Commentary

Which pitchers shine in September?

Updated: August 30, 2011, 4:16 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Some pitchers were born for the stretch run.

60 Feet 6 Inches

Whether it's the thrill of the pennant race, that beginning-of-fall, cooler-temperatures feel or simply an effort by the individual to cram in as many good stats as possible knowing the season is ending (contract-year motivation), some pitchers have historical splits that are noticeably better after Sept. 1 than in the five months that precede it. Today, let's identify these individuals.

First, a caveat: Past success doesn't necessarily portend future such success, because the player's circumstances often change. That can be anything from a new team to an injury to a weaker supporting cast. Or, in rare instances, a pitcher can be fantastic for six consecutive Septembers, then put forth a stinker of a September for no particular reason.

But the goal here, as you prepare your teams for the stretch run or, in head-to-head leagues, the playoff matchups, is to increase your odds of success. Pitchers with favorable September histories often have greater such odds, so if any of these eight are available in your league, consider taking a look:

Garcia
Garcia

Freddy Garcia, New York Yankees: Let's begin with a bold one, because Garcia's momentum was interrupted by a finger injury, so interested owners might not be so apt to take a chance on him today as they might have been back on, say, Aug. 2. Besides his disabled list stint, Garcia has done nothing to warrant skepticism even though his arsenal screams "matchups candidate." Well, to that, let's throw this out: He has a career 3.26 ERA in September, nearly a half-run lower than in any other month (next-best is 3.74 in June), and in his past four healthy Septembers, he had ERAs of 2.49 (6 starts), 4.20 (3), 3.66 (6) and 2.84 (4). The matchup with the Boston Red Sox to end the season is scary. The rest? Don't ignore a single one.

Projected September schedule: (Remember that the Yankees' six-man rotation puts Garcia's specific assignments in flux. This is projecting that the team will use five men beginning Thursday, with him included.) TOR (Sept. 4), @LAA (Sept. 9), @SEA (Sept. 14), TB (Sept. 20), BOS (Sept. 25).

Wolf
Wolf

Randy Wolf, Milwaukee Brewers: Yes, I wrote the line in his profile, "Wolf was also wholly unpredictable [in 2010]; his 5.06 ERA and 1.66 WHIP in 14 starts against bottom-10 offenses belie his matchups potential." That turned out to be a poor call; he has a 7-2 record and 2.41 ERA in 15 starts against losing teams this season. Go figure, he is a reliable matchups play! Well, September's split is another of his you can exploit, as he has a 9-4 record, 2.35 ERA and 0.99 WHIP in 16 starts after Sept. 1 the past three seasons, and it's not a matter of exploiting specific weak matchups within one division because he played for three different teams in those years (Houston Astros, Los Angeles Dodgers, Brewers). That's encouraging, because his September schedule looks awfully scary.

Projected September schedule: @STL (Sept. 5), PHI (Sept. 10), @CIN (Sept. 17), FLA (Sept. 23), PIT (Sept. 28).

Oswalt
Oswalt

Roy Oswalt, Philadelphia Phillies: If you're worried about his mediocre performance against the Florida Marlins this past Friday, his first "poor" outing since returning from the disabled list, perhaps Oswalt's September history will ease your mind. During his career, these are his September ERAs: 2.14 (4 starts), 3.55 (6), 2.00 (4), 3.23 (7), 2.93 (7), 1.85 (6), 3.04 (4), 1.42 (6), 8.10 (3), 1.31 (6). To be fair, back troubles contributed to that poor 2009 finish and ended that season early, the same injury that cost him a DL trip this year. But Oswalt hasn't reported any incident with his back since being activated, and he'll be needed, what with his Phillies set to play 30 games in the season's final 28 days.

Projected September schedule: @FLA (Sept. 2), ATL (Sept. 7), @HOU (Sept. 12), STL (Sept. 17), WAS (Sept. 22), @ATL (Sept. 27).

Lilly
Lilly

Ted Lilly, Los Angeles Dodgers: He has turned his season around recently, with a 3.58 ERA and 1.01 WHIP in his past 10 starts, and before you fret about a lack of motivation because his team is out of the playoff race, keep in mind that in three of the past seasons he played for teams that were a minimum of nine games out of first place on the morning of Sept. 1. In those years -- 2006, 2009 and 2010 -- he had ERAs of 2.45, 2.08 and 3.76 in September. In September during the past five seasons, Lilly never had an ERA north of 3.48 or WHIP north of 1.15, yet in 12 of the other 24 individual months from 2006-10 he had an ERA higher than 4.00, and in 14 months he had a WHIP of 1.20 or higher.

Projected September schedule: @WAS (Sept. 5), @SF (Sept. 10), PIT (Sept. 15), SF (Sept. 21), @ARI (Sept. 26).

