Posted: Tuesday February 15, 2011 4:50PM ; Updated: Friday February 18, 2011 3:30PM
Eric Mack
Eric Mack>INSIDE FANTASY BASEBALL

Three is key for starting pitchers

Story Highlights

Pitchers with 40-70 career starts often conditioned to reach fantasy ace status

Lack of jump in wins could make Tommy Hanson a good pitching bargain

Bud Norris has averaged better than a strikeout per inning so far in career

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StarterTommy Hanson won only 10 games but stuck out 173 batters and allowed 56 walks in 202.2 innings last season with the Braves.
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The age of 27 is to hitter breakthroughs as the third season is to starting pitcher breakouts.

Unlike position players, age has less to do with a pitcher's success than the three factors Billy Beane stressed to this writer a few years ago as he evaluates arms: 1. talent; 2. history of health; and 3. history of work.

That third one is a clincher, if you're hoping to catch lightning in a bottle with Part II of our six-part series on finding players that can outperform their draft position: Third-year starting pitchers. The other categories include 27-year-olds, contract years, injury-risk sleepers, rookies and overlooked sophomores, which are all getting their separate discussions.

A pitcher can be talented and healthy, but unless he is conditioned for a full 200-inning season, they are at risk of being more of a breakdown bust than a breakout star.

This fantasy draft day rule of thumb is predicated on the idea pitchers with between 40-70 career starts -- starting pitchers roughly in their third season -- have survived the learning curve and are now conditioned to reach fantasy ace status. It is those arms -- ones we might have yet to see a full season from -- that can provide the best bang for their buck on draft day, finally getting a full season of starts (30-plus) and innings (200-plus).

A starting pitcher's shoulder isn't ready to handle a full season of starting 200-plus major league innings before it has been conditioned to do so. To run a marathon, you have to train and build up to handle the grind. You don't go out and jog a 5k and then pronounce yourself ready for 26 miles.

Clayton Kershaw was last year's leading example. He has become a top 15 ace.

We break down 10 top starting pitcher breakout candidates for 2011 in the category of 40-70 career starts, roughly their third season as starters. The pitcher's positioning in the top 10 below is not an actual ranking as much as a projected ability to outperform their draft position.

1. Tommy Hanson, 24, Atlanta Braves

This list-topper is an easy selection. After his first full major-league season you might even see him go later in drafts than he did a year ago.

That is because he won fewer games in 34 starts (10) than he did as a rookie in 21 starts in 2009 (11). He did surpass the 200-inning mark and cut down on his walk rate to 2.5 BB/9, but he didn't quite perform like the top 20 starter he was drafted to be.

But this will be the year he wins 15-plus games, reaches 210-plus innings and goes over 200 strikeouts. If he falls past the top 20 fantasy aces picked on draft day, he is going to carry your team to elite heights.

2. Brett Anderson, 23, Oakland Athletics

Anderson is Beane's own case study on why you need to build up to go 200 innings for Year 3. After jumping from 105 minor-league innings in '08 to 175 1/3 as a rookie in '09, Anderson's elbow balked at him and limited him to 112 1/3. He tried jogging that 5k and running the marathon.

Those were some real good innings, though. Now, he could finally build up to 180, or perhaps even 200. If he does that, he will be a pitcher drafted after the top 30 starters but one that performs like a top-15 ace.

He has 15-plus wins, a sub-3.00 ERA and 200 strikeouts in his arm.

3. Phil Hughes, 24, New York Yankees

Technically, this will be Hughes' fifth season in the majors, but he still qualifies as a pitcher ready to breakthrough with just 57 career starts because of his time spent in the Pitch-22, the Catch-22 for pitchers: Good enough to start, but too valuable in relief.

Hughes won 18 games last year, but he did it with an ERA over 4.00 and having been limited to 176 1/3 innings. Expecting 20 wins will be a tall order, but not impossible for him.

He should be able to cut his ERA to around 3.50, get his innings over 200 and his strikeouts to the 180 range. If he does all that, the Yankees can make him a 20-game winner and a Cy Young candidate.

