September's unsung pitching heroes
Unsung heroes don't always have to be hitters.
Remember the Damaso Marte example from Wednesday's "Hit Parade"? Pitchers can emerge from seemingly nowhere to carry a team, and not only relievers, either. How about Brett Myers for the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies, Anthony Reyes for the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals, or John Lackey for the 2002 Anaheim Angels?
The difference: Starting pitchers tend to be a little more obvious picks, being that at any one time, you've probably got only five -- maybe six if a team is using a six-man rotation or has a top prospect on the verge -- from which to pick. Rotation spots, after all, are pretty prominent roles on a baseball team. In addition, with that few candidates, sometimes there isn't a natural selection on a given team.
But why let that persuade me from trying?
As with "Hit Parade," let's pick one unsung-hero candidate from each of the 30 big league teams. Remember, these aren't necessarily sleepers, nor are they rookies debuting, veterans fresh off injury or disappointing performers finally hitting their stride, but they can be any of those things. These are merely players whose perceived value is beneath what it might be in these final weeks.
Also, as in Wednesday's column, some of these picks might be relevant in every league, some only in the deepest. Here we go!
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.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Joe Saunders (available in 97.5 percent of ESPN leagues). Just as in "Hit Parade," I'm starting on a somewhat sour note, because in no way do I expect Saunders to win any league titles, at least not on his own. But Daniel Hudson is too obvious, Ian Kennedy faces a potential innings cap, and the rest of the Diamondbacks' starters are even riskier. You want no part of Saunders' next two starts: Friday at Colorado's Coors Field, next Wednesday at Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park. But how about his final two turns, which likely will be against the Dodgers? There could be some matchups value.
Atlanta Braves: Jair Jurrjens (available in 25.9 percent). It's a huge pile of obvious on this team, except for the nicked-up Derek Lowe and innings cap-candidate Mike Minor, so I'm going with Jurrjens, who surprisingly is still available in that many standard ESPN leagues. The stats speak for themselves: In 13 starts since returning from a hamstring injury, Jurrjens has seven wins, eight quality starts, a 3.44 ERA, 1.29 WHIP and 2.28 strikeouts-per-walk ratio.
Baltimore Orioles: Brian Matusz (available in 63.4 percent). Of all the Orioles' young starters, he might have the highest ceiling, and he seems to be now coming into his own, winning four consecutive starts with a 2.00 ERA facing a treacherous schedule (versus Texas Rangers, at Chicago White Sox, versus Boston Red Sox, at New York Yankees). Matusz also lacks inning-cap worries; he's an inning shy of his entire 2009 total, and the best he can really do is 35 innings over last year, and that doesn't concern me nor should it his owners.
Boston Red Sox: John Lackey (available in 11.8 percent). No great choices here, but Lackey does have a 3.99 ERA and 7.71 K's-per-nine ratio in 10 starts since the All-Star break, which at least looks more like the Lackey of old than the one who underperformed the first half of this season.
Chicago Cubs: Carlos Zambrano (available in 70.2 percent). I finally get to say something positive about Zambrano, and it's that he's 4-0 with a 1.98 ERA in six starts since returning to the rotation, perhaps motivated to prove he's still a valuable asset coming off his lengthy suspension.
Chicago White Sox: Freddy Garcia (available in 95.2 percent). This guy once won me a league in what was a makeup game on the Monday following the final day of the regular-season schedule in 2008, merely because he struck out just enough hitters in that game (3) to earn me the Rotisserie points I needed, so perhaps I've got a soft spot for him. Garcia is absolutely nothing special at this stage of his career, but there are two things you should remember: He's 5-1 with a 4.13 ERA in 10 starts versus sub-.500 teams this season, and he has a 3.88 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in 11 starts from Sept. 1 forward since 2008.
Cincinnati Reds: Travis Wood (available in 79.1 percent). He has really had only one bad start in his first 12, and the Reds should begin seriously considering him for their postseason rotation. Wood's command is superb for a pitcher this young and with this little big league experience.
