Tipping pitches: Slow starters who are poised for brighter futures

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Don't worry too much about your starting pitchers this early in the season. There ... that's the obligatory mention in all early-season fantasy columns. Now on to more pressing business. Has everyone seen Francisco Liriano this season?

The two key statistics for Liriano's success, ground ball rate (GB%) and strikeout rate (K/9), are approaching pre-surgery levels. His GB% especially seems like a good indicator of how well he is rolling. In 2006, his rate was 55.3 percent, in '08, 41.6 percent, in '09 40.2 percent and this season it's back up to 52.8 percent.

He has 1.4 mph more on his fastball this year than last year (though still 1.6 mph less than '06). Three of his four starts have been either dominating or really close to dominating.

Liriano owners should be trying to figure one thing out ... do you think he can keep this up for the whole year or does he scream sell high?

Sadly, for many owners, not every starter is working out as well as Liriano. Even though you'll read over and over again not to worry about your starting pitchers this early in the season (as seen in the first sentence), you probably will still worry. Here is an in-depth look at a few of the slower starting pitchers:

Jake Peavy, White Sox

Is the gap between the NL and the AL really that wide? As poorly as Peavy has pitched in '10, it looks to be as wide as the Grand Canyon. Through 22 innings, Peavy has a perfect(ly terrible) 1.00 K/BB rate, thanks to matching 6.04 K/9 and BB/9 rates. Following the trend of everything being off, his GB% is 33.3. That's on pace to be the lowest he's ever had by a big margin.

Looking for a reason to hope? Peavy has produced early-season stinkers before. During April '06, May '08 and April '09, his ERAs have all been north of 5.00.

There are minor bad-luck indicators so far. Peavy's batting average on balls In play (BABIP) is .324, up from his career .295 rate. That's mostly due to his drop in GB%. His left on-base percentage (LOB%) is also low, at 62.8. That's area where he's been strong in his career (career rate is 76.8%).

As ugly as the results have been, Peavy is a much better pitcher than this. He's still a strong bet for a K/9 around 8.75 and an ERA between 3.50 and 4.00. That makes him an excellent buy-low candidate.

Gavin Floyd, White Sox

Fear not, Floyd believers! Your pitcher just has to do one simple thing to turn his season around ... stop walking everyone in sight. Floyd's BB/9 is sitting at 5.59, compared to 2.75 last year.

Combine that abnormal walk rate with a very unlucky .416 BABIP, and you get a pitcher with an 8.38 ERA. Floyd's Fielder Independent Pitching rate (FIP) is 3.70, almost exactly what it was last season. His early problems are a result of less-than-stellar control and some bad luck.

Josh Beckett, Red Sox

Beckett isn't getting the ground balls and strikeouts he needs to be a good fantasy pitcher. His GB% is 38.1, which is the lowest he's had since '02. That's leading to a spike in BABIP and HR/9, which helps explain his 4.86 FIP.

His ERA was 7.22 in April last year, so this start is not shocking, just disconcerting for owners who already had trust issues with Beckett.

He's in a similar boat to Peavy so far, with a low K/9, bloated BB/9, and bad luck in BABIP and LOB%. Though he's not as good as Peavy, he's still pretty good. So the same advice stands, consider buying low.

Jon Lester, Red Sox

The fact that Lester's April 23 start (5.2 innings, four hits, zero runs, four walks, seven strikeouts) represented major growth tells you everything about his '10 start. It hasn't been pretty. Lester has struggled to throw strikes (5.40 BB/9) and keep runners from scoring (4.56 FIP).

Compounding these issues, his BABIP and LOB% don't tell a story of terrible luck. So what's wrong? It turns out Lester is a good ol' fashioned slow starter.

Even though his ERA in April '09 was 5.40 and in May it was 5.86, things seem to have turned out OK last year. Fantasy owners should be encouraged by his 8.72 K/9 so far (perhaps dispelling beliefs that his '09 spike in K/9 was a fluke) and consider benching Lester in the short-term against tough opponents until he gets going.

Justin Verlander, Tigers

Verlander's stuff isn't working well. His 3.90 BB/9 isn't helping, but it's within reason. His .328 BABIP is the same as '09, and his 8.46 K/9 is decent (though lower than owners would like).

Batters are just making good contact on Verlander's offerings so far. His O-Contact% (percentage of pitches outside the zone batters make contact with) is 70.7 this year. That's a huge leap from 58.6 last year, and that bump comes without any increase in swings (2009 O-Swing% - 29.8, 2010 - 29.7).

Verlander's velocity is there, but his pitches aren't moving like they were last year. Patience is the best cure for fantasy owners as he has established himself as a strong (but not elite; Verlander's FIP's from '05-09 were 4.52, 4.35, 3.99, 4.18 and 2.80. His '09 featured career highs in a number of areas and fantasy owners may have to accept it won't happen again.) pitcher and will straighten things out.

Josh Johnson, Marlins -- Johnson has walked more batters this year than usual, but his April 26 start against San Diego was a work of art (nine innings, three hits, one run, one walk and 12 strikeouts). Look for more of that in the future.

John Danks, White Sox -- Just 25, Danks has a 8.07 K/9 and 1.86 BB/9 so far. His BABIP (.234) and LOB% (85.6) will get less lucky as '10 wears on, but his K/BB skills are the thing fantasy owners should covet.


K/BB ratio for Carl Pavano through 23.1 innings. That's what a 0.39 BB/9 will get you. Pavano was decent last season and he's carried that into '10.


Yovani Gallardo, Brewers -- He hasn't walked a batter in his past two starts. He's still too inefficient (29 innings in five starts), but he's a surefire fantasy ace if he keeps his walks down.

Phil Hughes, Yankees -- It's hard not to raise Hughes' stock the week after a 10-strikeout game. He's not yet 24 and has a 9.00 K/9.


Scott Baker, Twins -- Batters have 17 hits against Baker in his past 12.2 innings. His K/9 is down to 5.55 this season.

Bronson Arroyo, Reds -- Arroyo is a risk in the first place, but he's given up at least five earned runs in his past three starts and his ERA is up to 7.43.