Two major factors conspire to mislead fantasy players about the value of starting pitchers.
First, starters are far more dependent on their teammates than any other type of player. You can tell me a starter is 6-2 through May, but that means almost nothing about the way he's pitched. Maybe he received great run support, or maybe his defense bailed him out even though he couldn't miss a bat to save his life.
Second, starters get hurt. I know it happens to position players, too. But every year, our preseason lists of top pitchers are obsolete by the All-Star break. And every year, injuries are the major reason. We all know the signs. Out of nowhere, you hear that your ace, be it Chris Carpenter or Felix Hernandez, will miss his next start because of elbow discomfort. The reports from side sessions are optimistic, but the expected return date moves back and back until finally, the guy you built your fantasy staff around is out for three months. Bang! You've been killed by a pitching injury and you never saw it coming.
Given all this uncertainty, it's hard to know where you stand with pitching at this point in the season. But here are some thoughts on those who've thrived unexpectedly or disappointed so far.
After a disappointing 2006, Jake Peavy has been the best pitcher in baseball. Anyone who read my preseason columns knows that I'm not too surprised. He pitched wonderfully in 2004 and 2005 and, even last year, he never lost the ability to throw strikes or get the ball by hitters. That marked him as a major bounce-back candidate. His numbers this year are solid. He strikes batters out without sacrificing control and has allowed only one homer in 80 1/3 innings. Throw in a home park that favors him and you have a profile similar to that of history's most dominant pitchers. Peavy is no fluke.
Oakland's Dan Haren has been almost as great as Peavy with a 6-2 record and 1.70 ERA. I've touted Haren for several years as an overlooked staff anchor. He's durable and has always maintained a solid strikeout-to-walk ratio. But he's probably not quite this good. His strikeout and walk numbers are in line with his career rates, but the batting average against him is only .178, compared with .251 for his career. That tells me that a combination of excellent Oakland defense and luck have deflated his ERA to an unrealistic level. I don't think he'll fall apart, but I won't be surprised if his ERA is up to 3.00 by season's end. I like the guy, but if you can use him to get a superstar, do it.
I'm torn on Haren's teammate Chad Gaudin because I picked him up off the waiver wire in my AL league and want to believe that his excellent start is for real. Actually, I think it's sort of for real. He's always had talent, and Oakland's defense and home park favor him. But I'd be shocked if he keeps his ERA below 3.50 for the full season. His arm isn't used to the innings, his control is only decent and he doesn't miss enough bats.
Boy, did the Dodgers take a brilliant gamble on Randy Wolf. The 30-year-old left-hander hasn't pitched a full season since 2003 but now looks like the guy who was once a rotation stalwart for the Phillies.
Wolf's numbers are very solid, so I think he'll be good as long as he's healthy. Unfortunately, his record on that count is extremely spotty. Enjoy him if you have him, but don't look to trade for this fragile commodity.
Conversely, I love Erik Bedard right now. He's leading the majors in strikeouts and is pitching like an ace. But his mediocre record and ERA mean he's not perceived that way nationally.
If you're in a league with other Orioles fans, Bedard probably isn't available at a bargain. But if you're in a more diverse group and need pitching, target him.
If you're looking for guys to sell high, I'd suggest Mets pitchers John Maine and Oliver Perez. Maine puts too many guys on base to maintain his current 2.81 ERA, and Perez, though very talented, has never been able to hold it together for extended stretches.
I'm loving Fausto Carmona's 6-1 record and 3.29 ERA for the $1 I paid in my AL league. And hitters always seem to praise his stuff. But it's awfully, awfully hard to be an elite pitcher while striking out only one batter every three innings. I'd sell high if there's a Carmona lover in your league.
I can't believe Barry Zito has a 3.87 ERA. His all-around numbers are terrible. Trade him to anyone who thinks he's still a top-notch pitcher.
Among the pitchers who are struggling, I'd be really worried about Dontrelle Willis, Carlos Zambrano, Scott Olsen and Adam Wainwright. Their numbers are bad in every way.
Home runs are foiling Ervin Santana, but that wasn't a problem for him in previous years, so his ERA should fall in the coming months. I think Roy Halladay will be fine, too, though his 4.63 ERA illustrates the peril of allowing too many balls in play.
I know many folks were hyped about San Francisco's Matt Cain coming into the season, but his control still isn't good enough to support excellent performance.
Tampa Bay's Scott Kazmir faces the same problem. I still have high hopes for both long term, and they'd make nice targets if you're ready to rebuild for next year.
To read Sheil Kapadia's three up and three down, go to That Fantasy Guy blog at baltimoresun.com/fantasy.