It’s time for another Who’d You Rather. But since starting pitching is different from the offensive positions, let’s break all the traditional rules and turn Who’d You Rather on its head. Are you ready?
We’re going to be comparing not two, but three guys. Earth shattering, I’m sure you’re all stunned. Well, I’m actually sure you all read the title and knew full well that this would be a comparison between Doug Fister of the Detroit Tigers, Derek Holland of the Texas Rangers, and Jon Lester of the Boston Red Sox.
Three pitchers. Three American League pitchers. Three pitchers on the last three,well, four, American League Champions. Three pitchers who in 2013 produced pretty similar seasons, which is why they finished the year all ranked pretty close in the end-of-year rankings. As for the Tale of the Tape, take a look at what 2013 offered.
Looking ahead to 2014, let’s see what these three potentially bring to the table. I want you all to be in a good mood when we get to the end, so we’re going to start with the stuff that will make you sad.
Fister: The first thing that really jumps out as a negative is Fister’s WHIP. Actually, WHIP goes a long way in keeping all of these guys from being truly elite pitchers, but we’re talking about Fister’s now. Besides, his is a little more alarming, especially when compared to 2012.
Look at some of his average/ratio stats, and we’ll see where this is coming from.
He’s not walking guys at a significantly lower rate than he did in 2012, but his strikeout and hit rates are moving in the wrong direction. Not a good trend. So, what I fear is that American League hitters have picked up on pitches they used to chase. That caused Fister to challenge the plate more and when he did, the hitters weren’t nearly as baffled.
I fear this for a few reasons.
- WHIP counts as a fantasy category and if this trend continues in 2014, it’s going to be ugly, even if the other five categories are decent, or even good.
- There were pitchers who had higher ERA’s than Fister in 2013, but had a lower WHIP. If you’re allowing a lot of runners to reach base, it’s going to bite you. It’s not only more likely to bump up your ERA, but result in shorter outings. In turn, fewer wins and strikeouts are a risk.
I’ll close with a negative that’s not really in Fister’s control: Detroit’s bullpen. Yikes. Fister averaged between 6-7 innings per start in 2013, which is pretty good. But let’s round up and say that he averaged seven. If he hands a one-run lead to his bullpen with two innings against even an average lineup, do you think Fister is confident that he’ll get a win? More often than not, I’d say he isn’t. When he is, it’s probably got more to do with the possibility that Miguel Cabrera can provide an insurance run or two.
I know, pitcher wins are losing their value as an important stat, and the fact that so many games are decided by bullpens is a big reason why. But it’s still a standard stat in fantasy baseball. Detroit’s bullpen was a train wreck for most of 2013 and it burned them in the playoffs. Don’t be surprised if the bullpen prevents Fister from an extra win or two in 2014.
Holland: With very few exceptions, every player has a category or two that they’re average in, or even worse. Heck, even Miguel Cabrera isn’t exactly a base-stealer. That’s fine. I know what his strengths are and how I can overcome his weakness.
With Derek Holland, I just don’t know what to expect. He has strengths and weaknesses, I just don’t really know what they are. Why don’t we take a look at his output from the last two years.
Interestingly enough, the total numbers actually add up in a pretty good way. It’s the two individual seasons that are a troubling.
For a guy like Holland who can get strikeouts, a decent ERA with a big WHIP isn’t a huge surprise. So, the 3.42/1.286 combo in 2013 makes some sense. He’s not bad at walks, but not great, either. While constantly putting men on base is playing with fire, a guy with good strikeout stuff can contain those fires and prevent crooked numbers. That’s not a huge problem.
I have no idea what happened the year before. Actually, I do, he couldn’t stop giving up those pesky home runs. A 1.221 WHIP isn’t bad, but when you’re allowing 1.6 HR’s per nine, the ERA can climb.
The problem here is that I don’t know which Derek Holland is going to show up. Will he put it all together, be all-around bad, or somewhere in the middle? When you are facing a question like that and all three possibilities have a similar likelihood, you have consider outside factors, mainly that Texas is not a good place to pitch. Throwing that in, it gets a little harder to be optimistic.
Lester: It’s funny, I don’t think of Jon Lester as Mr. Consistency, but if you go back to when he became a full time guy in 2008, Lester has actually been fairly consistent, with one exception. What in the world happened in 2012? I know, the Red Sox came back strong in 2013 and certainly, teams and players can have a bad season. But the fact that that season was only two years ago means I can’t quite erase it from my memory as a fantasy owner.
But for the sake of argument, let’s say that 2012 didn’t ever happen. We’re ignoring that season and going straight from 2011 to 2013. Looking at his numbers, I still have a slight concern.
Now, it’s not a massive drop in production, but it is a noticeable one, especially for a pitcher who will be 30 in January and who pitches in a tough park for pitchers, and in a good hitting division. Is Lester becoming easier to hit?
