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Zach Duke and Ian Snell: Buried Treasure

The Pirates defense was terrible in 2008.

Nate McLouth had no range in center. Jason Bay and Xavier Nady weren’t much better in the corners. Freddy Sanchez was terrible at second base. The list goes on.

Why do you, the astute fantasy baseball player, care about the Pirates defense? Because it contributed to poor pitching performances. And if the defense improves – which it should – you may be able to find some sleepers on the Pirates pitching staff.

There is reason to believe that the Pirates defense will be better in 09 than it was in 08. First of all, Bay and Nady have since departed. At some point in 09, it’s likely that McLouth will be moved to a corner, and Andrew McCutchen – who is reported to be an above-average defender – will replace him in center field. Furthermore, Andy LaRoche is entrenched at third base, where he should be at least average. While Sanchez remains at second and shortstop is a question mark, the Pirates defense should be much better than it was last year, even if they’re not leading the league in DER.

This has ramifications for all Pirates pitchers, but two in particular:

Ian Snell had the second-highest BABIP of any starting pitcher in baseball, at .358. Even allowing for the fact that Snell may be more hittable than your average pitcher, a .358 BABIP is ridiculously high, and will likely regress to the mean next year. Even though Snell had a 5.42 ERA this season, he coupled that with a 4.57 FIP, suggesting a fair amount of bad luck. With some regression to the mean – and an improved defense behind him – Snell should see a lot more balls in play become outs next year. Snell may not be an ace, but he could be a decent fantasy pitcher, especially in deeper leagues.

Along similar lines, Zach Duke posted a .327 BABIP this year – ninth highest of all pitchers. Duke is also rather hittable, but it’s no coincidence that the two of the Pirates starting pitchers were in the top-10 in BABIP: their defense really was that bad. Even if Duke regresses, he’s still nothing more than a waiver-wire pickup or a late pick in an NL-only league; even so, Duke is likely to be undervalued, and should be watched in deep leagues.