Commentary

Cockcroft: First-half values, busts

Updated: July 15, 2010, 2:02 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

It's only fitting that, in a year in which four National League starters have dominated the fantasy game, those four starters combined for 5 2/3 shutout innings' work during the All-Star Game, and helped the NL as a whole limit their American League counterparts to a mere run.

Yes, pitching has clearly been the name of the game in fantasy baseball through a half-season's play, especially in the Senior Circuit, which boasts five of the top six starting pitchers per our Player Rater and has a composite ERA 0.12 lower than that of the AL. All five of those elite NL starters are profiled in today's column, which hands out the first-half hardware, but they're hardly the only ones who warrant a mention for their contributions to date.

We'll begin with the "Player Rater All-Stars," the starting pitchers who have provided the greatest earnings to their fantasy owners regardless of draft-day price, but also examine the pitchers who have provided the greatest value to their respective fantasy teams, those who generally significantly exceeded their preseason expectations. In addition, we'll cover the busts, and -- to offer a window on what has yet to come -- preview some second-half values.

Let's get started, shall we?

Player Rater All-Stars

Adam Wainwright
Scott Rovak/US PresswireAdam Wainwright has allowed zero or one earned run in nine of his 19 starts.

Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals: Surprise, surprise! If -- before checking the page yourself -- you had been asked which starting pitcher topped our Player Rater in the first half of the season, you might have guessed as many as three other players -- who each appeared earlier in Tuesday's All-Star Game -- before Wainwright's. Somehow the perception is that he was not a better fantasy pitcher than any of the next three names on the list, but that's often how it is with pitchers who rely on consistent greatness over briefer spells of sheer dominance, the kinds of things that result in perfect games and no-hitters. To that point, Wainwright was the only pitcher in baseball to have made at least five starts in each of the season's first three months (April, May and June), while registering an ERA under 3.00 and WHIP under 1.20 each month. Now that's consistent.

Dating back to July 1, 2009, Wainwright has won 24 of 37 starts, 33 of those quality starts, and registered a 2.01 ERA and 1.05 WHIP. Here are his rankings during that time in the prominent fantasy categories: wins, first; ERA, first (by a half-run, at that); WHIP, second; strikeouts, third (just 10 off the lead). Care to doubt his ability to be a top-five starter the rest of the way?

Ubaldo Jimenez, Colorado Rockies: In an era in which the win is significantly more unpredictable, not to mention untrustworthy as an evaluation tool, Jimenez is a throwback of sorts, the kind of pitcher who dominates a category many of us had begun writing off as dying. Jimenez is the first to win 15 games before the All-Star break since David Wells in 2000, but don't call him "lucky," as that he's fifth in baseball in ERA (2.20), sixth in WHIP (1.05), third in quality starts (15), fourth in quality-start percentage (.833) and second in opponents' batting average (.198). Coors Field also doesn't present him much of a disadvantage; he's 6-0 with a 3.52 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in eight starts there this season, and never had an ERA higher than 3.81 or WHIP higher than 1.29 there in any of the past three seasons. Certainly the odds are against him maintaining equal paces in wins and quality starts (both 28), but the chances of any significant regression aren't high, either.

Josh Johnson, Florida Marlins: Some felt he should have started the All-Star Game, and those people are not without reason. Johnson has the highest quality-start percentage of any pitcher who qualifies for the ERA crown, having turned in 16 in 18 appearances (88.9 percent). In fact, the 16 quality starts have come consecutively, represent the longest such streak of any pitcher this season, and are an active streak. Amazingly, Johnson hasn't allowed more than two runs in a start since May 8, turning in a 0.80 ERA and 0.85 WHIP while limiting opposing hitters to a .193 batting average and one home run in 11 starts during that time, yet he has only six wins to show for it, as the Marlins have averaged 3.82 runs in those games. You really couldn't ask for a much greater comeback from Tommy John surgery than his, as he's 31-9 with a 2.86 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in 65 starts since his return, showing continued improvement all along the way. At this point, one cannot discount his chances at topping the Player Rater come season's end.

Roy Halladay, Philadelphia Phillies: It might seem like he has taken a step backward in performance since his May 29 perfect game -- and perhaps that bad outing at Yankee Stadium on June 15 is responsible for that -- but the truth is that it's his team that has struggled since. Halladay doesn't deserve any of the blame; he has a 2.47 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in eight starts since his perfecto, six of those quality starts, but only three wins to show for it, thanks to the Phillies scoring 23 total runs in those games (2.88 per). He has been everything his fantasy owners could have asked when they made him the 11th player selected on average in the preseason. Heck, if there's any complaint to be registered, it's that he has only been the 11th-best player to date, as opposed to putting forth some sort of record-setting, 30-win campaign. Oh Roy, how disappointed we'll be when you probably spend the rest of the year still performing as the 11th-best player!

