- Tristan H. Cockcroft, Fantasy
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You can never trade too much pitching.
OK, so maybe that's not how the saying goes, but it sure seems like it this trade season. Six members of this week's top 100 starting pitching rankings have been traded in the past eight days. Let's review:
Let's begin with the most recently moved starter, as the Rangers, after weeks of speculation he'd join either the Atlanta Braves or Los Angeles Dodgers, swooped in at the eleventh hour to win the Ryan Dempster sweepstakes. This could come as a disappointment to some fantasy owners; Dempster's owners probably preferred he move to one of those more pitching-friendly National League venues rather than the hitting-friendly Rangers Ballpark, while those owners in NL-only leagues who don't keep a player's stats when he changes leagues immediately lose him.
The ballpark factor is a significant one. Rangers Ballpark routinely tops our Park Factors page in terms of both runs scored and home runs; though it ranks seventh and 11th, respectively, in those categories this season, it was tops in the majors in both in 2011. Dempster, meanwhile, is a pitcher who doesn't generate a high rate of ground balls. His 43.5 percent rate ranks 32nd out of 101 qualified pitchers, and his 8.2 home run/fly ball percentage is 25th-lowest, meaning he's at somewhat greater risk of untimely homers and therefore poorer outings in Texas.
Dempster was due for some regression, sporting the majors' third-lowest qualified BABIP (.244) and second-highest left-on-base percentage (84.0), but at least increased win potential -- the Rangers average 5.00 runs per game, the Chicago Cubs 3.79 -- should somewhat offset that. There's a rocky schedule patch in his near future -- the Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees are upcoming -- but he's still a top-30 capable starter and a prime AL-only pickup.
As an aside, Dempster's arrival will bump Roy Oswalt to the bullpen, while sidelined starter Neftali Feliz is out for the season, as well as for much of 2013, after it was determined he'll require Tommy John surgery.
Zack Greinke was the No. 1 starting pitcher in fantasy baseball in 2009, the No. 11 starter selected on average this preseason and a pitcher who, at various times this season, has been a top-10 name in the "60 Feet, 6 Inches" ranks. A sabermetric favorite, he leaves the more pitching-oriented National League for the more hitting-oriented American League, but in the process actually benefits in terms of fantasy appeal simply based upon his team situation.
During his tenure with the Milwaukee Brewers, Greinke's 2.78 FIP (Fielder Independent Pitching score, on an ERA scale) ranked third among qualified big league pitchers; only Roy Halladay and Clayton Kershaw had better. He also topped the list in xFIP (2.66), and his 0.88 differential between FIP and ERA was the fourth-largest of any qualifier. In other words, Greinke wasn't the most fortunate fella with the Brewers, which makes sense considering they rank 20th in Ultimate Zone Rating (-6.7) and 15th in Defensive Runs Saved (-2), per FanGraphs, this season.
The Angels, Greinke's new team, rank second in UZR (30.9) and sixth in Defensive Runs Saved (25), and there's little question their usual around-the-infield defense of Albert Pujols, Howard Kendrick, Erick Aybar and Alberto Callaspo trumps that of the Brewers' quartet of Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks, Cesar Izturis and Aramis Ramirez. Accounting for only Defensive Runs Saved by those players at their respective positions this season, the Angels' four has a 46-run advantage (Angels 18, Brewers -28). That's significant for a pitcher such as Greinke, whose 54.2 percent ground ball rate in 2012 is 12th-highest among qualified pitchers.
In other words, Greinke, with a stronger supporting defense -- both infield and outfield -- might finally have an opportunity to narrow the gap between his ERA, which counts in fantasy, and FIP, which does not. The net result is a starting pitcher who should rank among the top 10 for the remainder of the year.
The most obvious effect of Wandy Rodriguez's intradivision trade -- he went from the Houston Astros to the Pirates -- is better win potential. Among pitchers with at least 500 innings of a sub-3.50 ERA since the beginning of 2008, his .505 winning percentage (that's one win over .500) is second-worst (Hiroki Kuroda's is .490). How bizarre is it that a move to the Pirates presents a pitcher with a greater opportunity at wins?
It's the truth, but the other benefit for Rodriguez is the ballpark factor. PNC Park ranks as one of the game's best venues for pitchers; it ranks 28th in runs scored and 27th in home runs this season. Houston's Minute Maid Park, meanwhile, ranks 20th and 12th in those categories, albeit with more neutral numbers.
Whether the Pirates are for real or destined for a 2011-like late-season collapse remains to be seen, but they're certainly playing it out as if they're true contenders. Bump Rodriguez's value up a notch or two accordingly, as he might -- at least for the rest of this year -- exploit his surroundings for top-40 type starter value.
