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Mound Musings: 9 Surprises So Far

David Regan

David Regan is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner, including the 2015 Baseball Article of the Year.

The baseball season is nearly two months old. Here are nine surprising developments that have already caught my attention.

Gio Gonzalez's Control

OK, so maybe he's still not exactly exhibiting Cliff Lee-like control, but Gonzalez has made excellent strides with his control this season. Part could certainly be due to facing a pitcher instead of a DH, but let's give him some credit for BB/9IP improvement:

2009 5.1 BB/9IP
2010 - 4.1
2011 - 4.1
2012 - 3.6

Combine that with an 11.4 K/9IP rate (by far a career high if it holds), and it shouldn't be a huge surprise that Gonzalez ranks sixth in baseball with a 1.98 ERA. Considering he also leads the league in strikeouts with 69, he's a somewhat surprising early contender for NL Cy Young honors. Interestingly, he's mixing in his changeup far more this year (12.1 percent of pitches) than in years prior (7.5 and 7.6 percent the last two seasons), and it's been an above-average pitch for him. I was a little skeptical of the trade with Oakland, as the A's got a boatload of young talent, but this deal looks to be a mammoth rotation upgrade in Washington. Last year, the Nationals were forced to start Livan Hernandez and Jason Marquis a combined 49 times.

Pirates Pitching Staff

James McDonald 2.51 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 9.1 K/9IP

Erik Bedard 3.52 ERA, 9.4 K/9IP, HEALTHY

Charlie Morton 4.35 ERA

A.J. Burnett 4.78 ERA, but two earned runs or less in five of six starts

Kevin Correia 4.50 ERA

Bullpen 2.51 ERA overall, 2.07 if you don't count Evan Meek.

Now if the Pirates could only find a couple bats. McDonald has always shown the ability to miss bats while coming up through the Dodgers organization, so going on a near two-month solid run isn't a big surprise. Burnett pitching well (excepting that 12-run outing) in the National League is far from surprising, and Bedard gives them a solid No. 3, borderline No. 2, starter. McDonald could wind up with an ERA in the low-3.00s, as could Bedard if he manages to stay healthy. This team really needs a solid No. 3/4-type starter to solidify the back end, as counting on Morton and Correia to hold down two slots all year is pushing it. Still, McDonald is legit and Bedard and Burnett are solid fantasy options.

As for the bullpen, this is a bit of a mirage, as this sort of performance isn't sustainable for a group with a collective 4.0 BB/9IP. Still, when you have relievers like Jason Grilli posting a 15.2 K/9IP, you have something special going on.

Jim Johnson is Still the Closer ... and He's Leading the League in Saves

One might think that with a fastball that averages 94.1 mph, Johnson would have higher than a 6.1 K/9IP, but let's dig a little deeper. Johnson has driven down his BB/9IP from 2.1 to 1.7 year over year, so he throws strikes. Where he sets himself apart, however, is in his batted ball data this year vs. the league average:

LD% - 13.8/20.6
GB% - 70.7/45.5
FB% - 15.5/33.9

To say that's an excellent groundball rate would be a colossal understatement. Johnson did post a 61.5-percent rate last year, so this isn't flukish by any means. Sure, we'd love to see more strikeouts, but when a closer is 16-for-16 in saves with a 0.87 ERA and 0.77 WHIP, it's not an overstatement to say that he's been the most valuable fantasy reliever to date, particularly considering where he was likely drafted. I never like to spend early draft picks or big money on closers, so I usually end up with guys like Johnson. And, fortunately, he is on more than one of my teams this year.

The Re-Emergence of Johan Santana

I have to admit that after seeing Santana miss all of 2011 and parts of the previous two years, I thought he was done. Shoulder injuries for pitchers are particularly troubling, and Santana had more than his share of those maladies. Still, when he was on the hill the last three years, he was fairly effective, posting ERAs of 3.13 and 2.98 in 2009-2010, but the injuries and declining strikeout rate was concerning:

2007 9.7 K/IP9
2008 7.9
2009 7.9
2010 6.5

Factor in a fastball that wasn't as fast and I was left wondering if he'd finish his career either hurt or taking the Francisco Liriano path to irrelevancy. This year, though, Santana has a 3.24 ERA, 9.5 K/9IP and 2.9 BB/9IP. The solid walk rate isn't a surprise, but the strikeouts are. Is this really a pitcher who can post an ERA in the low 3s with 180 strikeouts? Maybe, but clearly that depends on his health, and while it would be easy to say he's going to get hurt again, the truth is, no one will know until the season is up.

The Sudden Turnaround of Adam Wainwright (but it was the Padres)

First eight starts: 5.77 ERA, 1.53 WHIP

May 22 vs. SD: four-hit shutout with nine strikeouts

So is he "back"? That's the question, and while Wainwright looked good Tuesday, it was still the Padres, who have just 16 team home runs, rank next-to-last in team OPS (Pirates) and who average a whopping 3.1 runs per game. Based on that, I still want to see how he does against a tougher opponent, but remember that the Adam Wainwright we once knew was capable of these kinds of games against all comers. Ultimately, I think he'll be good the rest of the way, but I'm not sure he's 100 percent "back."

From Wide Receiver ... to Big League Reliever ... to No. 2 starter?

