Commentary

Sixty Feet, Six Inches: Greinke's and Duke's differing fortunes

Updated: April 28, 2009, 1:26 PM ET
By James Quintong | ESPN.com

Who would've figured that nearly a month into the season, the AL and NL leaders in runs allowed would be the Royals and the Pirates? Helping to lead the way for each team is a Zack (or Zach). So while this week's column is sponsored by the letter Z, let's see whether Greinke and Duke can keep up the production all season long.

[+] EnlargeZack Greinke
John Rieger/US PresswireGreinke has a 6-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2009.

Let's start first with Zack Greinke, the one Zack fantasy owners actually cared about heading into this season. We knew the talent was there; it was just a matter of when he would have a true breakout season. We're definitely getting there now, as Greinke has yet to allow an earned run in four starts this season. Not surprisingly, Greinke is 4-0, which includes consecutive complete-game, 10-strikeout gems in his past two outings.

Yes, it's a ridiculous start, and he's eventually going to slow down a bit, but Greinke is definitely for real. A couple of secondary stats trended in the right direction last year and are continuing the same track this season. His ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio is headed toward 1, after years of being a definite fly-ball pitcher. It's interesting to see him becoming more of a ground-ball pitcher just as his strikeout rate has been climbing. His K/9 rate was a little more than 8 last year, a career best, and now he's got 36 K's in 29 innings this season. As Greinke has seemingly moved on from personal issues that nearly ended his career before it began, he's now become an even more dominant pitcher.

The two straight complete games are very notable, given the rarity of them these days. However, Greinke ended up being a lot more economical in his pitches in those two starts, throwing 108 and 111 in those outings, after averaging 99 per start in just 11 total innings to open the year. Even better, in those two complete games, he walked just one overall.

Right now, my primary concern for Greinke is whether he gets enough run support to pile up a bunch of wins that will draw lots of attention. The Royals scored six for him on Saturday, but just eight overall in his previous three starts. Kansas City is last in the American League in runs scored, although its pitchers have given up the fewest runs as well. You can win sonly so many 2-1 games.

Greinke was taken 17th among starting pitchers in ESPN live drafts (just behind last year's breakout candidate Cliff Lee), so it's not really shocking that he's been very good this year. He's now making a good push to being one of the top fantasy pitchers overall the rest of the way.

Meanwhile, Zach Duke was somewhat off the fantasy radar thanks to three disappointing seasons following his dynamite rookie campaign in 2005 (8-2, 1.81 ERA in 14 games). During that time, he had given way to Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny and Paul Maholm as the next "it" Pirates pitcher. But somehow Duke has found his game once again this month, firing a shutout against the Astros and nearly picking up a second complete game Saturday against the Padres.

While Greinke is owned in 100 percent of leagues, Duke is owned in only 38 percent, although that number should increase, as it's hard to argue with a 2.43 ERA and 1.11 WHIP through four starts. And anyone desperate for starting pitching should at least consider the Pirates lefty. However, there are some signs already that Duke may not keep up the pace.

Duke isn't much of a strikeout pitcher. He had a fair 6.17 K/9 rate during his rookie campaign, but has never topped 5 since, including this year. While some pitchers can thrive without striking out a lot of guys, the lack of K's will depress the fantasy value somewhat. Right now, Duke is taking advantage of a somewhat low .278 batting average on balls in play. It's not ridiculously low, but it's still notable given his .327 career mark and .296 mark during his '05 rookie campaign. There's a bit of luck involved with Duke's hot start.

Also, his GB/FB rate this season has dipped below 1, even though it's at 1.08 for his career. Again, some pitchers can thrive as fly-ball pitchers, but it's odd to see a guy getting better as he gives up more fly balls. Cliff Lee, for instance, became an extreme ground-ball pitcher last year during his breakout campaign, so it's odd to see things reverse themselves in this case. Duke has allowed just one homer this season, but if he's giving up that many fly balls, a few more could be leaving the park pretty soon.

Enjoy the ride with both pitchers, although obviously you'll want to be a lot more careful with Duke. But he's probably better than the worst guy on your staff in mixed leagues. As for Greinke, this could be the start of something great.

Fortunes up

Top 80 starters

Note: Christopher Harris' top 80 starters are ranked for their expected performance from this point on, not on the statistics they have already accrued. (Previous ranking is in parentheses.)

