Commentary

Can Zimmermann, Volquez shine?

Young pitchers still finding way two years after Tommy John surgery

Updated: June 8, 2011, 12:32 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Two of Tuesday's scheduled starters share a common link: They each had Tommy John surgery approximately 22 months ago, in August 2009.

60 Feet 6 Inches

Both have considerable potential, but neither has completely restored his pre-operation fantasy stock, and though one's career has been slowly trending upward, the other's is perhaps at one of its lowest points.

The former is Jordan Zimmermann, whose six quality starts since May 1 are the third-most in baseball (Madison Bumgarner and Jair Jurrjens have more, with seven).

[+] EnlargeZimmermann
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireJordan Zimmermann has not given up more than three earned runs in any start since May 1.

The latter is Edinson Volquez, who returns to the Cincinnati Reds' rotation Tuesday in what could be a key start in determining his future.

Today, "60 Feet 6 Inches" proposes that the two share another common link: They're both smart discounted-rate investments right now.

Let's start with Zimmermann, the one who will presumably cost you more, the one whose performance was already trending upward to the point that he moved up in the rankings just outside the top 60, and the one who brings a lot more "safety" to the table, if by "safety" we mean "much more likely to develop into a top-25 fantasy starter in a shorter amount of time."

Despite his quality-starts streak, Zimmermann's ownership in ESPN leagues remains at a modest 70.7 percent, perhaps a product of his having won only twice during that span, or perhaps due to the fact that, in spite of his performance, he ranks only 48th among starting pitchers in the past 30 days on our Player Rater. Whatever the reason, Zimmermann, a sabermetric sleeper during his rookie year of 2009, during that time has peripherals that signal two things: One, he's back to his pre-surgery form, and two, having proved the first point, he has recaptured the future breakout potential he had before his surgery. Yes, he could get even better.

The following chart breaks down Zimmermann's peripheral statistics into three relevant time spans: His pre-surgery performance in 16 starts of his rookie 2009, his 12 starts since returning from surgery between August 2010 and April 2011, and his six-start hot streak since May 1.

Those are small samples, yes, but remember that our game is predicated on small samples; picking the right one start, one week or even one month, matters to us. There's a degree of guesswork involved in fantasy, and looking at Zimmermann's numbers, they hint -- and strongly -- that he's back to pre-surgery form, and that it's safe to guess he gets better from here. And to refresh your memory, remember that at the time in 2009, Zimmermann was riding an eight-start stretch from June 1 through mid-July during which time he had a 3.18 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 8.93 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio and was destined for stardom.

Projected for a 4.33 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 80 K's in 104 innings a week ago, Zimmermann has an upside probably in the neighborhood of a 3.25 ERA, and 1.10 WHIP, with perhaps 90 K's in those 104 frames. One limiting factor: An innings cap -- he did log just 70 2/3 frames a year ago -- is probable, and likely about 160, which if exact would mean only 92 2/3 more this season. That alone is a primary reason he's not ranked higher here, despite his considerable appeal.

[+] EnlargeVolquez
Jerry Lai/US PresswireEdinson Volquez's first-inning woes were a reason why he was briefly sent to the minors last month.

Volquez, meanwhile, returns to the Reds after back-to-back quality starts for the team's Triple-A affiliate, during which he allowed a combined three runs on 10 hits in 14 1/3 innings. First-inning issues were a significant issue for Volquez during his 10 starts to begin the year with the Reds; he allowed 20 earned runs (18.00 ERA) in those, compared to just 16 in his 41 other frames (3.51 ERA). Sure enough, he allowed a run during his first Triple-A start.

One would think, however, that the Reds could find a way to solve Volquez's early-outing issues, and looking at his peripherals, there's reason to believe he's no less skilled than he was before surgery. Per FanGraphs, he's averaging 93.8 mph with his fastball, in range with his 2008 (93.6) and 2009 (93.7) numbers; his swing-and-miss percentage is 10.6, again in range with 2008 (11.0) and 2009 (10.0); and he's actually generating more ground balls (54.4 percent of all balls in play from 2010-11) than he did pre-surgery (46.1 in 2008-09).

Volquez's problem appears to be merely location: In 2011, 53.6 percent of his pitches have been classified as "up" or "middle" -- as opposed to "down," which is where he clearly wants to throw them (.146/.297/.293 rates on pitches down in the zone this year) -- and he has allowed .327/.433/.551 combined rates on those pitches. In 2009, pre-surgery, he threw only 49.7 percent of his pitches "up" or "middle," and allowed .226/.327/.376 combined rates in comparison.

Remember what has often been said about Tommy John surgery returnees: Velocity returns first, command second, and Volquez's issues this season appear entirely related to command. Has his brief stint in the minors corrected that? Perhaps not, being that he walked six batters and struck out seven.

But considering that his fantasy price tag is likely at an all-time low -- he's owned in just 28.0 percent of ESPN leagues -- he's at least worth a flier.

