The pitching landscape Wednesday is replete with a number of top-tier starters, but maybe the most interesting fantasy decision of the day is a hurler many have overlooked even though he has been pitching like an ace: Barry Zito.
You can count on one hand the number of people who believed that, 28 starts into the season, Zito would have a sub-4.00 ERA. Fantasy owners pretty much wrote him off, which explains how, despite a 2.09 ERA and 1.19 WHIP since the All-Star break, he is owned in less than a fifth of ESPN leagues. Fantasy players are the paranoid type, however, and with Zito walking 12 batters in his past 18 1/3 innings, his owners are just crossing their fingers that the wheels don't come off the track when he faces the Padres on Wednesday. And that's where the rankings come in -- we do the work so you don't have to. With owners essentially down one starter -- the Yankees' Joba Chamberlain, who also is scheduled to pitch Wednesday, might as well be written off -- the success of waiver-wire hero Zito becomes that much more important. Read on to see how we think he'll do:
Starting pitcher rankings for Sept. 9, 2009
Rk.: The author's ranking of that pitcher for that day only. T: Pitcher throws left-handed or right-handed. W-L: Pitcher's win-loss record. ERA: Pitcher's earned run average. WHIP: Pitcher's average number of walks plus hits surrendered per inning. K/9: Pitcher's average number of strikeouts per nine innings. OPSA: Pitcher's on-base plus slugging percentage surrendered to opponents. OPS: Pitcher's opponent's composite team on-base plus slugging percentage. CT%: Pitcher's opponent's success rate putting the ball in play (versus striking out).
Selected notes: Carlos Zambrano has improved in each successive start in his return from the disabled list, going from awful to mediocre to the Zambrano we're used to. He struck out seven Mets in six innings Friday, which marked the first time since July 22 that he had more strikeouts than innings pitched. A few owners even dropped him, unable to deal with his inconsistency so late in the season, but it looks like he's safe to use again when he faces the Pirates. It's always a red flag when a pitcher walks five batters in a start, but Barry Zito now has done it twice in three starts. Considering the teams he's done that against -- the Rockies and the Brewers, both on the road -- he's lucky to get away with just two runs allowed in those 10 innings. It might be a sign Zito's run of effectiveness will soon come to an end, or it might be just a short-term blip. Anything less than a very good performance versus the Padres, who are dead last in OPS against left-handers (.663, 14 points worse than second-to-last) would go a long way toward answering that question, but thanks to his recent string of quality performances, his owners are left with no choice but to use him. It's slightly disconcerting that Derek Lowe allowed three runs to the Reds, who have been entrenched with the worst OPS in the majors since the All-Star break, but the bright side is that he got more outs on the ground than in the air for the 11th straight start. He's allowed more than three runs just once in that stretch, so despite a run-of-the-mill 4.06 ERA, he has been pretty consistent. With another favorable matchup against the Astros (.717 OPS against right-handers, 25th), Lowe should keep on rolling. Jered Weaver has taken advantage of a couple of mediocre offenses to rebound nicely in his past two starts, going 13 innings with just one run allowed, and on paper, you would think the Mariners, who have the worst OPS against righties in the AL, would be just another victim. However, Weaver hasn't been too sharp against his division rivals, as his 3.00 ERA in two starts comes with an ugly 1.42 WHIP, not to mention four walks and two home runs allowed in 12 innings. For his career, Weaver has a 4.75 ERA and 1.45 WHIP in 13 starts. It would be foolish to leave Weaver inactive -- many Mariners responsible for those poor career numbers are no longer with the team -- but it seems there's a good chance he might have trouble matching the effectiveness of his recent outings. Despite a 2.88 ERA in his past four starts, Jason Hammel has picked up one win in that span, the victim of tough luck. If you're in search for cheap wins, however, he's worth a gamble versus the Reds, primarily on the back of his team's offense, whose .817 OPS since the break is pacing the league. Better still, the Rockies are at home, where they score 5.78 runs per game, tops in the league by nearly a full run. Even if Hammel is unable to pick up a win, it's unlikely the Reds will hit him much, so there's little to lose, considering he is available in more than 98 percent of ESPN leagues. It is worrisome that Ricky Nolasco has now allowed a home run in six consecutive starts, although he still is striking out about a batter per inning. It's difficult to assess how he'll do against the Mets, who are getting somewhat healthy with the returns of David Wright and now Carlos Beltran, and Nolasco's poor performances against the Mets (7.20 ERA in two starts) tossing another monkey wrench into things. That makes Nolasco a situational play, as head-to-head leagues that can use the strikeouts should take the dive, but those with innings to save or shallow leagues with ratios to protect might want to think twice. Now that the Yankees apparently have put Joba Chamberlain on a three-inning limit, he's essentially worthless in fantasy leagues. Since the Yankees have a tough schedule from here on out, there's no upside here, so feel free to let him go.