Bailey
Bailey

Homer Bailey, Cincinnati Reds: His September splits are unmistakable; he has a 7-2 record, 2.86 ERA, 1.34 WHIP and 9.16 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio in 16 career starts in the month. In 13 of his 16 other months during his major league career, his ERA was 4 or higher, and not once in another month has he managed a sub-3 ERA. Bailey has made a history of beating up on weaker-hitting foes in the final month -- he has a 3-0 record and 2.13 ERA in four starts against the Pirates in September -- but after the Reds' upcoming nine-game road trip, the team's schedule will ease up. He might again be primed for a strong finish.

Projected September schedule: @STL (Sept. 3), @COL (Sept. 9), CHC (Sept. 14), HOU (Sept. 19), @PIT (Sept. 25).

Arroyo
Arroyo

Bronson Arroyo, Cincinnati Reds: With the exception of his final outing, which could change depending upon the team's plans and the weather, Arroyo's schedule is identical to Bailey's. So why wouldn't he be any less likely to finish on a high note? Arroyo's September history is phenomenal: He has a 24-11 record, 3.32 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in the month during his career, but an 87-92 record, 4.47 ERA and 1.35 WHIP the rest of the season. In the past two seasons he had WHIPs of 0.90 and 1.11 after Sept. 1, one of those a year when the Reds were contenders, one when they were not. Arroyo is also riding a three-quality-start streak, so get on this bandwagon if he's available.

Projected September schedule: @STL (Sept. 4), @COL (Sept. 10), CHC (Sept. 15), HOU (Sept. 20), @NYM (Sept. 26).

Porcello
Porcello

Rick Porcello, Detroit Tigers: There hasn't been a lot to like in Porcello's young career, with the possible exception of his performance in September. As a rookie in 2009, he had a 3.00 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in seven starts, and as a sophomore last season, he had a 3.89 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in five turns. That gives him a career 3.40 ERA in the month; his 2.66 mark in May is his only one that's lower. Matchups have a lot to do with it; he has made 10 of those 12 starts within the division and has a 4.36 ERA and 1.32 WHIP in 38 starts against division foes, compared to 4.82/1.45 ratios in 45 turns against everybody else.

Projected September schedule: @CLE (Sept. 6), @CHW (Sept. 12), @OAK (Sept. 17), BAL (Sept. 23), CLE (Sept. 28).

Nolasco
Nolasco

Ricky Nolasco, Florida Marlins: His is the smallest sample size of the eight profiled, but his numbers in 92 1/3 innings, 16 games and 14 starts in September are curious nevertheless. It's as if Nolasco throws more strikes and ramps up the K's in the final month; he has averaged 9.45 K's per nine innings and 5.39 K's per walk in September during his career, compared to 7.56 and 3.52 the rest of the year. A quick look at his September 2009 Pitch f/x numbers -- his most recent healthy September -- shows little more than a slight bump in overall velocity, averaging 87.7 mph on all offerings, up from 86.1 previously in that year. Don't claim matchups, either: In 2008 he made two of five September starts at Cincinnati and at Philadelphia, and in 2009 he made another at Cincinnati, all three of those outings quality starts. Maybe Nolasco truly does save his best for last?

Projected September schedule: PHI (Sept. 4), @PIT (Sept. 10), @PHI (Sept. 15), ATL (Sept. 20), WAS (Sept. 26).

Three September stinkers

We've discussed the good; now let's examine the bad. These three pitchers have a history of collapsing once September arrives:

Tim Wakefield, Boston Red Sox: There's a sort of reputation in baseball that knuckleballers transcend space and time, but it's foolish of us to ignore that Wakefield is 45 years old with more than 3,000 innings on his arm. Forty-five! As such, it's understandable that he has historically fallen apart in September; he hasn't had an ERA beneath 5.87 in the month since his 40th birthday, a span of five seasons, and his combined September ERA in those months is 7.49.

Projected September schedule: (The Red Sox's current six-man rotation puts Wakefield's matchups in flux; he might not even be kept in the rotation much longer. This projects a five-man rotation.) TEX (Sept. 3), @TOR (Sept. 8), TOR (Sept. 14), BAL (Sept. 19), @NYY (Sept. 25).

Edwin Jackson, St. Louis Cardinals: He has actually been somewhat disappointing since landing in St. Louis, failing to capitalize upon the "Dave Duncan magic," and his September history is ominous. He has a 5.98 ERA and 1.61 WHIP in the month in 45 career appearances, and 6.29/1.64 ratios in 25 games (24 starts) combined in September 2007-10. It's that poor history that spawns legitimate questions about Jackson's durability within a given year.

Projected September schedule: CIN (Sept. 4), ATL (Sept. 10), @PHI (Sept. 16), NYM (Sept. 21), @HOU (Sept. 26).

Matt Garza, Chicago Cubs: You might remember him as a "beast under pressure," his having won Game 7 of the 2008 American League Championship Series against the Red Sox, but the truth is that Garza's late-regular-season performance is notably poor. In his five full big-league seasons he has never registered an ERA higher than 3.95 and his career number is 3.92, but in September he has never had a single-year ERA beneath 3.92 and his ERA overall in the month is 4.96. It doesn't help that Garza's Cubs are long out of the race, but if there's any saving grace, it's that his matchups stack up in obvious fashion.