1. Johan Santana, NYM (1)
2. CC Sabathia, NYY (2)
3. Tim Lincecum, SF (3)
4. Roy Halladay, TOR (4)
5. Dan Haren, ARI (7)
6. Jake Peavy, SD (5)
7. James Shields, TB (6)
8. Chad Billingsley, LAD (9)
9. Roy Oswalt, HOU (11)
10. Cole Hamels, PHI (10)
11. Josh Beckett, BOS (12)
12. Brandon Webb, ARI (8)
13. Felix Hernandez, SEA (14)
14. Zack Greinke, KC (17)
15. Francisco Liriano, MIN (13)
16. Adam Wainwright, STL (15)
17. Javier Vazquez, ATL (16)
18. Rich Harden, CHC (18)
19. Kevin Slowey, MIN (19)
20. Yovani Gallardo, MIL (20)
21. Cliff Lee, CLE (24)
22. John Lackey, LAA (21)
23. Joba Chamberlain, NYY (22)
24. Derek Lowe, ATL (23)
25. Gil Meche, KC (27)
26. A.J. Burnett, NYY (26)
27. Erik Bedard, SEA (33)
28. Josh Johnson, FLA (35)
29. Scott Baker, MIN (25)
30. Brett Myers, PHI (28)
31. Scott Kazmir, TB (29)
32. Aaron Harang, CIN (36)
33. John Danks, CHW (30)
34. Ted Lilly, CHC (31)
35. Clayton Kershaw, LAD (32)
36. Ricky Nolasco, FLA (34)
37. Justin Verlander, DET (37)
38. Matt Cain, SF (38)
39. Wandy Rodriguez, HOU (39)
40. Jon Lester, BOS (40)
41. Ryan Dempster, CHC (41)
42. Johnny Cueto, CIN (46)
43. Max Scherzer, ARI (42)
44. Ervin Santana, LAA (43)
45. Edinson Volquez, CIN (44)
46. Daisuke Matsuzaka, BOS (45)
47. Jered Weaver, LAA (47)
48. Randy Johnson, SF (48)
49. Matt Garza, TB (49)
50. Mark Buehrle, CHW (50)
51. Carlos Zambrano, CHC (52)
52. Andy Sonnanstine, TB (53)
53. Kenshin Kawakami, ATL (54)
54. Andy Pettitte, NYY (55)
55. Hiroki Kuroda, LAD (51)
56. Manny Parra, MIL (56)
57. Chris Young, SD (57)
58. Jair Jurrjens, ATL (58)
59. Dave Bush, MIL (59)
60. John Maine, NYM (61)
61. Paul Maholm, PIT (60)
62. Chien-Ming Wang, NYY (61)
63. Justin Duchscherer, OAK (63)
64. Jeremy Guthrie, BAL (64)
65. Oliver Perez, NYM (65)
66. Sean Marshall, CHC (66)
67. Fausto Carmona, CLE (67)
68. John Smoltz, BOS (68)
69. Chris Volstad, FLA (69)
70. Kyle Lohse, STL (77)
71. Chris Carpenter, STL (70)
72. Armando Galarraga, DET (76)
73. Brett Anderson, OAK (71)
74. Koji Uehara, BAL (72)
75. Tommy Hanson, ATL (73)
76. Bronson Arroyo, CIN (74)
77. Joe Saunders, LAA (75)
78. Jordan Zimmermann, WAS (78)
79. David Price, TB (79)
80. Tim Wakefield, BOS (NR)

Dan Haren, Diamondbacks (5): He's been spectacular all year, but Monday's complete-game gem improved his record to just 2-3. Until the D-backs put up seven runs Monday, they had scored only three runs total in his first four starts of the season. You know he has the stuff, so as long as the team can provide any sort of offense in front of him, his record will match the rest of his stats.

Johnny Cueto, Reds (42): Speaking of run support, Cueto has just one win in his past three starts despite allowing two runs total in those games. The Reds have scored just six runs in those contests. He has allowed just one run, and more importantly, walked just one in his past two games, while also finding a way to keep the ball down. Cueto has shown flashes of greatness and is starting to get picked up again in a number of leagues.

