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Charging the Mound: Evaluating In the Moment

Chris Liss

Chris Liss is RotoWire's Managing Editor and Host of RotoWIre Fantasy Sports Today on Sirius XM radio.

Jeff Erickson

Jeff Erickson is a co-founder of RotoWire and the only two-time winner of Baseball Writer of the Year from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. He's also in the FSWA Hall of Fame. He roots for the Reds, Bengals, Red Wings, Pacers and Northwestern University (the real NU).

-----Original Message-----
From: Jeff Erickson
Sent: Wednesday, May 8, 2013 8:19pm
To: Chris Liss
Subject: Charging

By far, the player I'm getting the most questions about this week is Matt Harvey, as in "... how many pitchers would you rank above Matt Harvey right now?" My answer has been about 10-12. But let's treat this a little more specifically. These are the SP's I'd rank ahead of him right now:

Clayton Kershaw
Justin Verlander
Stephen Strasburg
Yu Darvish
Cliff Lee
Felix Hernandez
David Price
Cole Hamels
Adam Wainwright
Madison Bumgarner

That's 10 starting pitchers right there that I wouldn't hesitate to draft before him if we were drafting today. Price and Hamels have had some disaster starts so far, and Price's velocity is down so far this season by over 2.0 mph (95.5 mph to 93.3 mph). Are you worried about Price? That is, if you owned him, would you be worried about him (I know you hate the phrase "worried about")? Have you discounted him yet in where you would rank starting pitchers?

Sometimes these velocity changes are temporary, though certainly not as a rule. As you've suggested, a little knowledge about a pitcher's velocity can be a dangerous thing. If it was too soon to act on that knowledge three weeks ago, is it appropriate now? How about June 1?

I'm getting a lot of vibes about people being sick of hearing small sample sizes, but I think this is precisely the time when people make their overreactions that you can profit from. I tend to believe that it's hard to buy low in April, but somehow the magical calendar turn loosens the defenses against that.

Back to Matt Harvey. After that group of 10 pitchers, here's the group that I'd put him at equal footing with:

Jordan Zimmermann
Max Scherzer
Mat Latos
Chris Sale
James Shields
Gio Gonzalez
CC Sabathia
Matt Cain
Matt Moore

Anyone in this list that you disagree with? How about strenuously object to seeing there? Did I omit anyone?

And let me throw two other down-ballot guys that might deserve mention in this class. How do you feel about Hisashi Iwakuma and A.J. Burnett? Both seem to be building off of strong 2012 campaigns, but don't seem to get a lot of respect as belonging in that class of second or third-tier starters yet.

-----Original Message-----
From: "Christopher Liss" Chris Liss
Sent: Thursday, May 9, 2013 1:28am
To: Jeff Erickson
Subject: Re: Charging

I'll just be honest and admit I don't know the answer to your question. I could express an opinion: "Yes, Harvey is definitely top-10 - look at the elite stuff and spotless results," or "No way he's top 10, let's see him do it for a couple years first," but either could be true. I was skeptical about Darvish for the same reason coming into the year, and now I'm not anymore. But then again, we've seen pitchers like Kris Medlen go nuts for long stretches and then come back to earth. (Admittedly Medlen doesn't have Harvey's stuff).

The question then becomes what would I do if I owned Price, and someone offered me Harvey, or vice-versa, and I'm not sure. I guess I'd be more inclined to take Price's rest of the season than Harvey's, but that might be stupid either because I'm subscribing to the gambler's fallacy, i.e., Price will finish with an ERA around 3.30, so he'll have to have an ERA of 2.65 the rest of the way, and Harvey will finish with an ERA around 2.70, so he'll have to have an ERA around 3.20 the rest of the way. That or because I'm picking Price dogmatically out of principle, i.e., buy-low, sell-high.

Looking at the pitchers, Harvey is better right now. Looking at baseball history, having a track record is probative of strong future performance, and total dominance is not typically sustainable. Do we go with the better pitcher now or the one with history on his side? It's all case by case, and I don't have a strong opinion here.

Gun to my head, give me Price, but Harvey is still top-10. Maybe over Hamels, who I never was in love with but somehow drafted in NFBC because the results have been there the past few years. But the same arguments can be made for Hamels over Harvey as Price over him, and actually Hamels has been better than Price so far.

I don't know what the velocity drop means for any of these guys. Is it bad for Price, but no problem for Hernandez and Verlander? I don't have a basis to make that call except the short-term results which we know can mislead.

I want to add something else: it's easy to look at a statline and say so-and-so's BABIP is .450 and strand rate is 60 percent, but he's striking out a batter per inning and not walking anyone, so he'll bounce back. Usually that's the case, but we've talked about how Ricky Nolasco and now maybe Marco Estrada and possibly to an extent Zack Greinke constantly underperform their peripherals. But that's a fine point and less interesting than the situation when a player's peripherals go from terrible to suddenly very good. That too happens. A pitcher is flat-out bad in April (not unlucky), but then he puts it back together.  That's the thing to remember - pitchers don't only fluctuate around some constant skill level with good and bad luck.

They also fluctuate sometimes from being good and bad pitchers.

The only pitchers in your second group I'd put in Harvey's tier are Scherzer and maybe Matt Moore, though Moore wasn't a good pitcher in Wednesday night's game. I like Harvey better than the rest for now.

I'm so unsure about pitchers that I've thought about dealing Strasburg in NL Tout because I'm worried about his health and at the same time, I'm making offers for him in my home league because he could go nuts and dominate for two months with zero notice. I feel the same way about a lot of these guys. I'd buy any of the struggling ones cheaply, and I'd sell any of the great ones for 1st or 2nd round value. The problem is you never quite get 100 cents on the dollar for Harvey's performance, and you can't buy Price for less 95 cents relative to his draft-day dollar.

-----Original Message-----
From: Jeff Erickson
Sent: Thursday, May 9, 2013 7:46pm
To: "Christopher Liss" Chris Liss
Subject: Re: Charging

There are two other reasons why I'm putting Harvey below that top 10 - I don't know what his workload will be like in the second half, and because wins matter in our game, his team not always being able to support him enough to get the wins that others might get. This is not going to be like R.A. Dickey pushing to get the Cy Young like last year. If the Mets are out of it as expected in the second half, I could see him having a few shortened outings. Even in his gem Tuesday, he still didn't get the win thanks to the Mets' inability to score against Hector Santiago.

But your comment about the fluctuating skill levels of these pitchers resonates. We as fantasy players and even analysts (perhaps, especially as analysts) want to have at least some stability in this game, and believe some things to be static when they're really dynamic. It's not just that the start-to-start performance level varies, but their baseline can do that as well. Resolving the static versus dynamic dilemma is one of the toughest aspects of this game. It applies everywhere too - remember when we could reliably stream against the A's, only to see them become one of the better hitting teams in baseball last year and the start of this year? It's probably a bad example coming off of Scott Kazmir's gem today, but they have three of their top four outfielders on the DL.

-----Original Message-----
From: "Christopher Liss" Chris Liss
Sent: Thursday, May 9, 2013 11:53pm
To: Jeff Erickson
Subject: Re: Charging

Turns out Price pitched decently tonight against the Jays - and (h/t) Jason Collette, it looks like his velocity was back. Hamels not so much.