Can Mat Latos be as good as last season even if the Padres aren't?
Some highly-touted pitching prospects never pan out. Others take a few seasons to get acclimated to big league hitters before they start to reach their potential. And then there are those who begin their dominance almost immediately.
Mat Latos falls into category No. 3. After a 10-start trial run with the Padres in 2009, the 6-foot-6 right-hander joined the team's rotation for good in 2010. In 31 starts, he went 14-10 with a 2.92 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 189 strikeouts in 184.2 innings. That performance ranked him seventh among National League pitchers on ESPN's Player Rater and eighth in NL Cy Young voting.
Yep, the Padres found their new ace.
A closer look at the numbers shows just how good Latos was last season. His 9.2 K/9 rate ranked eighth in baseball among starting pitchers, and he was one of only three hurlers to sport a strikeout rate of at least 9.0 with a BB/9 rate of 2.5 or lower (Jered Weaver and Josh Johnson were the others). His 3.8 strikeouts-to-walk ratio ranked eighth. His 3.00 fielder independent pitching score (FIP) ranked sixth. His 1.08 WHIP ranked seventh. His 14.9 line-drive percentage against and .216 batting average against both ranked sixth. He also had a 15-start streak between June and September in which he didn't allow more than two runs in a start. Keep in mind that Latos did all this at the age of 22 in his first full big league season. And for those wondering if he was pitching over his head, his 10.5 K/9 rate and 2.3 BB/9 rate in 184 2/3 minor league innings tells us his dominance this season didn't come out of nowhere.
Some may point to the pitcher-friendly Petco Park as part of the reason for Latos' success. The right-hander did enjoy his time there, as he posted a 2.59 ERA at home last season. However, he still held a 3.14 ERA on the road, and his home and road WHIPs were identical (1.08). Not only that, but he posted a better strikeout rate on the road (9.7 versus 8.5 at home), and his walk rate (2.4) and batting average against (.217) were nearly identical to his Petco marks (2.5, .218 BAA). In short, no one can argue that he's simply a product of Petco Park.
Like any young pitcher, however, Latos has some areas of concern that prospective fantasy owners should be aware of. Studies have shown that pitchers under the age of 25 who see a sharp innings increase from one year to the next are at greater risk for injury. Just last season, Johnson and Brett Anderson suffered injury issues after a substantial innings jump the previous year. Elbow issues limited Anderson to just 19 starts after seeing his workload jump from 105 innings in 2008 to 175 1/3 innings in 2009, and Johnson missed roughly the final month of last season with back trouble after going from 116 2/3 innings in 2008 to 209 innings in '09.
Last season, Latos threw 184 2/3 innings after hurling 123 the year before between the majors and minors, a 61 2/3-inning jump. Adding to this concern is the fact he appeared to wear down late in the year, holding a 6.21 ERA and 1.55 WHIP in six September starts (although the majority of the damage was done in a disastrous Sept. 17 start in which he allowed eight runs in just 1.1 innings against the St. Louis Cardinals). It also must be noted that Latos had a similar innings jump going into last season. He pitched just 56 innings in the minors in 2008, yet he threw 113 innings in 2009, a 57-inning increase.
We can look at this one of two ways. On one hand, that Latos had a significant innings jump heading into last year and for the most part stayed healthy (he did have a short DL stint in July due to a strained oblique) could mean there's little to worry about. On the other hand, two consecutive inning spikes could put him at an even greater risk to break down in the future. Either way, it's something to consider when drafting Latos.
The final chapter in this story doesn't really have to do with Latos at all; it has to with the lineup behind him. The Padres, despite winning 90 games in 2010, hit just .246, the third-lowest batting average in baseball, and scored 665 runs, which ranked 22nd. And that was with first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who led the team in batting average, OBP, SLG, runs scored, hits, doubles, home runs, RBIs ... you get the point. With Gonzalez in Boston and first base being manned by Brad Hawpe (.254 AVG/.344 OBP/.422 SLG last year), it's safe to assume the Padres' offense will be worse in 2011, which obviously doesn't bode well for Latos' win total.
For argument's sake, let's say the Padres are slightly worse offensively and score 650 runs this season. That estimate may actually be too optimistic considering the team scored just 637 runs and 638 runs in 2008 and 2009, respectively, but let's go with it. How would this affect Latos, who won 14 just games last year despite a Padres team that scored its highest run total in the last three seasons?
Dating to 2001, 25 teams have scored fewer than 650 runs:
Only twice did pitchers win more than 16 games, and only seven times did they win more than 14. In other words, 72 percent of the time pitchers failed to win at least 15 games. Sure, we've seen pitchers post lofty win totals despite their teams' poor offenses -- Tim Lincecum won 18 games in 2008, and Felix Hernandez won 19 in 2009 -- but that's the exception, not the rule. In fact, Lincecum won the Cy Young in 2008 and King Felix finished second in the voting in 2009, so a pitcher has to be really, really good (and a little lucky, too) to overcome such lackluster run support. And even then wins are no guarantee.
From what we've seen of Latos, he has Cy Young potential. However, if the Padres take a step back offensively in 2011 like we expect them to, he'll have very little margin for error as far as wins are concerned. Thus, even if he pitches the same or better this season, he's more likely to see his win total fall to 12 or 13 than jump into the 16-18 range. This isn't to say that a pitcher needs to win a certain number of games to be considered a fantasy ace. After all, Hernandez was the No. 3-ranked starting pitcher on the ESPN Player Rater last year despite winning just 13 games, and, of course, Latos was top-15 despite winning only 14. But having a sub-par lineup makes it that much more difficult.
By almost every metric, Latos was a fantasy ace last season. The innings increase and a potential lack of run support are red flags, but, then again, what pitchers don't have a red flag or two? It just depends on how much Latos' flags worry you. For me, the fact he already overcame a 50-plus inning jump last year is a good thing. Yes, I am somewhat worried about the lack of run support, but even Hernandez, who is being drafted as the No. 3 starting pitcher, according to ESPN's average draft position data, figures to have run-support issues again in 2011, so other top pitchers have the same obstacle to overcome.
Because of the amount of quality starting pitching available this year, Latos is being drafted as the No. 14 starting pitcher. This means he's technically being selected as a No. 2 fantasy starter in standard ESPN 10-team leagues, and his overall ADP of 64.6 means he can be drafted in roughly the seventh round.
For a pitcher with Latos' skill set and upside, that doesn't sound like an unreasonably high price tag. In fact, it sounds like a good time to invest. Let's face it, pitchers who establish themselves as elite at 22 years old don't come around very often.