- Tristan H. Cockcroft, Fantasy
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Some pitchers are frustrating, perplexing, maddening. They're the kinds of players who, on one day, fantasy owners love to own, and on another, are likely to make said owners want to bash themselves on the head with a baseball bat.
On one day they'll shut out the Texas Rangers, and on another, they'll get beaten around for 10 runs by the Pittsburgh Pirates. They're responsible for as many smashed TVs, computers or mobile devices as weekly head-to-head matchup wins.
And their poster boy might well be Max Scherzer.
Today, Scherzer looks great. He's coming off his best start in terms of Bill James Game Score all season, a 15-strikeout masterpiece against said Pirates, and his best since May 4, 2011, that one coming against, of all teams, the New York Yankees. Everyone is back on the Scherzer bandwagon -- as of today he is owned in 80.6 percent of ESPN leagues, up 8.3 percent since the morning of that Pirates start -- and probably confused by his mere four-spot bump in this week's rankings.
There's a simple reason: Scherzer, over the course of his five-year big league career, has proven himself a positively confounding pitcher in fantasy.
That Yankees start of Scherzer's, which registered an 81 Game Score, came against the No. 2 team last season in terms of runs per game. Conversely, his second worst start during that time came last July 9 against the San Francisco Giants, who ranked 29th in terms of runs per game. And if we break down teams into groups of 10 -- best 10, middle 10, worst 10 -- in the runs-per-game category, this is how Scherzer has fared against each group since the beginning of 2011:
Best 10: 5.46 ERA, 1.64 WHIP, 43.8 QS%, 44.6 Average Game Score
Middle 10: 3.79 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 53.3 QS%, 55.1 Average Game Score
Worst 10: 5.01 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 54.5 QS%, 50.6 Average Game Score
The most obvious takeaway from those statistics is that Scherzer is a clear no-go against the game's elite offenses. That's no shock; most every pitcher except the absolute best in baseball is going to have significantly worse stats against the game's top competition. But what's most bizarre about Scherzer's performance the past 14 months is that he looks like no lock against the game's worst offensive teams, and that he's almost entirely unpredictable against non-top-10 teams.
But with some help from Mike Polikoff, who oversees our fantasy games, we know that Scherzer was active for his Pirates start in 63.1 percent of ESPN leagues, up 1.5 percent from his previous turn versus the Chicago White Sox, in which he surrendered six runs (five earned) on eight hits in four innings. That May 15 stinker caused his ownership percentage to drop 1.9 percent, yet his start percentage rose, probably because of the obvious benefits of a Pirates matchup. That hints that fantasy owners as a whole increasingly regard Scherzer as more of a matchups than a ride-him-every-time pitcher.
The stats above, however, don't support Scherzer's candidacy even as a matchups candidate. And none of this is a positive for a pitcher in fantasy, especially not one drafted 38th at his position in the preseason.
Scherzer continues to tease, partially due to outings like Sunday's, as well as due to both rising strikeout rates (11.65 per nine innings this season, up from 8.03 in 2011) and increased fastball velocity (93.8 average mph, up from 93.1 in 2011). At the same time, his walk rate has risen to a career-high 3.51 per nine, up from 2.58 in 2011, and he has thrown pitches in the strike zone only 47 percent of the time, which is his worst rate in any full season as a big leaguer.
In short, it signals that there might not be a smarter time to begin peddling Scherzer than now, when his value is an in-season high. That he remains a borderline top-50 starter in this week's rankings is testament to his potential, but potential can be a tenuous thing. Would anyone really be surprised if his ranking bounced around between 35th and 70th for the entire summer?
Scherzer isn't the only pitcher who belongs in this class, however. Here are a few other pitchers likely to frustrate you:
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.
Ricky Nolasco, Miami Marlins: His 2011 owners will be quick to remind you about his July 20 start, during which he allowed nine runs on nine hits in 1⅓ innings versus the San Diego Padres, the third worst team in baseball in terms of runs per game (3.66). At the same time, sabermetrically minded owners will be quick to point out his numbers in categories like FIP; his 3.66 FIP since the beginning of 2008 is 28th best out of 98 pitchers with at least 500 innings pitched during that span. Nolasco has been an annual breakout candidate for what seems like forever, yet to date he has never managed an ERA beneath 3.50, or more than 15 wins or 200 strikeouts. This season he's not even an overwhelming performer in FIP; he has a 4.22 number that ranks 87th out of 118 qualifiers.
