Let’s throw a little change of pace into this week’s edition of Who’s Hot, Who’s Not. Instead of individual players, we will touch on the starting rotations that have been the best (and worst) of the past month. Not surprisingly, the teams with quality starting pitching the past few weeks are in the playoff mix (with one exception), while the team on the “Not” list slides into oblivion for 2012.
Hottest of the Hot: Tampa Bay Rays
It has nearly become as certain as death and taxes: great pitching by the Tampa Bay Rays. Over the past month, the Rays’ starters have compiled a 6.2 WAR – far above any other team in baseball. Thanks to the sturdy starters, they were able to tread water until Evan Longoria returned from injury; since then, the Rays have made their move, soaring into first place in the Wild Card standings (and only five games behind the New York Yankees entering Monday’s games). This past weekend, the Rays crushed the Los Angeles Angels, outscoring them 37-14 in a four-game sweep.
At the front of the rotation, David Price has to be considered a leading candidate for the AL Cy Young Award, with a 16-4 record, 1.10 WHIP and WAR of 5.0. Price has been particularly dominant in the past month, going 3-0 while averaging over 7 innings, 10 strikeouts and under two walks per start. It’s safe to say he has blossomed into the ace folks envisioned as a rookie during the 2008 World Series run. At 26, he will only get better.
Matt Moore tantalized everyone in 2011 with his shutout of the Texas Rangers in the ALCS, but 2012 had been a roller coaster ride for 23-year-old southpaw. Until the All-Star Break. Since then, Moore has been nearly as unhittable as Price, winning 4 of 5 starts and averaging 9 Ks per start. A 1-2 punch like that would be tough enough to beat, but the Rays have more pitching to throw at their opponents.
“Big Game” James Shields has shaken off the trade rumors that swirled in July and lived up to his nickname, winning 3 of 5 starts with 9.25 K/9 and 1.75 BB/9 ratios. Last Wednesday, when the Rays were prey to Felix Hernandez’s perfect game, Jeremy Hellickson pitched seven terrific innings of his own, giving up five hits and the game’s only run. Earlier this year when injuries struck the Rays’ rotation, Alex Cobb came up from the minors and held his own. His xFIP (Expected Fielding Independent Pitching) is 3.29, which is well above league average and more than a run lower than his ERA.
All five Rays’ starters have a HR/9 ratio of 1.00 or less. Further, Moore’s BB/9 ratio of 2.31 is the highest of the bunch. When you keep the ball in the park and don’t issue free passes, good things happen. Fantasy owners have no doubt appreciated their consistency all season.
The Rays have still more pitching depth. One of the pitchers Cobb replaced is Jeff Niemann, who currently is on a Triple-A rehab assignment recovering from a broken right fibula. When healthy, Niemann is a proven major-league starter. Finally, let’s not forget about Wade Davis, who likely would be starting for about two dozen major league teams. Davis is averaging over a strikeout per inning (and has done so all season). He is a weapon out of the bullpen and valuable insurance in case of injury.
Who Else is Hot?
Seattle Mariners – The Mariners are turning into a classic spoiler team. They might be too far out of contention for 2012, but with their rotation pitching as well as it has for the past month, they will be a thorn in their opponents’ sides. At the top of the rotation, of course, is Felix Hernandez, who pitched a brilliant perfect game against the Rays last week. He is a nightmare for anyone, but he has had help. Jason Vargas has been every bit as good as King Felix the past month, averaging over 7 innings per start and winning 4 of 6 outings. However, Vargas’ run is likely unsustainable, given his too-good-to-last home run to fly ball ratio of 2.4%. He might have good control, but that type of luck is bound to run out. If you own him in your fantasy league, hopefully you have reaped the benefits of Vargas’ good fortune. Blake Beavan has turned his season around after a difficult start, while Hisashi Iwakuma has also pitched well. Kevin Millwood hasn’t been great, but he hasn’t been terrible, either.
