*Since my home computer is currently down, I have no choice but to write up my articles by spending more time in school. This means that I will most likely be able to only cover a handful of teams and players every week before Opening Day – at least until i fix my computer problem. This issue also explains why I haven’t posted anything since my Giants starting rotation column, but I assure you I will find ways around working without my “tools” for now. Thanks again for sticking around, and I hope above all else that you enjoy my write-ups.*
Last season, the San Diego Padres boasted the fourth-best pitching staff in the Major Leagues. They were fourth in total ERA, 12th in strikeouts (7th in the National League), and 7th in opponents batting average. Although the overall numbers are neat, a lot of San Diego’s success last year (however much of it they endured) came from a starting rotation that finished in or just outside the top-10 in ERA, opp. BAA, walks allowed, and quality starts. Sure, you can make the excuse that the spacious Petco Park was a huge reason for their impressive stats, coupled with the fact that they still are a team that belongs to the light-hitting National League. However, a quick glance at some underlying stats and peripherals says otherwise…
2014 San Diego Padres Starting Rotation Pitching Stats
Andrew Cashner: 123.1 IP, 2.55 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 6.79 K/9, 2.12 BB/9, 3.09 FIP, 3.53 xFIP
Tyson Ross: 195.2 IP, 2.81 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 8.97 K/9, 3.31 BB/9, 3.24 FIP, 3.11 xFIP
Ian Kennedy: 201 IP, 3.63 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 9.27 K/9, 3.13 BB/9, 3.21 FIP, 3.44 xFIP
Odrisamer Despaigne: 96.2 IP, 3.36 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 6.07 K/9, 2.99 BB/9, 3.74 FIP, 4.01 xFIP
Robbie Erlin: 58.2 IP, 4.76 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 6.90 K/9, 2.30 BB/9 3.66 FIP, 3.89 xFIP
*Jessie Hahn and Eric Stults are excused from this list because, as I write this, they no longer pitch for San Diego.*
This is what their starting five would consist of this season: two All-Star-caliber aces, a proven veteran with strikeout potential, and a couple of youngsters riddled with upside to spare.
Let’s not forget that San Diego did indeed sign free-agent James Shields to a four-year, $75 million contract, pushing everyone else one step back in the rotation (in real-life, not in fantasy). He’s the type of guy who could (in the regular season) pitch anywhere, like if Adam Wainwright’s loyalties varied on a basis of which team offered the best one/two year deals instead of remaining a Cardinals starter his whole life (albeit the fact that Shields has only pitched for two different Major League squads before the Friars acquired his services.) The man has been smart enough to spend his best years in pitcher-friendly confines, and that hasn’t changed a bit here; in fact, James Shields may have made the single greatest career decision of his life by coming to San Diego. But more on that in a moment.
The Padres have a fantasy relevant starting rotation, and the intrigue surrounding this talent bunch is immense. Andrew Cashner had the honor of anchoring these guys a year ago, and it is mainly because of him that I give such praise for them. His numbers above almost look too good to be true, but with a little bit of research you’d be stunned to find out that they could have been even better. Cashner’s repertoire was treated to a heightened decrease in walk rate, thanks in large part to his improved command. His fastball (20.4% K rate) and slider (31.8% K rate) are exceptionally lethal, yet their strikeout potential was hindered by his reliance of throwing two-seamers (36.7% usage rate, 11.9% K rate.) If he so much as breathes a thought about cutting that usage rate down in favor of his nastier stuff, Cashner’s K/9 could shoot up to the low-to-mid 8s in a heartbeat. As far as the rest of his game is concerned; Cashner’s a treat to watch, and an even juicier subject to dissect through data. His batted ball profile is amazing, with a groundball rate pushing 50%, and a flyball rate just scraping past the 30% mark. Pitching in Petco Park with sinking 94-98 MPH heat, there’s a great chance he never succumbs to a long ball drought, which means his estimators (3.70 SIERA, 95 xFIP-) can only catch up to his ERA if he runs into a season-long string of bad BABIP luck. While I’m not exactly a fan of the Padres’ infield defense this year, I didn’t like them last season, either. So, even if San Diego screws Cashner out of another mid-2 ERA season through shitty fielding, those numbers I mentioned before suggest that he’ll find a way to be dominant all the same. In ESPN standard leagues, he’s being taken right in the middle of the overall pack, which is 40th among all starting pitchers. For a guy with upside dripping from his pores, that’s an absolute joke, if you ask me. He was a steal in 2014, and he’ll be a steal again.
Tyson Ross and his brilliant performance last season did all but catch me by surprise; he was even more fantastic in his limited run back in 2013. What did surprise me about Tyson Ross is how he pitched to reach the level of success he currently sits at. PitchFx trackings prove that Ross has been living off the strength of only three pitches – two of them fastballs, but those trackings also show some incredible rate stats for all three of them.