Tim Wakefield, Red Sox (80): He flirted with a no-hitter two weeks ago, and on Monday he gave up just one hit over seven innings but got a no-decision against the Indians. While Wakefield is walking a few too many batters (12 free passes compared to 17 strikeouts in 29 innings), the league is hitting just .154 against him and he's yet to allow a homer all season. He's owned in just 28.5 percent of mixed leagues, and that's a big jump over the past seven days.

Fortunes down

Jake Peavy, Padres (6): Two consecutive bad outings shouldn't be much of a red flag, even for an ace like Peavy, but when they come against a patchwork Pirates lineup and the offensively challenged Giants, there could be cause for concern. His control has been somewhat troubling, with 11 walks allowed in his past three starts, but he's still striking out more than a batter an inning, so he has some value even as he's struggled.

Francisco Liriano, Twins (15): As my colleague Christopher Harris mentioned last week, there seem to be some glaring reasons for Liriano's early struggles. He's become an extreme fly-ball pitcher after being a ground-ball pitcher during his 2006 breakout campaign, and he's throwing a lot more fastballs, which opposing hitters are waiting for and eventually driving. Maybe his return to that dominance from 2006 is a bit further off than we expected.

Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers (35): After two brilliant starts to open 2009 (including a 13-strikeout performance), Kershaw has been roughed up to the tune of 15 runs in nine innings over his past two outings, including a nine-run wreck against the Rockies on Sunday. Such is the life of a talented but young starting pitcher. Kershaw does draw the Padres at home Friday, so there is a good chance he can regain his form sooner rather than later.

Comings and goings

• The news is getting worse for Brandon Webb, who's now expected to miss six more weeks with a shoulder injury. The Arizona Republic said he will be shut down for three weeks and then need at least three more weeks to get up to speed.

Chien-Ming Wang was officially placed on the disabled list Saturday with what the Yankees are calling a hip problem that's related to last year's season-ending foot injury. Phil Hughes will be called up to start Tuesday's game against the Tigers. Hughes is 3-0 with a 1.86 ERA and 19 strikeouts over 19 1/3 innings at Triple-A this season.

• The Angels' rotation continues to be in flux as they wait for John Lackey, Ervin Santana and Kelvim Escobar to return from injuries. Lefty Darren Oliver was the latest starter to land on the DL, with a strained triceps. Matt Palmer was called up to start Thursday, earning a victory in his big league debut, allowing five runs (four earned) over six innings against the Tigers. Then on Saturday, the Angels brought up Anthony Ortega to start, and he responded by allowing four runs in five innings but lost to the Mariners.

• Further down I-5, San Diego's rotation is just as banged up. Shawn Hill landed on the DL after injuring his biceps during Saturday's game, leaving after just two innings. Josh Geer relieved him and likely will take Hill's spot in the rotation. In the meantime, the Padres called up Chad Gaudin to start Tuesday. Geer was originally expected to make that start before replacing Hill on Saturday; he'll now go on regular rest Thursday.

• After a nice to start to his big league career, Ricky Romero landed on the DL with an oblique injury supposedly suffered while sneezing a couple of weeks ago before a start against the Twins. Former Oriole Brian Burres took Romero's spot in the rotation Saturday, giving up six runs in 4 1/3 innings against the White Sox. Look elsewhere to replace Romero on your staff.

• After starting the season in the minors, Brian Bannister is back in the Royals rotation, called up from Triple-A Omaha on Wednesday to take the place of Horacio Ramirez. Bannister outdueled Cliff Lee on Wednesday, then allowed just one run (but six walks) Monday to beat the Blue Jays. He's 2-0 with a 0.69 ERA since his recall, but with eight walks and just three strikeouts in his 13 innings, it's hard to believe he can keep up that pace.

• The Rockies' Franklin Morales landed on the disabled list with a strained shoulder that knocked him out of his April 21 start. Jason Hammel, recently acquired from the Rays, started Monday but couldn't get out of the fourth inning, allowing five runs, seven hits and three walks.

• The Marlins finally found a replacement for the injured Andrew Miller in Graham Taylor, who was called up from Double-A for Sunday's start. However, Taylor walked six and allowed four runs in just 3 2/3 innings in a loss to the Phillies. He's still expected to start Friday against the Cubs.

Jeff Samardzija was recalled by the Cubs on Thursday, but he'll resume pitching out of the bullpen for the big club despite being stretched out as a starter in the minors. Sean Marshall will remain the No. 5 starter.

James Quintong is an editor for ESPN.com Fantasy.

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