I still don't like wins.
Neither does Zack Greinke, apparently. Through seven starts he remains winless, despite the fact that, among qualified starters, he ranks 20th in ERA (2.51), 15th in WHIP (1.05) and 28th in strikeouts (36). Greinke's aversion to wins might be frustrating to his fantasy owners, but it should hardly condemn him, considering that little about his peripheral numbers provides cause for concern.
Those peripheral numbers, remember, are the more useful indicators of future success, and if you recall my "Kings of Command" column of the preseason, they identify pitchers based upon their numbers in what we call the command categories. To recap, pitchers need to meet these criteria to qualify:
Innings pitched: 50 or more
Strikeout rate (K's per nine): 6.00 or more
Walk rate (BBs per nine): 3.00 or less
Command rate (K's per BB): 2.50 or more
Home run rate (HRs per nine): 1.50 or less
Fly-ball rate (FB% of all balls in play): 45 percent or less
With the smaller sample size of five-plus weeks -- as opposed to the entire season traditionally used in "Kings of Command" -- let's first adjust those innings pitched to a more reasonable five starts (no innings minimum).
Greinke does miss the cutoff in one of those categories, as his fly-ball rate is 46.9 percent. That's the least troublesome of the five, however, but it bears watching, especially coupled with the drop-off in his strikeout rate, which was a career-high 9.50 per nine innings in 2009 but so far sits at 6.94. He's not quite as dominant as he was during his Cy Young campaign, but do we really have any right to complain if he winds up only the 10th-best pitcher in the game this season?
In examining Greinke, however, a few other interesting names popped up as to-date qualifiers. Twenty-nine pitchers meet all criteria, including six of the top eight starting pitchers on our Player Rater, but the eight names below might surprise you. Remember, we're still talking about just over five weeks' worth of statistics, and this is designed as more of a long-term strategy, but if you're wondering about the legitimacy of their hot starts, this might confirm them.
Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds: After a rocky first four outings, it might be understandable that fantasy owners were no longer willing to trust Cueto, whose 5.81 ERA and 1.58 WHIP after the All-Star break last season were deadly to his owners. But how easy it is to forget that he was 8-4 with a 2.69 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in his first 16 starts, looking every bit as strong as he did during his one-hit shutout on Tuesday. Something you should know: Cueto's numbers in the command categories this season are all better than during that 16-game hot start in 2009; he needs to be owned in more than 9.4 percent of ESPN leagues.
Tom Gorzelanny, Chicago Cubs: He's what people traditionally call a "command specialist," and through six starts his numbers in the command categories each represents a personal best. Most surprising is his 9.26 strikeouts-per-nine ratio, which is substantially higher than during his previous best big league season of 2006, and even beats his career minor league number (8.91). Perhaps he'll cool off in the category over the course of the long season, as many command specialists do, but Gorzelanny should still be of value in almost every league.
Shaun Marcum, Toronto Blue Jays: The least surprising of the eight names on this list, but that's more because he was such a productive pitcher before 2008 Tommy John surgery. In 50 starts in 2007-08, Marcum had 20 wins, 30 quality starts, a 3.64 ERA and 1.19 WHIP. Health was the primary concern with the right-hander entering the year, but it seems he has mostly answered those questions. Don't be surprised if he ends 2010 as a top-40 starter.
Kevin Millwood, Baltimore Orioles: Why don't more people trust this guy? Is it because, for the most part, he hasn't played for especially good teams and has typically called hitter-friendly ballparks his home? Even pitchers in those unfortunate circumstances have matchups appeal, and while Millwood has no wins in seven starts, he has yet to turn in a truly bad outing, despite a somewhat treacherous schedule to date. He's almost annually a qualifier for "Kings of Command," including the 2006 and 2008 seasons with the Texas Rangers and 2005 with the Cleveland Indians, so don't be so dismissive of his skills.
Scott Olsen, Washington Nationals: I must admit I was shocked when, while compiling this list, I realized Olsen qualified. Command has never been his forte, as evidenced by his 3.70 walks-per-nine ratio at the major league level entering the season. This year, his number in the category is 2.70, no small feat considering that's substantially lower than he has had at any level in any professional season. It's hard to believe that a little over a month ago, he was surrounded by questions coming off shoulder surgery and was nearly released by the Nationals. Today, Olsen looks a lot more like the promising youngster the Florida Marlins thought they had about a half-decade back. While it's unclear whether he can sustain this -- his health might always be a worry -- it's worth scooping Olsen up to enjoy even a short-term ride.
