Buy low on Adam Wainwright

Updated: June 5, 2012, 6:03 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Adam Wainwright had one of his worst outings of 2012 this past Friday; the seven earned runs he allowed were his second most of the season, and his 36 Game Score was his third worst number all year. He now has a 4.98 ERA, his highest in any full big league season, and his six losses are tied for the National League lead.

60 Feet 6 Inches

Let's therefore throw everyone a curve: It is now time to trade for Wainwright.

It's fitting "curve" describes such an awkward, unexpected proclamation; Wainwright's staple pitch, the one everyone recognizes as his best, is the curveball. And in recent outings, he has shown enough improvement with that particular offering that, in spite of his raw Rotisserie numbers, he's an ideal trade target.

Those who recall my preseason Wainwright analysis might recall my insistence that his drafting owners be patient through his probable early struggles. If you drafted him, here's hoping you've been patient. If you didn't, now is the perfect time to submit your trade offers for Wainwright. Remember, the prime time to pounce is directly after one of a pitcher's poorer outings, not directly after he has strung together three outstanding performances. The point here is to be ahead of the curve with Wainwright, and there are hints that, perhaps by July 1 as a ballpark date, he might restore much of his pre-surgery stock.

Here are the pertinent numbers regarding Wainwright's curveball:

• In his first eight starts, he afforded opposing hitters a .701 OPS with the pitch, issued walks on 13.0 percent of plate appearances that ended with one, threw 41 percent of them in the strike zone and surrendered a .211 well-hit average with them (that measuring the percentage of at-bats that ended in hard contact).

• In his past three starts, Wainwright has allowed a .619 OPS with his curve, hasn't walked anyone in a PA ending with one, has thrown 46 percent in the strike zone and surrendered a .105 well-hit average.

• Wainwright has also thrown curveballs 24 percent of the time in his past three starts, compared to 21 percent of the time in his first eight.

[+] EnlargeAdam Wainwright
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesAdam Wainwright is No. 4 among Cardinals starting pitchers and just No. 98 among all starters on the Player Rater.

Those numbers might sound insignificant, but coupled with rising usage of the pitch, Wainwright seems like he's growing more comfortable with the feel of his curve. Be aware that, in 2010, he issued only 10 walks in 275 PAs that ended with a curveball (3.6 percent). When Wainwright's curve has been sharp, he doesn't miss with it. It's also particularly difficult to hit: Only 30 times in all of 2010 did a hitter make hard contact against a Wainwright curveball, meaning that only 11 percent of his PAs ending in a curve resulted in hard contact. In his past three starts, to compare, he has allowed hard contact just once -- on Daniel Murphy's triple on June 1 -- in 21 PAs, meaning in only 5 percent of his PAs.

As for Wainwright's overall command, consider that he has a 1.69 walks-per-nine ratio in his past three starts, compared to 3.30 in his first eight, and he has thrown 51 percent of his pitches within the strike zone in his past three turns, up from 48 percent during his first eight.

This isn't to say that Wainwright's recovery has reached a perfect stage. Far from it: His average fastball velocity is still beneath 90 mph -- 89.5 mph in his past three starts -- which is beneath his 90.9 mph number in 2010. He also has a mere 18 percent swing-and-miss rate his past three starts, whereas during his heyday of 2010 his number in the category was 23 percent.

But the point of the "buy-low" proclamation with Wainwright is to get in on the low end of the upward curve, and it appears that he'll reach the pinnacle at some point this season, likely during the second half. If you can get him, say, for anything beneath the price of a top-25 starter, do so now.

Following along with the theme of it being time to acquire Wainwright, let's make a few other bold, "it is now time" predictions for starting pitchers.

"It is now time…" for Johnny Cueto's owners to sell, sell, sell. Cueto has been one of the most pleasant surprises in fantasy baseball thus far, ranking 29th among starters per our Player Rater, 17th in the majors in quality start percentage (72.7) and 11th in ERA (2.54). But a quick look at his peripherals, as well as the career patterns he followed during his first four major league seasons, suggests that he's perhaps the smartest sell-high candidate in the game. Cueto's FIP (3.61) ranks 39th out of 115 qualified starters, his xFIP (4.05) ranks 69th, and only 26 qualifiers have a worse strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio than his 5.83. Simply put, a pitcher who puts the ball in play that frequently at a venue like Great American Ball Park is due for regression. Among the eight historical ERA qualifiers to have called it their home ballpark and had K's-per-nine ratios of six or worse, the lowest ERA of the group was 3.84 (Bronson Arroyo, 2009), and the group overall had a 4.82 ERA. Cueto, too, has never topped 185⅔ innings in a single big league season, his lifetime second-half ERA (4.29) is nearly a run higher than in the first half (3.38), and he has averaged a mere 5.56 innings per start after the All-Star break.

