Secret weapons

Lower-ranked starting pitchers could be difference in September stretch run

Updated: March 7, 2013, 10:41 AM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Everyone needs a secret weapon.

60 Feet 6 Inches

Oh, those aces, those perennial Cy Young Award winners, they're paramount to your league championship quest. But leagues are not won merely by outstanding outings by Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw. It's the gems tossed by those lesser-known, aspiring aces, that often make the difference.

Don't believe that? Turn the clock back to September 2011, when Doug Fister (5-0 record, 0.53 ERA in September), Matt Harrison (4-0, 2.64 ERA) and Derek Holland (4-0, 2.20 ERA) had a huge hand in many league races.

It's obvious that you should have every one of this column's top 20 ranked starting pitchers in your lineup for the remainder of the year. They're the pitchers who will lead your team to glory. But there are several named beneath that exclusive group who have the per-start upside to make a compelling case for inclusion.

Today, let's profile these "secret weapons," dividing them into two groups: (1) Known commodities, pitchers who might have been nobodies a month ago but who have recently become fantasy studs; (2) True "secrets," pitchers you can readily find on the waiver wire who warrant a longer look than you might think.

Known commodities

Kris Medlen, Atlanta Braves: How could you not know his name by now? Since joining the Braves' rotation on July 31, Medlen hasn't allowed more than one run in a single one of his seven starts, he has an active streak of 36 1/3 innings without allowing an earned run, and the Braves have won each of his past 18 starts dating back to 2009, the third-longest streak by any team and pitcher since 2000, per the Elias Sports Bureau. Yet another Tommy John surgery success story -- he had his on Aug. 18, 2010 -- Medlen has been impeccably maintained by the Braves since, throwing 2 1/3 relief innings late in 2011, 54 1/3 innings as a long reliever to begin this season, and now 49 2/3 frames since rejoining the team's rotation. That gives him 104 this year, leaving him plenty in the tank to complete the season as the Braves continue to fight for playoff positioning. Everything about Medlen's game supports his candidacy for the top 25: He's a ground-baller (52.8 percent rate); he has a 4.78 strikeout-to-walk ratio, fourth best among pitchers with at least 100 innings; and he has a 2.22 FIP that's tops among pitchers with at least that many innings. Believe in this burgeoning ace.

Brett Anderson, Oakland Athletics: What is it about Tommy John surgery returnees? Anderson has been lights out in three starts since recovering from his July 14, 2011, operation, winning all three behind a 0.90 ERA and 0.70 WHIP. Most importantly, he has stuck to the same patterns of success he exhibited before going under the knife: He has a 65.4 percent ground-ball rate (54.9 percent in 2009-11) and 5.00 K-to-walk ratio (3.11 in 2009-11), continuing to pound the strike zone down, down, down. Anderson was on the verge of a fantasy breakthrough before he initially got hurt, and while his career once appeared to be heading off the rails due to injury, all signs point to him being back on his path now. Certainly, it's a risk that all fantasy owners should be taking the rest of 2012.

Hisashi Iwakuma, Seattle Mariners: It's somewhat remarkable that he was unable to crack the Mariners' rotation out of spring training, because the way he has been pitching of late, Iwakuma sure looks like the team's second-most valuable starter. Elevated to the team's rotation on July 2, Iwakuma has a 2.42 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 11 starts, six of his past nine a quality start. What's more, he has thrived despite some challenging assignments during that stretch: TEX, July 15; NYY, July 25; TOR, July 30; @NYY, Aug. 5; @LAA, Aug. 11; LAA, Sept. 2. As with the two men listed above him, Iwakuma thrives upon respectable command, his K-to-walk ratio as a starter is 2.38, and a high ground-ball rate (50.3 percent as a starter). And while the former number might not strike you as elite, nor does it rival the stats of either Medlen or Anderson, remember that Iwakuma is the one of the three who pitches his home games in the most pitching-friendly venue. Here's another little motivator: He'll be a free agent at season's end, meaning that a strong September would go a long way toward his landing a big contract.

