Time to sell high on Sale?

Potential innings caps could limit value of some surprisingly good starters

Updated: May 30, 2012, 2:14 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

How silly does the Chris Sale pingpong game -- the one where his role fluctuated between starter and closer in a matter of a week -- look today?

60 Feet 6 Inches

When a pitcher comes off the kind of effort that Sale put forth on Monday, setting career highs in strikeouts (15) and Bill James Game Score (81), most would answer, "Incredibly." Single-game performances at either extreme tend to inspire the strongest reactions about a player's role and perceived value.

Thanks to a four-start stretch during while Sale's Game Score has improved each time -- 42 on May 12, 60 on May 17, 77 on May 23, 81 on Monday -- he has risen to 11th among starting pitchers on our Player Rater, and among qualified pitchers, he's now eighth in ERA (2.34), 12th in WHIP (1.01), sixth in strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio (9.52) and 19th in K's-per-walk ratio (3.81). Sale hasn't surrendered more than three runs or walks in a single outing all year.

Two things have made Sale a breakout reliever-turned-starter this season: enough depth in his arsenal to have "out" pitches versus both right- and left-handed hitters, and a slider that has been a true put-away pitch. To the former point, Sale has both a changeup and two-seam fastball to help neutralize righties; his changeup has limited righties to .083/.083/.125 triple-slash rates in 24 plate appearances that ended in one, and has generated a 33 percent miss rate on swings. And, per FanGraphs, his two-season fastball has been worth 4.6 runs prevented above average, tops among any individual pitch he throws.

As for Sale's slider, per ESPN Stats & Information, he generated 11 of his 15 strikeouts on sliders during Monday's game, those 11 the second-most K's on sliders by any pitcher in the past four seasons (since 2009). His 37 K's on sliders are third most in the majors this season, and of the 172 K's he has recorded during his brief big league career, 65 percent (112) were on sliders.

[+] EnlargeChris Sale
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesChris Sale had 16 strikeouts total in the three starts before the 15-K outburst on Memorial Day.

It's those skills that establish Sale's hot start as legitimate, his fifth-ranked 2.45 FIP and 2.97 xFIP backing that up, and if he's capable of staying both healthy and in the Chicago White Sox's rotation all summer, there's no question he'd be capable of being a top-25 fantasy starter the rest of the season.

But if we take a step back from that outstanding single game, we might realize Sale might not yet be done playing "role pingpong."

Sale has two obstacles standing in his path: One is the elbow tightness that initially caused the White Sox to begin his pingpong game the first week of May; the other is the possible innings cap -- which is somewhat related to the first point -- that looms over him the deeper we get into the summer.

Like many significant fantasy names from the past two seasons (including Michael Pineda, Jordan Zimmermann and Mat Latos), Sale, due to both his young age (23) and limited workloads so far during his professional career, is likely to have his innings carefully managed by his team. Sale currently finds himself on pace for 188 2/3 innings; he threw 71 innings as a reliever last season after 138 2/3 combined between college, the minors and majors in 2010. In other words, he's on track to exceed his single-year innings high by nearly 50.

Count on the White Sox preventing that from happening.

White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper told the team's official website as far back as in January that Sale's innings would be capped; the debate now is what that number might be. Considering many teams don't allow their young starters to increase their innings by more than 30 over past professional highs, Sale might not exceed 170, which would give him only 112 1/3 more innings. At his current rate of 6.3 innings per start, that means he'd make only 17-18 more starts. Granted, the White Sox's playoff positioning might have a lot to do with the team's plans for Sale, but if you're his owner, the smart move is to prepare for those numbers accordingly.

That perhaps makes Sale a smart sell-high candidate today. Sure, he might provide you dominant statistics for another month or more, but as the stretch run of the fantasy season -- the most critical weeks in head-to-head leagues -- arrives, Sale might find his turns frequently skipped, or he might be shut down altogether. Take a look at what happened to those three aforementioned 2010-11 examples:

Michael Pineda, 2011
Through May 31: 10 GS, 8 QS, 6 W, 2.42 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 9.38 K/9
June: 6 GS, 4 QS, 1 W, 3.03 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 7.68 K/9
July 1 on: 12 GS, 7 QS, 2 W, 5.35 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 9.65 K/9, 4 skipped turns

Jordan Zimmermann, 2011
Through May 31: 10 GS, 7 QS, 2 W, 3.88 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 6.56 K/9, 1 skipped turn
June: 6 GS, 6 QS, 3 W, 0.85 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 5.74 K/9
July 1 on: 10 GS, 3 QS, 3 W, 4.14 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 8.13 K/9, 1 skipped turn, then shut down after Aug. 28 start