Tyson Ross PitchFx Advanced Stats
4-Seam Fastball 14 BB%, 15.9 K%, .192 opp. BAA, .606 opp. OPS, .287 opp. wOBA
2-Seam Fastball 10.2 BB% 14.6 K%, .275 opp. BAA, .712 opp. OPS, .324 opp. wOBA
Slider 5.2 BB%, 35.4 K%, .210 opp. BAA, .569 opp. OPS, .254 opp. wOBA
Ross is going to walk batters no matter what (3.57 career BB/9) so those walk rates for his fastball offerings must be taken with a grain of salt. Besides, when a guy can strikeout 15% of the batters he faces with either one, while complementing that slider, who’s really paying that much attention to walk rate anyway?? Now, let’s talk a little bit about that slider. Suffice to say, it’s the very reason why his K rate is so gosh darn good (hopefully Cashner’s out there in Arizona reading this.) Because he commands it so well, hitters have a difficult time squaring it up, as indicated by the K% above and the 53.2% groundball and 24.5% infield flyball rate. A 16.3% HR/FB rate helps to provide an example of what happens when he misses with it, but location rules, and Ross has plenty of it in that regard. Besides all of this, there really isn’t that much else to say about Tyson Ross, especially since he shares the same kind of batted ball profile as Cashner: a lot of groundballs, and not much of anything else. The only difference between the two is that San Diego’s potentially awful defense can’t hurt his ERA estimators that much at all, because guys are universally swinging and missing at his entire three-pitch arsenal. If anything, Ross is a much safer bet in drafts of most leagues because of the high-K advantage, and although he’ll walk quite a few guys, no one’s holding their breath like another Ulbaldo Jimenez meltdown is imminent. Draft him in all leagues with confidence, and if you know someone who’s got a hard-on for nasty arms, groundballs and spacious ballparks, reach for him if you can/have to; the baseball world is no longer sleeping on him.
I was hoping for Ian Kennedy to put it all together again last season after developing more velocity on his fastball (91.8 avg. MPH, up from 90.3 in 2013) and switching up his usual pitch sequencing in favor of his curveball and changeup. While he did indeed have general success, Kennedy finished the season as the ultimate high risk/high reward mid-rotation fantasy starter. In his 19 quality starts (128.2 innings), he posted a 2.24 ERA and 1.01 WHIP, along with 122 strikeouts (8.54 K/9.) These are top-20 starter numbers from a guy who wasn’t even drafted in most leagues, let alone 8-10 team mixers. However, his other 14 starts (despite a similar K rate) were terrible, as he compiled a 6.10 ERA and 1.88 WHIP in 73.1 innings. This in stark contrast reminded us exactly why he wasn’t drafted in most leagues. let alone 8-10 team mixers. If I run a broader split, like, say, before and after the All-Star Break, Kennedy still does few favors for himself.
Before the ASG 3.47 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 9.63 K/9, 2.46 BB/9, 19.4 K-BB%, 2.93 FIP, 3.13 xFIP
After the ASG 3.87 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 8.69 K/9, 4.23 BB/9, 11.3 K-BB% 3.67 FIP, 3.96 xFIP
Nothing is scarier than drafting someone who Jekyll-and-Hyde’d their way back into fantasy relevance. This is the very case with Ian Kennedy. Had he continued to flash excellent command like he did in the first-half, he’d just just as valuable – if not, more valuable – as his aforementioned, younger staffmates. But because he reverted back to the same Ian Kennedy who got traded mid-season of 2013 and walked everybody, I have not a single clue what to make of him in 2015. Despite what the overall numbers look like (3.63 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 207 Ks) they could have looked better with a solid second half, or even much, much worse with an awful first. In any event, he’s still got great stuff at the end of the day, and last I checked Francisco Liriano had the exact same kind of year as Kennedy (albeit in a bad first half and awesome second half) and he’s being taken just before Kennedy in most ESPN head-to-head/rotisserie drafts. Even though he’s a fantastic back-end-of-rotation guy to own anywhere, he’ll need to learn how to be more consistent for me to be comfortable with his mid-round placement value.
I think now’s a good time to discuss the $75 million dollar elephant in the room. James Shields came up in the big leagues at a time when the American League East was the toughest division to pitch to in all of baseball, and wound up putting together a pretty decent 3.89 ERA for the Tampa Bay Rays in a span of nearly 1,500 innings pitched. Of course, he left as a free agent to be picked up by the Royals, and, unlike his ERA, his stock went way up. Now he’s in the National League, and regardless of whatever point you make about his declining changeup deception or egregious shift from pitching behind arguably the best defense in the American League to arguably the worst defense in the National League, things are looking up for Shields. Like I said earlier, this is perhaps the greatest career decision he could have made, and he picked an excellent time to make it; a formidable Padres starting rotation, a much improved (though now-staggeringly right-handed) lineup, and one of the game’s better bullpens help to justify that. Another reason why this move is great for Shields is because his stuff is just about the same as it’s been for the last couple of years now (despite his fastball, cutter, and changeup all experiencing subtle dips in K rate since the Kansas City signing.) So, with an above-average groundball rate and a walk rate that’s in freefall (2.5% decrease in BB% between 2013 and 2014), Shields shouldn’t have much trouble maintaining a low-3 ERA and 1.10-1.15 WHIP for a few more years; two factors that look outstanding when one can pitch well over 200 innings in a full season.
