It's Always the $64,000 Question ...
As we get deeper into the season, there is a good chance you will see a significant number of "prospects" make their major league debuts or reappearing after more time in the minors. How many times have you seen a pitcher make his major league debut in dazzling fashion, follow that with another strong start, launching a stampede to the waiver wire to pick him up? Then, just after you somehow manage to grab the next Walter Johnson before your opponents can get the drop on you, Walter gets blasted in consecutive starts. He can't seem to throw strikes, and every strike he throws seems to end up in the next county; the wheels come off completely and after singlehandedly sabotaging your WHIP and ERA for weeks to come, Walter Brennan ends up back on the farm. How can that happen? How can a pitcher look so good for a few outings, and then totally disintegrate? Are there indicators that could have helped you avoid this all-too-frequent outcome? There it is. It's without a doubt, the question I get asked most often. "Is [insert flavor of the month here] for real?" Let's take a look.
Avoiding those ticking bombs can make a big difference in your fantasy season.
Look at your roster at the end of a season. If you won your league or were at least in the hunt all year, chances are you added some key pieces along the way. Conversely, if you were out of contention, the pieces you added turned out to be broken. With regard to pitching, you might have grabbed a youngster coming up who performed well for a large part of the year, or you might have bagged that deep sleeper who ended up closing when the guy who opened the year with the gig imploded.
There are several factors to consider when deciding whether the current "flavor of the month" kid pitcher can perform beyond the current month. Even if they looked like the real deal for their first few starts, most of the call-up phenoms will fade into obscurity - at least for the moment. The best way to gauge the likelihood of continued success is to see the pitcher pitch. That way you can see what you are getting. However, if that's not possible, there are a couple of other things to look for. Minor league stats can be misleading, but they can also be pretty useful if you take some things into consideration. Further, "pedigree" - was this pitcher drafted in the early rounds, or was he a highly regarded prospect as he came up through the minors? - can at least provide you with a baseline for evaluating potential.
Minor league stats evaluation should begin with where they played, the pitcher's age/experience level relative to the league and the actual peripherals they generated. For example, be a little more forgiving of a higher ERA for a pitcher toiling in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, be wary of a pitcher who was in his third season at Double-A resulting in him facing younger competition, and carefully analyze the hits allowed, home runs allowed and, perhaps most important, the strikeout-to-walk ratio and total strikeouts. Look for a minimum of a 2:1 K:BB ratio (3:1 would be better) and at least close to a strikeout per inning. As for the "pedigree" factor, it's always a good idea to give the scouts who do this for a living appropriate credit for evaluating talent. Assuming the pitcher you are looking at didn't have any serious injuries to deflate his potential, and he has been making progress through the minor league tiers, there is every reason to assume there is something worthy of his valued prospect status.
Here are things to consider when evaluating the potential for long term success:
• One of the most important factors is K:BB ratio. Major league hitters typically excel at pitch recognition and knowledge of the strike zone. If a pitcher did not command the zone in the minors, especially if it was at the lower levels, that weakness is likely to be magnified at the MLB level. Fewer swings at pitches out of the zone and more patience can hobble a pitcher's long-term viability.
• If possible, watch the pitcher in his first few major league starts. You want to see exceptional velocity and/or movement, and a variety of at least three quality pitches he can rely on regardless of the count/situation. Hitters will be evaluating his repertoire and tendencies. He may be very successful in those first few outings, but the hitters will adjust. He has to have the skill set to adjust as well.
• Those hitter adjustments can happen very quickly. In fact, the more quickly they happen, the more likely it is the pitcher will begin to struggle. Hopefully he will pitch deeper into his first start or two allowing you to evaluate the opposing hitter's approach and the quality of swings after they have seen him two or three times in the game. If there is marked improvement in contact and/or pitch recognition, that should be considered a serious red flag.
• Don't forget our "pedigree" factor. Occasionally, a 17th-round draft pick or a player toiling in the independent leagues will make a positive impact. It's rare. Far more likely, a pitcher drafted in the early rounds of a draft, and recently progressing through the team's minor league system will arrive with the tools to help beyond a start or two. If there are warning flags, even these top prospects could need more time to hone their skills, but if you take all the factors into consideration, you can hopefully grab the pitcher who can get beyond that "halo effect" success, and provide you with useful stats all season and well into the future.
