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Dec
03

Breaking American League SPs into tiers

Ah, pitchers. They just don't make it easy on fans, managers or Fantasy owners.

Their inconsistency and injuries can drive us nuts, and so can their metrics. There are a number of stats, such as Runs Created and RC/27, which allow us to boil down all of the components of a position player's performance into one neat, ready-to-compare number. Conversely, pitching stats leave us frustrated and frazzled on Draft Day. Owners who place too much reliance on strikeouts are prone to underestimate pitchers like Roy Halladay and Chien-Ming Wang, who exhibit great control or strong groundball tendencies. Focus on ERA, and you could get burned on WHIP and Ks by a finesse pitcher like Mark Buehrle. If you rank players by WHIP, gopherball pitchers like Kevin Slowey could make you pay in ERA. And who needs wins when they could lead you to draft Joe Saunders? CBSSports.com projects 16 Ws for him, but he will be average at best in the other categories.

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Since relying on any one pitching stat can lead to regrettable picks, the logical next step is to ask, what if we limit ourselves to using two stats for ranking purposes? It turns out that if we set benchmarks for pitchers using only strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) and ERA, we can do a good job of separating out the great pitchers from the good ones from the mediocre. While this two-stat system is imperfect, it provides a balance between simplicity and accuracy. ERA alone won't tell you whether a pitcher will help you with Ks, so that's where K/9 rate comes in handy. ERA is a nice proxy for WHIP, because a pitcher who can prevent runs is usually doing so because he prevents baserunners from reaching on hits and walks. There have been exceptions to this rule, such as Francisco Liriano, who posted a below-average ERA in '08 in spite of an average WHIP, because he was exceptionally stingy with homers. As we'll see below, these exceptions are rare.

Last year, the average K/9 rate for American League starting pitchers was 6.6 and the average ERA was 4.36. If we raise the bar substantially to a 8.5 K/9 and a 3.80 ERA, how many starters are projected clear it this season? If we limit our analysis to those starting pitchers who project to throw at least 160 innings, there are just nine individuals who meet these demanding criteria. As it turns out, all nine of them are projected to beat out last year's AL-average WHIP of 1.39 by a sound margin. In short, each of these pitchers should do well in all categories. Even their wins should pile up, barring a lack of run and bullpen support.

Tier I K/9 ERA WHIP
Scott Kazmir, Tampa Bay 9.9 3.42 1.32
Brandon Morrow, Seattle 9.6 3.65 1.30
Joba Chamberlain, N.Y. Yankees 9.5 3.55 1.25
A.J. Burnett, N.Y. Yankees 9.0 3.80 1.28
CC Sabathia, N.Y. Yankees 8.8 3.08 1.13
Josh Beckett, Boston 8.8 3.78 1.18
Francisco Liriano, Minnesota 8.7 3.17 1.33
Felix Hernandez, Seattle 8.6 3.47 1.32
Daisuke Matsuzaka, Boston 8.6 3.56 1.29

It won't take more than a few rounds for a league to work through this top tier of pitchers. (Morrow and Chamberlain didn't go until the sixth round of our recent AL Head-to-Head mock draft, no doubt due to their inexperience and owners' doubts that they will actually stay in a starting role. At least those were my excuses for passing on them.) So let's relax our criteria, and see what we get if we look for pitchers who have either a 8.5-plus K/9 rate or an ERA no higher than 3.80, rather than both. There are actually just three other starting pitchers who project to compile a strikeout rate of at least 8.5, and all of them should have low ERAs and WHIPs, too. While not on the same level as Sabathia or Beckett, Erik Bedard, David Price and Ervin Santana are only a fraction of a step behind the rest of the AL elite.

Tier II K/9 ERA WHIP
Erik Bedard, Seattle 9.0 3.82 1.24
David Price, Tampa Bay 8.9 3.99 1.23
Ervin Santana, L.A. Angels 8.9 3.83 1.20

If we relax our requirement of an 8.5 K/9 rate, we start to see a true second tier emerge. Only Justin Verlander comes even close to our strikeout rate benchmark, but his struggles with command make him a potential WHIP risk. Halladay is the clear standout among this group, and as was mentioned above, his superior walk rate and extreme groundball tendency keep his WHIP and ERA low enough to compensate for the pedestrian K/9 rate. Wang clearly belongs in this second tier, but he's much more valuable than his record of miniscule strikeout rates suggests.

Tier III K/9 ERA WHIP
Cliff Lee, Cleveland 6.8 3.40 1.18
Jon Lester, Boston 6.7 3.49 1.30
Roy Halladay, Toronto 7.3 3.51 1.10
John Lackey, L.A. Angels 7.3 3.54 1.18
Chien-Ming Wang, N.Y. Yankees 4.6 3.56 1.22
Justin Verlander, Detroit 7.9 3.73 1.31
Jered Weaver, L.A. Angels 7.6 3.74 1.25

This third tier consists of pitchers who are at least close to average in terms of K/9 and ERA, and are worthy of consideration in mixed leagues. Some, like James Shields and John Danks, are just shy of second-tier status. Others technically qualify for this group because of their projections, but pitchers like Dontrelle Willis and Kevin Millwood carry so much risk that they could easily go undrafted in mixed leagues.

