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Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Sabathia, Halladay return

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

Monday was a rough day on the injury front: We learned that Joey Votto, the 2010 National League MVP, would miss the next three to four weeks due to knee surgery, while we watched in horror as both Jose Bautista, whose 124 home runs since the beginning of 2010 lead every other major leaguer by 30, and David Ortiz, whose 343 homers and 1,086 RBIs since the beginning of 2003 rank second and fourth in the major leagues, left games early with injuries.

60 Feet 6 Inches

Tuesday, in contrast, provides fantasy owners some hope: It is the day that two fantasy aces -- that label judged by their preseason average draft positions of No. 1 and 8 among starting pitchers -- mark their returns to the mound, as the Philadelphia Phillies welcome Roy Halladay back, while the New York Yankees restore CC Sabathia to their starting five.

Halladay's and Sabathia's owners have reason to be encouraged. They are, after all, two of the three pitchers to have managed a top-10 rank among starting pitchers on our Player Rater in each of the past three seasons (2009-11); Justin Verlander is the other. Combined, Halladay and Sabathia averaged an annual stat line of 19 wins, 212 strikeouts, a 2.85 ERA and 1.13 WHIP during those three years.

Halladay's and Sabathia's owners, too, might be well served breaking a long-standing fantasy baseball rule of mine, that being: If you can possibly avoid it, do not start the pitcher in his first start fresh off the disabled list.

Halladay
Halladay

Sabathia
Sabathia

Yes, the conservative approach is justifiable with every pitcher, especially in an ESPN standard mixed league of 10 teams, where replacement-level value is considerably higher, or a league with stringent caps on starts or innings. History shows that there's more risk with a pitcher in start No. 1 fresh off the DL; but that history is also changing along with the recent shift in baseball toward pitching. These days, pitch-count concerns might be the most valid argument against slotting either Halladay or Sabathia into your lineup immediately. But the reason both pitchers make compelling cases is their individual pedigrees.

One of the reasons for my rule was the lengthy history of pitchers who struggled in that first start back from the DL. So many have been subject to pitch counts, some exhibited diminished velocity or command and some simply wore out a few innings into the game. In fact, the last time I did analysis of pitchers' performances in their first several starts back from the DL, the data showed something ominous: Their ERAs were a half a run higher in their first starts back (4.34) than in their fifth starts and beyond (3.84).

This year's study, however, showed something different. Once again, I collected data since the beginning of the 2009 season for 62 regular, above-average starting pitchers in baseball (that group determined by those with at least 30 starts, an ERA lower than 4.50 and WHIP lower than 1.40), who made at least one trip to the DL. This group made a combined 103 trips to the DL totaling 3,836 days' worth of missed action, and every one of these pitchers was activated directly into his team's rotation; none was activated first into the bullpen or to the minor leagues (other than for rehabilitation assignments).

Here is the breakdown of the group's fresh-off-the-DL performance:

As you can see, the differential in ERA/WHIP between the groups is inconsequential, and the average Bill James Game Score ("Avg. GmSc") is considerably higher for the group in start No. 1 (50.8) than it was in last year's study (49.7). There's a simple reason for that: Since the beginning of 2011, 22 of the 55 pitchers making their first starts back from the DL earned a game score of 60 or higher -- to give you a sense of value, Phil Hughes' stat line from Monday night earned a 62 -- whereas only 11 of the 42 pitchers making start No. 1 in 2009-10 reached that threshold.

Now, those numbers reveal noticeable differences in terms of quality-start percentage, average game score and average pitches and innings per start. The walk rate, too, is slightly troubling. All of that points to these pitchers' managers/pitching coaches approaching their recovery more conservatively … and that would be the argument for a conservative approach in a fantasy league, too.

Of the two returning aces, Halladay is the one more likely subject to a pitch count, justifying a conservative approach in a shallow league. He threw just 63 pitches in what was three innings of a rehabilitation start for Class A Clearwater this past Thursday, though reports had him upping that pitch count by a bit while throwing in the bullpen following his removal from the game. While there has been no formal announcement of Halladay's pitch count for Tuesday, a smart guess would be in the 80-100 range, probably on the lower end.

