Midseason all-stars: Starting pitchers

Updated: July 3, 2012, 5:04 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

It's All-Star time, and with it the fun of selecting a Midsummer Classic team …

… then the inevitable aftereffect of it being torn apart, as we seek to nitpick the many snubs.

60 Feet 6 Inches

It's as true in fantasy baseball as it is in the real game, because there are countless players who warrant kudos for their performances. At the same time, it's impossible to honor everyone; there are limits to everything, right?

Nevertheless, selecting All-Stars is one of the "fun" processes in baseball, and in fantasy as well. So this week, we're selecting our Fantasy Baseball Midseason All-Stars, players whose performances carried the most weight compared to their preseason expectations. But understand: This means that average draft position comes into play as much as in-season performance does, and that pitchers like Justin Verlander, the No. 3 starting pitcher on our Player Rater, is an inevitable "snub." Verlander has been excellent this year, no question. But he was also the No. 2 starting pitcher selected on average in the preseason, and at the cost of a second-rounder (ADP: 13.0). He was a pitcher who should have performed as he has, and it's for that reason he's excluded from the group below.

Let's get started. Today, we select nine starting pitchers to our All-Star squad, beginning with our …

Team Captain: R.A. Dickey, New York Mets

The A-No. 1 All-Star so far in 2012, Dickey's half-season has been one of the most compelling fantasy baseball stories of the past decade, let alone year. He's the only pitcher to rank among the top five in the majors in the four prominent starting-pitcher-influenced rotisserie categories: He's first in wins (12) and WHIP (0.88), and fourth in ERA (2.15) and strikeouts (116). And his statistical accomplishments haven't been of the fluky variety, supported by the game's sixth-best FIP (2.80) and third-best xFIP (2.82). At one point, he had back-to-back one-hit shutouts (June 13 and 18) and, in fact, had an outrageous six-start stretch (May 22-June 18) during which he had six wins, six quality starts, an ERA of 0.18, a WHIP of 0.53 and 63 strikeouts in 48⅔ innings.

And -- this is where the "story" part comes in -- he's a knuckleballer.

Why he's an All-Star: Dickey was the topic of the June 19 "60 Feet 6 Inches," which put his performance into historical perspective. The "why" is discussed in detail right here. But to add a postscript, during his past two starts, the first of which was the shaky Sunday night effort against the New York Yankees, these have been his splits on knucklers clocked 78 mph or faster:

First 14 starts: 194 PA-enders, .111 BAA, 40.7 K%, 1.0 BB%, 32 Miss%
Past 2 starts: 31 PA-enders, .179 BAA, 35.5 K%, 3.2 BB%, 31 Miss%

What's in store during the second half: Those knuckler splits represent hardly anything more than minimal, expected regression, and it supports Dickey's candidacy as one of the top 20 fantasy starters during the season's second half, if not top 10. There's no historical data to forecast a likely path. If Dickey can keep throwing his knuckler with both the velocity and accuracy he has shown to date, there's no reason his ERA shouldn't be below three from today forward, with a K's-per-nine ratio of at least eight. The result, come October, could well mean legitimate candidacy for the National League Cy Young Award.

Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants

Why he's an All-Star: Cain was the highest-drafted starting pitcher on the team, but with an average draft position of 61.9, he fell outside of the top 10, ranking 14th. All he has done since is prove everyone very, very foolish to exclude him from that group, ranking among the game's top 10 in three of the four primary rotisserie categories, his ERA (2.53, 11th) the only one falling just short. He has a perfect game to his credit, worth 101 on the Bill James Game Score scale. Coupled with the 96 he managed in an April 13 start, he boasts two of the four best individual-game performances of 2012 using that statistic. Even better: He already has nine wins, putting him five shy of matching his career high (14, 2009) and on pace for 18.

What's in store during the second half: Cain's FIP (2.93) and xFIP (3.49) compare favorably with his 2011 numbers in those categories (2.91/3.78) and back him up as a legitimate fantasy ace. Last season, he managed a 2.64 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in 14 second-half starts, the only black mark that his Giants failed to support him, leading to a measly four wins. This year's team, at least, is slightly improved, averaging 3.96 runs per game to 2011's 3.52 (which ranked second-worst in the majors). If you're looking for the "safest" member of this squad, the pitcher most certain to duplicate his first-half statistics during the second half, Cain is your guy.

Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox

Why he's an All-Star: Fantasy owners knew who Sale was, his ADP 193.9, or the equivalent of 56th had he been starting-pitching-eligible in ESPN leagues on draft day, but there were oodles of questions surrounding him, even as deep as a month into the year. Did he have a deep-enough arsenal to handle the transition from relief to starting? Could he handle a starter's workload deep into the year? After the White Sox inexplicably returned him to the bullpen and declared him their closer during the first week of May -- claiming an injury as their rationale -- only to restore him to their rotation within the week, fantasy owners wondered whether the injury or role shift might have an adverse impact on his number. Sale answered his critics, and how: He won six of nine starts since that week in May, including six quality starts, with a 2.02 ERA, 0.93 WHIP and 9.24 K's-per-nine ratio. For the season, he's third among qualified starters with an average Bill James Game Score of 63.9, and he's fourth in FIP (2.58).

Questions: (Mostly) answered.

What's in store during the second half: The "mostly" above lingers only in regard to the workload inquiry. Sale tossed just 71 innings in 2011 and threw a personal-high 136⅔ between college, the minors and majors in 2010, and he has thrown 95⅓ so far this season, for a pace of 195⅓. While there has been nary a whisper of an innings cap since the season started, White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper said in January that Sale would face one. Does the team's current first-place standing change that? Perhaps, but even if the "kid gloves" come off, Sale's numbers might suffer due to fatigue as he breezes past his previous season high. His skills are legit. The reason he's the top sell-high candidate of anyone on this list -- as stated in the May 29 "60 Feet 6 Inches" -- is that very workload concern.

Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals

Why he's an All-Star: Well, duh, he's very, very good. The snubsters might come out in droves saying he, not Dickey, should be team captain, but my response to that: Didn't we all expect he'd be very, very good during the first half of this season? Strasburg's 66.2 ADP ranked 18th among starting pitchers, and as innings-cap chatter resonated more with him than any other individual example, there shouldn't have been an owner out there who didn't think he'd be set free to dominate deep into July. Dominate he has: He is tops in the majors among ERA qualifiers in strikeouts (122), K's-per-nine ratio (11.81), FIP (2.27) and xFIP (2.55). Not once in a start all year has he surrendered more than four runs, and on nine of 16 occasions he registered eight or more strikeouts.

What's in store during the second half: The innings cap, as with Sale, comes into play. The reason fantasy analysts, this columnist included, cite 160 as a ballpark expectation for Strasburg is that's what his Nationals rotation-mate, Jordan Zimmermann, faced in 2011, when he was fresh off Tommy John surgery. Their paths are practically identical and the only reason 160 isn't set in concrete is the team's standing: The Nationals are 3½ games up in the NL East, but at the All-Star break last season they were fourth in the division and 11½ games back of the lead. Strasburg, therefore, might have more rope than Zimmermann did, but will it be 170, 180 or 200? I can't see him being afforded more than 175, and that would mean just 82 more … albeit probably at the same performance level he exhibited during his outstanding first half.

James McDonald, Pittsburgh Pirates

Why he's an All-Star: He is unquestionably the starting pitching pickup of 2012 (so far), currently ranking sixth at the position on the Player Rater, despite being drafted in fewer than 1 percent of ESPN leagues. He is ninth among qualified starters in ERA (2.45) and eighth in WHIP (1.00) and, despite being a member of the light-hitting Pirates, has pitched well enough and received the requisite run support to manage a healthy eight wins. McDonald got here for two simple reasons: He shaved more than a walk per nine innings off his stat line, averaging 2.71 per nine this season after 4.11 in 2011; and he added a slider, which has limited opponents to a .143 batting average and generated 29 of his 90 K's.

What's in store during the second half: Those command/slider stats underscore that McDonald's success is the result of a skills bump, not something of the fluky/lucky variety. His FIP/xFIP numbers (3.15/3.78) are well in line with the 2.91/3.84 he posted in those categories during an encouraging 11-start stretch for the 2010 Pirates following a midseason trade; he managed a 3.52 ERA, 1.30 WHIP and 8.54 K's-per-nine ratio in those 11 turns. Those might represent his basement expectation from today forward.

Ryan Vogelsong, San Francisco Giants

Why he's an All-Star: Let's answer that with some trivia, shall we? Can you guess which pitcher has the longest active quality-start streak, with 12 in a row? That's right, it's Mr. Vogelsong, whose 12 straight quality starts trump the 11 in a row that the aforementioned Dickey once strung together. Vogelsong, in fact, is tied with two other players for the major league lead in the category, with 14, and he holds the lead by himself with quality starts in 93 percent of his outings. (Interesting side note: Along with Dickey, would you have guessed that Yovani Gallardo is the third with that many?) Vogelsong went largely undrafted in the preseason, selected in barely more than 5 percent of ESPN leagues, primarily because the sabermetric statistics loathe him. But here he is, defying the stat geeks and registering one of the most consistently reliable first halves in fantasy baseball.

