Ten MLB Pitchers Who Should Decline Over the Rest of 2009
This is Part Four of a series discussing MLB players whose performance in the early part of the season was extreme, to the good or bad, and explaining why their performances won't last.
Here, pitchers who have achieved more favorable results than expected are highlighted, with the usual statistical analysis of my claims.
This is not to say you should bail on these pitchers. Many of them are supremely talented hurlers who will still put up great season numbers.
The point here is that they should expect their success to fade somewhat, as statistical anomalies the pitchers cannot control come back to averages.
Let me know whether you agree or disagree, and thanks for reading.
1. Dan Haren
Dan Haren is an excellent pitcher who is still in the midst of his prime years. Through 14 starts in 2009, Haren is 6-4 with a 2.23 ERA and 96 Ks in 101 innings.
He continues to strike out more batters every year, and his walk rate has remained quite low. This year, Haren's K/BB ratio is an otherworldly 7.38.
Helping explain this, Haren has achieved career lows in overall contact rate, as well as contact rate on pitches both in and out of the strike zone.
Home runs haven't really been an issue for Dan (HR/FB percentage of 11, slightly above where it may be but not far off), and he's not allowing batters to drive the ball with unchecked authority (line drive percentage of 19.7 percent, in line with his career figures).
In this case, my prediction arises entirely from an unsustainable low batting average on balls in play. His .238 figure is currently second lowest in MLB among qualifiers; this has led to Haren's Pedro-like WHIP of 0.82.
Natural correction means Haren will be facing more situations with runners on, and more runs will score as a result.
Owners can expect Haren to continue to be the stud pitcher they drafted him to be, but he is not quite as good as he's shown in the early going.
2. Johnny Cueto
Johnny Cueto broke out on the major league scene in a big way in 2008. Though he cooled off in the second half last year, reasonable expectations were that he would improve this season.
So far in 2009, Cueto has been a stud. He's amassed six wins, a meager 2.17 ERA, an equally tiny 1.07 WHIP, and has struck out 62 batters in 87 innings.
Cueto's striking out fewer batters than he did last year, 6.41 K/9 compared to 8.17 last year, but he's compensated by walking fewer batters as well—2.59 BB/9, almost a full walk better than last year.
Part of his improvement is due to a low line drive rate, which is partly due to a very low batting average on balls in play: .247.
Part of this improvement is surely Cueto improving with age, but some is just luck. Batters are making contact on 84.4 percent of Johnny's pitches this year, up from 76.9 percent last year, including an 89 percent contact rate on pitches in the zone.
Cueto's also only giving up home runs on 7.8 percent of his fly balls, which will probably not remain so favorable to the young hurler as the season goes on.
Cueto will become a top of the rotation starter and fantasy ace, but he is still only 23, so he will probably not reach that level this season.
3. Brian Tallet
This guy's not exactly a fantasy superstar, but this season has bordered on respectability at age 31.
Don't buy into it. Supported by a .255 BABIP, Tallet has still struggled to a 4.87 ERA and 1.29 WHIP. Having tallied only four wins and K'd only 58 batters in 77.2 innings, there's not too much he offers.
Batters are hitting more fly balls (44.8 percent) off of Brian this year, inflating his home run numbers and leading to his high ERA despite a respectable WHIP.
Unless you're desperate, avoid this Blue Jay.
4. Shairon Martis
5-1! This kid must be great!
Nope. Sorry folks.
Let's take a look: 4.76 ERA. 1.36 WHIP. 29 Ks in 75.2 innings. Four walks per nine innings. That's more walks than strikeouts and the lowest K/9 rate among qualified players.
He's given up home runs on only 7.2 percent of fly balls after posting a 19.2 percent rate last year. In addition, he owns an unsustainably helpful .249 BABIP. Last year it was .269, so he may induce frequent bad contact, but let the sample grow before making that leap.
Thirdly, Martis cannot expect his line drive allowed percent to remain at 15 percent (20 percent is more like it). These impending corrections spell doom for Shairon. No amount of run support he can expect from the Nationals will save him.
5. Jered Weaver
Jered Weaver is another young, talented starter expected to take a step forward in 2009. 26 is generally regarded as a "prime year" for a ballplayer (thank you Bill James), and Weaver has performed as expected.
His 2.08 ERA and 1.00 WHIP are better than Cueto by a touch, and he's striking out more batters: 74 in 90.2 innings, good for a 7.35 K/9.
As with the other guys on this list, Weaver has enjoyed some luck in addition to his step forward in skill. Sporting a .245 BABIP, and allowing home runs on a mere 5.6 percent of fly balls, Jered can't expect to dominate major league hitters to this extent all season.
His contact rates are in line with his career numbers, as are his walks.
Weaver's line drive percentage from season to season:
I have no idea what to make of that. Maybe he's regained his '06-07 form.
What I feel more comfortable about is that he's going to give up more home runs and more hits, leading to an increased ERA and WHIP. As with Cueto, he's really good, so expect him to pitch well going forward—just not this well.
6. Ted Lilly
69 Ks, 7-4, 2.94 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 85.2 IP. Heck of a start for the 33-year-old Lilly.
A career-low 16 percent line drive percentage (career average: 20.6) begins his list of "uh-oh" moments. He's also giving up 53.5 percent fly balls, highest since 2002. Finally, his .255 BABIP is due to rise.
