Fantasy: Disappointing Pitchers

A couple weeks ago, I talked about the pitchers who have surprised so far this year and I said I’d try to look at the disappointing pitchers as soon I could. Well, I finally have a chance to. Here are my thoughts on 10 pitchers whose performance this year has been very troubling.

SP Barry Zito, A’s: There was some concern that Zito might be a candidate for a big decline because his strikeout rate fell from 8.61 K/9IP in 2001 to 7.14 K/9IP in 2002 to 5.67 K/9IP last year, but I don’t think many people expected him to be 3-3 with a 5.56 ERA and 1.55 WHIP right now. Especially since, with 44 strikeouts in 55 innings, his strikeout rate is back up to 7.2 K/9IP.

If he’s striking out more people and performing worse, he must be struggling with walks, right? Nope. He’s allowing 2.95 BB/9IP, and he’s never allowed fewer than 3 walks per nine innings in any season before. The nine home runs are way more than he normally allows, but the big problem is all the hits he’s allowing on balls in play. In 2002 and 2003, he allowed averages of .245 and .239, respectively, on balls in play. This year, he’s allowing a .331 average on balls in play.

I don’t think that high average will last all year, so Zito should improve at least a little as the season goes along. However, his time as a member of the “Big Three” is over. He’s still only 26 years old and he should be a quality starting pitcher for a number of years, but I really think he’s done as an ace pitcher.

SP Johan Santana, Twins: I wrote about Santana in last week’s fantasy stock watch, but he’s made yet another terrible start since then. In fact, his last one was the worst of all the starts he’s made in this terrible two-month stretch, as he allowed seven runs on 10 hits and two walks in three innings.

In his 10 starts, Santana is 2-2 with a 5.60 ERA, 2.09 WHIP and 48 strikeouts in 54.2 innings. His 7.9 K/9IP rate isn’t bad (although it’s not as good as you might have expected from him) and his 2.8 BB/9IP rate is fine, but his 10 homers allowed means he’s giving up 1.65 HR/9IP. That’s just way too many, and when he’s kept the ball in the park, batters have hit .341 off him.

I think Santana’s probably getting somewhat unlucky, but I also think something’s wrong with him. The 10 homers are a sign that batters are hitting the ball very hard against him. I’d leave Santana on your bench for awhile until we find out whether or not he’s hurt. If he’s not, he should start to pitch better eventually, and then you can start using him again.

SP Joel Pineiro, Mariners: Like Zito and Santana, Pineiro is a young pitcher who has been good to excellent in past seasons, but is struggling mightily this year. he’s 1-5 with a 5.43 ERA, 1.63 WHIP and 42 strikeouts in 56.1 innings.

Also like Zito and Santana, his strikeout (6.71 K/9IP) and walk (3.36 BB/9IP) rates haven’t really been out of line with what you’d expect based on his career numbers. However, just like Zito and Santana, he’s been bothered tremendously by home runs and his batting average allowed on balls in play. Pineiro’s given up 1.33 HR/9IP and he’s allowed a .348 average on balls in play.

The difference between Pineiero and the other two is that Pineiro’s been much, much better recently. After posting an 8.26 ERA in April, he’s had a 2.57 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in four starts in May. He’s notched 17 strikeouts and walked eight hitters while allowing just three homers in 28 innings. I don’t know what was wrong with him in April, but he seems to be fine now and he should get his overall numbers back to respectability before too long.

SP Derek Lowe, Red Sox: Lowe was a Cy Young candidate two years ago and an average pitcher last year, and the question coming into this season was whether his production would be similar to that of 2003, 2002 or somewhere in between. The answer, thus far, has been none of the above. Lowe is 3-4 with a 6.02 ERA, 1.91 WHIP and 18 strikeouts in 40.1 innings. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he’s allowed 10 unearned runs that don’t show up in his ERA.