What's in store during the second half: Well, regression (probably). Vogelsong currently has the game's highest left-on-base percentage (84.5 percent), sixth-highest BABIP (.245) and sixth-lowest home run/fly ball percentage (5.6 percent). At the All-Star break last season, he had 83.8, .262 and 7.9 numbers in those categories … and managed a 3.26 ERA, 1.31 WHIP and had nine quality starts in 14 games thereafter. Regression is bound to strike a pitcher who ranks in the bottom 25 percent of ERA qualifiers in K's-per-walk ratio -- Vogelsong does, thanks to a 2.12 number -- but use his 2011 second half as your barometer. It wasn't awful.

Gio Gonzalez, Washington Nationals

Why he's an All-Star: Though often overshadowed by his teammate Strasburg, Gonzalez has been one of the sneakier strikeout artists in baseball, his 10.54 K's-per-nine ratio trails only Strasburg's 11.81 and Max Scherzer's 11.36, among qualifiers. Selected 36th among starting pitchers in the preseason (ADP: 134.5), Gonzalez is on track to set personal bests in K's (pace of 236) and swing-and-miss rate (27 percent), and it's largely thanks to a curveball that only seems to get better. He has limited opponents to a .110 batting average while tallying 38 of his 112 K's with the pitch this season.

What's in store during the second half: Gonzalez might be the most integral member of the Nationals' rotation, lacking the innings-cap concerns of a Strasburg, possessing the swing-and-miss stuff that Zimmermann lacks (not to mention Zimmermann, as with Strasburg, still has an injury history that requires closer maintenance) and serving as a more consistent option over longer stretches than Edwin Jackson. None of Gonzalez's numbers should strike you as fluky: His .272 BABIP might be a career low, but he also had a .288 number in 2011, and .277 in 2010. Most of his WHIP gains are the product of a lowered walk rate, so he might well repeat his first half during his second.

Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds

Why he's all All-Star: He's the pitcher who quietly gets better each season he's in the majors, and this is his fifth season. He's fifth among qualifiers in ERA (2.26), 22nd in WHIP (1.16) and has nine wins, three off his previous career high -- with the sum of those earning him a No. 13 ranking among starting pitchers on our Player Rater. What's more, Cueto makes this team, whereas he fell short of the on-field team, because his strikeout rate has quietly experienced an uptick in June, as he has an 8.10 K's-per-nine ratio in five turns in the month (his career rate is 6.92).

What's in store during the second half: Cueto has never been a sabermetric darling; his career K rate tends to place him among sell-high lists, including this columnist's earlier this season. But in his defense, he currently has career bests in FIP (3.11) and xFIP (3.76), and his increased reliance upon his changeup -- he has thrown it 17 percent of the time this year, compared to 8 in 2011 -- has helped increase the effectiveness of his fastball. There might be a skills bump here; his fastball was responsible for 24 of his 33 K's in June and generated a 21 percent miss rate on swings, which is well above his norm (usually 16 percent). Cueto has never in his career managed more than 185⅔ innings, and his lifetime second-half ERA (4.29) is nearly a run higher than his first half (3.26). Those are legitimate worries … but what if Cueto's June indeed signals that he's finally hitting his stride? I'm much less quick to call him a no-brainer, sell-high guy today.

Brandon Beachy, Atlanta Braves

There's no need for a "what's in store" with Beachy; he succumbed to Tommy John surgery on June 21 and is out until at least partway into the 2013 season. But his efforts before getting hurt are well worth the mention. He holds a season-high streak of 12 consecutive starts with at least a 50 Bill James Game Score -- 50 chosen because that has traditionally been the "quality start" barometer by that measure -- and remains the major league leader in ERA (2.00). Beachy carried his teams for the season's first two months, and it's a shame that his season is now done.

Predicting the future

In addition to selecting an All-Star team, I thought it'd be fun to take a look back at the 2011 second-half standouts. Why were they as successful as they were? Are there any trends we can apply to this season as we aim to predict the 2012 second-half studs? Let's examine the 2011 top five, and pick a "comparable" to each this season … stating up front that in no way is there such a thing as a perfect comparable. It's guesswork, and entirely for fun.

Clayton Kershaw: Well, this is a somewhat obvious one. Kershaw, then 23, was in the midst of a career progression that should have vaulted him into the 2011 second-half top five. If there's a trend to exploit here, it's that he has a favorable second-half history, so keep it in mind if you own him. In each year from 2009 to 2011 he had a lower second- than first-half ERA. Is there such an example in 2012? How about Madison Bumgarner? He's 22 and on an upward career trajectory, which includes a 2.62 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 9.57 K's-per-nine ratio in his past eight turns. And if you're looking for a next-level stat that supports his candidacy as a borderline tops-in-the-game starter from today forward, how about this: His slider is his swing-and-miss pitch, and during that eight-start hot spell of his, he got 31 of his 62 K's (50 percent) and a 25 percent miss rate on swings against that pitch. Compare that to his 2011, when he broke out in the K category: 45 percent of his K's came on sliders, and his miss rate was 25 percent. Hmmm.

