Commentary

Buy-low and sell-high starters

Updated: May 6, 2010, 11:07 AM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

There might be no smarter place in which to attempt your buy-low, sell-high trading than the starting pitcher market.

60 Feet 6 Inches

Remember, as we discussed in Tuesday's "Hit Parade," buy-low/sell-high trading is all a matter of perception, and perceptions tend to shift rapidly on the pitching side. Much of that is a product of smaller sample sizes; a seven-run, 1 1/3-inning nightmare like Clayton Kershaw's on Tuesday will have a lot more noticeable impact on your fantasy team than, say, the 0-for-5, four-strikeout nightmare Jorge Cantu endured the same night. The simple fact of the matter is that a fantasy team might accumulate three times more at-bats than innings over the course of a season, and after thousands of at-bats, one bad night won't change a batting average much.

In addition, pitchers' performance levels can swing rapidly, presenting ever-so-brief buying windows, even for the best ones. Think of it like this: You might have to pay top dollar ("full price," if you will) for a Tim Lincecum no matter how poorly he's performing, but even two back-to-back stinkers might be enough to convince his owner to part with him. Coming off two back-to-back gems, Lincecum might be an untouchable part on that same team.

But, like with hitters, don't get the idea that swapping a hot starter is an easy thing, especially not for an early-round pick off to a slow start. For instance, consider these two pitchers' 2009 year-to-date stat lines as of the morning of May 5, 2009:

Pitcher A: 2.67 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 26 K's, 4 W, 5 GS, 4 QS
Pitcher B: 7.22 ERA, 1.81 WHIP, 31 K's, 2 W, 5 GS, 2 QS

Naturally, Pitcher A is much more valuable than Pitcher B, right? And offering Pitcher A straight up for Pitcher B would be completely fair, perhaps overpaying?

Not necessarily. Pitcher A is Scott Richmond. Pitcher B is Josh Beckett. Here's how each of them fared from this date forward last year:

Silva
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesCarlos Silva peeled off four consecutive quality starts to begin the season before surrendering five runs in 5 innings to the Diamondbacks on May 1.

Richmond: 6.31 ERA, 1.56 WHIP, 4 W, 19 GS, 5 QS, 3 relief appearances
Beckett: 3.33 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 15 W, 27 GS, 18 QS

To carry that example over to this season, here's another anonymous pair:

Pitcher A: 2.90 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 21 K's, 2 W, 5 GS, 4 QS
Pitcher B: 6.31 ERA, 1.57 WHIP, 26 K's, 1 W, 6 GS, 3 QS

Pitcher A is Carlos Silva, and Pitcher B is once again Beckett. If you're a Silva owner, think you can fetch Beckett straight up in trade? Perhaps in a league full of less-informed owners, but chances are that in the vast majority of leagues, you might be ridiculed, without a prayer of ever dealing with Beckett's owner again.

Now, there are absolutely opportunities to sell high on Silva, and buy low on Beckett, but like with hitters, it's all a matter of perception with starting pitchers, too. Just like in "Hit Parade," let's take a look at some of the hot and cold starters to 2010 and determine their buy-low/sell-high natures. (Once again, the numbers in parentheses are their preseason average draft positions, current Player Rater rankings at the position, and 2009 Player Rater rankings.)

Joe Blanton, Philadelphia Phillies (ADP 60th, PR 169th, 2009 PR 44th): Many owners of players fresh off the disabled list might be wary to adjust their values downward -- and they shouldn't in Blanton's case -- but if there's any time to strike with him, it's now. He's a top-50 capable starter from today forward, might cost less than that and, if you're aiming to acquire him, consider tossing this note of caution at his owner: "Command-wise, I don't know if he'll be typical Joe Blanton yet." That was said by Blanton's pitching coach, Rich Dubee, a day before a 2010 debut in which Blanton walked but one batter in 6 2/3 frames.

Josh Beckett, Boston Red Sox (ADP 14th, PR 146th, 2009 PR 19th): And what about Beckett's buy-low value? Surely you read his numbers above, which might tell you all you need about his certain top-25 value.

