Don't overrate Humber's perfect game
Congratulations to Philip Humber, who this past Saturday became the 21st pitcher in Major League Baseball history to throw a perfect game.
Unfortunately, it's now time to say that his performance -- the Saturday stat line, that is -- is almost entirely irrelevant in determining his future prospects.
We, fantasy owners as a whole, tend to be a reactionary bunch. We panic when our team's top starting pitcher gets hammered and we get giddy when the last pitcher on our roster, generally one we recently added or nearly kept out of the starting nine that day, tosses a gem. When a pitcher does what Humber does, we're quick to say things like, "But he just threw a perfect game, he's great!"
Throwing a perfect game doesn't mean Humber is "great." It only means he was lucky.
Yes, a pitcher needs a healthy chunk of natural ability to pitch a perfect game. You probably can't walk off the street, throw nothing but 65 mph "fastballs" and expect to retire 27 consecutive batters.
But to pitch a perfect game, you also need to catch breaks.
You need Dewayne Wise to steal a home run from Gabe Kapler. You need Kevin Kouzmanoff to dive into the dugout to make a key catch. And let's face it: You need Jim Joyce to call Jason Donald out at first base.
Such plays, each of which occurred in a perfect game thrown during the past half-decade -- OK, Armando Galarraga's was a "shoulda been" -- exemplify the luck factors fantasy owners talk about, things like batting average on balls in play, left-on-base percentage and home run-to-fly ball percentage. When a pitcher tosses a perfecto, those numbers are all zero (if not indeterminate). They are as far removed from the major league averages as possible, the epitome of the "lucky" performance, and are as subject to regression as any statistic in the game.
They are the worst statistics to use to drive your decision-making, but then, most any singular game's numbers are horrible such measures. They're the effective equivalent of hitting the jackpot on a slot machine, then taking another spin because you're convinced you're on a lucky streak and it'll happen again.
Amazingly, there are actually people who believe in that. And it's your job to find those people and exploit them with a perfectly timed trade.
History shows that there's no smarter time to trade a pitcher than immediately following his singular best performance. You will find no shortage of trade partners and the least resistance to your asking a healthy return for said pitcher. And in terms of likelihood of success, so long as you get a return worth more than the pitcher's previous track record dictated -- not previously perceived value, previously earned value -- you are highly likely to win that deal.
Consider that during the regular season of the past three years (2009-11), there were 10 no-hitters thrown, by a wide variety of pitchers. To demonstrate this effect, I calculated the average Bill James Game Scores of these pitchers before and after their no-nos. Here is what the group averaged:
Average Game Score in their 30 starts up to and including the no-no : 59.7
Average Game Score in their five starts immediately following the no-no: 59.6
Average Game Score in their 30 starts immediately following the no-no: 59.9
Five of these pitchers were significantly better in their five starts following their no-hitters: Matt Garza (plus-11.4 differential in average Game Score), Ubaldo Jimenez (plus-10.7), Francisco Liriano (plus-9.3), Jonathan Sanchez (plus-8.1) and Ervin Santana (plus-7.0). Three of these pitchers were significantly worse in those five starts: Carlos Zambrano (minus-17.5), Mark Buehrle (minus-14.7) and Edwin Jackson (minus-12.2). What that says is that, occasionally, you have a little time following a pitcher's historical performance to sell high on his "newfound skills." But it also says that, in many cases, if you wait you might find yourself holding the bag.
That could be precisely what happens with Mr. Humber. Be aware that his next start is scheduled for Thursday versus the Boston Red Sox. Yes, those same Red Sox who scored six runs off 12 hits on Monday and who by Thursday could be back to form as one of the game's most fearsome offenses. In terms of ESPN standard mixed leagues, Humber, coming off a no-no, should be a no-go on Thursday.
From a long-term perspective, only three of those pitchers managed noticeably better performances in their 30 starts following their no-hitters -- an average Game Score at least 2.0 higher than before it: Sanchez (plus-9.6), Justin Verlander (plus-7.7) and Roy Halladay (plus-2.5). Four were significantly worse: Buehrle (minus-8.8), Liriano (minus-5.0), Zambrano (minus-4.7) and Santana (minus-2.8). And with the possible exception of Sanchez, who, to be fair, at the time had been vastly improving his control, every one of those pitchers' future performances was fairly predictable. The no-nos really didn't change anything; either you knew they were pitchers improving in skill or you knew that their no-nos were one-time flukes.
