Commentary

Comparing second-half pitching ranks

Cueto, Oswalt, Wakefield, Zimmermann draw much debate among experts

Updated: July 14, 2009, 2:32 PM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

60 Feet 6 Inches

It's always a little alarming to look through the average player rankings submitted by my ESPN Fantasy colleagues and come to the resounding conclusion, "Boy, I guess I really like Randy Wolf!"

But it's a cool experiment nonetheless. We come up with our respective lists by ourselves, heedless of the others, based entirely on what we expect to happen from this point in the season until the end. While past performances do hint at future returns, they don't guarantee them. If you believe someone's a fluke, you're duty-bound to rank him lower than his current stats justify. If you believe a good player who's having a bad season will turn things around, you have to elevate him.

I'll get to differences on specific players in a moment, but it's at least as interesting to look at different ranking philosophies, in this case (since Sixty Feet, Six Inches is a column about pitching) how each ranker deals with starting pitchers. While each of the six rankers -- myself, Matthew Berry, Tristan Cockcroft, Jason Grey, Eric Karabell and AJ Mass -- ranked about the same number of starting pitchers in our respective overall top 250 players, there's a clear difference in the weight given to starters near the top of our lists. Fans of the Stockholm syndrome probably won't be shocked to discover that I, the author of a column about starting pitching, tend to think that the best starters are quite important to your fantasy success. I ranked 13 starters in my top 50 overall players. Likewise, Jason holds starting pitching (at least the '09 version of starting pitching) in high regard, having put 14 starters in his top 50. On the other end of the spectrum, AJ has only six starters in his top 50 and Matthew only seven.

The only possible conclusion here is that Jason and I are good Americans who are pro-apple pie, and AJ and Matt are pitching-hating communists.

Well, I suppose that's not the only possible conclusion. It's possible that rankers who don't hold starters in high esteem believe that they're difficult to predict, and that it's wiser to take the sure thing of a great hitter over the mercurial, injury-prone, every-fifth-day life of a starting pitcher. Surely the number of starters who'll wind up among the 50 best second-half players of 2009 will reach into the double digits. But the argument for not ranking very many starters very highly is that it's hard to foresee which starting pitchers those will be.

If you agree with the AJ/Matthew perspective, you should probably think about selling some of your hotter starting pitchers now, under the assumption that guys like Johan Santana and Dan Haren (each of whom Berry ranked outside his top 50) or Justin Verlander and Josh Beckett (each of whom Mass ranked outside his top 50) will fold. I don't happen to concur with that argument -- I think the very best starting pitchers tend to stay the very best -- but it's food for thought.

Now let's look at five starters I like more than the group does, and five starters I like less:

Five Starters I'm Higher On Than The Group

Randy Wolf, Dodgers (my rank: 195; group rank: NR) Wolf is 28th in the majors in starter's ERA (3.45, one notch below James Shields), 15th in starter's WHIP (1.17, one notch below C.C. Sabathia) and 20th in starter's batting average against (.237, one notch below Verlander). Frankly, in this column I've been defending myself all year against Wolf supporters who think I have him too low at No. 51 among all starters. Heck, ESPN.com's Player Rater says that Wolf has been the 37th-best performer among all starters so far in '09, and that's factoring in his strangely low total of four wins. The reason I don't have him that high is I understand he's got an injury history, and his career ERA is 0.35 higher after the All-Star break. Still, in his return to the Dodgers, Wolf has traded about one strikeout per nine for one walk per nine, and it's suited him. He plays for a good team, so the wins should eventually come. I don't see how my cohorts (literally everyone but me) don't think he's even a top-65 starter going forward.

Joe Blanton, Phillies (my rank: 201; group rank: NR; delta: 59) Blanton's game is deception. He doesn't throw hard, and when he's in the zone and batters swing, contact is made 92.4 percent of the time, the fifth-highest mark in the majors this season. But he's good at freezing hitters; batters swing at pitches in the strike zone only 63.5 percent of the time, putting Blanton in the top 20. And that's why he's got an impressive 7.93 strikeouts per nine without seeing his walk rate suffer at all. Heck, in his past nine starts, he has allowed more than three earned runs once, and has posted a 54-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 59 innings, while posting a 2.44 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP. I have him at No. 53 among all starters for the rest of the year. I'm not saying he's great or anything close to a sure thing. But there's no earthly way he should only be owned in 7.4 percent of ESPN.com leagues.

