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Answering your pitching questions

7/2/2013

Rankings: Is there any greater source of debate in fantasy baseball?

Everyone has an opinion on player valuation, and everyone a different set of rankings, whether literal (like the ones published at column's end) or theoretical (such as your perception when you're evaluating a trade). They are all different; if they weren't then no one would ever have an advantage, drafts would proceed in identical order and league champions would result randomly.

I publish mine weekly in this space, and discuss the intricacies of said rankings. Still, sometimes my opinion of rankings outliers differs from yours. Heck, we'll publish updated ESPN Fantasy staff rankings during the All-Star break week, at which time I'm sure to have rankings outliers from merely the rest of our group.

Normally I'll discuss the players I consider the greatest outliers. But this week, I'm letting my readers ask about those players with the most curious rankings. This week, they get to call me out:

@cwsoxfan: Wow! How are you sleeping on David Price like this? The guy's schedule is easier and he's finally healthy. He will be [a] top-5 [starter the rest of the season].

With the promise of health, yes, I agree that Price has the potential to be a top-five starting pitcher; No. 5 was the exact spot I ranked him in the preseason.

That said, at the time I had last published my starting pitching rankings -- around lunchtime on June 25 -- with Price my No. 30 (pure) starter, he had made only one rehabilitation start in his recovery from a triceps injury and lacked a definitive return date. This week, we know he's set for Tuesday activation; and for the record I would start him in all formats in a road game at the Houston Astros.

Still, until we see him actually pitch in a big-league game, how can we assume he's completely healthy with zero risk of setback? Colleague Stephania Bell had an excellent take on Price in her chat last week, the most telling line this: "I hear triceps but it seems like it's taking a looooooong time for that type of injury." I agree. Price missed 47 days with the injury, so this can't be termed a minor issue, and let's not gloss over his diminished velocity before he landed on the disabled list, as his fastball averaged 93.3 mph in his first nine starts, down from 95.4 mph in his 31 starts in 2012.

A standout return start might be all it takes to vault Price back into my top 10, but until then, any ranking higher than his current No. 18 is high-risk. I say, "buy," but he's not a zero-risk venture right now.

Jason C. (@jcongo95): Buy low on Cole Hamels? Apparently Charlie [Manuel] isn't buying it either with his mental rest.

Jason wasn't the only one to ask about Hamels; Ethan Winslow (@WinslowEthan) also did, and several others previously inquired about him in June. Just 2-11 (not terribly relevant) and the No. 103 starting pitcher on our Player Rater (quite a bit more relevant), Hamels has been one of the most frustrating players of 2013.

Three weeks ago, I nominated Hamels my top buy-low target among pitchers in this space. While I still believe he has better statistics to offer from this point forward, there is no question that Hamels isn't the pitcher he was from 2009-11, nor is it fair to equate his situation to Cliff Lee's a year ago. He's close to either of these things, but he is not equal to either of these things.

The following statistics illustrate the change in effectiveness of Hamels' cutter, and if you frequently watch his games, you know how important to him that pitch:

2013: .324/.343/.647 rates, .413 wOBA, .279 well-hit average
2010-12: .229/.262/.345 rates, .266 wOBA, .165 well-hit average

Hamels needs to improve that area of his game if he's to recapture his former top-10 starter potential, and it's the reason for his decline in my rankings this week. And even if he does fix it quickly, keep in mind that he has received the 12th-least run support (3.18 runs per nine) among 98 ERA qualifiers, and he pitches for a Philadelphia Phillies team unlikely to fare much better with the bat going forward. He's still a buy-low target, but not necessarily with an ace-caliber ceiling.

@FireDaytonMoore: If your "Sixty Feet Six Inches" ranks are from this point forward, why drop pitchers after a bad start? Their numbers going forward aren't included.

That's a good point if you're referring to a good pitcher enduring an occasional stinker, but the fact remains that every start carries weight in player evaluation, even if it's by a minuscule amount. After all, rankings -- or at least mine -- are based upon rest-of-season projections (statistics from the moment of publication through the regular season's conclusion), and my projections draw from a player's past three seasons' worth of statistics. (I'll admit that it would be impossible to formulate new, complete projections every week, so most of the time I need make rough estimates in my head.)

What one should never do, however, is project a season's statistics, then during the year extract the player's year-to-date numbers from that original projection, assuming the player will do that much better to make up the difference. That's not how this works. This came up a few weeks ago in a debate about B.J. Upton, who through 82 Atlanta Braves games is batting .177 with eight home runs, 19 RBIs and seven stolen bases. No one honestly believes that Upton will, from today forward, bat .295 with 15 homers, 58 RBIs and 24 steals -- those are the numbers he'd need in order for his final numbers to match our preseason projection -- right?