Carlos Silva, Chicago Cubs: Though he looks a lot like his former useful self during his Minnesota Twins days, Silva's 2010 resurgence has one hidden flaw, that being his ground-ball rate. He's about as efficient as he was during his heyday, but back with the Twins he typically generated grounders on between 45-50 percent of his balls in play. This season, he has induced them 41.6 percent of the time, which is a career low. I'm still not buying that Silva can keep this up, but if you want to ride the streak while it lasts, his other numbers support it.
Jason Vargas, Seattle Mariners: It's no wonder the Mariners bumped Ian Snell, not Vargas, from their rotation. It was the right move. Vargas has significantly stepped up his strikeout rate, closer to what it was during his days in the Marlins' farm system, and he's doing a good job of keeping right-handed hitters off-balance with his changeup, as evidenced by their .223/.286/.369 (AVG/OBP/SLG) rates against him. Vargas is more of a matchups type than a roll-him-weekly pitcher, especially considering he's 2-0 with a 1.29 ERA and 0.86 WHIP in three starts versus sub-.500 teams (per Baseball-Reference.com), but that's a useful streaming/AL-only type.
Randy Wells, Chicago Cubs: Don't jump off the ledge after his recent disastrous outing at the Pittsburgh Pirates, when he was pounded for seven runs (six earned) on five hits and three walks in two innings. Wells' command was simply off that night, but in every one of his six other starts it has been spot-on. In fact, his numbers in the above categories represent substantial improvements upon his breakout 2009 numbers, which suggests his numbers last year might very well have been for real. Could this be a buy-low opportunity for Wells?
TOP 100 STARTING PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 100 starting pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
Dallas Braden, Oakland Athletics: A perfect game will do wonders for your fantasy value, but why were people so dismissive of Braden in the first place? He has a 3.78 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in his past 21 starts, numbers any fantasy owner would welcome, and calls one of the most pitching-friendly venues in baseball his home. Braden might have a hard time duplicating that level of dominance on a per-start basis looking forward, but give him some credit: He did this against one of the best teams in baseball. He has a place even on mixed rosters.
Jon Garland, San Diego Padres: Speaking of red-hot pitchers, Garland is in the midst of a streak of four straight quality starts, the most recent two seven-inning outings during which he didn't allow a run. He seems right at home with the Padres, with their spacious home ballpark, though there are two long-term concerns with him: One is that his 21 walks compared to 25 strikeouts in 42 innings result in command ratios that are hardly confidence-inspiring. The other is that he has had countless month-long hot streaks throughout his career, yet almost always seems to finish the season with an ERA north of four. Keep Garland in there for now, but be prepared to let him go once he inevitably cools off.
Mike Leake, Cincinnati Reds: One of the reasons the Reds selected Leake with the eighth overall pick in last June's amateur draft was that they knew how polished a prospect he was, and therefore how quickly he'd be able to step into their big league rotation. He hasn't had any problems so far, with quality starts in five of his first six major league outings, and in his past four turns he has 20 K's compared to five walks, which is much improved from his 12 walks compared to 8 K's in his first two. As with any young pitcher, Leake might be subject to an adjustment period later this season, but for now he sure looks like a guy who can pitch at this level.
Jon Lester, Boston Red Sox: Consider your buy-low window closed, as Lester has three consecutive quality starts, two of them against the New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays, both of those top-10 offenses currently. Now that's the Lester we were all expecting when we made him the seventh starting pitcher selected on average in the preseason. In those three turns, Lester's walk rate was 2.45 per nine and his strikeout rate was 9.41 per nine, numbers right in line with his 2009 performance. Expect continued dominance.