Jordan Zimmerman
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireJordan Zimmerman may not have a lot of wins in him but he'll keep your other numbers solid.

Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals (my rank: 164; group rank: 218) Regular readers of this column or viewers of my TV segments are sick to death of my hyping this rookie, but too bad. All I knew about Zimmermann was confirmed after he faced the Red Sox last month, and Dustin Pedroia told the media, "He's got the stuff of a No. 1. He's going to be good for a long time. He's not afraid. He gets after it." Yes, Zimmermann has been shakier his past two outings, walking a total of seven batters after registering six out of seven starts with two walks or fewer. But overall he still offers a tantalizing combination of power and control: he has 84 strikeouts and just 28 walks in 86 innings. For the season (regular readers know I've been trotting out this stat for a month), he's still got an unlucky .335 batting average against on balls in play and an unlucky 69.2 percent strand rate. No, he's not getting a lot of wins pitching in Washington. But I feel fine about rating him 41st among starters. And he's owned in only about 12 percent of ESPN leagues.

Adam Wainwright, Cardinals (my rank: 50; group rank: 85) Matthew was the only other ranker to put Wainwright any better than 82nd (he had him 69th), which shocks me. I suppose it must be the 1.30 WHIP that's setting everyone's teeth on edge. Or maybe it's that this guy makes everyone think of Loudon Wainwright. Or, um, Rufus Wainwright? Anyway, Wainwright's numbers make it pretty clear that he's throwing the slider less and the curve more this year, which may account for the combo of yummy increased strikeouts (7.94 K/9, up from 6.2) and yucky increased walks (3.31 BB/9, up from 2.32). He has pretty dramatically increased the percent of times hitters swing at pitches outside the zone, even if that means he's nibbling a bit more: his outside-the-zone swing percentage is up from 21.6 to 25.9 percent, while his percentage of pitches in the strike zone is down from 53.4 to 49.2 percent. The approach is working. His 3.04 ERA is 13th in baseball, and realize that Wainwright himself claims he found a mechanical flaw in his delivery after the season's first month. Since May 5, his strikeout-to-walk ratio is 90-to-30 in 101 innings, and he's posted a more respectable 1.22 WHIP and 2.67 walks-per-nine. This week, I rank him 13th among all starters.

Roy Oswalt, Astros (my rank: 63; group rank: 96; delta: 33) Wow! Only AJ had Oswalt better than 100th! (He had him 91st.) I think there's a sense out in the world that Oswalt's numbers are a lot worse than they actually are. Four terrific starts in a row leading up to the break put the Houston ace at a 3.85 ERA, a 1.23 WHIP and 95 strikeouts and 32 walks in 119 1/3 innings. Perhaps everyone is nervous about the fact that Oswalt had to come out of his start Friday because of numbness in his fingers, but that has been essentially dismissed as a bruise, and he is scheduled to throw the Astros' second game after the break. Oswalt is still one of baseball's premier swing-and-miss pitchers: In '09, his 84.2 percent contact rate on pitches in the strike zone puts him 11th in the majors. Don't punish him for five measly wins. Sure, being in Houston limits his upside, but he'll get you everything else a starting pitcher can, and I think his injury risk is overstated. He hasn't thrown fewer than 208 2/3 innings since 2003. I rank him 16th among starters.

Five Starters I'm Lower On Than The Group

Tim Wakefield, Red Sox (my rank: NR; group rank: 210) Really? Have we learned nothing watching Wakefield toil for the past 700 years? Hey, it's not like I hate the knuckleballer; I do have him rated 76th among starting pitchers. But to fail to bake into your ranking the extreme risk that Wake's knuckleball will, at some point, completely leave him is to make a rookie error. Since he became a full-time starter again in 2003, Wakefield hasn't gone a season without at least one calendar month in which he allowed at least 19 runs, and in four of those six seasons, he's had two such months. He's already done it once in '09 (he gave up a whopping 26 runs in May), and I'm betting another bad skein is coming. And that's to say nothing of the fact that other than his fluky 11 wins, his numbers already aren't very good: 4.31 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 61 strikeouts, 37 walks in 108 2/3 innings. Plus, he's gotten hurt toward the end of each of the past two seasons, something that tends to happen when you're past 40. Truly, if there were more good candidates I trusted, I'd have bounced Wake out of my top 80 weeks ago. He's borderline ownable in a mixed league, but he doesn't belong in anyone's top 250.

