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Wednesday, September 11, 2013
Major changes in pitcher rankings

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

Talk about small samples: 19 days.

60 Feet 6 Inches

That's the number remaining on the 2013 regular-season calendar, and they represent the most minuscule of samples on the pitching side. Be aware that, mathematically speaking, no pitcher can make more than four more starts during the regular season, barring any of the four teams that plays on every remaining day -- the Minnesota Twins, Tampa Bay Rays, Milwaukee Brewers and San Diego Padres -- using an individual on three days' rest at least twice, or there being any necessary Sept. 30 tiebreaker games.

As this is the space for our weekly pitching rankings, this means that as the weeks pass, expect names to move around more unexpectedly. Remaining matchups take on greater importance, and injury concerns cause pitchers to plummet in the ranks. For instance, Tony Cingrani, who left Tuesday's start with back spasms, dropped precipitously in this week's rankings, though from a skills perspective there'd be no doubt I'd prefer him to, say, Kyle Lohse, Rick Porcello or A.J. Griffin, if he had no potential restrictions.

Dynasty-league owners might be wondering, "But what about 2014 rankings?" Don't worry, they're coming, in a future "60 Feet, 6 Inches." For this week, however, championships still need to be decided, so the rankings account these final 19 days … Wednesday's games through those of Sunday, Sept. 29.

That in mind, let's examine some of the more compelling, rankings-related storylines:

CC Sabathia
CC Sabathia may finally be showing signs of aging.

CC Sabathia: Name brands have a way of maintaining our trust. Using the blind-résumé test, ask yourself whether you'd want a pitcher with this stat line since the All-Star break in your active lineup during the fantasy stretch run: 10 starts, 4 wins, 5 quality starts, 6.49 ERA, 1.59 WHIP, 17.6 percent strikeout rate (calculated as a percentage of total batters faced), 7.23 K's per nine innings.

Diminished velocity has much to do with it -- he has averaged 91.8 mph with his fastball since the All-Star break and 91.0 for the season -- but primarily because of the impact of it upon his changeup. Sabathia's changeup has averaged 85.3 mph since the All-Star break, less than 6 mph removed from his fastball, and opponents have batted .409 with three home runs against it in 51 plate appearances that ended with one during that time. And here's the worry if you're his keeper-league owner: Many such pitchers faced with this problem, ones armed with a quality slider, tend to increasingly rely upon that taxing pitch. Sabathia threw 35 sliders on Monday, matching his second-highest total of the season, and I wonder whether he continues to do that at potential risk of running into future-season arm troubles?

If any pitcher can work through these issues in the short term, it's an experienced workhorse like Sabathia, who now has back-to-back quality starts. That said, he comes with the reputation of a fantasy ace, and his schedule currently projects: @BOS, Sept. 14; SF, Sept. 20; TB, Sept. 26. The New York Yankees could use their two remaining off days to move the Sept. 20 start into a Sept. 19 assignment at Toronto's Rogers Centre, while granting him an additional outing at Houston's Minute Maid Park on the regular season's final day, Sept. 29. Either way, he's looking at 2-of-3 or 3-of-4 more challenging matchups.

Jose Fernandez
Jose Fernandez should be a top option next year, but he may be of little use to fantasy owners the rest of 2013.

Jose Fernandez and Taijuan Walker: Come day's end, they'll both be done for the season; Fernandez's 2013 finale is scheduled for Wednesday and Walker concluded his year on Monday. Walker, as you can see, has been removed from this week's rankings, while Fernandez earned a low ranking; that is my judgment on the value of one remaining elite start comparative to the 3-4 for everyone else. In redraft leagues, feel free to cut Walker now, Fernandez the minute his game begins and he's locked into your active lineup for the night.

Fernandez, barring an utter meltdown on Wednesday, will enter Thursday ranked no lower than sixth for the season on our Player Rater, in what was an extraordinary season for him. His keeper-league owners are the ones in a challenging spot; many have wondered whether the value of his roster spot, for teams that are in tight races, exceeds that of his keeper appeal. There's no one-size-fits-all answer to that, but just as "OSFA" caps fit more than 90 percent of the population -- sadly, I'm in the other 10 percent -- the "OSFA" answer to the keeper question is, "No, his keeper value is greater and it's actually not that close."

