Fantasy: Surprise Pitchers

Last week, I looked at 20 hitters whose early-season performances were surprising. Today, I’m going to do kind of the same for the pitchers. I was going to look at the surprises and disappointments, but after finishing the pleasant surprises, I’m running a little short on time. I’ll try to get to the disappointments next week.

Surprises

SP Joe Kennedy, Rockies: Kennedy was decent his first two seasons in Tampa Bay, but he was awful last year with a 6.13 ERA and 1.60 WHIP. Even if he had been decent yet again last year, however, you wouldn’t have expected a good performance this season because his new home is the place where pitchers’ careers go to die.

Instead of going in the tank, however, Kennedy has started this season 4-0 with a 2.40 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in 41.1 innings. With 31 strikeouts (6.75 K/9IP), 14 walks (3.05 BB/9IP) and four homers (0.87 HR/9IP), his rates are decent in all three categories.

As you might expect, he’s getting nice support as Colorado’s averaging 5.57 runs per game when he starts (just slightly more than the 5.5 runs per game the Rockies are averaging for the season). What you probably didn’t expect is that the Colorado bullpen would be excellent in Kennedy’s starts, posting a 2.70 ERA in 26.2 innings. In fact, the bullpen hasn’t allowed a run in relief of Kennedy in three of his four wins, which is important because he’s only averaging 5.9 innings per start. The Colorado bullpen has a 3.45 ERA overall and the peripherals suggest that will go up, so don’t expect the dominance in Kennedy’s starts to continue.

Can Kennedy continue his impressive performances? Well, history isn’t on his side, as the Rockies have yet to have a pitcher who qualified for the ERA title post an ERA below 4.00. The closest was Armando Reynoso, who had an ERA of exactly 4.00 in 1993. And that’s probably misleading, as he allowed 84 earned runs and 17 more unearned runs. There’s also the ridiculous .227 batting average on balls in play Kennedy’s allowing to suggest that his numbers will definitely take a big hit at some point.

SP Tom Glavine, Mets: Wow, I was a little longwinded about Kennedy. Sorry about that, won’t happen again. Glavine had his worst season since his rookie year last season, and it looked like he might be just about washed up at age 37.

Now he’s 38, and he’s 4-2 with a 2.40 ERA and 1.04 WHIP. Before you get too excited, however, you should note that he has just 21 strikeouts in 45 innings. His walk rate (2.2 BB/9IP) and home run rate (0.6 HR/9IP) are both good, but he’s going to struggle at some point if he doesn’t improve that strikeout rate (4.2 K/9IP).

There’s also the matter of Glavine allowing just a .224 average on balls in play so far this season. Even with Mike Cameron out in center field, that number’s likely to go up. Glavine will definitely be better than he was last year, but he’s certainly not back to being a staff ace.

SP Jake Westbrook, Indians: Westbrook showed some improvement last season, but he still wasn’t really a good pitcher and he started this season in the bullpen. Then he pitched seven perfect innings in relief on April 19 and then pitched a complete game in an emergency start to seize a spot in the rotation.

For the season, he’s now 2-1 with a 2.67 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in 33.2 innings. Westbrook is another pitcher who appears to have been helped by his defense thus far, though. He’s only allowed two homers (0.53 HR/9IP) and his walk rate (2.94 BB/9IP) is decent, but 18 strikeouts (4.81 K/9IP) isn’t nearly enough. He’s allowed a .229 batting average on balls in play, and that’s likely to go up.

Westbrook has talent and he now has a spot in the rotation, so he has fantasy value. However, you shouldn’t expect him to be significantly better than an average pitcher. He’s still young, and he’s going to have at least a couple starts where he gets hammered.

SP Jake Peavy, Padres: When I talked with my colleague Vinay Kumar about the Padres before the season, I said that Adam Eaton would probably be San Diego’s best pitcher, but that Peavy had the best chance of having a great season. I’d like to ignore how wrong I’ve been about Eaton and take credit for thinking Peavy could be a great pitcher this year, if you don’t mind.

Actually, there are things to be both happy and worried about regarding Peavy so far this season. The good thing is that he has a 1.94 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 41.2 innings (8.42 K/9IP). The bad news is that he has a 1.37 WHIP and is averaging fewer than six innings per start. Peavy’s walk rate isn’t terrible (3.02 BB/9IP), but batters are hitting .274 against him.

Peavy appears to be getting help from Petco Park as he’s been very homer-prone in his career, but has allowed just two longballs this year (0.43 HR/9IP). On the other hand, he seems to be getting hurt by his defense, as he’s allowing a .353 batting average on balls in play.

Ultimately, I think Peavy will keep his ERA below 4.00 and he should have an impressive strikeout total, but he might not get that many wins and he’ll allow more than his share of baserunners. He’ll also have at least one start where he’s been clobbered. Don’t expect this string of starts with no more than two runs allowed to last forever.

