Buy, sell or hold on struggling pitchers

Last week I touched on some hitters off to slow starts and what to expect from them going forward. Unfortunately, my fantasy rosters are similarly full of slow-starting pitchers, and, in fact, here are the pitchers from my currently-in-last 10-team NL-only squad:

Josh Beckett ($10 at auction) – Yes, I bought into last year’s 2.93 ERA in seven starts with the Dodgers.

Trevor Cahill ($13 keeper) – 2.80 ERA is nice, so can’t complain.

Edwin Jackson ($8 keeper) – Price seemed right, but with a 6.27 ERA, apparently it wasn’t.

Ricky Nolasco ($2 at auction) – Can’t argue with a $2 pick, and just can’t quit this guy. He’s been OK given the cost.

Wily Peralta ($2 at auction) – As a $2 end-game pick, this seemed like a good idea. Oops.

Zack Greinke ($29 at auction) – Surprised no one went $30 … wish they had.

I also have Mike Leake ($10 reserve pick) and a $2 FAAB’d Eric Stults, but this is a pretty ugly group. I’m happy with Craig Kimbrel, Jim Henderson and even Steve Cishek in my bullpen, but I’m ninth in ERA and WHIP, sixth in strikeouts and tied for last in wins.

Let’s touch on a few pitchers off to slow starts and see if there are positive signs of an impending turnaround or indications that it’s time to simply cut bait:

Matt Cain (SP-SF) – Cain could very well be your highest-drafted pitcher, so the 1-2 record and 5.57 ERA are obviously huge disappointments. Still, this is Matt Cain, he of seven consecutive seasons with at least a 3.2 WAR. His 7.7 K/9 and 2.8 BB/9 compare favorably to his 7.5 and 3.1 career marks, though the walks are up a bit over recent seasons. Cain’s velocity is down about a half mile an hour over last year, and somewhat of a concern is a rather low 7.4-percent swinging-strike rate. Cain rebounded with 7.1 innings of one-run ball vs. the Dodgers last time out, but before getting too excited, the Dodgers rolled out an infield of Uribe, Punto, Gordon and Cruz.

Bottom line: Cain is 28 and in the prime of his career. His issues with the long ball (1.9 HR/9) should improve quickly given a 16.7-percent HR/FB rate that is bound to decline. He’s also stranded just 66 percent of his runners, a rate that should be more in the 75-percent range. He’ll be just fine.

Joe Blanton (SP-LAA) – So here’s a pitcher about whom I’m not overly optimistic. Might the Angels have been evaluating advanced metrics prior to signing Blanton to a two-year $15 million deal this winter? Blanton the last three years:














So in recent years, he has consistently underperformed his underlying peripherals, including BB/9 rates of 2.2, 2.0 and 1.6 the previous three seasons. Now back in the AL West, Blanton is struggling. Batters are hitting .250 against him, and his K/9 has plummeted to 4.2 while the walks are up (2.9 BB/9). Even more simply, when hitters swing at his pitches, they don’t often miss, as Blanton’s 6.2-percent swinging strike rate is among the lowest in the big leagues (17th among the 114 qualified starters).

Bottom line: I can see streaming him in AL-only and very deep mixed leagues, but if you’re expecting a third consecutive sub-4.00 ERA season, you will be disappointed.

Ryan Vogelsong (SP-SF) – With his 7.20 ERA, one wonders whether Vogelsong is long for the Giants rotation. Fortunately for his job security, the Giants’ best Triple-A starter has a 4.97 ERA, so unless the organization wants to reach down to Double-A for 27-year-old Justin Fitzgerald (1.09 ERA through six starts), Vogelsong will get plenty of rope. Perhaps this table will help show why I think he can turn things around:


























Strikeouts and walks are the same, BABIP is inflated, way more homers than normal and slightly fewer flyballs generated. Of some concern is the 1.4 mph drop in his fastball over last year and the low 6.8-percent swinging-strike rate, but then again, that latter number was in the low sevens in prior years.

Bottom line: Vogelsong is a great story, rising from the dead in San Francisco, and despite the slow start, I’m confident he can be a solid option outside of the shallowest of leagues.

