May 18, 2010

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It may not be as high profile as Game Seven of the World Series, but Tuesday's start versus the Yankees may be among the most important outings of Josh Beckett's career. 2010 has not been kind, as Beckett has been pounded to the tune of a 7.46 ERA. He's been somewhat unlucky ,with a .365 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) and a 56.9 percent strand rate. Both numbers would be career low points. It's not all just the whims of fortune though. Beckett is posting strikeout (7.46 K/9) and walk (3.51 BB/9) rates that are among the worst of his career. So far, 2010 is shaping up to look a lot like Beckett's first year in Boston, when he posted a 5.01 ERA.

Now Beckett's returning from back spasms, which conveniently popped up at a time when there was already talk of pushing his start back. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but there have to be concerns that Beckett is dealing with a more severe injury. It may just be a case of a tired arm, but the Red Sox and Beckett's fantasy owners have to be concerned that a huge investment is in danger of losing all value.

Should you start believing in Doug Fister? After a win Friday against Tampa Bay, he now has a 1.72 ERA and 0.94 WHIP. If the .232 BABIP and 82.6 percent strand rate aren't enough to convince you that this is all a fluke, check out Fister's WHIP numbers from the last three years in the minors; 2007 -- 1.435, '08 -- 1.489, '09 -- 1.304. Add to those inspiring numbers his imposing 3.83 K/9 and there's just not a whole lot of reward to make up for the risk.

A pitcher I have more faith in going forward is Johnny Cueto. After four starts, Cueto had a 5.73 ERA and had struck out just 14 hitters in 22 innings. In his last four starts he's posted a 2.00 ERA with 26 Ks in 27 innings. It's a little early to anoint him an ace, but it seems like he's putting together the dominant form of early '08 with the efficiency he displayed in the first half of '09.

Want to watch an ace develop right in front of your eyes? Check out Mat Latos' last three starts. Since getting pounded for seven earned runs by the Marlins on April 26, Latos has pitched 23 innings, allowed just two earned runs, while giving up just nine hits and three walks. His WHIP now stands at 0.96. Were it not for that one wretched start, fantasy owners would be talking about Latos a lot more. Not only does Latos get to pitch his home games at Petco, but he also gets to travel to pitcher havens in Los Angeles and San Francisco. There may be some hiccups on the road, but those of you in mixed leagues should be starting Latos in all but the most unfavorable matchups.

The 4-3 record and 3.46 ERA may have fantasy owners thinking Clay Buchholz has turned the corner. The rest of his numbers say otherwise. When Buchholz came up in '07, his strong minor league K/9 translated well (8.74 K/9). Now, for the third consecutive season his strikeout rate has decreased, to a pedestrian 6.05 K/9. He's back to walking just under five batters per nine. Buchholz is an enigma. Despite the diminishing strikeouts his average fastball velocity has actually increased each of the last three years. Those of you looking for a breakout can prepare to be teased all year. Buchholz is not there yet.

One pitcher who has turned the corner is Chad Billingsley. After shutting out the Padres for seven innings Sunday, Billingsley is looking a lot more like the pitcher who won 16 games with a 3.15 ERA in '08 than the mess that went 3-7 with a 5.20 ERA after the break last year. He's not quite as dominant as he was in '08, he immediately returns to having value in all formats.

At least Gavin Floyd is impartial as to the teams he allows to pound him unmercifully. After getting lit up for 10 hits and five earned runs against the Royals on Sunday, Floyd's ERA is at a nice, even 7.00. He hasn't pitched well, as he's walking more and striking out fewer hitters than last season. There are signs that a turnaround is in store, though. His .381 BABIP and 57.2 LOB% are way out of line with his career norms. His FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) of 3.92 is an indicator of just how unlucky he's been. Floyd will never be the dominant starter that made him arguably the top pitching prospect in baseball during his Philly days, but he should return to being a usefull back end fantasy starter.

Octavio Dotel may have saved his job with his recent success, but Evan Meek is looking like the closer of the future. Meek earned his first major league save Thursday and now has a 0.72 ERA. Meek always had the stuff to succeed, but his BB/9 has been all over the place. Meek is throwing harder than at any point in his career (94.7 mph) and just hit the magical age 27 mark. The Pirates may not win many games, but the ones they do win are likely to be close games. A pickup in keeper leagues is in order.

Talk about back from the dead; after three years in fantasy oblivion, Clay Hensley is looking like a serious fantasy option as a middle reliever ... even in mixed leagues. The 30-year old was, at one time, a solid prospect for the Padres. Injuries and ineffectiveness turned him into an afterthought. He didn't even pitch in the major leagues in '09. Now after 20.2 innings of middle relief, Hensley has a 1.74 ERA with 28 Ks against only six BBs. Leo Nunez has been stellar thus far, but Hensley may have put himself next in line with his dominant work.

Here's a new feature for your amusement. Each week we'll track the progress of Livan Hernandez as we wait for the huge implosion we all know is coming. Just to catch you up, so far Hernandez has a 1.46 ERA and has yet to give up more than three earned runs in a game. This success is built upon a bed of lucky horseshoes and four-leaf clovers. His BABIP is an obscenely low .197 and he's somehow managed to strand 98.6 percent of the baserunners he has allowed. His FIP sits at 4.90. To top that off, even with the incredible luck he's had so far, his K/9 of 3.10 has negated much of his fantasy value. In the weeks ahead we'll keep an eye out for the impending disaster. It should be a pretty short-running feature.

* All statistics current as of May 17.

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