Mat Latos Deserves More Of Your Attention

Frank Victores-US PRESSWIRE

Last year, Mat Latos proved he could survive the switch from San Diego to Cincinnati. Can he take the next step in 2013?

Mat Latos has some of the flashiest tattoos -- including this questionable tattoo of Brian and Stewie Griffin from Family Guy -- a wicked slider and one of the hardest fastballs in baseball. He traded pitcher-friendly Petco Park for Bronson Arroyo's personal home run playground in 2012, but instead of imploding like everyone predicted, Latos posted a 3.48 ERA -- nearly matching his 3.47 ERA in 2011 -- while exceeding 200 innings for the first time in his career. If not for another year of Johnny Cueto's magic show, Latos would have been the Reds most valuable pitcher. But in fantasy circles, he doesn't get treated that way.

Last October, Ray profiled Latos and asked the question, "Can Latos become the next fantasy ace?" I had just joined the Fake Teams writing staff around this time, and I was the lone commenter supporting Ray's stance. So it should come as no surprise that, yes, I think Latos can take the next step. But an ace? I'm not so sure. That's already a loose definition, and my ace line is normally drawn just short of the No. 10 starter. Regardless, I believe Latos is being underrated heading into 2013 drafts, and I'm here to tell you why.

IP

K/9

BB/9

K/BB

AVG

LOB%

HR/FB

Pitcher A

209.1

7.95

2.75

2.89

.227

75.5%

11.8%

Pitcher B

208.1

8.25

2.12

3.90

.231

73.5%

11.7%

Pitcher A is Latos, and Pitcher B is Madison Bumgarner. It's obvious where Bumgarner gets the edge here, but over the course of their careers, Latos and Bumgarner aren't too dissimilar in terms of their strikeout and walk rates -- Latos is at 22.9% and 7.7%, respectively, and Bumgarner is at 21.7% and 5.6%. Currently on Mock Draft Central, Bumgarner is going 12th among starting pitchers, and Latos is going 25th. But just last year, the two finished seven spots apart on ESPN's Player Rater -- Bumgarner was 15th and Latos was 22nd. Throw in a superb ending to 2012 for Latos and a forgettable one for Bumgarner, and I begin to wonder why Latos isn't being ranked more favorably. Even Latos' teammate, the aforementioned magician, Cueto, is going three spots ahead of him. And I think we can agree who has the better "stuff" between the two.

The most obvious argument against Latos is that he plays half of his games in Great American Ball Park. Only Miller Park was less favorable to pitchers in terms of home runs allowed, according to ESPN's Park Factors, and Latos wasn't able to escape the GAP's home run wrath, either -- in 19 home starts, Latos served up 18 home runs, while in 14 road starts, he gave up seven. He did, however, knock five percent off his fly ball rate (from 41.1% to 36.1%), and added almost three percent to his ground ball rate (from 42.8% to 45.6%) from the year before. Both numbers represent career bests for Latos, which is an important achievement for a pitcher switching from an extreme pitcher's park to an extreme hitter's park.

As Ray pointed out in his piece, Latos had a very rough start to his Cincinnati career, but improved month to month:

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.

Digging deeper, in his first 14 starts, Latos had a 5.21 ERA and gave up 16 home runs, including a five-homer game versus Colorado and a three-homer game at Cleveland. But in his final 19 starts, Latos had a 2.43 ERA and only served up nine long balls. The change that turned Latos' season around, explained ever so nicely by Ben Duronio in this FanGraphs article, was scrapping his changeup and simplifying his pitch selection. If Latos continues this trend, and one would assume he would, you could see a significant improvement in his ERA and component metrics (3.79 xFIP, 3.75 SIERA) in 2013.

In 2012, Latos' strikeout rate dropped below 8.00 for the first time in his career -- it was 8.57 in his final year in San Diego. But if Latos can keep his SwStr% above 10.0%, you should expect his K/9 to jump over 8.0 again, as that's more than enough to produce more strikeouts. There's no question that Latos has the right stuff to be mentioned among the game's top starters. It's his mental makeup that gets questioned the most, and while there may be a game or two swayed by his emotions, I think Latos showed a lot of maturity in 2012. Despite the rough start, Latos bounced back nicely, and he even started to work deeper into games as the season progressed -- he went seven-plus innings in 13 of his final 19 starts.

Last year, Latos proved that he could do much more than survive the switch from Petco to the GAP. In the second half, only 11 starting pitchers had a better ERA than Latos (2.84), and he allowed the 16th fewest HR/9 over this time. If he builds on his strong finish to 2012, and his K/9 bounces back, it's a good possibility that the pitcher with the Brian and Stewie Griffin tattoo can return the value of a top-15 starter in 2013.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @akantecki.

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