Are post-DL pitchers safe to start?

Stubbornness -- stubbornness in the face of facts -- is not an endearing quality of a fantasy baseball analyst.

Our place is to constantly review and revise our opinions. We cannot cling to old mantras, not when the game is changing to this degree: The major league ERA this season is 3.99, more than a quarter-run below the 2008 league average (4.32). If your pitching strategy has not changed accordingly, even just a little, you are not keeping up with the times.

For example, I have long distrusted pitchers immediately following their activation from the disabled list, but recent events have prompted me to re-examine that conservative approach; three outings in particular sent me back to the fact-finding drawing board:

• I watched Zack Greinke throw five innings of one-run baseball against the Washington Nationals on May 15, earning himself the win.

• I watched Johnny Cueto throw five innings of three-run baseball with eight strikeouts at the New York Mets on May 20, also earning himself the win.

• And I watched Matt Garza throw five innings of shutout, one-hit baseball at the Pittsburgh Pirates on May 21.

All three pitchers had Bill James Game Scores of at least 50 in those outings (50 represents a "quality start" using that measure). In fact, 13 of the past 14 top 50-valued starting pitchers -- that valuation determined by either their preseason average draft position or their Player Rater standing in the season in question -- managed a Bill James Game Score of 50-plus in their first starts since being activated from the disabled list.

Long have I stood behind this particular pitching strategy: Always bench a starting pitcher in his first start fresh off the disabled list. It is one I have discussed in this space in detail as recently as two years ago, and it is one that I said in the Week 9 Forecaster that I would break for a fresh-off-the-DL Wednesday starter, Jered Weaver.

Back in 2011, the facts suggested the conservative approach was the correct one. Today, the facts suggest otherwise. They say that I shouldn start Weaver not just because he's an elite pitcher but because even the "pretty good" tend to succeed in start No. 1 back.

Reexamining this study, I isolated the 47 top-50 starting pitchers -- again that value point decided by either preseason ADP in the given season or final Player Rater standing at the conclusion of said season, among exclusively starting pitchers -- who made a grand total of 71 trips to the DL and have subsequently been activated, since the beginning of 2010. To qualify, these pitchers had to be directly activated into a team's rotation; none of them were initially sent to the bullpen or the minor leagues for a start or two first.

The chart below breaks down their performances into six groups: The first is their statistics in their final five starts before landing on the DL; the next four represent stats in their first through fourth starts following activation; the final represents stats in their fifth starts and beyond after being activated.

That 2.99 ERA and 1.19 WHIP represent a stark contrast to the numbers from my 2011 study (4.34 ERA, 1.35 WHIP), and it makes the decision to start Weaver on Wednesday -- as well as future DL returnees such as David Price, Josh Johnson and Brandon Beachy -- much more sensible. You'd have to go all the way back to April 8 of last season, for Clay Buchholz's first start of the season following his recovery from a stress fracture in his back, for the last true "stinker" from this group (4 IP, 8 H, 7 ER).

That said, there are two caveats to these findings.

One is that, despite those sparking ratios, the same trend of capped pitch counts and diminished stamina apparent in the 2011 study remain. The average pitches per start (87.3) and quality start percentage (45.1 percent) remain significantly beneath the 2013 major league averages of 95.4 and 51.4 percent, meaning that if your league has a strict seasonal starts cap, you might not extract the necessary volume of stats from your starter. This is the rationale for the "consider your league context" warning I have regularly passed along.

That said, the average Bill James Game Score of this group was 52, higher than the 2013 major league average of 51, and remember that this formula rewards strikeouts, meaning it's a better representation of fantasy success than quality starts. You might not get the length of outing you desire, but the per-inning contributions should be palatable.

The other caveat is that, while these pitchers might have enjoyed recent success in start No. 1 fresh off the DL -- and, to a lesser degree, also in start No. 2 -- starts Nos. 3 to 5 have been a bit shakier, as the aforementioned Greinke and Garza have shown. It appears that one start's success following activation doesn't guarantee anything for subsequent turns; in fact, it appears the "diminished velocity or spotty command" might emerge in this latter stage of recovery. The K/BB ratio stats in start No. 3 illustrate that -- and while I excluded it from the chart due to minimal variance -- there is indeed an ever-so-slight dip in average velocity in starts Nos. 3 and 4.