Well, he’s allowing more hits. In the 2008-2011 stretch, he was at eight hits per 9 innings, while he was just below 9 per 9 in 2013. That’s why his WHIP increased, despite a better BB/9 rate. His strikeout rate is also dropping. Now, he’s still at 7.5 K’s per nine, which is a good rate. But before, he was at about a K an inning. So again, it’s small, but it’s a decline and it’s a slight indicator that his stuff isn’t quite what it once was.
Think of Lester like Tim Lincecum, albeit on a less extreme scale. His 2008-2011 was good, his 2012 was really bad, and 2013 was better than 2012, but not quite what he’d been. Lincecum was better than Lester in the 2008-2011 range and then worse in 2012 and 2013. So, Lester’s peaks and valley’s aren’t quite as extreme as Timmy’s, but the comparison is pretty strong.
I don’t think Lester will revert back to 2012 form unless some injuries come up. But, a slower decline from 2013 wouldn’t surprise me, either.
Fister: Despite my skepticism above, if you offer me a pitcher who pounds the strike zone like Fister does who still produces about 7 K’s for every nine innings he pitches, I’ll gladly take my chances, especially when he pitches in a big ballpark like Comerica Park.
I actually view Fister similarly to Andrew Cashner, who I profiled earlier this week. The strikeout numbers aren’t great, but they really don’t need to be given the parks they play in. Like Cashner, Fister has also shown that when he gets into a groove, he can make batters miss at an historic rate.
I won’t say that a decline is impossible, but the fact is that he had a sub 1.20 WHIP in both 2011 and 2012. Even if he doesn’t get back below those totals in 2014, I’d bet that he’ll be under 1.30.
As for the concerns about the lack of a bullpen hurting his wins, they’re valid, but something else needs to be pointed out.
- 2011: Tigers lost the ALCS and signed Prince Fielder in the offseason.
- 2012: Tigers lost the World Series and signed Torii Hunter in the offseason.
- 2013: Tigers lost ALCS and traded Fielder for Ian Kinsler.
None of those moves were exactly expected, but they all happened. In 2013, they lost to the Red Sox largely because they couldn’t hold late-game leads. It’s pretty well known that Mike Ilitch isn’t exactly interested in rebuilding, and bullpen arms are generally much easier to get in free agency than impact hitters are. I can’t imagine that this offseason will go by without Detroit significantly bolstering the bullpen.
Holland: The issues that come with pitching in Texas are well known. It’s a hot city and the stadium has no roof, so the dog days of August and July really seem to hit their pitchers hard. It’s also a very live yard. But how do offset those issues?
- You have to throw strikes. You’re going to allow home runs, but if you walk people, those home runs become killer. Throwing strikes makes those homers solo shots, which is much more manageable.
- You have to keep hitters from making contact. Translation: You need to have good stuff.
Holland hits on both needs. He’s also only 27, which generally means that his prime years are in front of us.
We also know that Holland can get low numbers in certain statistics, he’s just struggled at putting them together in one year. That’s not terribly uncommon for pitchers in their early-mid-20’s. They have good stuff, they come to the show, they struggle in some areas and excel in others. So, they work on improving over the offseason, so where they struggled before is now a strength, and where they excelled before becomes a weakness. When they get into their late-20’s, they figure out how to put it together.
It’s true that pitching in Texas is going to hurt Holland’s stats compared to what he’d do if he pitched in a place like Oakland. But I do believe he’s going to put it together in a better way in 2014.
Lester: I have to start with his innings pitched. Since 2008, he’s only failed to hit 200 innings once, and that was 191.2 in 2012. Whether he’s struggling or pitching great, Lester finds his way to the field and pitches. With his track record, there’s really no reason to think that the numbers won’t work themselves out by the end of the season.
You also have to like what he did in the playoffs. It’s true that that’s a very limited sample size and I don’t want to overreact to it, but you can’t think that that won’t be a confidence booster for him heading into 2014. Are there any opponents out there that Lester doesn’t think he can shut down? Judging by what he did in the postseason, I’d say no.
Actually, generally when we’re looking at Lester, I like every category other than WHIP to be at least solid. I don’t know that Lester will be the best at anything (other than maybe wins), but he’s on the high end of the curve in several places.
- Who’d I Rather?
In a keeper league, I like Holland, because I like him beyond 2014 and 2015. If we’re just talking about 2014, these three are pretty close, but here’s the order:
Fister’s ceiling may not be as high as Holland’s, but I don’t think he trails by that much, and his floor isn’t as low, either. I have no problem calling Lester a great big game pitcher (yes, I believe they exist), but I think he’s more on a decline than the others. Even if I eliminate 2012, his best seasons since 2010 haven’t had many great categories.
Crazy Early 2014 Projections