Grading the Unexpected Aces: Wacha, Liriano, Burnett, Martinez and Odorizzi
Let’s take a look at another batch of pitchers having great years despite low pre-season rankings. All of the pitchers below are currently ranked in the top 25 starting pitchers in baseball in 5×5 leagues. Are they flukes or can we expect them to continue pitching at an elite level?
Michael Wacha, Cardinals — 9-3 Record, 2.85 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 69 Strikeouts in 88.1 innings.
Wacha was not a low-ranked pitcher this offseason. In most rankings he sat in the 35-50 range among starting pitchers. But so far this season he has been a top-15 pitcher in 5×5 leagues. His 7.03 K/9 is a league average strikeout rate. His 2.04 BB/9 walk rate is better than average. Wacha has been a little bit lucky with the .262 BABIP that should rise up to the .295 range. The Cardinals are not a very good defensive team that can maintain his BABIP far below league average. Wacha’s home run rate is low again this year despite having a neutral ground ball profile. We should expect him to allow a few more homers as the season rolls along. His 3.61 xFIP and 3.76 SIERA point toward a bump in his 2.85 ERA, but I think we should continue to see Wacha perform very similarly to what he has done throughout his career. The Cardinals are a strong team who can provide Wacha with plenty of support from the offense and the bullpen, and they play in a strong pitcher’s park. Expect a slight drop in the winning percentage and a slight rise in the ERA and WHIP. We are looking at an above average but not elite pitcher in a great situation to succeed. Verdict: The Real Deal. Continue to roll with him. Trade for him if the price is reasonable.
Francisco Liriano, Pirates — 4-6 Record, 3.21 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 108 Strikeouts in 95.1 innings.
Liriano ranks 17th in 5×5 leagues among all starting pitchers despite not being in the top 50 pre-season. Liriano has been extremely inconsistent throughout his career. Three times he has put up an ERA over 5.00 for a full season, and his career ERA is 4.01. The lefty has always been able to strike batters out, but has also struggled with walks. Walks and strikeouts both lead to high pitch counts, a problem which has limited Liriano to an average of 6 innings per start. That leads to a lack of Wins. Liriano went 7-10 last year and is 4-6 this year despite playing for a winning team. That lack of wins has put the brakes on Liriano’s fantasy value despite his stellar 10.7 K/9 strikeout rate. Another problem with owning Liriano is health. He has pitched more than 162 innings in a season only once in his 11 year career. He is pitching very well right now, but chances are he is not going to make it through the season. His 0.98 WHIP right now is light years better than his 1.30 career WHIP, and the reason is his lucky .248 BABIP that will surely rise as the season progresses. Liriano pitches for a good team in a good pitcher’s park, and his 2.62 FIP is great. Verdict: Sell High. He is likely to see a dropoff in performance and health later in the season. Cash in his trade value now to obtain a safer pitcher.
A.J. Burnett, Pirates — 6-3 Record, 2.01 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 86 Strikeouts in 98.1 innings.
The 38 year old Burnett had a terrible year last year (8-18, 4.59 ERA) and nearly retired in the offseason. Now back in Pittsburgh he has been rejuvenated. Burnett was not considered a top 100 starting pitcher during the winter but he ranks #18 in baseball right now. He is another pitcher with a long track record of drastic inconsistency. His 2.01 ERA this year is half of his 3.96 career ERA. Burnett has actually been unlucky with a .326 BABIP, but his 81.8% strand rate and 0.27 HR/9 are both very lucky and much better than his career rates. His 4.5% HR/FB rate is less than half his career 11.0% rate. That is a strong sign that more home runs are in his near future. Burnett’s 7.87 K/9 is pretty good but nothing to get excited about, and his 2.47 BB/9 is league average. His 3.18 xFIP and 3.34 SIERA show just how unlikely his 2.01 ERA is to continue being so low. Pittsburgh is a great place for pitchers but not this great. Burnett’s performance is going to take a big step back from his elite current numbers, although he will continue to be serviceable the rest of the season. One good thing is his amazing durability — Burnett has thrown 2000 innings in the last 10 years. Verdict: Sell High. When you have a 38 year old player having the best year of his career you have the perfect sell high scenario. Burnett had zero trade value two months ago, now he does. Cash it in!
Carlos Martinez, Cardinals — 8-3 Record, 2.89 ERA, 1.26 WHIP and 94 Strikeouts in 87.1 innings.
Martinez has finally gotten the opportunity to be a permanent member of the Cardinals’ starting rotation, which is something that we were all hoping for but were disappointed the last couple years. Martinez’s fastball is down two full miles per hour from his career average of 96.5 mph. That is a concern for sure, although much of it could be due to being a full-time starter this year. He is still one of the hardest throwing starters though. The knock on Martinez has always been his size, as many believe he is too small to survive as a starting pitcher over 200 innings with his heat. Looking at his peripheral stats there is not really anything to be concerned about, although his strand rate is high at 83.5%. His BABIP and HR/9 are normal. His HR/FB is actually much higher than his career norm and is likely to improve. He strikes out more than a batter per inning, which is great. His walk rate is high and needs to improve. Martinez’s 3.14 xFIP and 3.33 SIERA are a bit higher than his 2.89 ERA but I don’t anticipate much of a change. I think Martinez is one of the most talented young starters in baseball and he is finally getting a chance to prove it. The only worry is his health. Keep an eye on the fastball velocity every game. If he shows a further drop in velocity I would trade him before he goes on the DL. If he continues at 94+ mph he should continue getting hitters out (FYI, the heat is not the only reason he pitches well, he has a good repertoire too. The mph are an indicator of health, so if the speed falls he is likely nursing an injury). If he can ever improve his control he will be a beast. Verdict: The Real Deal. Keep him and use him, but monitor his health and move him quickly if his speed drops.
Jake Odorizzi, Rays — 4-5 Record, 2.47 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 63 Strikeouts in 76.2 innings.
Odorizzi is currently on the DL with a strained oblique, which has reportedly healed. He will be out another two or three weeks while he builds up strength. He will fall down the rankings while he sits on the shelf. This might be the last good opportunity for you to buy this 25 year old. His 7.40 K/9 is down a lot from last year’s 9.32 per nine, but his 1.76 BB/9 is down from 3.16 last year as well. He has made drastic improvement to his ground ball rate and that should help him limit home runs. He has shown big strikeout rates in the past, so he owns that ability even if it isn’t showing up right now. I think he will post above average strikeout rates throughout his career. Odorizzi is not nearly as good as his 2.47 ERA but I still think he is going to be a good pitcher. He is clearly still learning how to pitch and has made a lot of adjustments in his approach to pitching and his repertoire. He doesn’t have much velocity but he gets results regardless. Odorizzi is no longer technically a prospect, but he is still a prospect in terms of projection. He pitches in a good ballpark for a team that is very good at developing young pitchers with talent. If you look purely at his current peripherals you see a slightly better than average pitcher, but I am making the call that his peripherals will improve over the next couple years. I see a pitcher who will not be an ace or even a #2, but he will be a guy you can use on a weekly basis except when he is facing the most elite offensive teams. Wait until the All Star break and then see if you can pry him away from his owner at a bargain price. Verdict: Buy Low. Wait for his price to drop and then jump on him. Be patient as he develops into a good fantasy starter over the next two years.
If you missed this one you might want to check it out: Grading the Unexpected Aces: Archer, Keuchel, Hammel, Miller and Pineda
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Are there any other players off to bad/good starts that you would like some advice on?