If you look at anything long enough, you can find some sort of truth in it. Yes, even spring training stats.
I touched on this in my last Double Play Depth post, but for pitchers, the only stats I look at in order to gain legitimate information are walk rate and strikeout rate. Generally, the best idea is to use this information to evaluate starters who have upside but not yet shown it in the way the scouting reports suggest they are. My personal favorite examples of this came back in 2008, and greatly helped a few of my teams that year. Here are two players who I bumped up my draft lists based on their spring rates:
Player A - Previous season ERA: 4.00, Previous season WHIP: 1.28, Spring K/BB rate: 24/6
Player B - Previous season ERA: 4.50, Previous WHIP: 1.44, Spring K/BB rate: 26/4
Player A won the Cy Young award that season (the first of two) and Player B struck out over 200 hitters with a 3.21 ERA. So if you had Tim Lincecum and Edinson Volquez that year, you probably got great value for those picks. Same if you took Francisco Liriano in 2010 after he posted a 30/5 K/BB rate in the spring. Or Brandon McCarthy last year after he put up 20 strikeouts against 1 walk. Now, this is by no means a fool proof method to find the value picks for 2012, but it's a helpful tool. For every one of these guys there was also a Greg Reynolds, Kyle Davies or Ramon Ortiz -- and this is why you have to be careful about who you bump up due to performance. It's about guys who have real upside.
So what makes an impressive K/BB ratio during spring training? Since you're looking for exaggerated performance, I'd put the number at 5.0 or higher -- which would include all four of the examples above. For context, only three pitchers had K/BB rates above 5.0 in the 2011 season, and you like them: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Dan Haren. After the jump, we'll talk about who's got the most impressive ratios so far in camp and whether they bear watching.So far this spring, there are 8 pitchers who have at least a 10.0 K/BB rate -- and we'll break them out into three categories. We have The Rocks (guys whose values aren't changing no matter what their stats look like), The Curiosities (guys whose values can be influenced by great performance) and the Sideshows (guys who are fun stories, but are unlikely to turn stats into a career jump). So let's get to it.
Justin Verlander (13/1) - Nothing to see here, move along.
Roy Halladay (10/1) - I know there's been rumblings about worries due to Halladay's decreased velocity. It's too early to worry about such things.
Dan Haren (10/1) - Again, nothing to see here.
Brian Matusz (13/0) - Now things get interesting. Matusz got smacked around like a pinata the entire time he was in the major leagues last season, to the tune of a 10.69 ERA and 2.11 WHIP. Ouch. But this is also the same player who had a career 2.33 minor league ERA with 8.4 K/9 after being the #4 overall pick in the 2008 draft. And was the #5 prospect in all of baseball headed into the 2010 season. Clearly, the biggest thing to watch with Matusz is going to be his velocity, which is a big reason why he struggled last season -- he never really got back on track after missing the first two months due to injury. But reports have him hitting the low-90's with regularity so far this spring, and this combined with the performance could make him a nice candidate to outperform his draft spot.
Madison Bumgarner (13/1) - Truthfully, this type of performance should not be unexpected from Bumgarner, as he had a 4.2 K/BB rate last year while he was having his under-the-radar breakout season. I expect him to be on more people's radars in 2012. As of writing this, he's barely snuck into the top-20 among starting pitchers -- which is a veritable bargain at that price. If you are going to go heavy on offense early, you can feel pretty good about drafting Bumgarner as your ace.
Francisco Liriano (12/1) - Yes, again. If you've owned him in his down years, you've probably sworn off him for good. If you've owned him in his up years, he probably seems like a great sleeper. If you haven't owned him at all, you're just not having any fun. But a closer look at his career stats, may show a glimpse into his future. The separator for LIriano in his breakout 2010 season was his BB/9 of 2.7, more than a walk lower than his next best year as a starter. And that spring, he had a 6.0 K/BB. In his other three springs as a starter (2008, 2009 and 2011) he had a 2.6 K/BB rate. Coincidence? Possibly, but if he finishes the spring with ratios similar to what he's put up so far, I'll be moving him up my draft board. And I'm a 2009 Liriano owner.
Zack Greinke (11/1) - You may be wondering why I put Greinke in with these guys instead of with the first group. It's because there's room to play around with his valuation. Right now he's being drafted as the #12 SP, one spot behind the aforementioned Haren -- but his underlying statistics said he was a borderline top-5 pitcher last year. If you believe that he'll repeat his outstanding 4.5 K/BB rate from 2011, there's no reason he can't finish in the top-5 this season. Not only will his 13.6% HR/FB rate regress closer to his 9.0% career rate, but with no Prince Fielder, Yuni Betancourt and Casey McGehee, the Brewers defense should be improved.
Christian Friedrich (10/1) - This one surprised me quite a bit. Friedrich's stock has fallen so much that he went from Colorado's 4th best prospect to its 14th in one season, even landing behind D.J. LeMahieu. Yes, that D.J. LeMahieu. But then again, that's what happens when you have two straight years of a 5.00 ERA or higher in AA. Could Friedrich still turn it around and be a solid #4 starter? Sure, anything's possible. But as his 7.88 spring ERA alludes to, he's got lots of work to do before getting there. No need to worry about him unless he starts dominating once the games start in AAA as he was supposed to back when he was their 1st round pick in 2008.