For most big league clubs, the 81-game mark will pass this weekend, just a week before the All-Star break. As a result, in the next 10 days or so, the fantasy fan no doubt will be drenched in the Halfway-Point Analysis.
Allow me to throw out the first soaking sponge.
What follows is a look at the five most surprising and disappointing fantasy starting pitchers so far in 2009. When I say "surprising," I'm not talking about, say, Randy Wells, whom most of us had barely heard of when the Cubs decided to make him their fifth starter in May. And when I say "disappointing," I'm not talking about Brandon Webb, who was able to make exactly one start before shoulder problems shelved him. I'm talking about high-impact players who've pitched at least an inning for every game their big league club has played, in other words, ERA-title qualifiers. No injuries, no heroic underdog stories that have made a guy ownable in the same way that Jon and Kate are "interesting." Here they are:
Five shocking shockers who've shocked (least-to-most shocking)
5. Wandy Rodriguez, Astros (6-6, 3.35 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 90 K's, 37 BBs, 96 2/3 IP): After an incredible start to 2009, Way-Rod is teetering a little. After registering a quality start in eight of his first nine outings this year, he has done it in just three of seven starts since. Still, so far he has been able to harness that strikeout-per-inning stuff with which he's teased us the past couple of years. He also has stayed healthy, which was his biggest worry entering '09.
Prognosis: I actually think it's pretty good, so long as your expectations are reasonable. I don't see any major underlying numbers that make me think Rodriguez's performance has been a fluke. If anything, though, the stats reinforce the notion that he's generally better at home than on the road. That's mostly a mental hurdle, and I still think Rodriguez can clear it if he stays healthy.
4. Johnny Cueto, Reds (7-4, 2.86 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 70 K's, 28 BBs, 97 2/3 IP): Edinson Volquez stole his thunder last year, but Cueto had been awesome in '09 until his three most recent starts, in which he allowed five runs apiece. (To be fair, three outings ago, all five runs were unearned.) Cueto has given up a bit of his velocity in the name of better control: Although his strikeout rate is down from last year's 8.17 whiffs per nine, his walks also are down nearly one per game.
Prognosis: He was cruising along until the past couple of weeks, but those control issues have resurfaced lately. He hasn't walked a ton of hitters, but he hasn't been sharp, either, leaving pitches over the plate and getting rocked. What I like best about him, though, is this effort to reinvent himself. Losing a mile per hour off the fastball has worked. I'm buying Cueto as a top-40 guy going forward.
3. Kevin Millwood, Rangers (8-5, 2.64 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 70 K's, 36 BBs, 112 2/3 IP): Millwood started 2009 strong and has only gotten better. In his past five starts, he's been ridiculous: 1.30 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 27 Ks in 34 2/3 IP. He's been a top-20 fantasy pitcher pretty much all season, putting the memory of his killer 1.62 WHIP from 2008 well behind him. And believe it or not, Millwood is available in about 16 percent of ESPN.com leagues.
Prognosis: Considering I have him ranked No. 54 among starters from this point forward, you can probably guess that I'm wary. (So are owners in about 16 percent of ESPN.com leagues.) The warning signs for Millwood include a .260 batting average on balls in play and an 85.9 percent strand rate, which indicate that he's been dancing between the raindrops, Daisuke Matsuzaka style, for much of this season. Hey, he should be added in all leagues, because you never know. But I'm still not in love.
2. Jered Weaver, Angels (8-3, 2.65 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 83 K's, 32 BBs, 102 IP): I've been preaching "sell high" on Weaver pretty much since April, and I've been wrong so far. What's most surprising to me about his season to date is that he really seems to have proven that his low strikeout rate in 2007 was an aberration. He'll apparently strike out a little more than seven batters per nine innings going forward, which isn't elite but is still very solid.
Prognosis: I can't help it: I'm still selling high. Weaver has been shaky in his past two outings (nine runs, 14 hits, seven walks in 11 1/3 innings), and his peripherals still look as scary as ever. Like Millwood, Weaver's BABIP is perhaps artificially low at .255 (it was .306 last year) and his strand rate is 82.8 percent (70.7 percent last year). I still worry that more baserunners are coming and that this relatively extreme fly ball pitcher will get burnt. I'm not saying dump him. He has loads of value. I'm just saying don't pass up a sweet offer. (Weaver will face Millwood on Wednesday night.)
