Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett are proving that that the Fountain of Youth actually exists in Pittsburgh. Liriano revived his career after being traded signing with the Pirates before the 2013 season. He’s once again among the best strikeout pitchers in the league, an honor he first earned in Minnesota.
Meanwhile, his teammate Burnett experienced a similar rebirth with the Pirates in 2012 and '13. After signing with the Pirates following three mostly uninspiring years with the Yankees, it seemed that Burnett would pitch out the string and retire as an always-talented, yet underachieving, starting pitcher. Instead, he posted a 3.41 ERA, 3.17 FIP, 1.23 WHIP and 389 strikeouts in 393 1/3 innings, while helping lead the Pirates back to the playoffs in 2013 for the first time in 21 years.
Burnett left Pittsburgh for Philadelphia last season, and something funny happened. He suddenly turned back into pre-Pittsburgh Burnett, compiling a 4.14 ERA and 1.41 WHIP in a wildly disappointing season. Sensing the need to cleanse himself in the confluence of the Ohio, Monongahela and Allegheny rivers, he signed back with the Pirates this season, and there’s no doubting that the return to Pittsburgh has done him well. Through 10 starts and 64 2/3 innings, Burnett has a 1.81 ERA, 2.69 FIP, 1.16 WHIP and 59 strikeouts.
What’s so interesting about Burnett’s late-career surge is the manner by which he has become a completely different pitcher. During his early days with the Marlins, Burnett was a pure power pitcher, relying on a four-seam fastball that averaged 95 mph, and one of the most feared 12-to-6 curveballs in baseball. The curveball is, of course, still a major part of his game. He’s throwing it 30% of the time this year, and it is his primary swing-and-miss pitch. At the other end of the spectrum, he has almost wholly divested himself of the four-seamer. As late as 2011, Burnett’s last year in New York, he was throwing the pitch more than 40% of the time. He nearly cut that in half his first year in Pittsburgh, favoring the two-seam fastball, or sinker. His sinker usage has increased every year since, and sits at 55.9% this season. An analysis of the pitch’s results shows why Burnett has come to rely on the sinker as his fastball of choice.
Burnett has always had an issue with walks, but he was able to get away with that when he was regularly throwing in the mid-90s. As he got older and started to lose a few ticks on the fastball, his lack of command and control over the pitch got him into a lot more trouble. During his last year with the Yankees, hitters amassed a .355 batting average and .669 slugging percentage against Burnett’s fastball. Against his sinker this year, they’re managing just a .248 batting average and .277 slugging percentage. At the same time, his 7.8% walk rate would be the third best mark of his career over an entire season.
Burnett’s sinker has been a strike 70% of the time, yet it has a swing rate of just 29.3%. That means it’s not at all a chase pitch, but one he can spot in the zone. Below is a screenshot of his zone profile for the sinker, courtesy of Brooks Baseball. You can see here how he uses the pitch to pound lefties in on their hands and stay away from righties.
The pitch was at its best in a recent outing against the Mets, in which Burnett allowed one run and struck out 10 batters in seven innings. While the curveball is his putaway pitch, Burnett masterfully uses the sinker to get to the deuce. Let’s take a look at two examples from that game.
Curtis Granderson led off the game for the Mets, and Burnett went through a typical pitch sequence against the lefty. He started him off with a sinker that missed in off the plate, a fine location for Burnett. He followed that up with two more sinkers, both of which Granderson took for strikes. At that point, he was set up for the curve. Burnett spiked it in the dirt and Granderson, after seeing three straight sinkers, swung over the top of it for strike three.
Fast forward to the fifth inning and an at-bat by John Mayberry Jr. After falling behind 2-0, Burnett comes back with consecutive sinkers, the second of which was spotted perfectly on the outside corner. Like Granderson before him, Mayberry is set up for the hook. He, too, swings at it helplessly for strike three.
The sinker command Burnett discovered in Pittsburgh, coupled with the curveball he has had dating all the way back to his time with the Marlins, has lengthened his career and made him a feared pitcher deep into his 30s. Burnett has already said himself that this will be his final season in the majors. At 38 years old, it’s hard to blame him. Then again, maybe he has a better nose for discovery than Ponce De Leon after all.
Pitchers of the Week
Carlos Martinez, St. Louis Cardinals: 14 IP, 1 W, 16 K, 0.00 ERA, 0.79 WHIP
If 2015 goes down as Martinez’ breakout season, we may very well look back on the last week of May as the time when he announced to the league, though his play, that he was for real. Martinez shut down the Diamondbacks and Dodgers in a pair of St. Louis wins last week. First, he tossed seven scoreless innings against Arizona, allowing just five hits and two walks while striking out eight batters. Six days later against the Dodgers, he threw another seven shutout frames, but this time he gave up just one hit. Martinez struck out eight more batters in that game, giving him 64 in 60 1/3 innings this season. He also has a tidy 3.13 ERA and 3.27 xFIP. The 23-year-old righty is proving himself capable of not only pitching toward the top of a rotation, but being a true ace for both real-life and fantasy purposes. His next start is against the Dodgers in Los Angeles on Friday.
Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox: 7 2/3 IP, 1 W, 12 K, 0.00 ERA, 0.52 WHIP
Sale hasn’t been his typically dominant self for the balance of this season, striking out fewer batters and walking more than he usually does through April and May. The Sale everyone expects to see on a regular basis was back on the mound against the Orioles in Baltimore on Thursday. He shut out the Orioles for 7 2/3 innings, struck out a season-high 12 batters, and gave up four hits in Chicago’s 3-2 win. Sale has at least 10 strikeouts in three of his last four starts, and has gotten through at least 7 2/3 innings in all four of them. In other words, the window to catch him at less than his best has slammed shut. That’s bad news for the Rangers, which Sale will oppose on Wednesday.
Chris Archer, Tampa Bay Rays: 8 IP, 12 K, 0.00 ERA, 0.25 WHIP
Archer and Felix Hernandez treated us to probably the best head-to-head pitching performances in a game this season when they faced each other in Tampa last week. Hernandez got the win, but it was Archer who was the slightly more dominant pitcher. He struck out 12 batters while allowing just two hits through eight innings. Even though he had thrown just 95 pitches and the game was tied 0-0 heading into the ninth, manager Kevin Cash lifted him from the game. Brad Boxberger proceeded to surrender a three-run homer to Nelson Cruz, and Hernandez polished off the Rays in the bottom of the ninth. Still, that doesn’t take away from how good Archer was in the contest. He’s now the owner of a 2.12 ERA, 2.56 xFIP, 0.99 WHIP and 82 strikeouts in 68 innings this year.
Pitchers of the Weak
Julio Teheran, Atlanta Braves: 10 1/3 IP, 2 K, 9.58 ERA, 2.03 WHIP
It was another terrible week in what is becoming a lost season for Teheran. He started it out by surrendering eight runs on 10 hits and three walks in just 4 1/3 frames in a loss to the Dodgers. He wasn’t terrible his next time out, giving three runs on four hits and four walks in six innings, but the damage was already done to his owners in head-to-head leagues. Teheran had an average draft position that likely had him off the board as a top-25 pitcher in every league, but he has pitched like anything but that all year. He has a 4.87 ERA, 1.54 WHIP and a strikeout-to-walk ratio that is lower than two through 61 innings. His xFIP is 4.51, so there is some reason to believe that he has been a bit unfortunate this year, but even a 4.51 ERA would be much higher than his owners were anticipating.
Ian Kennedy, San Diego Padres: 3 2/3 IP, 5 K, 17.18 ERA, 2.45 WHIP
If there’s any good news for Kennedy’s owners, it’s that he made just one start last week. The veteran righty got lit up by the Pirates, allowing seven runs on seven hits in 3 2/3 innings in an 11-5 loss on Thursday. Three of the seven hits he surrendered left the yard, the second time this season that he has given up at least three homers in one game. He now has a 7.15 ERA and 1.49 WHIP on the season, and should not be finding his way onto the fantasy playing field at the moment. He should still be owned in deeper leagues in the hopes that he turns it around, but you shouldn’t be inserting him into your starting lineup until he shows some signs of life. Owners in leagues with 12 teams or fewer can feel free to cut bait. He’s no better than a replacement-level pitcher in such formats.
Rick Porcello, Boston Red Sox: 7 IP, 2 K, 7.71 ERA, 1.29 WHIP
Porcello pitched into some hard luck in his loss to the Twins last week. He gave up six runs in seven innings and allowed two homers, but the Twins put together a three-run rally that was punctuated by a two-out bloop single by Torii Hunter. Still, this is less about his ERA and more about his strikeouts. Given that Porcello doesn’t miss any bats, he needs to be nearly perfect every time out to turn a profit for his fantasy owners. He can’t afford to suffer through bad-luck outings and still retain a significant amount of fantasy value. It was also the fourth time this season he allowed multiple home runs in a game. At this point, Porcello should only be owned in deep leagues.
Buy, sell or hold
Buy: Tyson Ross, Padres
Ross has appeared in this section already this season, and nothing has really changed about him or his performance since then. He had another underwhelming week, though, and that makes this a great time to check in on him with his owner. It’s entirely possible they’re getting sick of him falling short of lofty expectations while simultaneously overlooking his huge strikeout rate, especially after he allowed four runs on 17 hits and three walks in 12 innings last week. Ross definitely has his warts, especially the 11.2% walk rate, but you can stomach that when he’s also striking out nearly 10 batters per nine innings. Plus, if there was a positive to take away from his starts last week, it was that he only had the three walks in 12 frames. Ross still isn’t giving up any homers, and his .348 BABIP simply does not square with his batted-ball rates. Ross won’t be buyable in every league, but he’s worth chasing in those that he is. This is a top-20 fantasy pitcher for the remainder of the season. If his owner is frustrated with his performance, there’s a good chance you won’t have to pay that price to get him.
