2014 fantasy rankings update

What to expect from Justin Verlander, Josh Beckett, George Springer

Updated: May 28, 2014, 2:42 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Resist the reactionary response.

We fantasy owners, as a whole, tend to respond most to baseball outcomes at either extreme of the performance scale: We do at times laud players for their most outstanding efforts, even in samples as small as a single at-bat. And we do, at other times, sour quickly players who struggle during a given month, week, day or, once again, a single at-bat.

For example, let's take Josh Beckett's May 25 no-hitter. No-hitters elicit as extreme a baseball response as any, yet in reality are as much of the product of good fortune (those on batted balls in play) as the pitcher's own ability; they are the one time a pitcher blends the perfect marriage of "luck" factors, a .000 BABIP, 0.0 home run/fly ball percentage and 100.0 left-on-base percentage. They don't always -- and usually don't -- illustrate improved ability of the pitcher in question, which would be the main reason for a fantasy owner to adjust his or her expectations of the pitcher going forward.

After all, would anyone dare claim that Francisco Liriano's May 3, 2011, no-hitter (9 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 6 BB, 2 K) was as meaningful an individual outing as Brandon Morrow's Aug. 8, 2010, performance (9 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 17 K)? Morrow's was worth 17 more points on the Bill James Game Score scale, yet it's Liriano whose name and game ball made a trip to the Hall of Fame.

No-hitters are notoriously misleading, and to further illustrate, consider the performance of the 19 previous pitchers to throw one from 2009 through 2014, accounting their 10 starts before and 10 starts immediately following their no-nos:

10 starts before: 4.01 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 2.91 K/BB, 6.4 IP/GS
Next 10 starts: 3.72 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 2.83 K/BB, 6.4 IP/GS

Point out the quarter-run ERA differential if you wish; those other numbers show scarcely any performance change at all, and in combination show how ordinary a pitcher can be surrounding his moment of history.

Taking the opposite angle, we've got Justin Verlander in the midst of one of the worst three-start stretches of his 10-year big league career: He has a 8.31 ERA, 2.13 WHIP and 8.0 percent strikeout rate (as a percentage of total batters faced) in those games. Verlander criticism is abundant -- somewhat for good reason -- but at the same time, we must remember that he is a pitcher with a lengthy track record who warrants more patience than your average arm.

[+] EnlargeJustin Verlander
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesJustin Verlander may be in the midst of a slump, but he still appears to have the skills to turn it around soon.

In Verlander's defense, consider: From May 11 through May 22, 2013, Verlander managed a 11.37 ERA, 2.37 WHIP and 27.9 percent K rate during a three-game stretch; from July 9 through July 20, 2013, he posted a mere 10.5 percent K rate. And from July 1 through the conclusion of the 2013 regular season, he managed a 3.18 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 103 K's, ninth most in the majors. Those aren't the Verlander Cy Young numbers of 2011, but they're certainly deserving of top-20 starter consideration.

That's precisely the point when evaluating Verlander's rest-of-year prospects, and it was the same point made during the preseason: Thanks to a lengthy career track record, any ranking or projection of his shouldn't shift all that much regardless of his good or bad individual performances, with the possible exception of skill or role changes that influence either. Consider that, so far this season, my Verlander starting-pitching ranking has gone from 14th (final preseason), to 14th, 14th, 13th, 14th, 14th, 11th, 10th, 9th and 16th, with many of the increases a product of injuries thinning the SP1/SP2 class.

Any case against Verlander's going-forward prospects comes down to his declining velocity and the resulting drop in his strikeout rate. These are the worrisome stats: 95.3, 94.8, 94.2, 93.3 and 92.1, which represent his average fastball velocities by year, beginning with 2010 and ending with 2014. Still, consider that on this date last season, Verlander's fastball had clocked 92.5 mph on average, so it's not like that much is different between the Verlander of today and the Verlander of May 28, 2013.

It was a point I repeatedly tried to make during the preseason, and one I continue to stand behind today: Verlander is a top 20-capable fantasy starting pitcher, but he's not significantly better than that at this stage of his career, nor does he deserve to be downgraded substantially beneath that. That is, not unless we get some sort of word of an injury or clear evidence of a changing skill set, and that means a change beyond the one he has exhibited for a calendar year now.

Back to Beckett

[+] EnlargeJosh Beckett
Hunter Martin/Getty ImagesJosh Beckett's no-hitter seems to be a reflection of some recent improvements to his game.

What you might notice, and claim a rankings inconsistency, is Beckett's 31-spot jump among starting pitchers this week, which appears to go against the above point about his no-hitter. There are a couple things at play with that change, the most obvious one being that rankings change most swiftly once you move beyond the top 50 or so starting pitchers; pitchers ranked 70th and 90th are far, far closer in true value than those ranked, say, 20th and 40th.

But in Beckett's case, much of his movement is a product of his no-hitter shining a light upon what has changed for him, skill-wise, and yes, that means I might be a week or two behind in giving him due credit. Though Beckett has suffered a velocity drop of his own, like Verlander, he has apparently adapted to compensate. So far this season, Beckett has become much more aggressive early and even when behind in the count; he has thrown 7 percent more opening-the-plate-appearance pitches in the strike zone, and 6 percent more in the zone when in a hitters' count. He has also leaned increasingly upon his curveball as his "put-away" pitch -- nearly 40 percent usage with two strikes -- another indication that he's adapting to decreased velocity.

The Beckett of 2014 might not possess a similar ceiling to the Beckett of, say, 2007. His adjustments, however, decrease the risk of his floor, and it's for that reason he's back into the relevant-in-all-mixed class of starters.

George Springer love

Springer
Springer

Few players -- well, besides the obvious names like Edwin Encarnacion -- have enjoyed as outstanding a May as George Springer. After struggling through an abbreviated first month in the majors -- he hit just .182 with no homers and 19 K's in 55 at-bats in April -- Springer has batted .322/.404/.667 with eight home runs in 22 games so far in May.

Springer's example plays to the very point made above: A player's projection should not substantially change as a result of his short-term hot or cold spells, and it's the very reason that he was on my "buy-low" candidates list May 6 (two days before he hit his first major league home run). As pointed out in that column, the only risk with Springer was that the Houston Astros could've demoted him to Triple-A had his struggles lingered for many additional weeks; it was also said that they were one of the few teams with the luxury of being patient as he adjusted to the majors.

Adjust Springer did: He has a .152 isolated power, seven line drives and has missed nearly two percent less often against off-speed pitches in May comparative to April; and he has batted .316 against pitches in the lower/outer half (.200 in April). He's still an extreme strikeout slugger, so expect future slumps (and hot spells as well), but these hints are the reason he leapt 12 spots last week and 29 spots this week in the rankings. Overall, Springer's weekly going-forward rankings have gone: 132, 121, 145, 129, 131, 119, 90.

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