Baseball already has a "sophomore slump." Why not a "sophomore surge," too?
We took a look at the struggling second-year hitters around the game in Tuesday's "Hit Parade." Turning the focus to starting pitchers on Wednesday, however, it's odd to discover that, while hitters are falling prey to the dreaded sophomore slump, pitchers seem to be taking the next step in their second seasons.
If you need proof, look no farther than the No. 6 starting pitcher on our Player Rater, David Price. A disappointment in 2009, with a 4.42 ERA and 1.35 WHIP in 23 starts, Price has lowered those ratios to 2.41 and 1.14 in nine starts, while winning seven games, or three fewer than he did all of last season.
What has made the difference?
Increased effectiveness of his off-speed pitches, namely his curveball and slider, which shouldn't come as any surprise to fantasy owners. We talk a lot on these pages about the difficult adjustment period young pitchers face in breaking into the majors, and it's those off-speed offerings that can sometimes take time for young hurlers to perfect. In Price's case, he barely even relied on either pitch before this year, throwing his curveball only 3.9 percent of the time in 2009. This season, he has thrown it on 18.3 percent of his offerings, per FanGraphs.
In Price's case, Inside Edge reveals that Price has thrown 67 percent of his off-speed offerings for strikes, a noticeable improvement from the 61 percent he recorded in his rookie year. He has also limited opponents to a .048 well-hit average against his off-speed stuff, down from .062 last season. With two plus pitches -- his fastball included -- Price is now quite a lethal threat on the mound.
Fantasy owners might wonder the likelihood Price keeps up his current pace, and perhaps as a 24-year-old with 37 games' experience at the big league level, he'll slip somewhat from his currently lofty pace. But workload shouldn't be a worry for him, as he totaled 162 2/3 innings between the majors and minors last year, and his talent can't be questioned, between his being a No. 1 pick overall in the 2007 amateur draft or a pitcher with a 2.69 career minor league ERA. In fact, if Price can improve his strikeout rate from its 7.13 per nine in his brief big league career to closer to the K-per-frame average he had in the minors, he might absolutely remain among the top 10 starters in fantasy baseball.
I won't call for a top-10 finish for Price, but terming him mere top-25 talent might not do him justice. With all due respect to Matt Garza, I stand behind my preseason statement that Price might yet be the top-ranking Rays starter at year's end.
Price isn't the only second-year hurler off to a hot start, and unlikely to fizzle anytime soon. A quick glance at the 2010 sophomore pitching class suggests you should maintain your investments in the kids. Let's take a look:
Ricky Romero, Toronto Blue Jays: He's the kind of pitcher who needs full command of his entire arsenal to succeed, but this season he sure seems to have it. Romero has historically thrived by changing speeds, limiting opposing hitters to a .174 batting average on changeups, according to Inside Edge. But what has elevated him to the next level this year has been his level of dominance; he has converted 78 percent of two-strike counts into outs, up from 69 percent as a rookie, and has taken only 18 percent of plate appearances to three strikes, down from 22 percent. Romero's critics will point to his 5.54 ERA in the second half of 2009 and suggest he lacks the stamina to last a full 162-game season, but when a second-year pitcher is already averaging 9.48 K's per nine, it looks like he might now have it.
Mat Latos, San Diego Padres: Like any 22-year-old pitcher, Latos has endured some rocky spells in his first 19 career starts, as evidenced by a 3.82 career ERA that most scouts would agree is higher than where it should stand over a decade from now. Judging by his May returns, however, he seems on the fast track to stardom, with a perfect 5-for-5 record of quality starts, a 1.29 ERA, 0.71 WHIP and .154 batting average allowed. Improved command is largely the reason; his walks per nine is down from 4.09 in 2009 to 1.95 this season, and a whopping 66 percent of his 2-0, 2-1 and three-ball counts have resulted in outs, per Inside Edge. Latos might not yet be a Cy Young candidate, but he's pitching like he's not far from it. In fact, if fantasy owners are to doubt anything about him, it's his workload. The Padres have already said they plan only 25 to 27 starts for the sophomore.