Javier Vazquez: His was one of the most puzzling second halves in recent history; after a year and a half of declining velocity, he suddenly dialed his fastball up to 91.2 mph on average after the All-Star break, after sub-90 numbers in 2010 (88.5) and the first half of 2011 (89.5). And he was 35 at the time. Although the ages don't match, what if the 2012 example of restored velocity during the second half is Tim Lincecum (who is 28)? He has averaged 90.4 mph with his fastball this season, down from 92.2 in 2011, but has shown improved, and encouraging, performance in his past two outings.

Justin Verlander: Stud before the break, stud after. What else would you have expected from the eventual Cy Young Award winner? Verlander might be his own best 2012 comparable, though Cain could qualify. Think: Continued excellence from a pitcher who has been consistently excellent for years.

Doug Fister: He had a tremendous start to 2011 with the Seattle Mariners, with the exception of the misfortune of winning only three times in 21 starts despite a 3.33 ERA. However, after his July 30 trade to the Tigers, he really took off. He managed eight wins, eight quality starts, a 1.79 ERA and 0.84 WHIP in 11 games (10 starts) for the team from that point forward, largely thanks to pinpoint control -- he walked just five batters in 70⅓ innings. Seeking a 2012 example is difficult, as the challenge is unearthing a beneath-the-radar starter whose value could thrive as a result of a trade. How about Wandy Rodriguez? He fits some of the comparisons, with a 1.89 walks-per-nine ratio, which ranks 13th among ERA qualifiers, and a healthy 65 percent quality start rate that suggests he might thrive on a team that supported him more. Plus, he'll be on the block this month.

Ian Kennedy: You'll remember him as one of 2011's biggest breakouts, but it was a dominating second half that got him there, including 12 wins, a 2.11 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in 14 turns. Kennedy's stats were somewhat good-fortune-induced: His left-on-base percentage was an absurd 86.7, his BABIP .274 and home run/fly ball percentage 5.6, and his owners can attest to the "correction" to those numbers that he has experienced the first half of this year. Picking a 2012 Kennedy is effectively guesswork; it's naming a pitcher with moderate success who might have the kind of absurd half-season that he had the second half of 2011, or Dickey has had the first half of 2012. Picking from the "unfortunate" performers to date, Adam Wainwright stands out as an excellent candidate. Though he has a 4.75 ERA, his 3.44 FIP and 3.14 xFIP show that he's a better pitcher than his raw rotisserie stats have shown. Even better: The further removed from Tommy John surgery, the closer he should revert to his presurgery (2010) form.

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, July 3: Jair Jurrjens versus Chicago Cubs
Wednesday, July 4: Franklin Morales at Oakland Athletics
Thursday, July 5: Rick Porcello versus Minnesota Twins
Friday, July 6: Tommy Milone versus Seattle Mariners
Saturday, July 7: Dillon Gee versus Chicago Cubs
Sunday, July 8: Andrew Cashner versus Cincinnati Reds
Thus concludes the traditional "first half" of the 2012 season.

Past picks
Tuesday, June 26: Dillon Gee -- 5 IP, 9 H, 4 ER, 2 BB, 6 K
Wednesday, June 27: Jonathon Niese -- W, QS, 7 IP, 8 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 6 K
Thursday, June 28: Franklin Morales -- QS, 7 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 7 K
Friday, June 29: Randall Delgado -- 4 IP, 8 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 6 K
Saturday, June 30: Francisco Liriano -- 5 1/3 IP, 5 H, 4 ER, 4 BB, 6 K (pitched July 1)
Sunday, July 1: Jake Westbrook -- W, 6 IP, 9 H, 4 ER, 1 BB, 6 K
Monday, July 2: Daisuke Matsuzaka -- 1 IP, 4 H, 5 ER, 2 BB, 0 K

Week's total: 7 GS, 2 W (28.6%), 2 QS (28.6%), 35 1/3 IP, 46 H, 20 ER, 12 BB, 37 K, 5.09 ERA, 1.64 WHIP
Season total: 81 GS, 34 W (42.0%), 44 QS (54.3%), 490 IP, 458 H, 209 ER, 175 BB, 378 K, 3.84 ERA, 1.29 WHIP

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