Print and Go Back ESPN.com: 2011 [Print without images]

Tuesday, June 14, 2011
Avoid starting pitchers fresh off DL

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

Wandy Rodriguez spoiled us.

60 Feet 6 Inches

Six shutout innings in his return start from the disabled list on Monday had to represent his best possible outcome: a 69 game score that ranked in the 86th percentile among all starts by any pitcher in 2011. He was a clear "start" in fantasy, as my suggestion of using him merely in NL-only leagues fell a bit short.

In two words: I'm sorry. I got this one wrong.

But just because I was wrong about one fresh-off-the-DL starter doesn't mean I'm going to blindly endorse the next one. Be it Homer Bailey, Brandon Beachy, Bartolo Colon, Josh Johnson -- or even Kyle McClellan on Wednesday -- I remain firm in my belief that you shouldn't, if granted the luxury, activate a pitcher making his first start after returning from the disabled list.

For a long time, that was a blind feeling, a gut instinct, having witnessed too many instances of recently activated starters being held to strict pitch counts, showing diminished velocity or spotty command, or simply wearing out a few innings into the game. And that's not to say it was a one-size-fits-all strategy; certain pitchers/matchups -- Zack Greinke, earlier this year, immediate comes to mind -- were granted an exception.

With Rodriguez marking his return from the DL, however, I decided, once and for all, to see whether the stats support my claim. To do that, I examined 58 of the best starting pitchers in baseball since the start of the 2008 season -- a group that made 103 combined trips to the DL during that time -- to see how each fared in his appearance following his return. To qualify, a pitcher needed to have made at least 30 starts since the start of the 2008 season, with an ERA under 4.50 and WHIP under 1.40. In addition, these pitchers were activated directly into a team's rotation; none of them were activated into the bullpen or went to the minor leagues for a start or two first.

The numbers do not bode well for start No. 1:

To put some of those numbers into perspective, consider that the 2011 major league average for quality-start percentage is 55.3 percent, almost exactly double that fresh-off-the-DL number. The league's starters' ERA is 3.97 and WHIP is 1.31, their average game score is 52, and they've averaged 97 pitches per outing. Granted, pitching has taken a noticeable step forward this season, but remember that major league averages include everyone, even the 5-plus-ERA starters; and even if you go back to 2008, the major league averages (48.3 quality start percentage, 4.46 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 49 average game score, 95 pitches per start) were really no worse than this fresh-off-DL group's.

Repeat injuries, or instances where the pitchers in the group subsequently returned to the DL, also weren't uncommon. Two pitchers returned to the DL immediately following their first start back from it, three were DL-bound after two, and 11 were back on the DL within five starts of their initial DL stints.

Things improve, however, if you tighten the criteria for a "good" pitcher. Of that group of 58, 20 have had ERAs beneath 3.75 and WHIPs beneath 1.30 -- remembering that over a three-year span the ratios tend to be higher than in a single year due to regression to the mean -- and here's how they fared:

This is where Greinke and Rodriguez come in; they were the 20th and 25th starting pitchers selected on average in ESPN live drafts in the preseason. Both warranted attention in certain formats during their activation starts -- I argued "deeper leagues" in Rodriguez's case -- but the chart above demonstrates, still, that even the fantasy aces had workload/quality start concerns. The ratios were fine, but they simply don't pitch deep enough into their outings to be elite fantasy plays right away. It seems it's all a matter of whether a shorter start helps in your particular league format.

Not that, again, this is a one-size-fits-all discussion. An individual pitcher's skill set, the specifics of his injury, any possible rehabilitation reports and the return-start matchup all come into play when making activation decisions. Obviously, a pitcher who missed a brief amount of time and who faces a light matchup -- like an assignment at Petco Park -- is going to be more attractive than the one who was out for an extended period and marks his return at Coors Field.

But with those numbers in mind, I urge you to stick fairly closely to the strategy: Avoid the fresh-off-the-DL starters, in the absence of any compelling data otherwise.

Three up

Jhoulys Chacin, Colorado Rockies: Move over, Ubaldo Jimenez, there's a new ace in Colorado. Chacin, once advertised as a potential staff ace himself at the time of his big league debut, has significantly outpitched rotation-mate Jimenez all year. Thanks to Chacin's eight-shutout-innings masterpiece against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Monday, he actually places 16th among all starting pitchers on our Player Rater. And while earlier in the year he had been relying more on generating grounders than striking hitters out -- the latter a key ingredient to his 2010 success -- he's returning to 2010 form in the K department recently, with 31 whiffs in 34 innings his past five turns. Oh, incidentally, he's still generating ground balls at the identical rate as earlier in the year, to go along with an elevated strikeout rate; he had a 60.4 percent ground ball rate in his first eight starts, and sure enough, he also has a 60.4 percent ground ball rate in his past five starts. Not that he's guaranteed to keep those numbers at quite those levels, but when you're talking about a 60-plus percent ground ball rate and a strikeout rate north of eight, you might be talking Cy Young votes.

