Commentary

Starters who can't win for losing

Victimized by a lack of run support, blown leads, shoddy defense

Updated: July 9, 2009, 12:14 AM ET
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Poor Dan Haren. Arizona's staff ace leads the National League with a 2.16 ERA, and he has a mere 8-5 record to show for it. But at least he's headed to the All-Star Game, and fans and the media are sufficiently cognizant of his plight to refer to him as "poor Dan Haren."

The same goes for poor Johan Santana, who will take his 9-7 record to St. Louis for his fourth career All-Star appearance. And Matt Cain -- the artist formerly known as "poor Matt Cain" -- is no longer regarded as the talented whiz kid who has to bite his lip over a lack of run support. He's 10-2 and ready to join Giants teammate Tim Lincecum in St. Louis.

Lots of other pitchers who've been victimized by poor offenses, shoddy defenses and suspect bullpens have to settle for an "Atta boy" from the manager and the satisfaction of a job well-done. Too often, their fine work has slipped through the cracks because the won-loss record doesn't reflect the caliber of their pitching.

Until now. In this week's edition of Starting 9, we visit the Hard Luck Hotel and recognize nine pitchers with .500 or losing records who've been better than the W's and L's would suggest. They won't be doffing their caps at the All-Star Game, but with a break here and there, a few of these guys would have been in the conversation.

Javier Vazquez, Braves (6-7, 2.95 ERA)

"We've got three guys who should have been on the All-Star team as pitchers," said Atlanta general manager Frank Wren. "They weren't, but they were deserving."

[+] EnlargeJavier Vazquez
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhVazquez has a 1.96 ERA and 58 strikeouts over his past eight starts but only two wins to show for it.
Wren is referring to Vazquez and reliever Rafael Soriano, whose numbers are ridiculous, and starter Jair Jurrjens, who has been better than his 6-7 record would indicate.

Several scouts thought Vazquez would benefit from leaving hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular Field for a DH-free existence in Atlanta, and that's proven to be the case. Vazquez is a fly-ball guy, and he has more margin for error at Turner Field than he did in Chicago.

He's also been a strike-throwing machine, with 136 whiffs and only 23 walks. Vazquez has induced a higher percentage of swings and misses than Haren, Santana, Roy Halladay and all the big boys.

"From our perspective, he's been pretty dominant every time out," Wren said. "He's shut down the other team, and it doesn't matter who we play. His stuff is that good. He has four above-average pitches, and not many guys have that."

Vazquez has a career record of 133-136, and that derisive "Big Game Javy" label was bound to stick after Ozzie Guillen pointed out his failings in the clutch. But Vazquez's pedigree and durability will put him on a lot of teams' wish lists if the Braves make him available in a trade.

Wren is in no hurry to deal Vazquez, but that won't prevent clubs from calling over the next three weeks. They better be prepared to raid their farm systems.

Jarrod Washburn
Washburn

Jarrod Washburn, Mariners (5-6, 3.08 ERA)

Hitters never enjoy complimenting pitchers, but the Orioles took turns praising Washburn after he carved up the Baltimore lineup with a 28-batter, no-walk, one-hit performance in a 5-0 Seattle victory on Monday.

"I feel comfortable against him every time I step in the box, but he just gets you out. That's just something he's done my whole career. I don't feel like I'm overmatched, but he gets me out every time," said Aubrey Huff, who is actually a .289 hitter in 45 career at-bats against Washburn.

There's nothing complex about it. Washburn works his fastball in and out at 87-90 mph. He rarely throws a pitch down the middle, and he likes to bust the ball in on righties and make their feet move. He's big on strike one, works quickly, and uses his defense to his advantage.

And he's not flustered by low-scoring games. Since 2005, Washburn has the worst run support of any American League starter. He's started 132 games in that span for the Angels and Mariners, and he's received two runs or less of support in 64 of those outings.

Although lots of scouts monitored Washburn's Monday appearance, it remains to be seen how aggressively Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik will market him. Washburn's trade value keeps rising, but the Mariners are 3½ games out in a winnable AL West, so Zduriencik has the luxury of waiting a while longer.