Jon Lester, Boston Red Sox: I've made my pro-Lester argument in this space in past weeks, so I'll spare you the boring details, but let's at least update the facts. Outside of a disappointing first three outings to begin the season, Lester has been flat-out dominant; everything his owners could have expected. To that point, since April 23 he leads the majors in wins (11) and strikeouts (110), ranks second in ERA (1.90) and fourth in WHIP (0.97). He might not be your top candidate to lead the majors in WHIP come season's end, but in all the other pertinent categories he's a strong candidate to rank No. 1. In fact, considering his team, he's as safe a bet for 20-plus wins and 225-plus K's that there is in the game.

Mat Latos, San Diego Padres: If only we knew he'd be a safe fantasy pick the rest of the year, but he's on pace for 195 innings, which would be 72 more than he had between the majors and minors combined in 2009, meaning talk of an "innings cap" is sure to increase in intensity in the coming weeks. But let's not take anything away from Latos' accomplishments to date; he's a huge reason the Padres are first in the National League West and have the NL's second-best record overall. He hasn't allowed more than three runs in any start since April 26, has 11 quality starts in 13 tries and a 1.56 ERA, 0.85 WHIP and .167 BAA during that span. The Padres -- and therefore Latos' fantasy owners -- couldn't be faced with a more difficult decision with him as they prepare for the stretch run.

First-half value All-Stars

Latos: He was the 62nd starting pitcher selected on average in ESPN leagues in the preseason, the only pitcher picked outside the top 50 to currently reside in the top 10.

Jaime Garcia
Marc Serota/Getty ImagesJaime Garcia has allowed just four home runs in 99 2/3 innings pitched.

Jaime Garcia, Cardinals: He's the highest-ranked starting pitcher on our Player Rater who went undrafted in ESPN leagues in the preseason, currently residing 24th, and has been yet another Tommy John surgery success story. He's third in the majors in ERA (2.17) and ranks 13th in quality starts (13), despite having been limited to only 37 2/3 innings combined in the minors in 2009. That's the problem: As he was limited to that low an innings total, he's already in excess of 2009's number by 62 frames, and is on pace to exceed it by more than 140. That's why you hear the Cardinals are targeting starting pitching on the trade market, and it's why Garcia's owners -- as happy as they've been with his performance to date -- should seriously temper their expectations in the second half.

Andy Pettitte, New York Yankees: Who would have thought that a 38-year-old pitcher who hasn't had a WHIP under 1.30 in the American League since 1997 and calls a homer-friendly venue his home would put forth one of the best seasons of his entire career, one worthy of the No. 12 spot among starters on the Player Rater? Pettitte's hot start has been somewhat fueled by good fortune, as his BABIP (.265) and strand rate (80.6 percent) represent career bests, and his FIP (3.82) is right in line with the ones he put forth in 2007-09. Still, he's your proverbial "wily veteran," and wins aren't about to become a problem for him, so there's a good chance you're still going to want him in your active lineup the rest of the way, even if his ERA from this date forward is a lot closer to 3.70 than 2.70.

David Price, Tampa Bay Rays: The American League's All-Star starter, Price was the second-lowest-selected starting pitcher of those in the Player Rater's top 10, having been picked 39th. The strength of his team might have had a lot to do with his being picked 23 spots sooner than Latos, but Price has been only barely less valuable, leading the AL in wins (12) and ERA (2.42). Most encouraging: He has only improved of late, with a 2.22 ERA, 1.27 WHIP and 9.25 K's per nine since June 1, and if you have any sort of workload concerns with him, it might ease your mind that he tossed 162 2/3 innings between the majors and minors in 2009, and is on pace for 212 this season. He's no dire concern.

Colby Lewis, Texas Rangers: To think that before he spent 2008-09 in Japan, Lewis was a pitcher with a 6.71 ERA and 1.81 WHIP in 72 career major league appearances. The addition of a cutter to his arsenal, not to mention more polish on all of his pitches, has transformed him into one of the better starters in the AL. He ranks among the top 30 in the game in the four rotisserie categories in which starters contribute -- wins, ERA, WHIP and K's -- despite calling hitter-friendly Rangers Ballpark his home. As time goes by, opponents might get a better read on Lewis' arsenal, and his ratios might rise. But at this point, isn't it clear that he has what it takes to remain a valuable asset all year?