"It is now time …" for the Arizona Diamondbacks to wake up and promote Trevor Bauer. Yes, I know about the walks. Bauer has afforded 38 free passes in 73⅓ innings in his 12 minor league starts between Double-A Mobile and Triple-A Reno this season, or 4.66 per nine, and that hints at a necessary adjustment once he reaches the majors. But doesn't every young pitcher, to varying degrees, experience an adjustment period? Putting aside the walks, Bauer's stuff is electric: He has a 2.52 ERA, 11.16 K's-per-nine ratio, .220 batting average allowed and has quality starts in three of his first four turns for Reno. Bauer will be an instant source of strikeouts once the Diamondbacks summon him and he might have it slightly easier being that he'll be breaking into a National League West division in which two of the team's four division rivals rank among the seven worst teams in terms of runs scored. He needs to get the call soon and he should get the call soon, meaning this might be your final chance to stash him.

"It is now time …" to completely buy the James McDonald breakout. McDonald's ranking this week is understandably conservative -- he's up to 33rd -- but it's time to treat him like a bona fide top-40 starter, not only today, but tomorrow, next week, next month and into September. Consider the facts: His 2.46 FIP is fourth best among qualified starters, his xFIP is 13th (3.28), he has slashed what was a 4.11 walks-per-nine innings ratio last season to 2.52 this, and he has backed that up by boosting what was a 47 percent rate of pitches within the strike zone in 2011 to 49 percent this year. McDonald's slider has been filthy this season and he continues to lean on it more: He threw it 17 percent of the time in April and generated a 20 percent swing-and-miss rate, and has thrown it 24 percent of the time in May and June and gotten 26 percent swings and misses. McDonald has a clear improvement of his overall skills, supporting his candidacy as one of 2012's breakouts.

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, June 5: Homer Bailey versus Pittsburgh Pirates
Wednesday, June 6: Jerome Williams versus Seattle Mariners
Thursday, June 7: Mike Leake versus Pittsburgh Pirates
Friday, June 8: Luke Hochevar at Pittsburgh Pirates
Saturday, June 9: Trevor Cahill versus Oakland Athletics
Sunday, June 10: Philip Humber versus Houston Astros
Monday, June 11: Only two pitchers less than 25 percent owned are scheduled and neither has an attractive matchup.
Tuesday, June 12: Wei-Yin Chen versus Pittsburgh Pirates

Past picks
Tuesday, May 29: Homer Bailey -- W, QS, 9 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 5 K
Wednesday, May 30: Anthony Bass -- 4 2/3 IP, 6 H, 5 ER, 4 BB, 2 K
Thursday, May 31: No pick.
Friday, June 1: Felipe Paulino -- W, QS, 6 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 3 BB, 5 K
Saturday, June 2: Luke Hochevar -- 4 2/3 IP, 5 H, 6 ER, 3 BB, 3 K
Sunday, June 3: Trevor Cahill -- W, QS, 9 IP, 6 H, 0 ER, 3 BB, 5 K
Monday, June 4: Scott Feldman -- 1 2/3 IP, 7 H, 8 ER, 1 BB, 3 K

Week's total: 6 GS, 3 W (50.0%), 3 QS (50.0%), 35 IP, 31 H, 20 ER, 15 BB, 23 K, 5.14 ERA, 1.31 WHIP
Season total: 54 GS, 27 W (50.0%), 34 QS (63.0%), 338 IP, 289 H, 126 ER, 112 BB, 243 K, 3.36 ERA, 1.19 WHIP

Three up

R.A. Dickey, New York Mets: I don't know what to say, other than that Dickey has clearly become a master of the knuckler. It's rare that a pitcher earns mention in "Three up" in back-to-back weeks; Dickey does thanks to a seven-hit, zero-walk, nine-strikeout shutout versus the St. Louis Cardinals this past Saturday. Check out this stat: Dickey has 38 K's (in 29⅓ innings) in his past four starts combined, 34 of those on the knuckleball. He has limited opponents to .184/.217/.299 triple-slash rates with his knuckler in those four games, generating misses on 34 percent of swings. And to put those numbers into perspective, since 2009, all major league pitchers have afforded .253/.297/.398 rates and a 21 percent swing-and-miss rate on knuckleballs (Dickey threw 47 percent of the total). It's difficult to explain, but enjoy it.

