Commentary

What's wrong with struggling aces?

Updated: June 12, 2012, 2:54 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

It has been a grueling season for fantasy-ace starting pitchers.

60 Feet 6 Inches

Roy Halladay, our projected No. 1 starting pitcher during the preseason, suffered a precipitous strikeout decline in April and May, before succumbing to a strained right latissimus dorsi muscle that threatens to sideline him into August.

Cliff Lee, projected No. 4, missed 20 days earlier in the year with a strained oblique. Oh, plus, he's winless, and you know that means trouble. (Kidding, kidding.)

Felix Hernandez, projected No. 5, exhibited diminished velocity during early starts, and on Tuesday night will be making his first start in 11 days, the lengthy absence a result of a back injury that threatened to land him on the disabled list.

Jered Weaver, projected No. 6, hasn't pitched since May 28, when he left a start after only two batters due to a lower back strain, spasms and disc inflammation.

Tim Lincecum, projected No. 7, is in the midst of a nightmare campaign, his ERA (6.00) and WHIP (1.58) representing the fourth worst numbers among qualified starters, and his No. 194 ranking among starting pitchers on our Player Rater easily the worst of anyone we had ranked among our preseason top 20.

And Jon Lester, projected "unlucky" No. 13, indeed has suffered poor fortune. Besides his losing record and middling ERA and WHIP, he has surrendered a .316 BABIP -- that is the highest number he has allowed in any single year.

Putting aside Lee, whose only crime is that he has somehow failed to find a scientific means of extracting his raw talent from his left arm and injecting it into his hitters' bats, and Weaver, whose back has sufficiently healed to the point where he is expected to return in about a week, that's four pitchers you presumably picked to lead your fantasy squad who have let you down. Today, let's take a closer look at each, discussing the hopes of any of them restoring their preseason stock.

[+] EnlargeTim Lincecum
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesTim Lincecum has allowed two or fewer runs in just three of his 13 starts this season.

Lincecum's story has been one of the most aggravating of 2012. Just three seasons ago, he finished the No. 2 starting pitcher on our Player Rater as well as No. 3 in WAR (wins above replacement). Today, he is the fifth worst ERA-qualifying starting pitcher on the Player Rater, directly ahead of Mike Minor.

Granted, Lincecum's most recent poor outing -- his second worst of the season by Bill James Game Score (32) -- came against the Texas Rangers, so his defenders will be quick to play the matchups card. But if that's true, his June 5 start at San Diego's Petco Park should've resulted in something greater than a 53 game score, right? In nine career starts at Petco before it, Lincecum's average game score was 67. He also has only two quality starts in 13 tries all season.

Lincecum's fastball velocity has been an oft-cited reason for his struggles. So you can judge for yourself, here are his per-start averages, going from Start No. 1 to 13: 90.0 90.8, 90.0, 89.8, 88.8, 89.7, 91.1, 89.5, 89.9, 91.7, 90.6, 91.0, 90.3. Since 2009, the first season for which our pitch-tracking tool has data, Lincecum has 11 starts during which his fastball averaged 90.0 mph or slower; seven of those have happened this season. He has also averaged 90.2 mph with his fastball for the season, down from 92.2 in 2011 and 92.4 during his outstanding 2009.

But, as Justin Havens of ESPN Stats & Information points out, it's the impact of Lincecum's lost fastball velocity on his changeup that is perhaps most responsible for his poor performance. Consider that the difference in average velocity between his fastball and changeup this season is 7.0 mph; last season it was 8.5. Opposing hitters' numbers have approved accordingly: He has surrendered a .237 batting average, .770 OPS and 9.5 percent walk rate on changeups in 2012, after .160, .490 and 6.0 in 2011.

Ultimately, unless Lincecum can restore some of that lost fastball velocity, improving the separation in speed between the two pitches, there's not much hope of him restoring top-25 fantasy starter potential, let alone all of his preseason draft stock. Yes, there are examples of pitchers inexplicably recapturing velocity midseason -- Javier Vazquez last year is a prime one -- but it's a blind assumption to say that Lincecum can do so. There's every reason to be pessimistic if you own Lincecum, and he's ranked accordingly in this space.