He is walking the fewest batters of his career, so he deserves some credit for his hot start. But Lilly is also not a legitimate Cy Young contender, and this will become evident throughout the second half.
Not to mention, it appears that the Cubs can't decide if they like scoring runs, so who knows what his W-L record will do?
7. Edwin Jackson
Edwin Jackson is another in a group of young arms who've experienced substantial success in the early going in 2009. With an ERA of 2.39, WHIP of 1.06, and a 6-4 record, Jackson looks on the verge of stardom.
He's not striking out too many batters, but he's not Jon Garland either: 72 Ks in 94.1 IP, good for a K/9 of 6.87.
In his favor, Edwin has shown good control, only walking 2.39 batters per nine innings. He's managed that while bringing the heat; his fastball is averaging 94.4 MPH this season, one of the top marks in the majors.
Part of his learning to harness his electric stuff is seen in his swing and contact rates. Jackson's getting batters to swing at 27.5 percent of pitches out of the strike zone, up from a career number of 21.8 percent; this has led to batters making contact on 78.6 percent of his pitches, down from his career total of 81 percent.
Edwin learning how to be a more effective pitcher has led to a career-low 15.4 percent of line drives hit against him. This will probably not remain so low, but can be at least partly attributed to his increased skills.
However, Edwin's growth as a pitcher may be slightly overstated. He's buoyed by a .260 BABIP and a microscopic 5.6 HR/FB rate (a more typical number is around 10 percent of fly balls becoming home runs).
Jackson should be a solid major leaguer for many years, but he is probably not going to be quite this successful for the rest of 2009.
8. Matt Garza
I love this picture. I can't remember exactly what it's from, but Hayden Panettiere is a rather attractive young lady, even if the photo gives no indication it's related to baseball.
On to Mr. Garza: A former first-round pick, it looks like the Rays fleeced the Twins in essentially getting Garza for Delmon Young. Even after a rocky last start, Matt's shown the goods this season, striking out 7.79 per nine innings and possessing a 1.19 WHIP and 3.63 ERA, despite a 4-4 record over his first 84.1 innings.
With contact rates that fall within his past career ranges, it doesn't appear that Garza has made a real step forward as a hurler. His tendency to walk batters (3.63 BB/9) doesn't stand him in particularly good stead either.
As with many of the pitchers highlighted here, Garza has gotten some good luck to begin the season. Though he's allowing home runs at a healthy 11.4 HR/FB clip, which he shouldn't necessarily expect to rise or fall dramatically, he's only given up hits on balls in play at a .254 rate, one he cannot expect to retain.
With all his other statistics in line with career numbers, the variance he's experiencing between this season and his past must be partly attributed to luck, which can stay with a pitcher for a long time, but not indefinitely.
9. Yovani Gallardo
Yovani is a beast. He's still young, so he may get much better than he is. Look out NL Central, you are all going to strike out. A lot.
This season, Gallardo's 7-3 and owns a 2.93 ERA. The young fireballer has struck out 85 batters in 83 innings and has pitched to a 1.17 WHIP. All of this is fine and dandy and has made the Brew Crew and his fantasy owners quite happy.
Is there a downside? Of course there is—otherwise he wouldn't be here! In Gallardo's case, he's walking too many batters. A BB/9 of 4.12 is unacceptably high.
The only reason this hasn't really come back to bite him is because he can punch a batter out when he needs to, and so far this season, when batters have made contact, they've seen their attempts find many Milwaukee gloves.
His .251 average on balls in play is due to regress, and when it does, Gallardo may find himself in too many situations where he's forced to pitch from the stretch.
More than many on this list, I believe Yovani's success to be legitimate. His line drive percentage is 19.4 this season, down from 23.7 percent in 2007 (his only other season worthy of comparison), and his HR/FB percent has jumped this year to 11.7 percent from a 2007 mark of 6.6.
Though we don't yet know where his career numbers will fall, there's no reason to think Gallardo can't take advantage of these numbers as he learns to harness his filthy stuff, particularly if he gains better control and replaces some of those walks with strikeouts.
10. CC Sabathia
"Cash Cash" Sabathia is the man on this list most likely to make me eat crow, as he's a legitimate ace in the majors, is a second half pitcher, and has a lineup behind him that should allow him to win games even without his best stuff.
CC has posted a 6-4 record, 3.67 ERA and 1.11 WHIP, to go along with 69 whiffs in 100.2 IP. This is close to but not exactly what the Yankees envisioned when they turned CC into "Cash Cash."
The question is, will he improve or get worse as the season goes on?
I say the chances are better that he gets worse. Here's why: Sabathia's currently allowing home runs on only 6.7 percent of fly balls, a number that should rise. He's also walking more batters than he has since 2005, 2.68 BB/9.
Finally, that old culprit BABIP has worked favorably for CC so far this season; currently at .256, it stands to rise somewhat toward CC's pretty well-established .295 career mark.
(Unlike a lot of hurlers I've discussed, Sabathia has enough of a history to make determinations of this sort more safely).
The evidence that he'll be just fine exists though. He's throwing hard this season, with a fastball averaging 94 MPH, and his swing and contact rates all fall within his career highs and lows.
I think the walks are the key. If Sabathia can stop walking, by his lofty standards, so many batters, the inevitable increase in hits allowed won't be damning to him.
However, if he continues to walk more batters than he has in the past, he'll find himself in a lot of high stress situations that will lead to runs and losses.