Things change, and that doesn't mean simply the numbers.
Oh, sure, many numbers themselves have changed since last season. For instance, A.J. Burnett, who had the third-worst qualified ERA (5.26) in 2010, has a palatable 3-1 record and 3.52 ERA so far this year. Meanwhile, R.A. Dickey, whose 2.84 ERA ranked 10th last season, has a 4.10 ERA and 1.59 WHIP in five games in 2011.
It happens. "Small sample size," "regression to the mean," "luck" or whatever casual rationale you prefer for random statistical fluctuations, numbers will always change. That's baseball. For every player who has experienced a numbers bump (or drop), there's always the possibility it's mere random, short-term fluctuation.
But it's the players whose statistics have changed for an identifiable reason that warrant our attention. These are your burgeoning buy-highs and sell-lows, your exploitable trends, your questions with an actionable answer. To put that another way, we get hundreds of questions about specific hot- or slow-starting players. Some of them deserve a pithy explanation like, "It's early," because there's no underlying evidence to alter our preseason opinion. For others, much has changed; there's a lot more to the story than mere statistics.
These are the players to latch on to (or, conversely, let go of).
TOP 100 STARTING PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 100 starting pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
If you look at my top 100 starting pitcher rankings (at right) this week, one such example might stand out: Matt Garza, who is the only member of my top 30 to have scored a negative value on our Player Rater, or at least one that wasn't influenced by a smaller sample due to a disabled-list stint (Ubaldo Jimenez, Zack Greinke and Mat Latos, of course, have spent time on the DL). Garza's zero wins, 4.11 ERA and 1.47 WHIP might have soured some of his fantasy owners, especially those who play in rotisserie 4x4 formats (which was the original roto format).
Everything else about Garza's game, however, signals positive things ahead. Compare his 2011 peripherals to 2010's and you'll see why:
K's per nine: 6.60 in 2010 (and 7.30 career), 12.03 in 2011
Walks per nine: 2.77 in 2010 (3.15 career), 2.64 in 2011
Ground ball rate: 35.8 percent in 2010 (40.1 career), 50.6 in 2011
FIP: 4.42 in 2010 (4.14 career), 1.25 in 2011
xFIP: 4.31 in 2010 (4.25 career), 1.93 in 2011
Swinging-strike rate: 7.5 percent in 2010 (8.0 career), 10.0 in 2011
One possible rationale for Garza's increased strikeout rate is more reliance on his slider; among pitchers who have thrown a slider 60 or more times, per Inside Edge, he has the highest rate of strikeouts per plate appearance (59 percent), and opponents have batted .103 BA/.125 OBP/.154 SLG against that particular offering. Garza has also thrown his slider almost twice as often this season as he did in any of his three years in Tampa Bay, 22.7 percent of the time, compared to 13.0, 13.1 and 14.0 from 2008 to 2010, per FanGraphs.
And with those facts, you've got a reasonable explanation for why Garza's 2011 performance appears so radically different, statistically speaking, from his 2010 performance. This is no "random fluctuation;" this might be new growth for the right-hander, who at age 27 is in his prime, an understandable time for it to happen. The league switch only fuels such momentum. It's for that reason I keep Garza high in my rankings, and why he's a smart buy-low right now.
Let's take a look at a few more "changed" pitchers:
Trevor Cahill (increased use of his curveball): Everyone is asking about his boosted strikeout rate, his 8.33 K/9 almost three higher than his 2010 number (5.40). There's the simple explanation -- "He's maturing" -- but more specifically, he's relying more heavily on a curveball that always tantalized scouts during his minor league career. Back then, it was described as a legitimate strikeout offering, and so far in 2011, per Inside Edge, he has thrown 99 of them, limited opponents to .240/.240/.480 rates and generated swings and misses 28 percent of the time with them. Those aren't eye-popping numbers, and Cahill has thrown the curve only 18.7 percent of the time (albeit up from 2.7 as a rookie and 13.1 as a sophomore), but the increased diversity of his arsenal has made a difference. His fastball, for instance, has limited foes to .203/.276/.246 rates (307 thrown), and his changeup (98 thrown) .190/.227/.238 rates plus a 33 percent swing-and-miss rate. Cahill might yet keep this up.