Tier IV K/9 ERA WHIP
James Shields, Tampa Bay 7.1 3.81 1.20
John Danks, Chicago White Sox 7.2 3.95 1.31
Matt Garza, Tampa Bay 6.6 3.96 1.32
Fausto Carmona, Cleveland 6.0 3.96 1.29
Gavin Floyd, Chicago White Sox 6.4 3.99 1.36
Armando Galarraga, Detroit 6.4 4.01 1.39
Gil Meche, Kansas City 7.6 4.03 1.45
Anthony Reyes, Cleveland 6.6 4.09 1.38
Jeremy Bonderman, Detroit 7.6 4.20 1.36
Kevin Slowey, Minnesota 6.5 4.20 1.28
Andy Pettitte, N.Y. Yankees 6.8 4.21 1.41
Zack Greinke, Kansas City 8.0 4.24 1.29
Scott Baker, Minnesota 6.6 4.25 1.33
Edwin Jackson, Detroit 6.5 4.25 1.42
Dana Eveland, Oakland 6.9 4.27 1.49
Brad Penny, Boston 6.4 4.27 1.34
Vicente Padilla, Texas 6.9 4.32 1.41
Ryan Rowland-Smith, Seattle 6.6 4.32 1.44
Dontrelle Willis, Detroit 7.0 4.36 1.47
Clay Buchholz, Boston 8.0 4.39 1.48
Kevin Millwood, Texas 6.6 4.50 1.43

Finally, there are the pitchers who project to be well below average in either K/9 or ERA. Nearly all are good enough for your AL-only league roster, but be very suspicious of any pitcher who strikes out five batters every nine innings or less, unless his name is Chien-Ming Wang. Jesse Litsch and Aaron Laffey have shown some Wang-like potential, and at 24, both are still young enough to fulfill it. On the other hand (and with apologies to Sen. Lieberman), Saunders' Joe-mentum has run its course.

Tier V K/9 ERA WHIP
David Purcey, Toronto 8.0 4.88 1.46
Sean Gallagher, Oakland 7.5 4.93 1.48
Dustin McGowan, Toronto 7.3 4.69 1.41
Kyle Davies, Kansas City 6.4 4.95 1.44
Brandon McCarthy, Texas 6.4 4.55 1.39
Nate Robertson, Detroit 5.9 4.83 1.46
Andy Sonnanstine, Tampa Bay 5.9 4.50 1.30
Justin Duchscherer, Oakland 5.6 4.25 1.31
Clayton Richard, Chicago White Sox 5.5 4.78 1.41
Jeremy Guthrie, Baltimore 5.4 4.28 1.35
Mark Buehrle, Chicago White Sox 5.3 4.00 1.39
Zach Miner, Detroit 5.3 4.23 1.43
Tim Wakefield, Boston 5.2 4.33 1.34
Luke Hochevar, Kansas City 5.1 4.96 1.39
Jarrod Washburn, Seattle 5.1 4.63 1.43
Glen Perkins, Minnesota 5.0 4.10 1.39
Matt Harrison, Texas 5.0 4.85 1.42
Joe Saunders, L.A. Angels 5.0 4.00 1.30
Scott Feldman, Texas 4.8 4.98 1.38
Brian Bannister, Kansas City 4.6 4.80 1.38
Jesse Litsch, Toronto 4.6 3.98 1.35
Nick Blackburn, Minnesota 4.5 4.28 1.35
Aaron Laffey, Cleveland 4.3 4.50 1.39
Carlos Silva, Seattle 3.8 4.96 1.45

Glossary
Runs Created per 27 Outs (RC/27) -- An estimate of how many runs a lineup would produce per 27 outs if a particular player occupied each spot in the order; ex. the RC/27 for Miguel Cabrera would predict the productivity of a lineup where Cabrera (or his statistical equal) batted in all nine spots; created by Bill James
Component ERA (ERC) -- An estimate of a what a pitcher's ERA would be if it were based solely on actual pitching performance; created by Bill James
Base Hits per Balls in Play (BABIP) -- The percentage of balls in play (at bats minus strikeouts and home runs) that are base hits; research by Voros McCracken and others has established that this rate is largely random and has a norm of approximately 30%
Isolated Power -- The difference between slugging percentage and batting average; created by Branch Rickey and Allan Roth
Walk Rate -- Walks / (at bats + walks)
Whiff Rate -- Strikeouts / at bats

Al Melchior was recently a Fantasy columnist and data analyst for Baseball HQ and will be providing advice columns for CBSSports.com. Click here to send him a question. Please put "Melchior" in the subject field.

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