Jarrod Parker (SP-OAK) – A former top-10 pick, Parker has risen quickly through the ranks, but he’s ultimately stalled this year. Still, Parker is just 24 and already has a 3.5 WAR season on his hands, but as of this season, Parker has yet to take it to the next level. At this point in a top pitching prospect’s career, we hope for a step forward, but not only has Parker seen his strikeout rate take a 0.4 K/9 dip to 6.6, he’s also lost his control – 4.7 BB/9 vs. 3.1 last year. He’s allowing more flyballs, and with a bloated 17.4-percent HR/FB rate, he’s getting a bit more whiplash than in prior years.

Bottom line: Parker’s youth and prospect pedigree will probably have me going back to the well for at least the next couple years, and perhaps he’s taking the Homer Bailey career path. That would mean one should sell shares this year and buy at some point in 2015. As for 2013, expect continued highs and lows.

David Price (SP-TB) – Ah, the reigning AL Cy Young winner. Price isn’t exactly anchoring the Rays’ rotation so far in 2013, going 1-3 with a 6.25 ERA through his first six starts. I see a lot of panicked owners asking whether they should, for example, trade Price for the likes of Chris Davis because they also have Prince Fielder at the utility position. Um yes, please do. It’s seven starts, folks. Price has lost a couple mph off his fastball over last year, but his strikeout rate is only down a tick, and Price’s control is in line with prior years. Another data point would be Price’s BABIP, a number that sits at just .229 for his career but that has clocked in at .302 this season. Price’s velocity is down two-plus mph over last year, but it’s too early to panic over that.

Bottom line: Price’s xFIP sits at 3.35 versus his 6.25 ERA, and I’d bet on the former number being the top end of his ERA the rest of the way.

Brandon McCarthy (SP-ARI) – Arizona invest a lot in McCarthy this winter, and so far, that investment has brought minimal returns. McCarthy is 0-3 with a 7.22 ERA through his first six starts, but should we be optimistic when we see a 6.4 K/9 and 1.3 BB/9? Probably. McCarthy’s 3.85 xFIP is lower than last year’s 4.23, but his ERA is four points higher? Does not compute. McCarthy’s velocity is actually up nearly a full mph over last year, but his struggles this year all come down to command. McCarthy isn’t walking a lot of batters, and hitters aren’t missing very often when they swing at his pitches. His 5.7-percent swinging strike rate is a career-low and ranks among the lowest rates in the league. It’s great that McCarthy is throwing strikes with a decent amount of velocity, but either movement on his pitches isn’t there or he’s simply catching TOO much of the plate.

Bottom line: McCarthy is reportedly making adjustments to his fastball to keep it down in the zone more often, so it appears the D-backs at least recognize he needs to tweak things. We’ll see how things go in L.A. next Tuesday, but there is some optimism to be had. That said, I’ve bought in on McCarthy and been burned before, so I can’t completely endorse him, but as long as he’s healthy, there’s a good pitcher in here.

Jeremy Hellickson (SP-TB) – Hellickson isn’t off to a horrible start, but at 1-2 with a 4.79 ERA, we still expected more. Actually we’ve expected more since his debut in 2010, as Hellickson regularly posted BB/9s in the 2.0 range in the minors. But that rate sits at 3.1 in his 440-plus career big league innings. Hellickson has bumped up his swinging-strike rate a full point to 9.9 percent over last year, and his low-90s fastball and solid curve and change give him an arsenal strong enough to keep hitters off balance given his usual solid location.

Bottom line: I just don’t see Hellickson ever being the No. 2 starter I thought he could be back in the 2008 range, but there’s still enough here to expect a little more than we’ve seen from him so far in 2013.

Jon Niese (SP-NYM) – This is a tough one. On one hand we have a solid lefty with a 30-start 3.40 ERA season under his belt. On the other, we have a pitcher who’s really scuffling this year to the tune of a 4.66 ERA, and all the ratios indicate that he deserves every bit of that ERA. This is certainly a disturbing trend:

















The velocity is down a little, but Niese has never been a hard thrower, so that’s not a huge concern. The biggest issue obviously is that Niese is having significant trouble finding the strike zone, and that’s not getting any better lately considering the six walks in four innings Niese recorded in his last start.

Bottom line: This could just be an issue of sample size. In Niese’s seven starts, he’s allowed more than three runs just twice, with four of this starts being of the quality variety. Of course on the other hand, Niese has struck out more than four batters in a game just once (five), and he’s had real issues with his location. I will give him the benefit of the doubt for now, but I’m also going to hesitate to start him until he reels off a solid start or two in a row.

Regan is a five-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner.

Follow @vtadave on Twitter.

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