1. Edwin Jackson, Tigers (6-4, 2.49 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 84 K's, 24 BBs, 108 1/3 IP): Wow. Anyone who believed Edwin Jackson would be a must-own in every single fantasy league in existence back in March deserves to sit at the front of the class. Jackson won 14 games with the Rays last year, then Tampa turned around and traded him for a middling outfield prospect. He had never posted a WHIP better than 1.51 since becoming a full-time big leaguer. Bad control and homers always crushed him. Now? He's a contender for the All-Star Game.
Prognosis: There are a few warning signs. His BABIP is .258, which is a little low. His home run/fly ball rate is just 5.1 percent, nearly half his number last year, but can't some of that be attributed to spacious Comerica Park? I've stopped doubting Jackson. I wouldn't sell him high. I think he's legit.
Five stinking stinkers who've stunk (least-to-most stinky)
5. Derek Lowe, Braves (7-6, 4.53 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 51 K's, 32 BBs, 95 1/3 IP): Lowe was good in April and better in May, so the fact that he's on this list is, well, disappointing. But that's what happens when you post a 7.36 ERA, 1.87 ERA and .345 batting average against in June. Suddenly, those of us who felt smart for drafting D-Lowe on the down low just look lame.
Prognosis: Maybe things will get better now that Lowe is done with the AL East. The Orioles, Red Sox and Yankees all torched him in his past three outings.
4. Gil Meche, Royals (4-7, 4.27 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 71 K's, 36 BBs, 92 2/3 IP): I write more about Meche in the Fortunes Falling section below. Suffice it to say that although a tired shoulder supposedly has been behind some of his recent struggles, he really hasn't been consistently good since April. If he's been pitching hurt all this time, well, boo. That would've been nice to know.
Prognosis: Meche has decided that he'll be able to make his next start Wednesday. His fantasy owners probably wouldn't have minded if he had just gone ahead and taken some time off.
3. Cole Hamels, Phillies (4-4, 4.44 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 76 K's, 16 BBs, 81 IP): Hamels was the seventh starting pitcher drafted in standard ESPN.com leagues on average. So far, he has produced the 71st-best fantasy season. To be fair, his numbers are skewed by two god-awful starts at the beginning of the year. (Without them, he'd have a 3.53 ERA and a 1.30 WHIP.) And that excuse was OK until his past four outings, in which he has regressed to the tune of a 4.56 ERA and a 1.73 WHIP.
Prognosis: Are last year's 262 1/3 innings (including the playoffs) catching up with Hamels? It's possible, but the fact that his BABIP is still .363 indicates he's had some bad luck. And he does have 20 strikeouts in his past three starts. (Lowe and Hamels face each other Wednesday.)
2. Roy Oswalt, Astros (3-4, 4.30 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 75 K's, 28 BBs, 96 1/3 IP): Oswalt has been consistently inconsistent all season. When he's on, he looks like the guy you thought you were drafting. (Oswalt's average draft position among starters this year was ninth.) When he's off, he's eminently hittable, and he gets left in games so long that his overall stats suffer. The league is hitting .267 against him, which, if he keeps it up, would be the highest mark of his career. He has nine quality starts in 17 outings. He's been feh.
Prognosis: There's nothing in Oswalt's underlying numbers that says he has been unlucky. He's just been beaten up about every other start. The good news is that he's still fanning seven batters per nine innings, and his injury issues seem to be behind him. The other good news is that he looked excellent throwing a complete game Monday night against the woeful Padres. The bad news is that I still don't think the 200 innings he'll deliver will be as valuable as usual.
1. Francisco Liriano, Twins (4-8, 5.62 ERA, 1.52 WHIP, 80 K's, 42 BBs, 89 2/3 IP): There are as many theories about why Liriano has struggled this year as there are lakes in Minnesota. He's still hurt. His arm angle is different. He has lost velocity. He can't throw his slider. He can't throw his change. He can't work his way out of trouble. To my eyes, hitters are crushing his fastball because they don't fear the change. But the good news is that Liriano showed some of that old magic in his start Sunday.
Prognosis: I'm still hanging in there. I don't think Liriano will suddenly become a Cy Young candidate because of a couple of nice outings, but the Twins were very happy with a side session in the middle of last week, and Liriano was able to carry that over into a game. He's still whiffing hitters. Now he needs to get other kinds of outs, too.
