo Nunez, Chad Qualls/Juan Gutierrez
Nunez is not a particularly good pitcher; he has a career ERA of 4.66, which is in line with his xFIP of 4.79. He had an ERA under 3.00 in 2008, but that was the result of a lucky 3% HR/FB. In every other year his ERA has been above 3.90.
Lindstrom and Lyon are the most likely candidates for the Astros’ closer’s job: both have career xFIPs above 4.00. Either pitcher could very easily have an ineffective month, then blow some saves and lose his job.
For the Tigers, Zumaya, Perry, and Schlereth will compete for the job. All three get tons of strikeouts, but each also gives up too many walks. Even the one who emerges from spring training with the job will be far from a lock to hold it for the season.
In Arizona, Qualls is a solid pitcher, having had two straight years with xFIPs under 3.00 on the strength of his low-walk, high-ground-ball ways. However, he had serious knee surgery in September and will not be at full strength for spring training. Gutierrez received Qualls’ save opportunities after the latter’s surgery, so the younger pitcher figures to be the other option going into spring training. Gutierrez is not a great pitcher for a closer, thanks to a career xFIP of 4.22. The combination of a big health question mark in Qualls and relatively poor expected performance from Gutierrez makes this a dangerous closing situation.
Overall team outlook: The Twins club returns as nearly the same team that won the AL Central in a 163rd game against the Detroit Tigers last year. And the club should be just as competitive in 2010, its first year in Target Field, since the AL Central brethren (unlike the Mariners, Yankees, and Red Sox) made few impact moves.
The Starting Rotation: Heading into spring training, four of the five spots in the Twins’ rotation are set. Scott Baker is the ace of the staff; he always has great K/BB ratios, leading to nice number of Ks with a good WHIP. However, he gives up too many fly balls, and thus home runs, to post an elite ERA. He is a solid mid-rotation pitcher in all leagues. Kevin Slowey should be ready to go for spring training after his September surgery. Like Baker, he gives up lots of fly balls, but has elite – even better than Baker’s – K/BB ratios. If he comes back from the injury, Slowey could be a very good fantasy pitcher.
Carl Pavano and Nick Blackburn round out the four set rotation spots: both should only be considered in deep-mixed or AL-only leagues. The fifth spot is up for grabs and the most intriguing candidate, from a fantasy perspective, is Francisco Liriano. He had a terrible 2009, but he was amazing pre-Tommy John and his numbers in the 2009-2010 Dominican Winter League were encouraging.
Bullpen: Joe Nathan had another extraordinary year closing for the Twins in 2009. He is one of the top-five closers heading into 2010. If anything happens to him, Matt Guerrier should be first in line for saves, but if Pat Neshek comes back strong from Tommy John surgery he could be in the running as well.
Starting Lineup: Even if Joe Mauer regresses a bit from his amazing 2009, he is still late first-round or early second-round talent and the top fantasy catcher. Justin Morneau, the Twins’ only other elite fantasy hitter, will be ready for spring training after missing the final three weeks of 2009 with a stress fracture in his back. After that, the Twins lineup features guys who are average-at-best, shallow-league contributors. Newly acquired J.J. Hardy will be the starting shortstop and he looks to return to his 2007-2008 form after an ugly 2009. Brendan Harris and Nick Punto round out the infield and bring positional flexibility, but neither has much value at all with the bat and should be avoided outside of the deepest AL-only leagues.
With the trade of Carlos Gomez the outfield is locked in with Denard Span, Michael Cuddyer, and Delmon Young. Cuddyer had a great 2009, hitting more than 30 homers for the first time. He is a serviceable third outfielder but some regression is likely, so don’t pay for his 2009 performance. Span is also a fair third outfielder, but has more upside since 30 steals in not out of the realm of possibility. Jason Kubel will be the starting DH, but he played enough outfield in 2009 to qualify as a fielder in 2010. Like Cuddyer and Span, he is an okay third outfielder, but like Cuddyer, Kubel is coming off a career year that will not likely be replicated so he could be overvalued.
Bench: The Twins signed Jim Thome as a bench player. He should get a good amount of playing time and showed in 2009 that he can still hit. There is chance he could get regular playing time against right-handed pitchers if the Twins club loses faith in Young. (Kubel would take over in left and Thome would DH). Alexi Casilla will back up second, and has immediate fantasy value if he finds a regular spot because of his potential to steal some bases.
Overall team outlook: The Tigers club made a big trade to get younger and cheaper, but in so doing, it lost two keys players from its near-playoff team in ‘09. Still, the organization should have the talent to be competitive, though it may not be the favorite in a weak AL Central.
The Starting Rotation: Justin Verlander broke out in a big way in 2009, leading baseball with 269 strikeouts and tying with three other pitchers for the lead with 19 wins. He will be a top-10 fantasy pitcher in 2010. The Tigers traded No. 2 starter Edwin Jackson for a new, cheaper No. 2 in Max Scherzer. He has the potential to be even better than Jackson. Health is a concern with Scherzer, but when he is on the mound, he can be a top-of-the-rotation starter and strike out more than a batter an inning.
Rick Porcello was the beneficiary of some BABIP luck in 2009 and will probably not repeat his sub-4.00 ERA. Also, his low strikeout rate limits his fantasy value. Jeremy Bonderman is slotted into the rotation as this point, and he is probably worth a late-round flyer on the off chance he is healthy and regains his 2006 magic. Still, don’t count on it. Nate Robertson has the inside track for the fifth starter job (while Armando Galarraga, Dontrelle Willis and Phil Coke remain as other possibilities), but is an option only in deep AL-only leagues.