Carl Pavano, Minnesota Twins: He might be the most surprising performer of the first half, after having turned in a 5.06 ERA and 1.41 WHIP while averaging 12 starts per year from 2005-09. Here's a bizarre stat: He's 8-1 with a 2.07 ERA and 0.88 WHIP in 10 starts against teams with a .500-plus winning percentage, so it's clear he seems to crave the pressure. Pavano's performance hasn't been Target Field-driven, as his splits are balanced between home and road, and it's clear that what has helped turn him around has been impeccable command, specifically his career-best 3.94 K-to-walk ratio. If he can stay healthy, he might yet be able to keep his ERA and WHIP within range of where they are currently.

Phil Hughes, Yankees: Though he struggled with a 5.74 ERA and 1.37 WHIP in his final five starts of the first half, then suffered the loss in the All-Star Game, Hughes' first half was still a positive overall. Converted back to the rotation, he won eight of his first 11 starts with a 2.71 ERA and 1.09 WHIP. Overall, he has the fifth-most wins (11) and 26th-best WHIP (1.18). Of course, Hughes has the same risk factor a lot of young pitchers do, that being a possible innings cap, which the Yankees previously had applied to Joba Chamberlain in 2009. Hughes is on pace for 186 regular-season innings; that's 80 2/3 more than he had between the majors and minors last season. One would think he'd get the "Joba Rules" treatment at least to some degree down the stretch.

First-half busts

Dan Haren, Arizona Diamondbacks: Not that he has been devoid of fantasy value, but when you pick a pitcher like this sixth overall at his position, surely you're expecting better than a 4.36 ERA and 1.33 WHIP. He has historically thrived during the season's first half and struggled during the second, but those ratios are actually eerily similar to his career second-half rates, 4.21 and 1.32. Does this mean Haren will simply flip his trend over and dominate the rest of the way? Maybe, but it sure seems that a lot of people don't see it that way.

Javier Vazquez, Yankees: First, we'll talk about the good: the fact that he's 4-2 with a 2.55 ERA, 0.91 WHIP and .172 BAA in eight starts leading into the All-Star break. Unfortunately, while Vazquez has rebounded lately, his first two months were dreadful, including a 6.86 ERA, 1.62 WHIP and .288 BAA, numbers that made it difficult to hop back aboard the bandwagon even after he turned things around. Even if you expected Vazquez's numbers to regress from 2009 back in the AL, did you really expect he'd reside outside the top 50 starters at this point?

Ricky Nolasco, Marlins: Slow starts are nothing new to him; he had a 5.76 ERA and 1.39 WHIP in 16 starts before the All-Star break last season. But while his strong second half in 2009 might bode well for his prospects this year, Nolasco's diminished strikeout rate takes off some of his luster. After averaging 9.49 K's per nine last season, and 8.93 before the break, he has averaged 7.64 so far this year. He's also serving up more fly balls than last year, and therefore more home runs. So much for the idea he'd be a sabermetric steal.

The common thread with the above three: They've each shown signs since June 1 that a return to past performance levels is at least possible. Take a look at their statistics during that time:

Haren: 3.05 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 4.45 K/BB
Vazquez: 2.55 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 2.75 K/BB
Nolasco: 4.44 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 4.55 K/BB

All three pitchers rank among the top 25 starters of the season's second half, and if you still have the opportunity to buy any on the cheap, you should take it.

Jake Peavy, Chicago White Sox: You'd term this one injury-related, except that he managed to stay healthy into July and was one of the most inconsistent starters in the game before being lost for the season. Peavy was 5-for-5 in terms of quality-start performances in June, but before that he had back-to-back quality starts only one other time, and never more than two in a row. The AL, and homer-friendly U.S. Cellular Field, just aren't the ideal fit for him. He was an elite starter with Petco Park as his home; he's only above-average (when healthy) in Chicago.

John Lackey, Red Sox: Those career-worst K's (5.42) and walks (3.66) per nine numbers are terribly disappointing, especially since he came to Boston during the winter advertised as one of the elite pitchers in the AL. Today, he's only an above-average starter, his WHIP soaring to a career-high 1.60. The Red Sox should continue to score him runs, keeping him productive in the win department, but it's no guarantee he'll contribute much in any other category the rest of the way.

