Wacky things can happen during a quarter-season.
There's that phrase: "Quarter-season." We've got about that amount of schedule remaining in the 2012 regular season; to be mathematically exact, there is 29 percent of the season yet to be played. But for these purposes, let's officially say that we've reached the sample size of the year we call the "stretch run."
If you've been paying attention, surely you know what can happen in 47 games' time -- that being the average number of games remaining for every team. During one 47-game (team games) stretch earlier this year, Josh Hamilton hit five more home runs (20 total) and drove in 12 more runs (53) than any other player in baseball. During another, R.A. Dickey had 10 more strikeouts (84 total), an ERA nearly a quarter of a run lower (1.33) and as many wins (8) as anyone in the game.
And those are all facts about known quantities. What about utter surprises over a similar time span? To illustrate, let's turn the calendar back one year, and reveal some of the more unexpected standouts from this date through season's end: Doug Fister had a major league-leading 0.65 ERA. Javier Vazquez, given up as done earlier in the year, had 58 K's and a 1.40 ERA. Heck, Mike Minor managed a 3.32 ERA and 40 K's in a seven-start audition.
Yes, you can catch "lightning in a bottle" in August and September, just as you can in April or May. With the trade deadline officially behind us in ESPN standard leagues, taking chances on such lottery tickets is often the best way to inject some life into a struggling roster. Watch that waiver wire!
This isn't to say that anyone listed below is even close to being a sure thing. Heck, the very definition of such players is that the odds of success are low. Their statistical ceilings, however, are considerably higher than similarly valued players. Picking one could give you an out-of-nowhere top-30 fantasy starting pitcher … or you might be cutting him in a week, only to seek the next such candidate.
Here are the rules for these "lightning in a bottle" picks: Every one of these players is available in a minimum of 70 percent of ESPN leagues. Every one, too, could be a top-30 starter from today forward if he catches every single break.
Derek Holland, Texas Rangers: He's one of the most known quantities on the list, having been tabbed the No. 61 starting pitcher in ESPN drafts this preseason, but has struggled through a terribly disappointing campaign, his 4.92 ERA and 1.23 WHIP noticeably higher than the 4.45 ERA and 1.32 WHIP major league averages for starting pitchers. He also has only a 4.66 ERA in seven starts since returning from shoulder fatigue in July. Still, hidden in Holland's performance have been some bright spots, and a few underlying factors that hint at some unlucky breaks: His 2.57 strikeout-to-walk ratio is his best in any of his four big league seasons to date, his 4.05 FIP isn't far removed from his 3.86 mark in 2011 (when his ERA was 3.95) and he has a 67.7 left on base percentage that ranks 15th lowest among pitchers who qualify for the ERA title.
Holland has 28 K's compared to eight walks in his past four turns, during which time he was facing a challenging portion of his schedule (BOS, LAA, @KC, DET), so perhaps he's only improving in the command department. Here's something else to like looking forward: His remaining schedule (@NYY, BAL, MIN, @CLE, @KC, CLE, @LAA, @SEA, LAA, OAK). After that start at Yankee Stadium, Holland's toughest remaining matchup is either of those Los Angeles Angels games, and in either case, because they're so far off, he could be shuffled to avoid those and double up on either the Oakland Athletics, Seattle Mariners or both. Keep throwing strikes, Derek, because you might yet finish this year on a high note.
Kris Medlen, Atlanta Braves: The only reason he's not getting more love -- from me included -- is the impending return of Tommy Hanson from the disabled list. But with Medlen pitching as well as he has as a starter, going at least five innings and allowing only one run in each of his past three starts, the Braves would be foolish to demote him now. There is already chatter of a six-man rotation, being that the Braves are six days into a stretch of 19 consecutive games without a day off, and besides, there shouldn't be any fewer questions about veteran Ben Sheets' durability over the remainder of the year than about Medlen's.
Consider that in 17 starts combined between 2010, before his Tommy John surgery, and 2012, since it, Medlen has a 3.49 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 3.90 K-to-walk ratio, numbers that any team, contenders included, could find a place for in the rotation. He should only improve in terms of velocity and command as he continues on the comeback trail, and has the kind of balanced splits -- .639 lifetime OPS allowed to left-handed hitters, less than the .729 he has allowed to righties -- and high ground ball rate (51.7 percent in 2012) that make him a low-risk bet regardless of matchups. The risk you take is that Medlen is bullpen-bound in a week or two. But of any of these names, Medlen might be the most likely to develop into lightning.
Bud Norris, Houston Astros: Well, at least he'll face little pressure the remainder of the year. The Astros are going nowhere, they're not generating much attention on an individual-player perspective and their remaining schedule isn't especially treacherous as they're members of the National League Central. Wins, naturally, will be a problem for Norris. That's his limitation in fantasy.