Aaron Harang, Reds (my rank: 181; group rank: 135; delta: -46 This is not the same Aaron Harang as 2007's version. His fastball/slider combo, which was devastating just two seasons ago, is middling right now. In the past two years, which correspond with his return from forearm troubles early in '08, batters are making significantly better contact against him, especially outside the strike zone. I grant you that his .348 BABIP looks unlucky, and explains away some of his 1.43 WHIP. But the strikeouts seem to be fading. Harang fanned 40 in 36 2/3 innings in May, but only 19 in 29 1/3 innings in June. His strikeouts-per-nine rate stood at 7.47 last year and stands at 7.66 this year, but in '06 that number was 8.3 and in '07 it was 8.47. He's a quality pitcher, but not a dominant one any longer: I don't beat him up for not having won a game since May 25, but I do for the fact that in four of his past seven starts, he's fanned three hitters or fewer. I've got him at No. 48 right now among all starters: good, but not top-30 good, the way most of my ESPN brethren rate him.

Johnny Cueto
Kenny Felt/Icon SMIJohnny Cueto's struggles just before the All-Star break could be a sign of further bad things ahead.

Johnny Cueto, Reds (my rank: 169; group rank: 124) Cueto, who sits at No. 42 in my starter ranks this week, saw his ERA jump nearly a full run over his final two starts of the first half, from 2.69 to 3.62. Not coincidentally, those two terrible outings also hiked his batting average against on balls in play and homer-per-fly ball rate to more acceptable levels; they looked awfully lucky just a couple weeks ago. What I've previously written that I like about Cueto circa 2009 is that he seems to have traded some of his strikeout upside for a bit more control, meaning he's walking fewer hitters, which has helped lower his WHIP from 1.41 in '08 to 1.23 this year. But having seen a few of his starts in June, my impression is that instead of "going right after" hitters, Cueto is nibbling more, throwing more balls that don't necessarily always result in walks, but which do leave him in unfavorable counts. It doesn't suit him. In fact, in his past six outings, despite exceeding 100 pitches three times, he hasn't gone past the sixth inning. Listen, I like the kid. But I think my cohorts are ranking him as though he's still an 8.17 strikeouts-per-nine pitcher (which he was in '08). This year, he's a 6.83 K/9 guy: effective, but not fantasy-dominant.

Tommy Hanson, Braves (my rank: 194; group rank: 154) It was just a couple weeks ago I was walking through the halls of ESPN, telling my fellow fantasy folks how impressed I was by Hanson despite a couple of shaky starts right after his call-up. Now suddenly everyone's in love. (Actually, not everyone: AJ has Hanson 196th overall and Matthew has him 176, but as we discussed: They hate pitchers.) I have Hanson No. 50 on my pitching list, but Eric and Tristan have him ensconced within their top 35, while Jason has Hanson 26th, ahead of Matt Cain, Roy Oswalt, John Danks and Wandy Rodriguez. Whoosh. That is love. I can't definitively say it's misplaced love, either. The kid has a tough fastball and it sets up an even tougher slider. But the fact is that this bonus baby who was supposed to strike out the ballpark (his Triple-A stats had him fanning 90 in 66 1/3 innings this year!) doesn't look like a dominant major league pitcher yet: he's got 25 strikeouts and 20 walks in 41 innings. Put that together with a .236 BABIP in his brief major-league career, and the sailing isn't always going to be so smooth for young Thomas. He'll have his nice stretches, as he did during that 26-inning scoreless streak that ended last week. But he'll also pitch to luckier contact, which will cause him to struggle occasionally.

