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Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Starting pitchers worth believing

By Tristan H. Cockcroft

Wednesday's the day.

60 Feet 6 Inches

That's when we'll publish our updated top 250 fantasy rankings, rankings that account for only the remainder of 2011, projected value from today forward. When we rank, we do it with this philosophy: If you were to draft a team from scratch today and count only statistics from May 17 on, who would you pick? It's the very same criteria used in this very column, except this time provided by each of our columnists and ranking every player at every position at one time.

It's an exercise I've always enjoyed, not merely because I get to do it every week of the season, but also because it inspires debate and helps serve as a handy reference point when you're considering in-season trades and pickups.

I'm not going to spoil the results. Well, OK, I will, a little: Roy Halladay is our top-ranked starting pitcher. Javier Vazquez is unranked. (As a fan of TV spoilers, I'll attest to that being about as useful as most of the spoilers I've read.) You'll have to check back here Wednesday for the rest.

But to provide a preview, today I'll discuss some of my outliers, my "on an island" ranks, if you will. These are pitchers whom I felt most strongly about, comparative to the rest of the group. It hardly guarantees I'm right about them -- well, I know I'm right -- but that's the beauty of this exercise, that if you prefer a certain columnist or find that your fantasy baseball opinions agree with one of ours over another, by all means go with it. After all, this is a game of opinions, and I'm merely here to provide a helping hand. The choice, in the end, is yours.

First up: My in-season rankings philosophy regarding starting pitchers. Typically speaking, I'm more generous with my pitching ranks -- comparative to hitters, that is -- during the season than in the preseason. For example, I ranked Halladay fourth, have two pitchers in my top 10 and seven in my top 25; as a group we don't have a single pitcher in the top 10 and only four in the top 25.

The rationale is simple, and twofold: One, we know more about pitchers once the season gets underway than we do during the preseason, who's throwing well and who was a past-seasons mirage, so the investments at least become a tiny bit safer; and two, if the most useful purpose of in-season rankings is for trade advice, isn't it smarter to rank pitchers closer to parallel to hitters? For an example of the latter, if you're in desperate need of pitching, are you really not going to trade a single member of the top 10 hitters to acquire Halladay? I'd argue you would.

Trevor Cahill is proving that last year's big season was no fluke.

Taking a closer look deeper in the ranks, here are six pitchers about whom, apparently, I felt most strongly, comparative to the group. (All rankings in parentheses are where I rank them overall, not just among pitchers):

Trevor Cahill, Oakland Athletics (54): It's not merely that he's an extreme ground-ball pitcher, a type I have historically loved, it's that he's an extreme ground-ball pitcher riding a career-high strikeout rate so far. After whiffing 4.53 batters per nine as a rookie and 5.40 as a sophomore, Cahill has boosted his number in the category to 6.98 in his third season. Increased reliance upon his curveball is responsible; per Inside Edge he has whiffed batters in 41 percent of the plate appearances against him that ended with the pitch, and has generated swings and misses 31 percent of the time, both of those numbers top 15 among pitchers who have thrown 100 or more curves. That provides hope that Cahill can maintain a whiff rate greater than six per nine, and couple that with a greater-than-50-percent ground-ball rate (56.3, to be exact, so far) and he's not at all the regression candidate people expected. Heck, a flat-out repeat of 2010 is possible.

Josh Beckett, Boston Red Sox (61): I'm not even a Josh Beckett fan; I think he's 70 percent "name value," 30 percent results, but this season, he's contributing a large portion of the "30 percent results." No longer as apt to blow hitters away with his fastball -- his 92.7-mph average, according to FanGraphs, represents a career low -- Beckett has been forced to rely on his off-speed stuff, his cutter, curveball and changeup, to keep hitters off balance. I think this is a pitcher who has "learned how to pitch," to steal a comment often used to describe flamethrowers who have had to make adjustments to compensate for diminishing velocity.

