Adam Wainwright is just one of several starting pitchers struggling to find his groove this season. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
It's mid-May, and we're getting to that point of the year where it's not okay anymore for a pitcher to have an ERA in the mid-sixes. The sample sizes are still small, but they're becoming large enough to at least give us reason to raise our eyebrows if one of our starting pitchers is still stinking it up. The classic excuses of "oh, he's just a slow starter" or "he's still tweaking his new windup" don't cut the mustard at this juncture. We want results, dang it.
It isn't just the usual suspects we're talking about, the waiver wire fodder that rode a hot exhibition season to a totally undeserved fifth starter job . Several former All-Stars are currently stuck in a rut that has lasted throughout the first six weeks of the season.
Take Adam Wainwright, for instance. He's struggled mightily this year, owning a 5.77 ERA after failing to hold an early lead against the soft-hitting Giants this afternoon. Wainwright has a great excuse, of course, for his early struggles. He missed all of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery and then had to suffer the added indignity of watching his teammates roll to a World Series title without him (hey, way to show me how much I'm needed, guys!).
It's perfectly reasonable to expect Wainwright to be rusty after a year-long layoff. His velocity has been down so far, but his strikeout rate has been fine (over a whiff per inning going into today), so he'll probably get stronger as the year progresses. As I mentioned in an earlier article, what would you rather bet on? That Adam Wainwright will still be struggling in August, or that teammates Jake Westbrook and Kyle Lohse will be rocking ERAs below 3.00 when the summer ends?
Wainwright isn't the only star-level pitcher having a rough go of it early on in aught twelve. There's quite a list, in fact. It's a whole slew of struggling starting pitchers, torpedoing your team. After the jump, more pitchers who have face planted out of the gate, and a look at who will recover, and who we should just pull the plug on.
Another guy coming off of a season-ending injury, although with Buchholz I can't say I'm too surprised to see him struggle. Buchholz's stellar 2.33 ERA in 2010 (and league-leading ERA+) simply didn't pass the sniff test, given his relatively unimpressive strikeout rate and K:BB ratio. No one could have predicted this level of suckitude, but some regression was in store. That regression was already happening in 2011 when his season ended prematurely.
Buchholz has been a human lauching pad so far this year, having given up ten home runs in just 44 innings. Since he's given up a ton of hits, too, it's been a recipe for all kinds of misery in Beantown. The usual suspects are at play here: decreased fastball velocity and awful control. If you're a gambling man, feel free to buy ultra-low. He's been better in his last two starts, but personally, I'm staying away.
Everybody keeps expecting that breakthrough season where Gallardo turns into an elite pitcher, but so far 2012 hasn't been it. He's failed to build off of a sensational 2011 season where he cut his walk rate down by a full free pass per nine innings. Instead, he's seen his walk rate spike in the opposite direction, and his ERA has followed.
His control problems are troubling. Wasn't this a thing of the past? On the bright side, his strikeout rate is virtually the same, and he isn't allowing an inordinate amount of home runs. His walk rate had been declining for three straight seasons, so you have to hope this is just a mechanical issue that will be ironed out soon. He'll be fine.
Let's see, he's coming off a lost year due to injury, he's been getting beat around by NL hitters like a first level video game boss, and his manager has been hinting that he might not be totally healthy. Not good. Johnson's health has been a pins and needles affair ever since Joe Girardi made him come back from a 90-minute rain delay back in 2006. His early struggles have to have some owners worried that he's pitching through yet another injury. His last two starts have been excellent, however, so let' hope it's the start of a trend.
When your strikeout rate plummets from a solid 7.1 K/9 to a piddling 4.9, something has gone horribly wrong. That's all you need to know about the early season struggles of Danks, who sports a brutal 6.46 ERA at this typing. Danks had a mediocre ERA last year despite the best K:BB ratio of his career, so it was easy to think he'd be in store for a career year. Not so much. Along with the dip in whiffs has come a rise in walks, never a good omen. Danks has built himself enough of a track record to make one think he can pull himself out of this funk, but those ugly peripheral numbers signal storm clouds on the horizon.
Scherzer's main flaw has always been his inability to work deep into games, as his penchant for walks and strikeouts inevitably leads to a trip to pitch count hell. Last year he averaged a meager 5.9 innings per start, and he couldn't eclipse the 200 inning mark despite making 33 starts. This year the walks may finally be biting him in the ass. His 6.48 ERA has been earned in large part on the strength of a completely ridiculous .410 BABIP. That will come down sooner rather than later, but you're still going to have a guy who struggles to throw strikes or throw a lot of innings, which hurts his chances of racking up a high win total. Not a fan.
The first person that comes to mind when I watch Moore struggle through his first full season in the big leagues is David Price. They both have had eerily similar paths to the major leagues. Both are left-handers who arrived on the scene amidst a ton of hype. They both provided postseason heroics despite very limited exposure in their initial auditions in the big leagues (Price earned the save in Game Seven of the 2008 ALCS despite throwing just 14 innings in the regular season that year). Like Moore, Price also had some bumps in the road when he first broke in to the everyday rotation.
It might be easy to forget now, but when Price came up in May of '09 (after the thrifty Rays had nicely delayed his service time), he instantly struggled. Price wasn't sharp throughout the summer that year and entered August with a 5.10 ERA. In fact, one major reason the Rays missed the playoffs that year was because Price could never get on track. Now, of course, Price is a star, and Moore will get there, too. Sometimes even the brightest flames take some time to illuminate. Moore is obviously struggling with his command in the strike zone (having given up an ugly 9.9 H/9 and six home runs in less than 40 innings going into Thursday's start against Boston (edit: he struggled early in his start today, but ended up having a decent outing). Even if it takes a whole season to iron out the kinks, he's going to be good. Just be patient.
Leake pitched fairly well in his start yesterday against the Pirates, but up until that point, it had been all bad. He still leads the league in losses and sports a bloated 6.21 ERA, courtesy of a career-low strikeout rate and, more alarming, an elevated walk rate. I've been a fan of Leake as a mid-rotation innings guy who could ride a good BABIP year or two to some Cy Young votes and a run at 15-18 wins somewhere down the line. In short, a very serviceable fantasy pitcher in NL-only or deep leagues.
That was all before he stopped inducing ground balls, however. Leake is allowing more balls in the air than ever so far this season, and that's death for a finesse pitcher in a place like Great American Ballpark. That coupled with the fact that he isn't missing many bats, and it's no wonder he's been a disaster in 2012. His owners have to hope that this is just small sample chicanery and that he'll get the ball back on the ground sooner than later.
As sad as it is to say, I think it's probably time to let this particular ship sail. Liriano suffered through a nightmarish 2011 season and has been even worse this year. He's failed to show even a modicum of control and nothing in his underlying numbers would indicate that he's going to turn it around. Unless he pulls a miracle out of his nether regions, that would make three awful seasons in four. It's looking more and more like the 2006 injury he suffered robbed us of Liriano the star. Instead we have Liriano the oft-injured enigma. Let someone else chase the windmill that is his diminishing potential.
Which of these currently scuffling pitchers will wind up having the best season?
Adam Wainwright (59 votes)
Clay Buchholz (8 votes)
Yovani Gallardo (75 votes)
Josh Johnson (42 votes)
Matt Moore (45 votes)
John Danks (3 votes)
Max Scherzer (8 votes)
Mike Leake (0 votes)
Francisco Liriano (0 votes)
240 total votes