Don't underestimate what the right second-half pitching pickup can do in terms of impact to your fantasy team.
For example, it was six years ago that we saw one of the most dominating, won-leagues-on-his-own second-half performances in baseball, when a slow-starting, 25-year-old left-hander by the name of Johan Santana rattled off a streak unlike most any we've seen in the past quarter-century. Santana would make 15 second-half starts that year, going 13-0 with a 1.21 ERA, 0.75 WHIP and 129 strikeouts in 104 1/3 innings. In fact, had you acquired the current New York Mets ace on this date on the calendar that year -- which wouldn't have been nearly as hard as you might imagine -- you'd have made out like a bandit. He was 16-2 with a 1.31 ERA, 0.71 WHIP and 187 K's in 144 1/3 innings in his next 20 starts.
That's not to suggest that another Santana stretch run is coming, not even by any of our current fantasy aces. In the first 2 ½ months of this year, Ubaldo Jimenez might have had an impact within range of Santana's final four months of 2004, but that's not to say another one is guaranteed by anyone. Even if it is, it's not all that likely to come from Jimenez, since production like his for a full, six-month season is almost impossible to maintain.
But if you make the right acquisition of a second-half performer, might you have a chance at 2010's Santana? Or might you at least acquire a handy helper at a discount price? While second-half pitching trends might not be as stark as they are with hitters, there are still plenty of arms who have shown distinct pre- and post-All-Star break trends throughout their careers.
As we did yesterday in "Hit Parade," it's time to outline them, so you can get a jump start on your midsummer shopping.
TOP 100 STARTING PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 100 starting pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
Players you should buy
CC Sabathia, New York Yankees: If Mark Teixeira is your poster boy for second-half hitters, his teammate, Sabathia, is the poster boy on the pitching side. He has a 3.32 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 8.1 strikeouts per nine innings in 131 career starts after the All-Star break. But look closer: He hasn't had a second-half ERA higher than 2.97 or WHIP higher than 1.20 in any of the past four seasons. Sabathia's second-half prowess isn't completely a product of his standout 2008 following his trade to the Milwaukee Brewers. In the past two seasons combined, he's 20-4 with a 2.11 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 216 K's in 30 second-half starts, 25 of those quality starts. He's simply the kind of pitcher who tends to hit a groove once the temperatures rise, so buy in now.
As for whether Sabathia's current 4.00 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 7.4 K's per nine are of concern, here are his combined numbers on the mornings of June 16 in each of the past two seasons: 3.96 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 7.5 K's per nine. Those look eerily similar, do they not?
Ricky Nolasco, Florida Marlins: His strikeout rate is down, especially in his past eight starts during which he has averaged only 5.7 K's per nine. His average fastball velocity has been down about 1 mph from last season, and as a result, his changeup hasn't been nearly as effective this year as last. Still, what about Nolasco's performance the first two months of last season had any fantasy owners believing he had a prayer of fantasy value from this date on the calendar forward? In the past two years, Nolasco has a 1.06 WHIP and 203 K's in 190 innings in 29 second-half starts, numbers that rivaled the best pitchers in baseball. He's probably not going to rebound quite to those levels, not with hitters making better contact with his pitches this year (82.5 percent contact rate, up from 78.2 in 2009), but it speaks well of him that he was able to pick up his performance during the hottest months of the South Florida summer in 2008-09. See if you can scoop him up on the cheap, because his 3.5 K's per walk are still a good sign.
Gavin Floyd, Chicago White Sox: His 5.64 ERA and 1.53 WHIP through 13 starts of 2010 are bothersome, but in his past five starts he seems to be straightening himself out, registering a quality start four times and turning in a 3.60 ERA and 1.27 WHIP during that span. That puts the timing of his possible turnaround right around where it was in 2009; he had a 4.94 ERA and 1.39 WHIP through 13 starts on this specific date -- only marginally better. May 22, 2009, marked the first of Floyd's eight consecutive quality starts in what was a rest-of-the-season hot streak, and May 22 marked the first of those aforementioned four quality starts in his recent hot spell. Hmmm. In his career, Floyd has a second-half ERA more than a run lower than in the first half (4.10 versus 5.29).
