Commentary

September starter studs and duds

Good news for Bronson Arroyo, Ted Lilly; bad news for Dan Haren, Matt Garza

Updated: September 1, 2010, 3:04 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Some pitchers were just born to pitch facing pennant-chase pressure.

Just ask CC Sabathia a little about that. Since 2005, no pitcher with 100-plus innings pitched in the regular season after Sept. 1 has a lower ERA than his 2.27 in the season's final month, his 16-win tally is tied for first, his 1.03 WHIP ranks second and his 195 strikeouts places third. Sabathia also holds one other remarkable distinction: He's the only pitcher to have made five or more regular-season starts after that date in each of the past five seasons while maintaining a sub-4.00 ERA in the season's final month.

CC Sabathia
John O'Boyle/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireNot surprisingly, CC Sabathia knows how to be a dominant pitcher in September.

But none of this should surprise you because Sabathia's pretty darned good, and when it comes to pitching, everyone loves an ace in the season's final month. They're the ones who have carried you this far; they're the ones who typically have pushed their real-life teams into playoff position so that their remaining games actually matter; and they're the ones who usually lack workload concerns. On that last point, in other words, they're the complete antithesis of the pitchers we discussed in last week's edition.

They're also usually the ones who top the September leaderboards, picking up the same discussion we started with Tuesday's "Hit Parade," examining September (and brief regular-season action in October) splits. Why is that? For one thing, monthly pitching splits are considerably tinier sample sizes than monthly hitting splits, as pitchers traditionally don't work more than five or six times in a month. In addition, aces tend to be the ones who continue to pile up five-start months over the course of a given season, or better, span of several seasons.

To illustrate, consider that most of the leaders in the prominent Rotisserie categories in the month of September from 2005 to 2009 are familiar names: Sabathia, Zack Greinke, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Johan Santana.

I'm presuming you don't need me to tell you that Halladay is -- and will continue to be the remainder of the year -- one of the top starting pitchers in baseball, primarily because if you do, you're probably not reading this anyway and rather are busy trying to determine whether Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers is the better starting quarterback for your fantasy football team.

But sprinkled in among the aces are a few out-of-nowhere September gems, guys whose names you hear that might generate the reaction, "Huh, him a September stud? Go figure." Understand up front that a few of these pitchers lack the every-single-September record of dominance and might have had only two or three outstanding final months and that, when it comes to pitching, the truth is that anyone could string together a five-start, standout month. This list isn't designed to populate your pitching staff in September. It's to remind you which pitchers might be saving their best efforts for last.

As with "Hit Parade," you can also see full charts of September studs and duds at column's end.

September studs

Bronson Arroyo, Cincinnati Reds: Since becoming a full-time starter in 2004, he has a winning record from Sept. 1 forward every year and a sub-4.00 ERA in the month in five of six seasons. For his career, Arroyo is 21-9 with a 3.22 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in 55 games (44 starts) after that date, 12-6 in the past four seasons alone with a 2.74 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in 24 starts. Of course, most of the time he had been pitching without the pressures of a playoff race, but he was successful in 2004 with the Boston Red Sox, with a 3-0 record and 3.89 ERA in seven starts. The Reds have good reason to be pleased with him as one of their top starters.

Jorge De La Rosa
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireJorge De La Rosa hasn't allowed more than three runs in any start since July 22.

Jorge De La Rosa, Colorado Rockies: He's traditionally a second-half pitcher, anyway, but the past two Septembers, he was nothing short of outstanding; he was 7-1 with a 2.84 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 9.18 strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio in 12 starts combined in the season's final month in 2008-09. His September 2006 wasn't bad, either: He had a 3.27 ERA in four turns. Don't declare this Rockies team out of the race, especially not with under-the-radar arms like De La Rosa's. After all, he has a 3.14 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and 8.71 K/9 ratio in his past eight starts.

Scott Kazmir, Los Angeles Angels: Would it shock you to learn that, of any pitcher with 100-plus regular-season innings after Sept. 1 the past five seasons, Kazmir has the fifth-best ERA (2.56)? Well, how about the fact that his WHIP in that time was 1.19, nearly a quarter-point beneath his overall career number in the category? Kazmir posted an ERA of 2.03 or better (minimum five starts) in the Septembers of 2005, 2007 and 2009, and perhaps that's the glimmer of hope his fantasy owners have down the stretch. He does, after all, have a 4.33 ERA in five starts since returning from the disabled list, which isn't entirely horrible.

