Commentary

Comparing mid-May pitching ranks

Updated: May 16, 2012, 11:20 AM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Everyone has an opinion, and perhaps in no other facet of fantasy baseball does that opinion come out more strongly than in the exercise we call rankings.

60 Feet 6 Inches

Rankings are a favorite exercise of mine; loyal readers of 60 Feet, 6 Inches -- as well as Hit Parade and Relief Efforts later in the week -- know they can always find my weekly rankings in those three spaces. These rankings change every day; there's so much more philosophy behind them than can possibly be fully explained in this space; and, in essence, they represent merely one man's opinion.

Well, except this week.

This is the week that we, as an ESPN Fantasy team, collaborate on our updated, year-to-end top 250 rankings. Those rankings can be found here, and are sortable by individual ranker (if you desire). Our group efforts give you an even greater sense of the worth of individual players, as well as illustrate relative value amongst different positions -- like, say, a third baseman versus a closer.

Those rankings also show me the many ways that my rankings are wrong.

Or … is that, I show the others all the ways in which they are wrong?

Ah, the fun of rankings debate.

I always say, no two sets of rankings are identical, and it's the differences of opinion that warrant the most discussion. That's where value lies; you can't sneak an extra little piece from your counterpart in a trade if you completely agree on a player's worth. And as I look at our group's rankings, here's where my opinion differs the most from the rest. I suppose this means that I regard these players buy-low or sell-high candidates, or they simply could be players I would or would not invest in comparative to others. Or, maybe, it just means someone here is crazy.

Is it me? That's for you to decide.

I like them more

[+] EnlargeYu Darvish
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezYu Darvish has lived up to lofty expectations so far, but can he maintain that the rest of the season?

Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers: I believe, but I've also believed for a very long time, and I mean well before he signed his deal with the Rangers. Darvish has been a special talent for quite some time -- he never, ever had a season of a 2.00 ERA or higher in five years in Japan, four times had 200-plus strikeouts and once had a WHIP of 1.00 or higher -- and so far, he looks as good as any pitcher in this game beneath only the elite class of Cy Young candidates (think Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez …). I said in the preseason that I feared Darvish would be a hot starter who cooled later in the year, as the high Texas temperatures and a lengthier U.S. season wore him down. That might well happen, but then, at the same time, he looks like a pitcher who is still working on improving his command, meaning he might yet get better in the coming weeks. Darvish ranks in the top five in baseball in two key categories: strikeouts (51, fourth) and swing and misses (89, eighth). He has faced three challenging matchups -- at Detroit, versus New York Yankees, at Toronto -- and excelled in them: 21 2/3 innings, 2 earned runs, 24 K's. And as he whittles down his arsenal to which pitches he finds most effective, leaning increasingly on those, he might yet bring his 4.87 walks-per-nine-innings ratio, his most troubling stat of the bunch, closer to his 1.94 career number in Japan. It is time to buy, not sell, Darvish.

Brandon Morrow, Toronto Blue Jays: He has been discussed so often in this space that maybe it should earn him a space in the title, but apparently I'm the only one moved by his career-best 2.73 walks-per-nine ratio to date, which is a good three-quarters of a walk lower than his 2011 number (3.46). Morrow's schedule has been light, yes, but when a pitcher who had xFIPs in the 3.50 range in each of the past two seasons -- hinting at his ERA and WHIP being misleading -- begins polishing his command to the extent that he has, his ERA/WHIP is bound to follow. Morrow's xFIP this season is 3.70, well within range, and he has even whiffed 34 batters compared to eight walks in his past four turns. There's something here.