Of course we're talking about Jeff Samardzija. (By the way, I am proud of myself for finally being able to spell his last name without looking it up.) Samardzija got some good auction action in a couple of my leagues this year after he posted a 16:1 K:BB in 20 spring innings to secure a rotation slot. He's kept that going with a 3.00 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 9.4 K/9IP and 2.8 BB/9IP. The mid-90s stuff was to be expected, but the surprise is how good his slider really is. He throws it in the 83-86 mph range generally, which is a good amount of separation from his fastball, and he's truly made it into an out pitch. Kudos for the Cubs (you listening here Cincinnati?) for not giving in and slotting him as their closer, as with his stuff, he could be an elite ninth-inning pitcher.

Carlos Zambrano: Pitching Well AND No Broken Water Coolers

Zambrano is doing his best to give that whole "change of scenery" thing some credibility. His last three years:

2010 8.1 4.8 3.33 1.45 4.27 .301 43.6%
2011 6.2 3.5 4.82 1.44 4.34 .298 42.4%
2012 6.7 3.6 1.96 1.07 3.89 .231 49.0%

Not much in the way of movement in his strikeout and walk rates, but the WHIP is way down, and fewer base runners usually leads to a lower ERA. Some of that is BABIP-fueled, as you can see above, but he's also generating a lot more groundballs, which in theory should help, though the Marlins infield has played below-average defense to date. Big Z also has his swinging strike percentage up from 6.7 to 8.9, so the 1.96 ERA isn't all luck he's pitching better. Bottom line: a regression is probably coming, but it's doubtful he completely falls apart.

Lance Lynn's Success without Dave Duncan

Not to pick on the colleague who wrote this about Lynn in our preseason player notes, but here's what we said: "If the Cardinals need him in a pinch, he can probably go five innings, but it looks like his short-term role is as a reliever." Truth is, I would have probably written something similar. Here's the data we had to go on with Lynn prior to 2012:

88-90 mph his last year of college
Drafted 39th overall in 2008
Solid, but not spectacular minor-league numbers 3.69 ERA, 7.8 K/9IP, 3.3 BB/9IP
Looked very good as a reliever last year in 34.2 innings

That's it.

So now that translates to this: 6-1, 2.31 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 8.7 K/9, 2.8 BB/9

Put it this way if you had Lynn on your NL-only roster on Opening Day and you are not now competing for your league's title, you have a lot of injuries and/or made a lot of other bad picks. With pitching coach Dave Duncan no longer with the team as he deals with an unfortunate medical issue with his wife, can we give Duncan credit for Lynn's development? Some perhaps, but this looks to be simply a talented pitcher who took his game to a level we didn't think he could. Happens all the time. I'm pretty sure he's not going to finish with a 2.31 ERA, but Lynn is for real 91-95 mph fastball, solid curve and, from what I've seen, a pretty good change. Fewer walks would make it easier to predict No. 2-starter upside, but overall I'd be comfortable using him every day in every league format. I'm just bummed I don't own him anywhere.

The Bottom of the ERA Leaderboard

Among all qualified starters (entering Wednesday), here are the bottom 10 starters ranked by ERA:

1. Clay Buchholz - 7.84
2. Mike Minor - 6.96
3. Luke Hochevar - 6.61
4. Tim Lincecum - 6.04
5. Randy Wolf - 6.02
6. Max Scherzer - 5.73
7. John Danks - 5.70
8. Ivan Nova - 5.69
9. Dillon Gee - 5.44
10. Mike Leake 5.32

Not exactly a bunch of no-names there. Buchholz is probably looking at a demotion to the bullpen or Triple-A, particularly if the Red Sox can throw enough money at Roy Oswalt. I don't really have an explanation here as to why he's been so awful, as simply saying that it's about poor location is too easy. ... Minor is probably on the verge of being replaced by Julio Teheran or less likely, Sean Gilmartin. ... Hochevar is no Todd Van Poppell in terms of first-round busts, but I'm guessing if they had a do-over on the 2006 draft, the Royals would take Evan Longoria or Clayton Kershaw No. 1 overall. ... Lincecum (sore thumb) might benefit from a stint on the DL. Perhaps he just needs a little rest; surely the Giants can come up with a "strained back" or "sore shoulder" excuse. ... Wolf's walks are way up (3.8 BB/9IP vs. last year's 2.8). Use him at home in good matchups, but bench him for road starts. ... On one hand, Scherzer is far too inconsistent, but on the other hand, he can strike out 15 batters in a game as he did versus the Pirates recently. ... John Danks' control has slipped this year, but hopefully the 6.1 scoreless innings against the Cubs in his last start is a tipping point. ... Nova has been a big disappointment for the Yankees and serves to remind us that prior year W/L record is no great indicator of future performance. On the plus side, a 52:16 K:BB in 49 innings is a positive ratio, so there's some hope here. ... From a ratio perspective, Gee is actually pitching better this year than last: 7.8 K/9IP vs. 6.4 and 2.4 BB/9IP vs. 4.0. ... As long as he's not stealing shirts from Macy's, Mike Leake should be at worst a very good No. 5 starter. His ERA is dropping recently with three quality outings in his last four starts.

Regan, a five-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner, was named the 2010 Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year.

Follow @vtadave on Twitter.