Alexi Ogando (decreased fastball velocity): First, let's point out that you should expect a decrease in fastball velocity, because a short reliever-turned-starter isn't going to last long in the rotation dialing up his pitches for 6-7 innings per night. That's why it's no surprise to see that Ogando's average fastball velocity has dropped from 96.3 to 94.3 mph, and his slider from 81.9 to 79.5 mph, per FanGraphs, since last season. But there are two warning signs that have resulted: His swinging-strike rate has dropped, from 10.8 percent to a more pedestrian 8.5 percent, and his batted-ball rates have gone from 43.8 percent grounders/38.4 percent flies in 2010 to 30.7 and 45.3 this year. If Ogando the starter is a true extreme fly baller who is less overpowering, he's going to be in for some rougher spells during that midsummer Texas heat. Throw in the fact he logged only 72⅓ innings between the majors and minors last season, causing late-season workload concerns, and you might want to sell, sell, sell while the going is still this good.
Brett Anderson (sharper command, more grounders): The other big change in Anderson's game so far is that he's healthy; he has always shaped up as the burgeoning star during his healthy days at the big league level. The health risk might have scared off some owners, but so far that move appears to be a mistake. Anderson's walk rate has dipped to a miniscule 1.04 per nine (compared to 1.98 career) and his ground ball rate has soared to 68.4 percent (up from 54.0 career). One thing that has helped has been improved command of his off-speed pitches; his 70 percent strikes on off-speed pitches ranks third (among pitchers with 400-plus total pitches thrown) and .050 well-hit average of off-speed strikes ranks 24th. The health risk might be worth overlooking with this potential breakout candidate.
Jesse Litsch (increased reliance on his slider): Good thing the Toronto Blue Jays found a way to get him back into their rotation -- he got the early recall when Aaron Hill landed on the disabled list -- because frankly it's shocking that Litsch was demoted in the first place. All he did was tear through spring training with a sparkling 6.67 K's per walk (and 8.18 K/9), then post 2.29 K/BB (and 8.31 K/9) in his first three regular-season starts. Litsch's swinging-strike rate has soared to 10.7 percent -- up from 6.8 in 2008, his last full season before Tommy John surgery, and 7.0 career -- and opponents have made contact with only 73.8 percent of his total offerings, down from 84.6 percent in 2008 and 83.8 career. Small sample size (three starts), yes, but a sleeper nonetheless.
Anibal Sanchez (strikeout rate increase): Many young pitchers at first appear to be strikeout artists in the minors, but in their early days at the big league level seem to hint they prefer to pitch to contact, their K rates plummeting. Sanchez sure looked like one early on; he averaged 6.87 K/9 in his first five seasons in the big leagues. This year has been different, however, as his strikeout rate has soared to 9.24 per nine, swinging-strike rate to 11.8 percent and contact rate on all swings has dropped to 74.1 percent, each of those easily a career best. Two things have made the difference: The first is his slider; per Inside Edge, he has limited opponents to .167/.242/.200 rates and generated swings and misses 41 percent of the time with it (albeit with only 97 thrown). In his past two starts, in fact, Sanchez has notched eight of his 17 strikeouts with his slider. The second is increased fastball velocity; he's averaging a career-high 91.6 mph with the pitch and, per ESPN Stats & Information, generated eight misses on 26 swings at his fastball (30.8 percent) in his brilliant outing against the Colorado Rockies this past Friday alone. Now 27, Sanchez has the skills to be a true breakout candidate in 2011.