• Nelson Cruz, OF, Rangers: With hits in eight of his past nine games, Cruz is hot again and has to be licking his chops at the chance to face Fausto Carmona. He's 3-for-6 versus Carmona in his career, blasting two homers, including one earlier in the season, and with home runs in four of his past eight games, you know Cruz is looking to go deep.
• Ryan Theriot, SS, Cubs: Theriot tends to jump all over Zach Duke, sporting a career .361 average in 36 career at-bats. As you might expect, he hasn't shown a ton of power -- three doubles and a home run, which is better than nothing -- but considering his 5-for-11 mark this season, he's shown no signs of slowing down against Duke.
• Vernon Wells, OF, Blue Jays: Including the home run he hit against Carl Pavano earlier in the season, Wells now has swatted three homers off Pavano in just 15 career at-bats. Considering righties are slugging better than .500 against Pavano, it might be more than a fluke, and it's worth starting Wells to find out.
• J.D. Drew, OF, Red Sox: Drew has knocked Jason Berken around this season, going 3-for-4 with three extra-base hits -- a home run, a triple and a double -- and piled up five RBIs. Since Berken hasn't done much better against other lefties -- on average, they're hitting .330 against him -- Drew sounds like an excellent play, especially considering how productive he's been in recent weeks.
• A.J. Pierzynski, C, White Sox: Expect Pierzynski, who's hitting a robust .324 against righties this season, to be all over Trevor Cahill. Although lefties are hitting "only" .290 off Cahill, they've launched 20 bombs in 328 at-bats, contributing to the ridiculous .573 slugging percentage allowed. Another round-tripper would be nice for Pierzynski, who took Cahill deep previously this season (2-for-5 with a double and a homer).
• Andre Ethier, OF, Dodgers: Ethier has been beastly versus Dan Haren, going 9-for-23 (.391) with three doubles and two homers in his career, including one earlier in the season. Ethier's OPS is comfortably more than 1.200 against the ace.
• Derrek Lee, 1B, Cubs: Lee will try once again to solve Zach Duke, against whom he's gone 1-for-8 this season to bring his average down to .256 in 43 at-bats. With just three extra-base hits in those at-bats, Lee has a mediocre .372 slugging percentage, so don't expect much production from him in the box score Wednesday.
• Prince Fielder, 1B, Brewers: The slugger has one extra-base hit in 25 career at-bats versus Adam Wainwright, albeit the hit did leave the park. Otherwise, Fielder is left with four singles and a .208 average, and although he's worked seven walks, he's also struck out seven times, so a walk is really all he's been able to get.
• Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Padres: Gonzalez loses 89 points of average and 230 points of slugging when facing southpaws, so it shouldn't be so surprising that Barry Zito has had his number throughout his career. Gonzalez is just 8-for-33 (.242) with one extra-base hit, a double. Things haven't gone any better for Gonzalez this year, either, as he has two singles in 11 at-bats against Zito.
• Ben Zobrist, 2B/SS/OF, Rays: He's gone 8-for-44 (.181) during a slump in his past 12 games, and he's 0-for-7 against Joba Chamberlain with three strikeouts. Zobrist hits only .265 against right-handers anyway, 49 points less than his average versus left-handers, so the smart play is to bench him.
• Jason Kubel, OF, Twins: Not that it should take much to convince you that a matchup against Roy Halladay isn't optimal, but Kubel is only 1-for-12 lifetime against the ace, including an 0-for-3 mark this season.
If you're hardcore
• David Murphy, OF, Rangers: Quietly hitting .314 in his past nine games, with a couple of homers and four doubles chipped in for good measure, Murphy should be able to take full advantage of Fausto Carmona. Ten of the 11 home runs Carmona has allowed have come off lefties, and overall they're hitting .321 with a .526 slugging percentage. As the cherry on top of things, Murphy is 4-for-6 with a double in his previous matchups against Carmona.
• Juan Uribe, 2B/3B/SS, Giants: After swatting four home runs in 53 at-bats in August, Uribe topped himself, needing just 25 at-bats to match that total in September. With 14 extra-base hits in his past 21 games, you'll be hard-pressed to find any player who qualifies in the middle infield who has displayed more power in recent weeks. With the Giants pushing for a playoff spot, you can expect to see Uribe's name penciled in the lineup on a regular basis until he cools off.