But Norris remains one of the more intriguing, low-cost strikeout artists in the game, his 9.20 K's-per-nine ratio seventh best among qualified starters and his 23.3 percent K rate (calculated off total batters faced) 17th best, making him a sort of "Brandon Morrow of the NL." Norris' ratios might be worrisome, but in his defense, he has a 3.46 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in managing quality starts in three of his past four outings, and his 4.13 FIP is well within range of the 4.02 he posted in 2011, when his ERA was 3.77. At some point, the 27-year-old Norris might finally break through, turning his strikeout ability into full-fledged ERA-WHIP-K's prowess. What easier time to do it than when no one is paying attention?
St. Louis Cardinals
Jaime Garcia, St. Louis Cardinals: As a result of the shoulder injury that has kept him on the disabled list since June 6, Garcia has been utterly forgotten in fantasy, now owned in only 26.7 percent of ESPN leagues. It's understandable, as at the time he got hurt there were legitimate questions about whether his season was done.
Garcia's rehabilitation reports, however, have been positive, and he has 12 K's compared to zero walks in 12 innings across three rehab starts. He threw 75 pitches in his most recent outing, Aug. 9 for Double-A Springfield, so he might be only one or two more minor league appearances away from activation. As for what Garcia might do upon his return, remember that he has a 3.45 career ERA, and his 2.81 FIP in 11 starts before getting hurt belied his 4.48 ERA. He also has a 2.58 career ERA at Busch Stadium, meaning at the minimum he should be a viable fantasy option in his remaining home games.
Tyler Skaggs, Arizona Diamondbacks: How about a prospect? Skaggs is one of the best remaining in the minors, among those with a legitimate shot of claiming a big league rotation spot before the Sept. 1 roster expansion, having earned a No. 9 midseason prospect ranking by Keith Law. Skaggs has also thrived since his promotion to Triple-A Reno, going 4-1 with a 1.70 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 2.93 K-to-walk ratio in eight starts, each of the past three of them a quality start.
Keep in mind the difficulty at that competitive level, comparative to the rest of the minor leagues: The Pacific Coast League, in which Reno plays, is one of the most hitter-friendly in all of professional baseball. Reno, in fact, has a 4.95 ERA as a team this season. Fantasy owners might remember the comparative failure of fellow Diamondbacks prospect Trevor Bauer; Skaggs' prospect status really wasn't far off Bauer's to begin the season and to expect a repeat is unfair. Maybe Skaggs will struggle, as Bauer did. Maybe he won't be promoted at all. But if he is, based upon reputation and minor league performance this season, doesn't Skaggs have a chance at making a run at the top 30?
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 -- 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, August 14: Lucas Harrell at Chicago Cubs
Wednesday, August 15: Justin Germano versus Houston Astros
Thursday, August 16: Kris Medlen versus San Diego Padres
Friday, August 17: Hisashi Iwakuma versus Minnesota Twins
Saturday, August 18: Patrick Corbin at Houston Astros
Sunday, August 19: Clayton Richard versus San Francisco Giants
Monday, August 20: Kevin Correia at San Diego Padres
Tuesday, August 7: Ross Detwiler -- QS, 7 IP, 3 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 2 K
Wednesday, August 8: Clayton Richard -- W, QS, 9 IP, 5 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 5 K
Thursday, August 9: Mike Leake -- QS, 6 IP, 6 H, 3 ER, 2 BB, 5 K
Friday, August 10: Erik Bedard -- W, 5 IP, 5 H, 3 ER, 4 BB, 6 K (pitched Aug. 12)
Saturday, August 11: Marco Estrada -- 4 IP, 7 H, 4 ER, 0 BB, 3 K
Sunday, August 12: Patrick Corbin -- W, QS, 7 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 7 K
Monday, August 13: Alex Cobb -- W, QS, 7 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 5 K
Week's total: 7 GS, 4 W (57.1%), 5 QS (71.4%), 45 IP, 34 H, 15 ER, 12 BB, 33 K, 3.00 ERA, 1.02 WHIP
Season total: 119 GS, 51 W (42.9%), 63 QS (52.9%), 718 1/3 IP, 687 H, 311 ER, 241 BB, 535 K, 3.90 ERA, 1.29 WHIP
Roy Halladay, Philadelphia Phillies: He's back. Halladay's numbers since his return from a strained lat muscle look much like those from his Cy Young-caliber years: Five starts, 3.38 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, and he's riding a streak of three consecutive quality starts. But dig deeper: He has an 8.16 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio, a 23.4 percent K rate (calculated as a percentage of total batters faced) and a 9.67 K's-per-walk ratio during those five turns; he had an 8.05 K's-per-nine, 22.5 percent K rate and 6.47 K's-per-walk ratio from 2009 to 2011 combined. Halladay's skills should no longer be questioned; the most significant difference between his 2009 to 2011 model and the one we'll see these next two months is the potency of the offense supporting him. To compare, since the trade deadline the Phillies have averaged 3.62 runs per game with .238/.312/.396 triple-slash rates; they averaged 4.74 runs per game with .257/.330/.418 rates from 2009 to 2011 combined. "Diminished win potential" is about the only reason he's not already back among the top five.
