Biggest Surprise: Jason Vargas has been very effective with just decent stuff. His fastball is 84-88 mph, but his 78-80 mph changeup has been a great strikeout pitch. Vargas also throws a decent low-80s slider and an occasional mid-70s curve. Vargas entered 2010 with a 5.43 ERA in 219 major league innings. His secondary statistics are decent: he has been efficient (15.6 P/IP), but needs to prove himself outside of Safeco Field (4.50 ERA on the road).
Biggest Disappointment: Hitters have knocked around Nick Blackburn (.333 BA, 6.40 ERA). Blackburn’s velocity is at just 90-92, and his sinker has been inconsistent. Brian Duensing (1.67 ERA in 43 innings) is an option for Blackburn’s spot.
Best Rookie: Neftali Feliz has been excellent as the Rangers’ closer, going 24-for-26 in save opportunities and earning a trip to the All-Star Game. Feliz’s velocity bounces from 91-99 mph, and he has a mid-80s slider and a high-80s changeup. On the road, batters are hitting .060 against him. With Alexi Ogando now up and Tanner Scheppers not far away, the Rangers will be tough in the late innings.
Worst Veteran: Kevin Millwood’s decent April (0-3, 3.38) gave way to a bad June (8.82 ERA, .370 average against). He has been trying to come inside to left-handers with 86-90 mph cut fastballs, but his pitches look flat. Millwood’s slider is a wrinkle instead of the snappy one he threw with Atlanta. A right forearm strain landed him on the DL, and Baltimore might try to move him.
Needs More Time: Despite his 5.21 ERA, Brian Matusz’s rookie season has been a success - he has thrown strikes and stayed healthy. Matusz was hammered in three games in May, but he has pitched better since. His low-80s slider has been a strikeout pitch, and his changeup looks a lot like his slider. I predicted 160 innings with a 4.60 ERA for Matusz . I expected more from Wade Davis. He might lose his spot soon to hot prospect Jeremy Hellickson, who is dominating Triple-A (11-2, 2.21).
Coming of Age: Missing April with a sore (left) shoulder didn’t prevent young Trevor Cahill from making the All-Star team. Cahill is efficient, has an above-average G/F ratio, and throws strikes. He has been dominant at home (2.14 ERA). Cahill gets good late movement on his low-90s sinker, as well as a slider, changeup and curveball. Clay Buchholz has the AL ERA lead, although a tweaked hamstring in late June and some wildness have limited him to 92 innings. Buchholz will come off the DL on July 21 and has turned the corner by becoming more aggressive. Phil Hughes carried over his success last year in the bullpen to the rotation. I am a little worried by his stiff motion, as he isn’t free and easy with his arm extension. Given his age and relative inefficiency (16.5 P/IP in a good year), I anticipate Hughes will lose velocity in a couple of years.
Buy Low: See if an owner is exasperated with Matt Garza’s June (6.83 ERA). Garza’s stuff remains solid. Chris Tillman throws strikes, has pitched well at Triple-A, and is healthy. He should be solid down the stretch.
Sell High: Colby Lewis has shaken off the sell-high label. Although I am a fan of Jeff Niemann, he won't end the year with a 2.92 ERA. Niemann was “effectively wild” in his last start against the Yankees. Shaun Marcum doesn’t have the stuff or motion to post an ERA below 4.00 in 200 innings. Although Fausto Carmona has re-established himself, it’s a percentage bet to deal him for someone with a better K:BB ratio (64:49). As for Kevin Gregg and his 17.6 P/IP, get out while you can.
For Real? Tommy Hunter has been a big help to the Texas rotation, with his low-90s fastball and high-70s slurve. The jury is still out, but he’s pitching with confidence and some command for a good club. Gio Gonzalez is on course to pitch 200 innings, with 95 walks and 162 strikeouts . His G/F (0.95) is better than you might expect for a curveball pitcher, and he has improved his efficiency (16.7 P/IP).
Biggest Surprise: Ubaldo Jimenez was a surprise to people who weren’t paying attention. Mat Latos has used a 93-96 mph fastball, a nasty low-80s slider, and a surprisingly good mid-70s curveball. The Padres' staff has been impressive overall.
Biggest Disappointment: The Nationals have two starters - John Lannan and Craig Stammen – who have been batting practice. The Reds hoped for more from Homer Bailey, and even when he is healthy, Bailey might not find his way back into the rotation easily. His no-hitter notwithstanding, Edwin Jackson has been inconsistent. I saw Jackson in Arizona this March, and he seemed out of sync – as if he was battling himself. Wandy Rodriguez hasn’t followed up on his breakout 2009. He has been hit hard against some of the top teams (Cardinals, Yankees), and is a marginal buy-low candidate.
Best Rookie: Jaime Garcia has given the Cardinals a good third starter after Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter. Garcia commands a 74-77 mph curve, an 81-84 mph slider and a fastball at 90-92. The curve looks like his out pitch. I don’t know that Garcia can pitch 200 innings a year, as he puts torque on his elbow. Mike Leake has been outstanding , commanding four pitches right out of college. Although he had a bad June (5.22 ERA), he has still lost once in 17 starts. Madison Bumgarner is making the transition to the majors seamlessly as he rebounds from diminished velocity this spring. Bumgarner mixes a 90-92 mph fastball with a slider and changeup. He keeps the ball down (1.08 G/F) and is very efficient for a rookie (15.6 P/IP). Andrew Cashner's 93-97 mph fastball has helped the Cubs' bullpen.
Worst Veteran: The Phillies weren’t anticipating that hitters would have an .844 OPS against Joe Blanton at this point in the year. Pitchers who short-arm the ball are at increased risk of elevating their pitches and being hit hard.
Buy Low: Tommy Hanson battled the big inning in a few games in May and July, inflating his ERA. Hitters are at .300 against him with RISP. Hanson is a "dart thrower," meaning he uses his top half more than you like to see in a power pitcher. Nevertheless, his 225 strikeouts in 235 major league innings are no fluke. Hanson still has his 93-96 mph fastball and two breaking balls, and has improved (2.60 ERA) in July.
Sell High: The window for cashing in Mike Pelfrey might have closed, as he has allowed 21 runs in his last four starts. Pelfrey began the year looking more comfortable on the mound and with better command of his slider. Rumor had it he was throwing a split-finger, but it could have been the good changeup Pelfrey had earlier in his career. If Carlos Marmol's wildness is frustrating you, you can talk up his 82 strikeouts in 43 innings rather than the 33 walks.
For Real? Clayton Richard is on pace for 214 innings and 171 strikeouts in a breakout year. Meanwhile, Jake Peavy, who came across for Richard and three other pitchers, is now out for the year. Richard has been at 92-95 with an 81-85 mph slider. He works outside and up in the zone well. His motion seems a little muscle-bound to me, but OK overall. Jhoulys Chacin racked up the strikeouts (84) in two months in the rotation. The big story with him has been how good his 81-84 mph slider and high-70s curveball have been. Those pitches give hitters a different plane to worry about, as Chacin's changeup goes the other direction.