By the Numbers: The second time around
Coming into the 2012 season, it looked as if Fantasy owners had a lot to look forward to from the 2011 class of rookie starting pitchers. Not only did that cohort include the AL Rookie of the Year award winner ( Jeremy Hellickson ), but it also included a top three finisher in the NL voting ( Vance Worley ).
Neither Hellickson nor Worley has lived up to the standards they set for themselves last season, much less exceeded them. And the disappointment doesn't end there, as Michael Pineda , Cory Luebke , Danny Duffy , Brandon Beachy and Kyle Drabek had their seasons curtailed or wiped out due to surgery. Josh Collmenter and Alexi Ogando both missed time as well, and both have spent most of the year in the bullpen rather than in the rotation.
Not every sophomore starter turned out to be a bummer, though. While Pineda (81 ADP) and Hellickson (126 ADP) left their Fantasy owners with buyer's remorse, Mike Minor (194 ADP) and Marco Estrada (279 ADP) have provided an ample return on a minimal investment. Whether a second-year starter's stock went up or down this year, there is something to be gained by looking at each of a pitcher's first two seasons to gather some clues about where his value will lie in 2013. That's exactly what we'll do here this week, scouring over the limited big league track records of 10 pitchers from last season's rookie crop. For each pitcher, we will take a look at what changed for him since last season and what that might mean for him going forward.
Henderson Alvarez , Blue Jays: Coming into this season, Alvarez appeared ready to help owners in standard mixed leagues, at least as a streaming option. As a minor leaguer and as a rookie, he showed the ability to keep his ERA low by way of a high ground ball rate. He also looked like a good bet for a low WHIP, since he had consistently put up microscopic walk rates. While Alvarez has never been a strikeout pitcher, he has been exceptionally hittable this year, striking out batters at the lowest rate in the majors, and by a large margin. Just because Alvarez doesn't get swings-and-misses doesn't mean he can't improve his K-rate and other stats, but he has to get called strikes at an above-average level, and he hasn't done that this year. As a 22-year-old who skipped over Triple-A, Alvarez just may need more seasoning, and the potential for much better performance is still there. Going into next season, though, there will be no reason to draft him outside of AL-only leagues.
Alex Cobb , Rays: Cobb's promising rookie season was cut short when he had surgery to remove a blockage near his rib, and he was slow coming out of the gate once he entered the Rays' rotation in May. Since late July, Cobb has not only hit his stride, but for the first time, he is replicating the low walk rates he compiled in the minors. Cobb has also punched up his strikeout rate as he has rung up called strikes on an astounding 24 percent of his pitches over his last six starts. The good news for owners who have Cobb this season is that, according to the Tampa Tribune, he will remain in the rotation for the rest of this campaign, even though Jeff Niemann has returned from his fractured fibula. Cobb should also have at least as much value next year, and he is worth a late-round grab in standard mixed leagues.
Marco Estrada , Brewers: Coming out of his first two seasons at Triple-A (in 2008 and 2009), Estrada looked to have only modest promise in Fantasy, as his low walk rates would have to compensate for mediocre strikeout rates. After missing most of 2010 with shoulder issues, Estrada faded even further into obscurity. In his rookie season with the Brewers, Estrada started getting strikeouts, but having been used mainly in a relief role, it was still not clear he would have much Fantasy value if he ever got a chance to stick as a starter. That opportunity came this season, and the strikeouts remained even with the uptick in innings. In fact, the hints of strikeout potential were always there with higher-than-average swinging strike rates in the minors. His ability to post a low WHIP gives him the upside of a Jake Peavy or Ian Kennedy , but like those two flyball pitchers, there is also the potential for a high ERA. At the very least, Estrada will be a legitimate late-round option in standard mixed leagues next year, and he could be a steal as such.
Dillon Gee , Mets: Gee is done for the season, as he had surgery to repair an artery in his right shoulder. However, he logged 17 starts before his surgery, giving us a decent sample size, and he should be able to give owners a full season next year, so it's worth taking a look at how Gee has fared. In his rookie season, Gee put up a similar ERA (4.43) and WHIP (1.38) to those he registered the previous two years in Triple-A -- and those weren't very impressive. In addition, he sustained a dramatic drop in his strikeout rate, so owners had little reason to anticipate Gee's sophomore effort. In 2012, Gee improved his strikeout and walk rates, and if not for a mediocre strand rate, his ERA would likely have been well below 4.00, but instead he finished with a 4.10 mark. Given that Gee posted good strikeout-to-walk ratios as a prospect and that his ERA could decline even without improved skill ratios, he appears poised to increase his Fantasy value even more next season.