Jhoulys Chacin, Colorado Rockies (74): This one's as simple as this: Would I trade Justin Morneau, who is higher in our group ranks, straight up for Chacin? You bet I would. I know that's an awfully generous ranking for the sophomore, and if this had been the preseason it might have been a number closer to the 100-125 range, but I firmly believe he has arrived as a fantasy force, Coors Field factor or not. Sure, Chacin's strikeout rate is down, from 9.04 per nine in 2010 to 7.30 in 2011, but his ground-ball rate is comparably up, from 46.6 percent in 2010 to 60.5 this year, which makes up the difference. Incidentally, he has a 3.45 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in his career at Coors, and I believe his adjustment period has passed (May-June 2010 when he had a 4.56 ERA in a nine-start stretch).

Anibal Sanchez, Florida Marlins (106): His statistics so far this season shouldn't be what you regard most remarkable; it's that he has accrued them despite having had labrum surgery before his 25th birthday. That's not the easiest operation from which to recover, but recover he has; per FanGraphs his fastball is averaging its highest single-season velocity (91.7 mph) and he's enjoying career bests in K's per nine (9.42), K's per walk (2.74) and swing-and-miss rate (10.7 percent). Throw in a 47.3 percent ground-ball rate, 46th among 118 qualified starters, and Sanchez can't be dismissed as a mere product of successful back-to-back assignments versus the Washington Nationals. Heck, he can't anyway, being that he was as masterful against the Colorado Rockies on April 22 as in either outing versus the Nats. I suppose I'm risking that Sanchez suddenly suffers an injury and his 2011 is lost, but the way he has been throwing, why shouldn't I be? He's a top-30 fantasy starter so far and his peripherals say it's totally legit.

Ubaldo Jimenez, Colorado Rockies (66): It's mostly a leap of faith, but I can't see how a pitcher who was that good in 2009 and 2010 has turned this bad so quickly. For one thing, he's still missing bats: He has a career-high 9.10 K's-per-nine ratio, a 77.5 percent contact rate on all swings and 9.1 percent swing-and-miss rate, the latter two comparing favorably to 78.3 and 9.2 career numbers. Command is one issue -- he has walked 6.67 per nine -- and fastball velocity another -- he's averaging 92.8 mph according to FanGraphs, down from 95.6 career. I wonder whether the cuticle injury that cost him time in April was a bigger problem than advertised, and he simply hasn't recaptured his routine. If he's being sold at a price comparable with our group ranks, I'll be a buyer.

John Danks, Chicago White Sox (121): We picked about the worst possible time to rank John Danks, a date on which he's 0-6 -- yes, some people apparently still believe in win-loss record -- and is coming off a three-start slump during which time he has a 6.63 ERA, six walks and seven strikeouts. But to that, I say, buy-low opportunity! People might see and take stock in these rankings for weeks, so people might maintain a perception that Danks isn't as talented as he is. The bottom line is that he has dealt with some awful luck: His FIP (3.93) and expected FIP (3.77) are right in line with his 2010 numbers (3.70 and 3.99), his BABIP is a career-high .327, fueled by an unfortunate 22.2 percent line-drive rate, and he has received the sixth-worst run support (3.63 per nine innings) of any qualified starter in the majors. Yes, his command numbers during his slump bother me, but it's also only a three-start stretch. Maybe this might ease your mind: During a three-start stretch from May 24-June 4, 2010, he had an 8.79 ERA, seven walks and 12 whiffs. This could be nothing more than a sample-size problem.

Three (and a half?) up

Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds: And just like that, the Reds' rotation has recaptured its "deep-and-talented" label. Don't believe it? Consider that since Bailey's 2011 debut, on May 5, Reds starters have nine quality starts in 11 tries, an 8-0 record and 2.13 ERA. The performances of both Bailey and Cueto, both of whom missed all of April due to injury, have been a major reason, as they've combined for a perfect 5-0 record, five quality starts, a 1.10 ERA and 0.92 WHIP in their first five turns of the season. It's as if the Reds knew exactly what they were doing when they shelved both at the onset of the regular season, then took a patient approach with their rehabilitation. Neither one has shown a glimpse of struggle since being activated, and in the case of Cueto, that 7⅔-inning, three-run (all unearned) performance against the St. Louis Cardinals on May 14 shows that at least he is not at all a matchups-fueled mirage. Is Bailey? Maybe, since his two best starts came against the Houston Astros, but he did have a third consecutive quality start against the Chicago Cubs on Monday, not to mention the maturation he showed in 2011 hints that he might have more to come.