Lowe’s never struck out a ton of hitters, but his strikeout rate this year (4.02 K/9IP) is especially bad. He averaged 4.87 K/9IP last year and 5.2 K/9IP in 2002. He’s also walked 20 hitters (4.46 BB/9IP) and allowed a .359 average on balls in play. Lowe’s groundball/flyball ratio (3.03) is the lowest it’s been since joining the Red Sox, but it’s still very high, so it’s not a big surprise that he’s only allowed one home run.

The big concern with Lowe is obviously the strikeout/walk ratio (0.9 K/BB). If he can get that up around where it was last year (1.53 K/BB) and get his batting average allowed on balls in play down to a reasonable level, he’d go back to being at least a decent pitcher. Whether or not he can do that is a complete mystery. Lowe’s made three quality starts and another one in which he wasn’t bad, but he’s also gotten absolutely hammered in three starts. I think he’ll turn it around at some point and start to pitch at least as well as he did last year, but he’s probably not going to be much better than that.

SP Sidney Ponson, Orioles: I didn’t think Ponson had much chance of matching his 17-win, 3.75 ERA performance from last season, but I did think he could be a league average pitcher who eats up a bunch of innings. So far, however, he’s 3-4 with a 5.40 ERA, 1.52 WHIP and 34 strikeouts in 63.1 innings.

Ponson’s never been a big strikeout pitcher, but he probably needs to average more than the 4.83 K/9IP he’s getting right now. It would also be nice to see him lower his walk rate (3.13 BB/9IP) a little bit, but it’s not terrible right now, and he’s only allowed three home runs, which is fantastic.

As with all of the pitchers above him on this list, Ponson has been getting killed on balls in play. He’s allowed a .320 average on balls that are put in play and don’t leave the park. Compare that to last season, when he allowed a much more reasonable .286 average on balls in play.

Ponson’s last two starts have been encouraging, as he allowed three runs on 14 hits and three walks in 17 innings. However, he still had just nine strikeouts, which is about what he’s been averaging all year. He’ll get better and he might be the league-average pitcher for the rest of the season that I thought he’d be, but there’s almost no chance he’s going to start pitching as well as he did last year.

SP Miguel Batista, Blue Jays: I thought the Blue Jays were making a great move when they signed Batista this off-season. After all, he had been great for the Diamondbacks in two of the last three seasons and average in the other one. This year, however, he’s 2-4 with a 5.52 ERA, 1.53 WHIP and 38 strikeouts in 58.2 innings. Unlike the pitchers I’ve already mentioned, Batista hasn’t had too many problems with balls in play, allowing a reasonable .287 batting average on them.

His problem has been walks and home runs. Batista has always walked a lot of hitters, averaging 3.88 BB/9IP in 2001, 3.41 BB/9IP in 2002 and 2.79 BB/9IP last year. That nice trend of improving his walk rate completely reveresed itself this season, as he’s allowing 4.91 BB/9IP. You just can’t succeed when you allow that many free baserunners. His six homers (0.92 HR/9IP) may not seem like many, but Batista’s always been very stingy with the long ball. In his three seasons with Arizona, he allowed just 38 homers in 519.1 innings (0.66 HR/9IP). So, he’s allowing home runs almost 40-percent more frequently this year.

Batista’s made five quality starts this year, but he’s also allowed at least five runs in a start four times. You just never know what you’re going to get with him, so you’re taking a big risk every time you put him in your lineup. Until he cuts back significantly on the walks, he’ll continue to be a risk.

SP Tim Redding, Astros: Redding posted a 3.68 ERA in 176 innings last year and, while his peripherals weren’t that good, it looked like he was finally ready to start a productive career after disappointing major-league stints in each of the previous two seasons. Unfortunately, this season has looked more like 2001 and 2002 than 2003, as he’s 2-3 with a 5.49 ERA, 1.53 WHIP and 24 strikeouts in 39.1 innings.