The reason for these shifts isn't abundantly clear, but, to speculate, perhaps teams are getting smarter at easing their most valuable starters back from injuries slowly, in addition to capping their pitch counts lining them up for somewhat softer first matchups. Sure enough, there were three Pirates matchups, two Mets, one Chicago Cubs and one Minnesota Twins, as well as Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Dodgers and Nationals matchups that came during massively down periods for those offenses in that aforementioned group of 14 recent fresh-off-the-DL starters.

Either way, I'm amending my strategy: Feel free to start any meaningful fantasy starter in his first start fresh off the DL, so long as you've done your requisite homework regarding his pitch count/stamina and matchup.

Then, be mindful of each and every one of his next several matchups, which is an add-on to my strategy that was not present before.

Returning to Weaver, he threw 5⅔ innings and 75 pitches in his most recent extended spring training game on May 22, meaning he might be prepared to approach 100 pitches in his Wednesday assignment. It comes against the Dodgers in a home game; since the beginning of 2011, Weaver has an ERA at home (2.11) more than a run lower than on the road (3.14), while the Dodgers are mired in a 13-game stretch during which they've batted .244/.310/.358 and averaged 3.46 runs per contest.

I'll reiterate: Weaver gets my nod. At least for this matchup.

It's Weaver's starts Nos. 2-6 that might warrant more caution. Consider that, after this outing, he'd next get the Boston Red Sox (on the road), New York Yankees (at home), Seattle Mariners (home), Detroit Tigers (road), St. Louis Cardinals (home) and Red Sox again (home) in those following five turns, assuming he pitches every fifth game. If the Los Angeles Angels pitch him on every fifth day, he'd trade only one of those matchups: the Cardinals for the Houston Astros on the road. Weaver's owners should watch his first start, if possible, and make their decisions on a start-by-start basis from there.

Relief Efforts

In a week in which one of the top starting pitching stories is a pitcher coming off the DL (Weaver), arguably the top relief pitching story is two closers going on the DL: The Milwaukee Brewers placed Jim Henderson on the DL on Saturday with a strained right hamstring he suffered a night before, while the Indians placed Chris Perez on the DL on Sunday with rotator cuff tendinitis.

This opened up two bullpens to multiple short-term candidates for saves, with Vinnie Pestano of the Indians the most obvious pickup in either bullpen. Perez's primary setup man for a little more than two calendar years, Pestano has the fifth-most holds (70) since the beginning of the 2011 season, to go along with a sparkling 2.69 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 3.13 strikeouts-per-walk ratio during that span. The problem, however, is that Pestano's performance has come into question of late, perhaps for the first time in his career.

Pestano's average fastball velocity, clocked at 92.1 mph on average thus far in his big league career, was a mere 89.2 mph on average in his outing this past Friday, then 88.4 mph a day later on Saturday. Those represent his fifth-worst and worst numbers in any single outing in his career. He was touched up for four runs on four hits in his inning of work in the latter appearance, raising his season ERA to 5.25. Considering he spent 17 days on the disabled list earlier in the month with elbow tendinitis, Pestano perhaps isn't his usual healthy self, meaning that while he's worth an instant add in any format, he's hardly assured of holding this job if he doesn't improve soon.

In the event Pestano can't get it done, either 2011 draftee Cody Allen or righty-dominating Joe Smith could get a look in the role. Allen is an intriguing stash for AL-only owners as the owner of a 2.31 ERA and 11.57 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio in 20 appearances, as well as a mid-90s fastball and curveball that could put him into future-years closer consideration.

The Brewers' bullpen, meanwhile, will go to the dreaded committee despite the presence of John Axford and his 106 career saves, which rank 17th among active major leaguers. Axford, in fact, might not even be part of said committee, as manager Ron Roenicke told the team's official website on Saturday, "I think we like what we're doing with Ax now, and we'll probably continue to do it that way."

Francisco Rodriguez, third among active relievers with 295 career saves, moves to the forefront of the closer speculation in Milwaukee, especially after he completed Friday's game in relief of Henderson to notch a one-out save. Rodriguez might share opportunities initially with Mike Gonzalez -- and perhaps even Brandon Kintzler or Burke Badenhop -- but in this season in which "closer experience" has driven many managerial decisions around the game -- see Gregg, Kevin; Bell, Heath; and Valverde, Jose -- he's the smartest pickup of the bunch. Strange, strange things keep happening in the ninth inning this season.


Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top-150 pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued. For starter- or reliever-specific rankings, see the "Pos Rnk" column; these rankings can also be seen split up by position.