Doug Fister, Seattle Mariners (ADP 85th, PR 22nd, 2009 PR 141st): I'm much more of a believer in Fister than most, apparently, and that the overriding opinion might still be that he's shy of a top-100 starting pitcher means you're probably better off riding out this streak than shopping him. Where he's ranked this week is just about right, and while he'll inevitably cool off, the value of his short-term numbers more than exceeds selling him any cheaper than that.

Gavin Floyd, Chicago White Sox (ADP 43rd, PR 182nd, 2009 PR 35th): He has been knocked around this year, but that happened in 2009, too, and be aware that from May 22 on last year, he had a 2.97 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and 16 quality starts in 22 appearances. It might be that Floyd is an annual slow starter, and right now he might come cheaper than a top-50 starting pitcher.

Jaime Garcia, St. Louis Cardinals (ADP 37th among relievers, PR 15th, 2009 PR N/A): I'm much less concerned about his talent holding up than his potentially running into an innings cap by late summer. Garcia's ground-ball rate (65.1 percent) meshes well with the Cardinals' skilled infield defense and his walk rate (3.66 per nine) is every bit as low as it was in the high minors, but that he threw just 37 2/3 innings in 2009 fresh off Tommy John surgery might have the Cardinals thinking a cap closer to 160 than 200 frames. If your trade counterpart is willing to pay the price for a pitcher without constraints, by all means make the deal, but chances are that, like Fister, this hot streak might be more valuable to you.

Jon Lester, Boston Red Sox (ADP 7th, PR 47th, 2009 PR 15th): He was a top-10 starter in the preseason but barely cracks the top 50 on the Player Rater, yet the only thing different about his 2010 from his 2009 statistically is a somewhat elevated walk rate (4.17 per nine). Expect Lester to correct that, but in the meantime this might present you the opportunity to get a top-10 capable starting pitcher at a price somewhat beneath that.

Colby Lewis, Texas Rangers (ADP 80th, PR 16th, 2009 PR N/A): Who isn't going to call this guy a sell-high candidate? One of the reasons Lewis might have been so successful to date is that there isn't a lot of information out there about him; that's exactly why people are skeptical to believe in his hot start. Unless you're dealing with a frequent reader of my or Jason Grey's columns, you probably won't get enough value to make the deal worthwhile. Even then, we are on the record as believing Lewis isn't necessarily a flash in the pan.

Francisco Liriano, Minnesota Twins (ADP 59th, PR 5th, 2009 PR 212th): No chance he's a sell-high. Remember, this was one of the most valuable pitchers in fantasy in 2006, and everything about his winter-ball, spring-training and first-month performance hints that ace is back. Unless you can get any of the 17 pitchers ranked above him this week, it's not worth it.

Ricky Romero, Toronto Blue Jays (ADP 78th, PR 11th, 2009 PR 79th): Seemingly a sell-high, except that Romero's ground-ball (58.2 percent) and strikeout rates (8.57 per nine) are up, which suggests he might be able to maintain a healthy chunk of value all year. His command did fade late last year -- he averaged 4.69 walks per nine after July 1 -- which could tempt you to shop him, but unless you're getting a clear-cut top-40 arm, it's smarter to hang onto him.

Jake Peavy, Chicago White Sox (ADP 23rd, PR 134th, 2009 PR 51st): You might think Peavy is a natural buy-low candidate, except that the prevailing opinion is that he's still every bit the top-25 starting pitcher candidate he was during the preseason. Perhaps his track record is responsible; he won a Cy Young award three years ago and for five years was one of the best pitchers in the game. The circumstances are very different for Peavy in Chicago than they were in San Diego, though, and his bloated 5.30 walks-per-nine ratio (a career worst) is troubling. With his talent he should improve, but don't be surprised if there are some leagues in which he's just as strong a sell-high as he is a buy-low in others.

Mike Pelfrey, New York Mets (ADP 79th, PR 27th, 2009 PR 139th): His rocky outing at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park this past weekend might have people tempering their first-month excitement, but should we have really been that surprised? Pelfrey has historically been a poor road pitcher (5.41 ERA, 1.64 WHIP in his career), and as his 3.84 career ERA versus sub-.500 teams (per Baseball-Reference.com) shows, he's a matchups pitcher through and through. However, it seems that there are enough buyers out there to cash in on Pelfrey's hot start, and if you can get a roll-every-turn arm in exchange, make the deal.

