Adjustment periods

Morrow, Saunders, Nova improving; Lincecum, Scherzer struggling

Updated: May 1, 2012, 11:38 AM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

When we pick a player on draft day -- especially a veteran player with a proven track record of statistical strengths -- we're sometimes surprised when he experiences a sudden, radical shift in said strengths.

60 Feet 6 Inches

For example: The major league leader in strikeouts per nine innings the past two seasons combined (300-plus innings) averaged 10.53.

This season, that same pitcher has averaged 5.79 K's per nine.

No pitcher has suffered the kind of strikeout rate decline that Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Brandon Morrow has in 2012. From a counting-numbers aspect, Morrow's 21 K's thus far have been exceeded by 64 other pitchers; last season his 203 K's were exceeded by only 11 others. Being that he has never been a valuable fantasy asset in any other prominent Rotisserie category, Morrow was probably a pitcher, who, if you bought him, you bought him solely for the K's.

Yet Morrow currently ranks 45th among starting pitchers on our Player Rater, a worthwhile asset in fantasy in spite of his shifting numbers. He has a 3.03 ERA and 1.07 WHIP, numbers substantially beneath the 4.37 ERA and 1.38 WHIP he had during the first five seasons of his major league career. Morrow has made changes that have kept him in the realm of successful fantasy starters; his owners probably aren't unhappy with his efforts, even if they've had to make some adjustments to make up for his shortcomings in terms of strikeouts.

But here's a fair question: Has Morrow really changed at all? Perhaps his performance is fluky and the strikeouts will eventually return; or might his owners need to worry that the K-rate drop might signal complete erosion in time?

Morrow's changeup has improved by leaps and bounds. He has expanded the difference in average velocity between his fastball and changeup to 7.7 mph (93.3, compared to 85.6) -- the differential was 6.8 mph in 2011 -- has thrown it for strikes 19 percent more often and has limited opponents to .200/.250/.333 rates in 16 plate appearances that ended in one (last season's rates: .407/.467/.556, in 30 PA-enders). Morrow has also made big strides pitching from the stretch, limiting opponents to .154/.186/.308 rates with men on (44 PAs), down from .267/.346/.466 (328 PAs) in 2011. Part of that is his leaning more on his off-speed stuff in those situations; he has thrown curveballs, sliders or changeups 42 percent of the time with men on, compared to 38 percent last season. And, perhaps most importantly, Morrow is inducing more ground balls, his rate rising from 37.1 percent in 2011 to 46.5 percent this season.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Morrow
Tom Szczerbowski/US PresswireBrandon Morrow is proving to be more than a strikeout pitcher.

The sum is a pitcher who indeed has made noticeable enough adjustments that the "new" Morrow might be the true one, the results a more balanced, perhaps more trustworthy fantasy option. His drop in strikeouts will probably keep him from realizing top-25 potential -- something his owners might have hoped for as a best-case scenario -- but at least he might not be as volatile as he was in the past.

Morrow isn't the only pitcher who has experienced such statistical shifts. Let's take a look at a few others whose transformations bear watching:

Joe Saunders is getting more grounders and getting righties out. I know, I know, he's Joe Saunders, owner of lifetime numbers like a 4.06 ERA and 5.03 K's-per-nine ratio that hardly raise a fantasy owner's eyebrow. But as AJ Mass pointed out in Monday's "Vantage Point", Saunders has ditched his slider, plus has increasingly leaned upon a two-seam fastball that has helped elevate his ground ball rate to a career-high 55.3 percent. That's an important thing for a pitcher like Saunders, who in addition to being a put-it-in-play pitcher, has one of the game's better infield defenses behind him. He might now be an every-week NL-only asset, and a streaming option at the minimum even in deep mixed leagues.

Max Scherzer is throwing harder and walking more batters; might experimenting with a two-seam fastball be responsible? Scherzer's troubles are somewhat puzzling if you look at mere velocity readings; per our pitch-tracking tool, he's one of only three full-time starting pitchers whose fastball has averaged more than a half a mph faster this season (93.7 mph) than last (93.1), and his 2012 average velocity, thus far, would represent a career high. At the same time, he has averaged 4.81 walks per nine innings, noticeably higher than his 3.13 career rate and substantially north of his 2.58, career-best number of 2010.