Doug Davis
Davis

Doug Davis, Diamondbacks (4-8, 3.13 ERA)

The Diamondbacks lead the majors in errors and rank 26th in bullpen ERA. Factor in an acute lack of run support, and Davis, Haren and Max Scherzer are all stuck in a Bermuda Triangle of despair. Johan Santana is the only full-time starter who has received punier offensive support than Davis this season.

Opponents are hitting .188 against Davis with runners in scoring position. He has the best pickoff move this side of Andy Pettitte and Mark Buehrle, he's always thinking several hitters ahead, and he usually finds a way to wriggle out of his messes.

"He's a bend-don't-break type of guy," said a National League coach. "The difference between Doug Davis and a fifth starter is, he'll pitch his way out of jams. He controls the game and he doesn't give up the big inning very often. If you can give him some run support, he can win a lot of games."

Davis also takes the ball, as they say. Since 2004, he ranks second in the National League to Roy Oswalt with 180 starts. He goes deep into games consistently enough to save bullpens, and his numbers stack up well against the more affluent Barry Zito over the past several years.

Davis can help get a team to October, but can he make a difference in the postseason? Potential suitors will be debating that question as they decide whether to pursue him in trade between now and July 31.

Cliff Lee, Indians (4-8, 3.45 ERA)

Throw out a couple of clunkers against Texas and Chicago, and Lee hasn't slipped much from the guy who posted a 22-3 record and won the Cy Young Award last season.

True, his walks are up a bit. But the Indians have scored a total of 13 runs in his eight losses, and closer Kerry Wood has blown two of his leads in the late innings. Lee also has a lot of pressure on him to perform with Carl Pavano, Tomo Ohka, et al behind him in the rotation.

The big question is, will he still be an Indian a month from now? Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro would like to hang onto Lee in hopes that the Indians can fix their pitching issues and be competitive in 2010. But things are grim enough that Shapiro might have to consider moving Lee for a mother lode of prospects at the deadline.

The Indians could also trade Lee in the offseason, or wait until next July and move him a la CC Sabathia. Cleveland has a very affordable $9 million option on Lee for next season, and that's not going to scare away anyone.

The Indians rank 27th in the majors in attendance this season, so a lot could depend on whether owner Larry Dolan gives Shapiro orders to start cutting payroll.

The least likely scenario is for Lee to sign a long-term deal to remain in Cleveland. Sources close to Lee said the pitcher plans to test free agency once he's eligible in 2010, and he's not interested in discussing an extension. It's hard to envision the Indians' meeting his price, regardless.

Joel Pineiro
Pineiro

Joel Pineiro, Cardinals (6-9, 3.39 ERA)

If Chris Carpenter couldn't make the National League staff for an All-Star Game in St. Louis, Pineiro didn't stand much of a chance. But that 6-9 record does no justice to the way he's pitched.

Pineiro pronounced himself "heartbroken" in spring training when the Puerto Rican WBC team -- which was managed by St. Louis coach Jose Oquendo -- couldn't find a spot for him in the rotation. But rather than sulk, he channeled his discontent into a makeover.

Pineiro embraced the Dave Duncan two-seamer philosophy in the Grapefruit League, and he's been masterful at pitching to contact this season. His 1.62 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio is easily the highest of his career, and he's walked just 12 batters in 106 1/3 innings.

When he's right, Pineiro is a mini-Brandon Webb. He threw 92 pitches and recorded 17 ground-ball outs in a 3-0 win over the Cubs in May. In a 3-0 victory over the Mets two weeks ago, Pineiro threw 100 pitches and recorded a staggering 22 ground-ball outs.

The bad news: Those two complete-game masterpieces are Pineiro's only wins in his last 12 appearances. It didn't help that the Cardinals failed to score more than three runs on Pineiro's behalf for nine straight starts.

If this comes as any consolation, Pineiro's stellar work could result in a big payday. He might be this year's answer to Kyle Lohse, a career underachiever who thrived under the Duncan program and parlayed it into a $41 million contract extension with St. Louis last September.

Ubaldo Jimenez, Rockies (6-8, 3.86 ERA)

Jason Marquis made the All-Star team on the strength of his 11-5 record, but Jimenez leads the Colorado staff in uncomfortable at-bats.