Vance Worley, Philadelphia Phillies: I've been a Worley fan for quite some time, arguing this preseason that the "regression" case for him was overstated. My case is tied to one number in particular: He has 104 K's in 99 2/3 innings since last Aug. 1, thanks entirely to the strength of his cutter (to handle lefties) and slider (to put hitters away). Talk about Worley's 16 percent career swing-and-miss rate all you want; his slider has limited opponents to .238 AVG/.253 OBP/.363 SLG and a 23 percent miss rate in his career, making it a bona fide out pitch that he throws 26 percent of the time with two strikes. Simply put, he has the stuff to strike out hitters, and if he finishes with a near-even K's-to-inning ratio, he's going to make a serious run at the top 30 starters, even if his ERA and WHIP aren't necessarily elite.

Chad Billingsley, Los Angeles Dodgers: I'm not an especially big Billingsley fan and cautioned earlier in the year that he had faced an easy-as-cake schedule, but even with his recent return to earth he's still seemingly a better pitcher today than he was a year ago. His walk rate is down (from 4.02 to 3.10 per nine) and his swing-and-miss rate up (from 19 to 23 percent) and his four-seam, two-seam, cutter, curve arsenal has also proved more effective against lefties. You might need to carefully manage Billingsley over the course of a season, at least in standard ESPN leagues, but his per-start upside is as good as anyone on the fringe of the top 40.

Jonathon Niese, New York Mets: His xFIP continues to identify him as a bargain candidate in fantasy leagues -- at least larger mixed and NL-only formats -- as after he posted a 3.28 number in 2011, he has a 3.60 through seven starts of 2012. Oh, Niese's ERA and WHIP look quite a bit better this year than last, too, and let's not forget that each of his past three starts, which looked pretty ordinary, came on the road, and generally speaking Niese's ERA is usually noticeably higher in road games than at Citi Field. I think he's a better pitcher than last-man-on-your-roster status -- we ranked him as that in the preseason -- and one who deserves to stick around even in ESPN standard leagues, more worthy than a mere eight-spot rankings bump between our preseason to mid-May sets.

I like them less

[+] EnlargeMoore
Joy R. Absalon/US PresswireMatt Moore still has a bright future, but the hype might have been more than the performance so far.

Matt Moore, Tampa Bay Rays: I hate to criticize Matt Moore. Hate it. I placed Moore on my All-2015 Team last July, hinting at his considerable long-term potential, and have not changed my mind about the pick one bit.

For this season, however, I've taken a noticeable step back from Moore, who is in a clear "adjustment phase" of his career, one in which the length is difficult to determine. I was high on Moore this season, putting him in my top 25 starters before the season. We, as a group, were even higher on him. And we're still too high on him. Moore has a 5.08 walks-per-nine ratio thus far; that's third-worst among qualified starters. He has thrown strikes 61 percent of the time, 17th-worst among qualified pitchers and 2 percent beneath the big-league average. And his xFIP is 5.00; that is sixth-worst. Moore's command is spotty at best right now, exemplified by stinkers he has accumulated against soft competition in recent turns, and until he corrects it he's a no-go in fantasy leagues. He'd be off my rankings entirely if not for his massive long-term upside. Moore might realize it by as early as Memorial Day. But my ranking accounts for the possibility he might not until Labor Day.

Doug Fister, Detroit Tigers: I might have underranked him, considering his strong performance since returning from a costochondral strain, but I was also down on Fister more than the group in the preseason, ranking him 179th (compared to 139th). I've dropped him 46 spots, and perhaps that's somewhat unfair, though 46 spots at the late rounds of a mixed-league draft isn't substantial, and many of the concerns about the Tigers' defense in the preseason remain. It is, after all, ranked second-worst in Ultimate Zone Rating (minus-14.2), every one of its infield positions "in the red." I still think all our questions about Fister in March remain valid today.