As for what to do if you own him, you might have no choice but to be patient, even with a limited prospect that he straightens himself out. Let the rankings at the right be your barometer for trade or add/drop value.

Halladay, meanwhile, is currently shut down, the most recent update on his rehabilitation repeating the six to eight week timetable for absence and noting that he won't resume a throwing program for another two to three weeks (discounting the five days since that report was published). Taking June 1 as the starting point for his rehab, six weeks would represent a July 13 return and eight weeks July 27, and let's not discount the possibility of setbacks or the need for a lengthier rehabilitation assignment. Ten weeks, incidentally, would represent Aug. 10.

[+] EnlargeRoy Halladay
Howard Smith/US PresswireRoy Halladay was already starting to struggle before landing on the DL.

There are 75 Philadelphia Phillies games from July 13 forward, 63 from July 27 forward and 51 from Aug. 10 forward, and assuming Halladay pitches exactly every fifth game, he'd be on track for 15, 12-13 and 10 starts depending upon those timetables. We're talking about, at best, a half-season remaining in his tank.

Here's the problem with that: Halladay is now 35 years old and has 1,267 innings on his arm -- plus another 38 during the postseason -- since his 30th birthday, averaging 242 frames per year during his ages 31-34 seasons. This season, he has averaged 6.97 strikeouts per nine innings, or one and a half fewer than he averaged in 2011 and his lowest number since 2007, and the velocity of his cutter, his most frequently utilized pitch, has slipped from 90.5 mph in 2011 to 88.9 mph on average. Opponents are batting .270 against it, up from .226 a year ago.

What if Halladay's extensive career workload is coming back to haunt him, and he's unable to recapture his prior Cy Young form even after his return? It's certainly possible, as is the chance that he'll need a full winter's recovery time -- or a surgery -- before fully returning to form. If he ever does again. Like Lincecum, Halladay is ranked accordingly, and it might be smarter to treat him as something closer to a top-25 starter even in his remaining healthy games, rather than expecting upon his return that you've got your "staff ace" back.

Velocity has also been the question with Hernandez; he has averaged 91.3 mph with his fastball, down from 93.2 in 2011 and 94.0 and 93.9 numbers in 2009 and 2010. He has but one quality start in his past five outings, and for the season, he has a 3.42 ERA that's higher than his 3.25 career mark, and his 1.26 WHIP would represent his highest in the category since 2008 (1.39).

But there's an important difference between Hernandez and, say, Lincecum: Hernandez's changeup effectiveness hasn't been compromised as a result of his velocity drop. His most valuable pitch, Hernandez's changeup has also lost velocity, dropping from 89.2 mph on average in 2011 to 87.9 this year, and opposing hitters have but .184/.211/.276 triple-slash rates and a 44 percent swing-and-miss rate against it, comparable to 2011's .170/.210/.243 and 31 percent numbers. Even better: The differential in average velocity between his changeup and fastball is 3.4 mph this season, whereas it was 4.0 in 2011.

[+] EnlargeFelix Hernandez
AP Photo/Shizuo KambayashiThere is hope ahead for Felix Hernandez after shaking off some recent injury woes.

What that means is that, while Hernandez's stuff might not be quite as filthy today as it was during his 2010 Cy Young campaign, it's also not far removed from it, and with a spacious home ballpark like Safeco Field helping him, he's capable of maintaining his ERA-WHIP-K's contributions to the point that he'll make a run at the top-10 starters from today forward. His strikeout rate, after all, is a career-best 8.93 per nine, and his FIP (3.67) and xFIP (3.39) numbers aren't far removed from those in some of the better seasons in his career.

The back problem that cost Hernandez some time bears watching, but at the same time it didn't result in a DL stint, making it a potential, proverbial blip. Dan Haren's owners can remind you of a better-case scenario of a pitcher recovering from back issues: Haren has three wins, a 2.39 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 9.23 K's-per-nine ratio in his past four starts, after facing similar back questions earlier in the year.

