Like many of you, I have been playing Fantasy Baseball for many years. In my case, this is my 23rd season (when exactly did I get THAT old?), and I also happen to be the reigning champion of my NL-only auction league. It’s not a league of published “experts,” but it is a highly competitive league with knowledgeable owners, several of whom have been in the league at least as long as I have. I’d like to think I have learned a thing or two over the years about building a contending team.
Most of the leagues in which I play are your typical 5×5 Rotisserie league where categories like batting average, RBI, wins, saves and ERA are still used. While these stats have been replaced in real life by much more accurate measurements of actual player value and ability, they still matter in many Fantasy leagues. This tends to get lost in a lot of player evaluations that I read, particularly pitchers.
Statistics found at sites like Fangraphs or Baseball-Reference are worthwhile, but may not be as relevant when seeking a replacement pitcher for my Fantasy team. I’ll pause for a moment while some of you throw objects at me for that bit of baseball blasphemy.
Now then, the category I refer to first when looking at a pitcher is his WHIP ratio. To me, it is the most important pitching statistic in a typical 5×5 league. When a pitcher has a lousy WHIP, his earned run average likely is poor as well, so there are two categories in which he is hurting your team. Conversely, if a pitcher has a good WHIP (lower than 1.30), then his ERA will be decent. If he is a starter, chances are good that he is pitching effectively enough to last five innings and get your team a win. This boosts your team in three of the five categories. Similarly, if he’s a closer, he probably is getting a save for your team – another three-category contributor.
If your pitcher can rack up strikeouts in addition to these other categories, then you have a bona-fide Fantasy stud on your team (i.e. Clayton Kershaw or Craig Kimbrel). The WHIP category is what I looked at closely when deciding that R.A. Dickey could continue his NL success before my 2012 NL-only auction. That worked out pretty well, no?
Playing in deeper AL- and NL-only leagues, it can be a real challenge during the season’s dog days to find a replacement pitcher who won’t kill your pitching staff. If you can pick up a middle reliever/LOOGY-type with a low WHIP, he can — at worst — help offset a starter with a higher WHIP. At best, he vultures some wins, or maybe even a save or two for your team. Isn’t it crazy how giddy those moves can make a fantasy owner?
A perfect example of this type of pitcher is the Braves’ Eric O’Flaherty. In 2012, he compiled a 1.15 WHIP, along with a 1.72 ERA. Stats like that help offset a starter such as Tim Lincecum, who put up terrible WHIP/ERA numbers, even if he did “win” 10 games. Guys like O’Flaherty can become more valuable than you think when competing for your league championship. I like to call them “equalizers.”
Masters of the WHIP
Here are a few other equalizers you might consider:
Darren O’Day, Baltimore
O’Day is the AL version of O’Flaherty. In 2012, his 0.98 WHIP would have offset an inconsistent starter like, say, Phil Hughes or Dan Haren. O’Day was a powerful equalizer, thanks to a 2.28 ERA and 69 strikeouts in 67 innings (plus seven wins!). Maybe you should only pick Irish relief specialists. No? Moving on, then …
Kyle Lohse, Milwaukee
The past two seasons in St. Louis, Lohse compiled WHIP ratios of 1.17 and 1.09, good for fourth in the National League. In 2011, he pitched to a 3.39 ERA and won 14 games. In 2012, he was even better, twirling a 2.86 ERA with 16 wins. His middling strikeout ratios of 5.3 and 6.1 were all that separated him from being among the elite NL starters like Kershaw, Matt Cain and Dickey.
Paul Maholm, Atlanta
Maholm isn’t just a guy with a vowel missing from his last name. Like Lohse, he will never be a big strikeout pitcher, but his control makes up for that. His 1.22 WHIP last year led to career bests in wins (13) and ERA (3.54).
Hisashi Iwakuma, Seattle
While Kris Medlen gobbled up all the headlines in 2012 for his success, Iwakuma also excelled at moving from the bullpen to the rotation. His 1.27 WHIP and 3.16 ERA success led to nine wins and two saves last season, along with a rotation spot in 2013.
The WHIP ratio also can be a harbinger of a pitcher’s downward slide. Take a starter like Tim Lincecum. Following his 2009 Cy Young season (incidentally, Adam Wainwright should have won that year, but I digress), Lincecum’s WHIP rose from 1.04 to 1.27 in 2010. Still a very good ratio, but considering his usual WHIP numbers, it was a red flag for me nonetheless. Likewise in 2012 with Roy Halladay; I was avoiding him in my drafts and auctions this year before his awful start to the season.
Of course, using WHIP to extrapolate success in other categories like wins and saves doesn’t always work (see: Cliff Lee, 2012). But considering that WHIP is also used in more advanced leagues like 6×6 rotisserie, it remains an important Fantasy Baseball statistic, and one well worth your time when preparing for your draft, auction, or managing your roster during the season.
Chris Caylor is a is a contributing writer to Full Spectrum Baseball, worked in the Sports Department at the Rocky Mountain News, and still holds Fever Pitch against Jimmy Fallon. Follow him on Twitter @ccaylor10.