Mat Latos: The Next Fantasy Ace?

Ray Guilfoyle takes a look at Mat Latos and wonders if he is on the cusp of being the next fantasy ace.

Last offseason, Mat Latos was traded to the Reds in a blockbuster deal involving Edinson Volquez and three prospects including first baseman Yonder Alonso, catcher Yasmani Grandal, and reliever Brad Boxberger. The price of the deal for the Reds was huge. Many would think the Reds were receiving an ace in return for all that they gave up. Why did they have to give up so much for an inexperienced starting pitcher? The price was high because Latos has yet to sniff free agency, and he has the potential to be an ace, but he also has a history of being a headcase.

Coming into the 2012 season, Latos had put together two very good seasons, winning 14 and 9 games with ERAs below 3.50 in each of the last two seasons. But, he was pitching in what is known as the best pitchers park in baseball, Petco Park, and was now moving to a ballpark known to be friendly to power hitters. Some questioned how he would fare in Cincinnati, thinking that he would fall victim to the home run, thus impacting his value in fantasy leagues in 2012.

Latos had other ideas.

Here is his career stats, courtesy of Baseball Reference:

2009 SDP 4 5 4.62 10 10 50.2 43 29 26 7 23 1 39 82 1.303 7.6 1.2 4.1 6.9 1.70
2010 SDP 14 10 2.92 31 31 184.2 150 63 60 16 50 3 189 126 1.083 7.3 0.8 2.4 9.2 3.78
2011 SDP 9 14 3.47 31 31 194.1 168 82 75 16 62 3 185 102 1.184 7.8 0.7 2.9 8.6 2.98
2012 CIN 14 4 3.48 33 33 209.1 179 87 81 25 64 9 185 122 1.161 7.7 1.1 2.8 8.0 2.89
4 Yrs 41 33 3.41 105 105 639.0 540 261 242 64 199 16 598 112 1.156 7.6 0.9 2.8 8.4 3.01
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 10/30/2012.

As expected, he gave up more home runs, giving up 25 in 2012, almost as many as he did the prior two seasons in San Diego combined. His HR/9 jumped from 0.7 in 2011 to 1.1 in 2012, and his strikeout rate dropped from 8.6 K/9 innings to 8.0 K/9 innings. But, there were some positives to take from his performance this season. His innings pitched have increased in each of the last three seasons:

2009: 50.2 IP

2010: 184.2 IP

2011: 194.1 IP

2012: 209.1 IP

Latos went over the 200 innings mark for the first time in 2012, and his WHIP actually dropped from 1.184 in 2011 to 1.161 in 2012. The drop in WHIP was due to a slight drop in his hits per nine innings from 7.8 to 7.7, and the drop in his walk rate from 2.9 BB/9 to 2.8 BB/9. So, while giving up more home runs this season, he also gave up less base runners.

Looking a little deeper into his 2012 performance, you can see that he pitched better as the season got longer. Here are his monthly ERAs and home run totals:

April: 5.97 ERA/4 HRs

May: 3.26 ERA/ 7 HRs

June: 4.19 ERA/ 6 HRs

July: 3.34 ERA/ 3 HRs

August: 2.61 ERA/ 3 HRs

September 2.21 ERA/ 2 HRs

I know you can't take away his April performance, but if you did, his ERA would have been 3.10 instead of 3.48, and his WHIP would have been 1.099 instead of 1.161. His HR/9 for the first three months of the season was 1.57, and that dropped in the second half to just 0.65 HR/9, right around his HR/9 in his last two seasons in San Diego. This isn't to say his 2012 was bad, it was actually very good.

And while his monthly K/BB also increased as the season wore on, his monthly BABIP dropped as the season wore on:

April: 1.80 K/BB/ .337 BABIP

May: 2.75 K/BB/ .208 BABIP

June: 6.50 K/BB/ .282 BABIP

July: 2.25 K/BB/ .274 BABIP

August 2.69 K/BB/ .266 BABIP

September 3.00 K/BB/ .245 BABIP

Latos won't turn 25 for at least another month, and he has more room to grow as a starting pitcher, but he looked more and more like a future fantasy ace as the season got longer in 2012. Can he continue this growth in 2013? I am willing to bet that he does, because some players need a little more time to grow up than others. Latos showed that he could dominate like he did in San Diego.

I could see his home run rate dropping in 2013, and all he needs is a slight jump in his strikeout rate, and continued growth in his ground ball rate (his GB% jumped from 43% to 46% in 2012), and he could be mentioned in the same breath as Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels when discussing ace level starting pitchers.

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