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The Cliff Lee line

6/11/2012

Philip Humber threw a perfect game and earned a whopping 41 fantasy points in one day. Johan Santana threw a no-hitter and got 35 fantasy points for the effort. Max Scherzer gave up two runs and four hits in seven innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates and got 32 points thanks to an impressive 15 strikeouts.

These three performances are just a few of the ones that stand out so far this season as the most memorable outings by a starting pitcher this season, and the points earned by each in their moment in the spotlight certainly reflect their dominance on that given day when they clearly were far greater than "the average pitching performance."

But what is average? Exactly how many points should we expect from the typical pitcher each and every time he takes the mound? How many pitchers consistently exceed that "average" mark and, as such, should be started no matter what? In other words, when it comes to points leagues, where exactly is, as my colleague Matthew Berry would put it, the Wandy Line?

To figure this out, we first need to see what the average 2012 statistics per team starting staff have been this season and then convert that average to a value using ESPN standard fantasy scoring:

Taking these per-start numbers yields us 9.2 points per start for the average pitcher. Of course, that does not factor in the chances of a win, which would add five points to the mix. Nor does it take into account the possibility of a five-point deduction for a loss.

Since winning and losing is such an arbitrary factor anyway, let's add a percentage portion of the five points for a win, based on the to-date probability of a starter earning a win this season: 35.6 percent. That means we'll add 1.8 points (35.6 percent of the five points) to the 9.2 points we've got as a baseline.

That raises our average points output for the average pitching day to 11.0. There are 63 pitchers earning at least 11 points per start on the season. By total chance, here are the last three names on this list: Roy Halladay (currently on the disabled list), Zach McAllister (currently in Triple-A) and our old friend Wandy Rodriguez.

However, this is not where we'd draw the line for a "must-start pitcher" by any means. In order to put a pitcher in our lineup, day in and day out, regardless of the matchup, we'd want to be a lot more certain of a victory. So let's add the full five points to our 9.2 per start and see how many pitchers have been giving us 14.2 points per game.

This list contains a far more reasonable amount of names, and if we remove those pitchers with fewer than 40 innings pitched, we have these "points league reliables" on the right.

So points leaguers, welcome to the "Cliff Lee Line." If you have a name on this list, don't even think about a sit right now. Set it and forget it. In 2012, they've earned your trust.

Pointing Up

TOP 100 OVERALL PLAYERS

Note: AJ Mass' top 100 overall players are ranked based on statistics that have already been accrued in ESPN standard points formats and should be used as a supplement to the ESPN Player Rater.

Dan Uggla, 2B, Atlanta Braves: In his past 10 games, Uggla has hit .303 with four home runs and 14 RBIs. More important, perhaps, he's scored 12 runs in his last 12 games and had nearly a 1:1 K/BB ratio. Whenever a player is getting on base, driving in runs on his own and seeing his teammates drive him in as well, all without losing points for his free-swinging ways, that's a keeper.

Albert Pujols, 1B, Los Angeles Angels: Back on May 15, many people were worried that perhaps Pujols was done as a fantasy factor. Oh, ye of little faith! Now with five straight two-hit games, Pujols has finally entered our Top 100 rankings and has a .341 batting average with eight home runs and 24 RBIs in his past 24 games. The hole he dug for himself was huge, but he's finally back on solid footing.

Matt Harrison, SP, Texas Rangers: He's now won four straight starts, with a 1.76 ERA and a .214 batting average against. In the five starts before this streak, he went 1-3 with an 8.10 ERA and a .348 batting average against. The difference? It's the ground balls, which he's gotten at a rate of 14 per game in his recent streak, as opposed to just 8.4 in the previous stretch.

Jed Lowrie, SS, Houston Astros: Where did this power come from? An .806 slugging percentage over the past nine games has propelled Lowrie into the top 10 among shortstops for scoring in ESPN standard leagues so far this season. It's an achievement all the more impressive, because most of the other top players at this position have supplemented their scoring with steals. Lowrie has only two, one of which came in his first game of the season.

Kyle Seager, 3B, Seattle Mariners: Seager has eight extra-base hits in his past 10 games, and a .350 batting average to go along with it. He's now topped 20 fantasy points in three of the last four scoring periods, so this isn't a case of a player simply padding his stats as a result of his team having one glorious offensive day where it put 21 runs on the scoreboard. Certainly that helped Seager, but keep in mind he's driven in 10 of Seattle's 37 runs scored in the 10 games since then.

Jason Motte, RP, St. Louis Cardinals: Yes, he just lost his third game of the season thanks to a Jason Kipnis three-run blast, but before that he had recorded three consecutive saves and had not allowed a run to cross the plate in June. When he does well, Motte's success will often be greater than that of other closers because he rarely has outing of less than one full frame. In fact, he's gone more than one inning five times already this season.

Pointing Down

Omar Infante, 2B, Miami Marlins: Despite 10 hits in his past 11 games, Infante is batting just .213 over this stretch with a goose egg in the walks department. Add in zero stolen bases, zero home runs and zero RBIs and you've got a hitter whose fantasy points production has seen five straight weeks of steady decline. He's fallen out of the top 10 at second base and at this rate may end up outside the top 20 in a few weeks.

Yu Darvish, SP, Texas Rangers: The magic has worn off for Darvish over his past four starts. He's walked 18 batters in just 20 2/3 innings and fanned only 19 hitters over that same time. His 6.53 ERA is bad enough, but consider that he's barely completing the minimum five innings needed to even potentially get a win and going through an average of 102.5 pitches to get just that far.

Billy Butler, DH, Kansas City Royals: In the past two weeks, Butler has contributed just eight points to his fantasy owners, which is what happens when you average a strikeout per game and have but a single extra-base hit and RBI. It just goes to show that batting average isn't everything in points leagues, as Butler has hit .375 since June 3. Still, five times this month you could have started yourself instead of Butler and gotten just as many points.

Dexter Fowler, OF, Colorado Rockies: Fowler has struck out 11 times over the past seven games and though his speed earned him two triples over this stretch, the .208 batting average led to his scoring just three runs, the full extent of his run production. Fowler is hitting just .175 on the road this season, and after three games with Oakland, a nine-game road trip looms.

James McDonald, SP, Pittsburgh Pirates: Yes, he's above the Cliff Lee line, but he's in danger of dipping below it. We're now through nine scoring periods, and 48 percent of McDonald's total points for the season are a result of two quality weeks. Part of the inconsistency is that while he's kept his baserunners per game to around six for the past six starts, he's had three starts in which he didn't go more than six innings and he allowed three runs in each of those contests. Don't sit him yet, but do keep a close on eye on him going forward.

Jeremy Hellickson, SP, Tampa Bay Rays: It's bad enough that Hellickson hasn't won a game since May 16, but even though his ERA is only 2.42 since then, his WHIP is 1.35 including a seven-walk day against the Miami Marlins in only 4 1/3 innings of work. That was the fourth time this season he started a game and failed to finish at least six innings. That's too much risk for the reward he's likely to give you.