Mound Musings: Time to Turn it Around?

Mound Musings: Time to Turn it Around?

This article is part of our Mound Musings series.

Last week, I looked at a handful of pitchers who got off to surprisingly strong starts in 2017 and maintained that success throughout the first half. It wasn't easy. In the season of long balls (there were 1,101 home runs hit in June, breaking the record set in May for long balls in a month) and short outings, there were very few surprises on the positive side of the scoresheet. Conversely, there were plenty of arms to choose from when compiling this list of some of the most disappointing first half performances. There is speculation that the baseballs are wound tighter and travel farther, while it seems the strike zone has certainly shrunk meaning more hittable pitches. Whatever the reasons, we have a large fraternity of pitchers with ghastly first half numbers.

This week, I would like to feature a few pitchers who have impressed me in the past but have posted ugly numbers so far at almost halfway through the season. To thin the herd, I'm going to apply a couple of prerequisites. First, I'm going to focus on pitchers I feel have a reasonably good chance of posting fantasy friendly numbers going forward, and secondly, I'm going to try to avoid pitchers who have very likely been adversely affected by injuries. Let's see what that leaves us.

A few pitchers who have struggled in the first half:


  • Masahiro Tanaka (Yankees) – A couple of years ago, Tanaka experienced elbow issues that typically would have called for Tommy John

Last week, I looked at a handful of pitchers who got off to surprisingly strong starts in 2017 and maintained that success throughout the first half. It wasn't easy. In the season of long balls (there were 1,101 home runs hit in June, breaking the record set in May for long balls in a month) and short outings, there were very few surprises on the positive side of the scoresheet. Conversely, there were plenty of arms to choose from when compiling this list of some of the most disappointing first half performances. There is speculation that the baseballs are wound tighter and travel farther, while it seems the strike zone has certainly shrunk meaning more hittable pitches. Whatever the reasons, we have a large fraternity of pitchers with ghastly first half numbers.

This week, I would like to feature a few pitchers who have impressed me in the past but have posted ugly numbers so far at almost halfway through the season. To thin the herd, I'm going to apply a couple of prerequisites. First, I'm going to focus on pitchers I feel have a reasonably good chance of posting fantasy friendly numbers going forward, and secondly, I'm going to try to avoid pitchers who have very likely been adversely affected by injuries. Let's see what that leaves us.

A few pitchers who have struggled in the first half:


  • Masahiro Tanaka (Yankees) – A couple of years ago, Tanaka experienced elbow issues that typically would have called for Tommy John surgery, but he opted for rehab. The Yankees (and fantasy owners) held their collective breaths. When he's pitched well, everyone sighs, and when he's pitched poorly, everyone shudders. This year, there has been reason for both, but I don't think his health has been much of a factor. Like most pitchers, he has had to adjust to a variable strike zone, and he makes this list because he's the type of pitcher to successfully accomplish that. Pacific Rim pitchers often provide hitters with a smorgasbord of offerings, and Tanaka is no exception. Only 29 percent of his pitches are fastballs, and he generally uses them as "show me" pitches. His bread and butter are breaking balls – splitters, cutters, sliders and curves – and all of them at or below the bottom of the zone. If the hitters force him to get the ball up, he can be hittable but he has shown the ability to find corners of the zone umpires will give him. With so many pitches thrown at different speeds, it's unusual for him to be left with nothing working. I think that mound savvy gives him a much needed edge.

  • Jake Arrieta (Cubs) – Arrieta has appeared, at times, to be somehow caught up in the disappointing season the Cubs have been going through. The past couple of years, he has limited hard hit balls resulting in an impressive BABIP (.250 in 2016), but while there have been more hits squared up in 2017, his .351 BABIP is not truly indicative of how he has pitched. I'm usually not inclined to be a "bad luck" proponent, but that has been a contributing factor. Don't get me wrong, there have also been stretches of inconsistency, mildly reminiscent of his Baltimore days when he struggled to hit his spots and left too many pitches in the middle of the plate. He's allowed 13 home runs at the halfway point in the season after allowing just 16 all of last year. There has been some dissension in the clubhouse, likely part of the frustration related to the Cubs' lackluster play, and that also has no doubt been a distraction, but in watching some of his recent outings, there are signs he is getting everything back in synch.

  • Kevin Gausman (Orioles) – Regular readers won't be surprised to see this name. The difference between the first couple of months and the last month have been like night and day for Gausman. Not a bright sunny day, mind you, but bright enough to see a light at the end of a very dark tunnel. I have, and still maintain, Gausman has the skill set to be a top-25 pitcher when everything is in alignment. Clearly that has not been the case of late. I'm not going to say that last start – seven, two-hit, shutout innings with nine strikeouts against Tampa Bay – officially ends the struggles, as there's always some chance the erratic command could resurface, but it is a step in the right direction. He has experienced fewer and fewer bouts of inability to spot pitches, and the rough stretches haven't lasted as long. That's progress, and I really hope this last outing will put, and keep, him on the path to dominance. Patience is hard, but sometimes it pays.