One thing that's different is that Scherzer is experimenting with a two-seam fastball. Per FanGraphs, he has thrown it 7.3 percent of the time, after having never previously thrown one at the major league level. The problem, however, is that he's not throwing any of his pitches for strikes -- four-seam fastball, slider, changeup -- as effectively as he did in the past, so it's not like the one, new pitch can be blamed. (Both his in-the-zone and walks-per-PA-enders ratios on every pitch have gotten worse.) Scherzer's owners might wish he would scrap the two-seamer and go back to what worked for him in the past, but there's also merit to this being an adjustment period he'll work his way through. The problem: That requires patience, and in a mixed league, you might not be able to afford it.

Tim Lincecum's fastball velocity remains down. No pitcher in baseball has suffered a more significant dip in fastball velocity than Lincecum; what was a 92.2 mph pitch on average has dipped to 89.7 through five starts, and he hasn't even hit 94 mph on the gun once all year, after doing so 246 times in 2011. Here's the problem with that: When Lincecum throws his fastball 92 mph or slower, it's much more hittable, to the tune of .309/.409/.456 triple-slash rates since 2009. He's being forced to lean more on his breaking pitches, and that's not what you want to hear considering how violent his delivery is. Lincecum is still capable of a season that would warrant a place in any fantasy lineup, but he's not the ace he was a few years ago, and he's a riskier pitcher than he has ever been before.

Ivan Nova's command is suddenly superb. It was statistics like Nova's 1.72 K's-per-walk ratio last season that ranked him atop many regression candidate lists entering 2012, but it's his 5.00 number in the category thus far that might have his critics thinking differently today. He's suddenly a strikeout artist who doesn't walk anyone, and much of it is thanks to his breaking pitches (curveball and slider), which are responsible for 21 of his 25 K's. At the same time, his growth is somewhat misleading. Nova's miss rate hasn't improved substantially, going from 16.7 percent of swings last season to 18.4 percent this season, and his called-strike rate on breaking pitches has risen from 31.5 to 44.3 percent. Hitters are being frozen by those offerings more often, but if they become more aggressive in the coming weeks, Nova's strikeouts might return closer to their former level. He's better in the category, but not necessarily by this much.

Both Jason Hammel's strikeout and ground ball rates have risen. One of the American League East's most surprising stories, Hammel has exploded for career-high K's-per-nine (8.65) and ground ball (61.8 percent) ratios with the Baltimore Orioles, most impressive considering two of his four starts came against the Toronto Blue Jays. Hammel's ground ball increase makes sense, being that he's throwing two-seam fastballs 40.5 percent of the time, per FanGraphs, and his 26 percent miss rate backs up the boost in K's. As a member of the AL East, he'll always be subject to matchups scrutiny. But don't be so quick to write him off as total fluke.

Chad Billingsley has stopped walking hitters. No pitcher has improved his walks-per-nine ratio more than Billingsley, who slashed a 4.02 walks-per-nine in 2011 to 2.05 so far this season. Most of it has shown up in his performance versus left-handed hitters, who have walked in only 4.8 percent of their PAs against him, compared to 13.1 percent a year ago, as his two-seam fastball, cutter and changeup have been electric against them to date. Billingsley isn't necessarily throwing more overall strikes; he's merely hitting his spots more often when he needs to. And considering that three of his five opponents thus far rank among the game's top 10 teams in terms of walks, it's an impressive -- and relevant -- feat.

Streamer's delight

Among streaming starter -- something I define as single-start options in daily leagues among pitchers owned in 25 percent of ESPN leagues or fewer -- options for the upcoming week, here are my picks by day:

Tuesday, May 1: Felix Doubront versus Oakland Athletics
Wednesday, May 2: Carlos Zambrano at San Francisco Giants
Thursday, May 3: Jeff Niemann versus Seattle Mariners
Friday, May 4: Drew Smyly versus Chicago White Sox
Saturday, May 5: James McDonald versus Cincinnati Reds
Sunday, May 6: Bronson Arroyo at Pittsburgh Pirates
Monday, May 7: Jhoulys Chacin at San Diego Padres
Tuesday, May 8: A.J. Burnett versus Washington Nationals