Hughes, like Hanson, likely won't go off the board until 20 starting pitchers are selected, but he can perform like a top 10 this season.

4. Mat Latos, 24, San Diego Padres

If you were a Latos owner down the stretch last year, you likely pulled out your hair with his team's cautiousness with his arm -- in a pennant race, no less. He lost his last five starts to finish 14-10 and the Padres decided to lose the battle to win the war.

Latos is now ready for a 200-inning blockbuster after topping out at 184 2/3. The young stud was the ace of a division leader in the NL West, but his team slowed him down to preserve the innings on his arm.

Last year's loss will be this year's gain. He deserves to go around the top 15 starting pitchers -- lofty status -- but he will warrant it if he reaches the 15-plus victories and 200-plus strikeouts expected of him.

5. Bud Norris, 25 (turns 26 March 2), Houston Astros

Norris is actually the first sleeper in the truest sense of the word here. You likely haven't loved much from him in his young career -- not with a fifth-starter's-like 4.82 career ERA.

But he is one of the burgeoning knockout arms of baseball. Seriously. Norris has averaged better than a strikeout per inning thus far in his career (212 in 209 1/3 IP) and he showed dramatic improvement after a bad, bad first half. He went 7-4 with a 4.18 ERA, 89 strikeouts and a .235 batting-average against in 90 1/3 innings after the break.

Norris can win games, even with the Astros, and strike out over 200 batters, if not lead the NL in that category. That will come after the top 75 fantasy starters are off the board, too.

6. Brandon Morrow, 26, Toronto Blue Jays

Speaking of future strikeout champions on a non-contender ... Among those with at least 10 starts last season, only Stephen Strasburg struck out more batters per nine (12.18) than Morrow's 10.95 clip last season.

Among starters with at least as many as Morrow's 146 1/3 innings, no one else was in double digits. Only Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum was the closest at 9.79 K/9.

Morrow is a burgeoning double-digit strikeout horse. The issue is whether Morrow, who was shut down in September last season to save innings on his arm, will be allowed or capable of going beyond 180 innings. If he does, he could strike out 220-plus batters.

Since he pitches for the perennially rebuilding Blue Jays and against the AL Beast, you are going to be able to pick up this K-machine after the top 50 starters are off the board. And, as a bonus, he will turn 27 on July 26 this year.

7. Edinson Volquez, 27, Cincinnati Reds

It figures we wait until No. 7 on this list to finally get to the first (already) 27-year-old "third-year starting pitcher." Volquez is entering his seventh season in the majors, but he is still in that area of 40-70 career starts, having started exactly 70 games to date.

After breaking through in '08 at 17-6 with a 3.21 ERA and 206 strikeouts in 196 innings, Volquez needed Tommy John surgery. Being around 18 months removed from the procedure should allow him to have that long-awaited third-year starting pitcher breakthrough Francisco Liriano had last year after having his own elbow ligament replacement surgery.

Liriano set career highs with 14 victories, 191 2/3 innings and 201 strikeouts last season. That was with a 3.62 ERA. Those are all numbers the fellow Dominican Volquez can reach as an injury-risky, 27-year-old, "third-year starting pitcher" after the top 40 aces are off the board on draft day.

Those are a lot of reasons Volquez will be undervalued and capable of outperforming his draft position this season.

8. Rick Porcello, 22, Detroit Tigers

Porcello just needs to chat with his staff ace about how a young arm can bounce back from a disappointing year. Porcello can take the big step Justin Verlander had to take a few seasons ago.

Porcello looked like a future Cy Young winner as a rookie, winning 14 games with a sub-4.00 ERA, before slipping to just 10 victories and a 4.92 ERA in '10. But that is what this fantasy rule of thumb is all about: Pitchers need to struggle before they firmly take hold as aces for fantasy owners.

Porcello is not a strikeout pitcher. Only Kyle Kendrick (4.18), Mark Buehrle (4.24) and Brad Bergesen (4.29) had a lower K/9 rate among pitchers with as many innings as Porcello's 162 2/3. But Verlander really wasn't either early in his career and he jumped his strikeout total by 106 from '08 to '09.

