Monday, May 08, 2006

Baseball's Most Underrated Hurlers
By Ben Valentine

Often in this column I’m quick to point out mistakes and problems with teams, players and sporting events in general. But this week, I’m changing my tune and writing something a bit more upbeat; a series on the most underrated pitchers in Major League Baseball.

This list includes players I feel don’t get the justice they deserve in the mainstream media. Sure bloggers and fantasy baseball junkies like myself can go on and on about how Chris Young is really better than any Yankees’ starter not named Randy Johnson, but the majority of the baseball community remains blinded the name and reputation. These five guys are pitchers I feel have been slighted in some way, shape or form and are deserving of far more notoriety.

The first guy, fifth in my underrated rotation, is a 27 year old lefty from Duke University who despite going 18-12 last season with an impressive 7.23 K/9 and decent 3.99 ERA, was drafted in the 22nd round of the fantasy draft the Sportszilla crew participate in. That was behind such great pitchers as Jon Garland, Matt Clement, Derek Lowe, Livan Hernandez and Freddy Garcia. That guy is Milwaukee Brewers’ lefty Chris Capuano.

Last year Capuano emerged as one of the most promising young pitchers in the game, though he went under the radar for a surprising Brewers team. His ERA was a full run lower than his 4.99 ERA from 2004, where he went 6-8 in his first full stint in the major leagues. (He made 5 starts for the Diamondbacks in 2003) Despite this improvement and the gaudy win total, nobody really discussed Capuano as being one of the better pitchers in the NL. It wasn’t just in our fantasy league; Capuano went in the 19th round in CBS Sportsline’s “Experts” 12 team league.

Now, I’m not saying Capuano was one of baseball’s top pitchers because of last year’s 18 wins. Actually his 2005 wasn’t really much better than his 2004. He was just luckier. In 2004, he struck out 8.15 batters per nine and posted a 2.16 K/BB ratio. In 2005, his strike out rate dropped a little, down to 7.23, while his K/BB actually worsened to a 1.93 ratio. What improved for Capuano was his homer runs allowed per nine, which decreased from 1.83 homers per nine to 1.27. However, since his GB/FB ratio remained basically identical, (.92 to .93), that suggests luck more than anything else; either he was lucky in 2005 or unlucky in 2004. Since Capuano only threw 88 innings in 2004, 2005 might be more indicative of what to expect. In the minors, Capuano never posted a Hr/9 over 1.00 in a full season. Therefore, we can speculate that Capuano was a bit unlucky his rookie season with an elevated home run rate. That being said while he probably pitched better than his 2004 ERA indicated, he wasn’t a full run better. Combining the two years, you’d figure Capuano is probably a guy who should have posted roughly a low 4.00’s era.

Of course now it might sound like I’m calling his 2005 a fluke; I’m not. Even with those numbers he’s a guy who going into this year was one of the more promising pitchers in the game and should never have been taken as late as the 19th or 22nd round in any draft. Barry Zito last year struck out fewer batters and had the same strikeout to walk ratio, yet people believe he is one of the best pitchers in baseball. No one would dare say Capuano is a better pitcher at this point than Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson or Jason Schmidt, yet that’s exactly what the numbers say. And that’s just taking his 2005 in a vacuum. You also have to factor in that pitchers who strike out the number of batters Capuano does are always on the verge of becoming very good. It’s just a question of walk rate. And to this season, that hasn’t been an issue.

Capuano is a guy who never posted a BB/9 below 2.72 in the minors. This season it’s at 1.88 per nine, while his K/9 is back up to 8.09. All of that combines for a stellar 4.30 K/BB ratio in his seven starts, good for a 4-2 mark with a 2.63 ERA. Those numbers are ace quality.

Can he keep it up? I don’t think he’ll keep the walks per nine under 2.00, but he doesn’t have to. Just as long as he can post a K/BB of 2.50 or better, he should be in a position to improve on his 2005 campaign. Capuano’s HR rate this season is .75, so one figures that will rise a little. But at the age of 27 and now in his third year of major league experience, Capuano has reached the two big marks where pitchers are supposed to enter their primes. So it isn’t crazy to expect him to improve on his walk rate while maintaining his high K rate in order to reach that 2.50 plus K/BB ratio. If he maintains a lower walk rate, then we can expect him have some improvements in at least opponent’s BA and potentially Hr allowed, since he will be forced to come into hitters less if he’s working ahead in the count.

While guys like Zach Duke, Eric Bedard and Scott Kazmir get a lot of talk as being guys who could emerge as aces soon, Capuano is truly on the verge of becoming a front of the line rotation guy. And if he continues along the pace he’s on this season, he’ll have achieved that status.

Of course, since he’s a Brewer, unless they make the postseason, he’ll still be someone who flies under the radar again. Maybe next year he'll make it all the way up to the fifteenth round.

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