Sell: Michael Wacha, Cardinals
Wacha has stabilized the Cardinals’ rotation in the wake of Adam Wainwright’s season ending Achilles injury. Through 10 starts and 63 1/3 innings this year, he’s 7-1 with a 2.27 ERA and 1.04 WHIP. Those are numbers that jump off the page, especially in trade discussions, meaning Wacha owners should launch some right now. The bottom line is he’s nowhere near as good a fantasy pitcher as a real-life pitcher, thanks largely to a 5.97 K/9. That just doesn’t get the job done in a key category for fantasy owners. On top of that, it makes his job a whole lot harder, and there’s reason to believe he has been awfully lucky this season. He does have low line-drive and hard-hit rates, but not low enough to possibly sustain a .228 BABIP for too much longer. He’s getting more ground balls than ever, but it’s not like his 48.9% ground-ball rate is at or near an extreme high like that of a Dallas Keuchel. It’s more likely that his ground-ball rate regresses back toward his career 44.4% mark rather than stays up near 50%. All of the peripheral numbers point toward this being the high point of Wacha’s fantasy value.
Hold: Jason Hammel, Cubs
This is another recommendation of the “don’t assume he can’t keep this up” variety. If someone knocks you off your feet with an offer for Hammel, you accept it with alacrity. The point, though, is that Hammel has earned every bit of his success last year, and he has it in him to continue pitching like a top-20 starter for the rest of the season. Most importantly, Hammel is striking out nearly a batter per inning this season. Barring a dramatic fall from grace, he’ll post a K/9 north of eight for the second straight year, and third time in the last four seasons. Hammel misses bats with consistency, and that’s prime currency in fantasy leagues. He’s walking fewer batters than ever before and his HR/FB ratio is the lowest it has been since 2010. There’s a reason why his ERA, FIP and xFIP are all within four-hundredths of a point, and it’s because his results have matched his underlying performance. Wins have been hard to come by, but with the improved Cubs offense at his back, that is more likely a fluke than anything else. There should be no such thing as an untouchable player in fantasy leagues, but Hammel is not a sell-high guy. He can stay at this level all year.
Eduardo Rodriguez, Red Sox
Judging by his ownership rates, there’s a good chance many of you caught Rodriguez’s first start last week, or at least the numbers he put up. The Red Sox promoted the 22-year-old to make a spot start, and he responded by throwing 7 2/3 shutout innings, allowing just three hits and two walks while fanning seven batters. Now it appears he’ll be in Boston for much longer than just one start. He’s already slated to take on the Twins on Wednesday, and if he pitches anything like the way he did in his debut, he could be in Boston for the remainder of the season.
Rodriguez was on all three of the primary top-100 prospect lists this season, with a high point of No. 59 on Baseball America’s. He was electric at Triple-A Pawtucket before getting the call, amassing a 2.98 ERA, 2.38 FIP, 1.10 WHIP and 44 strikeouts against seven walks in 48 1/3 innings. He’s a three-pitch pitcher, with a fastball that sits in the mid-90s, a changeup that is a real weapon against righties, and a slider that makes him tough when he has the platoon advantage. For now, the Red Sox are going with a six-man rotation. Whether or not they stick with that for the long term, Rodriguez has an opportunity to pitch his way onto the team for good. The Red Sox aren’t finding much success with their strategy of building a rotation made up entirely of No. 3 and No. 4 starters and hoping for the best. At this stage of his career, Rodriguez is no more than a No. 3/4 either, but he clearly has more upside than Rick Porcello or Justin Masterson (who’s on the DL) or Wade Miley. He showed enough in his debut that he should be owned in nearly all fantasy leagues. If he stays with the big league club all year, he’ll be a worthy fantasy player across the board, regardless of format.
GIF of the Week
Taijuan Walker has struggled for most of the season, but last week he showed why everyone who has seen him pitch believes he can be a frontline starter in the majors. He threw eight shutout innings against the hot-hitting Indians, allowing just two hits and striking out eight. While he got six of his eight strikeouts with his blazing fastball—which was still touching 97 late in the game—it was encouraging to see his splitter be so effective. Here it is as strike three to Brandon Moss.
- Max Scherzer
- Felix Hernandez
- Clayton Kershaw
- Chris Archer
- Gerrit Cole
- Zack Greinke
- Jacob deGrom
- Johnny Cueto
- Carlos Carrasco
- Jason Hammel
- Jeff Samardzija
- Garrett Richards
- Michael Pineda
- Jordan Zimmermann
- Ubaldo Jimenez
- Collin McHugh
- Lance Lynn
- Phil Hughes
- Alex Wood
- Andrew Cashner
- Jaime Garcia
- Mike Fiers
- Clay Buchholz
- Alfredo Simon
- Kyle Hendricks
- Ian Kennedy
- Archie Bradley
- Alex Colome
- Brett Olberholtzer
- Ryan Vogelsong
- Josh Collmenter
- Colby Lewis
- Jose Urena
- R.A. Dickey
- Mike Wright
- Mike Pelfrey
- Sean O’Sullivan
- Kyle Kendrick
- Mike Montgomery
- Kendall Graveman
- Jeremy Guthrie