Commentary

Deciphering June pitching numbers

Vazquez, Morrow, Hammel looking good; Hanson, Garcia, Leake, Burnett skidding

Updated: June 30, 2010, 1:55 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

60 Feet 6 Inches

Oh, those sneaky, sneaky year-to-date statistics.

Take Jon Lester, for example. As things stand today, he's 9-3 with a 2.86 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, great but not tops-in-the-majors numbers; they've earned him the No. 5 ranking among starting pitchers on our Player Rater, though he's not especially close to overtaking the No. 4 name (Roy Halladay).

The problem is, while there's little doubt Lester is highly regarded in fantasy, might he actually still be a bit underrated, primarily because of three rocky season-opening starts that night have slightly painted our perceptions of him? It was the two losses, 8.44 ERA and 1.88 WHIP he had during those outings that seem to have tainted -- albeit slightly -- an otherwise dominant season.

Consider these facts, since Lester's first strong outing of 2010, on April 23:

Lester
Cary Edmondson/US PresswireJon Lester's ERA on April 18 was 8.44, now it's 2.86.

• He's second in the majors in wins (9).
• He's tops in strikeouts (97); yes, he has more than even Yovani Gallardo (95), Jered Weaver (91) and Tim Lincecum (95), and those three are 1-2-3 in the category (thus far) for the full season.
• Among qualified starters, only Josh Johnson (1.26) has a lower ERA than his 1.88.
• His 0.98 WHIP ranks fifth among qualified starters; only Johnson (0.83), Cliff Lee (0.92), Carl Pavano (0.97) and Mat Latos (0.98) have been better.
• Johnson is the only one of the four men currently ranked ahead of him on our Player Rater who could make a case for having had more fantasy value, and Lester has two more wins and 12 more K's during that span. No, it's probably not enough to boost Lester, but it's worth a debate.

Now, maybe those facts serve as much to bolster Johnson's case as they do Lester's, but when you're thinking about where fantasy values lie today, doesn't it just feel automatic to select Ubaldo Jimenez as your hands-down No. 1 fantasy starter from this point forward? (Not that he shouldn't, but as with Johnson, it's another point well worth debating.) The year-to-date returns still have a significant pull with us, a point also made in Tuesday's "Hit Parade."

But there's a key difference between today's lesson and Tuesday's, and that's the weight of small sample sizes with pitchers. It's tough to deny that people treat starting pitchers differently than they do players at any other position; their full-season samples will always be smaller than those of hitters (600 plate appearances, obviously, is a larger sample than, say, 200 innings), and they work every five (sometimes six) days, meaning one bad outing has a way of lingering in your mind for a long, long time, whereas an 0-for-4 by your hitter might be forgotten by the very next night. And don't get me started on what happens when a pitcher strings together back-to-back poor outings …

Still, the lesson rings as true today as it did Tuesday, perhaps more so, because values can shift, often rapidly, at this particular position. Ignore the June returns and you might be missing out not only on a buy-low or sell-high opportunity, but also the possibility the pitcher has made some sort of adjustment -- or suffered some sort of skills erosion -- that has recently altered his long-term value.

Let's take a look at the most significant June shifts, and dissect their meaning:

A.J. Burnett
Ben Liebenberg/US PresswireA.J. Burnett allowed at least six runs in four of his five June starts.

A.J. Burnett, New York Yankees (0-5, 11.35 ERA, 2.26 WHIP in 5 GS): To give you a sense of just how poor his June was, Burnett has never had as many losses or as high an ERA or WHIP in any other month in his career; only his 4-6.61-1.84 numbers of September 2000 or 4-7.39-1.89 of August 2001 were even close. So when we say Burnett is the "inconsistent" type -- which is not an unfair assessment of his skills -- we're not telling the whole story, because his recent slump is clearly something more. So what is it? Pitching coach Dave Eiland's absence? Tipping his pitches? A hidden injury? That there's no obvious answer underscores the risk you take "buying low" on Burnett, but at the same time, from 2004 to '09 he had a 3.83 ERA, 1.29 WHIP and averaged 172 K's per season. If his owner has pressed the panic button, this might be a chance worth taking, but stash him on your bench.

Gavin Floyd, Chicago White Sox (1-2, 2.58 ERA, 1.04 WHIP in 6 GS): How much more could I tout him as a potential buy-low? At this point, any more pro-Floyd comments might put me at risk of his taking out a restraining order. To repeat past lessons, Floyd turned his season around shortly before this point last year, and sure enough, it seems like he has now turned his 2010 season around shortly before this point this year. Look at that K-to-walk ratio this month: 3.40! If that's not a sign he's back on track, I don't know what is.

