Commentary

James Shields first-half MVP

Updated: July 5, 2011, 2:09 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Let's kick things off with some trivia: Who is the only pitcher in baseball to, in each of this season's first three months (April, May and June), record at least 30 strikeouts with a 3.00 ERA and 1.00 WHIP or better (minimum five starts)?

60 Feet 6 Inches

Depending upon whether you own him -- or whether you have been one of the many to question my conservative ranking of him for much of the year -- you might already know the answer: It's James Shields of the Tampa Bay Rays.

It's for his consistent monthly performance that, today, Shields earns "60 Feet, 6 Inches" first-half MVP honors. But he's a worthy choice for so many more reasons:

• He's eighth in ERA (2.45) and fifth in WHIP (0.98).
• He's fifth in strikeouts (127) and ninth in K's per nine (8.88).
• He's tied for fourth in quality starts (14), and tied for sixth in quality-start percentage (82.4).
• He has the third-best average game score in the majors (65.6).

And if you're a fan of those sabermetric statistics, there's also this:

• He's 23rd in FIP (3.08) -- fielding independent pitching score, per FanGraphs -- but fifth in xFIP (2.81) -- expected FIP.
• He's eighth in ERC (2.33) -- component ERA.
• He's first in WPA (win probability added), whether you use FanGraphs' (3.10) or Baseball-Reference.com's (3.0) formula.

Shields' one-season turnaround is nothing short of remarkable. Think about this: In 2010, he didn't have a single month with lower than a 3.00 ERA or 1.00 WHIP (monthly lows: 3.38 ERA in April, 1.24 WHIP in May), and he had 30 or more strikeouts in only three of the six months. That poor performance caused him to be selected 55th among starting pitchers in ESPN live drafts this preseason (average draft position: 209.4). Today, he is the No. 4 starting pitcher on the Player Rater.

"Luck" -- bad in 2010, good in 2011 -- gets casually tossed around when describing Shields' exploits, most notably that he had a .344 BABIP last season, but .259 this season. That statistic, indeed, reveals a noticeable shift in fortune for the right-hander. But it is not the only reason for his turnaround … nor should we assume that he has been "lucky" so far, and therefore is due to be "unlucky" looking forward.

It's that looking forward that matters here, because in addition to being our "First-half recap" edition of "60 Feet," we're also examining our first-half All-Stars' prospects of keeping up their performance in the second half.

In Shields' case, there are a few other key differences between his 2010 and 2011:

• His K's per nine have increased, from 8.28 to the aforementioned 8.88.
• His miss percentage -- the percentage of only swings that resulted in misses -- has also risen, from 21.2 to 25.9.
• His ground-ball rate has risen, from 41.8 to 46.0 percent.
• He's generating weaker contact, his well-hit average allowed dropping from .236 to .175; and on fly balls that number has gone from .320 to .202.
• His curveball and changeup, arguably his two best pitches, have been especially effective; he has thrown them 49.9 percent of the time combined and limited opponents to .159/.176/.270 rates on the 241 plate appearances that have ended on them. In 2010, he threw them 38.4 percent of the time and limited opponents to .241/.261/.332 rates in 350 PAs.

Does that sound like a pitcher due for a second-half collapse? "Bad luck" could always strike with any hurler, but in Shields' case, such misfortune probably wouldn't result in a 5.18 ERA. More likely, it would result in a 3.18 ERA … and that's easily still a top-20 starting pitcher in fantasy.

After all, Shields has one of the most skilled defenses backing him, and if you're familiar at all with how BABIP works, defense has quite a bit to say about the results. Per FanGraphs, in 2010, the Rays as a team ranked sixth in ultimate zone rating (34.8) and third in UZR/150 (5.8) and afforded opponents the second-lowest BABIP (.278) in baseball. This season? They're third in UZR (25.7), third in UZR/150 (7.0) and have the game's best opponents' BABIP (.263).

Shields was merely unlucky in 2010, and that's as far as I'll go with the "luck" label.

"60 Feet, 6 Inches" All-Stars

Shields wasn't the only first-half standout, he was merely the best of the bunch. Here are the other five members of my squad:

Jered Weaver, Los Angeles Angels: He was as close as a pitcher could get to the MVP honor Shields fetched without getting it; remember that he was a seventh-round pick (ADP: 68th, 69.3) who has been a first-round value so far (third among starting pitchers, ninth overall, on our Player Rater). Weaver ranks among the leaders in so many categories: sixth in wins (10), second in ERA (1.92), third in WHIP (0.92), ninth in K's (114), third in FIP (2.41), second in WAR (4.3). Remarkably, he has done it despite a drop in his strikeout rate; that career-best 9.35 K's per nine he tallied in 2010 has slipped to 7.81 this year, which is right in line with his career number in the category (7.81). It's for that reason he might regress slightly in the second half -- his xFIP ranks merely 30th (3.43) -- but if Weaver is a mere 3.00-ERA, 1.05-WHIP pitcher from today forward, who could complain?

Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies: He's the National League's answer to Weaver, a seventh-round pick (ADP: 63rd, 65.0) who has performed like a near-first-rounder (fifth among starting pitchers, 18th overall, on our Player Rater). Hamels' mastery of the cutter, giving him four big league-quality pitches (fastball, curve, change the other three), has earned him an elite label in fantasy, and there are little signs he plans to surrender it. He has a 56.6 percent ground-ball rate that alleviates any worry about his bandbox home ballpark. Hamels, second in the majors in both FIP (2.34) and xFIP (2.59) to only Roy Halladay in each category, is one of the most likely pitchers in baseball to hit his full-year paces on target: 17 wins, 2.41 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 207 K's.

Jair Jurrjens, Atlanta Braves: I expect to take some heat for not awarding Jurrjens MVP honors, not to mention placing him fourth on the list, but two things work as strikes against him. One is that he missed the first two rotation turns of 2011 with a strained right oblique, and the other is that he had a 3.30 ERA, 1.40 WHIP and only 17 K's in his five June starts, meaning he hasn't been quite as consistently phenomenal as, say, Shields. Still, that's splitting hairs, and the positives surrounding Jurrjens vastly outweigh the negatives, and the truth is that any of these top four would be worthy MVP picks in any half-season. In Jurrjens' defense: He's tops in the majors in both wins (11) and ERA (1.89), is 17th in WHIP (1.06) and third in quality-start percentage (86.7).

At the same time, let's rile up the Jurrjens fan club, because I don't see him matching that pace in the second half. He's 84th in K's per nine ratio (5.42) out of 112 qualified starters, his 3.08 FIP ranks 24th and his 3.67 xFIP ranks 51st. All that matters in fantasy is his performance from today forward … and I'm betting that he is not going to be a top-25 starter from today forward.

Michael Pineda, Seattle Mariners: Will they or won't they? The raging debate about a possible innings cap for Pineda has been the recent storyline surrounding the Mariners rookie right-hander, but for today, he warrants our attention for his extraordinary first half. Pineda ranks 10th in ERA (2.58), eighth in WHIP (1.01), 14th in strikeouts (106) and has eight wins for a Mariners team that has afforded him just 4.42 runs of support per nine (103rd among 112 qualified starters). Plus, there's this nugget from the Elias Sports Bureau: Pineda is the first Mariners rookie pitcher with 100-plus strikeouts before the All-Star break, and he's only the fourth to do it in the past 10 seasons, joining Kazuhisa Ishii (100 in 2002), Francisco Liriano (102 in 2006) and Daisuke Matsuzaka (123 in 2007).

Returning to the innings-cap debate, however, that's the No. 1 argument against his fantasy prospects from today forward. Pineda threw 139⅓ innings in the minors last season, a career high, and he dealt with a persistent elbow problem in 2009 that limited him to 47⅓ frames that season. I'd be shocked if the Mariners allowed him to push 200 innings, and if they do, his performance might suffer late in the year, when it matters most in head-to-head leagues. That's not to say Pineda's owners should give him away, however. He has answered many questions about his secondary pitches; his slider (thrown 30.0 percent of the time), changeup (5.4) and curveball (0.1) have combined to limit foes to .193/.265/.299 rates, so he might yet have another 8-10 high-quality starts to offer.

The bottom line: If you can fetch a top-25-starter value in exchange, go for it. But if everyone in your league shares the workload concern, why sell lower?

Josh Beckett, Boston Red Sox: He warrants Comeback Player of the Year honors, because Beckett warrants kudos for reinventing himself as a pitcher this season. He's no longer a blow-them-away-with-his-fastball pitcher, his average velocity with that pitch dropping from 94.1 to 93.2 to 92.6 the past three seasons, and his K's per nine this year is 7.73, his second-lowest number. But Beckett's curveball remains an elite pitch, he has mastered a cutter and his changeup has been about as effective as in any year of his career. If there's any worry with him, it's the .216 BABIP, 82.5 percent strand rate and 3.65 xFIP, all of which point to him regressing looking forward. Beckett also has a checkered injury past. But if the "true" Beckett is a low-3s-ERA pitcher, that's still top-25 capable.

Honorable mention: Alexi Ogando, Kyle Lohse, Ian Kennedy.

