Breakout or Fakeout: Starting Pitchers

Jesse Chavez has been one of baseball best pitchers, but can it last? (USATSI)
Jesse Chavez has been one of baseball best pitchers, but can it last? (USATSI)

Earlier in April, I examined several batters who jumped out to very hot starts and determined whether I thought their performances indicated a legitimate breakout or an eventual fakeout. However, I can't do that with pitchers after only a couple weeks, as I'd be basing my thoughts on just two or three starts. Five starts isn't a whole lot better, but it's at least a little more data to consider. So let's try and figure out who among the early surprises at the top of the ERA leaderboard with ERAs under 2.00 could be in the middle of a breakout season.

Jesse Chavez entered this season as a veteran reliever who may as well have kept his bags packed at each stop. The A's gave him his first full season with a major-league game since 2009 last year, and he responded with solid numbers out of the bullpen. When injuries struck the A's rotation, Chavez was given the chance to earn a job as a starting pitcher this spring, one he seized. However, after making just two starts in 191 career appearances coming into this season, what was there to expect from this 30-year-old?

It turns out, plenty. He has an exciting mix of four pitches that he can throw for strikes, unlike many bullpen lifers. That gives him the ability to remain effective when a lineup gets to see him for the second and third time in a start. As he continues to mix things up, he can keep even good offenses off-balance, as he did to the Rangers in seven one-hit innings Wednesday, and his win gives him a stellar 1.89 ERA and 41:8 K:BB ratio. The two guys whose injuries gave Chavez his chance are out for the year, so while I do worry about his stamina in the second half of the year, the converted reliever has a clear path to continuing a breakout season.

Yordano Ventura is in the midst of an incredible start to his rookie season, having given up just five earned runs in 30 innings over five starts. Four of those runs came in a single start, making three of his first five appearances scoreless and giving him a 1.50 ERA as the month comes to an end. Unlike Chavez, this performance isn't coming out of relative obscurity.

Ventura came into this season as a highly-touted prospect after racking up 155 strikeouts in 134 2/3 innings between Double-A and Triple-A during his age-22 season last year. He wins with a devastating fastball that creeps into triple-digits, as it did once during five scoreless innings in Wednesday's win. He has the raw stuff to continue striking out more than a batter an inning (he has 31 Ks in 30 innings after five starts) and the talent to finish the season with a Rookie of the Year award. Consider this a breakout en route to what should be an excellent Fantasy career.

Alfredo Simon wasn't supposed to still be in the Reds rotation, but Mat Latos has faced a long road back from his knee injury, as elbow inflammation creeped in to set his rehab back a significant amount of time. While Latos has remained out, Simon has been nearly untouchable, posting a 1.60 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 22:11 in five starts. How long will the fireworks last?

It likely won't be much longer. Simon isn't throwing as hard as normal, and a lot of his success comes from peripherals that are bound for regression, including a subterranean .206 BABIP. Just look at the difference between his ERA and xFIP. Also working against him is the fact that the two pitchers he could have any shot of replacing in the rotation permanently have pitched well themselves. Homer Bailey has been a disaster in the early-going, but the team has more than 100 million reasons to keep running him out there. Simon is bound for the bullpen once the team's rotation reaches full strength, though his elite performance thus far will likely crumble before that rotation squeeze happens, revealing his fantastic April as a fakeout.

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