Sixty percent of the season is in the books. On the horizon is the trade deadline in both real and fantasy realms. Much has changed in the world of starting pitchers. Big names like Cliff Lee, Gerrit Cole, Michael Wacha, Jose Fernandez, and Masahiro Tanaka have hit the shelf. Their pre-season sex appeal has washed into a next-morning hangover.
Former fantasy stalwarts Matt Cain and Justin Verlander have faded into the ether, leaving nothing but piles and piles of soggy Benjamins in their wake. It's a tough world out there, and the list below reads more like a cast of survivors from an upcoming post-apocalyptic series The Plague (of Tommy John) than a roll call of gladiators vying for the upper echelons of sport.
In the wake of tragedy, however, emerges opportunity and the unfortunate injuries have paved the way for some new faces to emerge from the ash.
Movers & Shakers
First, let's look at some names that have vastly improved their stock since the pre-season.
Raise your hand if you thought Jake Arrieta would be a Top-30 starting pitcher by season's end. I don't think Jed Hoyer or Theo Epstein would have taken you up on that bet. Much to the dismay of the Orioles -- who sent Arrieta packing for half a season of Scott Feldman - the Cubs may have finally given Arrieta the confidence he needed to realize his potential after being a perennial underachiever with the "busted" prospect tag to his name. Arrieta's recent success can be attributed to a variance of things:
- The move to the Senior Circuit has benefited Arrieta as it does most pitchers. Throughout his career, he's struggled with runners on base (Career 68.8 strand-rate is well-below league average), something he attributed to always feeling like his job was on the line in Baltimore. In 2014, he's been fortunate with runners on base (his 80.1% strand-rate.) The strand-rate is due to regress but not to previous levels.
- Like his former rotation mate Jason Hammel -- who was also his rotation mate in Baltimore -- Arrieta has begun to throw sliders at a career-high level, letting them fly 25% of the time. (His slider is actually in between a cutter and slider, but Pitch f/x classifies it as a slider.) The cutter-slider first approach is an emerging formula for reclaimed big league success (perhaps at the expense of health, but only time will tell on that one).
- The last adjustment Arrieta's made is mechanical. His delivery has a lot of moving parts, and while the premium velocity has always been a trademark, inconsistency has followed him at every stop as well. It seems that Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio and Arrieta have finally found a pace to the plate and timing pattern that works for him. Balance and timing are the two major components for command, and if these wrinkles are truly ironed, there's no reason he can't sustain (marginally at least) the success he's enjoying.
While most pitchers are the beneficiaries of a league change from the American to the National league, Jeff Samardzija gets a significant bump in value moving to Oakland. The reason is three fold. First, wins have eluded Samardzija in Chicago no matter how well he pitched and the A's have scored the most runs in baseball. Second, he's struggled with the long-ball at Wrigley Field, and his aggressive fastball-first approach is better suited for the vast expanses of the O.co Coliseum than Wrigley. Third, he's been in the National League his entire career, thus very few hitters will have witnessed his perverse arsenal. Hitters switching leagues often struggle learning their new adversaries, and it stands to reason that Samardzija will have the distinct advantage of being less exposed to his new league. The strikeouts won't be as delicious as they were in the National League, but I think he'll make it up to you in the other four categories.
Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy
Hughes and Kennedy share a similar narrative. Both were Top-Prospects in the Yankees organization who failed to live up to expectations and were eventually traded (Kennedy) or left to Free-Agency. Their arsenals are similar too: Straight fastball, above-average command, good breaking-ball, fly-ball (read: home run) tendency. These are the types of pitchers that can really thrive in right ballpark (I guess that's most.) I'm going to take the easy route and blame the Yankees for drafting and developing pitchers whose skill-set is polar opposite of what they need. THANKS, YANKEES STADIUM!
Unfortunately for fantasy owners, J.V. is living up to his sophomoric initials. This was supposed to be a bounce-back season, as a year ago he posted 3-year lows in ERA (3.46), strikeouts (8.95 K/9), and WHIP (1.31). In spite of the "down" year, he was still one of the best pitchers in baseball - - good for 5.3 fWAR. He played through a sports hernia, and some of us assumed that after off-season surgery he'd return to form. Now, Verlander owners would be giddy for 2013-level numbers. The elite-strikeout rate has dipped to below-average territory (just 6.7 K/9) and his walk-rate is gradually creeping upwards (3.21 BB/9); not a recipe for success. He's been a tad unlucky, but there's no doubt his skills are also decline. If you can sell him as a Top-25 SP, do it now.
Cain has been equally terrible. His average velocity is actually up in 2014, and his batted-ball data is in line with career averages. In fact, he currently has a career-high ground-ball percentage, and his line-drive percentage is his best since 2010. Cain has always had a reputation as an extreme flyball pitcher. However, before last season, he was able to keep the ball in park and consistently outperform his peripherals. In 2013, he set a career high in homers allowed (10.8% HR/FB), and it's risen again in 2014 (13.7% HR/FB). In essence, the only difference between vintage Matt Cain and the current iteration are the gopher balls.
Throughout the season, I've done a series of articles cataloging some of the exciting young arms in the high-minors and major leagues. Although only one of them appears on the Top-50 (Gausman) all of them have significant upside and could help your fantasy team for the stretch run.
- Kevin Gausman, Orioles- It was recently reported that he will be up for the second half and has no innings limit. He has enormous upside; he possesses some of the best raw stuff in baseball.
- Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays- He had a rough outing against the Angels in his last start before the All-Star break, but don't be fooled. His arsenal is electric and he's posted quality starts in 6 of his first 8 outings.
- Rubby De La Rosa, Red Sox- De La Rosa didn't generate a ton of buzz coming into the season because he was on his way back from Tommy John and profiled as a high-leverage relief arm long-term. The Red Sox, however, want to continue to give him a chance at starting, and he's reportedly going to get an audition for 2015 in the second-half.
- Andrew Heaney, Marlins- He received a cup of coffee in Mid-June, but after a solid debut Heaney had a series of difficult outings. He should be back up once he makes some adjustments at Triple-A New Orleans.
- Nick Kingham, Pirates- Other than one bad outing at Triple-A, Kingham's breezed through the minors. With the NL-Central still wide open, the Pirates could bring the 22-year-old righty up for the stretch run. He's regarded as an extremely safe prospect, although he doesn't project to be more than a mid-rotation starter.
Without further ado, here are your Top-50 SP rankings going forward:
Note: These rankings were created using Steamer and ZiPS ROS projections and my own personal preference
** Gerrit Cole, Michael Wacha, and Andrew Cashner don't appear on the list because of injury. Were they healthy, Wacha would rank between Teheran and Samardzija, Cole between Gray and Kennedy and Cashner between Kazmir and Bailey.
|7||Chris Sale||White Sox||8||1||95||9.66||1.52||0.57||0.25||2.08||0.84||2.47||2.89||2.66|
|16||Jon Lester||Red Sox||9||7||129||9.35||2.02||0.56||0.313||2.65||1.14||2.61||3.07||3.06|
|33||John Lackey||Red Sox||10||6||123.1||7.95||2.04||1.02||0.309||3.79||1.26||3.53||3.25||3.42|
|46||R.A. Dickey||Blue Jays||7||9||125||7.49||3.6||1.15||0.27||3.82||1.32||4.51||4.28||4.23|