Joe Mays. This is the name that forever springs to mind when the subject of decliner candidates is brought about. More specifically, his name comes to mind when discussing individuals (i.e. me) who can't recognize pitchers who are obviously going to decline. This was the case with Mays, back in 2001, and from his example, I learned some hard lessons in how to pick out pitchers who are simply in the middle of one-year-wonder seasons.
In '01, Mays, then a 25-year-old starting pitcher with Minnesota, finished up a terrific, Cy Young-worthy campaign, going 17-13 with an ERA of 3.16 (he led the league in ERA+). His breakthrough year led me to my first fantasy championship and the halo effect surrounding him, and my then-complete misunderstanding of pitcher peripheral numbers, led me to at one point refuse to include him in a trade for...wait for it...Randy Johnson. Yes, typing those words will probably result in added months of therapy.
Naturally, Mays's fantastic year was a complete fluke, but I was too naive and reliant on ancient baseball stats to realize it at the time. Mays didn't strike a lot of batters out, and he didn't make up for it with great control. I didn't care. All I saw was the ERA, and I was ready to horde my newly-found prize, possibly making him the most ridiculous untouchable player in the history of fantasy baseball. Naturally, in 2002, his ERA skyrocketed, he got hurt, and he was never the same pitcher. My fantasy team? Screwed. Over the rest of his fairly short career, Mays never got his ERA back under 5.00. I plummeted to the bottom of the standings.
The trick, obviously, is recognizing the pitchers who were performing over their heads and figuring out whether to avoid them altogether or, if you're in a keeper league, see if you can sell them for a good return before they decline. After the jump, five pitchers who you probably won't see replicating their 2011 success.
1. Jair Jurrjens
To clarify, this isn't a list of pitchers who are going to suddenly suck in 2012. I'm sure Jurrjens will still be a very good pitcher, but come on. Did anybody really think his first half, when he was mowing down the league and putting up a 1.87 ERA, was sustainable? He was the ultimate sell-high guy in July of last season and, sure enough, he started to get eaten by the evil regression monster in seven second half starts before he got hurt again. His ability to keep the ball in the ballpark has always been a great strength, but if his BABIP rises to the league average like in 2008 and 2010 (it was .273 last season) he'll be good, not great.
2. Doug Fister
Everybody's favorite ridiculously tall pitcher with the suggestive namesake, the 6'8" Fister fooled everybody by flourishing with the Tigers after a midseason trade swept him away from Safeco Field's pitcher-friendly power alleys. Fister was lights out with Detroit, but a cynical SOB might point out that nine of the eleven starts he made were against bad teams. Fister is a solid back-end starter, but his early-season success screams Safeco-addled fluke, and his microscopic ERA with the Tigers was simply a small sample size trick of the eye. His averagish stuff and lack of a strikeout pitch, plus a full season in the more neutral environs of Comerica Park, make me think his ERA will shoot up at least a run.
3. Ivan Nova
I discussed him briefly in this article a while back. His breakout was fun, but don't let the Yankee halo effect fool you into thinking there isn't a major potential for collapse here. As a ground ball pitcher, he's reliant on a competent infield defense to succeed. In 2012, he'll again be pitching in front of an aging Alex Rodriguez and the perennial running-in-quicksand stylings of Derek Jeter. That's not good for anybody. He got away with it for the most part last year. Do you want to be the one to tempt fate by wagering that he can do it again?
4. Justin Masterson
Masterson rode a red hot opening month to a breakout season, one the Indians had envisioned when they traded Victor Martinez for him and made him a starter in 2009. He cut his walks and finally appeared to figure out how to get left-handed hitters out. Still, a career-low HR/FB rate was largely responsible for the shiny ERA, and he fell off the pace in the second half. He should still be good for a solid 200 innings, but I have a hard time imagining another ERA in the low-threes, especially with a rather questionable defensive unit behind him.
5. Kyle Lohse
I guess this should be obvious to anybody, but if he again tallies 14 wins and matches his career-low 3.39 ERA at the age of 33, you can all gather around and watch me eat my keyboard. Lohse was the latest beneficiary of Dave Duncan's pixie dust, but his inability to miss bats and a career-low .272 BABIP will be enough to wash it all off. He teased us like this in 2008; just heed Pete Townshend's immortal words and focus on someone with sleeper potential.
Joe Saunders. He doesn't strike batters out, doesn't have good control, and he gives up homers. How does this guy get people out? 3.69 ERA, my eye!
Charlie Morton. He probably could have made a case for Comeback Player of the Year after his debacle of a 2010, but a mediocre K/BB ratio and a ridiculously low home run rate that won't be repeated should make you wary.
Jeff Karstens. His ERA was, amazingly, floating well below three for much of the year. His stuff is subpar and his career ERA is 4.52. Avoid him like Wal-Mart on Black Friday.