Scott Baker, Minnesota Twins: If you scroll back through his career numbers, you might notice that he has posted an ERA of five or greater before the All-Star break in three of his past four seasons, but in the past three seasons he had an ERA of 3.44 or better after the break. Now is the perfect time to pounce. Baker was touched up by both the Oakland Athletics and Kansas City Royals in his past two starts, allowing nine runs on 14 hits, four of them home runs, in 12 1/3 innings. Nothing about his command numbers looks out of line, he's generating more ground balls than usual and his BABIP (.323) is a tad inflated, which means that he probably has a heck of a hot streak right around the corner.
More candidates: Though Jorge De La Rosa's (Colorado Rockies) disabled-list status might make him seem like a risky investment, he's looks to be on track to return within the next month, right in time to exploit his favorable second-half career trend. He has a lifetime second-half ERA (4.34) nearly 1 ½ runs lower than in the first half (5.76). I'm not the biggest Scott Kazmir (Los Angeles Angels) fan, but the guy has a 3.28 career second-half ERA and a 4.02 ERA or lower in each of the past five seasons. Bronson Arroyo (Cincinnati Reds) is one of the more underappreciated pitchers in fantasy, especially after the All-Star break. Check out his second-half ERAs working backwards: 2.24, 3.47, 3.55 and 3.50.
Players you should sell
Shaun Marcum, Toronto Blue Jays: You couldn't ask for a stronger recovery from Tommy John surgery than his. Through 14 starts, he's sporting personal bests in both ERA (3.31) and WHIP (1.10) while boasting the 10th-best strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.72) of any qualified starter. Still, to ask him to maintain that level of production for a full 162-game season -- or 30-plus starts -- is a lot, especially considering he has never made more than 25 starts in any given year. In his two seasons with exactly 25 starts (2007 and 2008), he had ERAs in the high fours (4.68 and 4.78) and WHIPs above 1.30 (1.33 and 1.46). Marcum is also in a funk in his three starts in June with a 6.05 ERA and 1.40 WHIP, so one can only wonder whether his hot spell has already concluded.
More candidates: Edwin Jackson's (Arizona Diamondbacks) owners can thank him for his recent hot spell, which included a 2-1 record, 2.84 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 8.7 K's per nine in his past six starts, as they helped provide at least a chance of being able to trade him. Jackson utterly melted down after the All-Star break last season with a 5.07 ERA and 1.53 WHIP in the second half, and his career second-half numbers in those categories are 5.01 and 1.64. Johnny Cueto (Cincinnati Reds) might have the best ERA (4.50) and WHIP (1.29) of his career thus far, but in his three starts in June he has been nothing but frustrating, with a 9.00 ERA and .352 batting average allowed. His track record suggests a return to his red-hot May performance isn't especially likely; he had a five-plus ERA and 1.50-plus WHIP after the All-Star break in each of his first two big-league seasons.
The special case
Dan Haren, Diamondbacks: He's the poster boy for second-half stiffs, having failed to register a second-half ERA below 4.00 since 2005, turning in an ERA after the All-Star break at least a run higher than before it in each season as well. Considering he has a 4.61 ERA and 1.31 WHIP thus far, representing his worst in each category since 2004, when he wasn't even fully settled as a big leaguer, it's understandable there'd be hesitation to deal for him with only a month left before his traditional cooling-off period.
But this year might be different. After all, Haren's first-half was different. He had an ERA below 3.00 and WHIP below 1.00 before the All-Star break in each of the past three seasons, by comparison. He is the staff ace for a team that has endured a host of struggles and could be trade bait for the next month. Haren would be quite the prize for a contending team, and a more competitive environment could inspire him to one of his stronger finishes. After all, it worked for Sabathia two seasons ago.
Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants: According to ESPN Stats & Information, Cain is in the midst of the second-longest streak of consecutive starts of seven-plus innings giving up one run or fewer in his franchise's history. His five trails only Christy Mathewson's eight (1901). During that span, he has four wins, a 0.44 ERA and has limited opponents to a .147 batting average, helping elevate him to fifth among starting pitchers on our Player Rater as well as fifth in the majors in ERA (2.05). What has made the difference for Cain has been his changeup; per Inside Edge, it has befuddled opposing hitters to a .100 batting average, which compares quite favorably to the major league average of .235 and his own mark of .232 in 2009 or .224 in 2008. It gives him an elite secondary pitch to use versus left-handed hitters, whereas his slider seems his preferred secondary pitch against righties. Cain sure is looking like a complete pitcher the past year-plus. While win potential might be a problem, his contributions in the ratio categories should remain excellent.
Haren: His numbers during the season's first two months were awful -- by his standards -- and the best way to illustrate that is to quantify them in terms of opposing hitters' ratios. In his first 11 starts, Haren had afforded .288/.322/.518 rates (AVG/OBP/SLG) to his opponents, including one homer every 18.7 at-bats. Compare those to his numbers during his first three starts in June: .259/.276/.341 and only one home run allowed in 85 at-bats. It's a small sample size, but those three starts came against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals, all of whom rank among the top half in the National League in terms of runs scored and who combined have a .560 winning percentage. Besides the prospect that he's traded to a contending team, alluded to above, Haren seems to be pitching as effectively lately as he did at his peak. Buy him if you can.
Jonathon Niese, New York Mets: The one-hit shutout he threw in his most recent start becomes slightly less eye-popping if you consider that it came against the San Diego Padres, whose .686 team OPS ranks fifth-worst in baseball. Still, and I've said this many times on these pages, the mark of a great pitcher is that he dominates the teams he's supposed to, and Niese certainly did in that outing. It gave him wins in both of his starts since returning from the disabled list, as he tossed seven innings of one-run, six-hit baseball June 5. Niese's command has been solid this year, as he's averaging 3.0 walks per nine innings, and, per Inside Edge he's holding opponents to a .181 well-hit average, which compares favorably to the major league average of .203.
Mike Pelfrey, Mets: Many readers have clamored for Pelfrey to rise in my rankings. After he turned in his sixth consecutive quality start Sunday, five of those resulting in wins, he's certainly on the rise. He has a 1.65 ERA and 1.10 WHIP during that streak, and the only possible knock is that his strikeout-to-walk ratio during that span was a mere 2.0. Why must strikeout rates always be the determining factor, though? They're absolutely relevant, but noted ground-ballers like Brandon Webb and Tim Hudson have made quite the names for themselves through the years despite K rates that failed to top the leaderboards. Pelfrey's ground-ball rate is 50.4 percent, and the splitter he has introduced into his arsenal has made a huge difference in his performance. Opponents are batting only .212/.246/.258 against it, and that's on 213 splitters scouted by Inside Edge.
A.J. Burnett, New York Yankees: There's one thing that always keeps him from stepping up to the elite class of starting pitchers, and that's his inconsistency. Just when Burnett seems to be headed toward the top 25 fantasy starters, he runs cold, such as in his past two turns when he was roughed up to the tune of 10 runs on 14 hits, four of them home runs, in 12 2/3 innings. In Burnett's past seven starts, he's 2-4 with a 5.61 ERA and 1.50 WHIP, which is the reason he has dropped all the way to 59th at his position on the Player Rater. His final number should be higher than that assuming he can stay healthy, but it's streaks like this that keep Burnett as more of a middle-of-the-staff type than a fantasy ace.