• Scott Kazmir, Rays (39): Kazmir returned from his injury/banishment on Saturday, and the best news was that he walked only one batter in five innings. Considering his mechanics had gotten so messed up that he walked 29 in 45 2/3 innings to begin the season, that's a definite step in the right direction. Of course, the fact that he needed 92 pitches to get through those five innings is an indication that everything isn't perfect with this guy. He's back, yes. But because of efficiency problems I still don't view him as elite.
• Randy Wells, Cubs (70): About six weeks ago in this column, I wrote that I thought it was a mistake to take Sean Marshall out of the Cubs' rotation and replace him with Wells. My bad. Wells has been terrific, allowing more than two runs in only two of his nine starts. He has only two wins, but that's just Exhibit Triple-Z in why you don't chase wins, you chase good pitching. Wells doesn't have ankle-breaking stuff, but he throws around the plate, and the league's hitting .235 against him. He's owned in just 13 percent of ESPN.com leagues. Go remedy that.
• Ricky Romero, Blue Jays (75): Romero hasn't struck out fewer than five batters in any of his past six outings and hasn't allowed more than three runs in any of his past five. He made the Phillies look foolish on Friday, starting the game with six no-hit innings and eventually going seven shutout innings. He's owned in only 16 percent of leagues and is very much worth riding while he's hot.
• Gil Meche, Royals (52): As I mentioned above, Meche has been mostly disappointing since April. What's frustrating is that he'll occasionally mix in a solid skein of games, as he did in mid-June, when he allowed a single run in three starts combined. Unfortunately for Meche owners, although he hasn't allowed tons of runs each outing, he has given up baserunners galore; in May and June, his cumulative WHIP has been 1.49. Meche claims that he has been going through a "dead arm" phase in his past couple of starts, which makes sense because his numbers have taken a downturn. But he also claims that it's not bad enough for him to miss his next start Wednesday against the Twins.
• Edinson Volquez, Reds (62): The Reds seemed optimistic about Volquez's return from his sore elbow right up until the point where they gave him an MRI and decided there's too much inflammation in there for him to throw a baseball. Volquez has been shut down for the time being in an effort to calm his elbow. That means any thought of his returning before the All-Star break is gone. So far, the team doesn't seem worried that Volquez might require surgery, so you have to hang on to him for now.
• John Maine, Mets (72): Maine hasn't pitched in the majors since June 6 and had to cancel a minor league start on Friday because of continued discomfort in his shoulder. Like Volquez, Maine was supposed to be able to return before the All-Star break, but that won't happen. He needed a cortisone shot this past weekend, which makes me worry that the soreness in that shoulder may be a season-long problem. For now, although the timetable is still indefinite, I'm hanging on to Maine on my fantasy DL. But as his timeline comes clearer, he might wind up being a candidate to drop in shallower mixed leagues.
Comings and goings
• The Blue Jays activated Roy Halladay from the DL in time for him to make a start Monday night against the Rays, and sent Brad Mills back down to Triple-A. Halladay gave up two runs in six innings, fanning seven, walking two and allowing five hits. He wasn't his usual pitch-perfect self, but Halladay reported no problems with his groin, which is a good thing.
• CC Sabathia was able to make his start Friday against the Mets with no lingering issues from the biceps soreness that knocked him early out of his previous start. Sabathia proved he's fine by going seven innings, allowing one run and fanning eight.
• Brandon Webb's recurrence of pain in his throwing shoulder just gets worse and worse. The Diamondbacks still haven't announced what came of the second, third and fourth opinions that Webb got from shoulder specialists spanning the globe, but the assumption seems to be more and more that the star right-hander might have to go under the knife to get right. The Arizona Republic has reported that some folks surrounding the team think Webb has a torn labrum. I supposed there's still a sliver of hope that doctors could tell Webb that all he needs is more rest, but I'm not holding my breath.
• Erik Bedard threw two side sessions late last week and hopes to be able to start Saturday against the Red Sox. According to The Seattle Times, the final hurdle Bedard has to clear in his return from a strained shoulder is a side session on Tuesday or Wednesday.
• The Angels hope to get Ervin Santana back into their big league rotation in about a week. He reportedly has been able to throw without pain in the bullpen (about a week after lying to reporters about that) and is at the team's spring training facility rehabbing.