Second-half value picks

In addition to the first three "busts," each of whom has a significant amount of buy-low potential -- or at least did a couple of weeks ago, if it's too late in your league -- the following three pitchers are definitely worth targeting:

Gavin Floyd, White Sox: A 7-3 record, 4.09 ERA and 1.33 WHIP in 15 second-half starts in 2008, a 3.49 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 8.26 K's per nine in 12 second-half starts in 2009, and a 1.25 ERA, 0.85 WHIP and .188 BAA in his past seven starts this season. What's not to like? Beyond Floyd's being a prime "buy," his trends are worth keeping in mind when you're preparing for 2011, too.

Scott Baker, Twins: Everything about his peripherals suggests he has been the victim of bad luck, as his 5.00 K-to-walk ratio is by far a career best, while his BABIP of .335 and 12.1 home run/fly ball percentage are both a bit high. Baker has historically been a pitcher who saves his best performances until after the All-Star break; he has had a second-half ERA under 3.50 in each of the past three seasons and WHIP beneath 1.20 in each of the past two.

Brett Anderson, Oakland Athletics: He's as risky as they come because of his elbow injury, but when healthy through the first year-plus of his career, he sure has looked the part of future ace. Anderson's rehabilitation has progressed nicely, he's a ground-ball specialist and his command is superb, so the reward is well worth the investment, especially at the price he'd command right now.

Upgrade your roster

Add: Jordan Zimmermann, Washington Nationals
Drop: John Ely, Los Angeles Dodgers

Speaking of Tommy John surgery returnees, now that the latest, Edinson Volquez, is ready to return to the Cincinnati Reds' rotation, fantasy owners will surely be wondering, "Who's the next such returnee we should track?"

Zimmermann might very well be that man, having begun a rehabilitation assignment with Class A Potomac on July 3, only 11 months after having gone under the knife. That gives him an outside chance at a return this year, something few could possibly have expected at the onset of the season. In fact, The Washington Post reports that the best-case scenario has him back in the majors before August.

That's probably an optimistic timetable, but Zimmermann's progress is positive for two reasons: One, that he can help fantasy owners in NL-only or deep mixed leagues down the stretch. Two, that it gives him an opportunity to get a handful of important innings under his belt, improving his chances at a breakthrough in 2011. Interestingly enough, Zimmermann's return date might nicely coincide with Stephen Strasburg's innings limit; he could very well be the man asked to step into Strasburg's rotation spot once the phenom hits his cap.

As for what Zimmermann might do once healthy, keep in mind this was a pitcher who, as a 22-year-old rookie in 2009, managed 9.07 K's per nine and 2.86 walks per nine while generating ground balls on 43.5 percent of all balls in play. Those are numbers you'd expect from an elite starter, and scouts maintained all along that he has true ace potential, at least once he reaches his prime. Even if Zimmermann is of no help in the short term as he readjusts to the big leagues, he has clear keeper-league potential, and is a must-add in those formats.

Ely, meanwhile, no longer looks likely to recapture the Dodgers' fifth-starter job coming out of the All-Star break. James McDonald has been rumored a candidate for that gig, perhaps due to Ely's 12 runs allowed (11 earned) on 14 hits in five innings in his past two starts. Ely doesn't really seem suited to be a trusted fantasy starter; he's not an elite strikeout pitcher, and his 5.31 ERA and 1.52 WHIP in seven starts versus teams with winning records suggest he lacks the stuff to overpower the more potent bats in the league.

Also consider adding …

James McDonald, Dodgers: Speaking of Ely's potential replacement, McDonald is a higher-upside, albeit higher-risk, option. He has always been a strikeout artist as a pro, averaging 9.69 K's per nine in his minor league career, but to date has yet to show the same level of command at the big league level. It's a shot worth taking in NL-only leagues; in the worst-case scenario, you'll cut him.

Vicente Padilla, Dodgers: He's in a streak of four consecutive quality starts, and at least has matchups potential, judging by his numbers at Dodger Stadium. Since joining the team, he's 4-1 with a 2.66 ERA and 0.93 WHIP in seven starts there.

Michael Pineda, Seattle Mariners: With Cliff Lee now in Texas, the Mariners have a rotation opening, and while Pineda might not be tabbed initially, he could become a candidate with a few weeks' time. He's 10-1 with a 2.72 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in 17 starts between Double- and Triple-A this season, and could have an easier time adapting in a venue like Safeco Field.

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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