• And, one last major thing to note. The most likely pitcher to make a big splash, and then sink into oblivion is the pitcher who relies too heavily on deception. Some pitchers have a funky or eccentric motion and/or release point. Hitters may initially have a hard time picking up their otherwise mediocre stuff, but it's only a matter of time. Josh Collmenter comes to mind. He was very successful early on with a straight over the top delivery that hitters rarely see these days. However, they got used to it, and he started getting hit, hard. He may carve out a decent niche in the bullpen where he isn't facing hitters more than once a game, but as many fantasy owners painfully found out, his stuff does not really equate to the big leagues over the long term.
Some Notable Rotation Happenings:
• If you weren't aware, Clayton Kershaw really is that good. He now has 16 innings under his 2013 belt, and there hasn't been an opposing runner dent home plate. He won't finish with a 0.00 ERA, and he'll have the occasional bad outing, but he is an arm who should be at the top of a winning fantasy rotation.
• Sometimes I mention the "changes in latitudes" factor when looking for improvement in a pitcher, and Jeremy Guthrie might be the next name I toss around. His movement is night and day different now that he is in Kansas City.
• Jose Fernandez is trying hard to make it look like he belongs on a major league mound. He was impressive in his first start with his fastball, and his off-speed stuff, but the Marlins hurt his value and they are unlikely to push his pitch counts or innings, so he is a better grab in keeper/dynasty formats.
• Don't look now, but Erik Bedard is showing some of his old form. The Astros were cautious with him in his first start, but his fastball was 91-92 and he showed good command, which made his trademark curve more effective.
• The Rays say Jeff Niemann is likely done for the year. That leaves the iffy Roberto "didn't you used to be Fausto Carmona" Hernandez as their fifth starter, and should send you scurrying to check on Chris Archer or Jake Odorizzi.
• Jered Weaver is going to be out 4-6 weeks with a non-throwing elbow injury. It looks like Garrett Richards will get the fill-in spot, but he isn't all that exciting. In fact, I'm not very bullish on any Angels starter.
• Questions will surely be asked about the viability of Nick Tepesch as a fantasy option after his nice debut against Tampa Bay. I'd let someone else take the shot with him. I don't really see him enjoying life on the mound in Arlington.
• Lance Lynn looked much improved in his second start, and it was against the Reds so all the better, but I am still not convinced. If I owned him, I would probably hope for a couple more good ones, and then try to sell high.
The Endgame Odyssey:
As feared, Jason Motte has a torn ligament in his elbow and may need Tommy John surgery. Mitchell Boggs is the man of the moment, but there is a good chance the Cardinals will try Trevor Rosenthal at some point. ... The Cubs still say they want Carlos Marmol to regain the closer's job. We say, "why?" Kyuji Fujikawa< is the guy to own. ... The Brewers have removed John Axford from the end-game gig, and Jim Henderson is now the closer. He's no lock-down guy, but if you are desperate, go with him for now. ... Kansas City is quickly becoming a closer quandary with Greg Holland stumbling. If they make a firm change, it could be Kelvin Herrera, but don't rule out Aaron Crow. Crow picked up a save Monday, but don't read too much into that just yet. Holland and Herrera were both unavailable that day. ... In Washington, Rafael Soriano is a bit banged up, and while he likely has a fairly long leash, the Nationals have Drew Storen as a solid alternative. ... The White Sox's Addison Reed should be moving up on the closers-to-own food chain. He has looked good early and clearly is their best option. ... The latest in Tigertown is the signing of Jose Valverde to a minor league contract. The Tigers are obviously concerned with the back of their bullpen, so if he has anything left (word is his velocity is up), look for him to resurface in Detroit before the end of April. ... Ryan Madson is throwing again, but has had some minor setbacks in his recovery. It doesn't appear to be anything serious, yet, but hang on to Ernesto Frieri. ... I am still not convinced Rafael Betancourt will last as the Rockies closer. Wilton Lopez may be next in line, but I still think Rex Brothers gets into the race somewhere. ... And, Carter Capps is making an impression in Seattle. He could potentially pass Tom Wilhelmsen as things progress.