Three up

Bartolo Colon, New York Yankees: Can you believe this success story? Colon won back-to-back road starts during the Yankees' recent West Coast swing -- something few Yankees starters over the past two decades can claim -- and at his current pace might be a shoo-in for American League Comeback Player of the Year honors. Colon's recaptured velocity is astonishing; he's averaging 91.7 mph with his fastball, which, if you compare to his past numbers on FanGraphs, is nearly as good or better than in any year since his 2005 Cy Young campaign. His slider has also regained its zip, resulting in .207/.233/.345 numbers and a 19.1 percent swing-and-miss rate. While I was on the Colon-is-a-sleeper bandwagon in the preseason, I certainly had workload concerns with him, being that he's now 38 years old, threw 348 frames combined in the majors and minors from 2006-10 and had to throw high-leverage innings during winter ball and spring training simply to make the Yankees' roster. All of those concerns remain legitimate today. But here's a fair retort: Is he so automatic a sell-high candidate? Few people might be buyers, most believing it's selling time, and who's to say that the stem-cell treatment he had on his elbow and shoulder in early 2010 hasn't helped in that department? We know so little about the procedure, I wouldn't be so quick to give him away.

Yovani Gallardo, Milwaukee Brewers: Speaking of six-quality-start streaks, Gallardo is in the midst of one, and his performance during that hot spell has almost entirely restored his fantasy-breakout stock. He's 100 percent owned and 90.3 percent started in ESPN leagues, and during those six starts has 3.07 walks-per-nine and 2.79 K's-per-walk ratios that are as good and arguably better than at any prior stage of his big league career. The improvement appears a mere product of increased velocity: He averaged 91.9 mph with his fastball during his first seven starts, but 92.5 mph in his past six, and his rates against that pitch alone have gone from .370/.458/.605 to .196/.275/.272 in those time spans. Gallardo at peak form is a pitcher who relies on a fastball averaging in the 92.5-mph range, so there's every reason to believe he's one again a top-20 fantasy starter, with the upside to boost his stock into the top 10 overall.

Ryan Vogelsong, San Francisco Giants: I admit it, I blew it on the podcast a few weeks ago when I openly worried that the Giants would be foolish enough to supplant Vogelsong with Barry Zito once the latter was healthy, simply upon the idea that the Giants owed Zito $18.5 million this season. At this point, there's no way that can happen. Vogelsong has thrived as the Giants' No. 5 starter since his elevation into the role April 28; he has the fourth-best ERA (1.84) of any full-time starting pitcher since that date. Eliminating the Zito threat is largely responsible for Vogelsong's substantial rise in the rankings this week, but his own performance also warrants kudos: He hasn't allowed more than one run in a start since May 3, and has gone eight innings in two of his past three turns.

Three down

Wade Davis, Tampa Bay Rays: It's one thing for us to look the other way when a pitcher struggles against the potent Texas Rangers lineup; it's another when he follows up that poor outing in a cozy matchup at Seattle's Safeco Field. But that's what Davis has done: He has allowed 12 earned runs on 17 hits in 9 2/3 innings total his past two outings, where the matchups were polar opposites. Once forecasted (long-term) to be a very good fantasy starter, albeit not necessarily elite, Davis hasn't done much to advance his career in 2011. His K's-per-nine ratio is a career-low 4.33, and his 1.17 K's-per-walk ratio ranks fifth-worst among qualified starters. As an extreme fly-baller -- he has a 50.4 percent fly ball rate, and a 31.7 percent ground-ball rate that ranks third-lowest -- Davis' command ratios are terribly disconcerting. Bench him, or be especially picky, for now.

Tim Hudson, Atlanta Braves: A three-start stretch resulting in a 9.22 ERA and 1.68 WHIP, that also sandwiched a missed turn in the rotation due to a back problem the week before Memorial Day, doesn't bode well for Hudson's future prospects. At this point, one must wonder whether he's truly 100 percent. Hudson is a pitcher who relies heavily upon his sinker, a ground ball-generating whiz who needs to hit his spots to be an elite option for our purposes, a pitcher for whom the margin for error is often razor-thin. Consider this: Per Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats & Information, in 2010, 78 percent of Hudson's sinkers put into play resulted in a ground ball. This year, that percentage is 58 percent. To put that another way, per Mark Simon of Stats & Info, if Hudson had been putting sinkers into play this year at the same rate as last, he'd have gotten 62 ground balls with it, but so far he has gotten only 46.

Max Scherzer, Detroit Tigers: His fantasy owners can't help but sweat a slump at this particular time of the season; remember that it was about one year ago around this time -- admittedly more like early May, but close nevertheless -- that Scherzer's struggles developed into a significant enough issue that he was demoted to the minors. In his past three starts combined, he has allowed 19 runs on 24 hits, four of those home runs, in 13 2/3 innings (12.51 ERA), and while his schedule was somewhat rough -- Boston Red Sox on May 26, at Texas' Rangers Ballpark on June 6 -- Scherzer did have an extremely favorable matchup against the Minnesota Twins on May 31 and blew it (6 2/3 IP, 9 H, 7 ER). His fastball simply didn't fool those teams: He has allowed .419/.474/.774 rates and generated swings and misses 11.3 percent of the time the past three turns, compared to .302/.384/.457 and 20.3 percent in his first 10. The Tigers should continue to grant him chances to correct it, but for now, fantasy owners should bench him until he does.

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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