SP Kenny Rogers, Rangers: Rogers has been a pretty good pitcher over the years, but he’s 39 years old and he was moving into a tough park for pitchers, so I did not have high hopes for him at all for this season. For that reason, I’m stunned to see that he’s 4-2 with a 3.54 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in 48.1 innings thus far.

Like some of the other pitchers on this list, Rogers currently has an ugly strikeout rate (5.03 K/9IP), but is compensating with good walk (2.42 BB/9IP) and home run (0.56 HR/9IP) rates. The thing you have to like best about Rogers so far is that he’s pitching deep into ballgames, average nearly seven innings per start.

I don’t think Rogers will be able to keep his ERA below 4.00 (4.50-4.75 is more likely), but he’s been able to pitch a lot of innings frequently in his career. If he can be about average and provide a lot of innings, that offense could help him win 15 games, which would be a lot more than I expected.

SP Oliver Perez, Pirates: In 2002, Perez had a lot of strikeouts (9.4 K/9IP), a lot of walks (4.8 BB/9IP) and a lot of homers allowed (1.3 HR/9IP) as he posted a 3.50 ERA. Last year, he had even more strikeouts (10.02 K/9IP), even more walks (5.47 BB/9IP) and even more homers allowed (1.56 HR/9IP) as he posted a 5.47 ERA. It was clear that he has a ton of talent, but it was also clear that he has a lot of work to do at age 22.

So far this season, he’s still striking people out (37 in 33.2 innings for a 9.89 K/9IP), but he’s not walking people (1.87 BB/9IP) and he’s not allowing as many home runs (1.07 HR/9IP). If his improved control is a real improvement rather than a small sample size fluke, then Perez could be in for a very nice season.

Either way, he’s somebody you should try to hang onto in leagues that include strikeouts, because he can really help you there if he’s not killing you in the other categories.

SP Scott Schoeneweis, White Sox: Schoeneweis started his big-league career as a reliever, then became a starter and then went back to being a reliever, but last year was the first-time that he was an above average pitcher. He got moved back into the starting rotation this off-season, and I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect of him.

So far, he’s 3-1 with a 3.49 ERA and 1.32 WHIP in 38.2 innings. Those aren’t great innings, but they’re definitely better than what I would have predicted for him this off-season. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean I was wrong about him.

Schoeneweis only has 19 strikeouts (4.42 K/9IP) and he’s issued 17 walks (3.96 BB/9IP). He’s only allowed two homers (0.47 HR/9IP), but those strikeout and walk numbers are just scary. He’s only had one really bad outing so far, but I’d be willing to bet that he has at least a few more unless he makes some serious improvements in his strikeout-to-walk ratio.

SP Al Leiter, Mets: Leiter looked like he might be just about done at the beginning of last year, but then he turned things around to have an excellent final three months of the season. Still he was 38 years old and you had to wonder how much gas he had left in the tank.

So far this season, he’s had enough gas to put up a 2.52 ERA and a 1.22 WHIP. Unfortunately, he hasn’t had enough gas to pitch even six innings in five of his seven starts. His last start was the worst, as he lasted just four innings after allowing five runs last night.

Also troubling is his peripherals, which are just ugly. He has 24 strikeouts (5.49 K/9IP) and 18 walks (4.12 BB/9IP) and he’s not going to have much success with rates like those. It might have been easier before last night’s start, but trading Leiter would probably be a good idea if you can get something of value.

RP Armando Benitez, Marlins: Benitez was better in his Mets career than people gave him credit for and I thought he’d do just fine this season, but this is ridiculous. He has 13 saves, a 0.45 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 18 strikeouts in 20 innings.

Benitez has always piled up high strikeout totals (although his strikeout rate has been consistently declining since 1999), but he’s only issued five walks this season for a 2.25 BB/9IP that’s much better than his walk rate in any other season in his career.

Like I said, I expected Benitez to have a good season, so I certainly don’t expect him to fall apart this year, but there’s no way he’s going to keep up this pace. He’ll probably finish with 40-45 saves and an ERA in the 2.50-2.75 range.

RP Jose Mesa, Pirates: Mesa was an absolute catastrophe last year, and it was very questionable whether anybody would let him close games in his age 38 season. Well, the Pirates did, and he’s been as good as possible. He has nine saves with a 0.59 ERA and 0.78 WHIP in 15.1 innings.

He has 11 strikeouts (6.46 K/9IP), which isn’t great, but he’s only issued two walks (1.17 BB/9IP) and he’s yet to allow a home run. He’s obviously not going to be this good all season, but he did have a 2.67 ERA and 45 saves in 2001 and 2002 (although his 1.30 WHIP wasn’t that great). Trade him if you can get something of value, and keep him using him until he blows up if you can’t.

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