Past picks
Tuesday, April 24, Randy Wolf: W, QS, 6 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 4 BB, 4 K
Wednesday, April 25, Trevor Cahill: 5⅓ IP, 6 H, 4 ER, 2 BB, 3 K
Thursday, April 26, Rick Porcello: 6⅔ IP, 7 H, 5 ER, 2 BB, 3 K
Friday, April 27, Jake Arrieta: 5⅔ IP, 4 H, 4 ER, 2 BB, 3 K
Saturday, April 28, Wei-Yin Chen: W, QS, 7 IP, 6 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 4 K
Sunday, April 29, Chris Capuano: W, QS, 6⅔ IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 9 K
Monday, April 30, Randy Wolf: W, 5 IP, 9 H, 3 ER, 3 BB, 3 K

Week's total: 7 GS, 4 W (57.1%), 3 QS (42.9%), 42⅓ IP, 39 H, 19 ER, 17 BB, 29 K, 4.04 ERA, 1.32 WHIP
Season total: 26 GS, 13 W (50.0%), 16 QS (61.5%), 165 IP, 131 H, 53 ER, 55 BB, 107 K, 2.89 ERA, 1.13 WHIP

Three up

Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers: Too many pitches? Ha! You could hardly criticize Darvish for his diverse arsenal by looking at his past three starts, which came against the Detroit Tigers, New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays, three of the American League's most potent offenses. During that time, Darvish is a perfect 3-0 with an 0.83 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 22 K's in 21⅔ innings. Get this: Per our pitch-tracking tool, Darvish throws seven different pitches -- fastball, changeup, curveball, slider, cutter, sinker and splitter -- and since FanGraphs says he throws both two- and four-seam fastballs, you could say he throws eight, and it's only his fastball against whom opponents have higher than a .667 OPS (.904, in 62 PA-enders). If you didn't believe before, you need to now.

Matt Garza, Chicago Cubs: Garza probably belongs in the upper portion of this column, being that he's throwing even more sliders this year (27.1 percent of all pitches) than last (23.3 percent), and generating even more swings and misses overall this year (29.4 percent) than last (25.7 percent). Whether he might pay a physical toll for that at some future point or not, Garza has quietly become one of the game's best strikeout artists thanks to his reliance upon the pitch. He has 9, 7, 5 and 10 K's in his past four outings, and ranks among the top five in the majors in the category.

Drew Smyly, Detroit Tigers: A strikeout artist during his minor league career -- he averaged 9.23 K's per nine in 23 career minor league appearances -- Smyly has carried that over thus far in his big league career, whiffing as many batters (22) as he has pitched innings (22). Much of that is thanks to his curveball and slider, which have resulted in 13 of his 22 K's and limited opponents to a .172 batting average, the rookie perhaps taking advantage of hitters unfamiliar with his arsenal. Enjoy this, as opponents might hit Smyly more effectively the more times he sees them, but even in defense of him in that regard, there's this: Opponents have batted only .213 against him in their second and subsequent plate appearances against him within his outings so far.

Three down

John Danks, Chicago White Sox: He's another pitcher whose velocity has dropped dramatically, what was a 91.4 mph fastball on average last season dipping to 89.5 mph this year. The problem for Danks, of course, is he can't afford to lose any zip on his pitches; he calls one of the most homer-friendly ballparks in baseball his home. Most distressing, he has issued 15 walks in 24⅓ innings in his past four starts, further compounding the problem. Reserve him for now.

Ubaldo Jimenez, Cleveland Indians: Speaking of velocity drops, how about a multiyear decline in that department? Jimenez qualifies: He averaged 95.6 mph with his fastball in 2010, that dropped to 93.2 mph last season, and so far this season he has averaged 91.7 mph. That's a dramatic drop over an extended period, it helps explain why his OPS allowed on fastballs has gone from .649 to .803 to .897, and it sure explains why his WHIP is an unsightly 1.50 thus far.

Justin Masterson, Cleveland Indians: So now, in addition to his usual struggles versus left-handed hitters, Masterson is regressing in the walks department. With a 5.10 walks-per-nine ratio through his first five starts, Masterson has nearly doubled his 2011 number in the category (2.71), and in each of his past three appearances he has issued at least four free passes (15 total). Don't be convinced his two-runs-in-8⅓ innings performance his last time out represents the beginning of an extended hot streak. He's still a risky bet for now.

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