True "secrets"

Zach Britton, Baltimore Orioles: A member of the hitting-rich American League East? Really? Believe it. Britton, who offered his fantasy owners positively nothing from July 1, 2011, through the middle of this August, quietly has three consecutive quality starts, his ERA 1.25, WHIP 1.02 and his K-to-walk ratio 4.20. But this pick is about more than his surface stats: Britton's stuff looks much closer to what it was during his solid 2011 first half. He has a 56.1 percent ground-ball rate in his past three turns, comparable to his 56.2 percent number the first three months of 2011; and he has spotted both his fastball and sinker down in the zone 52 percent of the time (46 percent in April-June 2011). When Britton is hitting his spots, all of those down low, he has far greater odds of succeeding.

Shelby Miller, St. Louis Cardinals: This top prospect will cut his big league teeth working out of the bullpen initially, but you can count on the Cardinals wanting to take a look at him in a spot start before long. What if that assignment comes soon, and he's able to impress to the point where he might score a few more turns? Though Miller had been criticized for declining velocity during the early weeks of his season with Triple-A Memphis, he finished his year there on a major high note, drawing raves for rescuing what seemed like a lost season. He was 7-2 with six quality starts, a 2.88 ERA, 0.93 WHIP and 70 K's compared to seven walks in 59 1/3 innings in his final 10 starts for Memphis. Keith Law's No. 5 prospect overall in the preseason, Miller slipped to only 17 at midseason despite his poor first half; that underscores how tremendous his upside is.

Andrew Cashner, San Diego Padres: After a two-month absence for a strained lat muscle, Cashner is expected to return to the Padres' rotation this Friday. Fantasy owners should take note; he has the raw stuff and the pitching-friendly ballpark that make him a potential sleeper for September. Perhaps Cashner's lengthy absence was a blessing, as it has capped his innings to date at 60, meaning he shouldn't face any artificial cap the rest of the way. He managed a 2.53 ERA and 16 K's compared to three walks in 10 2/3 innings in three starts before getting hurt, underscoring his upside in fantasy.

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, Sept. 4: Rick Porcello versus Cleveland Indians
Wednesday, Sept. 5: Aaron Harang versus San Diego Padres
Thursday, Sept. 6: Marco Estrada at Miami Marlins
Friday, Sept. 7: Francisco Liriano versus Kansas City Royals
Saturday, Sept. 8: Bronson Arroyo versus Houston Astros
Sunday, Sept. 9: Jeremy Guthrie at Chicago White Sox
Monday, Sept. 10: Chris Volstad at Houston Astros (another awful day for streaming starters)

Past picks
Tuesday, Aug. 28: Hisashi Iwakuma -- W, QS, 6 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 4 BB, 4 K
Wednesday, Aug. 29: Barry Zito -- 2 1/3 IP, 7 H, 3 ER, 0 BB, 1 K
Thursday, Aug. 30: Jeremy Guthrie -- W, QS, 7 1/3 IP, 10 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 3 K
Friday, Aug. 31: Mike Leake -- W, QS, 6 IP, 7 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 6 K
Saturday, Sept. 1: Luke Hochevar -- 1 2/3 IP, 6 H, 8 ER, 4 BB, 3 K
Sunday, Sept. 2: David Phelps -- 4 2/3 IP, 3 H, 3 ER, 6 BB, 3 K (pitched Sept. 1)
Monday, Sept. 3: Ricky Nolasco -- W, QS, 7 IP, 9 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 4 K

Week's total: 7 GS, 4 W (57.1%), 4 QS (57.1%), 35 IP, 43 H, 17 ER, 16 BB, 24 K, 4.37 ERA, 1.69 WHIP
Season total: 139 GS, 62 W (44.6%), 74 QS (53.2%), 835 2/3 IP, 808 H, 360 ER, 274 BB, 617 K, 3.88 ERA, 1.29 WHIP

Three up

Josh Beckett, Los Angeles Dodgers: A change of scenery, so far, appears to have done Beckett some good, as in two starts for the Dodgers, he has afforded four earned runs on 13 hits in 12 1/3 innings combined, tallying 15 strikeouts compared to four walks. That has resulted in a 28.3 percent strikeout rate (using percentage of total batters faced), up from 17.2 percent previously in 2012 with the Boston Red Sox; and a 21 percent miss rate on swings, up from 20. Small-sample caveat applies, being that Beckett has made but two starts for his new team, but if he can continue this for the remaining 5-7 starts in his season, he'd hardly be the first pitcher who experienced a mini-rebirth in new surroundings. For one, pitching-friendly Dodger Stadium, as well as the National League West, which places only one team (Colorado Rockies) in the top 10 in the majors in runs scored, should present Beckett softer upcoming matchups than the hitting-rich American League East.