Mat Latos, 2010
Through May 31: 10 GS, 7 QS, 5 W, 3.08 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 7.34 K/9
June: 5 GS, 3 QS, 3 W, 2.37 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 10.09 K/9
July 1 on: 16 GS, 11 QS, 6 W, 3.00 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 10.16 K/9, 2 skipped turns

In each example, the pitcher remained remarkably productive through June before experiencing some regression from that point forward, including at least two missed rotation turns after July 1. The hint is that the month of June is the ideal time to peddle an "innings cap" pitcher, if you're unwilling to accept the headaches that come with owning such a young starter.

Sale isn't the only youngster who fits into this class. Two more members of the top 20 starters on our Player Rater, as well as another within the top 30, also qualify.

Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals: The topic of his trade value, comparative to his potential innings cap, came up during this past Friday's Fantasy Focus podcast, and Strasburg might be the most critical pitcher included within this group. He's 23 years old, the gem of the organization, only half a season removed from Tommy John surgery, and the Nationals previous demonstrated during his rookie season of 2010 that they're meticulous about his workload management. Strasburg is on pace for 196 innings, or 151 2/3 more than he pitched between the majors and minors last season and 72 2/3 more than his professional high of 123 1/3 set in 2010. And like Sale, the Nationals' playoff positioning might have everything to say about his innings cap. The number 160 -- Zimmermann's cap in 2011 -- has been most frequently cited, and perhaps the 185 that Latos threw during the San Diego Padres' 2010 playoff push is possible. Either way, Strasburg probably has only 100-125 innings remaining, or 17-22 more starts at his current rate of innings per start.

Strasburg's owners with innings fears should begin shopping him now, but considering how productive he might remain through the All-Star break, he shouldn't be swapped for much less than a top-15 starter.

Lance Lynn, St. Louis Cardinals: He's 25 years old, the No. 5 starter on the Player Rater … and on pace for a whopping 208 2/3 innings. Lynn might be the most equipped pitcher of the bunch to approach 200 frames, having thrown as many as 164 in the minors in 2010, but a 208 2/3-inning number would exceed his 2011 combined total between the majors and minors by 99. The Cardinals, too, have playoff aspirations, but that might also lead to them being more cautious with his workload during the season's second half, sparing some of his innings for the postseason. After all, remember that this team has Chris Carpenter working his way back from a shoulder injury, as well as top prospect Shelby Miller only a phone call away in Triple-A; either could contribute sometime after the All-Star break.

Jeff Samardzija, Chicago Cubs: He's 27 years old, older than your traditional "innings cap" candidate, but accounting for his 88 innings thrown in 2011, his current 192-innings pace might seem a tad excessive. Samardzija has bounced between starting and relieving throughout his professional career, throwing as many as 141 2/3 innings in 2007, 131 in 2008 and 130 2/3 in 2010, but he has never gotten even close to the 200-inning threshold as a pro. My concern is that a pitcher who has his history of command issues might not take to such a workload increase, and even if the Cubs don't cap his innings in the 160-170 range, he might suffer in terms of performance during the season's second half.

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 29: Homer Bailey at Pittsburgh Pirates
Wednesday, May 30: Anthony Bass at Chicago Cubs
Thursday, May 31: Jeremy Guthrie is the only under-25-percent-owned pitcher scheduled on this date; he is not a recommended streaming option.
Friday, June 1: Felipe Paulino versus Oakland Athletics
Saturday, June 2: Luke Hochevar versus Oakland Athletics
Sunday, June 3: Trevor Cahill at San Diego Padres
Monday, June 4: Joe Blanton versus Los Angeles Dodgers
Tuesday, June 5: Homer Bailey versus Pittsburgh Pirates

Past picks
Tuesday, May 22: Phil Hughes -- W, QS, 6 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 7 K
Wednesday, May 23: Jonathon Niese -- W, QS, 7 2/3 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 5 K
Thursday, May 24: Philip Humber -- 4 1/3 IP, 6 H, 5 ER, 3 BB, 4 K
Friday, May 25: Anthony Bass -- 5 1/3 IP, 8 H, 6 ER, 3 BB, 4 K
Saturday, May 26: Jerome Williams -- W, QS, 6 IP, 5 H, 3 ER, 2 BB, 5 K
Sunday, May 27: Felipe Paulino (pitched 5/26) -- 5 2/3 IP, 5 H, 3 ER, 5 BB, 5 K
Monday, May 28: Matt Harrison -- W, QS, 8 IP, 7 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 5 K

