April 21, 2010

"Out of the blue" is an expression that describes an event or occurrence that takes place unexpectedly, without warning or provocation. Due to the abundance of statistical analysis surrounding the game of baseball, it would seem almost impossible for anything to happen that could be accurately described as "out of the blue". Baseball statistics are measured with a level of care and precision normally reserved for astronauts and engineers. The fact that anything can escape the watchful eye of baseball prognosticators is something of a minor miracle. And yet, every year, anomalous events (e.g. no-hitters) and unforeseen occurrences (e.g. break-out seasons) happen with astonishing frequency.

After a 2007 season that included 6.29 ERA, 1.52 WHIP, and even a minor league demotion, Cliff Lee was far from venerated entering fantasy drafts the following year. Even when he ended April at 5-0 with a 16:1 K/BB and ratios that would make Greg Maddux envious, few fantasy owners believed his hot start was a legitimate sign of success. Simply stated, they were all wrong. Lee finished '08 at 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA and 1.11 WHIP, and was rewarded for his success with the American League Cy Young Award. A great many of his reluctant fantasy owners were rewarded in kind with championship seasons. Clearly, Lee's success defied convention, but those that were insightful enough to gamble on his early success were rewarded in spades.

While patience is normally the preferred approach early in the year, sleeping on a breakthrough candidate can cost a fantasy owner a season of success. Fortunately, not all breakout seasons are created equally, and there are statistical markers that offer insights into which players may be getting better, and which may suddenly take a turn for the worse.

Ricky Romero, SP, Toronto Blue Jays. Romero has always possessed the ability to mow down the opposition, even if walks sometimes got the better of him. His minor league track record was impressive, albeit somewhat erratic. Additionally, he showed great promise as a rookie in '09, going 13-9 with 141 strikeouts in 187 innings pitched. He's taken a big step forward to begin '10, with ratios of 8.61 K/9 and 2.35 BB/9 (down from 3.99 in '09). If he can continue his early success, he should offer fantasy owners more than a few reasons to smile.

Jamie Garcia, SP, St. Louis Cardinals. Coming off Tommy John surgery in '08, Garcia pitched just 37.2 innings in '09, but in his limited work, Garcia did post an impressive 9.8 K/9. Officially named the Cardinals fifth starter, Garcia appears ready to contribute in '10. And, contribute he has. Though it's still quite early, Garcia is already 1-0 with a 0.69 ERA and 0.77 WHIP. While his 2/1 K:BB still leaves much to be desired, in 13 innings pitched, Garcia has yet to surrender a home run in '10.

Brian Matusz, SP, Baltimore Orioles. With just one professional season under his belt entering the season, Matusz has already shown why he was such a highly touted prospect. Over three levels (including the major leagues) in '09, Matusz averaged 9.1 K/9 and he's continued that success into this year. To begin the year, a 23/7 K:BB would be impressive for any pitcher, but for a 23-year old just getting his feet wet, it's especially noteworthy. Even on a struggling Orioles team, it's safe to consider Matusz among the frontrunners for American League Rookie of the Year.

Kevin Millwood, SP, Baltimore Orioles. Among Millwood's last three seasons ('07-09), one truly stands out. Millwood's '09 campaign was marginally useful to fantasy owners when he won 13 games with a 3.67 ERA and 1.34 WHIP. Prior to that, however, Millwood posted seasons of 5.07, 1.59 and 5.16, 1.62. Something clearly doesn't belong. A 20/1 K:BB to begin '10 simply cannot disguise the pitcher that the fantasy world knows Kevin Millwood to be.

Carlos Silva, SP, Chicago Cubs. A 1-0 record with 0.69 ERA, and 0.62 WHIP have some wondering if Carlos Silva might be worth an early season roll of the dice. Silva has reached double digit wins three times in his nine-year career, but he's also totaled double digit losses in three of the past four seasons. It's not as if Silva is going to help fantasy owners in their quest for Ks either. Silva only has a 5.54 K/9 in '10, and even that is a marked improvement over his career mark of 3.80. In fact, Silva's career strikeout total of 482 (in 297 games) is 40 less than Tim Lincecum has over the past two years.

Livan Hernandez, SP, Washington Nationals. Entering his 15th Major League season, Hernandez has already led the league in hits allowed a staggering five times. This number would likely be higher, too, if he were still pitching in excess of 200 innings -- a feat he hasn't accomplished since '07. Hernandez is off to a stellar start to begin '10. In 16 innings pitched, Hernandez has yet to allow an earned run and has a 0.88 WHIP. Fantasy owners need not be fooled. Hot streaks happen, sometimes without rhyme or reason. This is one of those times.

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