Ted Lilly, Los Angeles Dodgers: He has been fantastic for the Dodgers thus far, winning five of six starts with a 3.29 ERA and 0.89 WHIP, but there's even more reason to be pleased with his circumstances if you consider that he's one of the best September pitchers in the game. From Sept. 1 onward the past four seasons, he's 13-5 with a 2.80 ERA and 0.96 WHIP in 22 starts, and remember that three of those seasons came while he was with the Chicago Cubs, with their hitter-friendly home ballpark, and the other was with the Toronto Blue Jays, in the more hitter-friendly league. The Dodgers might struggle to give him run support, but Lilly appears one of the safer ERA/WHIP/K's bets the rest of the way.

Ervin Santana, Los Angeles Angels: Yes, he has struggled lately, his 5.59 ERA and 1.49 WHIP in six August starts is a bit disconcerting as we head into these final weeks, but Santana's September history has been strong, certainly strong enough to lend hope that he'll contribute in coming weeks. His lifetime 3.71 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in September represent his best in any month, and not once after Sept. 1 has he registered a WHIP higher than 1.28 in five seasons. Of course, the other side of the argument is that Santana's best Septembers came when his team had playoff aspirations and the Angels don't this year, but hey, monthly splits aren't an exact science.

Others to consider: Homer Bailey, Freddy Garcia, Wade LeBlanc, Jon Lester, Anibal Sanchez and Randy Wolf.

September duds

Matt Garza, Tampa Bay Rays: Wow, for a guy who had a tremendous postseason in 2008, Garza's lifetime September statistics are shockingly disappointing, as he's 5-10 with a 4.70 ERA and 1.53 WHIP in 22 career games (21 starts) in the month. In his defense, his ERA was 3.92 and his WHIP 1.28 after Sept. 1 last season, but each of those is still higher than his numbers in the categories to date this season, so there's reason to be at least a little troubled. His team is going to play a lot of Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays games the rest of the regular season, and those are three potent offenses.

Dan Haren
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireDan Haren's numbers have improved since joining the Angels, but can he keep that up with his team out of contention?

Dan Haren, Los Angeles Angels: If it hasn't happened for him yet this season, I'm a firm believer that it never will. Haren, after all, is historically a second-half stiff -- "stiff" referring more to his being significantly less productive after the All-Star break than before it rather than to his being a complete cut candidate after the break -- and at no other time has that been more evident than in September. His career WHIP in the month is 1.37, his highest of any month, and he's a sub-.500 pitcher after Sept. 1 (10-15, .400 winning percentage). Perhaps pitching for noncontenders in September for most of his career has an impact on his performance, but lo and behold, his Angels aren't contenders, either. Maybe you can count on another 4.00 ERA and 1.35 WHIP from him the rest of the season, but that's surely not what you were expecting when you acquired him.

Edwin Jackson, Chicago White Sox: It's a little unfair, yes, to criticize Jackson for what effectively is one bad September that completed his only truly standout fantasy season in his first seven in the bigs, that coming in 2009, but that he had a 6.14 ERA and 1.45 WHIP from this date forward last season cannot be cast aside, either. The truth is that Jackson, who has underperformed for most of his career, has had particularly bloated stats in September, with a lifetime 6.21 ERA and 1.67 WHIP in 39 games (27 starts), and ERAs north of 6 in each of the four Septembers in which he made at least four starts. Maybe he's a little more suited this season than last to hold up down the stretch, but I look at the White Sox's remaining schedule, which has a lot of Red Sox, Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins on it, and I can't see him being more than a matchups option the rest of the way.

Josh Johnson, Florida Marlins: His August -- 1-2 record, 4.46 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 6.94 K/9 ratio -- was a bit of a letdown, and if you're familiar with his track record in September, you have reason to be concerned. Johnson has a 4.38 ERA and 1.51 WHIP in 18 career games (15 starts) in the month, and in each of the past two seasons, his ERA was north of 4 and his WHIP at least 1.42. Maybe if there's a knock on him, it's that he lacks the endurance to pitch at a Cy Young level for six consecutive months of 200-plus innings? It wouldn't be a damning weakness, but it'd be understandable for a pitcher who has a bit of a checkered health history.