Buy Hernandez now … if you can. And you might have mere hours to do so.

Finally, Lester, like Halladay, has suffered a precipitous strikeout decline that troubles his fantasy owners. Lester has three wins, seven quality starts, a 4.57 ERA and 1.36 WHIP in his 13 starts, terribly disappointing numbers for a Boston Red Sox ace which put him outside the top 100 starters on our Player Rater.

Some of Lester's problems can be explained by poor fortune on balls in play: He has a .316 BABIP and 64.6 left on base percentage, both of those his worst numbers in either category. But Lester has also afforded a .202 well-hit average, higher than any of his 2009-11 numbers, and his 20.1 percent line-drive rate ranks 22nd highest out of 115 qualified starters.

A compelling question regarding Lester: Why isn't he throwing his cutter more? He has thrown it a mere 17 percent of the time this year, down from 28 percent in 2011, though opposing hitters are batting .282 against it, up from .225 last season. Last year, Lester managed 90 of his 182 K's on cutters (49 percent). This year, he has 17 K's on cutters, or 27 percent of his 62 whiffs. That hints that there are greater things at play here than mere "bad luck."

Some correction to Lester's ERA/WHIP is probably in order, but not to the point where he's a lock for top-20 starter status from today forward. Consider him a buy-low candidate, though not to the extent that Hernandez is.

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 12: Wei-Yin Chen versus Pittsburgh Pirates
Wednesday, June 13: Brian Matusz versus Pittsburgh Pirates
Thursday, June 14: Scott Diamond versus Philadelphia Phillies
Friday, June 15: Jarrod Parker versus San Diego Padres
Saturday, June 16: Alexi Ogando versus Houston Astros
Sunday, June 17: Alex Cobb versus Miami Marlins
Monday, June 18: Brian Matusz at New York Mets

Past picks
Tuesday, June 5: Homer Bailey -- 3 IP, 8 H, 6 ER, 2 BB, 2 K
Wednesday, June 6: Jerome Williams -- 5 2/3 IP, 9 H, 5 ER, 0 BB, 6 K
Thursday, June 7: Clayton Richard -- 5 2/3 IP, 10 H, 4 ER, 0 BB, 1 K (pitched June 6)
Friday, June 8: Luke Hochevar -- 6 IP, 9 H, 4 ER, 1 BB, 3 K
Saturday, June 9: Trevor Cahill -- W, QS, 7 1/3 IP, 7 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 7 K
Sunday, June 10: Philip Humber -- 5 1/3 IP, 6 H, 5 ER, 2 BB, 9 K
Monday, June 11: Randall Delgado -- 5 IP, 5 H, 3 ER, 6 BB, 5 K

Week's total: 7 GS, 1 W (14.3%), 1 QS (14.3%), 38 IP, 54 H, 29 ER, 14 BB, 31 K, 6.87 ERA, 1.79 WHIP
Season total: 58 GS, 28 W (48.3%), 35 QS (60.3%), 361 2/3 IP, 316 H, 140 ER, 124 BB, 267 K, 3.48 ERA, 1.22 WHIP

Three up

Clay Buchholz, Boston Red Sox: It has been one roller coaster of a season for Buchholz thus far, has it not? In his first six starts, the right-hander surrendered at least five runs and six hits every time, his ERA 9.09, WHIP 2.02 and triple-slash rates allowed .343/.428/.613 in total during that span. Buchholz has picked up the pace in six starts since, however: He has three wins, four quality starts, a 3.10 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, .253/.329/.353 triple-slash rates allowed and has even strung together quality starts in each of his past three starts against nothing but American League East competition (TB, @TOR, BAL). As always, it's about location for Buchholz; he has thrown 50 percent of his pitches within the strike zone and 35 percent of those have been "down" (bottom third) during his past six starts, considerably better than the 46 and 26 percent numbers during his first six. This is not a strikeout pitcher -- Buchholz has averaged 6.71 K's per nine during his career -- so he needs that kind of command in order to succeed. In other words, enjoy this improvement, because it restores his AL-only/matchups/deep-mixed stock, but at the same time don't necessarily assume it means he's "safe" straight through September.

