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2012 Fantasy Zombie Award, Pitcher Edition

There were certainly some compelling candidates for the 2012 Fantasy Zombie in the hitters division, but after the top choices, the field wasn’t actually all that deep. Plenty of hitters surged to great seasons, but of those that did, very few were coming back from either bad injuries or the true pits of previous poor performance. There is no such problem with the pitchers.

More of these candidates are coming back from major injuries than are simply rounding back into form after a trip to the abyss, which makes sense given that it’s easier for an injury to cost a pitcher a full season than it is for a hitter to miss the whole year. Four of the five have had Tommy John surgery at some point in their career, and three earned their spot on this list with their performance following that procedure. Jake Peavy, the only one of the four not to have his UCL replaced, could have been on this list last year as well, since he was working his way back from a detached lat, which remains one of the most painful injuries I’ve ever encountered.

Irrespective of what put them under the knife, here are five strong contenders for the pitching edition of Fantasy Zombie 2012, but there are surely others who deserve a nod and a handshake. As before, if there’s someone you feel I’ve missed, leave it in the comments!

Stephen Strasburg

2011: 5 G, 1.50 ERA, 0.71 WHIP, 9.00 K/9
2012: 28 G, 3.16 ERA, 1.15, 11.13 K/9

If Strasburg had finished out the season and was leading the Nationals’ rotation for their first playoff series ever, this would be a one-name column. Strasburg. Game Over. As it is, not only is he unavailable for the playoffs, he missed nearly the entire month of September, and while it clearly didn’t hurt the Nats much, plenty of fantasy owners deeply wish that he had been allowed to finish what he started this season.

Enough grumbling about crumbs. Strasburg came back in his first full season removed from Tommy John surgery and dominated the opposition. He gave the team 20 quality starts out of the 28 times he pitched and the Nats went 19-9 in those 28 starts. He allowed just 15 home runs across 159.1 IP and struck out well above a batter per inning. Whatever metric for pitcher success you use, chances are Strasburg is pretty near the top of it. Had he not come back at the end of 2011 and been fantastic, perhaps more people would have been wary about drafting him in 2012, but as it as, Strasburg didn’t provide much in the way of unexpected value since no one forgot about him.

Adam Wainwright

2011: DNP
2012: 31 GS, 4.02 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 8.4 K/9

Things started out rough for Wainwright, who was tagged by opposing hitters to the tune of a .993 OPS, which inflated his ERA to 9.98 after his first three starts. He’s still prone to the occasional blowout start, but since those first few games, his ERA has fallen to 3.57 and opponents have just a .681 OPS against him.

Perhaps most impressive about Wainwright’s recovery — other than the pressure of not having Chris Carpenter alongside him the Cardinals rotation for the vast majority of the season — is that while it took time for him to find his command, it never cost him strikeouts. In fact, the 8.36 K/9 he posted this year is his highest ever as starter. Everyone expected Starsburg to be good, and he was, but Wainwright was nearly as good — 4.3 WAR for Strasburg compared to 4.2 for Waino — and was drafted some 44 picks later on average.

Jake Peavy

2011: 18 GS, 4.92 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 7.7 K/9
2012: 30 GS, 3.40 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 7.9 K/9

For the first half of his career, Peavy was the model of durability. From 2003 through 2008, Peavy failed to make 30 starts or more just twice and in those years he made a paltry 27 starts, so he was taking the ball pretty much every time he was asked. Since 2008, however, Peavy hasn’t been able to reach even 20 starts as he maxed out at 18 last season.

Peavy made his 30th start on September 21 and has broken 4.0 WAR for the first time since 2007, and did so in a much more difficult home environment, so it’s safe to say that he returned to form after a long sojourn in the wilderness. Missing from Peavy’s normal dominance were the strikeouts, but he’s just barely shy of 8.00 K/9, so it’s not too hard to dream on the fact that he’ll be back up above that mark next year. Suffice to say that the few who drafted Peavy in the 210 range — he was taken in a paltry 19 percent of leagues — got their money’s worth. With the White Sox’s planning to decline Peavy’s option for next year, he’ll be one of the most interesting free agency cases to follow.

Kris Medlen

2011: 2 G, 0.00 ERA, 0.43 WHIP, 7.7 K/9
2012: 49 G, 1.64 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 7.9 K/9

Medlen’s atypical usage — he has 11 starts in his 49 appearances — makes it hard to look at his numbers and grasp exactly how well he has performed this season. What’s clear is that after 2010 Tommy John surgery, Medlen is back to embarrassing hitters with his four-pitch array. Since moving into the Braves’ rotation on July 31, Medlen has thrown a pair of complete games to go with his perfect 8-0 record, 1.04 ERA and 0.81 WHIP. Unusual, too, is the fact that Medlen’s K/9 is much higher as a starter than it was when he was coming out of the bullpen.

I can’t say I blame anyone for not wanting to gamble on Medlen on draft day, but it is somewhat remarkable that his name does not even appear in Yahoo!’s draft analyses. The retired Javier Vaquez was taken in 14 percent of leagues, yet Medlen couldn’t buy a spot on anyone’s roster. Needless to say, history will not repeat itself on draft day 2013, but the fact that Medlen didn’t move into the rotation until well after the All-Star break may allow him to fall into many owners’ blind spot if their rotation was already set. With a general lack of name recognition and some legitimate regression worries, I expect Medlen to fall in the 150-175 range when mock drafts open back up in the Spring.

Josh Johnson

2011: 9 GS, 1.64 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 8.4 K/9
2012: 30 GS, 3.84 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 7.7 K/9

There is no doubt that Johnson was more valuable this year than he was in his injury-shortened 2011 campaign, but he didn’t look like the pitcher he was in 2008 or 2009 either. Perhaps Johnson’s biggest achievement in his down year was the fact that he was able to make 30 starts for just the second time in his career. Without a singular diagnosis for the injury that cost him most of his 2011 season, I felt like there was a very good chance that he’d go down again this year, which he very clearly did not.

Johnson will be an interesting case to follow during mock draft season. The injury risk is still there with him — anytime a player who has previously had elbow trouble starts having shoulder issues, tread carefully, that’s a huge red flag — and I doubt anyone is looking at this year in a vacuum and gleefully planning to throw a highish pick Johnson’s way again. However, he’s just two years removed from back-to-back seasons of absolute dominance and wears the label of ace even if his performance recently belies the title. He was a top-100 pick this year, just ahead of teammate Heath Bell, and while Bell may not sniff the top-200 next year, I suspect there will be enough interest in Johnson to put him in the 110 to 120 range barring any offseason unpleasantness.

Honorable Mention: A.J. Burnett, Fernando Rodney, Phil Hughes, Bronson Arroyo,

Picking a winner is tough given this field. I wish Medlen had started all year or that Strasburg had finished his season with a bang instead of a whimper, since either of those things would make the final choice easier. Medlen has been absolutely unhittable lately and 11 starts isn’t really a small sample, but I’m still swayed by the fact that Strasburg gave his team 20 quality starts out of 28 chances. The difference is even starker in fantasy terms, where Medlen simply wasn’t providing much value until the end of July and two good months — even if they include the fantasy playoffs — don’t outweigh Strasburg’s five months.