This is a guy you should draft as your bona-fide #2 in deeper (12-16 team mixed or 10-12 team NL-only) leagues, but as I look at his ADP in standard head-to-head/rotisserie draft boards, I start to worry a little bit. Despite firmly taking over as the ace of the Padres in real life, he’s being taken well ahead of of both Ross (#85) and Cashner (#140) in standard drafts – and those are two guys who had better overall statistics than Shields. On top of that, Shields isn’t getting any younger (he’s 33 years old as of this writing), and his strikeout rate isn’t gonna get any better with it dipping a good four percent since 2012. Maybe that last part changes if he decides to mix his fastball (29.6% usage rate, 10.9% BB rate, .791 opp. OPS) a bit more with his two-seamer (12% usage rate, 1.8% BB rate, 14.9% K rate, .564 opp. OPS), but I don’t see that happening any time soon.The weirdest thing about all of this is that each of his offerings had a K rate over 14% in 2014, so perhaps he does indeed have one more 8 K/9 season in him before settling into a FIP-beating, pitch-to-contact sort of guy. If Ervin Santana found a way to do it with just a two-seamer and slider, Shields shouldn’t have much of a problem pulling that off with three different fastballs, a changeup, and a knuckle curve.
James Shields’s best seasons came with exceptional batted ball peripherals, and pitching in Petco Park could do a lot to help him have another one, regardless of who’s playing behind him. So long as his groundball/flyball rate remains above league average (which it has for pretty much his entire career), Shields should continue to limit home runs at the same rate he did back in Kansas City, which would in turn keep his ERA and other surface stats nice and tidy.
All in all, I have faith in Shields putting together another solid fantasy season. He’s reliable, durable, and consistent if anything else. Leaving the American League could do wonders for him, even if his defense probably won’t. It’s just a shame that he’s so overpriced, because starting pitchers within the top-20 are usually more than capable of striking out more batters than he can, and carry more upside. There’s no way I could justify his price tag, but he’s a good pitcher, now facing weaker opponents in an even weaker league. So who knows?
Things get internally competitive with the fifth spot in the Padres rotation. Both Odrisamer Despaigne and Robbie Erlin are both duke-ing it out through each other’s individual Spring Training performance, but the likelihood that either one runs away with the job for the entire season remains uncertain, especially since Brandon Morrow‘s in the fight as well. Nonetheless, you might as well just flip a three-sided coin, here, because whoever does come out on top will probably be just as good as the other two in a similar capacity. Morrow is notorious for looking like a modern-day Roger Clemens when he’s on and for also walking the park when he’s…starting any baseball game, ever! He has cut down on the walks in recent years, but 2014 saw a return to BB rate hell (2.97 BB/9 in 2012-2013, 4.64 BB/9 last season.) He’s also never healthy, having missed 35 Major League starts over the last three years. While the overall talent among this trio is close, Morrow’s the last guy I’d want to win fifth-spot roulette.
As for Despaigne and Erlin, they’re gonna need to be incredible off the gate for me to consider them mixed-league relevant. Despaigne didn’t strike out anybody last season (6.07 K/9,) but, like just about everyone else I’ve mentioned in this article, has an excellent batted ball profile. All of his pitches move – a lot – so with better command some of those groundballs he induces could lead to strikeouts. His curveball and supposed “eephus” offerings present a lot of K-upside that I personally can’t wait to see in the future, but as of right now they only complement an arsenal not yet fully realized. He’ll probably be the next Ubaldo Jimenez (again, without the imminent collapse) in the next couple of years, so in my opinion he’s worth keeping an eye on in deep leagues with deeper benches if he wins the starting gig.
Erlin, on the other hand, has great control (2.20 BB/9 in 2014), but has no where near the kind of batted ball luck that Despaigne features. His strand rate last season was just over 67%, and his opposing BABIP well over .300 (.332.) You can thank his fastball for that (.961 opp. OPS,) as well as his ludicrous 27.3% line drive rate, but hopefully more service time will highlight this particular problem as an outlier. The rest of Erlin’s stuff is actually pretty good, and his peripheral stats are begging and pleading for a bounce back season, if indeed he is allotted one in the Majors this year. His minor league career suggests that he’ll be in line for more strikeouts down the line (though not that much more,) and the overall environment he finds himself in is the perfect place for a potential breakout. By a slight edge, Erlin is my favorite of the fifth-spot trio, and would at the very least be a solid fifth or sixth starter in very deep NL-only leagues.
It’s difficult not to be excited for the San Diego Padres in 2015. All of the offseason moves finally gave the fanbase something to cheer about for the first time in years, and seeing how all the pieces on paper will fit on the field is an intriguing prospect. But maybe the most important thing of it all was the organization’s insistence to fortify the ballclub’s starting rotation; strengthening a strength that could potentially help them be a force in the National League West. Even though the fifth spot in the rotation currently remains a question mark, this is overall one truly awesome starting five regardless. Chances are they’ll make quite a bit of noise throughout the year.