Anibal Sanchez to Detroit Tigers
Of the three NL-turned-AL starters, Sanchez is the least attractive one in fantasy. His interleague numbers underscore the risks of the league switch: He has a 5.00 ERA and 1.49 WHIP in 13 career games (12 starts) during interleague play, and he has been more susceptible to home runs during those games, with a 1.30 homers-per-nine ratio compared to 0.78 against NL foes. (Special thanks to ESPN colleague Pierre Becquey for his help digging up Sanchez's stats.)
Sanchez's AL debut underscored that homer risk: He surrendered three in his six innings of work at Toronto, and a quick look at the schedule reveals future Tigers series against the Yankees, Rangers, Toronto Blue Jays and Angels. Sanchez isn't a ride-him-every-time type of starter with his new team, but he's still capable of helping when the matchup is right.
What, exactly, did the White Sox get when they traded for Liriano this past Saturday? Is he the pitcher who posted a 3.68 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 10.77 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio in 11 games since being restored to the Minnesota Twins' rotation, or is he the pitcher who was pounded for seven runs in two innings his last time out, plus has a 5.18 ERA and 1.47 WHIP since the beginning of 2011?
Matchups had a lot to do with Liriano's recent resurgence, but at times he flashed the brilliant slider that once made him a fantasy stud. Here's the problem: You have no idea on any given night whether it'll be at peak levels. Here's the other problem: He had a 4.05 ERA and 1.28 WHIP in his career at Target Field, a pitching-friendly venue, but at U.S. Cellular Field he has 5.77 and 1.59 numbers in his career. And you can be sure that that's a big downgrade in ballparks, as far as pitching is concerned. Liriano can't afford to walk as many hitters as he has in recent years in Chicago, or he's going to be a huge risk in ERA/WHIP.
I'd stay away, as my rankings reflect, but Liriano always seems to lure fantasy owners back in. Maybe he'll string together a few promising outings, then you can sell high while the good-trade feelings are still warm.
Paul Maholm to Atlanta Braves
Perhaps the most under-the-radar move of these pitchers, but one who indeed warrants mention, Maholm has been one of the most-added players in fantasy in recent weeks. He has six consecutive starts of at least six innings pitched and zero or one run allowed, and in eight of his past nine starts he has posted a quality start. Now he's headed to the Braves, who not only provide him a greater chance to win each time, but also have a ballpark more suited for him.
Maholm's surprising season is largely the product of his having made substantial gains against right-handed hitters. After they managed an .821 OPS against him in his first six seasons, they have a .705 OPS against him since the beginning of 2011. Left-handed hitters, once confounded by him, have improved -- they have a .752 OPS in 2011-12 combined -- but at least that signifies Maholm bringing his splits more into balance. This is no longer your "start only against lefty-laden lineups" starter.
Maholm's mediocre strikeout rate, however, keeps him more in the matchups class, but he belongs at least in the discussion in 12-team mixed leagues or deeper.
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.
Among streaming starter options -- something I define as single-start options in daily leagues among pitchers owned in 25 percent or less of ESPN leagues -- for the upcoming week, here are my picks by day:
Tuesday, July 31: Kris Medlen versus Miami Marlins
Wednesday, Aug. 1: Bronson Arroyo versus San Diego Padres
Thursday, Aug. 2: Barry Zito versus New York Mets
Friday, Aug. 3: Clayton Richard versus New York Mets
Saturday, Aug. 4: Mark Rogers at St. Louis Cardinals (what a bad day for streamers)
Sunday, Aug. 5: Freddy Garcia versus Seattle Mariners
Monday, Aug. 6: Chris Tillman versus Seattle Mariners
Friday, July 20: Drew Pomeranz -- 3 IP, 9 H, 7 ER, 0 BB, 3 K
Saturday, July 21: Ben Sheets -- W, QS, 6 IP, 5 H, 0 ER, 3 BB, 6 K
Sunday, July 22: Joe Blanton -- QS, 8 IP, 7 H, 3 ER, 1 BB, 6 K
Monday, July 23: Mike Minor -- W, QS, 7 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 4 K
Tuesday, July 24: Paul Maholm -- W, QS, 8 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 7 K
Wednesday, July 25: Homer Bailey -- QS, 7 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 5 BB, 7 K
Thursday, July 26: Jake Westbrook -- W, QS, 7 IP, 7 H, 3 ER, 1 BB, 6 K
Friday, July 27: Carlos Zambrano -- 5 IP, 3 H, 4 ER, 4 BB, 4 K
Saturday, July 28: Barry Zito -- 5 1/3 IP, 7 H, 4 ER, 1 BB, 4 K
Sunday, July 29: Clayton Richard -- 5 1/3 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 3 K
Week's total: 10 GS, 4 W (40.0%), 6 QS (60.0%), 61 2/3 IP, 57 H, 26 ER, 17 BB, 50 K, 3.79 ERA, 1.20 WHIP
Season total: 104 GS, 42 W (40.4%), 55 QS (52.9%), 626 2/3 IP, 605 H, 273 ER, 214 BB, 477 K, 3.92 ERA, 1.31 WHIP
Doug Fister, Tigers: He has four consecutive quality starts since the All-Star break, three of them on the road, but most impressive during that span has been his command of the strike zone. Fister has 31 strikeouts compared to five walks in 30 innings; he also has generated misses on 23 percent of hitters' swings against him during that span, a considerable improvement upon his 18 percent first-half number. Could it be that Fister is merely a pitcher who hits his groove deeper into the year than the average starter? Perhaps. After all, he made two separate trips to the disabled list due to an oblique strain earlier in the season, so it'd make sense that he might not have found a rhythm before now. Fister's curveball has been outstanding of late -- just as it was during his brilliant run for the Tigers the final two months of 2011 -- as opponents are batting just .083 and missing on 37 percent of swings against it. For the Tigers last year, those numbers were .188 and 41 percent. Fister's Tigers also have plenty of games left against the Cleveland Indians (9 more), Kansas City Royals (10) and Minnesota Twins (9), the three lowest-scoring teams in the American League Central. That's another plus.