Francisco Liriano, Minnesota Twins: That he's out of the Twins' rotation, and has been for a few weeks, has caused his ownership percentage to plummet in ESPN leagues. Still, 5.9 percent?! Why is Liriano still on any rosters? Somehow, he continues to tease, even though his only truly "elite" fantasy season occurred six years ago. Liriano's strikeout (7.42 per nine) and walk (6.82) rates both represent career worsts, and he has shown little hope of a turnaround even as a reliever. If the Twins grant him another chance, don't be fooled.
John Danks, Chicago White Sox: Already this season, one of Danks' best outings came at Texas' Rangers Ballpark, one of the game's best hitters' venues, yet he had a worse outing at Safeco Field, one of the game's best pitchers' venues. Granted, Danks' career numbers are substantially better against losing teams (sub-.500 records) -- 3.29 ERA and 1.19 WHIP -- than against winning teams -- 4.70 and 1.40 -- but in three starts this season he has a 5.28 ERA and 1.76 WHIP against losing teams. He also has never finished a year with lower than a 3.32 ERA or 1.22 WHIP, meaning he's much more potential than actual production.
Edwin Jackson, Washington Nationals: Before you get too excited about his 3.31 ERA, 0.97 WHIP or career-best 8.01 K's-per-nine ratio, keep in mind Jackson's career track record of inconsistency. Most telling: He has an identical lifetime ERA against both winning and losing teams: 4.41. Jackson also has a history of managing useful half-seasons, the other half ruining his fantasy teams' ERA and WHIP. If you can use his hot start, as well as his status as a "fresh start" pitcher with the Nationals, as a basis for selling high, you should do so.
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 22: Phil Hughes versus Kansas City Royals
Wednesday, May 23: Jonathon Niese at Pittsburgh Pirates
Thursday, May 24: Philip Humber versus Minnesota Twins
Friday, May 25: Anthony Bass at New York Mets
Saturday, May 26: Jerome Williams at Seattle Mariners
Sunday, May 27: Felipe Paulino at Baltimore Orioles
Monday, May 28: Scott Diamond versus Oakland Athletics
Tuesday, May 29: Scott Feldman versus Seattle Mariners
Tuesday, May 15: Wade Miley -- W, QS, 6⅔ IP, 8 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 5 K
Wednesday, May 16: Jerome Williams -- W, QS, 8 IP, 10 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 5 K
Thursday, May 17: Aaron Harang -- W, QS, 7 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 6 K
Friday, May 18: Jarrod Parker -- 2 IP, 4 H, 6 ER, 4 BB, 0 K
Saturday, May 19: Ryan Vogelsong -- W, QS, 7 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 5 K
Sunday, May 20: Henderson Alvarez -- 5 IP, 9 H, 6 ER, 2 BB, 3 K
Monday, May 21: Tommy Milone -- W, QS, 7 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 3 K
Week's total: 7 GS, 5 W (71.4%), 5 QS (71.4%), 42 2/3 IP, 41 H, 16 ER, 9 BB, 27 K, 3.38 ERA, 1.17 WHIP
Season total: 41 GS, 21 W (51.2%), 27 QS (65.9%), 260 IP, 217 H, 84 ER, 80 BB, 185 K, 2.91 ERA, 1.14 WHIP
Josh Johnson, Miami Marlins: He has now thrown three consecutive quality starts, and perhaps you're wondering, were they a product of the matchups -- two of the three opponents have an OPS beneath the major league average and the third's is only six points better than average -- or correction to the bad luck he previously had suffered? There might not be any more compelling argument for the latter than this stat: Johnson allowed 20 hits on soft contact in his first six starts, his BABIP on those .278; he allowed just seven in his past three, his BABIP on those .156. The major league average BABIP on soft contact balls in play, incidentally, is .146. Johnson had 16 K's compared to five walks in 21 innings in his past three starts, and if he continues at that pace, he might yet restore his former top-25 starter status.