Cleveland Indians: Carlos Carrasco (available in 100.0 percent). I'm not a huge fan, but you can't deny he has had back-to-back solid outings with the Indians, coming off a 3.65 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 2.89 K's-per-walk year in 25 starts for Triple-A Columbus. Maybe this former top prospect is finally "getting it"?
Colorado Rockies: Jhoulys Chacin (available in 89.7 percent). So many quality candidates on this staff, but I'm going with Chacin's high ceiling. He has averaged more than a strikeout per frame (9.29 per nine, to be exact) and has quality starts in three of five appearances since his return to the rotation, during which time he faced some hefty competition.
Detroit Tigers: Rick Porcello (available in 65.1 percent). Everything I said about Porcello in last week's "60 Feet 6 Inches" remains true this week, too, and I'm shocked to learn he's still available in this many ESPN leagues.
Florida Marlins: Alex Sanabia (available in 99.4 percent). Sometimes injuries present opportunities, and with Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco currently sidelined, there's a dearth of quality candidates in this rotation, though at the same time that means Sanabia's spot is practically guaranteed the rest of the way. His command is sharp; he has averaged 1.88 walks per nine with the Marlins after 1.74 in the upper minors earlier this year. He might also face the Washington Nationals, New York Mets and Pittsburgh Pirates in three of his final five starts.
Houston Astros: Bud Norris (available in 95.5 percent). It's all about targeting the strikeouts. Among pitchers with 120-plus innings, Norris ranks 10th in K's-per-nine (9.22) and ninth both in terms of lowest contact percentage (76.0) and swinging strike percentage (10.6). Felipe Paulino had numbers a bit like this in 2009, and Paulino, before getting hurt, had a couple decent outings this year.
Kansas City Royals: Kyle Davies (available in 99.8 percent). I was tempted to skip this team, but Davies does have this juicy stat: He's 8-1 with a 1.81 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in nine starts after Sept. 1 since 2008.
Los Angeles Angels: Trevor Bell (available in 99.6 percent). Well, it sure wasn't going to be Scott Kazmir, because people still seem to love him (owned in 30.4 percent of ESPN leagues) despite his ugly year-to-date numbers. So why not Bell, who has a 2.95 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in his past three starts facing soft matchups, and might see a few more of them down the stretch?
Los Angeles Dodgers: Vicente Padilla (available in 93.9 percent). In no way do you want him active in a road start, but Padilla has a 2.66 ERA and 0.92 WHIP in 16 career games (10 starts) at Dodger Stadium, and three of his final five starts project to be at that venue.
Milwaukee Brewers: Chris Narveson (available in 98.6 percent): It's more strikeout speculation, as he has 23 whiffs in his past 20 1/3 innings. Narveson also has a 3.95 ERA in 10 second-half starts, so don't be afraid to pick his matchups.
Minnesota Twins: Kevin Slowey (available in 61.2 percent). A triceps injury might have persuaded many of his owners to give up hope of a strong finish, but Slowey made a swift recovery and will be in a dogfight for postseason-rotation spots the remainder of the year. While he's hittable -- .280 career batting average against, .278 this year -- it's his command, evidenced by a 4.45 K's-per-walk ratio in his career and 3.64 this year, that helps him keep his WHIP in check.
New York Mets: Jenrry Mejia (available in 99.6 percent). He's widely considered the Mets' top prospect, and he'll get a chance to strut his stuff in the rotation the rest of the way. Such untested arms are high-risk, but who couldn't love the 1.28 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 9.57 K's-per-nine ratio he had in nine starts after he was returned to the minors to convert back from relief in June?
New York Yankees: Ivan Nova (available in 93.0 percent). The Yankees are keeping him on a tight leash -- no more than six innings in any of his four starts thus far -- but in the past month he has outpitched such widely owned fantasy names as A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes and Javier Vazquez. With Hughes facing an innings cap, Nova should continue to get assignments in this rotation.