There is an outstanding chance that Fernandez will rank among my -- and ESPN Fantasy's -- 2014 top 15 starting pitchers, and he'll receive strong consideration for top-10 status; the only hesitation being win potential (ugh, do I hate writing that), plus intense offseason examination of his underlying numbers. But ask yourself this: If you had to pick five pitchers with the greatest odds of being top-10 starters in each of the next five seasons (2014 to 2018), wouldn't Fernandez be among them?

Six-man rotations: Another "ugh," because boy, how I loathe the six-man rotation. It's not merely the impact upon starting assignments in weekly leagues, either -- it minimizes the chances of any starter working twice in a given week -- but rather the potentially adverse impact upon pitchers due to too much rest. I harken back to the lessons of Mat Latos, Lance Lynn, et al, from seasons past, when teams would continually push their starts back with adverse results. No, that's not a deep analysis -- I'll consider doing one during the offseason if the data is easy to collect -- but rather my opinion, though I think it's a reasonable and educated one.

Right now, the Chicago White Sox, Houston Astros, Minnesota Twins, Seattle Mariners, Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers and New York Mets are utilizing six-man rotations in some form. That's 23 percent of the major leagues! It's especially bad news for owners of Chris Sale, Hisashi Iwakuma, Felix Hernandez or Travis Wood, as all four of those pitchers currently reside among the top 50 starters for the season on our Player Rater. Not a single one, at rotation project today, should make more than three additional starts before season's end.

Felix Hernandez
How many starts does Felix Hernandez have left this season?

Felix Hernandez: Speaking of "King Felix," his next start is currently unknown following a Monday report that he's dealing with a "minor oblique strain," per the Mariners' official website. The injury was initially believed a back problem, and it could explain why he has only three quality starts with a 6.42 ERA in his past six turns, not to mention it'll have lingering concerns for his owners considering that's often a multi-week injury. Dropping Hernandez isn't a consideration that should be far off for his owners in redraft leagues, as there's a prospect of his being shut down for the season entirely, not to mention the Mariners' remaining schedule is treacherous.

What of that Seattle Mariners schedule? Take a look, because coupling the team's six-man rotation strategy with what's upcoming, you might not want to slot in a Mariners pitcher for a single game the rest of the year if you can help it:

HOU-1, off day, @STL-3, @DET-4, @LAA-3, KC-3, OAK-3

Using schedule-weighting methods discussed in this space as recently as two weeks ago, the Mariners' remaining opponents combined have the highest wOBA (weighted on-base average) of any team in baseball, and the sixth most runs scored. Yes, that Wednesday game against the K-happy Houston Astros might catch your eye, but it's Brandon Maurer's assignment ... and Maurer has tallied a 6.64 ERA in eight relief appearances since his late-July recall, before which he had only one quality start in his final eight games for Triple-A Tacoma (June 9-July 24).

Pending Hernandez's status, Hisashi Iwakuma might be the only Mariners pitcher who warrants regular roster consideration in standard, 10-team mixed leagues, and even he should only be expected a quality start-minimum, with less-than-50/50 win potential, for each of his remaining assignments.

The Detroit Tigers' schedule: They might be 5 1/2 games up in the American League Central race with a magic number of 13 to clinch first place, with the possibility of lightening their veteran players' loads in the regular season's waning days, but it's the Tigers' remaining schedule that alleviates their fantasy owners' volume concerns. This is what's left, beginning with Wednesday's game:

@CWS-1, off day, KC-3, SEA-4, CWS-3, @MIN-3, off day, @MIA-3

Using since-the-All-Star-break sample (that's a minimum 47-gamer for everyone), all of those teams but the Kansas City Royals rank 20th or worse in either runs scored or wOBA -- the Royals rank eighth and 16th -- and the Tigers are 11-for-16 in quality starts with a 3.26 ERA and 1.25 WHIP against the Royals so far this season. Plus, the way the team's schedule lays out, the team would have both Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer aligned with full rest for the postseason, so there's not a severe need for shuffling the order besides.