Jonathan Sanchez, San Francisco Giants: He has managed a breakthrough campaign that deserves heaps of credit, but his track record shows a pitcher who tends to wear out once September arrives. In his career, he has a 6.42 ERA and 1.56 WHIP in 21 games (20 starts) after Sept. 1, those numbers easily his worst in any single month, although, in his defense, a 4.14 ERA and 1.30 WHIP in seven starts last September offer a glimmer of hope. My concern with Sanchez is that, in addition to his lifetime final-month numbers, he has regressed slightly in his past five starts, posting a 4.25 ERA and turning in two poor outings (Aug. 8 at Atlanta, Aug. 24 versus Reds). He's also on pace to throw a career-high 3,249 pitches and ranks among the top 15 in baseball in pitches per plate appearance, meaning his workload is higher than ever this year. Approach with slight caution.

Others to consider as duds: Nick Blackburn, Joe Blanton, Jeremy Bonderman, Tom Gorzelanny, Edinson Volquez, Tim Wakefield and Barry Zito.

Four up

Dallas Braden, Oakland Athletics: He tossed an absolute gem in his most recent outing, a four-hit shutout at Texas' Rangers Ballpark and, most amazingly, did it with only one strikeout while serving up 16 fly balls. It's only the 12th time a visiting pitcher has tossed a shutout at that venue; David Wells did it twice. It also represented Braden's fourth consecutive quality start and sixth in his past seven turns; he's 5-2 with a 2.41 ERA and 0.84 WHIP in those seven starts despite striking out only 26 hitters in 52 1/3 innings. He might be a pitch-to-contact type -- his K/9 ratio ranks 18th lowest among 100 qualified starters -- but if you're going to be that, calling Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum home is the way to go. Sure enough, Braden has a 3.48 ERA there between this season and last.

Rick Porcello, Detroit Tigers: Someone please make sure that A.J. Sager and Jon Matlack, the pitching gurus for the Tigers' Triple-A affiliate in Toledo, are properly rewarded with promotions this winter because if their work with Porcello and Max Scherzer in brief stints earlier this year is any indication, they're pitching geniuses akin to St. Louis Cardinals whiz Dave Duncan. Armed with a refined slider/cutter -- a slider he throws with a cutter grip -- Porcello has six quality starts in nine tries since his recall, and a 4.06 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in those nine games. He's also a winner of back-to-back games in which he had a 0.64 ERA and limited opponents to a .109 batting average. Scherzer, meanwhile, is 9-5 with a 2.20 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 9.43 K/9 ratio in 17 starts since his brief stint working with Sager and Matlack. Wonders, those two have performed.

James Shields, Tampa Bay Rays: His enigmatic season continues as he's the winner of three consecutive starts, two of those versus the potent Texas Rangers and Boston offenses, in which time he has a 2.75 ERA and 1.12 WHIP. Those represent two of the four best offenses in the American League; toss in the New York Yankees, who rank No. 1, and Shields is 5-3 with a 3.53 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 10 starts versus three of the four best AL offenses. That might make him more unpredictable than a fantasy owner would like, but remember that the Rays will face a lot of Red Sox and Yankees down the stretch, so it's good to see he's successful against those squads. Shields is still a clear must-start-at-home, however, with a 3.59 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in 76 career starts at Tropicana Field.

Jordan Zimmermann, Washington Nationals: His first start fresh off Tommy John surgery wasn't anything special -- five runs on seven hits in four innings versus Cardinals -- but his second start was nothing short of phenomenal. He shut out the Marlins for six innings on one hit, striking out nine without walking a single batter. That gives him 13 strikeouts compared with one walk in 10 innings in his first two turns, command numbers even more impressive than his 3.17:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio of his pre-surgery rookie year of 2009. Zimmermann can help you right now, and if he continues at this pace, he absolutely will be a candidate as one of the biggest breakthroughs of 2011.

Four down

A.J. Burnett, New York Yankees: He's lucky to still have his rotation spot, whereas fellow Yankees right-hander Javier Vazquez is mired in middle relief. To put Burnett's performance this season into perspective, consider that his year-to-date ERA is 5.17, the highest his year-to-date ERA has been after the All-Star break in any season of his career except for when he had a 5.73 ERA in July 2000, at a point when he had only two starts for the year under his belt. Burnett was pummeled in August, going 0-4 with a 7.80 ERA, 1.70 WHIP and .311 batting average allowed in five starts, and among the disturbing underlying stats in that time span were these: 6.3 swing-and-miss percentage, 92.8 mph fastball velocity, per Pitch Fx, the latter a couple of ticks beneath his usual number (mid-93s). Burnett might not be far from a demotion to middle relief himself.