• Felix Pie, OF, Orioles: Paul Byrd is awful against left-handed hitting, with left-handers hitting .335 over the past three years, spanning more than 1,000 at-bats. They hit for power, too (.513 slugging percentage), so Pie, who has come into his own the past couple of weeks, could put up some big numbers.
• Cody Ross, OF, Marlins: Another matchup with a lefty should portend another productive game from Ross, who has hit eight home runs off lefties in 119 at-bats. Ross has been on a homer drought, going 27 games without a dinger, but he does have three doubles in his past four games, and doubles tend to turn into home runs.
• Matt Diaz, OF, Braves: Batting nearly .400 against left-handers -- .398 to be exact -- Diaz is a lefty-killer and must be active even against the likes of Wandy Rodriguez. Fortunately, he's 3-for-9 with a double versus Rodriguez, as there seems to be no lefty Diaz can't conquer.
• Billy Butler, 1B, Royals: With three consecutive multihit performances -- capped by a 3-for-4, two-homer day versus the Angels -- Butler has bounced back nicely from a mini slump. He now is hitting .317 with 10 home runs since July, and Butler won't be afraid to step into the batter's box against Justin Verlander on Wednesday, with a career .435 average against him in 23 at-bats. He's blasted two long balls -- including one this season -- and has added two doubles, giving him a .783 slugging percentage, and maybe most impressively, he has yet to go down on strikes against Verlander.
• Ian Stewart, 2B/3B, Rockies: Stewart has put an emphatic end to his slump with four home runs in his past five games, and a matchup with Bronson Arroyo, a homer-prone righty, should be right up his alley. Eighteen of Stewart's 23 homers have come against righties, while Arroyo has allowed 28 home runs, the third most in the majors. It shouldn't be much of a surprise that Stewart went deep against Arroyo earlier in the season.
Injury list: Out
• Mike Cameron, OF, Brewers (hamstring): "If I'm out, you know it's bad," Cameron said, and indeed, he's expected to be out until at least Friday.
• Josh Hamilton, OF, Rangers (back): Hamilton now is expected to be out until the weekend at the earliest.
• Gil Meche, SP, Royals (shoulder): Meche missed his start Friday with a sore right shoulder, and he'll miss another start Wednesday. Robinson Tejeda will be his fill-in.
• Carlos Pena, 1B, Rays (60-day DL, fractured left index and middle finger): Pena was nailed by a CC Sabathia fastball that will end his season.
• Gary Sheffield, OF, Mets (back; limited to pinch hitting)
• Alfonso Soriano, OF, Cubs (knee)
• Huston Street, RP, Rockies (biceps)
Injury list: Day-to-day
• Gordon Beckham, 3B/SS, White Sox (oblique)
• Carlos Beltran, OF, Mets (knee): Beltran will be activated from the 15-day disabled list Tuesday.
• Mark DeRosa, 3B/2B/OF, Cardinals (back)
• Yunel Escobar, SS, Braves (ankle)
• Dexter Fowler, OF, Rockies (15-day DL, knee): Fowler, currently rehabbing at Double-A, is expected to be evaluated Tuesday and could be ready to suit up then or Wednesday.
• Ken Griffey Jr., OF, Mariners (knee; available to pinch hit)
• Corey Hart, OF, Brewers (15-day DL, appendectomy): Hart, who has been out since Aug. 2, is expected to return from the disabled list Tuesday and should see immediate playing time with teammate Mike Cameron sidelined.
• Jeremy Hermida, OF, Marlins (rib)
• Aaron Hill, 2B, Blue Jays (personal)
• Chipper Jones, 3B, Braves (oblique)
• Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies (back)
• Matchups between the Cardinals-Brewers, Twins-Blue Jays, Braves-Astros and Dodgers-Diamondbacks make up the four weatherproof games for Wednesday.
• Isolated storms (30 percent chance) might impinge on the Reds-Rockies affair in Denver. In the Midwest, some showers are expected in Cleveland (40 percent), while thunderstorms seem likely in Kansas City (60 percent).
• A trio of Northeastern cities also will need to do some rain dodging, with the worst of it coming in Pittsburgh (40 to 50 percent chance). A few showers also might crop up in Washington D.C. (30 percent) as well as in Flushing (40 percent).
Adam Madison is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com.