Andy Pettitte, New York Yankees (ADP 49th, PR 25th, 2009 PR 55th): He's off to one of the best starts of his career, but if you look at those ADP and Player Rater numbers, it doesn't look like Pettitte's perceived value should be any higher than his true value. He's just about your typical starting pitcher who belongs right in the 40s in rank at the position; ERA around four, maybe 150 K's, but a strong offense likely to have his win total in the teens. About the only person you're going to fool into a sell-high Pettitte deal would be an overzealous Yankees fan.

Rick Porcello, Detroit Tigers (ADP 48th, PR 186th, 2009 PR 64th): Now might be the time to strike with Porcello, who except in keeper leagues might be acquired for a song. He has been victimized by an absurd .365 BABIP on ground balls, and .391 on fly balls, per Baseball-Reference.com, yet his command and ground-ball rates are every bit as strong as they were in 2009, if not stronger. One would hope the Tigers aren't foolish enough to demote him looking solely at his 8.03 ERA, which is really the primary risk in acquiring him, but his fantasy owners might see that number and be prepared to sell … cheap.

Carlos Silva, Chicago Cubs (ADP 88th, PR 39th, 2009 PR 318th): So what of Silva's sell-high value? Cash in, folks. That hot start has been fueled by a .240 BABIP, yet his fly-ball rate (40.2 percent) represents the highest of his career, which is not a good thing for a pitcher who calls Wrigley Field his home. No one should expect Silva to land anything resembling a Cy Young candidate in exchange, because everyone is prepared for his owners to sell high, but with his "track record" and questionable peripheral numbers, it's worth cashing in, even at the price of a struggling veteran (albeit one who was clearly drafted).

Javier Vazquez, New York Yankees (ADP 15th, PR 198th, 2009 PR 4th): Be cautious about overrating his buy-low potential, because the Javier Vazquez we've seen through five starts is not the Javier Vazquez we've seen at any other time of his career, except perhaps the second half of his last stint with the Yankees in 2004. His walk rate is alarmingly high (5.87 per nine), his fly-ball rate is up (47.4 percent), his fastball velocity is down more than 2 mph (88.9 average, per FanGraphs), and the Yankees are already carefully measuring his future matchups. You'd have to get a Vazquez owner to surrender him at barely top-50 starter potential to make it worthwhile, and considering where he was drafted, it's not overly likely. He might be stuck right where he is, an anchor sinking all of his teams.

Four up

John Danks, Chicago White Sox: After a 2009 campaign in which Danks' command numbers regressed, he's off to a fantastic start, averaging career bests in both walks per nine (2.38) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.00-1). What's more, even against the game's elite offenses -- like the Yankees this past Saturday -- he's holding his own, limiting that team to two runs on six hits in five innings. Danks has always been tabbed a potential No. 2 starter since being picked ninth overall in the 2003 draft; it looks like he's finally reaching that status at age 25.

Wade Davis, Tampa Bay Rays: His command numbers have left a bit to be desired, but otherwise, so far, so good, through 11 career starts for Davis. Only one has been a disaster -- an eight-run, six-hit, 2 2/3-inning nightmare at Boston's Fenway Park on Sept. 12, 2009 -- but that he visited that venue on April 16 this year and limited the Red Sox to one run on two hits in five innings eases any matchups worries. Davis looks every bit as talented as any of the Rays' current five starters with the possible exception of David Price, and it's not unthinkable he might contend for the status of No. 2 fantasy starter on that staff.

Cliff Lee, Seattle Mariners: What a fantastic 2010 debut he had Friday, tossing seven shutout innings of three-hit baseball including eight strikeouts, and versus the Texas Rangers, an above-average offense, at that. Lee is in a great situation to succeed, with both a pitching-friendly home ballpark in Safeco Field and one of the most talented defenses in the game backing him. Now that his abdominal injury is behind him, he's as good a candidate for the top 10 starters as anyone.

