Baseball BeatMay 18, 2009
Process vs. Results
By Rich Lederer

Our 16-team fantasy baseball league held its first replacement draft on Sunday night. Each team is allowed to drop and add two players. With five solid starters (Josh Johnson, Kevin Slowey, Ricky Nolasco [patience, patience], Scott Baker [patience, patience...or so I tell myself], and Paul Maholm) and perhaps the two best pitching prospects (Tommy Hanson and David Price) waiting in the wings, I really wasn't in need of a starter. However, I wanted to do my due diligence anyway and decided to check out a handful of available pitchers.

The "hottest" — if not best — free agent starter was probably Matt Harrison, who had recently tossed 22 consecutive scoreless innings and two straight complete game victories. Having never seen him pitch before, I checked out his last two starts on MLB.TV. Unlike MLB Extra Innings, you can go back and watch archived games on MLB.TV. As such, MLB.TV is a great source for scouting players.

Going in, I knew that Harrison was drafted by the Atlanta Braves and was the organization's top pitching prospect before he was traded, along with catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, pitchers Neftali Feliz and Beau Jones, and shortstop Elvis Andrus, to the Texas Rangers for Mark Teixeira and Ron Mahay in July 2007. (How is that trade working out for the Braves now? According to Baseball America, Salty, Andrus, and Harrison were the Braves' top three-ranked prospects in 2007. All three have contributed to the Rangers currently being in first place. Feliz (ranked 18th at that time) may have the highest ceiling of them all, if he can learn to command his outstanding stuff. Meanwhile, Atlanta basically has Casey Kotchman, acquired from the Angels for Teixeira a year later, to show for this lopsided deal.)

Here is what Baseball America had to say about Harrison two years ago:

The Braves cited Harrison as their breakthrough pitcher of 2005, and he maintained his momentum in 2006. He led Atlanta farmhands in ERA, reached Double-A before he turned 21 and now ranks as the system's top mound prospect. It seems like every quality lefthanded pitching prospect must be likened to Tom Glavine, but that comparison seems more legitimate when applied to Harrison. He's adept at using both sides of the plate and altering the batter's eye level. He delivers a heavy fastball between 89-92 mph and does an excellent job keeping it down in the zone. His above-average curveball breaks at times like a slider. Harrison also has a plus changeup that he uses at any time in the count. Harrison admits he gave Double-A hitters too much credit and wasn't aggressive enough following his midseason promotion. He needs to continue to learn how to mix his pitches in order to keep batters off balance. Harrison, who has No. 3 starter potential, could open 2007 in Triple-A, where he'd be knocking on the door to the big leagues.

Based upon my observations from Harrison's starts vs. the White Sox on May 8 and the Mariners on May 14, the above comments generally still hold true. His fastball, which he throws about two-thirds of the time, sat at 89-91 and touched 92 (with the two-seamer in the high-80s and the four-seamer in the low-90s). It appeared to me that Harrison was also throwing more of a cutter than what Fangraphs classifies as a slider, but it could be as much semantics as anything else. The pitch in question had a late, short break to it and was typically hitting 85-86. He also throws a changeup, which was mostly 78-79 according to the reports on the TV but has averaged 81.6 according to Fangraphs.

Harrison reminded me of Joe Saunders, a pitcher I've seen in person several times and on TV in dozens of games over the past few years. First of all, both pitchers are lefthanders. Secondly, they have somewhat similar builds (Harrison is slightly taller and stockier but they are within an inch and 10-15 pounds of each other). Thirdly, they have a similar repertoire (fastball, slider/cutter, and changeup). Fourthly, Harrison and Saunders throw their pitches at similar speeds. Lastly, they both have induced groundballs at an almost identical rate (Harrison 46.4%, Saunders 46.7%).

All of the above got me to thinking that the scouting reports — which, thanks to resources like pitch f/x, can now be quantified more accurately than ever — are perhaps a better predictor of performance than the pure stats. In other words, we may be coming full circle. The difference is that we might not have to rely mainly on the opinions of men sitting behind home plate wearing straw hats, holding radar guns, and reducing their findings to notes on index cards — at least in cases where ballparks have the necessary equipment installed. Instead, all of us can scout pitchers based on objective data (pitch types, speeds, locations, vertical and horizontal breaks, and arm angles) with more precision than ever.

For me, I would rather focus on the process than the results in almost any walk of life. In the case of identifying comparable pitchers, give me a same handedness hurler with a similar body type, pitch arsenal, speeds, and breaks, and I would value this information more highly than even the pitcher-independent stats (meaning K, BB, and HR rates), which have become all the rage among performance analysts this past decade.

In my opinion, the fact that lefthanded and righthanded pitchers with dissimilar builds, pitch types, speeds, etc. have similar stats has little or no meaning when it comes to predicting performance. Look for those projection systems that incorporate these micro details in the future to gain more traction than those that stick to the results only.

Oh, I almost forgot. I didn't take Harrison. Instead, I drafted Ian Stewart and Alberto Callaspo. These picks came down to needs for a team that lost Alex Gordon to a major injury less than two weeks into the season and now is facing the possibility of being without Rickie Weeks for an extended period. I have Brandon Wood on my team, but Mike Scioscia apparently prefers Erick Aybar, Chone Figgins, and Maicer Izturis over the 24-year-old über prospect hitting .347/.434/.806 with NINE home runs in 19 games at Triple-A.


I was wondering if someone could design a fantasy league based only on "WAR." That would be the most fun for me personally. Right now I am playing in a league with some guys at work, and they have all of the basic stats like "avg" etc. And SB count the same as HR's. It's not bad because we can talk about it while working, but it could be much better...