For today's fantasy topic, I suggest we discuss booms and busts in the pitching world. Are they for real? Will these players return to expected levels, or are we seeing the beginning of improvement or de-provement? Here are three guys I'm keeping an eye on:
Jon Lester - After four seasons of almost-ace-dom, Lester was a fantasy bust last season, going 9-14 with a 4.82 ERA and a K/9 that dropped to about league-average after being elite in that category in previous seasons. This year, he's off to a 4-0 start, with a 2.27 ERA 1.11 WHIP, and his K/9 is back up to 8.00. Boom or bust? I say Boom. Lester isn't 2.27 ERA good, but I'd bet on a season very similar to what he posted from 2008-2011. None of his peripheral stats were out of whack last season, which tells me that 2012 was one of those fluky bad years that all players experience at least once. He's a guy I'd trade for, and probably overpay for.
Tommy Hanson - What happened to this guy? A couple years ago, he was fantasy elite, especially in keeper leagues. Big strikeout numbers, low ERA. But in 2012, and now in 2013, he has landed in the "barely useful" category. He's striking guys out at a Carlos Silva-low rate this season, but that should correct itself (he's only pitched 17 innings). Hanson's a guy for whom I saw value in the draft because of his good performances from 2009-2011 and because I was able to draft him with my last pick in most cases. However, he's been disappointing so far (the 4.24 ERA belies a 5 ER clunker he threw in his 2nd start and his strikeout and WHIP numbers [1.53!!!] are awful). At this point, I don't know what to make of Hanson. In shallower leagues, I've already cut him. In deeper leagues, I've held him but bolstered my rotation with an extra pitcher as Hanson-insurance. It's early, but I don't like what I'm seeing.
David Price - Oh, my, gosh. Price has been brutal, and he's a keystone keeper in my favorite league. The 2012 Cy-Young Award Winner has thus far gone 0-2, with a 5.52 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, and 7.55 K/9. He's currently ranked 1195 on Yahoo!, despite a preseason ranking of 23. What's going on? His HR rate has spiked, his BABIP has spiked, and his IFFB% has spiked. EWWWW. Obviously, owners should hold on to him anyway, and I would suggest against trading him while his value is this low. My biggest concern is that there's a fatigue or injury issue here. After all, he's thrown over 200 IP for three seasons running, and he's only 27 years old (younger than Lucas Harrell and Bud Norris). If Price is not hurt, there are indicators here that his struggles could be a mirage. His FIP sits at 4.10, higher than typical for him but still pretty good, and as I noted, his BABIP is almost 80 points higher than his career rate. I'm going to trust that Price is healthy and that his horrible results during his first 31 innings pitched are nothing more than crappy luck.
OK, your turn. Who are you looking at who is struggling or surprisingly good?
What is it with John Farrell and the Boston pitchers? Is he really that good? Let's start then with
Clay Buchholz: 30 innings into the 2013 season, the 28 year old Nederland native looks like he has returned to his 2010 form. He's 4-0 with a 29/11 K/BB , an 0.90 ERA and a WHIP of 1.00. Buchholz pitched much better last year from May 22nd on, posting a mid 3.00 ERA with plenty of punchies (thanks to Billy Ripken for that one) until his last start of the year. He was on lots of folks "must have" lists this offseason, and I think the return to greatness is REAL.
Carlos Villanueva: I advocated long and hard for the Astros to sign this 29 year old righty, as he had shown some very positive steps whenever he had gotten the opportunity to start while with the Blue Jays. Instead, the Cubs signed him, and they are very happy they did. Through 4 starts, he is 1-0, with a 21/6 K/BB, a 1.53 ERA and a WHIP of 0.75! The only concern I have is that he has never thrown more than 125 ML innings, and last year, he hit a wall down the stretch, covering up some very good first half numbers with some late failures. Keep an eye on his innings, but he looks great so far.
Hisashi Iwakuma: The Astros got a look at this 32 year Japanese import yesterday, and were the first team to have much success off of him (TROGDOR!!). He started last season in the Seattle bullpen where the results were mediocre at best. But when he was moved to the rotation, he took off, going 8-4 with a 2.65 ERA in 16 starts. His 101/43 K/BB totals were acceptable. He has stepped it up even further so far this year, going 2-1 with a 1.99 ERA and an 0.72 (!) Whip in 31.7 IP. 29 K's and 5 BB's is unsustainable, but his splitter is very good, and I think he is a solid #3 type starter.
Going in the other direction is Matt Cain: Cain has been an elite (at times perfect) pitcher for the Giants throughout his career, but is off to a poor start. Currently 0-2 with a 6.59 ERA, it appears Cain has suffered primarily from giving up 6 bombs in 28.7 IP this year. His K/BB is still elite (26/6) and I think this is only a glitch on the screen as his HR/IP rate should stabilize soon, returning him to elite status.
couldn't pass up the chance to include an Astros pitcher in this discussion. There's no doubt that their rotation has not been very effective, though as of today Bud Norris carries an acceptable 4.13 ERA into the weekend. Sadly, that's accompanied with below-average strikeout and WHIP rates, and he won't get you Wins any time soon.
I'm not sure what to think of Norris' fantasy prospects at this point, so I'll write about somebody else. I noticed something interesting about Jose Veras, the Astros nominal closer. In 8.2 innings, he's given up 5 runs, good for a 5.19 ERA, and blown one of his three save opportunities in the process. I imagine he was the last closer drafted in most leagues, and that many have already given up on him, saves or no. Not so fast. Veras' FIP (based on things he can control, like Groundball rate, strikeouts, and home runs) sits at a very pretty 1.96. His BABIP is an astronomical .423 (career average is .276). Happiest of all, he's walking batters at one of the lowest rates of his career. Obviously, it's early. But a behind-the-scenes look shows that it's far too early to divest oneself from the Astros closer. He will still provide elite-level strikeouts and saves to your fantasy team, and that ERA should come down very soon as his background stats stabilize.
As to newly appointed closers, 2 names that have got much run lately are Edward Mujica and Jose Valverde. I'm a believer in the first, not so much in the second.
Mujica was given an opportunity to close for the Cardinals after Jason Motte got hurt and Mitchell Boggs got lit. Mujica ran with the opportunity closing 4 straight attempts. I'm a believer, as Rosenthal is not ready, Motte is probably out for the year, and Boggs seems over-matched. Run with him if you can.
On the other hand, I watched Papa Grande close for the Tigers last night. He threw 18 straight fastballs, all around 93=94. I cannot imagine he will be very successful without the devastating split he once commanded to greatness. Monitor him, but I think this experiment is destined to fail.