Cueto: His cold spell warrants another mention. Cueto is the kind of pitcher who will string together two or three solid starts to make him a popular fantasy pickup. Then the instant his new owners slot him into their active lineups, he runs cold. Such trends can be immensely frustrating, as you seem to always miss the good and get handed the bad. As the numbers outline above, though, he tends to be more bad than good the deeper we get into the season.
Mike Leake, Cincinnati Reds: This by no means is an indication that it's time to completely hop off the Leake bandwagon by trading him at a discount or cutting him outright. But as is the case with many youngsters, he's now in the stage of his career where an adjustment period -- hinted at in last week's column -- might be expected. Leake has 12 career starts, and his 1.8 K-to-walk rate says he's hardly an overpowering type. In his latest start, the opposing San Francisco Giants capitalized and roughed him up. He faces the Dodgers on Wednesday, and in the Reds' remaining first-half schedule they've got two series versus the Philadelphia Phillies, plus road trips to the Chicago Cubs and New York Mets. That's not exactly the easiest upcoming schedule for the rookie.
Wandy Rodriguez, Houston Astros: Back to being an utterly useless fantasy pitcher in your road starts, eh Wandy? With his miserable outing at the Yankees on Saturday, he's 1-6 with a 6.50 ERA and 1.71 WHIP in eight road starts this season. Here's the problem: He's not much better in his home games, with a 2-3 record, 4.18 ERA and 1.61 WHIP in five turns at Minute Maid Park. Command of his curveball has been a huge issue for Rodriguez this season, and opponents are teeing off against it with .346/.371/.514 rates against the pitch according to Inside Edge. To compare, when Rodriguez was at his best in 2009, opponents batted just .183/.214/.260 against his curve, and that was against 1,186 of them. On a team that affords him as limited run support as the Astros do, Rodriguez is going to need to be much, much closer to his 2009 form to have any chance at a fantasy rebound.
Upgrade your roster
Even with Masterson's rough outing Tuesday, he has still pitched fairly effectively in his past four starts, going 2-1 with a 3.18 ERA and 1.24 WHIP, and that's despite a treacherous set of matchups of the Yankees, White Sox, Boston Red Sox and Mets. Considering his schedule, does Masterson really deserve to get crucified for struggling in only one of those turns?
Masterson is not without his flaws. He still lacks an out pitch against left-handed hitters, who have .335/.429/.462 rates against him this season, and he has to be almost pitch-perfect with his sinker to generate a ton of ground balls in order to minimize the risk. It is factors like these that will keep him as more of a matchups type in standard ESPN formats or a pick in AL-only or deeper mixed leagues.
But if I'm picking between these two pitchers, I'm taking the guy with the 65.2 percent groundball rate over the strike-thrower with a 42.3 percent number in the category. Ely is not overpowering, he's not an elite ground-baller and he has to rely a hefty amount on his defense, all while he adapts to the most competitive level of professional baseball. Sure enough, Ely has a 7.20 ERA and 2.00 WHIP in his past two starts, both of those home games.
Also consider adding
Trevor Cahill, Oakland Athletics: Speaking of heavy ground-ballers, Cahill sure fits that description with a 52.5 percent groundball rate. Though he had a string of six consecutive quality starts snapped Tuesday, he's still 5-1 with a 2.76 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in his past seven outings.
Jason Hammel, Colorado Rockies: Rockies starters know there's competition for their jobs, as Jorge De La Rosa is on the mend, and perhaps the added motivation is helping Hammel. He has three consecutive quality starts and a 2-0 record, 0.41 ERA and 1.00 WHIP during that streak.
Felipe Paulino, Houston Astros: While he got rocked Tuesday by the Royals, Paulino's total numbers in his past six starts are strong, including a 3.32 ERA and 1.38 WHIP. Remember, he had the second-best swing-and-miss ratio of any pitcher with at least 90 innings last season (27.4 percent), so his stuff is obviously filthy. He's still quite the sleeper in terms of strikeouts.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.