It is time to dumpster dive for starts!
Want to know how I can tell? Congratulate me, I am now the proud owner of Jesse Litsch!
My league has 5 reserves and currently all 5 of my reserves, Carlos Beltran, Carl Crawford, Curt Schilling, Rich Harden and Chris Ray, are all hurt. I lost Kenny Rodgers last week making three starters hurt (I know, Rich Harden should not even count but he IS a starter, and he IS hurt), so I needed to cut him (It makes sense given contract and rights issues that I won't get into). That left me checking out my 14-team-deep-league, free agent list looking for a starter for this week.
Jesse has one scheduled start, today against the Rays.
We are all doing it at this time of year. You have an injured starter or two, or your last two starters have been shaky ... whatever the reason, you find yourself shuffling starters on and off of your roster on an almost weekly basis. In all but the shallowest leagues, this is akin to day trading. You are trying to "time the market"and cull the best starts from the bargain bin of free agent pitchers. Like anything else, there is a right way and a wrong way to go about it. Well ... to put it more accurately, there are ways to increase your odds of success.
First, you need to adjust your thinking. You are patching. You are literally scraping the bottom of the starting barrel. While you have heard tale, or even seen for yourself someone picking a pitcher off the scrap heap only to watch him go an a Cy-esque half-season run, the fact remains that this is the last day of July and there probably isn't a stud to be had. You certainly cannot work under the assumption you are going to find one.
In the preseason when I broke down starters, I said there were two desirable types of starters. The first group and the smallest group is what I call "offensive"starters. They are the guys that you look forward to seeing. When they pitch, they help your numbers. They lower your ERA and WHIP. There maybe 10 of these pitchers in all of baseball ... if that.
The other group is "defensive"starters. These are guys that keep the damage to your numbers to a minimum. They aren't stars, but they don't throw up a 6-runs-in-4-IP type of start every third time out. They are relatively consistent and reliable. These pitchers aren't sexy. They aren't name players. Nevertheless, one can often be found in your FA pool.
Remember that a fantasy pitching staff is interactive.
With your hitters, for the most part, a good hitter contributes no matter what. If they put a HR or RBI on the board, it stays there. If you have Albert Pujols, you get his value no matter what the rest of your offense does. Batting average is the exception of course, but when you are talking nearly 300 AB a week, one bad performance in that category will not sink the rest of the offense. With pitchers, it's a different story.
If Johan Santana puts up 7 shutout IP for you on Monday, that's nice. However, if Kip Wells gives up 5 runs in 3 IP on Tuesday, he just turned Santana into Julian Tavarez. In that case the net effect of paying all that money for Johan Santana, and the net effect of Santana's brilliant start being paired with Kip Well's outing, is a 4.50 ERA. Good pitching may beat good hitting, but bad pitching guts good pitching every time.
You need to support your star pitchers with pitchers that will not undo everything your stars accomplish. This is particularly true in head-to-head leagues where columns are won and lost in 60 IP samples.
That brings us to the first thing I look at when I am picking out a short term starter claim ... quality starts. When a starter goes 6 or more innings and allowed 3 runs or less, that's a quality start. If that is all he does he's posted a 4.50 ERA. That's roughly MLB average. If you have two good starters doing better than average work, and three other starters who can be merely average, you have a better than average staff. It's just that simple.
Conversely a non-quality start, by just one out ... or 5.2 IP and 3 runs allowed ... is a 4.76 ERA
And it gets worse from there, sometimes much worse.
The number of quality starts and quality start percentage are good opening screenings of which starters you should be interested in. When filling in a starter at the end of your rotation, the first question you want to ask is "What are my odds of getting a 4.50 start or better out of this guy?"... Or again, perhaps more accurately "What are the odds this guy is going to dump 7 runs in 4 IP on my bottom line?"Quality start percentage tells you right away. Do you want the guy who is a 50/50 shot at a QS or the guy who posts a non-quality start, a worse than average start, 60% of the time?
Are you feeling lucky, punk?