But if 80 Halladay pitches equals, say, 5⅓ innings of two-run baseball, are many fantasy owners going to quibble?

Here's another reason to consider making both Halladay and Sabathia exceptions to my rule: They're … well … really good. Though this is slicing the sample size further, here are the per-start statistics of the 14 pitchers in the study to have managed at least 30 starts of lower than a 3.50 ERA and 1.25 WHIP since the beginning of 2009 -- meaning the most successful men in the group:

That 2.40 ERA and 1.05 WHIP certainly stands out, as does the fact the group's average game score was higher in that first start despite an average pitch count considerably lower in subsequent outings. It's an obvious commentary, but good pitchers pitch well, and that's the most compelling argument in favor of either Halladay or Sabathia on Tuesday.

Incidentally, if you're wondering about a pitcher's length of absence, here's something you might find curious: The data revealed little to no difference in any of these categories regardless of the breakdown in terms of length of DL stay. So to the Sabathia supporters, who claim that his injury was "minor" and his stint short, I'll caution that history does not support that argument. The average pitcher exhibited the same progression of recovery whether he spent 20 or 120 days on the shelf. Sabathia might be less subject to a pitch count on Tuesday than Halladay, but that's not why he gets my endorsement; he gets that on sheer skill.

Now, all this doesn't mean exceptions should be made for everyone. Tuesday is also the anticipated return date of Philip Humber, who tossed a perfect game earlier in the year, and Colby Lewis is due back with the Texas Rangers on Wednesday. And, though the recommendation would've been an incorrect one, Ben Sheets would never have been granted said exception by me on Sunday. This is a game of playing the odds; the odds against Sheets were every bit as poor as they'll probably be for less-than-fantasy-ace types like Humber or Lewis. In a week rife with pitchers on the comeback trail, we must remember that it's a matter of who the individual is and what matchup he is facing.

The lesson here is that you cannot always paint recovering pitchers with a black or white brush; there is room for shades of gray.

Most of the time, though, the rule makes it a black-and-white call.

Streamer's delight

Among streaming starter -- something I define as single-start options in daily leagues among pitchers owned in 25 percent of ESPN leagues or fewer -- options for the upcoming week, here are my picks by day:

Tuesday, July 17: Jordan Lyles at San Diego Padres
Wednesday, July 18: Clayton Richard versus Houston Astros
Thursday, July 19: Luke Hochevar versus Seattle Mariners
Friday, July 20: Drew Pomeranz at San Diego Padres
Saturday, July 21: Ben Sheets at Washington Nationals
Sunday, July 22: Joe Blanton versus San Francisco Giants
Monday, July 23: Erik Bedard versus Chicago Cubs

Past picks
Friday, July 13: Chris Young -- 3 IP, 6 H, 5 ER, 3 BB, 2 K
Saturday, July 14: Aaron Harang -- QS, 7 IP, 4 H, 3 ER, 1 BB, 4 K
Sunday, July 15: Carlos Villanueva -- W, QS, 6 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 5 BB, 8 K
Monday, July 16: Alex Cobb -- 3 1/3 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 5 BB, 3 K

Week's total: 4 GS, 1 W (25.0%), 2 QS (50.0%), 19 1/3 IP, 18 H, 10 ER, 14 BB, 17 K, 4.66 ERA, 1.66 WHIP
Season total: 91 GS, 37 W (41.4%), 48 QS (52.9%), 543 2/3 IP, 524 H, 237 ER, 194 BB, 416 K, 3.92 ERA, 1.32 WHIP

Three up

Ryan Dempster, Chicago Cubs: One of the most prominent names on the trade market, Dempster's stock hardly has suffered due to his current circumstances. Well, at least not recently it hasn't. Though there was a stint on the disabled list sprinkled in, he's in the midst of a five-start winning streak during which he has totaled 33 innings without allowing an earned run. Dempster is now the major league leader in ERA (1.86), having pitched the requisite innings to qualify. Though he's unlikely to improve that number, or his recent winning streak, with a new team, a trade would certainly benefit him in terms of fantasy value: He'd surely receive more run support than the 5.67-per-nine that the Cubs offer; that ranks 31st-lowest out of 99 ERA qualifiers.

