That other team in Seattle sure set a high bar for sports in the great Northwest this year. Here’s to hoping this rotation filled with young arms can be more than just a filler for the city between Seahawks' seasons.
Where the batters on Mariners’ squad might be underwhelming, the same simply cannot be said about their starting pitching rotation. Anchored by King Felix and new-comer Hisashi Iwakuma, who will unfortunately miss 4-6 weeks to start the season, this rotation is also the beneficiary of some extremely young, talented arms. With the relative youth of these pitchers, there is not much historical backdrop or context from which I can derive projections. Instead, this article is going to break down each of the top six rotational candidates using advanced sabermetrics as indicators of 2014 performance.
2014 Seattle Mariners - Pitching Staff Preview
To begin, here is an explanation of some of the less intuitive statistics used:
FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) – Represents what a pitcher’s ERA would have been assuming performance in the field matched the league average. With the long-run inconsistency of ERA, which is prone to frequent fluctuations due to a variety of factors, this statistics aims to increase reliability by controlling for fielding variables as much as possible. This allows fantasy forecasters to more accurately assess the skill of the pitcher, himself. The equation for you stats geeks like me:
FIP = ( (13 * HR) + (3 * (BB + HBP - IBB) ) - (2 * K) ) / IP + Constant
xFIP (Expected Fielding Independent Pitching) – Calculated in the same manner as FIP, but replaces the pitcher’s HR total with what it should have been. This accounts for variability in flyball/HR rate by assuming the league average number of HRs per flyball hit. Again, this factor effectively controls for an additional variable that is largely out of a pitcher’s hands, creating a more reliable assessment measure for future ERA projections. Again, for the stats geeks:
xFIP = ((13*Flyballs*league average HR/FB%) + (3(BB+HBP))-(2*K)/IP + constant)
GB% - This is simply the percentage of batted balls that result in groundballs. The league average is 44%, for comparison’s sake.
Now, for the goods you came for:
Felix Hernandez ($26)/Pos. 4/ADP 20
The long-time bastion of the Seattle rotation, King Felix has been outstanding since 2005. The 2013 season saw much of the same, with a dominant performance in strikeouts, a low walk-rate, and an elite ERA. What makes this surprising is his continued performance in the face of a downward progression in velocity, with his fastball dropping from 96.3 MPH in 2007 to 91.3 MPH in 2013. Considering his FIP and xFIP were both lower than his ERA, combined with a higher HR/FB% than any of his five previous seasons, there appears to be little reason for concern with this seasoned pro. With these numbers, it frankly suggest a projection for an even lower ERA for this coming season. This elite pitcher shows no signs of faltering, even with diminished velocity.
2014 Projection: 15-9, 2.80 ERA, 9.2 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, 1.131 WHIP
Draft Target: Pick 40-50 / Top 10 at Position
Hisashi Iwakuma ($10)/Pos. 35/ADP 170
But for King Felix, the Seattle Mariners would easily have Iwakuma as the ace. Despite all of the attention given to Hernandez, Iwakuma actually outperformed him in ERA, wins, and walk-rate. However, there should certainly be caution before proclaiming the King dethroned. There are a couple of factors to keep in mind when evaluating this pitcher - first and foremost is Iwakuma's finger strain which will keep him out 4-6 weeks to start the season. Second, Iwakuma’s FIP and xFIP were both substantially higher than his ERA, and it is more likely to see his ERA inflate to a more reasonable 3.1 – 3.2. Plus, his walk-rate is especially low, and there are certainly questions whether he can maintain that statistic. Regardless, his 3.44 FIP and 3.28 xFIP are great, and he is very likely to continue performing at a high level. He possesses an above-average GB%, which should minimize his susceptibility to the long-ball and increases his consistency, so long as he can continue with that trend. This season should see the youngster continue to improve, and Iwakuma should definitely be the target of many savvy fantasy owners.
2014 Projection: 12-8, 3.15 ERA, 7.5 K/9, 2.0 BB/9.
Draft Target: 160-170 / Top 40 at Position
Erasmo Ramirez ($7)/Pos. /ADP Undrafted
After pitching extremely well in the minors, Erasmo was lackluster after his call-up mid-way through last season. There are a number of contributing factors that can be assigned to this performance, some within his control and others left to luck. After posting an 8.66 K/9 in AAA ball with a 3.09 ERA, Erasmo’s K/9 dropped to 7.09 and his ERA inflated to 4.98. One of the biggest factors, in terms of what he can control, is that during his time in the big league he appeared to abandon his strong changeup in favor of his weaker slider. This could certainly contribute to his diminished strikeouts, while a particularly high HR/FB% (14.3%, compared to a career 12%) could be responsible for an inflated ERA. With FIP and xFIP both lower than his ERA, we would expect to see a positive adjustment in his ERA naturally. Moreover, if he can adjust his pitch choices to his favor, there is definitely reason to believe he could be a low-end, but still relevant, fantasy acquisition.