Porcello, easily the youngest third-year starting pitcher in baseball, is hardly draftable in a standard mixed league going into this spring, but here is a vote of confidence in him making strides in Year 3. He could win 15 games with a 3.75 ERA and perhaps even come close to 150 strikeouts in 200-plus innings.

9. Brian Matusz, 24, Baltimore Orioles

Matusz was rookie eligible last season, but he is entering his third season with the Orioles, having started exactly 40 games to date. So, he is as much an overlooked sophomore as he is a starting pitcher in his third season, if that makes any sense.

Matusz's full season numbers -- 10-12, 4.30 ERA and 143 strikeouts in 175 2/3 innings -- are not eye opening, but it truly takes a lot for a pitcher to be over .500 for his career (15-14) with a lowly team like the Orioles.

Matusz is more pitcher than thrower and should be able to make his strong second half stand up over the long haul this season. He went 7-3 with a 3.63 ERA and .228 BAA after the All-Star break, beating the likes of the AL champion Rangers, White Sox, Red Sox, Yankees and Rays in winning six of his last eight starts (6-0) down the stretch.

That bodes well for a huge breakthrough as a top 80 starting pitcher available in the late rounds of a standard draft.

10. Homer Bailey, 24, Cincinnati Reds

We are going to round out our list with a real darkhorse. In fact, Bailey is no certainty to even make the rotation out of spring training, having to compete with Travis Wood and Mike Leake for the final two spots behind Bronson Arroyo, Volquez and Johnny Cueto. Aroldis Chapman is slated to open as a reliever, but he could be in that mix to start perhaps, too.

It has long been said Bailey can be as good as anyone, especially since his mid-90s velocity returned last season.

This is what third-year starting pitchers are all about, finally putting it all together. Bailey went 3-1 with a 3.55 ERA, .250 BAA and 59 strikeouts in his 10 starts and 58 1/3 innings after the All-Star break, a good sign.

The Reds can obviously score runs for him, so if he can sustain that for a full season and 180-plus innings, Bailey will be a great sleeper barely in the top 100 of starting pitchers to target on draft day.

Not all pitchers are created equal, so there could be some busts in the list above. There could also be some third-year starting pitcher breakouts among those that didn't make this top 10, including the Marlins' Chris Volstad, who just missed qualifying with 73 career starts.

Also, there are some in this category like David Price, Clay Buchholz and Trevor Cahill that are coming off huge second seasons as Cy Young candidates and more likely to be drafted too high rather than too low. They can still be even better, though.

If you want to hunt for your own hidden gems in this category, here are all of the rest of the starting pitchers with 40-70 career starts, listed in descending order of games started: Max Scherzer, DET; Clayton Richard, SD; Luke Hochevar, KC; Jeff Niemann, TB; Ricky Romero, TOR; Randy Wells, CHC; Jesse Litsch, TOR; Sean Marshall, CHC; Gio Gonzalez, OAK; Ross Ohlendorf, PIT; Justin Masterson, CLE; Andrew Miller, BOS; Jason Vargas, SEA; Anthony Reyes, CLE; Charlie Morton, PIT; Jeff Karstens, PIT; Dustin McGowan, TOR; Aaron Laffey, CLE; Brad Bergesen, BAL; Ryan Rowland-Smith, SEA; Brandon McCarthy, OAK; Brett Cecil, TOR; J.A. Happ, HOU; Tommy Hunter, TEX; Ian Kennedy, ARI; Joba Chamberlain, NYY; R.A. Dickey, NYM; and Kenshin Kawakami, ATL.

There are a handful of pitchers that just miss qualifying because they have less than 40 career starts, but they can breakout this year, too: Jon Niese, NYM; Doug Fister, SEA; Wade LeBlanc, SD; David Huff, CLE; and Wade Davis, TB.

Eric Mack writes bi-weekly for SI.com. You can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice on Twitter @EricMackFantasy. Hit him up. He honestly has nothing better to do with his free time.

 
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