However, if you break his season up into two four-start increments, things are much more encouraging. In his first four starts, Redding was 0-3 with a 10.57 ERA, 2.15 WHIP and 15 strikeouts in 15.1 innings. In his last four starts, he’s gone 2-0 with a 2.25 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and nine strikeouts in 24 innings. You may have noticed the oddity that his four terrible starts came when he was striking a ton of people out and he hasn’t struck many people out at all since he started pitching well.

I don’t know how to explain that. What I do know is that I expect him to be about an average pitcher the rest of the season. He may not have an ERA under 4.00 for the last four months, but he should at least be usable. I’d expect the strikeouts to tick back up a little and Houston’s offense should help him get some wins if he can keep the games (and his ERA) manageable.

SP Mike Hampton, Braves: Hampton didn’t look like a pitcher who would be able to match the 3.84 ERA he put up last year, but it at least seemed like he had gotten over pitching in Coors Field. This year, however, it’s like he’s a member of the Rockies again as he’s 1-5 with a 5.64 ERA, 1.78 WHIP and 29 strikeouts in 52.2 innings.

Surprisingly, Hampton’s strikeout and walk rates aren’t much different than last year. His strikeout rate has decreased from 5.21 K/9IP to 4.96 K/9IP, but his walk rate has also decreased from 3.69 BB/9IP to 3.42 BB/9IP. So, his strikeout/walk ratio has increased from 1.41 K/BB to 1.45 K/BB. The difference between last year and this year is what’s happening when he doesn’t get a strikeout or a walk.

Last year, he allowed 14 homers in 190 innings (0.66 HR/9IP). This year, he’s already allowed six in 52.2 innings (1.02 HR/9IP). Last year, Hampton allowed a .277 batting average on balls in play. This year, it’s up to .356. When your strikeout and walk rates remain pretty constant, but still aren’t good, and your home run rates and batting average allowed on balls in play go to hell, you’re going to give up a lot of runs.

Hampton’s last two starts have been nice and he will almost certainly pitch better over the rest of the season than he has so far this season, but I wouldn’t trust him. There are less risky pitchers out there who can be expected to do just as well as him. There’s no reason to take a great risk on somebody who has no chance of being a great pitcher.

RP David Riske, Indians: When Bob Wickman got hurt, it looked like Riske would have a lot of value as a fantasy closer since he had posted a 2.29 ERA with eight saves in 2003. However, he struggled right out of the gate this season, lost his job as the closer and now sports an 8.20 ERA with a 2.20 WHIP, two saves and four blown saves.

Riske’s only allowed one run in his last seven innings, but the damage has already been done. Rafael Betancourt is the closer now and he’s at least been respectable with a 4.15 ERA and 1.25 WHIP. He has blown a few saves, so there’s a chance Riske could get the job back if he keeps shutting people down and Betancourt has a couple more problems, but it doesn’t look like there are a ton of saves to be had in Cleveland anyway. Also, if Wickman can return after the All-Star break, he may get the job back unless somebody has really stepped up by then.

If you’re desperate for saves and have a roster spot open, hanging on to Riske isn’t the worst idea in the world. Most likely, though, you’re better off forgetting about him for this season.

RP Matt Mantei, Diamondbacks: Hopefully, you weren’t counting too heavily on Mantei, as he has a long history as an injury risk. So, it’s not that surprising that he’s on the disabled list with a shoulder injury right now. However, it is a surprise that he had an 11.81 ERA and 2.16 WHIP and had already lost his job as Arizona’s closer before going on the DL.

It’s possible that Mantei’s been hurt all year and that’s the reason for his poor pitching, but he said that’s not the case. Mantei should be back fairly soon, but Jose Valverde has done fine with a 4.03 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and three saves in four chances. He has 26 strikeouts in 22.1 innings, and if he can cut down on the walks (4.43 BB/9IP), Mantei will never get a chance to reclaim his job.

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