2014 Projection: 8-7, 4.53 ERA 7.8 K/9, 3.2 BB/9
Draft Target: Late/Streamer
James Paxton ($7)/Pos. /ADP Undrafted
This lefty with a mid-90s fastball, a dangerous sinker, and a tight curve could be a great sleeper late in the 2014 fantasy draft. After work on his knee alleviated some of the control issues he faced in the minors, he look sharp in his short time in the majors last year. Though it was a small sample size, all indicators point to continued strong showings. Almost 60% of balls batted against him were groundballs, far exceeding the average pitcher in that category and minimizing the number of runs tallied against him. Moreover, he has great FIP and xFIP numbers, and an acceptably low HR/FB%. Nonetheless, we certainly must assume a bump in his ERA and WHIP, as they are must assuredly anchored by an unreasonably low BAPIP (.203). There is also concern that his current K/9 rate is inflated by his last game against Kansas City where he struck out 10, as he didn’t strike-out more than 5 in the three games prior. Again, it can’t be stressed enough that these statistics are based on a small, four-game sample, and his minor league numbers are of dubious help given his knee issues. Regardless, after seeing his stuff and looking at his raw stats, I’m very high on this kid in the late rounds and I really think he can surprise a whole lot of people this year.
2014 Projection: 7-7, 3.35 ERA, 7.5 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, 1.40 WHIP
Draft Target: Late Round Sleeper
Taijuan Walker ($14)/Pos. 75/ADP 255
Walker was brilliant in his first three major league games in 2013, posting a 3.60 ERA and striking out 12 en route to a 1-0 record. Promisingly, his FIP is even lower than his already strong ERA, suggesting that Walker has a plenty higher ceiling. On the other hand, his small sample size was without any home runs allowed. While this is undoubtedly a good thing, it also works to inflate his xFIP calculation which incorporates the league average HR/FB%. This likely has more traction than first glances may suggest, as well, since we would surely expect more homers hit against a pitcher with a below-average GB%, like Walker. Moreover, there are glaring control questions: while his three game MLB stint corresponded to a 1.00 WHIP, his AAA minor league WHIP was substantially higher at 1.41. Adding to this, Walker had an average walk rate of 11% in AAA ball. Nonetheless, Walker is a potential strikeout machine and possesses a strong collection of pitches – a solid fastball and slider, and developing curve. The primary concerns remain control, creating more groundballs, and the development of a third pitch. There’s certainly a lot to be excited about with a young pitcher of this caliber, but be wary not to overpay for the unproven potential.
2014 Projection: 8-8, 4.10 ERA, 8.15 K/9, 2.2 BB/9, and 1.32 WHIP
Draft Target: Late Round (220-240)
Brandon Maurer ($1)/Pos. /ADP
Brandon Maurer got absolutely shellacked during the opening of the 2013 season before being placed on relief duties. Maurer eventually reclaimed a spot in the rotation while posting significantly more respectable numbers, but is still an uninspiring candidate for the Mariners’ rotation, much less any fantasy team. With such concern over his walk rate and control, it’s unlikely his pedestrian k-rate will be sufficient to redeem any real value. The one positive thing to note is that Maurer’s HR/FB% was unusually high, despite his average GB%, so there is definitely hope that his ERA will continue a downward trend. This suggestion finds statistical footing in his xFIP calculations, which replaces his HR/FB% with a more typical percentage. Nonetheless, the potential upside just doesn’t seem to be there for fantasy owners.
2014 Forecast: 4-7, 4.60 ERA, 7.00 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, and 1.43 WHIP
Draft Target: DND
The Mariners’ signed Baker to a minor league deal at the end of January, incentivized up to $4.25 million based on his performance, and whether he plays a certain number of innings. After missing part of 2011 and the 2012 season following Tommy John surgery, Baker looked less than sharp in fifteen innings with the Cubs in 2013. The framing of this contract by the Mariners’ is a gamble on whether or not he can recoup some of his lost velocity resulting from the injury – we pay if he can, he walks if he can’t. With that kind of risk involved, it’s extremely difficult to know what to expect from Baker in terms of fantasy output. Regardless, he’s most assuredly not worth rostering to begin the season, but may merit some looks if/when he gets called and can produce like he did in 2010/11.
2014 Forecast: 4-4, 4.45 ERA, 6.5 K/9, 2.7 BB.9, and a 1.35 WHIP
Draft Target: DND
There you have it: your 2014 Mariners starting pitchers. A parting word of caution: there is danger in predictions relying on small sample sets. These stats aren’t intended as gospel, but rather to be used as guideposts. As always, stay tuned for more in-depth analysis.
Oh, and don’t forget – GO HAWKS!!!