Zach Britton, Baltimore Orioles: Ah, another extreme ground-baller, Britton's 54.4 percent rate ranking 14th highest among qualified pitchers. So, naturally, I love him. Besides, this is a rookie who has hung in there against the lineups of the Texas Rangers (7⅔ shutout innings on April 9) and Red Sox (6 IP, 1 R on April 26), so this isn't any matchups-fueled mirage, either. Britton's one concern at this stage is the dreaded "adjustment period" every young pitcher faces; unfortunately you have no idea where, when or to what extreme it will happen. But if I'm picking from young hurlers, I'm going to take the ones who pound the ball into the ground with a heavy sinker, because the risk of implosion isn't as great. That's especially true when they also sprinkle in the kind of slider that Britton has.

Clay Buchholz, Boston Red Sox: Now there's the Buchholz we all came to know and love last season. Check out his May stats: three starts, 1.93 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 3.75 K's per walk, 54.5 percent ground-ball rate, 2.66 FIP, 2.90 xFIP. Small sample, yes, but compare them to his 2010: 28 starts, 2.33 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 1.79 K's per walk, 50.8 percent ground-ball rate, 3.61 FIP, 4.07 xFIP. This is a pitcher who thrives when he's throwing strikes, keeping the ball down and generating grounders at least half the time, and that he has done it this month against the better-than-league-average Los Angeles Angels as well as the New York Yankees is a plus. A repeat of 2010's 2.33 ERA is a stretch, but how about 3.00-3.25 from this point forward? There's no reason he can't do that.

Three down

Brian Duensing, Minnesota Twins: This isn't a matter of merely his past two rocky outings; it's also that manager Ron Gardenhire hinted recently to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that "nothing's out of the question" regarding a swap of Duensing and current reliever Kevin Slowey. Might a relief role be a better fit for Duensing? Perhaps, considering right-handers have .324/.398/.514 rates against him this season (.284/.347/.427 career), but lefties only .240/.255/.300 (.201/.253/.259 career), and as a long reliever or setup man, Duensing's individual matchups could be closely selected by his manager. In fantasy, however, such a role would greatly diminish the lefty's appeal, as his win potential would plummet and he wouldn't log the innings to make a significant impact in ERA and WHIP. The owner of a 16.20 ERA, 3.40 WHIP and six walks compared to one strikeout his past two starts combined, Duensing belongs on AL-only benches right now.

John Lackey, Red Sox: He's now on the disabled list with a strained right elbow, and whatever the diagnosis, his performance to date sure backs up the notion that something was wrong. Lackey's velocity was down, to a mere 90.6 mph with his fastball according to FanGraphs, his command poor, as evidenced by a career-worst 4.12 walks-per-nine ratio, and he had served up a whopping .312 batting average and five home runs to opponents in seven starts. Unless your league allows unlimited DL space, Lackey can be safely cut; it wouldn't be at all surprising if at some point in the foreseeable future he'll require surgery.

Randy Wolf, Brewers: What a streaky pitcher. So far this season, Wolf kicked things off with a two-start stretch of a 7.20 ERA and 2.20 WHIP, followed it with a four-quality start streak of a 0.65 ERA and 0.72 WHIP, and has since run cold again, with an 11.88 ERA and 2.64 WHIP in his past two turns. What's worse: He has been entirely unpredictable with his matchups, making streaming a difficult strategy to employ with him, as his most recent ugly outing came against the light-hitting San Diego Padres while one of his best all year came at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park. We warned you of this in the preseason: His profile read: "Wolf was also wholly unpredictable [in 2010]; his 5.06 ERA and 1.66 WHIP in 14 starts against bottom-10 offenses belie his matchups potential." If you're feeling lucky, by all means try to exploit the good with Wolf. Chances are, eventually you're going to get burned at an inopportune time.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.