Commentary

Momentum rankings for pitchers

Updated: August 4, 2010, 5:37 PM ET
By AJ Mass | ESPN.com

Fear not! Pitchers can have momentum, too. Tuesday in "Hit Parade," we discussed how creating a ranking based upon year-to-date statistics does not help one predict future performance, outside of giving one the impression -- whether rightly or wrongly -- that certain hitters are "better" than others. The same holds true for starting pitchers.

The ESPN Player Rater does a good job in telling you who has put up the best fantasy numbers, given their basic statistics. However, that rarely tells you the whole story. Let's face it, luck and circumstance play a part in every season. Some pitchers win game after game, yet seem to be doing it with smoke and mirrors. Others seem to simply be snakebit. Two pitchers can each allow only six baserunners over nine innings, but whereas one hurls a shutout, the other loses 4-3 because all of his mistakes took place in a single frame. It happens. Momentum is an attempt to identify which pitcher is which.

Consider the following "blind taste test" of pitchers. Given the four sets of stats below, who would you think has had the best season so far?

Pitcher A: .216 BAA, 9.24 K/9, 1.02 WHIP
Pitcher B: .215 BAA, 8.60 K/9, 1.13 WHIP
Pitcher C: .240 BAA, 7.07 K/9, 1.10 WHIP
Pitcher D: .242 BAA, 7.35 K/9, 1.17 WHIP

Obviously, statistics are never a perfect indicator of success, but clearly one wouldn't fault you for expecting Pitchers A and B to have done better than Pitchers C and D, given these numbers -- and yet, Pitcher D has been much better than either Pitcher B or C.

Pitcher A: Josh Johnson (No. 3 on ESPN Player Rater SP rankings)
Pitcher B: Colby Lewis (No. 23)
Pitcher C: Jamie Moyer (No. 69)
Pitcher D: Chris Carpenter (No. 10)

Yet momentum considers each of these pitchers to be exactly what the Player Rater says they are. With the exception of the injured Moyer, expect these guys to finish 2010 just as they started. That's not the case with every pitcher though and we've listed some of the biggest expected movers in the tables below.

To review: A positive momentum indicates that for the remainder of the season, one should expect these pitchers to achieve a level of success greater than they have managed so far in 2010. In other words, when comparing their to-date numbers with their numbers from this point forward, they are projected to see improvement, given the assumption that baseline skills do not change.

Conversely, those with a negative momentum may have been more lucky than good, as their underlying numbers should not have resulted in their current level of success. Now, a pitcher can be awful and still have a negative momentum. That merely indicates that they are likely to be even more of a disappointment going forward. It doesn't negate the "bad" up until now.

Here's a list of a few of the players with the best current momentum numbers. Remember, the bigger the momentum, the better (as opposed to a Player Ranker ranking in which the lower number is best).

Let's be honest: Three Yankees on this list simply speaks to the fact that if you are wearing pinstripes, strike out seven batters a game, and hold the opposing lineup to five runs or less, chances are you'll get enough run support to win. Hold them to three runs, and your fantasy value skyrockets. Mike Pelfrey is not as good as the 1.51 ERA in his 10 wins, but is far closer to that pitcher than the one with a 12.00 ERA in his five losses. Overall, he should improve.

Not a lot of surprises in our second list, as Cliff Lee, now in Texas, and Dan Haren, so-called master of the second-half swoon, are among the pitchers with the worst momentum. Also in the mix are Zack Greinke and Felix Hernandez, who both play for teams that simply do not win.

Remember, nobody is suggesting you go out and trade Cliff Lee for Jon Garland based on momentum. Momentum does not predict overall value, it only projects a direction for that value to move over the next segment of time. However, if you're wavering between two pitchers of equal value and one is "on the way up" while the other is "on the way down," perhaps momentum can be your guide.

Four up

Gio Gonzalez, Oakland Athletics: Forget any concerns you might have had about his leg. Gonzalez is fine, and over time, if you strike out 11 batters and walk none, you're going to win more often than you lose. He's just got to start spreading out the bad pitches over several innings, rather than collecting them all at once, and his stock will soar.

R.A. Dickey, New York Mets: Since June 23, he's won in Arizona. He's stared down Albert Pujols and company, and held them scoreless. Heck, he even posted nothing but goose eggs against Miguel Cabrera and a then-healthy Detroit Tigers team. Time to buy in.

C.J. Wilson, Texas Rangers: Wilson continues to do a good job of minimizing the number of fly balls he allows. In fact, his team is 7-1 when he keeps the ball on the ground more than in the air. In his last outing against the Athletics, he won despite burning through 105 pitches in less than six innings, showing he doesn't need to have his best stuff to be successful.

Aaron Harang, Cincinnati Reds: He's been on the disabled list with back spasms, but is finally throwing off a mound again without any discomfort. Sure, he's still going to have to get through a rehab assignment before he starts to earn any fantasy points, but for the first time in a long time, there's reason to be optimistic.

Four down

Rick Porcello, Detroit Tigers: Perhaps the 15 earned runs allowed over 7 2/3 combined innings in two recent games against the Chicago White Sox could be overlooked if he were able to beat any other team, but with six straight losses surrounding his June demotion to the minors, it's hard to find a silver lining here.

Jair Jurrjens, Atlanta Braves: Can't this guy pitch outside of Atlanta? What happens to Jurrjens on the road? He's 0-4 with a 7.63 ERA, and opposing hitters have a batting average 33 points higher against him in those games. That type of consistency is simply not something to be desired.

Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals: The good news is that Strasburg is scheduled to start Tuesday and is showing no signs that his shoulder has any lingering issues from the inflammation that placed him on the disabled list. The bad news is that the next time he feels even the slightest tweak, the Nationals are sure to shut him down for the rest of 2010 without a moment's hesitation. And even if he's totally healthy the rest of the way, he's got roughly 40 to 50 innings left before the Nationals shut him down.

J.A. Happ, Houston Astros: Happ looked great in his Astros debut, and lately the Houston lineup has been unstoppable. It's fool's gold. The bats will return to their icy slumber, and as for Happ, don't forget that there's a reason he has only made four starts in 2010 -- that arm of his is still very tender.

Upgrade your roster

Add: Doug Fister, Seattle Mariners
Drop: Carlos Silva, Chicago Cubs

Throw out Fister's record. He had a 2.03 ERA on May 26, but then shoulder woes forced him to the disabled list. He's only recently getting back up to speed, allowing three earned runs or fewer in each of his past three outings. Wins may be hard to come by, especially with just 3.26 runs per game of support so far this season, but at least he gives the Mariners a fighting chance.

Carlos Silva, although he has been a terrific surprise this season, was placed on the disabled list with an irregular heartbeat. That's a frightening thing, and unlike a pulled muscle or broken bone, there's no way to know the timetable for his return. It could be immediate, or it could end his season. While we certainly hope it's the former, at this stage of the fantasy season, you simply can't afford to assume it won't be the latter.

Also consider adding
Chris Volstad, Florida Marlins: Volstad has 10 quality starts this season, which makes up more than half of his outings. Certainly, that's not what anyone would consider reliable, but when all you're doing is looking for a spot starter or perhaps the fifth man in your fantasy rotation in a deep league, it's more than you should expect to be on the waiver wire.

News and Notes

Jeremy Hellickson, Tampa Bay Rays: Although he had a very impressive debut -- seven innings pitched, allowing only two earned runs and three hits in a win over the Minnesota Twins -- don't be so quick to snatch him off the waiver wire. He has already been sent down to Triple-A and manager Joe Maddon has gone on record that when Hellickson returns in September when rosters expand, it will be as a reliever.

Carlos Zambrano, Chicago Cubs: Remember him? After blowing up in the dugout during his last start back on June 25, and a few so-so appearances out of the 'pen against the Colorado Rockies this past weekend, Big Z is finally back in his team's good graces enough to get another chance in the rotation. He's expected to be on the hill Monday against the San Francisco Giants, but keep in mind he'll be on a pitch count of around 75 pitches, so one tough inning could be his last.

AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can follow AJ on Twitter or e-mail him here.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is on vacation and will return to '60 Feet, 6 Inches' next week.

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