With a starting pitcher claim at this time of the year, you are playing Russian roulette with your pitching stats. You might want to check how many cylinders have rounds in them before you play. Right?
Go ahead and check how reliable this simple little thumbnail is. Use your favorite site and sort a list of starters by numbers of quality starts. You will get a pretty representative list of good pitchers at the top. Resort that list by QS% and you get an even finer view of the better pitchers in your league, (once you get to an appropriate numbers starts of course). Using QS and QS% as a first screen works just as well when you are looking at the FA pool. Better starters post more quality starts.
QS% gives you a good idea of how consistent a pitcher has been. Don't forget to check what they are doing this month, or recently. Three or four weeks is a good sample. Remember we are looking for one or two good starts in most cases. A look back 3 weeks isn't the best gauge of what a pitcher will do in the next year or two, but it is as good a gauge as any about what he might do Thursday, especially if the news is bad.
The next thing you need to know is whether the guy you're looking at is performing above the level his indicators say he should be pitching. Look at his WHIP. Multiply it by 3 (or if you want to be more precise, 3.1). That number is what his ERA probably should look like. If his ERA is a lot lower than that number, he is probably living on borrowed time. Strikeout pitchers and ground ball pitchers can tolerate slightly higher WHIPs, but baserunners generally lead to runs, about 30% of the time, the game is often as simple as that.
Check Insiderbaseball.com's exclusive Player Production Charting for the pitcher. If his BHIP% (defined as the number of balls hit into play that are registered as hits against a pitcher) is lower than .290 or so, he's had some luck there as well. Only about 10% of pitchers can demonstrate a repeatable positive effect on this rate. For the most part when a pitcher allows a ball to be put into play he is basically the same as any other pitcher. If hitters are getting less hits off of him than league average on BHIP, that rate is going to correct itself eventually (read: any minute now).
Then check his Strand Percentage. As we see in BHIP%, very few pitchers can claim an ability to repeat a positive performance in this category. For the most part all starting pitchers will strand the MLB average amount of baserunners, which is around 71%. If your guy has stranded a significantly higher percentage of runners, then he's had some luck along the way in this regard as well and his good numbers are a bit soft.
Now that we have an idea of how consistent he is, and whether his pretty numbers are supported by his indicators, we can look at his last 3, 4 or 5 starts and get an idea of which direction his performance has been going lately. Stay away from guys who have struggled of late. At this level of starter, you never used the logic of "he's due". If he is going bad, stay away.
Now comes the most important factor in your final decision, especially if you are looking for a short-term addition to your staff, namely opposition. Figure out that pitcher's upcoming opponents. Be wary of good offenses of course and hitter-friendly parks. That is common sense. You should also look for starts within the division. If a starter has been in that division a while, the teams he's been facing repeatedly have collected a pretty good book on him and it gets harder and harder for him to pitch well. Divisional familiarity has gone a ways towards neutralizing or diminishing some pretty good pitchers since the start of the unbalanced schedule. An intradivision start is not a deal breaker, but it is a worthy consideration.
Chances are that the margins between your potential choices are pretty slim at this point in the season. When in doubt ... take the starter with the higher K rate. Take the starter with the lower walk rate. Take the starter who throws a higher percentage of ground balls. Take the starter with the higher IP/start rate (more likely to post a positive decision, and you generally do not get deeper into games by pitching poorly). Take the starter with the more favorable matchup. Take the starter with the better bullpen (if a reliever gives up two runs on his line that can ruin a good start).
You can slice the available FA starting pitchers in your league as slim as you like. There are plenty of indicators than can help separate the candidates you are picking between. The fact remains however, that you are dealing with mostly erratic and inconsistent starters, otherwise they would be owned.
Recognize this game for what it is. All you can do is maximize your odds of not being napalmed by an incendiary start that leaves the rest of your staff in flames. Most times, when you are claiming starters on the last day in July, you should be happy with a quality start. Ergo, playing that percentage is a good starting point. Add in the quality of the offense a guy is facing and how well he's been pitching in his last 4 or 5 starts and you can determine the highest percentage play in the board.