Barry Zito, San Francisco Giants: At what point do we begin to buy in on Zito's hot start? How about now? Sure, he's not exactly back to his 2002 Cy Young form, but a quick look at his command ratios hint that he might be closer to that pitcher than the one who was pounded to the tune of 17 losses and a 5.15 ERA two short seasons ago. Zito has averaged 2.80 walks per nine, easily the best rate of his entire career, and it's no coincidence that during his so-so first three years with the Giants, that number was over four. There might not be any guarantee he'll be able to maintain a sub-three walks-per-nine ratio, but for as long as he does, he's trustworthy. That number rising would be an obvious tipoff his streak is done.

Four down

Edwin Jackson, Arizona Diamondbacks: That's back-to-back weeks for Jackson on this list, but after he was pounded for eight runs on 11 hits in four innings at Chicago's Wrigley Field, he deserves it. Jackson's value has plummeted since his transition back to the National League, and his 4.73 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio shows that he's not fooling anyone. If you play in an ESPN standard league, it's not unthinkable to hand him his walking papers.

Mat Latos, San Diego Padres: Learning to pitch at this level is not at all an easy task, and even some of the best prospects needed more than a few years to get fully adapted to the big leagues. Clay Buchholz is an excellent recent example. That might be what's going on with Latos, who seems to have a lot of problems with home runs (1.64 per nine in his young career) and road starts (6.28 ERA in eight career turns). The Padres do have a wealth of starting pitching, surprisingly, and if Chris Young can make a healthy recovery soon, it might be Latos, not the red-hot Wade LeBlanc, who gets returned to the minors for seasoning.

Joel Pineiro, Los Angeles Angels: It just figures, doesn't it, that two weeks after he was the lead story in "60 Feet 6 Inches," Pineiro gets lit up in back-to-back turns. We'll forgive him the rocky outing versus the New York Yankees, as that represents one of the toughest matchups a pitcher can face, but that April 30 outing versus the Detroit Tigers in which he surrendered 10 fly balls to 11 grounders is not typical Pineiro. Perhaps his sinker was just off that night, and while he's on this side of the list, it doesn't mean you should cut him outright. It simply serves a reminder that he's not a top-25 candidate.

Ben Sheets, Oakland Athletics: Like Javier Vazquez above, Sheets' walk rate has soared this season, to a career-worst 4.75 per nine innings. In addition, his strikeout rate is identical, and as FanGraphs notes, his average fastball velocity is at a career low (91.3 mph). Does this sound like a pitcher who has fully recovered from elbow surgery? Sheets' operation was nothing minor, so while there's a chance he might need a full trip around the league to get back to full strength, it's just as possible that he's a significant notch beneath his former self talent-wise.

Pickups of the week

Mixed: Jonathon Niese, New York Mets. He might have been one of the Mets' more pleasant surprises of 2009 if not for a torn hamstring he suffered on Aug. 5 that ended his season prematurely. No matter; Niese has rebounded nicely this season, flashing command numbers (3.72 walks, 7.76 K's per nine) nearly as impressive as they were throughout his minor league career (3.14 and 8.20). The Mets' spacious home ballpark helps minimize the blow-ups, and Niese's ground-ball ratio (47.3 percent) does as well. In fact, with all due respect to Mike Pelfrey, Niese might be the second-most-talented starter on the team.

AL-only: Brett Cecil, Toronto Blue Jays. If you caught any of Cecil's near-no-hitter the other night, you saw the level of upside that might soon make him one of the American League's elite starting pitchers. He was a dominant minor league pitcher, with a strikeout rate of 8.99 per nine in his career, and if you've paid attention to his first three starts for the Blue Jays this year, you'd be aware his number in the category is 9.15. Now, Cecil has endured rough patches facing elite competition in Triple-A ball and the majors the past two calendar years, so his downside is somewhat substantial, too. But in AL-only leagues, it couldn't hurt to chance that maybe he's finally figuring things out.

NL-only: Luis Atilano, Washington Nationals. He's the nobody-who-routinely-scores-10s in our "Daily Notes," but understand the reason for that is mostly the small sample size of numbers from his first two big league starts. Atilano does have the total package to string together a few more useful outings, so if you're in an NL-only league, scoop him up and hope for a Doug Fister-like short-term streak. After all, Fister isn't an unreasonable comparable; Atilano also relies on a heavy sinker and elite command in order to generate a high rate of ground balls.

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.

ALSO SEE