Kyle Lohse, St. Louis Cardinals: His year-to-date statistics would be even more eye-popping if you added his spring training numbers; between the exhibition and regular season so far, Lohse has made 10 starts and registered a 1.95 ERA, 0.80 WHIP and 9.25 K/9. What's more, the one-time matchups specialist -- start at Busch Stadium, avoid on the road -- has been every bit as successful so far on the road (2-0, 1.76 ERA in two starts) as at Busch (1-1, 2.25 ERA in two starts). The matchups have been light, yes (PIT, @SF, @LAD, WAS), but counting the spring there's enough of a sample here to suggest Lohse can be helpful in all NL-only and even deep-mixed formats for an extended period. Be picky, of course, with a pitcher who has a 4.49 ERA and 1.38 WHIP in his Cardinals career, but for the short term at least, this is a perfect hot streak to ride.
Brandon Morrow, Toronto Blue Jays: It was only one start, but Morrow's 2011 debut offered every bit as many hints at greatness as his 2010 stat line did. He whiffed 10 Tampa Bay Rays in 5⅓ innings, limited Rays hitters to contact on only 65.9 percent of their swings and generated swings and misses 12.9 percent of the time. The elbow inflammation that sent him to the DL to begin the season appears a distant memory, and with each successive start he should edge closer to potential top-25 starter status. Morrow isn't the most efficient pitcher -- he averaged only 5.63 innings per start in 2010 -- but if he can merely stay healthy the remainder of the year, he's got legitimate 180-K potential (from today forward).
Michael Pineda, Seattle Mariners: Speaking of strikeout potential, Pineda sure possesses it. Thanks to a mid-to-high 90s fastball (95.9 mph average fastball velocity, per FanGraphs), he has whiffed 21 batters in 25⅓ innings, generating swings and misses 12.9 percent of the time, second best in baseball. Soft matchups his past two times out (@KC, OAK) have helped, but remember those were preceded by much tougher assignments (@TEX, TOR) to kick off his big league career. It'll be interesting to see how Pineda fares the second time around the league -- a topic to be addressed in a future "60 Feet 6 Inches" -- but certainly his first time around will be fantasy-worthy, at least until opponents develop a book on him.
Ryan Dempster, Chicago Cubs: You can claim that bad luck is mostly responsible for his poor start, as his home run/fly ball percentage is a bloated 22.2 percent, but the truth is that Dempster's pitches have lacked their usual zip so far. Two stats to consider: His average fastball velocity has dipped to a career-low 90.3 mph, down from 91.0 a year ago, and his slider hasn't been nearly as effective as it has been in the past. Surely Dempster's ERA and WHIP should improve, but he has never been one of the game's better WHIP performers, and Wrigley Field will offer him little comfort if his stuff has truly taken a step backward. Tread carefully.
Ted Lilly, Los Angeles Dodgers: I've said on multiple occasions this calendar year that Lilly is probably one of the most underrated players in fantasy baseball, and through five starts, Lilly has done little to back me up. Only one of his five starts so far was a quality start -- seven shutout innings versus the Atlanta Braves on April 18 -- and his strikeout rate has dropped to 5.81 per nine, down by almost two from his 7.69 career number. As consistently productive as he has been the past half-decade, Lilly deserves a longer leash than his owners are giving him, but as he has a soft schedule ahead, he's going to need to pick up the pace soon. Check out his next four probable assignments: SD, CHC, @PIT, ARI.
James McDonald, Pittsburgh Pirates: A favorite preseason sleeper of mine, McDonald has been an out-and-out bust so far, and one can only wonder whether the discomfort in his side that bothered him late in the spring might be partly responsible. His mechanics have been reportedly out of whack and his command spotty at best; he has averaged 5.79 BB/9, and has as many walks (12) as strikeouts (12). Not that the Pirates are stocked with tremendous alternatives, but even they can't be patient with an unproven youngster like McDonald. If he doesn't turn it around soon, he might be facing a demotion.
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.