Bud Norris, Houston Astros: Hey, these Astros aren't so bad! Norris is a big reason; he has five consecutive quality starts and has allowed only one earned run in 26 innings in the month of May, including a six-inning, one-unearned-run performance to defeat the St. Louis Cardinals, the National League's most potent offense so far this season. Norris already has five wins in nine starts, answering a key question about his 2012 fantasy value. These Astros have averaged 4.17 runs per game with a .684 OPS thus far, putting them only slightly beneath the major league averages in either department, so while Norris' win potential still doesn't rate among the elite (or close to it), he shouldn't rank one of the worst, either. He's already 14th in the majors in K's per nine (9.10) and his FIP is 3.39, 38th out of 118 qualifiers, so any help in wins would be a plus.
Felipe Paulino, Kansas City Royals: Utterly forgotten during the preseason due to a strained right forearm, Paulino has returned with a vengeance since his activation from the disabled list on May 5. He has managed three quality starts in his first four starts of 2012, including a pair of games with at least six shutout innings versus the vaunted New York Yankees lineup, and has a 1.42 ERA and 10.30 K's-per-nine-innings ratio in his four turns. But perhaps most importantly, Paulino has a 2.49 walks-per-nine ratio, substantially improved upon his 3.75 career number entering the year. He's well worth adding in AL-only and deep mixed leagues, even if at the bare minimum for streaks play/streaming, and considering he has always possessed a fair share of strikeout potential, he might yet be a long-term help.
Daniel Bard, Boston Red Sox: He might have a wide enough variety of pitches to handle the demands of a starting pitcher, but Bard's command in his new role threatens to return him to his former bullpen gig. These stats speak volumes: 5.48 K's per nine, down nearly four from his 2011 number; 5.27 walks per nine, up more than two from 2011. Bard has also walked 13 batters against just six strikeouts in 18 innings in his past three turns, numbers which manager Bobby Valentine, per ESPNBoston.com, said "aren't acceptable." Kudos to the Red Sox for affording Bard the patience necessary to attempt the transition from relieving to starting, but it's clear their patience is now running thin. Bard might not get many more chances, though if he does return to the bullpen eventually, at least he'd be a dark horse candidate for saves.
Mike Minor, Atlanta Braves: Nate Ravitz and I discussed Minor's struggles on this past Friday's Fantasy Focus podcast, and in the left-hander's weekend start since, he showed zero improvement that could have possibly spared him plummeting 39 spots in the rankings. Here's a damning stat: He has surrendered .327/.403/.681 triple-slash rates to opposing hitters in his past five starts, including 11 home runs in 131 batters faced (one per 11.9). To put that into perspective, during that time span, only seven hitters (50-plus plate appearances) have managed a higher slugging percentage, including Josh Hamilton, who has a major league-leading nine homers in 80 plate appearances (one per 8.9). Home runs have been a severe problem for Minor, but so has command: His 42 percent rate of pitches thrown in the strike zone in his past five starts ranks sixth worst among qualified starters during that time, and his 4.73 walks-per-nine-innings ratio ranks 105th out of 119 qualified starters. Minor should be thankful that Jair Jurrjens is pitching poorly in Triple-A Gwinnett, because his rotation spot -- and inclusion in this column's top 100 -- would be in greater jeopardy otherwise. If he doesn't even warrant a mention in this column next week, no one would be shocked.
Neftali Feliz, Texas Rangers: Like Bard, Feliz might soon find himself returned to the bullpen, but unlike Bard, it's less a matter of performance than his team's concern about his health. Feliz on Monday was placed on the 15-day disabled list with right elbow inflammation, and per ESPNDallas.com, he'll go four weeks without picking up a baseball, meaning he might not return much before the All-Star break. His substantial drop in this week's rankings -- 35 spaces -- accounts for both the missed time as well as the fact he might return as a reliever; the Rangers were rumored to have watched free agent Roy Oswalt throw this past Friday, and an Oswalt signing would perhaps assure Feliz returns as a reliever.
Tristan H. Cockcroft has his top 100 starter rankings and discusses some aggravating pitchers to own based on their great high points and very bad low points.