Week's total: 7 GS, 4 W (57.1%), 4 QS (57.1%), 43 IP, 41 H, 22 ER, 17 BB, 35 K, 4.60 ERA, 1.35 WHIP
Season total: 48 GS, 24 W (50.0%), 31 QS (64.6%), 303 IP, 258 H, 106 ER, 97 BB, 220 K, 3.15 ERA, 1.17 WHIP

Three up

R.A. Dickey, New York Mets: It's often said that you cannot predict the performance of a knuckleballer, but in Dickey's case, that's not true. Very quietly, he has become an automatic in his Citi Field starts -- he has 11 consecutive quality starts in home games and a 2.73 ERA there during his Mets career -- and he's remarkably effective on the road, too, recording quality starts in 12 of his past 13 road turns. The majors' lone remaining knuckleballer -- unless you count batter Mitch Maier -- Dickey this season has limited opposing hitters to .212/.267/.365 triple-slash rates and a 26 percent swing-and-miss rate with his knuckler. Even better: He has thrown 55 percent of them in the strike zone and gotten strikes on them 68 percent of the time; among all pitches thrown in the majors this season, the league averages in those departments are 49 and 63 percent. So yes, Dickey indeed is a "predictable" knuckleballer: Predictably good.

Dan Haren, Los Angeles Angels: Is the "Haren of old" back? Tuesday's start versus the New York Yankees might provide a truer test than his most recent outing, a 14-strikeout shutout against the Seattle Mariners on May 24, but that performance at least eases some of the worries about his back. Haren's fastball velocity in that game represented a season high (89.0 mph), his 35 percent swing-and-miss rate was his second-best number of 2012 and he notched seven of his 14 K's on sliders. He's back in the top 15 this week, and with another strong outing on Tuesday, he might soon restore his top-10 status.

James McDonald, Pittsburgh Pirates: McDonald has gotten a lot of love in this space this season, and he's due some more after managing his third single-game performance of greater than a 75 Game Score on Monday against the Cincinnati Reds. The point has previously been made that the polish on his command is primarily responsible for his breakthrough; he has slashed his walk rate from 4.11 per nine innings in 2011 to 2.62 this season. But here's another reason for McDonald's performance, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information: He has added a slider this season, he has caused opposing hitters to miss on 50 percent of their swings against it, and his 54 percent strikeout rate on sliders ranks third among starting pitchers. Granted, he has thrown only 80 sliders all season, but apparently the depth it has provided his arsenal is a plus.

Three down

Matt Garza, Chicago Cubs: He's coming off back-to-back stinkers, most distressing in that they were against the Houston Astros and Pittsburgh Pirates, matchups that most fantasy owners would consider outstanding. Garza allowed 13 runs (12 earned) on 12 hits, five of them home runs (resulting in 30 total bases), in eight innings in those games. Chalk them up as fluky if you wish, but there's one underlying number that bears watching during his coming outings: Garza has averaged 92.8 mph with his fastball in his past five starts, after averaging 93.8 mph during his first four, and his swing-and-miss rate on his slider was 32 percent in his past five, after 55 in his first four. His stuff has been lacking in recent turns, so don't be so quick to write them off.

Roy Halladay, Philadelphia Phillies: We -- fantasy owners as a whole -- hate the waiting. Halladay departed his Sunday start after only two innings with a sore right shoulder, and at publishing time we were awaiting a doctor's report from a scheduled examination on Tuesday. That puts Halladay's rank entirely in flux; his seven-spot drop accounts mostly for the prospect of a disabled-list stint, however brief, yet by day's end it might look like too little as much as too big a drop. A two- to three-week absence for a top-10 starter would probably result in a drop in ranking to just within the top 25; Halladay's performance to date, specifically his decline in strikeout rate, offers enough concern about his injury if he needs to miss time.

Phil Hughes, New York Yankees: If the Yankees had a viable replacement for Hughes in their rotation, might they consider it, given how poorly he has performed this season? The right-hander has three quality starts in 10 tries, two of them coming against the Kansas City Royals and the third versus the Seattle Mariners. He has allowed a home run in every start this season and has a 5.01 FIP that rates 12th worst among 117 ERA qualifiers. Here's what should bother fantasy owners most: Hughes' 8.37 K's-per-nine ratio might rank 32nd out of those 117 pitchers, but his 18 percent swing-and-miss rate is well beneath the major league average of 22 percent. He's effectively a streaming candidate, and only against the game's worst, and his strikeouts might be a bit of a mirage.

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