Jon Lester, Boston Red Sox: It was only one start, and one against the Cleveland Indians -- they've averaged 3.42 runs per game with .236/.303/.369 rates since the All-Star break -- but it was Lester's reliance upon the cutter that restores hope for the stretch run. Per ESPN Stats & Information, seven of his 12 K's were on cutters, his most in any start in the past four seasons, and he threw the pitch a season-high 37 percent of the time and 54 percent with two strikes. Here's why that's so important: Since the beginning of 2009, Lester has thrown cutters 21 percent of the time and limited opponents to .218/.276/.303 rates with a 28 percent miss rate on swings and 249 total strikeouts. It's one of his most valuable pitches, and so long as he continues to throw it so often and effectively, he might yet make a run at top-25 starting pitcher status from this point forward.
Paul Maholm, Atlanta Braves: He has made only two starts for his new team, the Braves, and they both came against middling-to-poor offenses (Houston Astros, New York Mets), but in them Maholm has shown every bit the skills improvements that he exhibited previously for the Chicago Cubs. Most notably: He has limited right-handed hitters to .170/.200/.340 triple-slash rates, even better than the .240/.306/.388 numbers he had in 21 starts for the Cubs, those leaps and bounds better than his stats against them during his first six career seasons. Maholm continues to generate ground balls at a healthy rate -- 50.5 percent in 2012, and greater than 50 percent in each of the past three seasons -- and his balanced splits make him a lower-risk bet than is the general perception.
James McDonald, Pittsburgh Pirates: I've asked it before and will ask again, where the heck did the James McDonald of the first half of this season go? There isn't a pitcher out there with a starker contrast between his half-seasons; he had 12 quality starts and a 2.37 ERA in 17 first-half starts, but has only one quality start -- only meeting the minimums -- and an 8.71 ERA in six second-half starts. What's worse, McDonald failed to reach quality-start minimums in matchups with the Cubs, Astros or San Diego Padres, matchups his first-half self would've dominated. Even with only two walks in his past two outings combined, he has 21 walks compared to 26 K's in 31 innings since the All-Star break. McDonald's command has effectively deserted him, and that the Pirates continue to give Kevin Correia spot starts in a six-man alignment is a concern. Frankly, as poorly as McDonald has pitched, he might not be far off a demotion to the bullpen or a premature end to his season, the team perhaps deciding to give him some rest.
CC Sabathia, New York Yankees: Twice in a four-week span he has landed on the disabled list, leaving the Yankees' pitching staff vulnerable at a difficult time, and his fantasy owners in a tough spot with a little less than two months to play. Granted, Sabathia had four quality starts, a 3.89 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 9.09 K's-per-nine ratio in five starts between his DL stints, but it's fair to wonder whether his workload during his Yankees career might finally be catching up to him. As of the day he returned to the DL (this past Saturday), he was the major league leader in innings (1,420⅔), starts (205) and pitches thrown (21,775) since the beginning of 2007 (postseason included). Plus, remember that last season he made only four appearances in the Yankees' final 29 games, and when he signed his new contract last November, the team added a clause regarding a 2017 contract option related to the health of his shoulder. This isn't to say Sabathia's career is about to slide off the rails, but there are legitimate questions about whether he can still be a top-10 fantasy starter even after his projected Aug. 24 return.
Johan Santana, New York Mets: Speaking of workload concerns, presenting the case of Johan Santana. On June 1 he threw a no-hitter, the first in Mets history, the importance of that game in the franchise's history enough to coax manager Terry Collins to break from his traditionally careful management of Santana's workload. On that day Santana threw 134 pitches, the most by any individual all year … and since then he has only three quality starts, a 7.98 ERA, .328 batting average allowed and 11 home runs allowed in nine appearances. He also had a disabled list stint mixed in there, and was pummeled for eight runs on eight hits in 1⅓ innings in his first start back this past Saturday. Santana's most recent outing shouldn't be used as the barometer for the outings he has remaining, but it also underscores the downside of a pitcher who might be tiring following a completely lost 2011 and 20 starts so far in his comeback this season. Keep him reserved until he shows some of the magic he did the first half of the year.