If you didn't take notice of Justin Masterson early last season, you missed out on a pitcher who became a fantasy star. If you chalked up R.A. Dickey's early success in 2012 to the beneficence of the sample-size fairy, you willingly passed on what was to develop into a Cy Young season. While you should be dubious about the yearlong prospects of someone having an unlikely strong start to the season, not every hot April is a mirage. And with that, I would like to spend a little time talking about Garrett Richards.
Before this year Richards was an infrequent starter; he racked up 84 appearances across three seasons in the majors, but just 29 starts. He did experience moderate success in his 17 starts last year, putting up a 4.18 ERA, 3.61 FIP, opponent slash of .258/.317/.376 and 71 strikeouts in 103.1 innings. It didn't necessarily portend of a breakout campaign in 2014, but it was enough for the Angels to feel comfortable with the idea of putting the 25-year-old in their rotation. He has made just two starts this season, but that's already looking like a great decision, thanks to one major difference in his repertoire.
Richards' average fastball this season has clocked in at 96.1 mph, up from 94.8 mph last year. While 94.8 deserves attention, an increase of 1.3 mph is quite significant, and suggests an ERA decline of about one-third of a run based on that and that alone. Richards throws some version of his heat -- whether it's a four-seamer, two-seamer or cutter -- 73 percent of the time, so he's extracting just about as much value as possible from the pitch. The four-seamer is up at 96.1, but he has also experienced a parallel increase in velocity in his two-seamer and cutter. The two-seamer is up to 95.9 mph from 94.5 mph, while the cutter has jumped to 95.7 mph from 94.4 mph. Richards is throwing the ball harder this year, and given the fact that velocity generally lags, if anything, at the beginning of the season, and that he's in his mid-20s, there's ample reason to believe this increase is here to stay.
As you probably expect, Richards is inducing a ton of weak contact on his fastball. Hitters have managed just a .142 wOBA against his four-seamer. The story is even worse for those in the batter's box when he throws his two-seam fastball up there, as they've compiled a paltry .099 wOBA against the offering. While Richards doesn't rely on his secondary stuff too often, but his curve and slider have looked good this year and have helped him whiff more than a batter per inning. He currently has a 21.6-percent swinging-strike rate on the slider, while hitters are swinging and missing at the curveball 16.7 percent of the time. It's not Adam Wainwright's curveball, but it doesn't have to be when he's lighting up the radar gun at 96 mph.
Like Masterson and Dickey before him, Richards is not simply riding an early-season wave that will crash when spring turns to summer and teams become more familiar with him. Thanks in large part to his increased velocity, this has the makings of a true breakout. He's still widely available, no matter where you play your fantasy baseball. Get in while you still can.
All statistics are up-to-date through April 14, unless otherwise mentioned.
Pitchers of the week
Andrew Cashner, San Diego Padres -- Last week: 9 IP, 1 W, 11 K, 0.00 ERA, 0.33 WHIP
Cashner tossed a one-hit shutout, striking out 11 Tigers on Friday. He managed to do so in a tidy 108 pitches, completely shutting down one of the better offenses in the American League. Cashner is now 1-1 with a 1.29 ERA, 22 strikeouts and seven walks in 21 innings this year, and looks to be among the prime candidates of the huge group of mid-tier pitchers who could jump up a level in 2014.
C.J. Wilson, Los Angeles Angels -- 15 IP, 2 W, 16 K, 1.80 ERA, 0.93 WHIP
Wilson shined in two starts last week, first allowing just one run on four hits while striking out seven in a win over the Astros, then backing that up with a two-run, six-hit, nine-strikeout performance in seven strong innings against the Yankees. Wilson has been using his changeup more than ever this year, but it's the greater reliance on his two-seamer that just might be behind an early-season rebound.
Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers -- 8 IP, 9 K, 0.00 ERA, 0.25 WHIP
Darvish feasted on the hapless Astros in his second start of the year, allowing just one hit and one walk while striking out nine over eight dominant innings. The Rangers were unable to break through for the winning run until the 12th, but it was an otherwise perfect night for Darvish's fantasy owners. He has yet to allow a run this season, and has 15 strikeouts in 15 innings.
Pitchers of the weak
Jordan Zimmermann, Washington Nationals -- 1.2 IP, 1 K, 27.00 ERA, 5.40 WHIP
The Marlins touched up Zimmermann for five runs on seven hits and two walks in his only start last week. His velocity was fine, but he didn't have good command in the strike zone, giving the Marlins too many hittable pitches. Chalk it up to a bad start from one of 2013's brightest surprises. Make sure you start him with confidence this week.
