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Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011

SPORTS SCOPE

Pitchers in command on mound could make big strides this year


In a preview of the upcoming MLB season, through the prism of fantasy baseball, ESPN's Tristan Cockcroft argued that looking past wins, losses and ERA and at a pitcher's command numbers (strikeouts, walks etc.) was a great way of predicting future performance.

Jason Coskrey

If it works in the majors, what about for NPB pitchers?

Altering Cockcroft's formula slightly — by adding a quality start component and upping the innings requirement — there do seem to be a few NPB players who could surprise fans this year.

To meet the criteria for determining the "Kings of Command," as Cockcroft calls them, a pitcher must have had 10 or more quality starts in 2010 and thrown at least 100 innings with a strikeout rate (K/9) over 6.00, a walk rate (BB/9) under 3.00, a command rate (strikeouts/walks) over 2.50, a home run rate (HR/9) under 1.50 and a a flyball percentage of 45 or less.

Among NPB starters, 16 made the cut.

As expected, the list is a who's who, including Hokkaido Nippon Ham's Yu Darvish, Kenta Maeda from the Hiroshima Carp and Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles ace Hisashi Iwakuma among others.

Look closer, and there are a few names on the list — and a few who just missed — who at first glance don't belong.

That could, of course, be written off as a statistical anomaly. After all, some of the NPB's best, like Chiba Lotte Marines ace Yoshihisa Naruse, didn't make the cut.

For argument's sake, it's possible that command statistics could help identify players who, with a little improvement, could be in line for a surprise season.

Among such players is a pair of foreign hurlers, Hiroshima's Giancarlo Alvarado and Hanshin Tigers righty Jason Standridge.

Of the two, Alvarado, about to embark on his second NPB season, may have the most upside.

Alvarado at 8-8 had the worst record of any player meeting the criteria, but also played with an sometimes anemic Carp offense behind him. His command rate (2.62) was just good enough to make the cut as was his 2.79 BB/9.

Alvarado also had the second-lowest BABIP (batting average of balls put in play) of any pitcher on the list (interestingly Maeda's .257 was the lowest) with .285, so he did get at least some help from the Carp in the field. So it stands to reason a change for the worse in the Carp defense might weigh heavily.

News photo
In control: Jason Standridge was 11-5 with a 3.49 ERA for the Tigers last season. KYODO PHOTO

Still, with a little more improvement across the board in his second year (for starters, he's getting tips on the forkball from Hideo Nomo at camp), Alvarado seems like a prime candidate for a surprise season not unlike, but not quite as successful as, the 15-2 campaign Dicky Gonzalez had for the Yomiuri Giants in 2009.

Alvarado only threw 119 1/3 innings last season, so it will be interesting to see how he does should he earn himself a heavier workload this season.

Standridge has been around the block a few times — having also pitched for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks — and like Alvarado, just made the cut.

The Tigers need more depth in their rotation and a good season from Standridge would do wonders for that. If his stats hold to form at pitcher-friendly Koshien Stadium, he could wind up being a valuable component for Hanshin this year.

Also worth keeping tabs on are Yomiuri's Tetsuya Utsumi and Yokohama BayStars righty Shigeru Kaga, a pair who just missed out on meeting the criteria and under the right circumstances could have steady turnarounds.

While strictly looking at these numbers isn't a guarantee of success, there have been a few similar situations in the past.

In 2009, Maeda was 8-14 with a 3.36 ERA, but like the above-mentioned, narrowly met all the command criteria. He made good the next season, going 15-8 with a 2.21 ERA and winning the Sawamura Award.

Chihiro Kaneko and Masaru Takeda also made the cut in 2009 and turned in better seasons last year, just as Gonzalez did in 2009.

Paying attention to these numbers isn't a surefire way of finding the next star pitcher.

They can, however, reveal players who have the tools and may not be far from putting everything together.



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