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Billy Buckner: Sleeper?

At first blush, Arizona Diamondbacks right-hander Billy Buckner looks like a toxic fantasy option. After all, he’s an exiled Kansas City Royal who posted a-shield your eyes!-6.40 ERA in 2009. Why in the world should you care about William Jennings Bucker?

What if I were to argue that Buckner really didn’t pitch that poorly last season? That, in terms of the facets of pitching over which he has the most control, Bucker was actually pretty good? Crazy, right? Perhaps not.

Kansas City’s second round pick in the 2004 draft, Bucker has tossed 324 innings at the Triple-A level (51 starts, 15 relief appearances). Overall, the University of South Carolina product has punched out 6.9 batters per nine frames, with 3.2 BB/9 and a 3.82 Fielding Independent ERA.

Courtesy of Minor League Splits, here are Buckner’s Major League Equivalent lines from 2007-2009, based on his Triple-A work:

2007: 105 IP, 6.26 K/9, 2.83 BB/9, 48.2 GB%, 4.58 FIP
2008: 124 IP, 4.44 K/9, 3.93 BB/9, 46.2 GB%, 5.01 FIP
2009: 106 IP, 7.24 K/9, 4.85 BB/9, 49.5 GB%, 4.17 FIP

Those aren’t the numbers of some amazing, unrecognized pitcher, but they’re useful nonetheless. Buckner’s combined MLE from 2007 to 2009: a 4.65 FIP, with 5.96 K/9 and 3.88 BB/9.

Buckner bounced between Triple-A Tucson and Arizona last year, compiling a big league ERA that would make Daniel Cabrera giggle. But beneath the Boeing-level ERA, Buckner showed some promising skills.

In 77.1 innings pitched (13 starts, 3 ‘pen appearances), the 26 year-old struck out 7.45 batters per nine innings, issuing 3.38 BB/9. He also kept the ball down, generating grounders 48.8 percent of the time. Buckner’s xFIP, based on whiffs, walks and a normalized home run per fly ball rate, was 3.95- nearly two and a half runs lower than his actual ERA.

What happened? For one, it seemed as though the D-Backs righty had seven Bill Buckners behind him, with Mookie Wilson perpetually at the plate (I know, I know-it was an error. But play along). Buckner’s BABIP was .347, the ninth-highest rate among pitchers working at least 70 frames.

In addition, his HR/FB rate was obscenely high: 16.7 percent of fly balls hit against Bucker left the yard, compared to the 11-12 percent major league average. Buckner’s rate of stranding runners on base, 63.2, was also out of whack. Perhaps he does struggle pitching from the stretch. But it seems unlikely that Buckner will have a strand rate seven to nine percent below the big league average again next year.

Buckner did a nice job of getting batters to go fishing, getting swings on pitches out of the strike zone 29.9 percent of the time (25% MLB average). His contact rate was 76.5 percent, below the 80-81 percent major league average.

Granted, he will have to combat Chase Field’s inhospitable environs: per the 2010 Bill James Handbook, Chase boosted run scoring by 15 percent compared to a neutral ball park over the past three seasons. But heading into 2010, Buckner figures to be Arizona’s fifth starter. CHONE projects a 4.45 FIP in 167 innings, with 6.84 punch outs per nine and 3.45 BB/9.

Billy Buckner won’t be on anybody’s draft list. In all likelihood, some of your fellow owners will think you’re just having some 80’s flashback if you mention the guy’s name. But Bucker could be a shrewd NL-only option if injuries send you scrambling to the waiver wire.