Commentary

The second time around

Updated: May 3, 2011, 4:03 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Wednesday represents an important day in projecting the remainder of Michael Pineda's rookie season.

60 Feet 6 Inches

That is the day Pineda, for the first time in his big league career, faces a specific opponent for a second time: He battles the Texas Rangers, whom he limited to three runs on five hits in six innings in his major league debut on April 5, a quality start albeit statistically his worst to date -- he's been that good.

(As an aside, another young, first-time starter will face the same opponent for the second time during that series: Alexi Ogando, who faces Pineda's Seattle Mariners on Tuesday.)

That's right, the proverbial "second time around the league" has arrived for Pineda, and with it, questions to be answered. Among them: Are the five starts he has made enough exposure to have provided opponents a detailed scouting report, full of weaknesses to exploit? Will hitters be more prepared to catch up to his mid-to-high-90s fastball the more times they have seen it?

How about this for a counterargument: Is there really such a thing as a "second time around the league"?

People tend to casually toss such arguments around, often without having first seen a shred of supporting evidence. In the case of the proverbial "second time," many of us accept this notion that younger -- typically rookie -- pitchers struggle the second and third times they face a specific opponent early in their careers. We'll hear -- often instinctively regurgitate -- comments like, "Well, the league now has a book on so-and-so." It's that concept of there being a "book" on a particular pitcher, an endless novel crafted with every pitch he throws, that grips us, grabs us, drives our decision-making. By all rights it's possible, that perhaps it's rooted in fact.

But what if this book is a work of fiction?

To discover the answer, I examined the performances of 230 rookie pitchers from the past decade (2001-10), looking only for statistics accumulated against opponents they faced multiple times during their rookie seasons. (A caveat: If the pitcher made a few token starts preceding his rookie campaign, without expiring his "rookie" eligibility, I lumped those outings in with his rookie year.) A few ground rules: Pitchers must have made at least 10 starts as a rookie, and no statistics from seasons after a pitcher had expired his rookie eligibility were included. This is a pure rookie-year study -- as rookies are as likely to endure adjustment periods as any pitcher, plus Pineda is, naturally, also a rookie.

Here's how those 230 pitchers fared each time they faced a familiar foe:

As simply as that, you might conclude that, yes, there's absolutely something to the notion of a "second time around." The theory has its merits; the statistics, right there in black and white, back it up. If you're interested in a general, across-the-board analysis, then yes, in general it's the truth.

I'm not so interested in a general feel. I want something more, some specifics, something that is representative of the type of pitcher Pineda is, rather than lumping him in with every other pitcher that has ever toed a mound.

So I further classified these rookies into styles of pitcher: finesse pitchers, which for this exercise was the 37 pitchers who managed a 2.50 walks-per-nine innings ratio or better during their rookie seasons, and power pitchers, the 37 pitchers who managed an 8.00 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio or greater during Year No. 1. To give you a few specific examples of pitchers who resided in either of these groups, Madison Bumgarner, Zack Greinke, Jered Weaver and Travis Wood were four notable names in the "finesse" group, while Josh Beckett, Matt Cain, Jhoulys Chacin and CC Sabathia were four in the "power" group. Felix Hernandez, Francisco Liriano, Roy Oswalt and Stephen Strasburg were classified as both.

The splits between these two groups was stark:

"Finesse" pitchers (2.50 BB/9 or lower)

"Power" pitchers (8.00 K/9 or higher)

The power pitchers, judging by the numbers, showed little to no variance between initial and subsequent meetings with the same opponent. The finesse pitchers, meanwhile, got progressively worse with each battle, and while their quality-start percentage did improve in start No. 2, they did demonstrate a higher likelihood of meltdowns in those outings, and for the most part completely collapsed when they faced the same foe three or more times.

Incidentally, if you're wondering whether the finesse group's numbers might have been skewed by a few particularly poor outings by some of the least-talented rookies of the past decade, consider this: Jered Weaver, who was phenomenal as a rookie (11-2 record, 2.56 ERA in 2006), had his three worst outings of that season against teams he had faced previously in the year. In addition, four of Travis Wood's seven worst outings of 2010 (he had a 3.51 ERA and 1.08 WHIP as a rookie) came in subsequent meetings against familiar opponents. Ultimately, the stats say that if you didn't get by on strikeouts as a rookie, you faced a steeper learning curve.

Michael Pineda, by any description, is a power pitcher who thrives on strikeouts.

Here's another narrowing of that group of 230 that might interest Pineda's owners: I also broke them down by the 25 who had the highest average game score in their first 10 career big league starts. Why that? It's simple: Pineda has an average game score of 62.0 in his first five turns, which would rank him third among that group (reminding, obviously, that the rest of the group had 10 starts). Among the pitchers ranked near him: Felix Hernandez (63.1), Jeremy Guthrie (62.6), Brandon Webb (62.0) and Jered Weaver (61.6), so Pineda is in pretty exclusive company.

Here's how the "hot starters" fared in initial and subsequent meetings:

You might regard this data as a negative, but it's also important to remember how valuable a 3.67 ERA, 1.27 WHIP and 7.16 K's-per-nine ratio -- the group's numbers in meeting No. 2 -- actually are. Heck, last season, in the so-called "Year of the Pitcher," the major league averages for starting pitchers in those categories was 4.16, 1.34 and 6.76. In addition, in defense of those numbers, regression to the mean had to have been a factor for many hot starters; remember that it's incredibly difficult for all but the best pitchers in baseball to maintain a 2.68 ERA and 1.15 WHIP for a full season. If "regression" for Pineda means a 3.67 ERA and 1.27 WHIP from today forward, none of his owners are going to complain, especially if his K's-per-nine ratio remains near its current 8.62 mark.

