Now into the middle of May, it's getting easier to see what you can expect from starting pitchers who have started off hot, or what those who are struggling can do to get back on track. If your pitcher is killing your WHIP and ERA, is there something to hold onto, hope that it's about to get better? Or, if you found yourself owning one of the pleasant surprises of the early weeks of 2012, will it last, or should you cash in your chips and collect the profit before the market collapses? That's what we're all about here - this forum is the place to discuss the mound trends across baseball. Knowing what a guy has done is not nearly as useful as knowing what he is likely to do going forward. Now let's get started with this week's edition by taking a look at a few recent performances; some good, and some bad:
Some Arms Who Have Made Us Take Notice:
James McDonald (PIT) - The Pirates have two of the better curveballs in the major leagues with McDonald and teammate Erik Bedard. Not surprisingly, when these two command the strike zone with those benders, good things happen. In McDonald's case, he has been an intriguing arm since his days in the Dodgers system. Prior to this year, that command was elusive and hitters learned to ignore his curveball, and wait for a nice fat fastball when he fell behind in the count. It usually worked. High pitch counts, too many walks, and too many hard hit balls kept both his ERA and WHIP on the high side and some even began to wonder (myself included) if he would ever consistently harness his abilities. Now a few starts into 2012, the results suggest he may finally be turning the corner. I have watched him a couple of times now, and in both starts, he was throwing that curve in pretty much any situation, and he was throwing it for quality strikes. His good, but not great fastball got a whole lot better when hitters were forced to watch for the breaking ball. He frequently had batters out on their front foot, taking very timid swings, and then being behind a fastball up in the zone. It was very refreshing to see him work the zone. Recommendation: It is still early - things could go the other direction if McDonald can't continue to spot that curveball, but what I have seen is encouraging. I'm not ready to label him an ace, his ceiling isn't at that level, but he has shown enough to be worthy of consideration.
Wei-Yin Chen (BAL) - All of the spotlight was on Yu Darvish this off-season when he signed with the Texas Rangers, but a couple of other pitchers came over from Japan, and Chen may have been the best of them (he is actually Taiwanese, but pitched for Chunichi in Japan). That said, I want to start by noting that "best of the rest" compared to Darvish leaves a significant gap. I've watched Chen a couple of times this season, most recently against a very potent Texas lineup, which should be a tough enough test for any pitcher, and he was quite impressive. He is basically a finesse pitcher, changing speeds constantly on his breaking pitchers (ranged from 71-83 mph) and his change-up (which was generally in the 80-85 mph range). Interestingly, he almost appeared to display the finesse approach by choice rather than by necessity. His fastball touched 95 early, but then settled in at 89-92 - enough to work with such a wide differential, but considerably lower than you might expect. If I had a concern, it may have been that his fastball tended to be pretty straight, and that will require pinpoint accuracy. Recommendation: It was an exceptional performance against the Rangers. He went deep (7.2 innings) into the game, consistently threw first pitch strikes, and seemed poised on the mound. Look for hitters to get better swings as they build a book on him, but he has the stuff to be a solid mid-tier starter, even in the tough AL East.
Yovani Gallardo (MIL) - Several times over the past couple of seasons Gallardo has strung together a few performances that suggested he was ready to step up and fulfill his considerable promise. Unfortunately that string was often followed by a couple of dreadful outings and his fantasy owners went back on upside watch. This year, so far, it's been pretty much the same - a horrible opening day start against St. Louis, a handful of solid starts, a second beating by the Cardinals, and, well, you get the picture. He now has four good starts, two horrible, and a mediocre, which is probably a "C" and not the "A" as in "ace" owners were hoping for. A 1.50 WHIP and a 5.04 ERA tell us even that "C" might be generous. You've heard it here before - command. If he can't throw his secondary pitches for strikes, he becomes a one-pitch pitcher, and he is simply too hittable with only fastballs. It won't work. Command is what makes a good pitcher great. Recommendation: It's time for Gallardo to show us who he really is - an ace of the rotation stud, or a middle of the pack afterthought. He has the ability to be the former, but there are a lot of guys out there with the same resume who will never live up to it. His numbers will end up better than they are now, but he has something to prove if he is going to be a top tier guy.
