Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Underrated Rotation: The #3 Starter
By Ben Valentine

This is the third part in a five part series on the pitchers I consider to be the most underrated in baseball. The first two segments were on Brewers' lefty Chris Capuano and Reds' righty Aaron Harang.

The underrated rotation series continues with a pitcher who has gotten more play in my columns than any non New York player. In fact he might be up there with Aaron Heilman and Chein Mein Wang as the most referenced hurler in my writings. So as any consistent reader of my baseball ramblings can probably guess, the 3rd starter in my rotation is 28 year old Nationals' right hander John Patterson.

Patterson is a personal favorite of mine, ever since I identified him as a big time sleeper last year in my fantasy league. As I’ve said in the prior two underrated pitchers columns, a guy who with a strike out rate as good as Patterson’s is always close to becoming something very good. All it takes is control. And in 2005, that’s exactly what happened when he went from fallen prospect to front end starter.

Now, because he’s an extreme flyball pitcher, Patterson was helped immensely by the Expos’ move to Washington. His home run total was no doubt suppressed by RFK Stadium’s cavernous outfield; in fact his Hr/9 was sliced in half from 1.65/9 in 2004 to .86/9 in 2005. However, perhaps an even bigger reason for his success was that improvement in control.

It was something that had always kept him from being anything more than a tantalizing prospect. Patterson never was able to put up an ERA under 4.00 above AA because of it. His high strike out rates compensated somewhat, and led to his premature promotion to the Diamondbacks in 2002. He was actually very good in his limited time there; in seven games (five starts), he struck out 9.02 batters per nine while walking only 2.05 and correspondingly had a solid 3.23 ERA. Unfortunately for Patterson, injuries plagued him and he was unable to maintain his success. His walk rate was elevated again, and the Diamondbacks shipped him off to the Expos where he got a chance as a fifth starter in 2004.

That season, Patterson’s first full one in the majors, he walked 4.21 batters per nine innings in his 19 starts. Even with his impressive 9.06 strike out per nine number, that played out to just a mediocre 2.15 K/BB ratio. Correspondingly, he ERA was a nasty 5.05. Rightfully so, he had to earn a spot in the rotation in 2005. And it took an injury to Tony Armas Jr. to provide that opportunity. But to Patterson’s credit, he seized it and never looked back.

In 2005, Patterson’s K/9 decreased, but was still an excellent 8.39. That was more than offset by his improvement in control; he walked 65 in 198.1 innings pitched, or 2.94 per nine. That translates to 2.85 K/BB overall, which is quite good. He ended up with a 3.13 ERA though finishing with a poor won loss record, 9-7, which no doubt has caused people to overlook his very good peripherals. Just for a comparison, Roger Clemens last season had a K/9 of 7.88, walked 2.64 per nine which translates into a 2.98 K/BB. Someone in my fantasy league laughed when I said that, but the truth is Patterson was that good last season.

Patterson is not only underrated around baseball, but he’s not even fully appreciated on his own team. Despite being far and away the best pitcher on the Nationals last season, one of the best pitchers in the NL period and going most of spring training without allowing a run, the honor of pitching opening day was given to Livan Hernandez. Livan Large wasn’t even the Nats second best starter last year; Esteban Loiaza was.

This year Patterson has ended up on the D/L in the early going with problems in his right forearm, which is the main reason I couldn’t make him #2 on my list. It is difficult to predict when he will return since the Nationals have botched handling it from day one. Hopefully, he should be back by the end of May, though mid June is more likely. Still it is shocking to see that he is owned in just 58% of all CBS Sportsline fantasy leagues, down from 95 percent to start the year. Again to compare him to Clemens, who is owned in 81 percent of the same leagues currently! The guy isn’t even on a major league roster. It isn’t as if Patterson has an elbow injury here. A pitcher who pitched as well as he did last year, and as well has he has to start this year should not be dropped unless his season is definitely finished.

Barring something unexpected, when he does return he should continuation where he left off last season. Before he hit the D/L, Patterson had pitched 25.2 innings, striking out 32 and walking only five, indicating 2005 was no fluke. Those numbers were with this forearm problem, since it has troubled him since his first start of the season.

Right now, Patterson is quickly becoming one of the best pitchers in the game. The only things stopping me from saying that he currently is a top ten pitcher is the fact he’s only done it for one season and his injury. Pitchers that have a history of control issues can always lose their command again; see Oliver Perez. He’s also a guy who has had injury problems in the past, so this current DL stint is a red flag. But if Patterson can repeat his 2005 season this year, then there is no question he will have placed himself as one of the best pitchers in the game.

If he pitched for one of the New York teams, everyone would be talking about that possibility, probably as a certainty. But since he’s in Washington playing for a terrible Nats squad, he’d have to win 20 games to get any recognition. So a repeat of my fantasy draft will probably occur next year. Here’s an actual quote from draft night:

“John Patterson got kept?! Who would do that?”

I would. And I did. Keeping a top ten pitcher in 2005 with a 20th round pick turned out to be a surprisingly easy decision.

2 Comments:

Blogger Bryan Koch said...

Ben,

Agreed that Patterson is underrated in many circles, but there's no way he's a Top 10 pitcher, either in real life or in fantasy.

In real life, he's only pitched one full season, and in that season his ERA+ was barely in the top 20. THe peripherals you cite are influenced by the Washington ballpark, and I find it difficult to believe that they point to any sort of significant improvement in ERA; they certainly justify last year's mark, but again, adjusted, that was only tenth best in his own league.

In fantasy, he's again a Top 20 guy, but his WHIP is just a little above average, and he's never won even 10 games, so it's tough to call him a Top 10 pitcher. Tim Dierkes puts him at #16, ahead of guys like Oswalt and Buehrle, which I think seems about right. But it's a little soon to call him Top 10.

Love the series, couldn't agree more about Harang.

4:19 AM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

Bryan:

Patterson's improvement in homeruns can be attributed to the park. However he was always a big time strike out pitcher. He just walked fewer batters last year. And look if it were ball park alone, then anyone could win there. Going to Washington itself doesn't just improve you; if so Livan Large should have been one of baseball's best. Instead he had his worst season in years.

The wins hurt his fantasy value, but WHIP can be unreliable since it opp BA can raise or fall dramatically year to year. I actually had Oswalt ranked ahead of him, but Oswalt is a top ten pitcher (Buehrle is good but is not).

In any case, I'd say he was a top ten pitcher last year; but when evaluating who is a top ten pitcher overall, it dates back more than one year. (I tried to make that clear in the column, but maybe I didn't do enough of a job) I completely agree he'd need at least one more season like 2005 to put him in that catagory.

2:51 AM  

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