Are You For Real? Journeyman Starters

Updated: June 4, 2007, 12:09 PM ET
By Will Harris and Adam Madison | Special to ESPN.com

Everyone avoids them. No one bothers to keep tabs on them because their mediocrity is simply assumed -- and they usually deliver on such negative expectations. If you ever end up with them on your team, the first thing you look to do is ship them off to some other poor sucker. They are journeyman starting pitchers.

Every year a few of them pop up -- the Carl Pavanos, the Woody Williamses. They are the soft-tossing, home run-surrendering, back-of-the-rotation starters who perform just well enough to keep you treading water, yet aggravate with occasional disastrous outings. But when they actually start performing well for sustained periods of time, it can be difficult to analyze. Who are these pitchers? Are they the mediocrities you have come to know and hate, or have they legitimately improved? One third of the way through the season, they can no longer be ignored.

Jason Marquis, SP, CHC

Marquis had a 6.02 ERA and 1.52 WHIP in 194 1/3 innings last year, yet received a $21 million contract from the Cubs. A third of the way through 2007, he has a sub-3 ERA. How much longer can one claim fluke?

Adam: Unreal. It is pretty much impossible to be this good with a strikeout rate below five, but then again, you're not expecting Marquis to stay this good. The real question is how much he will decline; he sure does have a lot of room for error, after all. Will it be as bad as you think? Well, yes, it will be. Marquis just isn't a good pitcher, and has been pretty lucky so far, with the fourth lowest batting average on balls in play (.228) in the majors. For a pitcher who doesn't strike out very many batters, he leaves his fate in luck's hands more often than most, so expect much of that to balance out. Marquis has allowed 14 earned runs in his past 23 innings, and his projected June schedule gets much more difficult. Expect the worst.

Will: Unreal. I'm still crying fluke as well. Marquis has been in the majors for eight years, so there's plenty of data to study -- and none of it is good. Nothing in Marquis' peripherals suggests that he can maintain anything remotely similar to his current pace. He's been benefiting from a soft schedule and a lucky hit percentage, as Adam observes, and also from a fortuitously high strand rate. If you own Marquis, get something for him before it's too late, and if you are considering picking him up ... don't.

Matt Morris, SP, SF

Through his first six seasons, a 3.76 ERA was the worst Morris compiled in a single season. In the three years since, his ERA has been a combined 4.61, and he was largely written off. In 10 starts in 2007, his ERA is 2.90. Which Matt Morris is the 2007 version?

Adam: For Real. Now when I say for real, I am not claiming Morris has any chance at setting a career low in ERA. But, as far as starters of his ilk go, he's a great spot starter who is available in nearly 84 percent of ESPN leagues. He can't and never will strike out hitters consistently, but he also walks very few batters (walk rate the last three years: 2.33) and pitching in AT&T Park helps keep his home runs down. It also helps that the teams in his division don't hit well -- every team is in the bottom half of the majors in runs scored. Morris also lasts deep into ball games, averaging more than six and two-thirds innings a start this year. Greatness is outside his grasp, but competence has a place on a fantasy team, too.

Will: Unreal. The reason for Morris' decline the past few years was a shrinking strikeout rate and rising walk rate. With a 32/23 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 68 innings this season, nothing has changed in Morris' underlying skills. He's still very much a pitcher in decline. Driving his low 2007 ERA is a hit percentage a few points below average and an astronomically lucky strand rate of more than 80 percent. Additionally, Morris has been fortunate to surrender fewer home runs this year -- without any improvement in his fly-ball rate. The skill-set says "fifth starter" and when the indicators normalize, the results will say the same.

Gil Meche, SP, KC

The laughingstock of the offseason -- the Royals gave $55 million to a guy with a career 4.64 ERA? -- has spent most of the season proving the haters wrong, posting a 3.00 ERA in 78 innings. Is he really a whole new pitcher now?

Adam: Unreal. I really want to believe in Meche, but for fantasy purposes, it's just not going to happen. Analyzing his peripherals, there's a fair bit to like, as his strikeout rate is a hair above average, his walk rate is well below average and his home run rate is right about average. I also see it as a big plus that Meche is averaging nearly six and two-thirds innings per start this season, a mark he has never been remotely close to before. The problems come into play when we factor in his level of competition, as the AL Central is tough to pitch in. Meche doesn't have much help, either, since the Royals are 27th in defensive efficiency, which is a rather big negative since a poor defense results in more balls in play. A career year looks possible -- maybe even probable -- but the improvement will trend towards his becoming an average pitcher, not one truly taking the next step.

Will: For Real. Meche showed signs of growth last year in terms of a higher strikeout rate and a lower fly-ball rate. The 2007 manifestation of the latter improvement is a lower home run rate. The strikeout rate, while not quite up to 2006 standards, is still comfortably above his 2005 mark. It seems that Meche is making legitimate gains in these areas. The biggest factor in his success, however, is pitching better on the road. Anyone who doubts whether road outings can be a genuine bugaboo for a starter should look at the year that Ervin Santana is having so far (4-1, 2.12 ERA at home/0-5, 9.30 ERA away.) Meche's home/road splits have been quite lopsided throughout his career:

1999: 3.50 ERA at home/6.18 ERA on the road
2000: 3.06/4.29
2001/2002: did not pitch in the majors
2003: 3.31/5.71
2004: 4.40/5.79
2005: 5.01/5.17
2006: 3.76/5.14

With the exception of 2005, when he was just plain bad, Meche has actually been a pretty productive pitcher at home throughout his career. This season, he's solved his road woes (1.41 ERA away so far.) When coupled with the gains he's made in the other peripherals, this certainly seems to be a legitimate breakout season.

Will Harris and Adam Madison are fantasy baseball analysts for TalentedMrRoto.com. Will can be contacted at WillHarris@TalentedMrRoto.com and Adam at Adam@TalentedMrRoto.com

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