As we're now firmly in the second half of what is shaping up to be an exciting season, let's look at a few of my recent observations:
Roy Oswalt is looking better
In Oswalt's first three starts for the Rangers, the veteran right-hander managed just a 7.79 ERA while being battered for 35 hits in 17.1 innings. He did manage a 16:4 K:BB, but saying he was "hittable" is an understatement. In his last two outings, however, Oswalt has allowed just two runs on eight hits over 12 innings with a 9:2 K:BB. Granted, those were against the Twins and A's, but I still fully expect the 34 year-old to be an above average fantasy option the rest of the way. As long as he can drive down that home run rate (1.2 HR/9), he should be fine.
Trevor Bauer isn't ready to dominate
After allowing three runs while walking five in hree innings last time out, Bauer saw his ERA spike to 6.06 in four big league starts. His only good outing (six shutout innings) came against an anemic Dodgers lineup, so it's probably fair to say that with a 17:13 K:BB in 16.1 innings, he's been shaky at best. Bauer has No. 1 starter potential, but it looks like we might not see it translate into results until 2013. Remember that while Bauer showed flashes of dominance in the minors this year, he still had a 5.0 BB/9IP across three levels. So, it wasn't exactly shocking Wednesday when Bauer was optioned to Triple-A. No word on who will replace him in the rotation, but another top pitching prospect, Tyler Skaggs, could get a look at some point. Skaggs has a 2.81 ERA and 83:24 K:BB in 86.2 innings across the upper two minor league levels.
Felix Hernandez's velocity is down, but do we care?
We'll look at the results in a minute, but is there concern about Felix's fastball velocity?
That's a drop in excess of a full two mph in the span of three years, and that's a lot. Now let's look at his strikeout and swinging-strike rates over those same years:
2009: 8.2, 10.6%
2010: 8.4, 9.9%
2011: 8.6, 8.8%
2012: 9.5, 9.9%
Seems a bit counter-intuitive, does it not? Shouldn't a pitcher strike out fewer batters when he's not throwing as hard? I'd really have to watch several starts back-to-back over the years to nail down exactly how to interpret this data, but I'll speculate that Felix has adapted well to the diminished velocity. He pitches in a great pitcher's park, and he's clearly mixing in an above-average changeup with greater frequency. I'm not overly concerned that he's averaged 240.2 innings the last three years, but hopefully we'll see the velocity stabilize. Diminished velocity isn't always a precursor to some sort of injury, but it certainly can be.
Joe Blanton is still an enigma
With a 7.8 K/9IP and 1.2 BB/9IP, Blanton is both missing bats and finding the strike zone with regularity, but with 16 percent of his flyballs going for home runs (league average: typically 10-11 percent), his ERA sits at a bloated 4.79. Despite those numbers and a mind-blowing (overstated?) 102:16 K:BB in 118.1 innings. Blanton isn't going to front any team's rotation any time soon, but he's a workhorse who's actually increased his velocity a full mph this year, and his control has obviously continued to improve. Blanton averaged 1.5 homers allowed per start in May/June, but in July he's surrendered just two in three starts. If that can continue, he can be a sneaky play down the stretch.
Francisco Liriano's 15 strikeouts
One mistake to Jonny Gomes overshadowed what was a vintage effort by Liriano against the A's in his last start - eight innings, one walk and 15 strikeouts. Since returning to the rotation nine starts ago, Liriano has a 2.93 ERA and 67 strikeouts in 57.1 innings. He has walked 25, but he's also become a guy who is an every-week starter in all but the shallowest formats. What I find really interesting in comparing his last nine starts to his first six before he was demoted is this:
Avg swinging strike rate (first six starts): 9.6%
Avg swinging strike rate (last nine starts): 15.1%
In addition, while the 3.9 BB/9IP he's had in his last nine starts is far from excellent, compare it to the mark he had in his first five: 8.1. So he's improved his control, his stuff is better as evidenced by the ability to generate more swings and misses, and he's striking out a lot of hitters. Now after I write this he may very well lay an egg, but I think there's a lot to be excited about. All the trade talk surrounds Cole Hamels and Ryan Dempster, but a team could find a real bargain in a Liriano deal.
Not quite an ace .. but ...
Yovani Gallardo to me has been a bit of an underachiever based on his former prospect status and, from what I see when he pitches, his excellent stuff. Lately, though, I'm wondering if he's turned the corner. Before you say "it's the PIRATES," fanning 14 against what is currently a very good, McCutchen-fueled offense is notable. The Pirates have scored the most runs in the big leagues since the end of May, so striking out 14, walking none and allowing one run in seven innings is impressive. This gives Gallardo a 0.92 ERA in his last three starts and 13 quality starts in his last 14 outings. The 3.9 BB/9IP needs to continue to improve, but his stuff just seems "crisper" lately (just a personal observation), and the results should continue to be there.