Jeff Niemann, Tampa Bay Rays: A quick look at his .244 BABIP and 84.5 percent strand rate might suggest luck has been significantly at play, but when a pitcher shows the kind of pitch-specific improvement that Niemann has, can we really discard him as a fall-to-earth candidate? According to Inside Edge, he has improved his strike percentage on off-speed pitches from 58 percent in 2009 to 65 percent this year, has coaxed opponents into chasing 30 percent of them, up from 22, and has allowed a .037 well-hit average on off-speed strikes, down from .051. Much of that is due to increased use of his splitter, on 8.4 percent of all his pitches thrown per FanGraphs, up from 3.9, while maintaining and perhaps slightly improving his curveball. Perhaps Niemann's final ERA number won't stay as low as its current 2.54, but his 3.94 of a year ago wasn't bad, and who's to say it will even rise that high? He's the forgotten man of this rotation, but that only enhances his fantasy sleeper appeal.
Gio Gonzalez, Oakland Athletics: He had issues with command during brief stints in the majors in 2008 and 2009, but that Gonzalez has lowered his walk rate to 3.95 per nine innings this year is encouraging. Another promising sign: He has thrown first-pitch strikes 58 percent of the time, a noticeable improvement from 2009's 53. Gonzalez's stuff has always been filthy, especially his curveball; per Inside Edge he has limited opposing hitters to a .129 batting average on the pitch since the beginning of last season. If he continues to make strides in the command department, he might actually improve his ratios.
Trevor Cahill, Oakland Athletics: He has made just five starts since being recalled, but has shown enough in those to hint a breakthrough isn't far off. Cahill has improved both his walk (2.15 per nine) and ground ball rates (54.7 percent), and has made huge strides versus left-handed hitters (.236/.250/.382 AVG/OBP/SLG rates). At the very least, Cahill warrants matchups status, and he might not be far from being an every-week option in most formats. Surely he deserves to be owned in more than 1.5 percent of ESPN leagues.
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.
Clay Buchholz, Boston Red Sox: A member of the 2008 rookie class, Buchholz hasn't been much less effective to date than any of the sophomores listed above. His owners might wish his 1.40 WHIP was lower, but then he hasn't faced the easiest of schedules, not once facing a team ranked among the bottom 10 in the majors in runs scored. In fact, that Buchholz has defeated the Detroit Tigers, Minnesota Twins and Tampa Bay Rays in each of his past three starts speaks well of his talent, and he has a 1.77 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in those starts.
Daisuke Matsuzaka, Boston Red Sox: Another Red Sox pitcher in the midst of a hot streak, Dice-K went 7 2/3 no-hit innings in a road start against the Philadelphia Phillies on Saturday, marking his second quality start in his past three turns. Like Buchholz, Matsuzaka has battled a challenging schedule that should only get easier in the coming weeks. One thing that bodes well for Dice-K: He has a ridiculously low 51.1 percent strand rate, which suggests that his 5.76 ERA to date is largely a product of terrible luck.
Ervin Santana, Los Angeles Angels: Though he still has work to do before anyone can deem him close to his 2008 form, Santana has made vast strides upon what was a disappointing 2009. For one thing, he has remained healthy all year, something he couldn't claim a year ago, and for another, his strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.60:1) is his second-best single-season total, behind that breakout 2008. In addition, Santana, once a terrible road pitcher, appears to have solved that puzzle; he has a 3.06 ERA and 1.36 WHIP in five road starts.
Javier Vazquez, New York Yankees: He has a long way to go before anyone can call him "back," but in his past two starts, both road assignments that were hardly easy (at Detroit Tigers and New York Mets), Vazquez did demonstrate improvement. Between the two, he totaled 13 innings, allowed two runs on six hits but, more importantly, struck out 13 hitters compared to four walks. Those are command numbers much more in line with his career norms, and perhaps might serve as confidence builders for the right-hander.