  • Gerrit Cole (Pirates) – Every year a handful of pitchers audition for the lead role in the classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Cole is making quite a case for the part. After nine starts, he maintained a sharp 1.02 WHIP with a very nice 2.84 ERA. A sip of the magic formula, and poof – in his next four starts, 19-plus innings, 39 hits and 23 earned runs. That's going to leave a mark on your peripherals. The elixir apparently wears off, and he allows a total of just three runs over his next three starts. I don't think he was hurt. It's more likely the poor stretch was either a need to make some adjustments or the results of one of those infamous "dead arm" periods. His velocity, strikeout rate and walk rate are all in line with where you would expect them to be, but he has struggled even more than usual with left-handed hitters, in particular with home runs allowed. Overall, he's allowing long balls at three times his career rate, a symptom of leaving balls up in the zone. Cole's stuff is just too good for that to last, so he should become more consistent in the second half.

  • Justin Verlander (Tigers) – This one might be considered a hunch play, or maybe more precisely, a loyalty play, especially following the brutal most recent outing. In his last start, Verlander allowed seven runs on nine hits and three walks, while recording just 10 outs. Further, it was the first time he has pitched in a game without logging a single strikeout since 2007. So where is the positive takeaway? When I think of Verlander, the first thing that comes to mind is the ease with which he could hit the high 90s. I used to say it looks like he's throwing batting practice – at 98 mph. The velocity is still there. In fact, at 95 mph, it's higher than it has been in about six years. And, that might be at least part of the problem. He doesn't look as "free and easy" these days. It appears he may be overthrowing to achieve that velocity. Not surprisingly, the command is inconsistent (his walk rate is nearly double what you would expect), and he's more hittable, as his pitches have flattened out somewhat. Look for him to adjust, especially if he ends up dealt to a contender in a pennant race. Verlander is a winner. He'll find a way.

Some Notable Rotation Ramblings:

  • The Blue Jays' Marco Estrada was a contender to make the above list, but after watching his start against Boston, I'm not sure he qualifies under the no-injury rule. He left with one out in the fifth having walked seven, throwing more balls than strikes. Something is wrong. He was clearly uncomfortable. Stay tuned.

  • I came so close to including the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright on the above list. He's the paramount professional and I keep looking for signs he is adjusting to the many challenges of pitching today without the stuff you had earlier in your career. I do see glimpses. I think he'll get there, but how soon it will happen worries me.

  • Rick Porcello might be the poster child for the demise of pitching in the major leagues today. Last year he was masterful, going 22-4 with a sparkling 3.15 ERA, but now his walk rate is up a bit, he's allowing far more homeruns, but most of all, he's just plain hittable. He has to have the edges of the zone.

  • The Reds' Homer Bailey was shelled in his first two starts. I suppose that's not too surprising considering he's only made eight starts in almost three years. Then he turned in a solid performance allowing just one run over six innings against the Rockies at Coors Field. He might be worth a stash and see flyer.

  • I've never been a fan of Houston's Brad Peacock, but his recent performance compelled me to take a look. He's still a two-pitch guy, which doesn't bode well for a starter. But, he is spotting his slider, a pitch he relies on a lot, much more consistently. He's going to need a third pitch to attract me.

  • I'm not going to go quite as far as endorsing him, but R.A. Dickey might have an interesting second half playing for the Braves. It gets really hot and humid in Atlanta deep into the summer. Hot, humid weather means "heavy" air, which often creates a lot of dance with a knuckleball. Something to think about.

Endgame Odyssey:

Ah, the comings and goings. The Cardinals have seemingly decided to try something different, moving Seung Hwan Oh to a set-up role and using Trevor Rosenthal to close. On Saturday, Oh looked good in the eighth, but not so for Rosenthal in the ninth – two hits, two walks, one run before Matt Bowman finished it. Stay tuned for the next episode, but I think Oh will end up being the primary end gamer. The shaky went to shell-shocked in Texas with Matt Bush continuing his epic collapse and move out as the Rangers closer, at least for now. He's banged up right now, but Keone Kela is odds-on to end up with the job if Bush doesn't regroup quickly. The Giants have used both Hunter Strickland and Sam Dyson to close games, but it looks like Dyson will get the lion's share until Mark Melancon comes back. I'm not sure I would trust him. Talk about disasters. With Koda Glover still out, and assuming Nats' Manager Dusty Baker doesn't plan a return to starting pitchers tossing 180-plus pitch complete games each start, they desperately need a closer. Just speculating, but Sean Doolittle might be a good fit. In Oakland, Santiago Casilla continues to be ineffective, but the A's seem intent on him continuing to close so Doolittle should be available. Huston Street returned to the disabled list, but the Angels pen is still in flux.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brad Johnson
For more than 30 years, pitching guru Brad "Bogfella" Johnson has provided insightful evaluation and analysis of pitchers to a wide variety of fantasy baseball websites, webcasts and radio broadcasts. He joined RotoWire in 2011 with his popular Bogfella's Notebook.
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