Ryan Dempster, Texas Rangers: And conversely, let this serve a lesson not to judge a pitcher's long-term value on a minuscule sample of only three starts immediately following a league switch. Dempster was hammered for 16 earned runs on 24 hits in 17 1/3 innings in his first three starts for the Rangers combined, but in his defense, they were against the Los Angeles Angels, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. Could anyone have asked for a more difficult schedule as he was adjusting to the American League? In three starts since, by comparison, Dempster has afforded three earned runs on 14 hits in 20 innings, striking out 20 compared to seven walks. If he continues to pitch every fifth Rangers game, this would be his remaining schedule: @KC, CLE, SEA, @SEA, OAK, @OAK. Does a single one of those scare you?

Ricky Nolasco, Miami Marlins: He has historically been one of the most frustrating pitchers to own in fantasy, consistently underperforming his peripheral statistics (things like K-to-walk ratio and FIP), and this season has been no different, as he has a 4.64 ERA and 1.39 WHIP. But Nolasco was lights out his past two turns, allowing only one run on 14 hits in 16 innings, striking out 10 batters compared to zero walks, and it's not like the Marlins' remaining schedule is especially treacherous -- it ranked among the most favorable 10 in last week's "60 Feet 6 Inches." Owning Nolasco means being picky about each of his assignments, but there are some good ones left on his schedule: If he pitches every fifth game -- though be aware that the Marlins are currently dabbling with a six-man rotation -- his remaining starts would be @WAS, CIN, @NYM, @ATL, NYM.

Three down

Chris Capuano, Los Angeles Dodgers: The deeper we get into the season, the more Capuano seems to be declining statistically. After going 9-3 with a 2.62 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in his first 16 starts of 2012, he has slumped to a 2-7 record, 4.91 ERA and 1.31 WHIP in 12 turns since July 1. Sound familiar? Though Capuano's full-season performance has exceeded his 2011 output, the pattern of late-season regression is identical to last season's. He had a 4.12 ERA in 19 first-half games (17 starts), but a 5.08 ERA in 14 second-half starts, last year. Capuano is also 33 with a checkered injury history and a limited track record of handling 200-inning workloads. In his career, these are his ERAs by month: 3.63 in April, 3.48 May, 3.55 June, 4.88 July, 5.11 August, 4.81 September. Keep it in mind.

Tommy Hanson, Atlanta Braves: Though he turned in a quality start for his owners in his first start off the disabled list on Aug. 17, Hanson has failed to survive the fifth inning in either turn since. As was the case before a back injury landed him on the DL, his command numbers have been mediocre in those three starts since activation, as he has 12 strikeouts compared to seven walks in 15 2/3 innings. Velocity has been a problem for Hanson this season, as his average fastball velocity in his past three turns is 89.3 mph, down from 89.7 in his first 22 starts and 91.1 mph in 2011. His slider, a key pitch for him, has also been only so-so in his past three outings, opponents batting .313 against it. There's a good chance Hanson is pitching at less than 100 percent, so be cautious expecting him to approach his preseason expectations the rest of the way.

James McDonald, Pittsburgh Pirates: On a top-100 rankings list of "trustworthiness" the remainder of this season, McDonald would almost assuredly miss the cut. He has alternated quality starts and stinkers since the beginning of August, culminating in a 2 2/3-inning, seven-run nightmare on Sunday in which he served up a career-high four home runs. Since the All-Star break, McDonald's 7.14 ERA ranks third worst among qualified starters, his 1.70 WHIP fifth worst. His control has escaped him during that span; he had a 2.54 walks-per-nine innings ratio before the All-Star break that ranked 43rd out of 98 qualifiers, but a 5.40 walks-per-nine since that rates third worst out of 113. And don't call him a matchups candidate, either, because his performances vary wildly regardless of opponent. To that end, two of his four poor outings since Aug. 1 came against the San Diego Padres, 26th in the majors in runs scored.

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