Jaime Garcia, St. Louis Cardinals (2-2, 4.50 ERA, 1.42 WHIP in 5 GS): You didn't really expect he was going to maintain a sub-1.50 ERA all season, did you? Keep in mind that the only rookie pitcher during the expansion era to post an ERA beneath 2.50 was Mark Fidrych in 1976, and only one in the past decade has managed one less than 3 (Brandon Webb). Garcia still has what it takes to be a fantasy asset, but his declining performance suggests it's time to shop him. After all, he's probably facing an innings cap, having thrown only 37 2/3 innings in 2009 fresh off Tommy John surgery. Garcia is already on pace for 185 frames.

Matt Garza, Tampa Bay Rays (3-1, 7.84 ERA, 1.69 WHIP in 4 GS): Before you come down on Garza for his poor June, be aware that much of the damage done to his ratios all occurred in a June 18 start at the Florida Marlins, when he surrendered seven runs on seven hits and three walks in 1 1/3 innings. Without it, his season ERA is 3.49, not 4.10. Still, every outing counts, and it should serve as more of a reminder that he's not quite an ERA-title contender than that he's a buy-low target. He's more talented than a four-ERA hurler, but by much? Probably not.

Jason Hammel, Colorado Rockies (4-0, 1.83 ERA, 1.22 WHIP in 6 GS): If there's anything Hammel's recent hot spell has done, it has guaranteed that he'll retain his rotation spot even after Jorge De La Rosa's healthy return, meaning that if you plan to invest, you shouldn't sweat the possibility of his being bumped. Here's what's perplexing: Even with Hammel's recent hot spell, he has been dropped in 3.0 percent of ESPN leagues within the past week. Huh?! That's a sign he's regarded as simply a streaming option in shallow formats, but people unwilling to trust him right now are missing out. Didn't he already show last season that he can be a valuable -- even if not top-25 -- fantasy asset?

Tommy Hanson, Atlanta Braves (2-2, 6.31 ERA, 1.71 WHIP in 5 GS): Every pitcher endures some sort of adjustment period. Apparently, neither his big-league debut on June 7, 2009, nor his four-start stretch from July 9-31 last season, was it. His past eight starts, clearly, are it. He has a 6.53 ERA, 1.73 WHIP and .319 batting average allowed during that span, though in his defense, his 26 strikeouts compared to eight walks this month show that his elite skills are still there. This kind of thing happens to young pitchers all the time; this might be your final opportunity to pounce, especially in a keeper format.

Edwin Jackson
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaEdwin Jackson's no-hitter was a nice capper to a solid June, but can it last?

Edwin Jackson, Arizona Diamondbacks (2-0, 2.11 ERA, 1.28 in 5 GS): He'll be a popular sell-high candidate coming off a no-hitter in which he threw 149 pitches, but everything about him says you should attempt the strategy even if the returns aren't overwhelming. Jackson had seven wins, a 4.77 ERA and 1.49 WHIP in 17 starts from this date forward last season, diminishing in performance with each passing month. He also has a troubling 20 walks compared to 25 K's in 38 1/3 innings this month, which takes some of the luster off his recent hot spell.

Ubaldo Jimenez, Colorado Rockies (4-0, 4.41 ERA, 1.44 WHIP in 5 GS): So he's human! Jimenez's "poor" June, in reality, amounts to back-to-back poor outings his past two turns (10 ER, 14 H, 11 2/3 IP), and those might be excused by the fact that he had been battling a stomach illness leading into that stretch. Don't read too much into this, and instead consider it a potential window to buy Jimenez at an affordable rate. After all, another stat supporting his case: The 15 pitchers to win the Cy Young the past decade have totaled 24 months with a four-plus ERA. Even the best aren't always perfect, so give the guy a break.

Mike Leake, Cincinnati Reds (1-1, 5.22 ERA, 1.77 WHIP in 5 GS): He was bound to cool at some point, a trend that would be obvious had you been tracking both his walk (3.59 per nine) and strikeout (5.85) rates all year. Leake is a put-the-ball-into-play type, and while he's a ground-baller (49.8 percent of all balls in play), that's still not a good home ballpark for a young pitcher with his credentials. The Reds have also been tinkering with his schedule in order to cap his innings, which might be contributing to his being thrown off his rhythm. Leake probably has a career as a No. 2 or 3 starter ahead of him, but for the remainder of 2010, he's much riskier than his year-to-date numbers show. His June stats say sell, sell, sell!

