Commentary

Five hot-starting arms worth getting

Braden, Matusz, Lewis, Carmona, Romero don't appear to be flukes

Updated: April 14, 2010, 4:55 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

In this game, five days can be an eternity.

60 Feet 6 Inches

That's one of the great challenges when scouting starting pitching, and if you listened to Wednesday's Fantasy Focus podcast, you heard Matthew Berry and I theorize why fantasy owners so often gravitate more toward hitters than pitchers. Take a listen, but one valuable point we made was that sample sizes are smaller for pitchers; pitchers work so infrequently that every game they pitch is thrust under the microscope, examined in closer detail. That contributes to the overriding opinion that they are more susceptible to rapid shifts in value, and can be less consistent.

To put that another way, hitters -- at least full-time ones -- generally accrue upwards of 500 at-bats in a season. Pitchers -- at least full-time starters -- generally accrue in the ballpark of 200 innings. So if a hitter goes 0-for-4 on any given day, the perceived impact to his batting average is less severe than the starting pitcher who gets bombed for eight runs in three innings (as John Maine did on Tuesday).

Another reason that's true: That 0-for-4 hitter might bounce back the very next day with a 3-for-4 performance and the previous day's stinker is instantly forgotten. With the Maine types, his owners get four (or five) more days to sit and stew over how awful he was and whether there's any hope of a rebound.

Further underscoring the point, let's now sub out Maine's name for a pitcher more highly regarded in fantasy baseball: Justin Verlander.

How are you Verlander owners feeling about his lovely six-run, five-inning nightmare versus the Cleveland Indians? That was three days ago, giving Verlander's owners a heck of a long time to ruminate whether it was a mistake to pick him in the early rounds to lead their staffs. Naturally, my chat, my inbox and my Twitter account (granted that one to a lesser degree) were littered with questions doubting Verlander's ability to turn his season around.

This is actually not a column about Verlander, or one about having patience with your early-round starting pitching selections. Not at all, because as I also mentioned on Tuesday's podcast when Jake Peavy was our example, it's really too late to second-guess your staff ace. You picked him and, for the most part, you need to stick with him, except in the rare instance where there are indicators there's something wrong, generally an injury. Writing "don't give up on Verlander" provides you no knowledge you couldn't gain almost anywhere.

Dallas Braden
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireSurprisingly, Dallas Braden was one of the first pitchers to strike out 10 in a game this season.

What this column is about, however, is the flip side to the Maine/Verlander/Peavy debate, or the no-name starting pitchers who have gotten off to pleasant starts, and during their four/five days between outings have tantalized many a fantasy owner as possible acquisitions. After all, these are two sides to the same coin, and the upshot of all this is that fantasy owners are, understandably, going to be a bit reactionary to early starting-pitching returns.

But should they be?

As with the slow-starting aces, it's all in the indicators. If a no-name type isn't demonstrating anything in the way of improved performance, and instead has been relying on a lucky streak, then there's no reason to pounce. If there's something in his peripheral numbers that hints at his taking the next step forward, then a reactionary pickup is justified. Let's take a closer look at five such interesting pickups for fantasy owners:

Dallas Braden, Oakland Athletics: The 10 strikeouts he recorded in his 2010 debut are a tad misleading, as they came against the light-hitting (.601 team OPS), strikeout-happy (62 in nine games) Seattle Mariners. That said, why can't Braden be at the minimum a matchups consideration? He's a finesse, change-of-pace type who gives left-handed hitters fits (.238/.297/.368 career AVG/OBP/SLG allowed), and in 2009 alone he had a 3.69 ERA and 1.28 WHIP in 12 starts at home. In his career, Braden has a 3.86 ERA and 1.21 WHIP versus teams with sub-.500 records. AL-only owners might find greater value in him than those in mixed, but if you pick and choose correctly …

Fausto Carmona, Cleveland Indians: After registering a 1.38 ERA and 0.65 WHIP during spring training, Carmona has a 3.21 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in his first two regular-season starts, plenty to make fantasy owners believe the Carmona of 2007 might be back. Is he? Maybe. He has held left-handed hitters to an 0-for-20, two-walk performance so far, which is a vast improvement from his .294/.372/.436 career rates. But his command has been shaky, as he has 10 walks in 14 innings (6.43 per nine), a higher rate than he had in 2008-09 combined (5.12). Carmona has shown brief flashes of success in the past even against offenses comparably potent to those of the Chicago White Sox and Texas Rangers, his two opponents thus far, so add him; but before locking in a long-term investment, make him show you a little more.

Colby Lewis, Texas Rangers: The last memory fantasy owners have of Lewis is the 7.30 ERA he posted in 26 starts with the Rangers back in 2003, and you did not read those numbers incorrectly; he did last 26 turns in the rotation despite an ERA that bloated. However, a two-year stint in Japan, during which time he had a 2.82 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 9.37 strikeouts-per-nine ratio, seems to have rejuvenated his career. As Jason Grey pointed out during the spring, Lewis vastly improved his command and delivery overseas, and the addition of a cutter has boosted his repertoire as well. Lewis' spring numbers weren't overwhelming (5.30 ERA, though 16 K's compared with three walks), but he did capitalize upon a favorable opening-week matchup versus the Mariners. With his new strike-throwing ways, he should at least be a matchups consideration all year.

