Perhaps more important than identifying “sleepers” or undervalued starting pitchers is identifying and subsequently avoiding the overrated lot. The challenge, of course, is identifying these guys. Overvalued, like undervalued, is at least somewhat if not primarily subjective. Just because a team manager or two in your league wouldn’t pay the price required for a guy and chides you for selecting him doesn’t automatically make them right.
Let’s look at the American League and try to remove the subjectivity from the exercise and focus on the numbers.
Clay Buchholz (BOS) – Now four years removed from his elite prospect status (#4 overall on Baseball America’s 2008 list), Buchholz hasn’t brought the elite 10.2 K/9 and 4.0 K/BB skills from the minors to the majors instead settling in at a middling 6.4 K/9 and 1.9 K/BB over the last three years (spanning 348 IP). Yet a 17-win, 2.33 ERA season in 2010 plus his presence on the high profile Boston Red Sox keeps his cost higher than his skills merit. His xFIP in that season was 4.07 and is on the rise. Throw in a less-than-stellar health record as a pro and Buchholz’s price simply isn’t commensurate with his skills and potential.
Francisco Liriano (MIN) – Unlike Buchholz, we have seen the heights of Liriano’s talent first in his electric rookie season in 2006 and then again as recently 2010 when his skills said he deserved a sub-3.00 ERA (9.4 K/9, 3.5 K/BB), but some variance left him with a 3.62 ERA. Then last year he imploded dropping two strikeouts off of his rate and walk five per nine! Yet he also somehow threw a no-hitter. He’s a big name, a big talent, but a big unknown as well. His sharp spring is drawing plenty of attention (26 K, 4 BB and 2.45 ERA in 22 IP), too. Consider me cautious and unwilling to pay any premium that his name and/or spring stats will induce.
Josh Tomlin (CLE) – You will always have a hard time convincing me to roster a guy with a sub-5.0 strikeout rate. There is just too much pitching out there to take on a risk who allows the ball in play that often. Not to mention Tomlin has home run issues (career 1.3 HR/9) meaning it is potentially bad contact that he is consistently allowing. I respect the elite control (1.1 BB/9 last year) as he pounds the zone as well as anyone, but his command isn’t particularly special or he would likely miss more bats and allow fewer home runs. I see the 4.25 ERA and 4.03 xFIP, but turn a few of those 24 home runs from solo shots into two- and three-run blasts and now you’re looking at an ERA and xFIP pushing up near 5.00.
Ivan Nova (NYY) – A shiny 16-4 record on the highest profile team in the game is sure to raise the price on the 25-year old righty heading into his sophomore season. It took some good fortunate to achieve both the 16 wins and his 3.70 ERA as the skills are hardly screaming for a repeat (5.3 K/9 and 1.7 K/BB). I don’t know which I prefer less: sub-5.0 strikeout rates like Tomlin or sub-2.0 strikeout-to-walk rates like Nova and Buchholz. I can take a sub-2.0 K/BB if you are fanning 8-9 batters per game, not 5.3.
Michael Pineda (NYY) – Sorry, Yankees fans. I actually really like Pineda and their moves to get him along with Hiroki Kuroda in the same night were strokes of genius. I just think that he is being priced as someone who will simply repeat last year’s skills with a ton more wins because he is with the Yankees. The Spring Training noise isn’t even the cause for his landing on this list, these concerns were present as soon as he was being treated as a top 30 starter in average draft position ahead of several more established options. Don’t pay the Yankee Tax, let’s see how he does in Yankee Stadium first.