Three up

Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants: One disastrous outing has a way of unraveling a pitcher's full-season stat line, and with time, it often can have an unfair impact upon his perceived fantasy value. Bumgarner is an excellent example: That eight-run, nine-hit, one-third-of-an-inning nightmare against the Minnesota Twins on June 21 caused his June ERA to swell to 4.28. But here's a few stats in the left-hander's defense, shared by ESPN Stats & Information's Mark Simon: Bumgarner's June K's per nine was 10.21, walks per nine was 0.99 and homers allowed per nine was 0.66. Now compare those numbers to those of Justin Verlander, who was a perfect 6-0 with a 0.92 ERA in the month: 9.92, 1.10 and 0.55. What stronger evidence that Bumgarner actually deserves not only a mulligan for that one nightmarish outing, but also credit for what has been an extraordinary recent hot spell around it? Remove that June 21 game and in 12 other starts since April 27, he has 12 quality starts (a perfect 12-for-12), a 1.90 ERA and 1.07 WHIP.

Chris Carpenter, St. Louis Cardinals: He recorded his third consecutive quality start on Monday, those coming against the Phillies, Baltimore Orioles and Cincinnati Reds, which isn't the easiest of schedules for a pitcher. With them, the right-hander has a 2.71 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 5.10 K's per walk in his past nine starts, numbers right in line with (or better than) those during his Cardinals career: 3.05, 1.12 and 3.68. That should restore much of the confidence fantasy owners had with Carpenter when they selected him 12th at his position and 50th overall in the preseason (ADP: 50.4), but I've got just one thing holding me back from returning him to my top 20: His ground-ball rate, easily above 50 percent during his Cardinals career, remains 44.8 percent during that nine-start hot streak, 43.7 since June 1 and 47.4 percent in his past three outings.

Bartolo Colon, New York Yankees: It took him 20 days to recover from his hamstring injury and when he did return this past Saturday, he looked like a pitcher who hadn't missed a single day. Colon's fastball velocity averaged 92.1 mph, right in line with his 91.7 mph average in his first 13 turns, the opposing New York Mets managed just a .182 well-hit average against him, around his .189 number before his DL stint, and he threw strikes 70.0 percent of the time, higher than his 66.2 percent year-to-date number (which is 19th among qualified starters). Granted, it was a start at pitching-friendly Citi Field, but isn't that still encouraging enough accounting for his missed time? While it's difficult to imagine Colon maintaining his absurd year-to-date numbers -- 2.88 ERA, 1.06 WHIP -- who's to say he can't hang close? We know so little about his innovative surgery, meaning we have no historical data to back up the long-term effects upon a pitcher, and perhaps the time off actually will help to preserve Colon's arm over the long haul?

Three down

John Lackey, Boston Red Sox: Suffice to say the Red Sox haven't gotten the pitcher they expected when they signed Lackey to a five-year, $82.5 million contract following the 2009 season. He has made 46 starts for the team in 2010 and 2011 and only 25 of them have been quality starts (54.3 percent), his ERA is 5.17 and his WHIP 1.47. Lackey also spent 24 days on the DL with an elbow injury earlier this season, and since his return he's only 1-for-6 in quality starts with a 6.82 ERA and 1.42 WHIP. There's really only one stat to use in his defense during that six-start stretch: His fastball velocity has averaged 91.4 mph, which is a lot closer to the 91.6 mph he averaged in his final year with the Angels in 2009 than the 90.3 mph he averaged before landing on the DL. During his Monday meltdown, however (2⅓ IP, 9 H, 7 ER), the Toronto Blue Jays tattooed Lackey's fastball, earning seven of their nine hits -- including a home run -- against it. He simply lacks the stuff necessary right now to be a trusted fantasy option in any format.

Ted Lilly, Los Angeles Dodgers: What a disappointing season for the left-hander I once called one of the most underrated players in all of fantasy baseball. Lilly, selected merely 30th among starting pitchers during the preseason (ADP: 126.4), is in the midst of a streak of non-quality starts (four) that's as lengthy as his longest streak of quality starts (four) in 2011. What's more, he has allowed more runs than he has totaled innings in each of his past three turns, those outings against the Houston Astros, Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins, which is a pretty favorable schedule for a pitcher. Lilly's breaking pitches -- curveball, cutter and slider -- have been awful this season, opponents managing .336/.381/.523 rates against them, up from .240/.270/.453 in 2010, and overall foes have a 22.2 percent line-drive rate and .233 well-hit average against him. He's merely not the pitcher advertised in the preseason, and not even worthy of top-50 status.

Mike Pelfrey, New York Mets: The one thing that can be said in Pelfrey's defense is that he's an obvious matchups pitcher; he has a 2.96 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in his seven starts at Citi Field but only 6.75/1.65 ratios in his 10 road turns. But why is that attractive in fantasy? That's the epitome of the "streaming starter," a guy who in mixed leagues you can freely add and drop, and Pelfrey isn't even inspiring confidence when it comes to tougher home assignments, being that he has issued seven free passes combined in 10⅔ innings his past two turns (though both were on the road). Need we point out that Pelfrey got obliterated by the Pittsburgh Pirates at Citi Field on June 2 (5 IP, 10 H, 7 ER)?

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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