Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Underrated Rotation: The #2 Starter
By Ben Valentine

This is the fourth part of my five part series on who I feel who are the most underrated hurlers in baseball. The previous three cataloged were Brewers' lefty Chris Capuano, Reds' righty Aaron Harang and Nationals' righty John Patterson.

A quick story for you all on how this series got started. Don’t worry, it relates to today’s installment.

A few weeks back, David and I were discussing our fantasy teams. We have entirely different strategies on how to draft our squads, though I have to bow down to David’s supremacy; he won the league two years ago and finished in second last year despite never having any draft picks before the sixth round. Still, using other people’s strategies don’t work if you don’t really believe in them yourself, so my draft went based on my own rankings and beliefs, not really caring what anyone else thought.

The most contested player in our debate was John Lackey; I took him relatively early, in the fifth round of our keeper league. David criticized me; not because Lackey is a bad pitcher, but because he would be undervalued by the rest of the league. We’ll never know if I could have gotten Lackey later on, but I draft based on performance. Whether or not people saw Lackey as fantasy ace doesn’t matter; I did, so I took him there.

And in that roundabout way, the number two guy of the underrated rotation has been introduced. It is the afformentioned Lackey, the 27 year old right hander for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and contrary to what Cy Young voters had to say last season, arguably their best pitcher. But don’t take my word for it; look at the stats:

Lackey: 209.0 IP, 3.44 ERA 8.57 K/9, 2.80 K/BB, 3.06 BB/9, 1.39 GB/FB, .687 Opp OPS

Colon: 222.2 IP, 3.48 ERA, 6.35 K/9, 3.65 K/BB, 1.74 BB/9, 1.01 GB/FB, .695 Opp OPS

While Colon posted a better K/BB ratio, Lackey struck out 2 batters more per nine, had a better GB/FB out ratio, slightly better ERA and held opponents to a slightly lower OPS. The difference of course, was that Colon won 21 games; Lackey just 14. Can there be anymore proof to the arbitrary nature of wins and losses than that? Of course it also shows what a joke the Cy Young is. While Lackey didn’t deserve the award; Johan Santana clearly did, the fact his season was as good or better than Colon’s yet he didn’t get any consideration shows what kind of validation awards actually are. Sorry Steve Nash, you just don’t compare to the travesty that is MLB MVPs, Cy Youngs and Gold Gloves.

Here’s another way of evaluating Lackey’s underrated-ness. If he were a free agent last offseason, how much do you think he would have gotten? How much would you have wanted your team to pay for him? The answer to the first question should be “exactly what AJ Burnett got” but I think it’s a safe bet to say it wouldn’t have happened. Heck Lackey had his first arbitration eligible season last year and is making just 3.3 million this year! While people consider Burnett a legitimate ace when healthy, they just don’t see the same thing with Lackey. Of course, I’m here to tell you they’re wrong.

Burnett: 209.0 IP, 3.44 ERA, 8.52 K/9, 2.51 K/BB, 3.40 BB/9, 2.42 GB/FB ratio, .643 Opp OPS

Lackey: 209.0 IP, 3.44 ERA 8.57 K/9, 2.80 K/BB, 3.06 BB/9, 1.39 GB/FB, .687 Opp OPS

Pretty similar eh? The two pitched the same number of innings, posted the exact same ERA and nearly the same number of strike outs. Burnett walked more but that was offset by his very good GB/FB ratio (which was 1 full out higher than his career norm) However, also take into consideration that Burnett played in the National League (no DH) and at a great pitcher’s park in Florida. Then factor in Burnett’s injury risk and one realizes that Lackey would probably have been a much better investment of 55 million dollars than the former Marlin ever would have been.

The interesting thing about Lackey has been his improvement every season. He came into the league as the fifth man on the Angels team that would win it all, and was mediocre; posting a 5.73 K/9 and a 2.09 K/BB ratio, though his ERA looked very nice at 3.66. Next year, while the ERA would suffer, Lackey would in fact improve; posting a K/9 of 6.66 and a K/BB of 2.29. In 2004, his Ks stabilized at 6.53 but his K/BB improved even further, up to 2.40. Then in 2005, the breakout season; the Ks went up to 8.57 and the K/BB to 2.80. Unlike the pitchers I had mentioned prior, Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang and John Patterson, Lackey traded control for strikeouts, with solid results because the dramatic increase in his K rate along with a slight improvement in his GB/FB ratio. After it had been 1.07 and 1.11 in 03’ and 04’ respectively, it jumped back to 1.35 in 05’. (He posted a ratio of 1.31 his rookie campaign)

So Lackey went from mediocre to solid and finally to on the fringe of the top tier. This season, his K rate has dropped a little, down to 7.53 in the early going, and his K/BB is less than ideal at 2.31 though his ERA is surprisingly at 3.38. However given that his GB/FB ratio stands at just .95, we can speculate he hasn’t pitched his best and should improve on those numbers somewhat. If Lackey can drop his walk rate down a little while maintaining his Ks above 7.00, then he can become a legitimate ace. If not, then he will still be a very effective front of the rotation starter, one any team would be glad to have.

I mean after seeing the stats, would you rather have a 33 year old pitcher the size of California itself, a 29 year old with loads of talent but an elbow that is liable to snap at any moment, or Lackey?

Unfortunately for the Toronto Blue Jays, John Lackey wasn’t on the free agent market last year.

That's makes four parts of the underrated rotation. Coming tomorrow, the ace of my staff, and a guy who's been shortchanged since the moment he came into the league.

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