Early in the season, the default excuse for slow-starting hitters, used by apologetic club announcers and baseball pundits is, “the pitchers are ahead of the hitters right now.” And that’s fine, but stale platitudes do nothing to meliorate the condition of the anxious fantasy owner as he watches his team go five-for-41 on the daily. This should be a good time of the year to be a pitcher. I even had my spambot generate a mass email to every Major League pitchers’ inbox reminding them of such.
These guys had their filters on.
Francisco Liriano- I just checked, and Liriano is owned in 22% of Y! public leagues. If you drafted him hoping that he would return to his 2010 form, I’m not saying you’re a Polyanna, but you’re really into hanging prisms. How a player managed to pitch markedly better in the old Homerdome than he has in the most pitcher-friendly park in the AL is beyond me. Wait, no it isn’t! By far, Liriano’s best years were 2006 and 2010, when he went a combined 26-13. During those years his average GB% was 54.5. Take away those two seasons and his career GB% is 43.2. That’s just one example, but if you look at his K/9, BB/9, and HR/9 from the same seasons, they too were far superior than his career marks. Liriano has a low-90s fastball, but he has had his best success when he relies more on his slider, something he’s gotten away from. He’s a very average pitcher who has at times managed to parlay his talent into sporadic Major League success. There are plenty of other, non-ERA assassins, even in deeper leagues.
Yovani Gallardo- So far Gallardo’s season has been a lot like that Michael Keaton movie White Noise, which is to say it has been a sham and a monstrosity. Though not historically a slow starter, in 2011 he had a brutal stretch of five starts in which he allowed 26 earned-runs in 26.1 innings pitched that left him with a 6.10 ERA on May 2. Just ask RotoBrian (a Gallardo apologist), he’ll tell you all about it. Gallardo isn’t going to win any Cy Youngs, but he will get you 200 Ks, 14-17 wins, and a mid-threes ERA. The Brewers miss Prince Fielder greatly—they recently were shut out in back-to-back games by the Padres—and probably won’t muster offense sufficient to get Gallardo more than 14 wins.
Tim Lincecum- He’s probably the best strikeout pitcher in baseball and despite his early season struggles, he’s still averaging 10.06 K/. That’s better than he did in 2011, which speaks to the quality of his off-speed pitches, since his fastball velocity is down nearly 2.5 mph from last season (92.2-89.8). He’s never been a control artist (3.36 BB/9), but his career LOB% (75.4—that’s better than Roy Halladay and Felix Hernandez) has allowed him to maneuver out of walk-induced jams more often than not, hence the two NL Cy Young awards perched on a shelf above the bong collection in his grow room. This season his LOB% is 60.6. Jonathan Sanchez’ erratic ways must have rubbed off on Lincecum, because he is walking the league at a 4.83/9 IP clip. Throw in a .349 BABIP and you get a 5.89 ERA. But what are you going to do, drop him? Bench him? My best guess is that his LOB% will normalize and at least meet the league average (72%). His BABIP and BB/9 IP should follow suit, but brace yourself for further aggravation until he rebounds.
Josh Johnson- The book on Johnson has always been that he’s a top-tier starting pitcher– when healthy. In fact, for his career, he has not posted an ERA above 3.23 in any season which he made at least 28 starts; that’s good. Since making his debut in 2005, however, he’s only managed to make 28 or more starts three times; that’s bad. Whether it’s Elton– I mean Tommy John– surgery in 2007, or the mysterious forearm ailment that limited him to nine starts last year, Johnson has been awfully frail for a 6’7”, 250-lb Goliath. This year he’s healthy, so what’s with the Lirianoian 5.87 ERA? Johnson’s advanced stats are very strange so far. Simply put, he’s getting hit harder than at any time in his career. 29.8% of balls in play against him have been line-drives, almost 10% above his career average. Like Lincecum, his LOB% of 63.5 is well below his career mark of 75.4, as is his BABIP (.403 vs .302). He put together a pretty solid outing in his last start, and he’s still keeping hitters in the ballpark ( 3.8 HR/FB) and all signs point to him getting back on track, so keep running him out there.
In an era when pitching is king, these heretofore good pitchers have managed to channel the maddeningly mediocre ghost of former Orioles/Giants/Cardinals/Yankees/Twins/Royals/Rangers pitcher Sir Sidney “The Boozin’ Aruban” Ponson. The one thing you don’t want to do with a struggling top tier (Liriano excused) pitcher is hit the eject button too early. Last year, Matt Garza, Mat Latos, and Gallardo were all prematurely dropped due to poor starts, but each managed to finish 2011 strongly. Keep them on the bench for a start or two until they regain your trust. It’s still only May, so resist the urge to drop one of your underperforming stud pitchers out of sheer spite. But if you’ve not seen improved output by the All-Star break, you may need to seriously reevaluate whether your struggling ace is more of a hindrance to your squad than a help.