Tommy Hanson, Atlanta Braves: He's coming off back-to-back poor outings, and although earlier in the year, his "adjustment period" still exhibited impressive command ratios, his numbers in that regard have slipped in his recent cold spell. For instance, from May 1 to June 30, when his ERA was 5.61 and WHIP 1.51 in 11 starts, he averaged 8.41 K's and 3.10 walks per nine innings. In six starts in the month of August, however, his K/9 ratio is 5.17 and walks per nine 2.35, which suggests that this recent funk might be more than a simple adjustment. Workload can't be the reason; he tossed 193 2/3 frames between the majors and minors last year and is at 158 so far this year. Maybe it's a "dead arm" period?

Cliff Lee, Texas Rangers: Things have not gone well for Lee in Texas thus far. With Tuesday's 4 2/3-inning, 10-hit, seven-run (four earned) nightmare at Kansas City, the left-hander is 2-5 with a 4.69 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 11 starts since the Rangers acquired him. He has pitched especially poorly lately; he's 0-3 with a 9.00 ERA and 1.70 WHIP in his past four starts. Perhaps that's the reason Lee will get an extra day's rest before his next turn; he won't pitch again until Sept. 6, which means five days' rest this time through the rotation. Is his workload getting to him? As pointed out in The Dallas Morning News, Lee is averaging 7.68 innings per start, the most by any qualified starter since 1999 (Randy Johnson, 7.76). That he is also averaging 12 K's per walk in his Rangers tenure, however, seems to suggest otherwise. Whatever the cause, though, it's a real frustration for his owners.

Jeff Niemann, Tampa Bay Rays: That's back-to-back poor outings for Niemann, who before that spent a brief time on the disabled list with shoulder soreness. Between his past two starts, he has allowed 17 runs on 15 hits and five walks in 8 1/3 innings. The Rays might have no choice but to keep giving Niemann chances, what with Jeremy Hellickson working in relief in Class A ball, but that doesn't mean the right-hander's fantasy owners should. Don't be surprised if there needs to be some discussion of Niemann's being dropped from the rotation because it's not unthinkable that his shoulder is still an issue.

Upgrade your roster

Add: Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
Drop: Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals

Strasburg's status was one of the big stories of the week, but it's bad news; he's set for Tommy John surgery on Friday. He'll miss the remainder of this season and perhaps all of next year, save for his making as speedy a recovery as fellow Nationals right-hander Jordan Zimmermann. With Strasburg lost, his fantasy owners in redraft leagues, obviously, can drop him, but those in keeper leagues have a conundrum: Is he worth keeping around for the possibility he'll help in 2012?

Base your decision on these factors: What's his keeper price in your league; how many spots do you get for keepers; and how many years can you keep the pitcher? For example, keeper-league owners whose leagues allow unlimited years at a $5 increase in salary might be talking about a $5 (or $10) Strasburg who won't help in 2011, but only a $10 (or $15) Strasburg in 2012, which might be worth it. That said, that's still a tiny portion of keeper leagues out there, and, in the vast majority of keeper formats, he's safe to let go.

Chapman, another young phenom, might be the perfect replacement for a Strasburg owner, and that includes those in redraft formats. You probably already have heard the reports of his hitting 104-105 mph on the radar gun with Triple-A Louisville this past weekend, but if you watched any of his big league debut Tuesday, you probably noticed he threw one 102 mph fastball in what was a 1-2-3 eighth inning. Chapman should be immediately thrust into a prominent setup role, and NL-only owners might get a boost in ERA/WHIP/K's from him.

Also consider adding …
Ivan Nova, New York Yankees: Back-to-back solid outings probably have him close to a permanent rotation spot with the Yankees, whether it's in place of Burnett, Vazquez or the struggling Dustin Moseley. Nova pitched well in Triple-A, too; he was 12-3 with a 2.86 ERA and 1.26 WHIP in 23 starts there.
Alex Sanabia, Florida Marlins: He breezed through Double- and Triple-A ball earlier this season, and so far with the Marlins, he has held his own. Sanabia's stuff isn't top-shelf, but his command is superb, evidenced by a 1.88 BB/9 ratio. As a member of the National League East, Sanabia should face a few more light-hitting lineups while working in pitching-friendly venues.
Carlos Zambrano, Chicago Cubs: He's another matchups candidate, but don't make the mistake of assuming he's a safe choice for every remaining start. Since his return to the rotation, Zambrano is 3-0 with a 1.84 ERA in five starts, but don't overlook that he also has 20 walks in 29 1/3 innings.

Best and worst September/October pitchers

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.

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