Ricky Romero, Blue Jays (my rank: NR; group rank: 223) Finally, this is another case of "like," not "love." I rate Romero the 70th-best starter in baseball after the break; he was literally the second starter on my list not to make my top 250. But Eric has Romero at No. 159, or 41st among starting pitchers. My gut tells me that's high, but we'll see. I think Romero's 86.1 percent strand rate will eventually bite him. Eric probably thinks that Romero's changeup is quietly one of the best pitches of 2009. For me, I guess it comes down to: would you really trade Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Ubaldo Jimenez or David Price for Romero? I'm not that convinced yet, but according to his rankings, Mr. Karabell is.

Top 80 Starters

Note: Christopher Harris' top 80 starters are ranked for their expected performance from this point on, not on the statistics that have already been accrued.

1. Tim Lincecum, SF (1)
2. Dan Haren, ARI (2)
3. Johan Santana, NYM (3)
4. Roy Halladay, TOR (4)
5. Josh Beckett, BOS (6)
6. Justin Verlander, DET (8)
7. Felix Hernandez, SEA (9)
8. CC Sabathia, NYY (5)
9. Yovani Gallardo, MIL (7)
10. Zack Greinke, KC (11)
11. Josh Johnson, FLA (12)
12. Chad Billingsley, LAD (10)
13. Adam Wainwright, STL (14)
14. Jon Lester, BOS (15)
15. Javier Vazquez, ATL (13)
16. Roy Oswalt, HOU (16)
17. Matt Cain, SF (17)
18. James Shields, TB (19)
19. John Lackey, LAA (20)
20. Chris Carpenter, STL (21)
21. Cole Hamels, PHI (18)
22. Ted Lilly, CHC (24)
23. A.J. Burnett, NYY (23)
24. Ricky Nolasco, FLA (25)
25. Matt Garza, TB (27)
26. John Danks, CHW (22)
27. Clayton Kershaw, LAD (29)
28. Erik Bedard, SEA (28)
29. Cliff Lee, CLE (30)
30. Francisco Liriano, MIN (26)
31. Wandy Rodriguez, HOU (35)
32. Derek Lowe, ATL (33)
33. Jered Weaver, LAA (37)
34. Edwin Jackson, DET (38)
35. Kevin Slowey, MIN (31)
36. Scott Baker, MIN (34)
37. Max Scherzer, ARI (39)
38. Carlos Zambrano, CHC (43)
39. Joba Chamberlain, NYY (32)
40. Scott Kazmir, TB (36)
41. Jordan Zimmermann, WAS (41)
42. Johnny Cueto, CIN (40)
43. Rich Harden, CHC (42)
44. Hiroki Kuroda, LAD (44)
45. Mark Buehrle, CHW (45)
46. Jair Jurrjens, ATL (48)
47. Chris Volstad, FLA (52)
48. Aaron Harang, CIN (47)
49. Ubaldo Jimenez, COL (54)
50. Tommy Hanson, ATL (50)
51. Randy Wolf, LAD (56)
52. David Price, TB (58)
53. Joe Blanton, PHI (59)
54. Gavin Floyd, CHW (51)
55. Edinson Volquez, CIN (55)
56. Gil Meche, KC (49)
57. Ryan Dempster, CHC (46)
58. Jarrod Washburn, SEA (68)
59. John Smoltz, BOS (70)
60. Joe Saunders, LAA (53)
61. Kevin Millwood, TEX (57)
62. Nick Blackburn, MIN (60)
63. Kenshin Kawakami, ATL (64)
64. Rick Porcello, DET (62)
65. Zach Duke, PIT (63)
66. Jose Contreras, CHW (72)
67. Randy Johnson, SF (67)
68. Andy Pettitte, NYY (61)
69. Randy Wells, CHC (65)
70. Ricky Romero, TOR (69)
71. Carl Pavano, CLE (77)
72. J.A. Happ, PHI (NR)
73. Ervin Santana, LAA (66)
74. Vin Mazzaro, OAK (73)
75. Mike Pelfrey, NYM (74)
76. Tim Wakefield, BOS (75)
77. Jason Marquis, COL (71)
78. Bronson Arroyo, CIN (78)
79. Joel Pineiro, STL (80)
80. Jeff Niemann, TB (NR)

Comings And Goings

Javier Vazquez skipped his final start before the All-Star Game because of a strained abdominal muscle, according to the Braves' official Web site. Kris Medlen took his rotation turn and wasn't very good (four innings, six hits, three runs, three walks, four strikeouts). An MRI didn't show anything serious for Vazquez, so the team still hopes to have him back right after the break.

