Sliders: Is Joe becoming ordinary?
Our Scott White is now of the belief that Scott Kazmir might be the best pitcher in the AL. On the flip side, the ride might be coming to an end for Joe Saunders.
We've come a long way, you and I.
Two months -- roughly one-third of the season. It went by so fast.
All that time has sorted out so many of this season's mysteries -- the premature rise of Justin Upton , the vanishing power of Corey Hart , the unexpected acedom of Mark Hendrickson .
But of the many unchecked anomalies that remain, gnawing at the insides of so many Fantasy prognosticators, one in particular stands tall -- 6-foot-3 tall, to be exact: Joe Saunders .
Count me among the non-believers. Already, I've seen several of my colleagues fall under his spell, noting he's pitched eight innings or more as many times -- five -- as he's allowed three earned runs or more. And every time he comes unwound with one of those three-run efforts, he bounces back with eight shutout innings. His dominance knows no end.
Will it ever stop? Yo, I don't know. It hasn't yet, and quite frankly, I have neither the stomach nor the nether regions to call his last time out -- five runs in five innings against the Tigers -- the beginning of the end.
But I will make an equally dramatic proclamation: the end is near. Like Brian Bannister , Saunders' high contact rate will catch up with him eventually. He can only make 4.1 strikeouts per nine innings look so cool for so long. And unlike Bannister, he has an unfavorable minor-league history working against him, posting a 5.12 ERA in 14 Triple-A starts last year. So sure, Saunders can mow down Miggy Cabrera, but just wait 'til the Tigers call up Mike Hessman , boy howdy.
But you like him, I know. He's saved your Fantasy team from the recesses of your Fantasy league thanks to a timely waiver claim in Week 1, and you forever owe him your undying loyalty as a result. I get it. But when the magic runs out, let's see how high your loyalty places you in the standings.
Sliders These guys' recent performances signify more than a hot or cold streak. Their Fantasy appeal has actually "slid" either up or down.
Scott Kazmir , SP, Rays
Kazmir looks like he's turned the corner, becoming a legitimate Fantasy ace instead of just a borderline one.
I wrote that sentence in his player update, and I write it again here, only with more fanfare and a drawn-out explanation. See, as crazy as it sounds, Kazmir's 1.22 ERA doesn't do him justice.
It takes into account his four innings of work at Boston on May 4, his first start off the DL after missing the first month with a left elbow strain. If you remove that tune-up effort, a start more designed for him to get his feet wet than to unleash his full arsenal, he has 0.55 ERA through five starts.
That's Cliff Lee good -- again, as crazy as it sounds.
Kazmir is only 24 and just entering his fourth full season, so you had to expect him to improve somewhat. He looked like he had last year, going 8-3 with a 2.39 ERA after the All-Star Break and even cutting down his rate of walks -- his longtime bugaboo -- to a tolerable three per nine innings. Of course, you could have written that performance off as second-half streakiness rather than actual progress. Hey, it happens to plenty of pitchers.
But Kazmir leaves no room for debate these days. With his walk rate still down, he can consistently pitch seven innings for the first time in his career, allowing him to win more games, particularly with his improved supporting cast. And of course, his strikeout rate remains second to none.
Kazmir always had the stuff. Now, he has the command. And with Johan Santana gone for greener pastures in New York, he might claim the role of AL's best pitcher before the end of the year, assuming his elbow never becomes more than strained. Yeah, he's that good.
Yunel Escobar , SS, Braves
Escobar earns brownie points in the real world for his hustle and heady baseball instincts.
But this is Fantasyland. Only Fantasy points count in Fantasyland, and Escobar's still sliding dollar bills into the converter machine.
You like that? Neither do I.
But stop and look at his statistics for a minute. Going into Monday's game, they put him on pace for a .293-11-64-91-5 line in 621 at-bats. Shoot, Cristian Guzman could do better than that. Escobar's sleeper status this preseason hinged on him batting .326 again -- a mark too high to ask any 25-year-old to repeat -- or him developing power. A pace of 11 home runs in no way signals a power breakout, and considering his best minor-league season would have put him on pace for 15 home runs in 550 at-bats, Escobar still has some growing to do in that department.
Sure, Escobar has a solid, relatively consistent bat -- one worth putting in major-league lineup -- but, generally speaking, players have to hit home runs or steal bases to carry their weight in Fantasy. Since Escobar's power hasn't come yet, he does neither.
And yet his ownership rate (97 percent) matches Johan Santana . Go figure.
Johnny Damon , OF, Yankees
Damon turned 34 this offseason, but if you had a complete misunderstanding of biology and the space-time continuum, you'd think he reverse aged, going from 33 to 32.
He sure looked in the twilight of his career last year, his slugging percentage dipping below .400 for the first time since his ill-fated 2001 season -- his only one in Oakland. He also scored fewer than 100 runs for the first time since 1997. Across the board, his statistics screamed decline, and Fantasy owners took notice, making him the 39th outfielder selected in Head-to-Head leagues.
As of now, he ranks 22nd, and he did it just by reverting back to his career norms.
Once again, he looks like Johnny Damon -- a player with 20-20 potential and a batting average just shy of .300. Given his age, he could still slow down as the season progresses, but he actually had a better second half last year. At this point, I'm willing to call his 2007 season more a fluke than a decline.