Brian Matusz, Baltimore Orioles: Though hardly back to the "budding ace" form scouts predicted at the time of his major league debut, Matusz, the worst player in all of fantasy baseball in 2011, has enjoyed quite the turnaround of late. Per our Player Rater, he's the No. 30 starting pitcher the past 30 days, thanks to an active streak of four consecutive quality starts, four wins and a 2.87 ERA in his past five turns and a 4.21 ERA and 2.91 strikeouts-per-walk ratio in six starts during that 30-day stretch. Most notably, he has wins against the division-rival Tampa Bay Rays (2) and Boston Red Sox during that six-game spell, something to take note of if your primary concern about him is the level of competition within his division. Matusz's K-per-walk ratio is the one that pops out; it shows that his command is back, both to where it was during his promising spring training as well as during his 2010 second-half uptick (2.52 K/BB) in 14 starts.

Johan Santana, New York Mets: Naturally, you'd expect a pitcher fresh off a no-hitter to rise in the rankings, but this isn't entirely about the no-no. Let's sing Santana's praises some more: He has back-to-back shutouts, has quality starts in seven of his past eight games and hasn't shown one bit of trouble in this, his first season back from anterior capsule surgery. In addition, while some might fret Santana's hefty usage during his no-no -- he threw a career-high 134 pitches -- the truth is that the Mets have been meticulous with his usage otherwise. He has averaged just 96 pitches and 6⅔ innings per start, both of those his lowest in any single year since 2003, and the Mets, understandably, are now giving him a breather this week. In addition, Santana has averaged 9.00 K's per nine innings, easily his best number in any season with the Mets, and his changeup, his signature pitch, has been electric: .143/.214/.159 triple-slash rates allowed and a 43 percent miss rate on swings. Yes, he looks healthy, and a lot closer to the Johan of old, rather than the one with hints of career decline pre-surgery.

Three down

Jake Arrieta, Baltimore Orioles: While Matusz's performance has experienced an uptick, Arrieta's, unfortunately, has trended in the opposite direction. In his past six starts he has an 0-5 record, 7.96 ERA and 1.74 WHIP, ranking him the fifth worst starting pitcher in the past 30 days per our Player Rater -- only Nick Blackburn, Carl Pavano, Chris Volstad and Jason Marquis have been worse -- and opposing hitters have batted .313 against him. Granted, Arrieta's matchups during that time have been treacherous (TEX, TB, @WSH, BOS, @TOR, @TB), but his command has regressed, as he's averaging 3.98 walks per nine during that span, up from 2.11 in his first six turns of 2012. He remains an important part of the Orioles' future so his rotation spot might be secure a few more turns through, but in fantasy he's a no-go for now, and maybe capped as a matchups candidate for the remainder of the season.

Gavin Floyd, Chicago White Sox: Floyd is now 29 years old, and while he got off to a tremendous start to the season, that he has struggled mightily in the past month probably means it's time to, at this stage of his career, write him off as the ultimate "streaky" pitcher. In his past four starts, he has an 11.90 ERA and 2.08 WHIP and has allowed a whopping eight home runs, and he has done so while facing a soft portion of his schedule: @LAA, MIN, CLE, SEA. Periodic struggles are nothing new to Floyd; during his career he has monthly ERAs (5-start minimums) of 6.68 (May 2009), 6.66 (May 2006), 6.57 (April 2006), 6.49 (April 2010), 6.21 (August 2011), 5.63 (May 2010), 5.52 (April 2009) … and now 7.06 in May 2012, which represents his worst single-month ERA in any month during which he made at least five starts. This is a "ride-the-streak" pitcher, and his current streak: Cold.

Derek Holland, Texas Rangers: Derek, you shouldn't have shaved the mustache. Talk about streaky (Floyd discussion above), aggravating (topic two weeks ago) pitchers; Holland qualifies as either. In the past two weeks he has been excellent -- 7⅓ innings, 5 hits, 2 runs, 9 K's on May 25, at home, versus the Toronto Blue Jays -- and awful -- 1⅔ innings, 8 hits, 8 runs on May 30, at home, versus the Seattle Mariners. Holland is a pitcher who relies on command, particularly that of his fastball, and it wavers from start to start without notice. Consider that in the May 25 game, he threw his fastball in the strike zone 58 percent of the time and recorded 71 percent strikes with it; in the May 30 game those numbers were 43 and 49. Arrrrrrrggggghhhhh!

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