Jeremy Hellickson , Rays: Owners waiting for the strikeout-artist version of Hellickson to reemerge this season could not help but be disappointed. At least if he could have matched last season's 2.95 ERA and 1.15 WHIP, that would have softened the blow of a 5.9 K/9 rate, but both marks grew this year. Hellickson's strikeout, walk and ground ball rates were all subpar last year, which made his Rookie of the Year campaign look a little fishy, but he was able to prevent hits and runs with a 14 percent popup rate. So far in 2012, Hellickson has been getting popups more than a third less often, and that has left him with stats that are more typical of someone who pitches to contact but without great control. All those infield flies allowed Hellickson to post the lowest BABIP (.224) since 1988, and it's too much to expect him to lower his ERA and WHIP that way again. It's more realistic to view him as a late-round option in standard mixed leagues.
Lance Lynn , Cardinals: Lynn's path has mirrored Estrada's in some ways, at least up until the middle of this season. Lynn's numbers as a minor league starter were unexciting, but as a rookie, he blossomed in a relief role. His conversion to the rotation went exceedingly well through the middle of July. That's when his command went south, as he has walked 16 batters over his last 29 2/3 innings. As Lynn has struggled to locate his pitches, hitters have been taking fewer strikes, swinging and missing less often and scorching him for more line drives. Command had not been a serious problem for Lynn at any previous level, so this recent skid has the look of a garden-variety slump or maybe a sign of fatigue. Though his recent performance has earned him a bullpen demotion, Lynn has shown that he can be a productive starter, and as long as the Cardinals plan to use him in the rotation next season, he is worth a mid-round pick, though he could likely be had for cheaper.
Mike Minor , Braves: As Lynn was starting to flame out in midseason, Minor was just getting warmed up. The Braves' lefty registered a 6.20 ERA through the end of June, and he looked to be in danger of losing his rotation spot. Since then, Minor has failed to record a quality start only once in nine tries, and the one exception was the result of him being lifted early due to a rain delay. The sharp control that underpinned Minor's success at Triple-A has finally shown itself at the major league level, as he has walked only eight batters over his recent nine-game stretch. Minor is probably overperforming right now, but he is certainly better than the pitcher who allowed walks and homers at astronomical levels back in May and June. Owned in 66 percent of the leagues on CBSSports.com, Minor is currently underowned and underappreciated, and he should start next season in a healthy portion of standard mixed leagues.
Ivan Nova , Yankees: Nova's frustating sophomore season took a turn for the worse last week when he went on the 15-day disabled list with rotator cuff inflammation. He should be back again this season, but given how homer-prone Nova has been, he won't have much value when he does return. This year's version of Nova found a way to get batters to swing and miss at his curveball more often, but it hasn't paid off, as he has gotten clobbered when throwing his fastball and slider. Nova's heater, in particular, has really let him down. Last season, it was a big reason why he got grounders on 55 percent of hit balls, but this year he has been getting less vertical movement, and that rate has dropped to 46 percent. The low ground ball rate could be an aberration, and if Nova can get both his curveball and fastball working, he could take a huge step forward. It's way too risky to assume that will happen, so Nova should be considered a late-round option at best next season.
Chris Sale , White Sox: Of the pitchers featured here who made the conversion from a relief role this year, Sale has had the greatest success by far. Though his K-rate has shrunk somewhat, he has still struck out nearly a batter per inning, and he has managed to make dramatic improvements in his walk rate and strikes thrown percentage. Sale has been a top 12 starting pitcher this year, and even being conservative, he hasn't given Fantasy owners any reason to doubt he belongs in the top 20.
Vance Worley , Phillies: Through the middle of July, Worley seemed to be proving that his rookie season was no fluke, as he had a 3.47 ERA through his first 15 starts. Though he lacks dominating stuff, Worley was able to compile a robust strikeout rate due to his ability to get called strikes at one of the highest rates in the majors. Over his last seven starts, Worley has been fooling batters less often and getting fewer strikeouts and allowing more runs in the process. The Phillies' organization had downplayed the impact that Worley's bone chips were having on his performance, but now that he is set to have elbow surgery to remove the bodies within the next couple of weeks, it raises more questions about the link between the bone chips and the decline in performance. Until more is known, Worley should be viewed with suspicion in standard mixed leagues on Draft Day 2013.
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