Panic over slow-starting arms?

Updated: April 18, 2013, 3:44 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Panic at this stage of year seems all the more absurd on the pitching side, if you consider the sample size: generally 15-20 innings for a starting pitcher.

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At the same time, considering the speed at which a pitcher's season can slip away, even the tiniest of samples can't be blindly cast aside. At the very least, a short-term slump should put a pitcher on some sort of "watch list" for his upcoming outings.

Following Wednesday's Hit Parade lead, let's examine this season's slow-starting pitchers, determining whether there's reason to panic with any of them.

Johnson
Johnson

Josh Johnson, Toronto Blue Jays: Any concern about Johnson is rooted in what was effectively a one-start blip. And what was that start? It was a road game against the Detroit Tigers, who have averaged 5.43 runs per game and project to average more than five runs a contest for the season. Take out that game and Johnson is 2-for-2 in quality starts with 14 K's compared to four walks. Include it, as we must, and he's one of the 40 worst starting pitchers as judged by our Player Rater.

Johnson's poor outing appears the outlier, if you consider two things. The first are his velocity patterns. He averaged just 89.3 mph with his fastball in that game, the first time since our pitch-tracking tool had data for his starts (2009) that he averaged less than 91.5 mph, but in his first start of 2013, (April 5) he averaged 92.9 mph and in his third (April 16) he averaged 93.4 mph, both of those in line with his prior career averages.

The other is, if you credit him what was a solid spring -- 2.70 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, 7.67 K's per walk in 20 innings -- Johnson's April 11 outing stands out further as an aberration. Yes, that disaster counts toward your stats (if you started him), but when it comes to projecting his future success -- all that matters in fantasy planning -- it's far easier to cast it aside. Verdict: No reason to panic.

Parker
Parker

Jarrod Parker, Oakland Athletics: Selected the No. 45 starting pitcher in the preseason on average, Parker, through three starts, rates the worst at his position per our Player Rater. He has failed to pitch into the sixth inning in any of those three turns, and in none of them was his Game Score even as high as 40 (bearing in mind that 50 is traditionally the equal of a "quality start" by that measure).

Couple that with a poor spring -- 7.45 ERA, 1.55 WHIP and five home runs allowed in 19 1/3 innings -- and Parker's fantasy owners might understandably be panicking.

That said, Parker's problems appear to be rooted in location and luck. His velocity isn't a problem, as he has averaged 92.3 mph with his fastball, spot-on to his 92.4 mph of 2012. But consider that he has eight walks already, he has surrendered a .450 batting average on fastballs, and his BABIP is .438, more than 150 points higher than his .294 number of 2012. Parker is leaving too many pitches over the middle of the plate, and while some might sweat his workload bump of a year ago -- he threw 65 2/3 more innings in 2012 than in 2011 between the majors and minors combined -- I'd argue that what ails him can yet be fixed. Bold call maybe, but … Verdict: No reason to panic.

Hamels
Hamels

Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies: Anytime the No. 7 starting pitcher on average from the preseason gets off to the kind of start that Hamels has, fantasy owners get uncomfortable. They also probably should have known this, however. He hasn't had a quality start in his first start of any season since 2008 -- that's right, five straight years without one -- and he had a 4.33 ERA in the month of April from 2009-12 combined.

Hamels' velocity is fine, as he has averaged 91.1 mph with his fastball, exactly the same number he averaged in 2012, and one of his poor outings (April 1) came against the hot-starting Atlanta Braves offense, meaning he should be forgiven for that. He is also one of the most consistent pitchers in the game, as we pointed out in his profile: "… one of five major leaguers with at least 20 quality starts and 180 strikeouts with beneath a 3.50 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in each of the past three seasons." With that track record in mind, Hamels deserves a lot of patience. Verdict: No reason to panic.

Gallardo
Gallardo

Yovani Gallardo, Milwaukee Brewers: He's off to a mediocre start, going win- and quality-start-less through three turns with a 6.61 ERA and a mere nine strikeouts, possibly the most frustrating thing to his owners. What Gallardo's owners need reminding, however, is that his K rate had been in a three-year pattern of decline -- slight decline, but a pattern nevertheless -- as he whiffed 25.7 percent of the batters he faced in 2009, 24.9 percent in 2010, 23.9 percent in 2011 and 23.7 percent in 2012. This season, his number in that department is only 11.8 percent.

Gallardo's velocity has also lessened following a similar pattern, as his average fastball went from 92.6 mph in 2011 to 91.7 mph in 2012 to 90.5 mph this year. Ultimately, it appears that even if he straightens himself out, he might no longer be the lock for 200-plus K's that he was in each of the past four seasons. Gallardo's owners need to ask themselves this: Did they pick him as the No. 26 starting pitcher on average in the hopes that he would greatly exceed that ADP -- the old aiming for upside play -- or because they recognized that today's version is just that, a low-end No. 3 (and arguably high-end No. 4) fantasy starter?

In Gallardo's defense, slow starts are nothing new to him. He had a 5.70 ERA in six April starts in 2011 and 6.08 in five in 2012. Both times, he roared back with an outstanding May (2.25 ERA in 2011, 2.89 in 2012). In other words, he warrants a few weeks' more patience, but 180 K's might be the smarter expectation even if he does follow that 2011-12 May resurgence pattern. Verdict: Some panic is warranted.