Philip Humber, Chicago White Sox: It's time. The White Sox were hesitant to declare Humber a guaranteed long-term starter, and I was subsequently hesitant to rank him generously in this space, but now, with Jake Peavy on the DL and Humber riding a streak of eight quality starts in his past nine outings, he is actually shaping up as a sound fantasy investment. In a way, he's like the American League's answer to Ryan Vogelsong, a pitcher who not long ago appeared on his way toward journeyman status but has performed so well during a fill-in situation that his team cannot possibly consider yanking him from the rotation. Beginning with a near no-hitter at Yankee Stadium on April 25, Humber has turned in eight quality starts in nine tries, winning five of them with a 2.53 ERA and 0.88 WHIP. A .200 BABIP during that span -- not to mention a 1-to-1 ground ball/fly ball ratio for a pitcher who calls homer-friendly U.S. Cellular Field his home -- hints that he's bound to regress in the ratio categories. But Humber has proved he belongs, and at the bare minimum he should be a matchups choice looking forward, even in shallow mixed leagues.

Jordan Zimmermann, Washington Nationals: The headliner of last week's 60 Feet 6 Inches, Zimmermann was every bit as productive as advertised in his two starts during the past week, allowing one earned run on nine hits while striking out 13 in 14 innings combined. That the assignments came at San Francisco's AT&T Park and San Diego's Petco Park, two favorable pitchers' venues, might lead some to dismiss the outings as matchups-driven, but I've long said that one mark of a good pitcher is that he dominates the matchups he's supposed to. Heck, Zimmermann's past eight starts have come against lighter competition, but during that span, he has registered a 2.26 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 8.19 strikeouts-per-nine and 4.27 K's-per-walk ratios, and has perhaps generated some momentum he can carry into tougher assignments ahead. His ERA and WHIP are bound to rise against stronger foes, but he's also getting stronger the further he's removed from Tommy John surgery, and he pitches in a division that's hardly loaded with elite offenses. To the latter point, not one team in the National League East ranks higher than 14th in either runs scored or OPS. Zimmermann's schedule should remain generally favorable.

Three down

Trevor Cahill, Oakland Athletics: (Almost) every pitcher struggles sometime. Cahill, who began the season 6-0 with a 1.72 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in his first eight starts, has seen his numbers slip; he's 0-4 with a 5.35 ERA and 1.67 WHIP in six starts since. His sinker simply hasn't been fooling hitters; he held them to a line of .218 AVG/.301 OBP/.257 SLG through his May 9 start (those first eight), but has been tattooed to the tune of .324/.422/.515 since. Criticize Cahill's recently decreased strikeout rate if you will -- he has averaged 5.60 K's per nine in his past six starts after 7.74 per nine in his first eight -- but he's still throwing his curveball, his swing-and-miss pitch, about as often and effectively, generating 10 whiffs on curves in 21 plate appearances in his past six turns after 13 in 32 PAs in his first eight. This might be a mere blip on the Cahill radar screen, not unexpected from a pitcher who typically relies more on his defense than blowing away hitters. It could, in fact, be a prime buying opportunity.

Colby Lewis, Texas Rangers: Boy, were his past week's performances ugly. After getting blasted for nine runs on 10 hits, four of them home runs, in 3 1/3 innings against the Detroit Tigers on June 6, Lewis was even more disappointing in a soft-on-paper matchup at Target Field on Saturday, affording the light-hitting Minnesota Twins six runs on seven hits in 1 1/3 innings of work. It was a somewhat unexpected cold spell; he had a 4-2 record, 2.04 ERA and 0.98 WHIP in his seven starts that preceded it. Two starts probably shouldn't send anyone scurrying for the hills, but there are mild warning signs to take from them. One is that Lewis' fastball usage is up and his slider usage is down, going from 59.3 percent fastballs and 22.0 percent sliders through his June 1 start, to 65.0 and 18.6 in his past two; another is that his fly ball rate has remained steady at an elevated 52.0 percent this season, up from 42.8 in 2010, while his line drive rate is a bloated 25.0 percent his past two turns. One could wonder whether there might be an underlying issue.

Ricky Nolasco, Florida Marlins: In case you're curious about where Nolasco's Monday meltdown (3 IP, 8 H, 9 R, 5 ER, 4 BB) ranks among his worst all-time performances, using Bill James' game score calculation, his 14 placed fifth-worst out of his 129 career starts. But here's what's especially bothersome: Two of the five worst outings of his career have come in the past three weeks -- the other was an even worse outing on May 29 (5 IP, 15 H, 8 ER, 8 game score) -- and the four walks compared to three strikeouts on Monday run counter to everything sabermetricians love about him, notably his usually good command. Point to Nolasco's bloated .341 BABIP as a reason he'll turn this around, but I'll counter with his 23.1 percent line drive rate and .246 well-hit average; he should have a bloated BABIP because opponents are hitting the ball harder and more effectively against him. He's also throwing his fastball slightly slower than usual, which backs that up; he's averaging 90.3 mph with the pitch this season, after 91.5 in 2009 and 90.9 in 2010. I'm taking an understandable step backward with him in my rankings.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com 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.