Brandon Morrow, Toronto Blue Jays (1-2, 1.91 ERA, 1.09 WHIP in 5 GS): His June stats, by comparison, say buy, buy, buy … well, all of them except for the wins. Just look at Morrow's command numbers: 2.73 walks per nine, a substantial improvement upon his 5.38 career number, and 9.27 K's per nine, right in line with his 9.51 career rate. In other words, he's gaining polish while not losing anything in terms of stuff, his 25.3-percent swing-and-miss number (fifth-best in the majors) speaking especially to the latter point. If you choose to doubt Morrow, it should be his checkered health history, which might very well have been a product of the Seattle Mariners shifting him back and forth frequently between rotation and bullpen. But isn't every pitcher, to a degree, an injury risk? The numbers say it's absolutely a chance worth taking.

Jake Peavy, Chicago White Sox (3-1, 1.20 ERA, 0.80 WHIP in 4 GS): While Peavy's June statistics might seemingly build a buy-low case, I'll argue that all they do is serve as correction of sorts to his somewhat unlucky slow start. We talk about FIP (fielding-independent pitching) at times on these pages, and Peavy's is 4.06, helping support the notion that his ERA should reside north of four. Where he's at right now -- 4.71 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, full-season paces of 15 wins and 186 K's -- might be where he ultimately finishes. He might be more sell-high than buy-low candidate, especially since, as mentioned in Tuesday's Hit Parade, it's typically a bad idea to trade for a streaky player fresh off a hot streak.

Javier Vazquez, Yankees (3-1, 3.00 ERA, 0.91 WHIP in 5 GS): Besides Floyd, he might be the soundest buy-low bet on the list, mainly because his 5.16 full-season ERA represents his worst since his rookie year of 1998; plus, there's always that 6.92 second-half ERA of his last year in pinstripes in 2004 that you can use to put a little scare into his owner. But let's be clear: Vazquez is not what he was last season, as even his June K's-per-nine (7.36) and K's-per-walk (2.70) ratios are noticeably worse than in 2009 (9.77 and 5.41). He does, however, have a 3.12 ERA and 0.98 WHIP since May 12, which represents quite the turnaround.

Four up

Jamie Moyer, Philadelphia Phillies: Though his one-inning, nine-run nightmare in Boston on June 11 might be difficult to forget, you really should try to put it out of your mind, because outside that one start, Moyer has been a surprisingly effective fantasy option. Let's take his statistics in 10 turns -- excluding that one -- since May 1: 7 wins, 2.90 ERA, 0.80 WHIP. During that span, Moyer has defeated and turned in a quality start (in the same outing) versus the Braves, Yankees and Blue Jays, so this isn't entirely matchups-driven. He simply seems to have sharper command than ever, amazing for a 47-year-old, as his 1.59 walks-per-nine ratio thus far would represent a personal best, and his 3.00 K's-per-walk ratio would trail only his 1998 (3.76). Some of Moyer's hot streak is luck-driven, but ask yourself this: If he pitched for a team that didn't call Citizens Bank Park its home, might you look at him in a different light?

Ricky Nolasco, Florida Marlins: Could it be that he's finally starting to straighten himself out? Nolasco has won back-to-back starts, defeating the Baltimore Orioles and New York Mets, but more important, he has 17 strikeouts compared to one walk in 14 innings during that span. In addition, he has generated swings and misses on 27.6 percent of all his offerings in those two outings, and those are two offenses that rate above-average in terms of making contact. While the indicators in his peripherals aren't as strong as they were at this point last season, this is the same time of year he began to straighten out his 2009 campaign.

Joel Pineiro, Los Angeles Angels: Now this is the Pineiro we all remember from his breakout 2009 season. With Tuesday's win, he has won each of his past five starts, the past four of those quality starts, with an ERA is 2.48 and WHIP 1.07 during that stretch. Plus, most important, he has generated ground balls on 57 of his 109 total balls in play during that span, helping him maintain a 54.4 percent ground-ball rate, within range of last year's 60.5. The drawback with Pineiro, of course, is that his command needs stay this sharp in order for him to remain trustworthy in fantasy, but right now at least it seems like everything's going right. Enjoy the ride (once again) while it lasts.

CC Sabathia, Yankees: Hopefully you took this column's advice two weeks ago and bought low -- or just bought at all -- on Sabathia, because if you didn't, it's probably too late now. He has won five consecutive starts, each of them a quality start, and has a 2.19 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in them, despite his having had to face the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers during that span. We've published his second-half numbers the past two seasons combined in this space in the past, numbers that would be a lock for a Cy Young award if put together within one calendar year. Oh, heck, here they are again: 20 wins, 2.11 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 216 K's in 30 second-half starts (25 of them quality starts).

Four down

Armando Galarraga, Detroit Tigers: The recent history of pitchers fresh off perfect games isn't great, and apparently it's not so great for those coming off near-perfectos, either. In four starts since Galarraga's gem, he has a 4.70 ERA and 1.43 WHIP, numbers that wouldn't be so bad if not for the fact that he has but five strikeouts combined during that span. Don't let perceptions get the best of you; Galarraga was outstanding June 2, but outside that one start, he has fit the description of a "streaming" starter to a T, that being the type you add and drop based upon the day he's assigned to start (as long as you like the matchup).