Brian Matusz, Baltimore Orioles: He was my American League Rookie of the Year choice both in January and in April, so naturally I'm no less inclined to recommend him today than I was months ago. Still, back-to-back solid outings versus the Tampa Bay Rays, one of the better offenses in the game, are impressive for the rookie, especially the 15 K's he had in 12 1/3 innings. Heck, if not for the Orioles' bullpen allowing all three of his inherited runners to score on Tuesday, Matusz's ERA/WHIP numbers would look better than his not-so-bad 4.38 and 1.14. I admit, I blew it on my Matusz call for Tuesday in the chat, but I won't do it again. This kid comes to pitch, even against the league's elite squads. That he has a 2.65-1 K-to-walk ratio in his first 10 career starts bodes extremely well.

Ricky Romero, Toronto Blue Jays: Other than Matusz, Romero is the name you probably want most in this list of five. The No. 6 pick overall in the 2005 amateur draft, Romero's skill has never been in question; it's his command that has wavered from time to time throughout his career. Case in point: Through his first 13 starts of 2009, he had a 3.10 walks-per-nine ratio and 2.30-1 K-to-walk ratio, which resulted in a 3.00 ERA and 1.26 WHIP. In his next 16 turns he had 4.85 walks-per-nine and 1.47-1 K-to-walk ratios, and his ERA/WHIP numbers swelled to 5.54 and 1.77. Romero did have a high walk total during the spring (nine in 19 innings), but through two regular-season starts he has four compared with 16 K's in 15 innings. That hints that you need to ride this hot streak for as long as it lasts, especially since there's no saying that it will last only 13 starts like last year.

Four up

Brett Anderson, Oakland Athletics: One of the most popular breakout candidates of the preseason, Anderson has been every bit as advertised through two starts, during which he has allowed only nine hits and no runs. Granted, capitalizing upon Mariners matchups shouldn't cement a pitcher's status as a member of the elite class, but with a couple more outings like this against deeper offenses, Anderson will be well on his way to that status.

Justin Duchscherer, Oakland Athletics: Few pitchers are as risky in the health department as Duchscherer, but few pitchers are as productive as him when healthy. Consider that in 29 career starts, he has a 3.06 ERA and 1.05 WHIP, and while neither his spring ERA (5.54) nor his so-so first regular-season start (5 2/3 IP, 7 H, 5 ERs) seems to fall within that range, his second turn (7 1/3 shutout IP, 2 H) offered more promise. For as long as Duchscherer can stay healthy, he should be well worth having active in any format. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Matt Garza, Tampa Bay Rays: Wins were a problem for Garza last season, but through two starts he's already one-quarter of the way to last year's total of eight in the category. He has done it by going eight innings deep in both of his first two starts, in neither one allowing more than two runs. Garza has shown on many occasions his ability to thoroughly dominate when he's on. Two starts don't guarantee he's ready to take the next step, but he's headed in that direction.

David Price, Tampa Bay Rays: Sticking with the Rays pitchers theme, Price confounded the loaded New York Yankees lineup in his first 2010 appearance, one of the few pitchers who truly gave the Yankees trouble during the opening week. That's what aces -- or in Price's case, soon-to-be aces -- do: They dominate even the game's best teams. Price has long been hailed a future Cy Young candidate, and while he might not quite get there this year, his breakout potential is evident.

Four down

Jair Jurrjens, Atlanta Braves: How can anyone not be troubled by any pitcher who gets pummeled for eight runs in 3 1/3 innings in a game at San Diego's Petco Park, the most pitching-friendly venue in all of baseball? The first concern that comes to mind is the shoulder issue he battled during the early part of spring training, and perhaps it signals that he's not quite at 100 percent health. Keep tabs on Jurrjens' next outing, because another stinker could tempt the Braves to give him a bit of a breather on the disabled list.

Jake Peavy, Chicago White Sox: His ERA and WHIP were bound to rise once he escaped Petco for the harsher confines of Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field, and battling deeper American League lineups won't help matters either. Fantasy owners seemed to still treat him like an elite fantasy starter when they picked him 23rd on average at his position in the preseason (average draft position of 101.4), but Peavy's value took a hit when his surroundings changed, and his checkered recent health history makes him a real risk to fall just short of the top 25.

Wandy Rodriguez, Houston Astros: Another pitcher with minor injury concerns, Rodriguez admitted to the Astros' official Web site following his mediocre Monday outing that he experienced some shoulder soreness during the game. Perhaps that might explain why he was effectively a batting-practice pitcher during the spring (12.10 ERA in six starts), or why he walked six batters in 10 1/3 innings in his first two regular-season starts, leading to a 1.94 WHIP? It's another thing to keep an eye on, even if it's not yet something to act upon.

Chris Young, San Diego Padres: It took him only one start before he succumbed to an injury, costing him a trip to the disabled list for the fourth consecutive season, and what's particularly troubling about this stint was that it was shoulder-related, and Young did have shoulder surgery last August. Young was already a worry because his ERA and walk rate rose while his strikeout rate plummeted in each of the past two seasons, and a lot of his success could be attributed to his home ballpark (Petco). Might it be that we've already seen Young's best seasons? Don't be shocked if so.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.

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