Jose Fernandez, Miami Marlins -- 4 IP, 6 K, 13.50 ERA, 3.00 WHIP
It wasn't a total loss for his fantasy owners since he gave them six strikeouts, but Fernandez was otherwise mortal in a rough outing against the Phillies last week. The six runs allowed were a career-high, and he also surrendered eight hits and four walks. A start like that from one of the league's best gives you even more appreciation for what Clayton Kershaw did last year.
Ubaldo Jimenez, Baltimore Orioles -- 10 IP, 7 K, 8.10 ERA, 2.50 WHIP
Jimenez' owners would have been better off if the Orioles chose to skip his weekend start after he gave up four runs on eight hits and five walks in 4.2 innings against the Yankees last week. Instead, they ran him out there and he allowed five runs on 10 hits and two walks in a 5.1-inning stint against the Blue Jays. He served up two homers on Sunday, running his season total to four in just 16 innings.
Buy, sell or hold
Buy: Wily Peralta, Milwaukee Brewers
Peralta was a popular deep sleeper pick during draft season, and he's cashing in on that potential in the early going of the year. He gave up just two runs across seven innings in his last start, a 4-2 win over the Pirates. Only one of those runs were earned, and he gave both up in his final inning on the mound. His defense victimized him in his first start of the year, as just two of the five runs he allowed to the Red Sox were earned. Peralta's fastball averages 95.2 mph, and it legitimately might be his worst pitch. He also features a wipeout slider and a filthy changeup that is a full 10-to-11 mph slower than his heater. The best part about buying him in most leagues is that it won't cost you more than the worst player on your roster. He's readily available in all but the deepest, or savviest, of leagues.
Sell: Mark Buehrle, Toronto Blue Jays
Buehrle might just have the clubhouse lead for AL Pitcher of the Month for April after turning in three strong starts in his first three outings. All told, he has allowed two runs, 17 hits and two walks while striking out 16 in 21 innings. In other words, his value is almost certainly as high as it is going to be at any point this season. Buehrle is a reliable innings eater -- he has never thrown fewer than 200 innings in a season -- and is valuable from a real-life standpoint, but his utter lack of strikeout stuff and just decent rates makes him a middling fantasy option. If you can cash in on his great April, do so now.
Hold: Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers
It would have been hard to blame Verlander owners concerned with the righty after he struck out just five batters in 14 innings across his first two starts. While it would have been equally as prudent to point to the solid velocity and strong results, those who bought into Verlander may have felt some nerves, rooted in his 2013 struggles, after those two starts. He likely put those fears to bed, however, when he struck out eight Padres in seven innings, limiting the, to two runs on eight hits and a walk. Step back from the ledge, Verlander owners. He is going to be just fine.
Rookie pitcher spotlight
Trevor Bauer, Cleveland Indians
I'm fudging this a bit because Bauer isn't a rookie, but he has made just nine starts in the majors, so it doesn't feel like too much of a stretch. The excitement, at least in the fantasy community, over Bauer's start last week is a bit muted since he was sent right back to Triple-A Columbus after shutting down the Padres. Don't let him slip off your radar, though. We'll definitely see Bauer back in Cleveland at some point this season, and he could be an impact player immediately when he gets back. Bauer allowed one earned run on four hits and two walks in six innings, striking out eight while taking a tough loss. When we saw him briefly in the majors in 2013, his fastball hit 92.8 mph on average. Last week, it was 94.1 mph. He was similarly electric in his first minor league start this year, striking out nine and allowing one run on two hits in six innings. We've seemingly been hearing about Bauer forever, but he turned just 23 in January, and maintained a top prospect pedigree through 2013.
By the numbers
28 -- Strikeouts for Stephen Strasburg in 17 innings. That gives him a 14.82 K/9. He could slow from that pace considerably and still register his first 200-strikeout season.
5 -- Relievers who were not closers a mere two weeks ago who already have multiple saves on the season. It cannot be said enough. Never pay for saves.
23 -- Innings pitched for Tim Hudson in three starts. He's the only pitcher at this point to have made at least three starts and go at least seven innings in all of those outings.
1.1 -- bWAR for Yovani Gallardo through three starts. It's a cumulative stat so it could come down, but he had 0.5 WAR in 31 starts last year.
3 -- Batters hit by Jose Veras this year. He has pitched 3.2 innings. Let's just say it's not exactly a shock that he's no longer closing games for the Cubs.