Chris Sale (CWS) - There are few things as detrimental to a young pitcher's progress as bouncing him in and out of different roles, especially roles as different as starting and relieving. These guys are typically trained to follow a routine, both mentally and physically, so I was very disappointed to see the White Sox handling of Sale since he arrived and more so in the past week or so. He's a starter, no, he's the closer, wait, he's a starter again - all in about three days. I watched his start Saturday night to both see how he was taking these mixed signals, and to see if he was comfortable on the mound after receiving good news about a mildly sore elbow following an MRI. He struggled in the first inning, and I was concerned, his focus was not where it should have been. However, he composed himself, and pitched pretty well after the first. Once he started staying on top of his pitches, there was renewed life, and he threw a few very effective change-ups, a pitch I think he may need to use a bit more. It does look as if late inning relief did teach him to go right after hitters, so hopefully his pitch counts will come down. Recommendation: Now, hopefully he is both healthy, and back in the rotation for good - that's where he belongs. He has plenty of velocity with movement, with a slider and change-up that should translate well into a starter's repertoire. The elbow soreness is a little worrisome, but there was reportedly no damage so he should be alright. Get on his bandwagon.
Andy Pettitte (NYA) After him being away for so long, taking a look at Pettitte seemed like a good idea. It's obviously a small sample, and I usually don't like to make any judgments based on a first start, but he's a veteran, and while he may still be a bit rusty, it was an opportunity to see how close he is to the pre-retirement Pettitte. Overall, he looked pretty much like the same guy. His fastball was upper 80s and even touched 90 a couple of times, and his breaking pitches were fairly sharp. He could use a little more differential in velocity as he spent some rather long stretches with everything in the mid 80s, and his command was hit-and-miss at times - not so surprising for a pitcher who is coming out of mothballs. Recommendation: It was somewhat encouraging to see him come back as if he hadn't really missed a beat, but he isn't too likely to return to his All-Star form. He can provide a nice boost at the back of the Yankees rotation, and he could be better than some major league fourth or fifth starters in a fantasy scenario, but he isn't overpowering, and probably won't strike out enough hitters to do more than that.
I think I could write a weekly column on the most current configuration of the Chicago White Sox bullpen. Hector Santiago is the closer, no Chris Sale is the closer and Santiago is in middle relief. Wait, Sale is going to start again, and the closer role will be a committee with Santiago, Matt Thornton, and Addison Reed. Today. Look for Sale to stay in the rotation (or on the disabled list) and Reed to eventually end the confusion. Scott Downs had a minor knee injury but he is back to closing in Anaheim, but I think Ernesto Frieri is still worth watching. Francisco Cordero showed how much he has lost over the past few years and has given way to Casey Janssen as the interim guy in Toronto until Sergio Santos returns. That is likely to still be a few weeks away. Wearing Sox of a different color, Alfredo Aceves has settled in somewhat in Boston, but what do they do with Mark Melancon who has been dominating since being sent to Pawtucket. They have to use him or deal him - there is too much demand for end gamers to let value waste away in Triple-A. In Washington, the Nats' top gun until Drew Storen returns, Henry Rodriguez, had a blow up and now has a confidence problem. He is still the first choice, but he needs to get his head together soon.Heath Bell is closing again in Miami, but is still a very risky proposition, and Frank Francisco has had his share of struggles for the Mets - so we might see Jon Rauch soon. Finally, in a bit of a surprise move, the A's announced that Brian Fuentes would now be closing over Grant Balfour. Fuentes has been there with very mixed results, so this may not be the end of the story. Keep an eye on Ryan Cook, and maybe even dark-horse candidate Brad Peacock.
Checking in on promising young arms is one of my favorite pastimes, so be sure to check this Kid Watch feature of the Notebook to keep tabs on kids on their way up. The Twins recently sent down Liam Hendriks after he struggled in a few starts with the big club. He has pitched well at Triple-A, and will likely be back before long. Don't forget about him, he still has some nice upside. If you get the chance, go see a Low-A Lansing Lugnuts game - Alex Anthopoulos did, and the Toronto GM has to like the arms he has stashed there. We already mentioned Noah Syndergaard a couple weeks ago, and you can add Aaron Sanchez (0.78 ERA) and Justin Nicolino (1.17 ERA) to the watch list. All three have major league stuff, albeit they are a couple of years away.
Again, is there a pitcher you would like to see analyzed in an upcoming Notebook? Throw the name out and I'll see what I can do. In fact, I would like to remind readers to check back often as each week's Notebook will feature updates in the comments section on evolving mound situations. And, as always, keep in mind this is an interactive forum, so your comments are always appreciated. I will respond to any comments or questions as soon as possible. Thanks!
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