Anibal Sanchez
Anibal Sanchez, already one of the biggest surprises this season, could come up big in the final days of 2013.

AL ERA leader Anibal Sanchez (2.61), owner of six wins, 9-of-10 quality starts and a 2.17 ERA since the break, could be a sneaky fantasy-playoffs ace accounting for his projected schedule (@CWS, Sept. 11; SEA, Sept. 17; CWS, Sept. 22; @MIA, Sept. 28). While it's possible that the Tigers might opt for him in an early-playoffs start, requiring a missed or shortened final outing, he has outstanding odds of a hot finish.

While we're at it, let's also discuss the Cleveland Indians' schedule, because among AL teams, it's the other one that stands out. This is what they have left:

KC-1, @CWS-4, @KC-3, HOU-4, off day, CWS-2, @MIN-4

They effectively swap the Miami Marlins with the Houston Astros but otherwise have an identical schedule, with the primary schedule-related advantage for the Tigers being a greater number of remaining home games (10 of 17 games, compared to 7 of 18 games for the Indians). The Tigers also have the advantage of having the more skilled staff, but all that means is that three-fifths of their rotation is owned in every ESPN league, while a fourth is 94.0 percent owned (Doug Fister). In the Indians' case, their only starter who is owned in more than half of ESPN leagues is Justin Masterson (67.8 percent owned), and his season might conceivably be over due to an oblique injury.

Indians starters might provide fantasy owners the greatest volume of streaming opportunities, especially if you consider that they as a team have the majors' third-best ERA (3.35) and highest strikeout rate (24.4 percent of total batters faced) in the past 30 days. Scott Kazmir (available in 89.8 percent of ESPN leagues), Corey Kluber (93.3 percent) and Danny Salazar (89.4) could be extremely attractive options going forward. And let's not forget one of their standouts in particular ...

Ubaldo Jimenez: He is the No. 7 starting pitcher on our Player Rater's Last 30 split, and to extend the string farther back, since the All-Star break he's 6-of-9 in quality starts with a 1.94 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 27.0 percent strikeout rate (that's calculated as a percentage of batters faced and, to put it into perspective, the major league average during that time span is 19.7 percent).

Ubaldo Jimenez
There are signs that the Ubaldo Jimenez of old has returned.

It's not necessarily an easily discarded hot streak, either, considering Jimenez's fastball has exhibited a small uptick in velocity in recent outings, averaging 92.0 mph since the All-Star break, compared to 91.4 mph in the season's first half. He has also averaged 93.6, 92.4, 92.8 and 93.4 mph with it in his past four outings, throwing at least 50 fastballs in each, and has even topped 96 mph several times in those games. Jimenez attributed this to a mechanical tweak, telling the Indians' official website on Sept. 4 that "it was all about being 100 percent, basically, with my mechanics."

That's not to say Jimenez's recent spell restores him to his 2010 form, when he averaged 96.0 mph with his fastball en route to a third-place finish in the Cy Young race. But considering it's skills-related, he's well worth a look in these final weeks, especially accounting his projected remaining schedule: @CWS, Sept. 14; HOU, Sept. 19; CWS, Sept. 25.

Why your streamers should come from the National League, wherever possible: Using those aforementioned schedule-measuring metrics, it's the NL that stands out on the pitching side. This is no surprise considering it has been a historical opinion of many, that the NL is the one with the pitcher (and not a designated hitter) occupying one-ninth of the lineup, and that 10 of the 15 NL squads reside in the bottom 15 in the majors in runs scored for the season.

