It’s time for our Depth Chart Discussions to begin. In an effort to suss out every team, we’ve divided them into four parts (infield, outfield, bullpen, and rotation) and will begin breaking them down for you over the next few weeks. You can find them gathered here.
Thanks in large part to a breakout performance from Garrett Richards, the 2014 Angels rotation was around league average according to WAR, which is quite a bit better than they were expected to perform. Unfortunately, Richards went down with a knee injury in August. How quickly he can return to the mound and how healthy he is when gets there will be a huge part of how good this staff is this year. Past Richards, the Angels have three fairly reliable if unexciting pitchers projected to throw 190-ish innings. Just from writing up a few other teams for our depth chart discussions, I can tell you that’s not a luxury too many other teams have. So despite Richards’ absence early in the year, this staff is more settled than most.
From a fantasy perspective, it’s somewhat amusing to see that Richards is being drafted ahead of any other Angels starter despite the fact that he might not be ready to go on Opening Day. But it’s not like it’s wrong for him to be going ahead of his rotation mates. For one, it appears he may be back fairly soon after the season starts. And second, even the 153 innings Steamer is projecting would still be more valuable than any other line Steamer is projecting for an Angel starter.
That 153 inning projection for Richards makes him the 45th best starting pitcher if you run all the Steamer projections through the z-score method. He’s currently going 40th among starters, which isn’t at all unreasonable if you expect him to throw more innings than Steamer projects. As an example, our Fan projections have him throwing 163 innings. Another start or two with Steamer’s projected rate stats would probably warrant a top 40 price.
However, you could make the case that Steamer isn’t just being conservative with Richards’ inning projection. His projected ERA is almost a full run higher than it was last year, his projected WHIP is 20 points higher, and his projected strikeout rate is down 2.4%. Some of those projections make some sense, particularly the ERA and to some degree the WHIP. The ERA being a full run higher may be a bit pessimistic, but Richards is unlikely to sustain a 3.9% HR/FB rate (easily the lowest rate in the league among qualified starters), and both Steamer and the Fans are expecting a near-.300 BABIP after his .264 mark in that category last year. As for the strikeouts, how healthy he is will likely play a large part in his ability to sustain the gains he made last year. His velocity was up pretty significantly last year, and a knee injury could certainly have a negative impact on velocity. We’ll see.
Ultimately, Steamer’s rate stats with a slightly more aggressive inning projection justfy Richards’ current price in drafts. If you want to be even more aggressive with the innings projection or view the Steamer rate stats as a worst case scenario, then Richards is someone you should consider a value.
The fact that Richards is projected to outproduce the three Angels starters projected to throw full seasons is pretty damning of those guys considering the conservative innings projection on Richards. And sadly, it’s a lot easier to come up with expectations of downside as opposed to upside for each of them.
First the old guys, Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson. And by old I simply mean that their age starts with a ‘3’ and not a ‘2.’ It should come as no surprise that guys on the wrong side of 30 might be more likely to have downside than the opposite.
If you were going to make the case for Wilson to be better than he was last year, you’d point to his HR/FB rate being the highest it has been in five seasons as a starter as well as a strand rate and BABIP that were slightly worse than his career averages. Essentially, you’d be pointing to his ERA being higher than his SIERA. The problem is that his SIERA was 4.23. Getting back to that point isn’t overly helpful. Moreover, his strikeout rate fell below 20% for the first time as a starter due in large part to his velocity ticking downward as it has in consecutive years. It’s hard to see that trend reversing, and every time his strikeout rate falls, the already-too-small gap between his strikeout rate and perennially high walk rate grows even narrower. At best he’s a fifth starter in 10-team AL-only leagues.
If you were going to make the case for Weaver, you’d point to his very established track record of having an above average BABIP and strand rate. Weaver’s M.O. has been to generate a lot of fly balls (including a large number of infield fly balls) and keep them from leaving the park too frequently. Fly balls go for hits less often than other batted ball types, and as long as a pitcher can keep them in the park most of the time, it can be an advantageous batted ball profile. But Weaver didn’t keep as many in the park last year as he has in the past. Prior to last year he had allowed less than a home run per nine for four consecutive seasons, but last year his HR/9 was 1.14, the highest rate of his career. Moreover, his infield fly ball rate was a few percentage points lower than his career average.