A.J. Burnett, Pittsburgh Pirates: When it comes to A.J. Burnett, the only truly fair way to analyze the right-hander is to strip the name from his statistics, and if we do that, we realize that he has five wins, five quality starts, a 2.12 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in his past seven starts since a drubbing at the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals on May 2. In addition, thanks to superb command of his changeup, he has a 56.5 percent ground ball rate, his best in more than a half-decade, and his curveball has been positively filthy, responsible for 36 of his 56 strikeouts and limiting opponents to .121/.159/.182 rates. So here's the only-somewhat-fair question: As Burnett did enjoy some brief hot spells during his New York Yankees career, before crumbling as summer temperatures rose, are we to apply his name and assume a reputation of a pitcher sure to decline in the coming weeks? Or might all of his troubles been a product of the New York spotlight, which, now removed from the equation, might mean he keeps this up all summer? Considering the mere league and ballpark switches this season, the latter might greater warrant a "yes."

Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox: Wow. Sale has now made six starts since the White Sox's silly one-week closer experiment, and in that time he has four quality starts -- all of those in his past four turns -- a 1.51 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, 9.94 K's-per-nine ratio and .174 BAA. He is the No. 1 pitcher on our Player Rater for the season, he possesses fairly balanced lefty-righty splits and he sports a solid 46.2 percent ground ball rate. Granted, Sale's schedule during his past four outings has been light (MIN, @TB, SEA, HOU), but at this point is there really any question about his rest-of-2012 prospects other than a possible innings cap? Frankly, if we had a guarantee from the White Sox that he'd be afforded 200-plus innings, he'd make a compelling case to be in the top 15 starters.

Three down

Kyle Drabek, Toronto Blue Jays: After a solid spring training that earned him the Blue Jays' fifth-starter role, as well as an encouraging April that included quality starts in three of his first five outings and a 2.40 ERA overall, Drabek has struggled, his ERA 6.08 and WHIP 1.81 in seven turns since May 1. Most troubling: He has 30 walks compared to 20 K's during that span, and he has walked at least as many batters as he has struck out in each of his past four games. Point to his schedule if you wish -- he had games against the New York Yankees, Texas Rangers and Boston Red Sox sprinkled in there -- but when Drabek is struggling, his command is usually the culprit. The way he's throwing, he might not be able to handle one of the league's weaker offenses.

Jeff Samardzija, Chicago Cubs: Speaking of command questions, Samardzija, who rattled off six quality starts in a seven-turn stretch from April 24-May 29, is coming off disappointing back-to-back outings at San Francisco and Minnesota, two matchups you'd normally have expected a hot hand such as him to dominate. He walked five hitters in five innings during his June 4 start at AT&T Park, then produced an astonishingly low 8 percent swing-and-miss rate while being pummeled for eight runs on nine hits in 3⅔ innings at Target Field. Remember, Samardzija walked 50 hitters in 88 innings in 2011 and could face an innings cap of his own, after throwing only those 88 frames last season. He's an exciting, live, young arm, but he's also one who might experience a few more rough patches such as this one.

Ervin Santana, Los Angeles Angels: No matter what the Angels say, Santana might not be long for the team's rotation, not with Weaver nearing a return. In his past four starts, Santana has a 10.18 ERA, 2.07 WHIP, .321 BAA and has allowed six home runs, and sprinkled among those matchups were two turns versus the light-hitting Seattle Mariners. During that span his fastball velocity has slipped to 91.8 mph on average -- it was 92.2 mph in his first nine starts, and his slider, his "out" pitch, has resulted in a 25 percent swing-and-miss rate, down from 38 percent in his first nine. Santana's stuff is clearly lacking of late, with no specific hint of a quick turnaround, but if he can't find a way to do so, he might soon suffer a demotion rather than Garrett Richards.

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