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Pitching's Holy Trinity: The 2012 Candidates

JJ, leading the charge of 2012 holy trinity candidates.
JJ, leading the charge of 2012 holy trinity candidates.

By now, you've probably heard me talk about pitching's holy trinity. For those of you unfamiliar, here is a brief explanation of the theory from my post on Jaime Garcia back in February:

There are three ways for a pitcher to make himself valuable both from a real-life and fantasy perspective without the baggage of luck or surroundings. First, he must be able to miss bats -- this obviously brings strikeouts from a fantasy perspective, but also helps reduce ERA. Second, he has to limit his free passes -- this has a large effect on a pitcher's WHIP and wins as a by-product since it will allow him to go deeper into games. Finally, he has to keep the ball on the ground -- fewer fly balls = fewer HR allowed and more double plays = better ERA and chance for wins. Any pitcher who does at least one of these things well can be a major leaguer. Just two of these qualities is enough to be a star, but the pitchers who can do all three are the ones who are special because they have the most amount of control over their downside risk.

Like last time, we're going to use nice round numbers to determine who these guys are. More than seven strikeouts per nine, fewer than 2.5 walks per nine and more than a fifty percent ground ball rate are the criteria. In 2011, this group consisted of Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Jaime Garcia. So the next logical step here is to figure out who are the likeliest candidates to join the ranks of pitching's holy trinity in 2012. This list includes two pitchers who have done it before in their careers, a couple of the closest calls from last year, a few hidden gems and some real dark horses. Just for the fun of it, I'm also putting their Vegas odds of making it happen. You know, if Vegas cared about such things.

Josh Johnson

JJ was a member of the holy trinity back in 2009, with an 8.2 K/9, 2.5 BB/9 and 50.3% GB rate. I know all of the talk with Johnson is always focused on his health, but it's easy to forget how good of a pitcher he can be when he's right. The big man does have a career ERA of under 3.00 after all. His walk rate also has trended down of late, before kicking back up a little in 2011 -- his 2.35 BB/9 rate in 2010 was the lowest of his career. Combine those stats with the fact that Jose Reyes should help Miami's infield defense and you get a player who I will be targeting on draft day, despite the health risk. [Odds -- 3:2]

CJ Wilson

In his entire career from the bullpen to the rotation, Wilson has consistently been a solid ground ball pitcher. In fact, here are his GB rates over the last six seasons: 49.2%, 49.2%, 49.3%, 55.4%, 49.2%, 49.3%. That kind of consistency is both hilarious and incredible. On top of that, Wilson improved his peripherals greatly in his second year as a starter, raising his K/9 rate from 7.5 to 8.3 while lowering his BB/9 rate from 4.1 to 3.0. If he can continue that improvement in the walk department, he can put up numbers similar to the other big two in the Angels rotation. [Odds -- 4:1]

Justin Masterson

A killer of right-handed batters, Justin Masterson also induced ground balls at one of the highest rates in baseball. His GB rate of 55.1% was 7th in the majors last year among ERA qualifiers. And it's no secret that his improvement in 2011 was mostly due to a large drop in his walk rate -- which has been falling even more drastically than Romero's has. His 2.7 BB/9 was a career low. With a career K/9 rate of 7.1 and GB rate of 56.1%, Masterson is positioned to crack the holy trinity if he can continue to improve his control. [Odds -- 6:1]

Ricky Romero

This one should sound similar to what you just read for Wilson. Romero is not as good as his 2.92 ERA from 2011 suggested, but I don't think many people really believed that anyway. He's a good pitcher in a tough division who continues to improve. Romero's BB/9 rate was 4.0 in 2009 as a rookie, but decreased to 3.5 in 2010 and then 3.2 in 2011. His other two categories are near locks as he has never had a K/9 rate below 7.1 or GB rate below 54% in his career. The odds are not great that Romero will be able to lower his BB/9 rate to 2.5 or below, but stranger things have happened. [Odds -- 6:1]

Chris Sale

The more I analyze, watch and read about Chris Sale, the more I like him. He's my personal favorite of the 2012 class of reliever-to-starter conversions, ahead of Neftali Feliz and Daniel Bard. Sale's got a starter's repertoire, but there is much debate as to whether he can hold up physically as a starter long-term. Fortunately, that's not something you need to worry about for 2012. Sale's career 10.6 K/9 will likely go down in a move to the rotation, but I expect it to settle around 8.5. I also think Sale will be able to improve his control as a starter, while he holds up his career 50% GB rate. [Odds -- 8:1]

Brett Anderson

Anderson is the other pitcher on this list who has been a member of the holy trinity before. In his rookie season of 2009, he put up a 7.7 K/9, 2.3 BB/9 and 50.9% GB rate -- an extremely impressive performance. Unfortunately, he pitched less than 200 innings combined in 2010 and 2011, and will miss the first two months of the 2012 season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. He's a fantastic late-round pick with upside in deeper leagues, but will not have enough innings to qualify the club. [Odds -- incomplete]

Jeff Niemann

Niemann might look like an OK candidate just looking at his 2011 stats, but there's hidden information in there. Jason Collette posted a fantastic preview on Niemann at DRaysBay, a sister SB Nation site, this week detailing the differences between Niemann's first half and his second half, along with why it matters. Seriously, the post is a must-read, but to put it in context here, between April and June, Niemann had a 5.4 K/9, 2.2 BB/9 and 37.8% GB rate. After a slight tweak to his setup, between July and September Niemann had a 7.7 K/9, 2.7 BB/9 and 50.0% GB rate. If he wins the Rays 5th starter competition, he could be a big bargain based on where he's going. He's worth a flier in almost all leagues. [Odds -- 10:1]

Chris Volstad

The deepest sleeper on this list, Volstad had a ground ball rate of 52.3% and a BB/9 rate of 2.6 in 2011. He also improved his K/9 rate from 5.3 to 6.4 -- and this traveled in lockstep with his swinging strike rate which improved from 5.7% to 7.9%. Unfortunately, his 3.64 xFIP was significantly less than his 4.89 ERA due to a below average strand rate and elevated HR/FB rate. He's getting no respect as he's being drafted behind both Jason Hammel and Joel Piniero, but there is potential for breakout value. He won't be a top-10 pitcher or anything, but he won't need to be where he's currently being drafted. [Odds -- 12:1]