Weaver also posted a few other “career worst” marks. His first pitch strike rate was at an all-time low of 56% (compared to 60.9% for his career), which was a big reason for him posting his worst walk rate in the last five years (7.3%). Perhaps contributing to the low first strike rate was the fact that hitters were swinging at Weaver’s offerings less than ever before. Excluding Weaver’s rookie season, hitters swung at a lower percentage of Weaver’s pitches than ever before both in and out of the zone. Weaver had been able to get hitters to swing at pitches out of the zone at an average rate or better for four consecutive seasons prior to last year, but his 26.8% O-Swing% last year was well below average.
For those reasons, Steamer believes Weaver’s run of a low BABIP and strand rate will finally come to an end this year. As a result, his ERA is projected to be where his ERA estimators have been for three years running: above 4.00. It’s hard to imagine he’ll be worth his price with an ADP of 50 among pitchers. I usually like to bet on guys like Weaver with a rep for generating weak contact and the peripherals to back it up. But with all the other signs of decline that are present, it may be too risky to keep betting on Weaver.
The third guy projected to start a full complement of games is LA’s other breakout starter from last year, Matt Shoemaker. Cistulli noted in Shoemaker’s FG+ profile that Shoemaker has a similar repertoire to some of the league’s Japanese pitchers who have used the repertoire to prevent runs at an above average rate. Cistulli also notes that the whole group had the fielding-independent numbers last year to back up the run prevention. The implication is that Shoemaker can sustain his success as have a couple of those guys with a similar pitch mix, Hiroki Kuroda and Hisashi Iwakuma.
But I don’t know if I agree with that. Both Kuroda and Iwakuma have had a better-than-average K-BB% in their careers, particularly Iwakuma. Shoemaker’s K-BB% last year was exceptional at 18.8%, but I could easily see him falling below league average (12.3%). For one thing, he never posted strikeout numbers in the minors anything like what he has done in the big leagues (23%). In 58 starts at AAA in 2012-13, his strikeout rate was somewhere around 18-19%, which is where Steamer projects his strikeout rate to fall this year. As for his walk rate, Pod has noted how he overachieved in that department last year.
If you took Steamer’s projected strikeout rate and his xBB% from last year, his K-BB% would be below league average at 11.5%. But even if it doesn’t far that fall, it’s definitely going to regress. When it does his fielding-independent numbers won’t be nearly as good as they were last year. And his ERA won’t be either. But even with the expected decline in Steamer’s projection, Shoemaker still comes out as the 54th best starter according to the z-score method, and his ADP among starters is 53. If you think he keeps a little more of his magic, he might be worth a shot as your sixth starter in shallow mixed leagues. However, you probably shouldn’t be carrying six un-cuttable starters, so he’s probably best used as a spot starter.
The fifth spot, assuming the health of Richards, is up for grabs between Andrew Heaney, Nick Tropeano and Hector Santiago. Steamer projects Santiago for the most innings, and that probably makes sense given how green Heaney and Tropeano are having only thrown a combined 51 major league innings. Santiago has a little Weaver in him in that he generates a lot of fly balls and doesn’t let too many leave the park to help him sustain an ERA better than his SIERA. The problem is that he’s not as good at keeping balls in the park as Weaver was prior to last year. The other problem is that he has Wilson’s ghastly walk rate. He’s in the right ballpark to keep making that mojo work, but he could blow up at any time. He can be your fifth or sixth starter in an AL-only league, but that’s about it.
As for Heaney and Tropeano, both have a chance to be good this year. Heaney obviously has the better chance with the pedigree and minor league track record. If he cracks the rotation he’s certainly worth monitoring in mixed leagues. And Tropeano has some things going for him as well. As Eno noted in Tropeano’s FG+ profile, the kid has good velocity, a decent change and good control. That’s a pretty good start. He is also worth monitoring if he cracks the rotation, though more so for deeper leagues.