Incidentally, it's not only no-hitters that fall into this classification. Outstanding, albeit not historic, performances also exhibit trends of regression to the mean, supporting the case that it's always smartest to trade your pitcher coming off his most outstanding outing. For this example, let's take the 40 pitchers who managed a Bill James Game Score of 90 -- that plateau regarded a truly outstanding performance -- between 2009-11, who also made additional starts following those outings (meaning Chris Carpenter, who concluded the 2011 season with a 90-plus outing, isn't included because he has yet to pitch in 2012).
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.
Average Game Score in their 30 starts up to and including the 90-plus game: 55.8
Average Game Score in their five starts immediately following the 90-plus game: 55.2
Average Game Score in their 30 starts immediately following the 90-plus game: 55.8
Individual examples among this group exhibited similar trends to the no-no throwers: Pitchers such as James Shields, Clayton Kershaw and Ian Kennedy remained significantly better in terms of average Game Score following their best performances, in the short and long term, while Chris Capuano, Ted Lilly and John Danks were significantly worse. And if you can't tell the difference in talent between those two groups, all hope was lost in the first place.
The bottom line: Put Humber's perfect game out of your mind. Erase the memory of one game's outstanding statistics.
All that matters when evaluating Humber's, or any future pitcher who tosses a similarly dominant game, performance is whether it represented an improvement in his specific skills or situation. In short, it's not about what he has done recently, it's entirely about why he has done what he has done recently.
In Humber's case, from a long-term perspective there could be something there. His skills are indeed changing; he is leaning increasingly hard on his slider, and consequently he's generating more swings-and-misses and therefore resulting in more strikeouts. For instance: This season he has thrown sliders 35 percent of the time and has generated misses on 35 percent of his swings (against any pitch) and he has nine strikeouts on that pitch alone, and those numbers rank him third, second and 17th, respectively, in the majors. By comparison, in 2011 his numbers in those departments were 11 percent, 21 percent and 16, and he ranked nowhere near the major league leaders, each in fact either at or near the major league averages.
That's enough to establish Humber's presence as an AL-only and deep-mixed league asset. It does not, however, make him any kind of fantasy superstar. It merely means that if you cannot get the kind of inflated trade value for him that you wish; he's at least worth keeping around for the help indicated by his rank to the right.
But float his name out there. You never know when you might find a sucker, ready to proclaim him the next great thing minutes after he made history.
Among streaming starter options -- something I define as single-start options in daily leagues among pitchers owned in 25 percent of ESPN leagues or fewer -- for Week 3, here are my picks by day:
Tuesday, April 24: Randy Wolf versus Houston Astros
Wednesday, April 25: Trevor Cahill versus Philadelphia Phillies
Thursday, April 26: Rick Porcello versus Seattle Mariners
Friday, April 27: Danny Duffy at Minnesota Twins
Saturday, April 28: Wei-Yin Chen versus Oakland Athletics
Sunday, April 29: Chris Capuano versus Washington Nationals
Monday, April 30: Randy Wolf at San Diego Padres
Tuesday, April 17, Kevin Millwood: 4 IP, 9 H, 6 ER, 1 BB, 1 K
Wednesday, April 18, Juan Nicasio: W, 6 1/3 IP, 7 H, 4 ER, 0 BB, 5 K
Thursday, April 19, Phil Hughes: W, 5 1/3 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 4 K
Friday, April 20, Jonathon Niese: QS, 6 IP, 7 H, 3 ER, 2 BB, 5 K
Saturday, April 21, Philip Humber: W, QS, 9 IP, 0 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 9 K
Sunday, April 22, Joe Blanton: QS, 6 IP, 7 H, 3 ER, 2 BB, 2 K
Monday, April 23, Jake Peavy: W, QS, 9 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 5 K
Week's total: 7 GS, 4 W (57.1%), 4 QS (57.1%), 45 2/3 IP, 39 H, 18 ER, 9 BB, 31 K, 3.55 ERA, 1.05 WHIP
Season total: 19 GS, 9 W (47.4%), 13 QS (68.4%), 122 2/3 IP, 92 H, 34 ER, 38 BB, 78 K, 2.49 ERA, 1.06 WHIP
Mike Minor, Atlanta Braves: He was insistent during spring training that he make the Braves' starting five or the team should consider trading him, and through three regular-season starts thus far Minor has made his words count with outstanding on-field work. Most impressive has been his polished command; he has cut what was a 3.27 walks-per-nine-innings ratio in 2011 to 2.21 this season, and his fastball command has stepped up most, throwing it for strikes 70 percent of the time and generating misses on 21 percent of swings, up from 66 and 16 percent a year ago. Minor has always had front-of-the-rotation stuff; adjustments to big league competition and his command were the obstacles in his past stints with the Braves. It appears he's clearing both of those hurdles, and with continued success in the latter he might yet make a run at the top 40 starters.