Josh Beckett, Boston Red Sox: While Lester has turned his season around, Beckett has not, and now he's going to miss a start due to a tweaked muscle in his back. Might that explain his sluggish start to this season? Beckett's command numbers have worsened, he's having nothing but trouble with left-handed hitters (.345/.406/.621) and he's relying on his cutter more than ever. He did struggle early last year, too, but when he did he was still generating strikeouts (41 in 40 2/3 innings as of this date) and lacked any discernable platoon split. Don't be shocked if Beckett needs a little more than one start's rest to straighten himself out.
Jair Jurrjens, Atlanta Braves: Another pitcher with health concerns, Jurrjens looked on track to return to the rotation Saturday; that is, before he suffered a setback with his hamstring Monday. According to the team's official website, he "felt something pop" in his lower left hamstring, a different part of the hamstring than the injury that landed him on the disabled list. If Jurrjens is forced to miss another couple of weeks as a result, you can count on the Braves being more cautious with him the next time around. Don't be surprised if we don't see him pitch in May.
Johan Santana, New York Mets: It's amazing what one bad inning can do to a pitcher's fantasy value. Santana surrendered eight of the Philadelphia Phillies' nine runs in the fourth inning of a May 2 game, victimized by untimely walks and home runs, and suddenly he's no longer a top-25 starting pitcher in many fantasy owners' minds. Are we really ready to readjust our expectations that significantly because of one bad frame? All it served to do was demonstrate that he's no longer the top-10 lock he once was, due to a diminished strikeout rate that shows his changeup isn't quite as lethal. Still, considering many people did regard him as a certain top-10 option, let this serve as a wake-up call.
Max Scherzer, Detroit Tigers: Both pitchers the Tigers and Arizona Diamondbacks swapped this winter are now in the midst of dreadful funks: While Edwin Jackson's fantasy value has been in precipitous decline, Scherzer's isn't far behind. He has been pounded for 21 runs on 27 hits in 13 innings in his past three starts, but more troubling, he has seven walks during that span. Scherzer apparently isn't fooling American League hitters, averaging 6.08 K's per nine, down from 9.54 the previous two years with the Diamondbacks.
Pickups of the week
Mixed: Jhoulys Chacin, Colorado Rockies. Back-to-back outings of seven-plus innings without allowing a run must have the Rockies seriously considering keeping Chacin in their rotation, even after the healthy returns of Jorge de la Rosa, Jeff Francis and Jason Hammel. After all, Chacin has long been regarded as one of the franchise's top prospects, after tearing through the minor leagues with a 40-17 record, 2.43 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 82 career games (81 starts). He has 14 strikeouts compared to five walks and has thrown 133 of 216 pitches for strikes (61.6 percent) in his past two big league starts, displaying a level of command similar to when he was at his best in the minors, and while he has yet to make a Coors Field start this season, he has the kind of skill that can more than overcome the challenge. And even if Chacin gets bumped back to Triple-A once the Rockies' more experienced starters heal, he's worth owning during his current hot streak.
AL-only: Derek Holland, Texas Rangers. Another top prospect, Holland was off to a terrific start for Triple-A Oklahoma City at the time of his recall, with a 4-1 record, 0.93 ERA and 1.01 WHIP in six starts. That's encouraging, considering that he finished his rookie year of 2009 with a bloated 6.12 ERA, and while the obvious reaction is that he might be a "Quadruple-A" player in the making, why can't this simply be construed as progress? Breaking into the major leagues is tough for a young pitcher and succeeding instantly in the bigs even tougher, and let's not forget that Holland's Rangers play their home games in one of the roughest environments for a pitcher. At times last season he looked as good as any top-40 fantasy starter -- like in back-to-back games versus the Los Angeles Angels and Boston Red Sox -- and based upon that upside he's well worth an AL-only pickup.
NL-only: Chris Narveson, Milwaukee Brewers. This is mostly strikeouts speculation, as through his first eight career big league starts, Narveson has 42 K's in 39 1/3 innings. But he also has three wins, a 3.66 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in those, so he's apparently not a strikeout artist primed to kill your ratios. Narveson still has trouble with right-handed hitters, as evidenced by his .344/.438/.594 (AVG/OBP/SLG) rates allowed, and he's not at all overpowering, but his deep arsenal of breaking pitches does fool a good number of hitters. He's not quite trustworthy enough to be of use in mixed formats, but in NL-only, give him a shot.
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.