[+] EnlargeUbaldo Jimenez
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesThe Rockies have scored three runs or fewer in nine of Jimenez's 17 starts, eight of them Rockies losses.

"His stuff is phenomenal," said the NL coach. "Guys have trouble putting consistently good swings on his fastball even when they know they're getting fastballs from him. That's the best way to evaluate it: How do hitters look against a guy's fastball on counts where they know they're going to get one?"

According to FanGraphs, Jimenez throws the hardest average fastball in baseball at 95.7 miles per hour. That puts him a tick above Justin Verlander and Josh Johnson. Jimenez also uses his fastball a healthy 67.7 percent of the time.

The underlying message: Opposing lineups know what's coming, but they're still challenged to catch up to it.

Jimenez's command wanders at times, and he walks too many batters (45 in 109 2/3 innings). But he's been more efficient since the start of May.

"There's some funk in his arm action, and he'll lose his release point," a scout said. "It creates some inconsistency, but he has ace stuff."

Randy Wolf
Wolf

Randy Wolf, Dodgers (3-3, 3.49 ERA)

How good has Wolf been? Lefty hitters are batting .113 (9-for-80) against him, with a slugging percentage of .163. Keep that in mind in the event the Dodgers square off against Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Raul Ibanez and the Phillies in October.

How unlucky has Wolf been? With 12 no-decisions in the bank, he has a big head start toward Odalis Perez's Dodgers record of 18 in a season.

"He's throwing everything for strikes," said a West Coast scout. "He keeps left-handers and right-handers off balance. He's athletic and he fields his position. And his stuff isn't overwhelming, but he misses bats."

Can Wolf stay healthy for the duration? Well, he did pitch 190 innings last season, and he's nearly two years removed from shoulder surgery. He's been relatively economical with his pitch counts, so the Dodgers have no reason to think he can't go the distance.

Dallas Braden
Braden

Dallas Braden, Athletics (6-7, 3.13 ERA)

Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson and Vin Mazzaro have gotten the big prospect hype this year, but Braden has been Oakland's most consistent starter from Opening Day.

He is also the best human interest story. Braden grew up in a rough section of Stockton, Calif., and his mother died when he was in high school. He was raised by his grandmother, and he could have easily embraced a life of gangs and drugs if not for baseball and the love of his family.

Although Braden's stuff isn't overwhelming, he pitches with a tenacity bordering on fearlessness. He also has a high pain threshold: In a May start against Toronto, Braden took a Vernon Wells line drive off the hand in the first inning, then stayed in to pitch six more innings.

Too bad the Oakland offense keeps disappearing when he pitches. Braden has lost games by the scores of 3-0, 1-0, 5-0, 4-1 and 4-2 already this season.

"Position players seem to pick one pitcher to do that to the whole year," shortstop Orlando Cabrera told A's beat writer Susan Slusser. "It happens on every team. It's not on purpose. We're trying. And he's so enthusiastic on the bench, maybe we try to do too much for him."

Braden probably won't pitch again until after the break. He left the A's to go on the bereavement list Monday, and it's uncertain when he'll rejoin the club.

Aaron Harang
Harang

Aaron Harang, Reds (5-8, 3.89 ERA)

When Harang is bad, he's a human home run dispenser. He gave up at least one long ball in eight straight starts from late April through early June.

But the guy usually contributes a solid effort. Tuesday night's start in Philadelphia was a case in point: Harang fell behind early against a team coming off a 22-run evening, stranded a bunch of baserunners, and stuck around long enough for the Reds to come back and win 4-3. He got a no-decision, naturally.

Luck hasn't been in Harang's corner much this season. Opposing lineups have a .339 batting average on balls in play against him, and the Reds have scored a total of 16 runs in his eight losses.

Harang, a notoriously bad hitter, singled against Philadelphia on Tuesday to raise his batting average to a lofty .152. Former Cincinnati teammate Adam Dunn recently said Harang works so obsessively in the cage, "He's going to hit .350 one of these years. Watch out."

Unless Harang turns into the second coming of Micah Owings -- or Reds GM Walt Jocketty finds a way to upgrade the team's feeble offense soon -- Harang's won-loss record might have to take it on the chin this season.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer