Digging for Diamonds: Back-End Starting Pitching II (World Series Edition)
In continuing our quest to find some names to monitor over the winter as potential end-of-draft or early season streamer targets I thought it would be appropriate today to look at a couple rotation options from the two World Series teams. As I noted last week I find it advantageous to use this time of year to compile a first draft list of names that may have flown under the radar while offering a glimmer of hope for improvement next year. Starting now allows you to follow off-season roster developments with players of interest in mind, and makes it that much easier to finalize a watch list come spring training. If this Series had gone seven (baseball gods forbid), Felix Doubront and Joe Kelly figured to be front and center for their respective teams’ championship hopes. This would have been a fitting culmination to their 2013 seasons, as both men offered fantasy owners at least a few nuggets of solid production, particularly as matchup plays. Both are relatively young, and both seem to have the inside track to a reprise in the starting rotations of their respective clubs next season. Let’s take a gander at where these two might fit in to your draft day plans for 2014.
Felix Doubront, LHP, BOS. Doubront was something of a sleeper heading into 2013 on the strength of the outstanding 9.3 K/9 he had posted over 29 starts in his 2012 rookie campaign. Granted those whiffs came at an expensive price for those in standard 5×5 leagues, as his 4.86 ERA and 1.45 WHIP did some corresponding damage. But his overall numbers were inflated by a brutal August and September when his walk rate ballooned over 5-per-9 as he tired under the weight of an ~80 inning jump from his 2011 output. He also suffered poor luck to the tune of a ghastly 16% HR/FB rate on the season, and given his age and ability to miss bats there was some hope to be had for a breakout. That breakout didn’t really come, though to be sure he did not pitch poorly in 2013. His HR/FB rate did indeed regress to a more normal range, but he also lost a strikeout and a half-per-nine off his total from the year prior. But beyond those areas and some moderate progress in turning a few liners into grounders he posted a nearly identical season to 2012, with eerily consistent BABIP, LOB%, and BB/9 rates year to year.
One thing stands out most glaringly in his profile from last year to this that may help explain the drop in his strikeout rate: he lost over 2 miles an hour off his fastball. His four-seamer lost 2.2 MPH in 2012, and his two-seamer lost 2.3. That’s a significant drop, and one that would expected to correlate pretty directly with SwStk%. Sure enough, batters made contact on almost 4% more total pitches in 2013 than they did the year prior. This change was actually most evident in his pitches outside of the strike zone; his O-Swing % dropped about 5.5% while his O-Contact % rose by almost 7%. In other words, hitters were able to see his pitches out of the zone better and lay off of them at a higher rate, but when they did chase they were able to make significantly more contact against them. That’s not a great sign, and it suggests the heavy workload increase from 2011-2012 may have had a very tangible spill-over effect into 2012. I’d monitor reports on Doubront’s conditioning and velocity closely in spring training before considering him for a draft pick.
Joe Kelly, RHP, StL. Kelly played a significant role in the Cardinals’ second half run to capture the NL Central this past season. In 15 starts (12 of which came after the break) and 87 innings he went 9-3 and posted a 2.28 ERA. While he whiffed a pretty abysmal 4.8 K/9 over that stretch, his 1.33 WHIP was steady enough a killer, and for those in standard 5×5 scoring category leagues he was one of the better mid-season pickups of 2013 as a solid 3-category contributor. But what can we expect over a presumably full season next year? Well for starters, while he profiles as exactly the type of pitch-to-contact type the Cardinals have been turning into all-stars annually since World War I, he’s not quite the Kyle Lohse clone his surface stats would indicate. While he does induce a strong amount of balls on the ground (51% in 2013), his control just isn’t that great for a pitcher in this mold. He walked 3.5/9 as a starter last year which, when you strike out less than 5-per-nine means you have to rely an awful lot on luck and defense. Yet there’s something curious about his profile here, too: he didn’t appear to benefit outlandishly from good luck this season. His .297 BABIP and 78% strand rates were not unruly, nor did he give up homeruns at a higher-than-league-average rate.
So what gives? Well, when you get on into the nitty gritty of his splits you find that when runners made it into scoring position against Kelly in 2013 he did get lucky. Very lucky. His BABIP in these situations shrunk to .224 despite contact rates that remained relatively stable, and hitters posted a meager .596 OPS against him. All this is to say that Kelly’s surface stats this season are very unlikely to be repeatable next year. While guys like Kelly v.2013 and the aforementioned Lohse can be excellent value plays at the back end of a fantasy rotation, the strong likelihood is that Kelly v.2014 looks a lot less appetizing. I’d consider him in early season match-up plays, but he’s not somebody I would look to draft even late.