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Waiting on Starting Pitching: Year of the Pitcher III

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Like a few fantasy players this season, I'll primarily target bats in the early rounds of my drafts while waiting on the preponderance of starting pitching we've been seeing in recent years. While every draft has its own identity and as a general rule of thumb I always take the best value available relative to position in the first twelve rounds of a snake draft, fantasy teams don't even begin to have specific needs to fill until that point or later. Additionally, I can tinker through trade or wire pickups to fill any holes later, and I'll still feel like I'm in good position even if I'm on the outside looking in at, for example, steals or saves.

On a couple of occasions during early mocks, I've found myself having to choose between third-tier starters such as C.J. Wilson, Daniel Hudson, and Ricky Romero to anchor my staff. I'm not entirely thrilled with going this route - like everybody else I'd rather have the chance to build around Doc, Kershaw, or King Felix - and although there is a certain amount of risk inherent in building a rotation around the C.J. Wilson's of the world, the strategy does allow me to focus on a smaller group of premium hitters while quickly building pitching depth in the middle rounds where I may find myself choosing from a gaggle of good arms when other players might be reaching for saves, steals, or a modicum of park-inflated upside in the outfield.

Some of the guys are reasonably well-known quantities like Wilson -- a relatively important variable if choosing to go in this direction -- while some may even offer an inkling of upside like Hudson. Waiting on starters also provides me the opportunity in the late rounds to select top-tier set-up men with excellent peripherals to help buoy my counting stats and tighten-up any ERA or WHIP concerns that may arise from my more modest targeting of starters. In innings-capped leagues, this type of draft philosophy could play particularly well.

Due to his slightly longer track record and the benefits of pitching against the A.L. West, there's much to like about C.J. Wilson. Currently the 21st pitcher off the board in mock drafts - right about where he should be selected - Wilson's a ground ball-biased pitcher (1.68 GB/FG career ratio) playing in front of a decent defense against weak-hitting teams (Erick Aybar and Alberto Callaspo aren't Elvis Andrus and Adrian Beltre, but they're certainly adequate). The Rangers are the only team in the division who hit lefties reasonably well, and their power from the right side of the plate will be mitigated in some part by Angel Stadium (park factor of 93 over the last three years) as well as by Peter Bourjos decimating fly balls out in centerfield.

Wilson topped 200 innings for the second straight year, struck out 206 batters (8.30 K/9) on an 8.3% swinging-strike rate, and provided better command to the tune of a career-high 2.78 K/BB ratio. His .287 BABIP last year doesn't portend regression, nor should his slightly low 8.2% HR/FB rate. Wilson did out-perform his peripherals a bit in 2011, but I expect much of the same from the Angels' big pitching free-agent pickup. If he can continue to limit free passes (career-best 8.1% BB-rate), an ERA in the low-3's and a WHIP around 1.20 with 195 K's is entirely within reason for him.

I certainly wouldn't be ashamed to argue that Daniel Hudson has the most upside of the bunch. The 22nd pitcher off the boards and providing (potentially) elite-level control (his 2.03 BB/9 in over 200 innings during his 33 starts was 9th best in the National League in 2011), if he can generate more strikeouts on his impressive 9.9% swinging-strike rate (6.85 K/9 last year), he has a good chance to provide top-15 value in the middle rounds. His 6.4% HR/FB rate was slightly depressed but, if he continues to pitch down in the zone, should be able to limit the damage that Chase Field causes (114 park factor for LHB) though some regression may be expected.

The concerns I have with Hudson are his big jump in innings pitched in 2011 (over 125 more IP than in 2010), a relatively limited repertoire as well as the number of sliders he throws (400+ more than the previous season). Though Hudson's only thrown 336 innings in his short career, if he can provide his owners another 200 in 2012, he could be significantly undervalued in this year's drafts.

That leaves Toronto Blue Jays and groundball aficionado Ricky Romero. I prefer him as a number two in my rotation, but can live with him as the anchor of my staff if needed. In 613 major league innings, Romero's provided a 7.24 K/9, 55 GB%, and a 2.05 K/BB ratio. Those aren't elite numbers but he's proven both durable and able to handle the rigors of pitching in the oven of the A.L. East, and by inducing all those grounders he mitigates the effects of pitching half of his games in the Rogers Centre (115 park factor in 2011).

Romero's 2.92 ERA last season was depressed by his .242 BABIP, but an ERA in the mid-3's, 180 strikeouts, and a WHIP around 1.25 is reasonable so long as his home run rate doesn't balloon and his infield doesn't falter (Yunel Escobar, Brett Lawrie and, to a lesser extent, Kelly Johnson). His changeup has become special (43.3% swing-and-miss rate with an unreal 70% GB rate against right-handed batters), so if he continues to mix speeds well, he's more than capable of holding his own in Toronto.

Even if you're forced to go with Wilson, Hudson, or Romero atop your rotation, there's plenty of pitching to be had in the middle parts of the draft. Tangentially and quite anecdotally, in terms of defending this draft philosophy, I'm fairly convinced that in the last couple of years -- Year of the Pitcher I, II, and the soon-to-be-released III - pitchers are seeing the fruits of MLB's over-correction resulting from the float of the steroids era. Put more simply, pitching is better than it's been in about twenty years, so feel free to take advantage of its depth.

(Thanks to and for statistics.)