I liken this process a bit to a peach pie. If a player is struggling, it doesn't mean he's eating a smaller piece of pie; it means that the half of the pie -- since we're just beyond the mathematical midpoint -- he has eaten simply didn't taste very good. Maybe a couple of the peaches on that half had spoiled? And if true, wouldn't that cause you to wonder whether, when you eat the second half, that it, too, might have a greater chance of having peaches that had spoiled?

James Ayello (@jamesayello): Left-on-base percentage can't be the only reason for disparity between guys with very similar numbers: Jordan Zimmermann (12th), Hisashi Iwakuma (27th). What's the story?

You are correct, James, it is not only left-on-base percentage, though that category at least partly explains some of what has happened to Iwakuma in his past three starts: 5.40 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 12 of his 18 non-homer base runners allowed scored. That has dropped Iwakuma's season LOB% to 84.0, meaning he's no longer on pace to set an all-time record in the category, which he was on June 11.

In other words, regression has already struck Iwakuma to some degree, and I think it's smart to brace for that going forward. At 26th among (pure) starting pitchers this week, he's still regarded an excellent, excellent option going forward.

But let's compare Zimmermann and Iwakuma, shall we?

Zimmermann: 3.22 FIP, 77.7 LOB%, .244 BABIP, 49.5 GB%
Iwakuma: 3.46 FIP, 84.0 LOB%, .230 BABIP, 46.7 GB%

In addition, Zimmermann is on the team with the clearly superior bullpen of the two, and an offense with greater long-term upside -- Bryce Harper's return representing a huge plus -- meaning wins have a somewhat higher probability with him. I've made this point quite a bit lately: The difference in value between the No. 12 and 26 starter is awfully small, but I see more to like about Zimmermann.

Matt Erisman (@merisman24): Derek Holland and Francisco Liriano behind A.J. Burnett, Jose Fernandez, Julio Teheran, Paul Maholm, R.A. Dickey and Chris Tillman?

Fernandez, to point out, actually ranks the highest of this group on our Player Rater. If not for the threat of an innings cap -- he's now on pace for 184 2/3 innings, or 50 2/3 more than he tallied in 2012 -- he'd probably be the first pitcher of this group in anyone's rankings. That said, let's consider our past 30 days' Player Rater split: Tillman (6th), Teheran (8th), Fernandez (10th) and Dickey (26th) rank higher than Liriano (27th), and Maholm (51st) ranks higher than Holland (102nd).

Let's focus on Liriano. Through eight seasons in the majors, he has never managed 10-plus starts of a sub-3.50 ERA in any half-year (using All-Star break splits), four of his nine half-seasons of 10-plus starts resulted in an ERA higher than 5.00, and his career walk rate is 9.8 percent. It's a plus that Liriano is leaning on his slider -- 35.0 percent usage, .132/.210/.176 rates allowed and 47 of his 67 K's have come on that pitch -- but that also might tax his arm, one that has seen much wear and tear during his career. He's as classic a "ride the streak" pitcher as there is.

Ted (@Galaxy_19): What are your main reservations about John Lackey in a 10-team mixed?

Health, mainly. He's 34 years old with 308 career games and 1954 1/3 career innings on his résumé, plus a Tommy John surgery between the 2011-12 winter, not to mention four other trips to the DL (for five total) since 2008. Lackey's only full season since then came in 2010, when he had a 4.40 ERA and 1.42 WHIP.

As you'll see, Lackey rose noticeably in this week's column, but as a member of the American League East, his margin for error is slim.

Zarc Chrision (@nypizzarules): Why is Jeff Samardzija higher than Shelby Miller?

The vast majority of it comes down to remaining volume of innings; the St. Louis Cardinals are already talking about reining in Miller's workload going forward.

Miller is on pace for 186 2/3 innings, an increase of 36 1/3 upon his 2012 total, and his performance has waned in the past couple of weeks. And with the Cardinals being playoff contenders, the team must consider carefully managing his workload in order to preserve some of his innings for the postseason. Samardzija's FIP (3.14) is within range of Miller's (2.81) and his xFIP is actually lower (3.13-3.24), and he might pitch as many as 25 more innings than Miller going forward.

TOP 150 PITCHERS

Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 150 pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued. For position-specific rankings, see the "Pos Rnk" column; these rankings can also be seen split up by position.