Yovani Gallardo, Milwaukee Brewers: He struck out a career-high 14 Pittsburgh Pirates this past Sunday, and before you cast that fact aside with an, "Oh, but it was the Pirates," comment, keep in mind that the Pirates as a team have managed .279/.334/.475 triple-slash rates while averaging 5.54 runs per game since June 1, ranking them among the game's most productive offenses during that time. That gave Gallardo seven consecutive quality starts, during which time he has four wins, a 2.18 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 9.93 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio (26.5 K%, going by total batters faced). It's a plus for the right-hander, who has exhibited his share of shaky second halves during the early stages of his big league career -- he has had ERAs north of 4.50 after the All-Star break twice (2009, 2010), yet never an ERA higher than 3.76 before the break -- and it's a good first step toward attempting to duplicate his 2011 second half: 14 starts, seven wins, a 3.20 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 10.30 K's-per-nine.

Francisco Liriano, Minnesota Twins: He's incredibly aggravating to own, twice this season managing a Bill James Game Score higher than 70 but two times registering a number in the category beneath 30. However, Liriano is coming off one of the best outings of his career, a 15-strikeout, eight-inning masterpiece this past Thursday against the Oakland Athletics. In it he managed 30 swings and misses, the most by any individual in a game all season; 30 swings at pitches outside the strike zone, second most by any pitcher in 2012; and 12 K's on sliders, also tops in the majors this year. Those statistics exemplify Liriano's upside; at his best he's flashing a nasty slider and missing a slew of bats. And here's why that matters to fantasy owners right now: He's picking the right time to excel, as one of the more attractive pieces on the July trade market. That could result in either of two scenarios: A) He lands with a team with which he thrives, particularly in terms of wins if he gets more run support, or B) His hot spell plus seemingly more favorable circumstances post-trade could elevate his perceived fantasy value to the point where he'd be a brilliant sell-high candidate.

Three down

Zack Greinke, Milwaukee Brewers: What a crazy July for one of the game's more marketable trade chips. Greinke recently became the first pitcher in nearly 100 years to start three consecutive games, beginning the July 7, 8 and 13 contests, then was scratched from his scheduled start this Wednesday as the Brewers claimed a desire to let him "recharge his batteries." Combining his three-straight-start stat lines, the right-hander surrendered nine earned runs on 14 hits in eight innings, so it's understandable if his fantasy owners are now worried about his change in schedule. Certainly it diminishes his prospects of being traded, so if you were hoping on a big boost in run support on a better-hitting team, don't count on it.

Ian Kennedy, Arizona Diamondbacks: He has but four quality starts in his past 10 turns, and hardly earned his fantasy owners' trust during his first turn of the season's second half, allowing six runs on seven hits in five innings against the Cubs. Unfortunately, what went right for him -- a lot of good breaks in the right spots -- last season seems to be working entirely against him this year. Kennedy's BABIP is .330, up from .274 last season, while his left-on-base percentage is 71.2, down from 79.2. Amazingly, he has a .199 well-hit average (hard contact on all at-bats), which is lower than his .248 number in 2011. Those hint at a possible rebound for the right-hander, but after 18 starts, it's understandable if Kennedy's owners aren't particularly confident. His true value might be something outside the top 40 starters.

Johan Santana, New York Mets: Were his back-to-back stinkers merely a short-term cold spell, or the signal of his 2012 workload having caught up to him after his 2011 season-long absence? One reason for alarm: His changeup, his signature pitch, hasn't been nearly as effective in July as during the three months that preceded it. Opposing hitters have batted .417 with two home runs against it in 12 plate appearances that ended in one during those two starts; Santana had allowed only one homer on a changeup in his first 16 turns, and had limited opponents to a .157 batting average. His overall velocity, meanwhile, has slipped, his pitches combined averaging 83.2 mph in July, down from 84.4 mph through June. Now, this isn't the first time Santana struggled -- his June 8 and 14 starts were so-so at best -- so it's not time to completely panic. But it'd be smart to expect his rest-of-the-year ERA to be closer to four than three.