Prediction: Cory Luebke Will Outpitch James Shields

James Shields broke out as a fantasy ace last year to the tune of a 2.89 ERA (9th lowest in the Majors) and a ranking of 15 in the Y! game. Nonetheless, Yahoo! has him outside of their top 15 pitchers and have him going around the 7th round in a 12-team league. This makes him a great bargain to target, right?

Not necessarily. Shields had an absolutely awful campaign in 2010, making him a great buy-low sleeper for 2011. His insanely high BABIP (.341) and insanely low LOB% (68.4%) were due for a massive correction. In other words, a significant component of his failure in 2010 was luck. Balls put into play by hitters found gaps, holes, and any space where the defense wasn’t at a substantially more frequent rate than both his career averages and the average pitcher. On top of this, runners that got on base were stranded at a substantially less frequent rate than his career averages and league averages suggest runners tend to be stranded at. These numbers led to an FIP, which compensates for these luck factors by using only BB, K, and HR in its formula, of nearly a whole run under his actual ERA (4.24 compared to 5.18).

Not only did these luck-related numbers correct themselves in 2011, Shields’ fortunes reversed entirely. Anything that could go right for James did go right. Those balls put in play by batters, instead of finding turf at ridiculous rates, found gloves at a near-equally ridiculous rate. Those runners on base were stranded at a number that exceeded personal and league averages. This time, Shields’ FIP was 0.60 over his actual ERA (3.42 compared to 2.82). Just like a correction was due in 2011, a similar (albeit less drastic) correction is due in 2012.

Shields will not be a total disaster at round 6-8 by any means. His K/BB rate was an impressive 3.46 last year and is supported by his 2010 rate of 3.67. If his BABIP and LOB fall somewhere in between his lucky and unlucky seasons, which is highly likely, Shields will provide decent value if this K/BB rate holds up, and there is no reason to believe it won’t.

The problem is that better value is available several rounds later. A number of pitchers fit this bill, few better than San Diego reliever-turned-starter Cory Luebke.

Luebke was an ultra-productive reliever for the Padres before they transitioned him into the rotation. The question was: Could Luebke sustain his massive K-rate out of the rotation, where he would have to hold up for 6 or 7 innings rather than 1 or 2? This question was answered with a resounding yes. Luebke put up a dazzling 9.92 K/9 out of the bullpen, and in a sample size not too small to judge (17 starts), Luebke put up an identical 9.92 K/9 en route to a 3.31 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP. His BABIP (.276) and LOB% (75.6%) are right around league averages for fantasy-relevant pitchers, so while we have no significant career numbers to compare these to, it is likely safe to consider these numbers sustainable. His FIP (3.17 as a starter) was actually under his actual ERA, confirming the legitimacy of Luebke’s statistics and giving us an idea of what his luck-adjusted numbers look like next to Shields’ (3.42 FIP). It is also important to note that other than 17.2 innings in 2010, this was Luebke’s first Major League action – he’s only going to improve, especially with a full offseason to prepare as a starter rather than making the adjustment on-the-fly.

Two areas where Shields does have an advantage: IP and wins. Tampa Bay will likely provide more run support than San Diego, giving Shields the edge in wins. Also, Luebke, being a young arm and former reliever, will also probably pitch a few less innings per start than the veteran. This means his ratio statistics will carry slightly less weight than Shields’. However, this effect should be near-negligible with Luebke due for a spike in innings per start as a 2nd year starter. On a related note, the fact that Shields has more innings in which to collect K’s is more than offset by the fact that Luebke strikes batters out at a much higher rate. Finally, on the topic of IP, an innings cap is not really a concern for young Cory Luebke because he reached 139.2 innings last year.

So why does Yahoo! have Luebke going about 4 rounds later than Shields? Probably based on the false notions that Luebke’s season may have been a fluke and that Shields has reestablished himself as a fantasy ace. Regardless, take advantage of these rankings in your draft. Luebke has the potential to not only outpitch luck-aided overachievers like Shields and Josh Beckett, but to be a top-15 arm by season’s end.

For more on BABIP, LOB%, and FIP, see the links below.

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