Projected September schedule: CIN (Sept. 5), @NYM (Sept. 11), HOU (Sept. 16), MIL (Sept. 21), @SD (Sept. 27).

Three up

John Danks, Chicago White Sox: He's back in the top 30, right where he was to begin the season, and it's because his performance since returning from the disabled list in July places his future potential right along those lines. During that span he has five quality starts in seven tries, three wins, a 2.47 ERA and 1.08 WHIP. But it's Danks' increase in strikeouts that is most encouraging. He has 49 whiffs in 47 1/3 innings during that span, a 9.32 K's-per-nine ratio, a number he has exceeded once in any other seven-start stretch during his big league career: from June 18-Aug. 14 of this season -- meaning some crossover here -- when he had a 9.68 number. His 4.90 K's-per-walk ratio also ranks among his career best seven-start stretches; other than this season he has managed better only in July-August 2008. The White Sox have a favorable schedule looking forward playing in the American League Central, so get back on the Danks bandwagon.

Cory Luebke, San Diego Padres: Boy, were the Padres foolish to wait three months before inserting Luebke into their rotation; he has a 2.89 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and 9.29 K's-per-nine ratio in 12 starts since June 26. He had pitched well enough for the spot during the spring but lost out to Dustin Moseley, who, to be fair, pitched effectively in the role early in the year. But Luebke has greater long-term appeal, and he cannot be termed a mere Petco product. Of those 12 starts, six have been on the road, and he has a 2.62 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in those games … meaning he has arguably been better away from Petco than at it!

Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals: The Stephen Strasburg bandwagon is barreling down the hill at incredible speed, and there's no question now that he'll make a noticeable impact in fantasy. I've maintained from the start and have been unwavering in my assessment that his potential is limited in leagues with starts caps; outside of that, he is a must-add in all formats. Strasburg's latest rehabilitation outing was a masterpiece, five perfect innings for Triple-A Syracuse with seven whiffs. He'll make his next appearance for Double-A Harrisburg on Thursday, throwing 75-80 pitches, and is on track for a Sept. 6 return to the Nationals, meaning the potential for these five assignments: LAD (Sept. 6), HOU (Sept. 11), FLA (Sept. 16), @PHI (Sept. 21), @FLA (Sept. 26). The Nationals will surely be cautious with Strasburg -- he might not throw more than 20-25 innings -- but his per-inning potential could rival anyone's outside the top 10.

Three down

A.J. Burnett, New York Yankees: If Ivan Nova is in the Yankees' rotation, someone else has to go, and that someone needs to be Burnett. In 10 starts since June 1, Burnett has a 1-5 record, no quality starts, a 7.79 ERA and a 1.79 WHIP -- the ERA the worst of any pitcher with 40-plus innings during that span. Incredibly, he remains owned in 44.2 percent of ESPN leagues despite having long since passed the point of needing to be cut. Burnett actually could've been a candidate for the September standouts list above; he had a 3.59 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in 31 starts in the regular season's final month from 2006-10. But that number is misleading, as he had a 5.60 ERA and 1.50 WHIP in seven starts after Sept. 1 last season, and 4.64/1.49 numbers in 14 September starts as a Yankee. Stay far away.

Jaime Garcia, St. Louis Cardinals: A six-start slump during which he has a 0-3 record, one quality start, 6.68 ERA and 1.89 WHIP, resulted in Garcia's being skipped in the Cardinals' rotation this week. Haven't we heard this story before? Last season Garcia took a noticeable step backward after the All-Star break; he had a 2.17 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in his 17 first-half starts but 3.53/1.41 ratios in 11 starts thereafter. The Cardinals spaced out his appearances as they maintained his innings pace. This season Garcia doesn't have as much of an innings-cap concern, but his performance has declined even more steeply, his 3.22/1.25 ratios in 19 first-half turns sliding to 5.01/1.63 ratios in eight second-half starts. Could it be that Garcia's 163 1/3 innings of 2010, a 125 2/3-inning increase from his 2009 total, is coming back to haunt him? Perhaps, but the bottom line for his fantasy owners is that the Cardinals, who appear out of the race, are easing up on him.

Brandon Morrow, Toronto Blue Jays: His name has come up frequently during the podcast this season, and as I noted Monday, I'm taking a noticeable step backward from Morrow after some weekend realizations. This is the statistic that's most bothersome: In his career, opposing batters have .215/.313/.340 rates against Morrow when the bases are empty, but those numbers swell to .263/.352/.427 when there are runners on. What's the difference? Morrow is pitching from the stretch rather than the windup when runners are on, and maybe that has an adverse impact on his performance. We've heard the Dave Bush argument before: His WHIP was low and ERA unusually high, and during his prime years he had an OPS significantly higher with men on than with the bases empty. Morrow's OPS split between those is 147 points, and at this point, it's fair to wonder whether his 4-plus ERAs are a true representation of his skills.

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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