Mulligans: A second look at ERAs

During the course of a major league season, fantasy owners tend to be a very fickle bunch. A mediocre free agent pitcher throws a shutout, and he's snatched up off the waiver wire within seconds. A starting pitcher who had been doing well gets lit up for eight runs in two innings of work, and gets cut by his owner before he reaches the dugout steps.

This knee-jerk reaction by fantasy owners always makes me laugh. Every starting pitcher is entitled to a mulligan or two, because the fact is, every pitcher has a couple of clunkers over the course of the baseball season. If you're going to try to guess when then occur, you're probably not going to be right. The better course of action is to stick with top-tier pitchers for the entire season and not panic after one bad outing. Surely you're not going to drop a potential 20-game winner like Tim Lincecum based on a single putrid inning, are you?

However not all bad outings are created equal. Some are isolated incidents, some can be explained away by injury or a particular, correctible flaw in mechanics and some are merely because the pitchers in question isn't very good at all. On Draft Day, when looking back at a pitcher's body of work from the previous season, I find it's always a good idea to throw out each pitcher's worst three starts before passing final judgment. This process can help identify pitchers whose true value might have been unfairly weighted down by circumstances that shouldn't repeat in 2010, as well as raise warning flags for those pitchers who may not have the upside that, on the surface, their stats might seemingly indicate.

Case in point, Ricky Nolasco. Take a look at the following chart and see how huge an impact his very worst outings of the season had on his overall numbers.

Ricky Nolasco Mulligan chart

If we were to give Nolasco a mulligan by eliminating his three worst outings of the season, his ERA would improve by a full 1.07, which is the greatest swing of any "qualified starter" in the major league (those who threw 160 or more innings) for 2009. That certainly screams out for you to look even closer into exactly what happened to Nolasco in 2009. After his first eight starts, the Florida Marlins' Opening Day starter had the worst ERA in the National League at 7.78. He was unexpectedly sent to Triple-A New Orleans to work out his problems.

Well, as the last line in our table indicated, Nolasco fixed his issues and was quite solid upon his return. It seems to me it is this Nolasco we should be looking at when setting our draft lists for 2010, and not the one with a 5.06 ERA for the season. That's why he ranks as a top 20 starting pitcher in our ESPN Projections, in spite of his finishing 72nd out of 76 qualified pitchers in ERA last season.

Let's take a look at the rest of the pitchers and what their ERAs would look like if we were to ignore each player's three worst outings of the season as determined by Game Score, a statistic developed by Bill James.. Not surprisingly, each one of them gets a substantial boost.

Mulligan chart for qualified starting pitchers - 2009

By definition, every pitcher has three starts that qualify as their worst, however, not all bad starts are created equal, and a closer examination of these numbers, can help us learn which pitchers should truly be avoided at all costs, and which ones were simply unlucky.

Cut Them Some Slack

Here are some pitchers whose bad outings were so out of line with the rest of their 2009 body of work, they had a profound effect on how their seasons may have been perceived. Perhaps we should give these guys far more credit.

A.J. Burnett, Yankees: Once you give Burnett his mulligans, the Yankees were 21-9 in his starts. The quickest way to get the most value out of Burnett is to simply not start him at Fenway Park, where he had three of his five worst outings of the season and an ERA of 14.21. Burnett jumps 10 spots in the Mulligan rankings.

Bronson Arroyo, Reds: Arroyo also makes a 10-spot leap in the Mulligan rankings, and his ERA improves to 3.00 for the season. Considering his ERA was 7.15 after May 6 when he gave up nine runs in the first inning against the Brewers, his near-miraculous job of finishing the season at 3.84 is all the more impressive.

Johnny Cueto, Reds: On July 1, Cueto was 8-4 with a 2.69 ERA before the bottom fell out and he posted a 7.05 ERA the rest of the way. Still, with all his troubles coming late in the season, it probably worth it to give him a shot in the first half and send him packing only after his cracks start to show again.

Derek Lowe, Braves: By no means is Lowe an elite pitcher anymore, but if you simply avoided him when he faced the Mets and Nationals, who victimized him quite frequently in 2009, you'd have a pitcher who had a 3.51 ERA against all other National League opponents. That's not too shabby.

What You See is What You Get

Here are pitchers who were so consistent, that the effect of their worst outings on their overall performance isn't vastly dramatic at all. However, keep in mind that consistency isn't always a good thing.

Dan Haren, Diamondbacks: Proponents of Haren's history of second-half swooning will be pleased to note that his six worst outings all fell after the All-Star break. Even so, we're talking about a pitcher whose ERA was under 2.00 as late as July 18, and under 3.00 as late as September 20. It's not like the splits are that offensive to the fantasy owner.

Jair Jurrjens, Braves: Jurrjens' kept his ERA fairly steady all season long, having it only barely edge over 3.00 for a single outing, in August at the Los Angeles Dodgers. If there's anything to draw from his 2009 numbers, it's to avoid his NL West road starts, as he posted a 6.46 ERA in three games, despite going 2-0 in the process.

James Shields, Rays: Shields' 4.14 ERA barely budges when we give him his mulligan, which speaks to his level of consistency. Unfortunately, it's a consistency that rarely results in long winning streaks, and a good reason to expect another season with a winning percentage around .500.

Andy Pettitte, Yankees: Maybe Pettitte would prefer not to see the Angels as much in 2010 as he did last season (0-2, 7.88 ERA) but apart from a slightly higher ERA at home (4.59 to 3.71) you pretty much know to expect six innings and three runs out of nearly every start, for better or worse.

Danger Will Robinson!

Here are some pitchers whose worst outings didn't necessarily hurt their overall numbers so much, but because they still end up dropping so far in the Mulligan rankings, we're a bit scared that they might hugely disappoint us in 2010.

Edwin Jackson, Diamondbacks: Even if he weren't moving to spacious Chase Field, we'd be wary of Jackson, whose ERA throughout the course of the 2009 season resembled that mountain climber on the Price is Right, yodeling his way higher and higher until plunging to his death. Note his 10-spot decline in Mulligan ERA rankings, a sure red flag.

Ryan Dempster, Cubs: Talk about schizophrenia! In nine starts, Dempster allowed zero or one earned run. In a dozen others, he allowed 4-to-6 earned runs, and he only won one more of the low-run games than the high-run affairs. He's far too erratic to be trusted to even be part of a fantasy rotation, let alone anchor one.

Chad Billingsley, Dodgers: What happened to him after the All-Star break? He completely self-destructed in July with an ERA of 7.52, and simply never recovered. Regardless of whether it was mechanics or an injury to blame, the fact remains that he didn't look like the same pitcher at the end of 2009 as it did when it started. Color us concerned.

Carlos Zambrano, Cubs: In his injury-riddled 2009, Zambrano actually had a better K/9 rate (8.1) an ERA (3.77) than his previous two campaigns, and yet, he was only 9-7 after averaging 16 wins per season in 2007 and 2008. He says he's going to try and tone down the intensity for 2010, and while staying off the suspension list is a good idea, we're not sure his pitching will benefit from the effort. Something's just not right with Z.

During the fantasy season, you have to be patient with your starting pitchers. Each and every one of them is going to have some bad outings, and ups and downs. And there's no real rhyme or reason to when these pitfalls will occur. Some happen right off the bat, and some come at the tail end of the season. The key is to not overreact when you see a line in the box score that looks more like the phone number in a movie, starting with lots of fives or higher.

Certainly, at some point it does make sense to give up on a lost cause, but by making the right decisions on draft day, you may be able to avoid taking such drastic action by not selecting the most likely offenders in the first place.

AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can follow AJ on Twitter or e-mail him here.