Ian Kennedy, Arizona Diamondbacks: Now where was this the first half of the season? Kennedy, who struggled to the tune of six wins and a 4.26 ERA before the All-Star break, now finds himself in a streak of three straight quality starts, during which time he has a 2.42 ERA and 23 K's compared to one walk in 22 1/3 innings. It is streaks like this that exemplify things such as regression and statistical fluctuation; his FIP this season is 3.78, and in 2011 it was a not-far-off 3.22. His ERA, however, is 4.20 this season and was 2.88 last. The smart projection assumes Kennedy performs like a pitcher somewhat in the middle of those two ERAs, but that's still a top-30 capable fantasy starter, and certainly one better than the one we saw in the first half.
Mike Minor, Braves: To think, he wasn't even promised a rotation spot at the onset of the season's second half. Minor has four straight quality starts of his own since the All-Star break, but perhaps most important, he has but four walks in 27 1/3 innings' work, never once issuing more than two passes in a single game. Remember, this is a pitcher who averaged 5.09 walks per nine innings, or a 12.2 percent walk rate going by total batters faced, in May and June combined, explaining some of his earlier struggles. At his peak, Minor should be capable of nearly a strikeout per inning, and his Braves have games versus the light-hitting Padres, Astros and Marlins remaining on their schedule. He'll probably frustrate you from time to time as he continues to adjust, but his rotation spot is suddenly looking more secure, and his upside is that of a top-50 starter.
Ubaldo Jimenez, Indians: He has earned himself a hearty place on the unofficial list of "most frustrating starting pitchers to own in fantasy baseball" thanks to his recent performance. In four starts since the All-Star break, Jimenez has allowed 18 runs on 27 hits, four of them home runs, in 20 1/3 innings, resulting in a 7.97 ERA and .321 batting average allowed. The most recent? It was a five-runs-in-6 1/3-innings stinker at Minnesota's Target Field, which you'd typically consider a favorable matchup. Jimenez might have recaptured some of his previously lost velocity -- he has averaged 93 mph or higher with his fastball in each of those four starts after averaging 92.0 mph with the pitch in April and May combined -- but he's still a far cry from his heyday with the Colorado Rockies, when he routinely touched 95. Jimenez no longer has the stuff to get left-handers out; they have .269/.378/.475 triple-slash rates against him this season, much better than their .191/.284/.297 numbers against him in 2010. That drops him to matchups status at best, and that Twins outing shows that even that is debatable.
Jon Lester, Red Sox: Forgive Lester his recent schedule if you wish -- two games against the Yankees, one apiece against the Blue Jays and White Sox -- but it has been a long time since he has done much to earn the trust of his fantasy owners. This is about more than just the 12.27 ERA, .377 BAA or seven home runs he has allowed in those past four starts; it's about his diminishing stuff. His cutter in particular hasn't been nearly as sharp this season as in the past, with opponents batting .296 against it since June 1, and the pitch itself is resulting in a .235 well-hit average by opponents (percentage of at-bats that ended in hard contact). In 2011, his cutter limited foes to a .225 batting average and .185 well-hit average, signaling that something more than the schedule is wrong.
James McDonald, Pirates: There are two valid questions about McDonald's recent struggles, and that's beyond simply, "Why does he stink, and should I cut him?" The first: Where did his control go? After walking only 7.3 percent of all hitters he faced before the All-Star break, his number in the category has ballooned to 17.8 percent, and 19 of his 50 walks for the season have come in the four starts he has made since the break. The second: Where did his slider go? McDonald, who threw a slider 19 percent of the time before the break and limited hitters to a .130 batting average against it while recording 34 of his 100 K's, has thrown the pitch only 10 percent of the time since, with opponents batting .429 against it with only one of his 15 K's. The McDonald we've seen in July looks a lot like the McDonald of 2011, a high-WHIP, volatile fantasy option, and if he cannot recapture his first-half magic -- which seems fairly far off now -- he'd indeed be a cut candidate.
1dMarc Stein and Ramona Shelburne