Johan Santana, New York Mets: He has allowed at least four runs in each of his past four starts, posting a 5.96 ERA and .313 BAA combined, as the slow, steady decline of his career continues. Santana's problem remains the same; his fastball velocity continues to drop, reducing the differential between it and his excellent changeup, and therefore diminishing the effectiveness of the latter pitch. To that point, he has averaged 89.3 mph with the fastball, per FanGraphs, the lowest average of any of his nine big league seasons. Sure enough, Santana's K-per-nine ratio has dropped to a career-worst 5.71. He has the talent to be a useful fantasy option in most formats, but most people tend to assume he's still a top-10 caliber starter. Fact is, he might have a hard time cracking the top 20.

Kevin Slowey, Minnesota Twins: While his schedule during his past three outings has been somewhat difficult -- versus Braves, at both Phillies and Mets -- Slowey is the kind of pitcher who in the past has been able to rise above the matchup. Nevertheless, opponents batted .415 with five homers and an .868 slugging percentage against him in those three turns, during which time his ERA was 12.41 and WHIP 1.95. They're not biting on his pitches outside the strike zone, as his chase percentage is just 19 percent during those outings, according to Inside Edge, compared to the 23 percent major league average.

Carlos Zambrano, Chicago Cubs: By now you've surely heard this story; Zambrano was suspended by the Cubs for his tirade during this past Friday's game, then shifted to the restricted list until at least the All-Star break while he undergoes a treatment program, and upon his return he'll be returned to the bullpen. It hardly sounds like a short-term thing this time around; unlike his six-week bullpen assignment in April and May, Zambrano has no promise of a future rotation spot. In fact, he might not even be promised critical relief innings, whereas at one point he was regarded the team's primary setup man. Zambrano had a 4.15 ERA, 1.46 WHIP and 6.92 K's-per-nine ratio in his 13 relief appearances, numbers that scarcely helped fantasy owners, and at this point he can be safely dropped in most formats.

Upgrade your roster

Add: Tom Gorzelanny, Cubs
Drop: Hisanori Takahashi, Mets

Zambrano's loss, mentioned above, is Gorzelanny's gain, as the left-hander is set to move into Zambrano's former rotation spot beginning Wednesday. He probably never should've left; at the time of his ouster at the beginning of June, Gorzelanny had a 3.66 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, .249 BAA and 9.23 K's-per-nine ratio in nine starts, the ratios only as high as they were because of a disappointing final start in that string, when he allowed seven runs (five earned) on seven hits in five innings to the Dodgers on May 26. Ah, short-term memories.

While Gorzelanny served as more of a lefty specialist than long man during his near-month in the bullpen, he's probably better suited to the transition than you'd think. Thanks to Zambrano's early exit from this past Friday's game, Gorzelanny threw 47 pitches and 3 1/3 innings of relief on that day, limiting the White Sox to a mere hit, albeit a home run. That might put him close to a full starter's workload against his former team, the Pirates, a matchup that stacks clearly in his favor.

But adding Gorzelanny is more of a long-term thing, regardless of his Wednesday exploits. Besides the boost to his strikeout rate, he's generating swings and misses on 23.6 percent of all his offerings, which represents a personal best. A filthy slider is one reason; per Inside Edge he has limited opponents to a .171 batting average with the pitch between this and last season combined, and he has thrown it 28 percent of the time versus left-handers.

As for Takahashi, no matter your opinion on his year-to-date performance for the Mets thus far, it's hard to deny both his inconsistency and his tendency to buck the matchups (in either direction). If you've heard the phrase "consistently inconsistent" used when describing him, it's fitting. Extracting only his seven starts, Takahashi is 2-0 with a 1.93 ERA and 1.07 WHIP in the four he has pitched versus teams that rank in the upper half in the game in terms of runs per game … and 1-2 with a 7.80 ERA and 1.93 WHIP in the three he has pitched versus teams that rank in the bottom half in the category. How unpredictable!

Also consider adding …
Bud Norris, Houston Astros: He's back, he's healthy and he pitched decently in his first start back in the rotation, plus his season K's-per-9 is 11.10. Why not take the chance there'll be at least future matchups potential?
Andrew Oliver, Detroit Tigers: You can't expect his command to be that sharp every time out, but playing in the AL Central means a healthy chunk of favorable matchups. Oliver might be an asset in AL-only formats.
Manny Parra, Milwaukee Brewers: A popular sleeper for some time who has to this point in his career been a disappointment, Parra has offered some hope recently. He has a 4.18 ERA and 36 K's in 28 innings in his past five starts.

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.

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