Using runs scored, NL squads occupy eight of the top nine and 11 of the top 14 strongest-schedule spots. Using wOBA, all 15 teams rank among the top 17, the aforementioned Tigers (second) and Indians (fifth) the only AL squads within that group. The only knock on National League pitching as a whole, in fact, is its remaining interleague contests: The San Francisco Giants visit the New York Yankees (Sept. 20-22), Colorado Rockies host the Boston Red Sox (Sept. 24-25) and Miami Marlins host the Detroit Tigers (Sept. 27-29), all of which are poor pitching matchups for those teams. That said, the St. Louis Cardinals host the Seattle Mariners (Sept. 13-15) and Cincinnati Reds visit the Houston Astros (Sept. 16-18) in what should be favorable matchups.

Michael Wacha
Michael Wacha's workload has been managed well by the Cardinals, leading to some positive results for fantasy owners.

Michael Wacha: He's one of the hottest pitchers in fantasy baseball, the No. 12 starting pitcher on our Player Rater's Last 15 split, he's riding an active streak of 19 2/3 scoreless innings … and, most importantly, he is available in nearly 75 percent of ESPN leagues. Wacha was never promised anything beyond his Sept. 3 spot start -- that his first outing following a brief playoff-roster-maneuvering demotion to the minors -- but he has earned a more permanent place in the St. Louis Cardinals' rotation thanks to back-to-back quality starts, which came in key games against the division rival Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates.

Wacha's is an example of a team suppressing a youngster's workload with positive results. He began the year with the team's Triple-A affiliate in Memphis, making nine starts of 52 2/3 total innings (April 7-May 21); he was then recalled for three starts of 17 2/3 innings for the Cardinals (May 30-June 11); he then returned to Memphis for a June 18 start of five innings, resting the remainder of the month afterward; he then made five more starts of 27 1/3 innings for Memphis (July 2-Aug. 4); he was then recalled for an Aug. 10 spot start of five innings for the Cardinals; he then moved to their bullpen, making six appearances totaling 10 2/3 innings (Aug. 14-28); he then was assigned to Double-A Springfield, where he didn't appear in a game; and now he has made the two starts for the Cardinals totaling 13 innings (Sept. 3-8). Grand total: 21 starts, 6 relief appearances, 131 1/3 innings pitched.

This was the Cardinals' design, per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, as they attempted to keep Wacha capped at 150 innings, or 19 2/3 more than he threw between Texas A&M and the Cardinals' minor-league system in 2012. He probably has three more regular-season starts to make, likely in this order: SEA, Sept. 14; @COL, Sept. 19; WSH, Sept. 24. Don't expect much more than that, nor more than six innings or so in each -- and avoid the Coors Field assignment if you can -- but Wacha, whose changeup has notched him three of his five K's and 11 of his 39 total outs in his past two starts, even if he has yet to fully master its control at this level, is well worth your consideration.

Shelby Miller, Carlos Martinez, Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist and Tyler Lyons: They are the Cardinals' other four pitchers cited in the column, and they fall into their design to cap workloads this season in order to have everyone available for the postseason. Miller's innings cap is specifically mentioned -- it's between 175-180 -- meaning he's right on track with his current pace of 176 1/3 frames. What this means, however, is that fantasy owners shouldn't expect the team to lean heavily upon any individual youngster; the Cardinals don't present much of a volume advantage.

Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon: Or should that read, Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli? The grand debate of "Who should close for the Pittsburgh Pirates?" rages on, especially after Tuesday's game, when Melancon allowed two runs on four hits to narrowly eke out his 13th save. Grilli, incidentally, surrendered one run on two hits in two-thirds of an inning, those the first two outs of the eighth.

Any prediction regarding Pirates saves requires guesswork, and I remain firm on my assessment that the team feels, playoff-wise, that it'd be better off with Melancon in the eighth and Grilli in the ninth. Utilizing any statistical analysis, the strongest argument in Grilli's favor of imminently recapturing the role is that his fastball averaged 93.2 and 92.7 mph in his past two outings, after 91.9 in his first outing fresh off the DL, those closer to the 93.5 mph he averaged before he got hurt. This has the look of an inching-back-to-form pattern, which means closely monitoring each of Grilli's upcoming outings, but for now expecting another 1-2 setup appearances.

Frustrating, yes, but the Pirates have the game's top must-handcuff saves situation.