• With Antonio Bastardo's pitching shoulder hurting, the Phillies placed him on the 15-day DL and probably plan to call up top pitching prospect Carlos Carrasco to start Thursday against Atlanta. Carrasco nearly made the big league club out of spring training and has fanned nearly a batter per inning at Triple-A this season, so if he gets the call, he'll be worthy of consideration in all deeper leagues right away. However, there's reportedly still a chance that Thursday's start could go to Andrew Carpenter, who would be less interesting fantasywise.
• Kenshin Kawakami apparently avoided serious injury after being struck on the neck by a line drive off Joba Chamberlain's bat Wednesday. The Braves don't think Kawakami will have to go on the DL, but they pushed his next start back until Saturday.
• The Cardinals announced that Kyle Lohse will begin a rehab stint at Double-A Springfield on Thursday. Lohse was able to pitch a simulated game late last week, so the team is optimistic that he'll return soon from his strained forearm.
• Josh Outman had emerged as perhaps the best of the A's young starters through two months of the '09 season, but now all that is on hold. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Outman may need Tommy John surgery. Oakland already has put Outman on the 60-day DL, meaning he doesn't need to be retained in any fantasy leagues, and he's scheduled to have surgery Tuesday. It's unclear yet whether the surgery will, in fact, be of the Tommy John variety.
• The Padres announced that Chris Young won't return from his sore right shoulder until after the All-Star break. He has had awful control problems (40 walks in 76 innings), so he'll have a lot to prove even when he does come back. For now, I'm removing him from the top 80 starters, though in deeper leagues I would probably continue to hold on to him.
• Felipe Paulino returned from a groin injury Saturday and struck out nine Tigers in posting his second win of the season. He has some upside, but there are likely to be some bumps in the road if he stays in Houston's rotation. In addition, the Astros activated Mike Hampton from the DL on Monday night so he could start against the Padres on Tuesday.
• The Orioles placed Koji Uehara on the DL with tendinitis in his pitching elbow and recalled David Hernandez from Triple-A. Hernandez gave up 11 baserunners in 5 2/3 innings against the Nationals on Sunday and doesn't come recommended in any but the deepest AL-only leagues.
• An MRI revealed a tear in Dave Bush's pitching biceps that was the result of being struck by a line drive off Hanley Ramirez's bat a few weeks ago. Bush is expected to miss only two to three more weeks. In the meantime, Mike Burns has taken Bush's spot in the Milwaukee rotation.
• The Reds inserted Homer Bailey in Edinson Volquez's rotation spot, and Bailey (who had been outstanding at Triple-A lately) proceeded to walk seven batters on Saturday. Remember when Bailey and Phil Hughes were going to be the two greatest pitchers in the history of the world? Yeah, that was great.
• The Pirates demoted Ian Snell to Triple-A early last week. They had tired of his 1.62 WHIP and eternal glimpses of promise surrounded by bouts of wildness. In his first minor league start this season, however, Snell struck out 17 batters in seven innings, so don't rule out the possibility that he could return to the majors quickly. In his place, Virgil Vasquez made a start against the Royals on Friday and struck out seven.
• The Dodgers activated Eric Milton from the DL this past weekend and sent Jeff Weaver to the bullpen. In his first start back, Milton allowed seven hits and four runs in five innings, but he struck out seven Mariners and walked none.
• The Nationals sent Shairon Martis down to the minors to make room for Scott Olsen, who came off the DL on Monday and allowed two runs in seven innings against his former club, the Marlins. Initially, the Nats were going to remove Craig Stammen from the rotation, but they changed their minds.
• Matt Harrison is headed back to the DL with sore biceps, having made just two big league starts since his most recent activation from injury. The Rangers have given away first place in the past few days and need to find some viable alternatives to the young guys currently getting beaten up in their rotation (Harrison and Derek Holland chief among them).
• Ryan Sadowski made his major league debut for the Giants on Sunday and earned a win, shutting out the Brewers for six innings. He allowed four hits and three walks while striking out two. Sadowski isn't considered a big-time prospect (he's 26) and has had some control issues at Triple-A this season, but he could be worth a flyer in an NL-only league. Sadowski was replacing Jonathan Sanchez, whose control problems (and 1.73 WHIP) finally got him sent to the San Francisco bullpen.
• Hey, remember Bruce Chen? Well, he's back in the majors, this time with the Royals, taking the rotation spot that had belonged to the demoted Kyle Davies. Alas, Chen, who's now 32 years old, gave up four runs in 6 1/3 innings against the Pirates on Saturday. You don't want any part of him.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can e-mail him here.