Is Pineda a sell-high candidate, with risk of a decline in performance once opponents become more familiar with him? Certainly, if you're selling him at a price anything close to his current full-year pace of 22 wins, a 2.01 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 168 strikeouts. But perhaps you'd be underselling if you pawned him off the value of nine wins, a 3.99 ERA, 1.32 WHIP and 116 K's, which is what his stat line from today forward would be if he were to hit our preseason projection.

I'm not so sure we're not looking at the eventual American League Rookie of the Year. If you do still plan to sell high, however, here's another nugget: If the Seattle Mariners stick to their current rotation, after Wednesday's start against the Rangers, the next time Pineda would face an opponent for a second time would be June 10 at the Detroit Tigers. In other words, that "second time around" you fear might not truly arrive for another month, so you've got time.

Three up

Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners: Not that you need us to tell you that Felix Hernandez is a fantasy stud, but if either the Mariners' lackluster offensive attack or Hernandez's own sluggish start had you concerned, don't sweat either one. All he has done in his past three starts is post vintage "King Felix" stats: 2-0 record, 1.74 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 9.58 K's-per-nine ratio. Considering the past two were road assignments at Detroit and Boston, facing two solid (on paper) lineups, Hernandez's rebound looks all the more impressive. He remains a clear top-five starter.

Bud Norris, Houston Astros: This kid misses a lot of bats; through six starts he has a 10.85 K's-per-nine ratio, 75.4 percent contact rate on all swings and 12.0 percent swing-and-miss rate, every one of those a top-15 number among qualified big league starters. But what has fueled Norris' breakthrough isn't the strikeouts, it's his polished command, evidenced by his 3.03 walks-per-nine ratio and 60.5 percent first-pitch strike rate. Here's the best part: He hasn't allowed an earned run in 13 2/3 innings his past two starts combined, and those came against the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals, widely regarded as two of the best offensive teams in the National League. Can Norris keep this up? For so long as he's striking out more than three times as many batters as he walks, absolutely he can!

James Shields, Tampa Bay Rays: Every one of Shields' 2010 peripherals pointed to a pitcher who was terribly unlucky … and every one of his 2011 peripherals points to a pitcher who has been incredibly lucky. Just look at the stats: His BABIP, which was a bloated .341 in 2010, is .252 so far this year. His strand rate has gone from 68.4 to 83.7 percent. His home run/fly ball percentage has gone from 13.8 to 6.7 percent. What's Shields' true value? Probably something in between the 5.18 ERA he posted a year ago and the 2.14 he has so far, but split the difference and that's still a 3.66 mark, which is still a valuable number in fantasy. It could elevate him to top-30 starter status in short time, in fact.

Three down

Yovani Gallardo, Milwaukee Brewers: It's officially time to panic, as with Monday's mediocre effort, Gallardo has now gone five consecutive outings without a quality start. During that slump, he has an 8.89 ERA, 2.13 WHIP and 12 walks compared to 24 strikeouts, the resulting 2.00 K-to-walk ratio noticeably beneath the 2.40 mark he has during his big league career. What's worse: Two of those outings (CHC, @WAS) came against bottom-10 offenses, another (HOU) shouldn't have been a stiff challenge and a fourth (@ATL) was versus a team against whom Gallardo was 3-0 with a 0.96 ERA and 0.83 WHIP in five previous career starts. Slightly diminished velocity -- he averaged 91.8 mph with his fastball entering Monday's start, down from 92.6 mph in 2010 -- could be responsible, but whatever the cause, Gallardo is looking like a clear no-go right now in mixed formats. It's not cut time, but it's reserve time (if you hadn't already).

Edwin Jackson, Chicago White Sox: Command, command, command. That is the problem with Jackson, who, hot as he was during his first two starts of 2011, has been equally awful in four since. During that four-start slump, Jackson's ERA is 8.44 and his WHIP 2.16, and he has as many walks (12) as strikeouts (12), including nine of those walks in his past two turns. Point to his 120-pitch masterpiece of April 7 as the cause if you wish; it was the ninth-most pitches anyone has thrown before Tax Day since 2005 and the most through April 7 of any season since then. Jackson can be a maddening pitcher to own, and right now he's offering no glimpses of hope, at least not for the foreseeable future.

Francisco Liriano, Minnesota Twins: If the Twins are truly ready to bump him from their rotation, perhaps it's time for his fantasy owners to finally give up hope, too. Liriano is slated to start Tuesday against the White Sox, and according to 1500 ESPN in Minneapolis, if he doesn't right himself, he might be out. "We've been talking about our options with him, and the first option is trying to get him right and relaxed out there," said manager Ron Gardenhire. Gardenhire added that the team is stretching out Kevin Slowey during his rehabilitation assignment in the event the Twins need him to replace Liriano in the rotation. Liriano's velocity is down and his command has been awful, so there's plenty of work to do before he'll be fantasy-worthy. He might be mere hours from being an across-the-board cut candidate.

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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