• Matt Cain was drilled in the right arm by a Tim Stauffer liner Saturday night, and will have to miss the All-Star Game as a result. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, though, Cain doesn't expect to miss any regular-season time once the season starts back up again. Incidentally, Stauffer was making his first start for the Padres since 2007 because of surgery to repair a torn labrum, and he looked pretty good against the Giants: seven innings, four hits, one walk, two runs and seven strikeouts. Of course, it was the Giants.

Kevin Slowey won't return immediately after the All-Star break, as the Twins originally hoped. Slowey was scheduled to throw a bullpen session this weekend to test his injured wrist, but according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, he wasn't able. Anthony Swarzak will keep Slowey's rotation spot for the time being.

Gil Meche came out of his start Saturday against the Red Sox after just 3 2/3 innings at least partly because of stiffness in his lower back. The Kansas City Star reports that Meche couldn't get his back loose, and got to the point where he couldn't bend over. Of course, Meche also already allowed six hits, three walks and eight runs by the time the Royals pulled him. Maybe the back trouble explains Meche's recent downturn, during which he hasn't gotten beyond six innings in his past five starts.

Kyle Lohse returned from the DL on Sunday against the Cubs, but was blasted for eight hits, three walks and four runs in five innings. He reported no problems with his previously injured forearm.

• The New York Daily News reports that John Maine threw a side session for the Mets late last week, and that Jerry Manuel thought Maine looked pretty good. There's talk that Maine could return by late July, but he'd need to make it all the way through a rehab assignment this time without feeling pain in his shoulder again.

Manny Parra returned from the minors to start last Thursday for the Brewers, and allowed just three hits and one walk while fanning seven in seven shutout innings. This came as a pretty big surprise, considering Parra didn't exactly dominate during his minor league banishment. But he could be worth watching in the second half. He certainly has a big league arm, even if he doesn't always know where the ball is going.

• Speaking of pitchers who don't know where the ball is going, Oliver Perez also made his return from a minor league stint, and pitched last Wednesday for the Mets. Unfortunately, his re-emergence didn't go as well as Parra's. He won against the Dodgers, but he walked seven in five innings. Stay far away.

• The Red Sox will call up Clay Buchholz to start their first game back after the All-Star break, Friday in Toronto. Boston wants to give its All-Stars, Josh Beckett and Tim Wakefield, extra rest, and also wants to see if Buchholz can carry his minor league magic over to the majors. He has a 2.36 ERA, a 0.98 WHIP and 89 strikeouts in 99 Triple-A innings so far this year. The Sox expect this will just be a one-start stay in the majors, but deep-leaguers might want to take a peek anyway.

Pedro Martinez appears to be one passed physical away from being a member of the Philadelphia Phillies. Considering Brett Myers is out with hip surgery and Cole Hamels hasn't been anything close to what he was last year, the fact that Philly has a four-game lead in the NL East is pretty amazing. Clearly, before the Phillies make a play for a big name (such as, for instance, Roy Halladay), they'd like to see if they can catch lightning in a bottle with this future Hall of Famer. I can't imagine Pedro will be anything more than a five-inning puff-baller at this point, but it sounds like we'll get to find out for sure soon.

• The Marlins sent Sean West down to Double-A Jacksonville, ending what began as a nice big league debut but ended with some ugly starts. West is a middle-of-the-rotation prospect, but he's still only 23 and posted a 29-to-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his six-week stint.

• After firing manager Manny Acta and installing Jim Riggleman, the Nationals announced that they'd sent down former first-rounder Ross Detwiler. In his place, the Washington Post speculates that the Nats will use Garrett Mock. Oh, Steven Strasburg. Where are you?

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.

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