Ricky Nolasco, Florida Marlins: Diminished velocity during his May 16 start -- the Palm Beach Post clocked him regularly between 88-91 mph -- plus a pounding he suffered this past Friday at the hands of the Chicago White Sox have to have his owners sweating. After all, it was at about this time last season that Nolasco hit rock bottom, suffering a demotion to Triple-A ball. For the season, his strikeouts-per-nine is 6.36, down significantly from last year's 9.49, which means his velocity is well worth monitoring his next time out.
Brad Penny, St. Louis Cardinals: A right lat strain forced him from his most recent start, then landed him on the disabled list, but even before that Penny wasn't pitching particularly well. In back-to-back turns versus the Cincinnati Reds and Los Angeles Angels, Penny allowed 11 runs on 18 hits in eight innings, opponents batting .439 against him. Though all reports have him ready to return after a minimum 15-day stay on the DL, he can't be trusted immediately upon activation.
Joel Pineiro, Los Angeles Angels: With his disastrous outing of May 21, Pineiro has been pounded in three of his past six starts, surrendering 25 runs (24 earned) on 30 hits in 12 1/3 innings, while striking out four hitters and walking five. In his defense, each of the other three was a quality start, and in those he allowed only two runs on 17 hits in 21 1/3 innings, while striking out 17 hitters and walking five. It's clear Pineiro has the skills to pitch like he did during his standout 2009, but he could stand to show a little more consistency to his owners.
C.J. Wilson, Texas Rangers: Might his hot streak finally be coming to an end? In back-to-back home starts, Wilson has been hit hard, surrendering 12 runs on 14 hits -- three of them home runs -- in 10 innings. As the Dallas Morning News noted, finishing hitters off was his primary problem; Wilson, who has converted 74 percent of his two-strike at-bats into outs, couldn't put hitters away in either game. His ability to change speeds should keep him on the fantasy map, but let his recent cold spell serve as a reminder that he's a bit shy of the elite class.
Pickups of the week
Mixed: Anibal Sanchez, Florida Marlins. Make that six quality starts in seven tries for Sanchez, following Tuesday's 6 1/3 innings of two-run, five-hit baseball. What's more, it's his improved strikeout rate in his past six starts that's worth noting: He has 35 K's compared to 15 walks in 37 innings during that span. Sanchez's career numbers might leave a bit to be desired, especially his 1.43 WHIP, but don't forget he was one of the better pitching prospects in the game at the time of his debut in 2006. In fact, he threw a no-hitter that year. Scoop Sanchez up, because it sure looks so far like he's fully recovered from 2007 shoulder surgery.
AL-only: Chris Tillman, Baltimore Orioles. Though he fell short in his quest for the Orioles' fifth-starter role during spring training, Tillman has done nothing but dominate in Triple-A ball to begin the season. In 10 starts for Norfolk, he has a 3.12 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 47 K's in 57 2/3 innings. David Hernandez, who won that fifth-starter battle, has been demoted to the bullpen, perhaps as much a product of a lack of quality alternatives in relief as Hernandez's own sluggish start. We'll get to the Orioles' bullpen issues in Thursday's "Relief Efforts," but for now, Tillman is the pickup you want from this rotation, since he'll rejoin it beginning on Saturday.
NL-only: Hisanori Takahashi, New York Mets. The Mets might be hurting for starters, but so far they're getting extremely productive performances out of two stand-ins, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey and Japanese import Takahashi. In his first career start in the States, Takahashi shut out the New York Yankees on five hits in six innings' work, plenty to earn himself a few more turns. Though Takahashi is hardly overpowering -- FanGraphs has his average fastball velocity at only 88.5 mph -- he changes speeds well and has a deceptive delivery. Expecting him to hold the advantage against most hitters in the short term isn't unreasonable.
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.