Price
Price

David Price, Tampa Bay Rays: This one is simple. If you knew that, in his first three starts of 2012, Price had a 4.20 ERA, 1.73 WHIP and 1.22 K's per walk, would you be as worried about what he has done this year? Truth be told, Price's only bad outing in 2013 was his April 7 stinker against the Cleveland Indians (5 IP, 8 ER). His other two both met the quality-start threshold.

Price's most recent outing tells a more compelling tale: six innings, one run, two walks, eight strikeouts. And it came on the road against the Boston Red Sox, who are off to a solid start offensively. Verdict: No reason to panic.

Haren
Haren

Dan Haren, Washington Nationals: Perhaps the most telling fact about Haren's 2013 struggles are that in not one of his three starts has he pitched into the sixth inning. In 2011, he failed to pitch into the sixth only three times all year (34 starts). Heck, even in 2012, Haren lingered into the sixth on all but seven of his 30 outings. This year he's laboring more than ever, and his 2.03 WHIP is disturbingly high for a pitcher whose career number in the category entering the year was 1.18.

Though Haren isn't necessarily a "velocity guy" -- meaning that he's not a pitcher who aims to overpower hitters -- his drop in velocity the past few years is troubling. His average fastball clocked 90.5 mph in 2010, dropped to 89.9 in 2011, then 88.4 mph in 2012, at which point he surrendered an OPS 180 points higher with that pitch alone than in 2011. This season, Haren's fastball has averaged 89.5 mph, forcing him to make more and more adjustments to make up for diminishing stuff. It's a small sample, but … Verdict: It's time to panic.

Morrow
Morrow

Brandon Morrow, Toronto Blue Jays: Ah, another victim of those Tigers. Morrow probably wouldn't even make this list had he not been tasked with a road start against them (April 9), as he had a 3.00 WHIP in that game alone but a 1.25 WHIP in his other two outings, both of which were quality starts.

That's the critical lesson: Consider the context of every start before you race to judgment with your pitchers. Morrow's average fastball velocity by start has gone 95.4-93.1-92.1 mph, his 93.5 season average right in line with his 93 of 2012. He has also afforded no greater quantity of hard contact than he did last year, as 25.5 percent of balls in play against him this year were judged hard contact, down from 26.6 percent in 2012. And that's counting that Tigers start.

If you selected Morrow as a potential breakthrough candidate -- something I advertised and, judging by his No. 28 ADP among starting pitchers, with which you agreed -- you should still consider him one today. Verdict: No reason to panic.

McCarthy
McCarthy

Brandon McCarthy, Arizona Diamondbacks: McCarthy has always been a health risk, having never made more than 25 starts in a single year, but thanks to some much-needed improvements he made before the 2011 season, he had transformed into one of the more reliable options on a per-start basis the past two years combined. The problem, though, is that this season he looks a lot closer to the mediocre version of himself in Chicago and Texas than the reliable one during his Oakland days.

According to the Arizona Republic, McCarthy lacks confidence in his changeup, the impact upon his arsenal restoring his fly-ball rate to 45.5 percent, near the levels he displayed in Chicago and Texas. Considering he's a pitcher who needs his secondary pitches to thrive -- his fastball isn't an especially good pitch and has been largely responsible for most of the fly balls he allows (49.1 percent rate since 2009) -- that's disconcerting. As is, McCarthy's owners know they're probably going to need a contingency plan at some point, and this is a good time of year for finding good ones. Verdict: Some panic is warranted.

Relief Efforts

In a week in which two closers landed on the disabled list (Kyuji Fujikawa and Joel Hanrahan), oddly enough, two of the greater headline-makers among relief pitchers were ones not currently on a big league roster.

Valverde
Valverde

Rodriguez
Rodriguez

Francisco Rodriguez, whose 294 career saves would trail only Mariano Rivera (612) and Joe Nathan (303) among active players, agreed Wednesday to a minor league contract with his former Milwaukee Brewers. He will report to Maryvale, Ariz., to work with the team's extended spring training program until he's ready to pitch, presumably for a minor league affiliate before being considered for the Brewers' bullpen. The Brewers have 30 days to promote him to the majors. Considering the state of their bullpen, they might do so, as long as he shows he's capable of pitching at a high level.

Meanwhile, Jose Valverde, who was similarly signed to a minor league deal by the Tigers on April 4, pitched a scoreless inning at extended spring camp Thursday, his third appearance since agreeing to terms. Per the team's official website, he'll remain in Florida and pitch for Class A Lakeland on Friday and Saturday and could be promoted to Triple-A Toledo afterward, weather permitting. Like Rodriguez, Valverde also has an opt-out clause, which kicks in May 5.

Perhaps both pitchers' relevance is more of a statement about their respective teams' big league bullpens than their own potential, but considering how wide-open both the Tigers' and Milwaukee Brewers' closer roles are, as well as the gaudy career saves totals for the veterans, it's not unthinkable that either could see meaningful time in the majors. Certainly owners in AL- and NL-only leagues who have the luxury of bench room might speculate on them, but in standard 10-team mixed leagues, we need more evidence that either is pitching at 2012 levels (if not greater) before they would warrant an add.

In Valverde's case, keep this in mind: His average fastball velocity was in a three-year pattern of decline, dropping from 95.6 mph in 2009 to as low as 93.3 in 2012, and his 6.26 K's per nine in 2012 was his worst number in any single year. Both pitchers will be working up to midseason form without the luxury of traditional spring training, so it's fair to question whether they'll even be ready at the conclusion of their 30-day (or in Valverde's case, 32-day) windows.

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