Justin Duchscherer , SP, Athletics
You'd think a 2.27 ERA and 1.01 WHIP would speak for themselves, that Duchscherer wouldn't need anyone to make sales pitch for him, but based on his ownership rate (64 percent), you'd think wrong.
Not even a near no-hitter against the mighty Red Sox on May 24 got him out of the salesroom and into your homes, and I have no idea why. My best guess says everyone made a list of borderline pitchers at the beginning of the season, scratched Duchscherer from it when he left his first start with an inflamed biceps, and didn't think to add him since. I mean, Duchscherer dominated for three seasons out of the bullpen. And fine, moving from the bullpen to the rotation is more difficult than the reverse, but Ryan Dempster has done it. Braden Looper has done it. And through eight starts, Duchscherer has shown he can do it too.
And I say that as someone not trying to trade him to you.
I understand he's pitching a little over his head right now, but you have to like him to fill out your Fantasy staff better than a Gil Meche or Scott Olsen .
Trevor Hoffman , RP, Padres
Watching a legend on his last legs is often a little bit sad. Emmitt Smith with the Cardinals comes to mind. Chris Miller with the Broncos, not so much.
And now we have Hoffman, the all-time saves leader, flopping around like a fish out of water. Fortunately, his team stinks, so his personal shortcomings have flown a bit under the radar -- unless you happen to own him in Fantasy, of course.
He hasn't had an ERA below 4.00 since his first appearance April 1. And just when he starts to get on track, throwing three straight scoreless innings, he has a three-run meltdown like he did Sunday.
And all this comes on the heels of him blowing five saves with a 4.44 ERA after the All-Star break last year and single-handedly costing the Padres a playoff berth.
If you still have faith in the 40-year-old, rock on. But even without his struggles, his dwindling opportunities give me enough reason to label him a low-end No. 2 Fantasy relief pitcher.
Cody Ross , OF, Marlins
Most kids want to be cowboys and firefighters when they grow up. The weird ones want to be vacuum cleaners.
Me? I wanted to be a short power hitter.
So you can understand my infatuation with Ross, a 5-foot-9 reserve outfielder, who, in 173 at-bats last year, put together a higher slugging percentage (.653) than everybody, Alex Rodriguez included.
Call it a fluke if you want. Most did, and I couldn't disagree.
But what do you call this now -- his stretch of six home runs in his last nine games through Sunday, putting him on pace for 30 in 306 at-bats?
Not a fluke. Flukes happen once.
True, role players thrust into full-time roles generally can't maintain their form. We've seen it this year with Matt Diaz and Jayson Werth . But we've also seen the opposite -- the Melvin Mora and Shane Victorino . Would you want to miss out on Ross if he followed their footsteps to semi-stardom? I sure wouldn't.
And if he continues on this home-run pace, you have to think the Marlins will give him a shot to play everyday at some point. Jacque Jones surely ain't gonna cut it.
(By the way, I grew up tall and gangly, with gap power at best. It was really sad.)
Hanging Sliders These guys look like Sliders, but not so fast! Their recent performances might cause you to misinterpret their Fantasy appeal.
Aaron Harang , SP, Reds
This could probably go without saying, but Harang is still awfully good. His ERA, WHIP, strikeout rate, innings pitched -- really, everything but his win-loss record -- fall right in line with his last two seasons.
But he is on pace to lose 20 games, a trend that has to bother some of Fantasy owners. People who do that are usually named Mike Maroth and shunned by the Fantasy community.
Don't shun Harang. He owes his poor record to bad luck and bad luck alone. In fact, if you can find a Harang owner frustrated by his number of losses to date, see if you can work out a deal. The big right-hander will end up a top-20 Fantasy pitcher by the end of the season.
Change-up Every week, I make terrible errors in judgment. It happens to us all, and if it didn't, Fantasy wouldn't be a game worth playing. Fortunately, I permit myself the opportunity to correct one of my mistakes by throwing a change-up.
Casey Kotchman , 1B, Angels; Conor Jackson , 1B, Diamondbacks
Need your scare for the day? Take a closer look at Kotchman and Jackson. One is essentially the mirror image of the other.
Kotchman plays in the AL, Jackson the NL. Kotchman bats left-handed, Jackson right-handed. Kotchman plays for the Angels, Jackson the Serpents (sort of). It's like something out of a comic book.
And yet for all their cosmetic differences, they have such similar skill sets. Both play first base. Both make consistent contact, maintaining a 1-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio due mostly to a lack of strikeouts. Both haven't shown much power in their careers but have the upside to develop it someday.
Which brings me back to the point of this column and why I list both as change-ups after praising them earlier in the season. I jumped the gun on their power breakouts in April, saying both had emerged as players who could hit 25-30 home runs, because after that first month, Kotchman had six home runs and Jackson five. But since then, Kotchman has zero and Jackson one. Granted, every hitter has an off month now and then, but legitimate power hitters don't go a full 30 days without hitting a home run, not even one.
So Kotchman and Jackson both sit with batting averages just above .300, both stuck at six home runs. True, both have made progress this year and will continue to do so in the future, but would I sit here and make a prediction of 25 home runs?
Not for either.
You can e-mail Scott your Fantasy Baseball questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to put Attn: Sliders in the subject field. Please include your full name, hometown and state.We'll answer as many as we can.
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