Kyle Lohse, St. Louis Cardinals: I don't buy his hot start, and I'd put him at the head of a sell-high list, that is if your potential trade partners weren't probably expecting it. These were Lohse's stats as of this date last season:

8 GS, 6 QS, 4 W, 2.31 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 5.09 K/9, 1.85 BB/9

These are Lohse's stats as of Tuesday:

7 GS, 5 QS, 5 W, 2.08 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 5.61 K/9, 1.66 BB/9

They're eerily similar, are they not? Now, Lohse did finish last May on a high note, but from June 1 forward, he had seven quality starts, seven wins, a 4.33 ERA and 1.35 WHIP in 19 turns, which are pretty ordinary numbers in what was a pitching-rich season. Lohse has a career 4.09 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in April, both of those easily his lowest in any individual month of the season. I just don't see how, at 33 years old, he has finally found a way to sustain this all year.

Max Scherzer, Detroit Tigers: At some point, "potential" leads to continued frustration, and while Scherzer's past two starts might inspire optimism I think the smarter play is to trade him now while his value has received a slight uptick. Scherzer gets K's; he has never been consistently reliable in any other category. Heck, his past two outings came against two of the four most strikeout-prone teams in baseball, the Chicago White Sox and Oakland Athletics. Fantasy owners love to look at things like strikeouts and increased velocity -- talk up how his average fastball velocity is 93.6 mph, up from 2011's 93.1 -- and speculate about a potential breakout. I do believe Scherzer's ERA/WHIP will rebound. I do not believe they'll do so to the point at which he belongs near my top 25 starters.

Ubaldo Jimenez, Cleveland Indians: Talk about pitchers who are frustrating to own. Jimenez has effectively alternated good and bad starts all season, not even following traditional matchups patterns; he dominated the Texas Rangers but couldn't handle the Kansas City Royals. There is one number that petrifies me about Jimenez, and it's his fastball velocity. His average number in that department has gone from 95.9 mph in 2010 to 93.2 in 2011 to 91.8 in 2012. That is not an encouraging sign, especially for a pitcher whose fastball was his most effective pitch during his career year of 2010. Here's another reason I'm not buying Jimenez's return to glory: His xFIP is a major league-worst 5.82.

Streamer's delight

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 the upcoming week, here are my picks by day:

Tuesday, May 15: Wade Miley at Los Angeles Dodgers
Wednesday, May 16: Jerome Williams versus Chicago White Sox
Thursday, May 17: Aaron Harang at San Diego Padres
Friday, May 18: Jarrod Parker at San Francisco Giants
Saturday, May 19: Ryan Vogelsong versus Oakland Athletics
Sunday, May 20: Henderson Alvarez versus New York Mets
Monday, May 21: Tommy Milone versus Los Angeles Angels
Tuesday, May 22: Trevor Cahill versus Los Angeles Dodgers

Past picks
Tuesday, May 8: Joe Blanton -- 6 2/3 IP, 5 H, 4 ER, 3 BB, 7 K
Wednesday, May 9: Anthony Bass -- 5 2/3 IP, 9 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 4 K
Thursday, May 10: Henderson Alvarez -- W, QS, 7 IP, 7 H, 1 ER, 3 BB, 2 K
Friday, May 11: James McDonald -- QS, 8 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 8 K
Saturday, May 12: Trevor Cahill -- 5 2/3 IP, 6 H, 4 ER, 3 BB, 2 K
Sunday, May 13: Jake Arrieta -- 3 2/3 IP, 10 H, 7 ER, 2 BB, 6 K
Monday, May 14: Ryan Vogelsong -- QS, 7 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 5 BB, 3 K

Week's total: 7 GS, 1 W (14.3%), 3 QS (42.9%), 43 2/3 IP, 44 H, 19 ER, 19 BB, 32 K, 3.92 ERA, 1.44 WHIP
Season total: 34 GS, 16 W (47.1%), 22 QS (64.7%), 217 1/3 IP, 176 H, 68 ER, 71 BB, 158 K, 2.82 ERA, 1.14 WHIP