Bullpen: Newly acquired Jose Valverde will be handed the closing duties heading into 2010. He is a talented pitcher, and his history of saving games for Arizona and Houston gives him a longer leash if he struggles a bit. But if he goes down with an injury or experiences a sustained period of ineffectiveness, Joel Zumaya is probably first in line for his job, although Ryan Perry or Daniel Schlereth could be in the running if Zumaya cannot re-find the strike zone.
Starting Lineup: Miguel Cabrera qualifies at only first base now, but he hits more than enough to make up for it; he shouldn’t make it out of the first round in most drafts. After Cabrera, though, the rest of the Tigers’ lineup should probably be avoided in most 12-team mixed leagues. Magglio Ordonez, who should start in right, saw his power evaporate in 2009. He should see some improvement in 2010 but probably not enough (although he still hits for a good average). Ryan Raburn should get the job in left and, given a full year, has the power to hit 25 or more homers. Carlos Guillen will be the starting DH, though he qualifies in the outfield. Over the past two years he has had a hard time staying healthy and, when he has played, his numbers have been down.
Brandon Inge, Gerald Laird, and Adam Everett return to their positions in 2010, but none hits enough to justify consideration outside of AL-only leagues. Finally, the Tigers club will hand starting jobs to two guys who have no Major League at-bats: Austin Jackson will take over in center and Scott Sizemore will man the keystone. There is a good possibility of a rough initial adjustment period for both, but they offer some upside with the speed to steal some bases and at least some power.
Bench: Another rookie, Alex Avila, could get some time at catcher. For a catcher he has good power, so keep an eye on his playing time. Clete Thomas and Wilkin Ramirez could see time in the outfield, and if they do should get a fair number of steals. If Guillen is injured or ineffective then Jeff Larish could get some time at DH and has big-time power, but his average will not be pretty.
Overall team outlook: In 2009, the Red Sox made the playoffs for the sixth time in the last seven years but were bounced by the Angels in ALDS, so anything but a playoff appearance, even in a tough AL East, would be a disappointment in 2010. The organization has the resources to do it by virtue of its big budget, dedication to player development, and shrewd player acquisition, highlighted this offseason by a number of free agent signings aimed at shoring up the rotation and defense.
The Starting Rotation: The rotation is headed by three pitchers who posted ERAs and FIPs below 4.00 in 2009, and all three have a solid shot at repeating the feat in 2010. Jon Lester had a breakout 2009, adding an amazing strikeout rate while repeating the excellent walk and ground-ball rates he showed in 2008. Josh Beckett has had a FIP under 4.00 in seven of the last eight seasons. After starting the season on the DL, newcomer John Lackey had a very good 2009. Lester and Beckett are worth a little more in fantasy leagues because they have slightly higher strikeout rates, but all three are great fantasy pitchers.
After that trio, the Red Sox will split the last two spots in the rotation between Daisuke Matsuzaka, Clay Buchholz, and Tim Wakefield, depending on health and effectiveness. Matsuzaka had a year lost to injury in 2009 and his walk rate has been troublingly high in the past two years, but his strikeout rate makes him an intriguing gamble. Buchholz had an okay – though disappointing based on his excellent minor-league numbers – 2009, but is worth a look in 2010 because he is young and those minor league numbers portend a good pitcher.
The Bullpen: Jonathan Papelbon’s peripherals were down in 2009 (lowest K/BB ratio and GB% since taking over as closer), but his performance was still excellent, and poor peripherals for Papelbon are still very good (FIP of 3.05). Even with the dip in peripherals, he enters 2010 with about as solid a hold on the closer’s role as one can have. Fireballer Daniel Bard would most likely take over the role if anything were to happen to Papelbon.
The Starting Lineup: The Boston starting lineup welcomes three new members in 2010: Marco Scutaro, Mike Cameron, and Adrian Beltre. Scutaro played way above the level of play he established in the previous seven years, and big true talent shifts from 33-year-olds are rare, so his numbers should come down a bit. Cameron and Beltre will benefit from hitting in an RHB-friendly park and high-OBP lineup, so both should see slight bumps in their numbers.
Then the Sox club has four elite fantasy hitters in the lineup. Jacoby Ellsbury will shift to left to accommodate Cameron, but that will not affect his stolen-base-driven fantasy value. Victor Martinez, the second best fantasy catcher heading into 2010, will also get games at first base and DH to keep him in the lineup as much as possible. Kevin Youkilis’s power breakout in 2008 carried on into 2009, and he qualifies at both corner infield positions. Dustin Pedrioa should provide value in all five categories while playing one of the scarcest fantasy positions.
The two remaining regulars don’t offer a ton of fantasy value. JD Drew is a great baseball player, but his main skills – great defense, tons of walks, a solid number of doubles – are not valued in most fantasy leagues. He also comes with health concerns. David Ortiz qualifies only at DH and his power numbers have been in decline for the past three years.
The Bench: The Sox will keep Martinez fresh by giving him substantial time at other positions, which will open up playing time for Jason Varitek behind the plate. Newly acquired Bill Hall and Jeremy Hermida should also pick up a good number of plate appearances filling in for the outfield. Hall will man the infield, too. Mike Lowell remains on the roster, but how much and for which team he will ultimately play remains an open question.