Jake Peavy, Chicago White Sox: No, he is not the Jake Peavy of old, the one who won the 2007 National League Cy Young Award as a 26-year-old. Still, after battling through injuries in each of the past four seasons, it appears Peavy has grown comfortable with his arsenal at this stage of his career and let's not forget that he's just 30 years old, hardly an "old man." When it is said of a pitcher that he has "become a pitcher, not thrower," the transition they're talking about is the kind Peavy has made. He once possessed both mid-90s fastball and slider, both of which ranked among the most dominant pitches in the game; he still has the slider but without the same velocity on his fastball -- he now averages approximately 91 mph -- and he sprinkles in an effective two-seamer and changeup. Health is really the question; can Peavy stay on the field for 30-plus starts? Certainly the way he has pitched thus far makes him well worth the investment for so long as he can, as the only truly bothersome trait surrounding him right now is his inflated fly ball rate: 54.1 percent, a tad high for a White Sox pitcher.
Andy Pettitte, New York Yankees: There's no question that once ready Pettitte will rejoin the Yankees' rotation, nor was there ever one. Nor do the Yankees' current rotation issues really impact Pettitte's fantasy appeal. What do, however, are the glowing reports about his workouts and minor league appearances, which are important considering he's a 39-year-old who sat out the entire 2011 season. Pettitte has thrown seven innings in two official "rehab starts" for Class A Tampa, allowing one run with five strikeouts compared to zero walks, and he'll make another appearance for Double-A Trenton on Wednesday. He'll presumably join the Yankees' starting five in mid-May, and with the reports as positive as they've been and his command numbers as promising as they are, it's not unthinkable he could have some AL-only and deep-mixed league appeal, along the lines of his solid 2010 (3.28 ERA, 1.27 WHIP).
Jair Jurrjens, Atlanta Braves: It's difficult to remember that Jurrjens was an All-Star last July, considering how poorly he has pitched since. A 12-3 starter with a 1.87 ERA and 1.07 WHIP in 16 first-half starts last season, Jurrjens has managed a 1-5 record, 6.87 ERA and 1.87 WHIP in 11 starts since. He has hit rock bottom; he was optioned to Triple-A following another disastrous start on Monday, signifying that both the aforementioned Minor and more surprisingly rookie Randall Delgado have moved ahead of him on the depth chart. Jurrjens' command has completely collapsed, as he has a 4.53 walks-per-nine ratio in that 11-start slump, and it might require him multiple strong starts in the minors before he gets another chance.
Justin Masterson, Cleveland Indians: One of 2011's most promising breakouts, Masterson still isn't a pitcher without his flaws. Most notably, he lacks an elite "out" pitch to use versus left-handed hitters, meaning he needs be pitch-perfect every time out to remain as consistently successful as he was during the first half of last season (2.64 ERA, 1.22 WHIP). Left-handers are hitting .346/.429/.500 in 63 plate appearances versus Masterson thus far, a signal that he should be removed from your lineup anytime he faces a particularly lefty-laden lineup.
Brian Matusz, Baltimore Orioles: Forgive Matusz at least somewhat for what has been a particularly treacherous schedule for him so far, having faced the New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays and Los Angeles Angels in his three turns, and point out that he at least has experienced greater success than he did in 2011. (Not that that's setting the bar high.) But the problem for the left-hander is that he's in a division in which he'll rarely ever be excused the challenging matchup, and his 11 walks compared to 11 strikeouts practically erase what was a promising spring training for him in the command department. Matusz can be kept around in AL-only leagues, albeit on the bench, on the hope that easier matchups might spawn a hot streak. But right now, he's as much a no-go as he was a year ago at this time.