Three up

Chris Capuano, Los Angeles Dodgers: Who's laughing now? Though the Dodgers took much heat for signing the injury-prone, occasionally erratic Capuano to a two-year, $10 million deal this winter, the left-hander has been quite an addition thus far, his 2.06 ERA ranking among the top 10 qualified starters. He's in the midst of a streak of five consecutive quality starts, and while his competition hasn't been particularly challenging, let's not forget that he calls pitching-friendly Dodger Stadium his home, plus he'll get to face more light competition in the weeks ahead, including bottom-five teams in terms of runs in the San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants. Capuano's 3.95 xFIP -- a hair north of 2011's 3.67 -- shows that his true value is probably somewhere between his 4.55 ERA of last season and 2.06 this, but that'd still be a pitcher worth owning in NL-only and deep mixed leagues.

Wei-Yin Chen, Baltimore Orioles: Speaking of beneath-the-radar offseason acquisitions, Chen has been one of the most quietly successful members of the American League East, with a 2.68 ERA that rates third-best among qualified members of that division. Granted, some of his success might be capitalizing upon competition unfamiliar with him, but at the same time he deserves credit for what were impressive outings against offenses such as those of the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers. Sure, Chen might be a short-term, streaky play, potentially regressing during the season's second half as teams get familiar with him, but for now he has the kind of balanced splits -- righties have a .673 OPS against him, compared to .575 for lefties -- that should keep him valuable for the next several weeks.

James McDonald, Pittsburgh Pirates: Credit Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage for a "win" so far working with McDonald, because he sure appears to have transformed the right-hander into a much more efficient pitcher this season. McDonald's numbers speak volumes: He has slashed his walk rate, from 4.11 last season to 3.02 per nine this; he has induced more swing and misses, his miss rate going from 20 to 23 percent; and he has been more aggressive with two strikes at Searage's suggestion, increasing his rate of pitches thrown within the strike zone on those counts by 5 percent (43 to 48). This is a clear skills improvement, and one that backs up what has been an encouraging start to McDonald's 2012. He might not quite possess the stuff and/or command of an elite, top 40 starter, but if he can remain this aggressive all year, he might not finish far from that class.

Three down

Josh Beckett, Boston Red Sox: Forget about "Golf-gate," Beckett's pitching performance his last time out is much more deserving of criticism. After missing a turn with a lat injury, the right-hander was pounded by the Cleveland Indians on May 10, surrendering seven runs on seven hits, two of them home runs, in 2 1/3 innings. Overall this season, Beckett's velocity is down -- he's averaging 91.4 mph with his fastball, down from 92.9 mph in 2011 -- and he's serving up more fly balls -- up from 41 to 44 percent -- which hints that his injury might have been a greater concern than he's letting on. He's a risky fantasy play until he proves himself with a couple of solid outings.

Erik Bedard, Pittsburgh Pirates: Speaking of injuries, Bedard is the poster boy for the injury-risk pitcher, and now, after he left his most recent outing after one inning and eight pitches, he's again facing those questions. He had his scheduled Monday start scratched, then bumped back two days to Wednesday, and the back spasms that forced it threaten to impact his on-field performance. Bedard's inability to work deep enough into games is also a concern; he has thrown more than five innings in two of his seven starts this season. He's still a factor in NL-only leagues, but in mixed you need to be choosy with his matchups, plus formulate a contingency plan in the event he misses future time.

Bartolo Colon, Oakland Athletics: One bad start, because that's really what it was -- one awful outing against the Detroit Tigers on May 10 -- wouldn't normally cause such a precipitous drop in rankings for a pitcher. After all, that's a challenging matchup. But in Colon's case -- or for any pitcher ranked in the lower tiers of the top 100 -- 25 spots in the rankings might mean one good or bad outing, not to mention that his command hasn't been the sharpest of late. In his past four turns, Colon has issued six walks compared to nine strikeouts in 22 2/3 innings, a noticeable drop-off from the 19 K's compared to two walks he allowed in 27 1/3 innings in his first four starts. He's a streaks-and-matchups pitcher through and through, and there's reason to believe he has hit a cold spell.

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