Welcome to the first installment of “Aces High,” a weekly look at emerging trends among starting pitchers. Once the season gets rolling, the aim will be to tell you who’s hot, who’s cold, who you should start, who you should sit and who you should target on the waiver wire. Obviously, there’s not a lot of that sort of advice to dispense in the offseason, so for our first installment, we’ll be taking a look at a few pitchers who changed teams in the offseason and what impact, if any, this could have on their fantasy outlook.
R.A. Dickey – Toronto Blue Jays
Only four Cy Young Award winners in Major League history have been dealt the offseason after winning the award, so R.A. Dickey is the highest profile pitcher who will be starting 2013 with a new club. His move from the Mets to the Blue Jays has led to rampant speculation about what we can expect from him in 2013 – will he struggle to have the same kind of success he did last year now that he’s moved to the AL, particularly the always-tough AL East? Is he, at age 38, just too risky to take early in your fantasy draft? Was his out-of-nowhere 2012 some kind of fluke? In short: No, no, and no.
It seems to be the prevailing wisdom that Dickey will have great difficulty coming anywhere close to his 2012 stats. While I’m not going to argue that we should necessarily expect the level of dominance we saw from him last year (as that kind of season would be tough for anyone to duplicate), I think he potentially has huge fantasy value if enough people pass on him having bought into the notion that he’s headed for some kind of collapse. For starters, I’m not at all concerned about his age. Due to the greatly reduced arm wear inherent to using the slow-moving knuckleball as one’s primary pitch, knuckleballers are generally able to pitch well beyond the age when more traditional pitchers would have long-since broken down (To cite two modern examples, Charlie Hough and Tim Wakefield both pitched well into their 40s. Yes, I know - neither was particularly effective in their golden years, but then neither was ever as effective in a single season as Dickey was in 2012).
There’s no reason to believe that his win-loss record will be negatively impacted considering that he’s going from the 25th-ranked offense in baseball, with whom he still managed to win an astounding 77% of his decisions (as compared to the Mets dismal 40% winning percentage in games in which Dickey was not the pitcher of record) to the team with 2012’s 13th-best offense and new arrivals Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera. Most importantly, Dickey’s 2012 wasn’t luck (his opponents’ BABIP has been remarkably consistent since 2010, his first year with the Mets, and his HR/FB rate in 2012 was actually higher than it had been since 2006). His improved effectiveness was primarily the result of one factor: strikeouts. He went from a pedestrian 134 in 2011 to a league-leading 230 in 2012. That’s not random chance or getting lucky breaks. Strikeouts are one aspect of the game over which pitchers have almost total control. If he’s truly mastered the ability to get strikeouts with the knuckleball, as it seems he has, there’s no reason to believe that changing teams or leagues will have much of an effect on his ability to do so.
Dickey isn’t without risks. The knuckleball is a notoriously difficult pitch to control, and it should go without saying that the AL is tougher on pitchers than the NL at the moment. But with Dickey’s skillset, I don’t see any reason he can’t continue to flourish despite the change of scenery. I wouldn’t have a huge problem taking him as early as the late third round, and if you can snatch him up even later than that, I think he’s the type of guy that could potentially win your league for you.
Zack Greinke – Los Angeles Dodgers
The most prominent pitcher besides Dickey to change hands this offseason was right-hander Zack Greinke, who left the Angels to become the newest member of the big-spending Dodgers. I don’t think there’s nearly as much to analyze here as there is with Dickey; Greinke’s only 29, and he’s performed everywhere he’s played (including stints in both leagues). He went from an offensive powerhouse in the AL to what should be an offensive powerhouse in the NL, and he’s going from the fourth toughest park for hitters to the sixth, so I don’t see his run support situation changing all that significantly. I think we basically know what we’re getting from Zack Greinke at this point, no matter where he plays: around 200 strikeouts, very few walks and a healthy win total. Draft with confidence.
Jason Vargas – Los Angeles Angels
Vargas, while not nearly as high profile as Dickey or Greinke, strikes me as the most intriguing of the group. He’s the one whose change of scenery has the most potential to significantly alter his fantasy value. Vargas’ critics will point out that he’s has always had a very high fly ball rate, a weakness which was largely mitigated by pitching his home games in Safeco (Vargas’ home/road splits confirm this: he gave up 26 home runs on the road in 2012 compared to only nine in Seattle). However, as mentioned previously in the Greinke section, Angel Stadium is no picnic for hitters, either. He’ll almost certainly give up more home runs than he did last year, but I don’t think the number will be so great as to greatly decrease his fantasy value. Make no mistake, he did benefit significantly from Safeco’s (former) dimensions, and if he’d have gone to Milwaukee and had to pitch half his games in Miller Park, I’d tell you to stay as far away from drafting him as humanly possible. But Anaheim? He’ll be fine.
More significant than his change of venue is his change of teammates. Vargas managed to post a winning record (14-11) in 2012 despite pitching for the team with the AL’s worst offense. Furthermore, the Mariners scored two or fewer runs in a staggering nine of his 11 losses. The Angels were the third best offense in the AL in 2012, and with the recent addition of Josh Hamilton, I can’t imagine that his team’s consistent inability to score more than two runs will continue to be an issue for Vargas. His win-loss record should see a nice improvement in Anaheim, and I think any concerns about his past successes having been a Safeco-related mirage are, while not altogether unfounded, somewhat overblown. Plus, in years past, he’s had to pitch three or four games a year against the Angels – now he’ll get to face his lowly former team instead. Couldn’t hurt, right? I wouldn’t go overboard with regard to Vargas’ draft of position, but as a late round fourth or fifth pitcher, I think he’s definitely worth taking a flyer on and has more potential upside than most other starters who will be available that late.