Oakland Athletics: Dallas Braden (available in 65.4 percent). The top four A's starters -- meaning Vin Mazzaro excluded -- are all well worth owning in the majority of fantasy leagues, so I'll pick the one who is least owned of that bunch. Give Braden a mulligan for his poor recent outing; he was coming off a shortened start in New York due to leg cramps, one that started on a high note. Consider that from July 25 to Sept. 2, he was 5-3 with a 2.35 ERA and 0.84 WHIP in eight starts.
Philadelphia Phillies: Joe Blanton (available in 70.2 percent). His performance hasn't been entirely bad this season. Did you know that, since the All-Star break, Blanton has eight quality starts, a 3.67 ERA, 1.38 WHIP and 7.21 K's-per-nine ratio in 11 starts? Plus, having a now-healthy lineup backing him should improve his output in the win column in September.
Pittsburgh Pirates: James McDonald (available in 99.6 percent). More strikeout speculation, because when it comes to Pirates starters, what else generates much excitement? McDonald has 40 K's in 41 innings in his seven starts for his new team, and he was always a whiff king in the minors (9.69 K's per nine).
St. Louis Cardinals: Jake Westbrook (available in 93.9 percent). Since joining the Cardinals, where he has been united with pitching guru Dave Duncan, Westbrook has a 3.89 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 4.50 K's-per-walk ratio in seven starts. So why isn't he owned in more ESPN leagues? Simple: He has one win despite six quality starts, but you'd have to think things like that even out over time.
San Diego Padres: Clayton Richard (available in 53.7 percent). Few people seem to understand how automatic a play he is in starts at Petco Park. He's 10-4 with a 2.62 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in 21 career starts there.
San Francisco Giants: Madison Bumgarner (available in 82.7 percent). It's sort of a process-of-elimination pick more than it is an endorsement of him having a huge September, because Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Jonathan Sanchez are too obvious, while Barry Zito is in the midst of a dreadful funk.
Seattle Mariners: Luke French (available in 96.6 percent). He's shaping up as a prime matchups candidate, with seven wins, a 3.52 ERA and 1.36 WHIP in 13 career games (10 starts) against sub-.500 teams. Unfortunately, the Mariners' schedule really lacks a lot of prime matchups; they have six more games against the Texas Rangers and three apiece against the Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays. But hey, I said I'd pick a pitcher from each team, right?
Tampa Bay Rays: Wade Davis (available in 52.1 percent). Someone has to be the Rays' No. 4 starter in the playoffs, and Davis might have the edge right now. He's 2-0 with a 4.00 ERA and 1.33 WHIP in three starts since returning from the disabled list, and his September 2009 statistics encourage as well: He had a 3.72 ERA and 1.27 WHIP in six starts in the season's final month.
Texas Rangers: Derek Holland (available in 98.2 percent). Now back in the Rangers' rotation, Holland, one of the team's most talented up-and-comers, might play an integral role for the team down the stretch, perhaps giving the Rangers something to think about come playoff time when they're seeking a fourth starter. Before you dismiss him by citing his 5.71 career big league ERA, remember how difficult it is to adapt to this level of competition, not to mention Holland faces a steeper climb than your average pitcher because his home ballpark is a bandbox. He dominated Triple-A ball earlier this year, with a 1.87 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in 11 starts, and his 2.32 K's-per-walk ratio as a big leaguer is an encouraging sign.
Toronto Blue Jays: Brett Cecil (available in 79.7 percent). You might remember him as a pitcher with whom I have innings-cap concerns. Still, there has been nary a whisper about him being shut down early, and Cecil continues to string together quality start after quality start. There's no better demonstration of his moxie than this: He's 7-2 with a 2.37 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 10 starts versus the Rays, Red Sox and Yankees this season.
Washington Nationals: Jordan Zimmermann (available in 98.4 percent). For a pitcher fresh off Tommy John surgery, Zimmerman's command has been surprisingly sharp; he has averaged three strikeouts per walk in his first three starts back with the Nationals. You'll need to be careful with his individual matchups and I'm more bullish on him next year than this, but who's to say he can't be a worthwhile plug-in against the Marlins, Astros and Mets?
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.