Los Angeles Dodgers – Clayton Kershaw is well established as the Dodgers’ ace, but Chad Billingsley has been better than Kershaw the past month. Billingsley has teased the team (and fantasy owners) for years; has he finally turned the corner? The jury is still out, in my opinion. Billingsley needs to be active in all fantasy formats while he pitches this well. In the meantime, the Dodgers’ relatively low-profile offseason signings have paid off handsomely. Chris Capuano has a 24-to-5 K/BB ratio over his past 22 innings pitched, while Aaron Harang has tossed three straight quality starts this month. Both Capuano and Harang have greatly benefited from pitching their home games at Dodger Stadium. They aren’t as easy on ERA or WHIP for fantasy owners, but they are great matchup plays. With Ted Lilly’s return delayed, the Dodgers acquired Joe Blanton from Philadelphia, but his two starts have been atrocious. Blanton isn’t worth owning in any leagues right now.
St. Louis Cardinals – The Cardinals are one of baseball’s more enigmatic teams. Over the past month, they have gotten outstanding starting pitching from Adam Wainwright, Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook, yet they have actually lost ground in the NL Central. Wainwright struggled at times in the first half of the season, but he has come on strong the past month. He hasn’t allowed more than two runs in a start since July 18, with an ace-like 40-to-6 K/BB ratio. Lohse boasts a microscopic 0.46 ERA in the month of August to go along with a 1.11 WHIP. Pretty good time for a career-best year, what with Lohse being a free agent at season’s end. I consider him a must-start in all formats. Lance Lynn has struggled the past month – probably due to his workload increasing drastically – but he has been a rock of consistency for St. Louis through the year. Not much was expected of rookie righty Joe Kelly when he took Jaime Garcia’s place in the rotation, but Kelly has been respectable. Garcia’s return to the rotation Sunday couldn’t have gone much better – 8 shutout innings, career-high 10 strikeouts. If he is able to maintain that type of quality, the Cardinals will be a dangerous team over the season’s final six weeks. Starts like that would be a huge boost to fantasy owners over the remainder of the season.
Washington Nationals – With the Nats, it’s been all Stephen Strasburg or Bryce Harper this season. But the rest of the rotation has been terrific for Washington this season. Before Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann was the stud young pitcher on the team. He has returned from his own Tommy John surgery to post numbers every bit as strong as Strasburg. Zimmermann has no innings restriction this season. Over the past month, he has averaged a strikeout an inning, while walking just one batter per 9 innings. Strasburg, of course, has been sensational, striking out 10 batters per 9 innings. There has been plenty of debate about the impending shutdown, but Strasburg has helped pitch the Nationals to the best record in the National League. Gio Gonzalez has tailed off a bit from his first half, but he still has been worth 1.0 WAR over the past month. Edwin Jackson has pitched well (10 Ks per 9 innings, 3.05 xFIP), but has been especially prone to the long ball over the past month, with a 22% HR to fly ball ratio. His strikeouts make him a worthy start, especially in rotisserie leagues. Ross Detwiler has pitched much better than an average fifth starter, despite a low K/9 ratio.
Who’s Not: Los Angeles Angels
Okay, I give up on this team. A few weeks ago, Albert Pujols was on fire and the Angels were seemingly primed to make a move in the AL West after trading for Zack Greinke. Instead, it’s been all downhill. Greinke has been terrible since switching leagues, getting lit up to the tune of a 6.19 ERA and 20% HR to fly ball ratio. In fact, the Angels pitching staff as a whole has been the worst in either league the past month. Worse than the Rockies, the Astros, the Twins. Everyone. Even Jered Weaver has not been immune. The Rays pounded him for 9 ER during the four-game sweep over the weekend. C.J. Wilson has averaged less than 6 innings per start while his BB/9 has gone up. Dan Haren has been so awful that the Angels are going to skip his turn in the rotation in an attempt to “work on his release point,” according to the Orange County Register. In terms of WAR, the Halos’ best pitcher over the past month has been reliever Kevin Jepsen, who has pitched only 12 1/3 innings. Not a good sign for the team. You have to believe that Weaver and Wilson will improve, but Greinke and Haren are larger conundrums for fantasy owners. Do you risk cutting them or trading them, only to watch them get it together for the final few weeks of the season? Or do you watch them torpedo your season? Situations like this are tricky for fantasy owners. The Angels don’t have a choice but to keep running them out there and hope the results improve.