Quick reliever hits
The "slump" is over for Aroldis Chapman. I watched him strike out the side against the Cardinals, a performance that left me wondering how his 1.69 ERA was as high as it was. In Chapman's last 7.1 innings, he's fanned a ridiculous 19 batters. Kenley Jansen's all-time K/9IP record of 16.1 (2011) is in serious jeopardy, as Chapman's rate sits at 16.8. ... Addison Reed looked great Tuesday and has the look of a closer who could go the rest of the way and not allow a run. I like him that much. ... Jonathan Broxton has evolved into reliever who can really pitch, rather than a pitcher who just throws. He's allowed just one home run all year while posting a so-so 6.2 K/9IP. ... Tom Wilhemsen's backstory is compelling, but he can also pitch. The ex-bartender hasn't allowed a run since May 23. He's locked in as Seattle's closer. ... Tyler Clippard opened the door a crack for Drew Storen (elbow), allowing three runs in a blown save Wednesday. Storen could return on Thursday. ... J.J. Putz has not been scored upon in his last eight appearances. He has plenty of security over David Hernandez. ... Bobby Parnell has a 9.0 K/9IP and 2.0 BB/9IP (4.0 last year), but he's also blown his last two saves, so consider Jon Rauch in deeper leagues.
Jordan Zimmermann - Best No. 3 starter in baseball?
Other candidates include a healthy Shaun Marcum, C.J. Wilson (when Dan Haren is healthy), Jeff Samardzija, Bronson Arroyo/Homer Bailey, Max Scherzer/Doug Fister, a healthy Chad Billingsley, Jon Niese, Phil Hughes (or Ivan Nova?), Phillies No. 3 (is it Roy Halladay now?), Ryan Vogelsong (Lincecum No. 4?), Cardinals No. 3 (Lance Lynn or a healthy Jaime Garcia?), Matt Moore, Derek Holland.
Zimmermann, though, has been fantastic, especially lately. Wednesday was more of the same, as Zimmermann held the Mets to four hits over six shutout innings with a 4:0 K:BB. A few stats on Zimmermann:
• Leads the majors in quality starts with 17.
• Has allowed more than three runs just twice (four runs in each outing).
• 2.35 ERA is better than that of Stephen Strasburg (2.66).
• 5.2 K/9IP in first six starts. 6.6 K/9IP since.
• 9.4 K/9IP in the minors, so he could continue to grow
I suppose whichever Phillie slotted in the three-hole could be a better pitcher the rest of the way this year, but even if the Nationals do shut Strasburg down in early September, a playoff rotation fronted by Gio Gonzalez, Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson is pretty formidable. If you're wondering what Zimmermann's ultimate ceiling could be, may I point you to Matt Cain?
Jason Hammel a big loss and other Orioles starter notes
Hammel was a huge surprise in Baltimore this year. Coming off back-to-back 4.75-plus ERA seasons with the Rockies, Hammel had a 3.54 ERA in the AL East, and his 8.7 K/9IP was on pace to be a career high. Now a knee injury looks like it will sideline Hammel until the first week of September, leading a cast of unknowns, disappointments and replacement-level pitchers hoping to tread water in the playoff race until Hammel returns and/or reinforcements arrive. Short of a very unlikely Dylan Bundy call-up, there's not much to be excited about here:
Wei-Yin Chen - Chen allows too many home runs (15), but a 3.80 ERA has him as a rotation mainstay and solid AL-only pitcher.
Chris Tillman - Five hits and seven runs (just one earned!) in his last start and Exhibit A of the organization's failure to develop young pitchers. Time for a new philosophy. P.S. Where is Matt Hobgood these days?
Miguel Gonzalez - 2.59 ERA, so he'll stick around a little bit, but there's a reason he didn't make his big league debut until age 28.
Zach Britton - Four innings and six walks in four innings in first big-league start of the year (shoulder). Showed some promise last year with a 4.18 FIP (4.61 ERA), but there's nothing to suggest he'll be worth owning the rest of this year.
Tommy Hunter - 4.82 career ERA and 5.0 career K/9IP. No thanks.
Brian Matusz - 4.0 BB/9IP and 1.5 HR/9IP. Only encouraging thing is his velocity is up a full three mph over last year to 91. Still, too frustrating for me to own.
Jake Arrieta - With a 5.27 ERA, he's fast becoming Quad-A filler.
Pedro Martinez was a great pitcher and Felix Hernandez still is, but Chicago's Pedro Hernandez just doesn't belong in the big leagues.
Regan, a five-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner, was named the 2010 Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year.
Follow @vtadave on Twitter.