Robert De Niro's character in the movie Meet the Parents had strict parameters for his Circle of Trust. You're either in or you're out, and once you're out, you're out. There's no coming back.
In the realm of Fantasy Baseball, though, I think regular reevaluation is warranted, particularly with regard to starting pitchers. They're always doing things to blow our trust, and if we banished them forevermore because of it, well, pretty soon we'd have nowhere else to turn.
So we keep giving them chances -- seconds, thirds, fourths, as their individual talent warrants -- and eventually, for some, we learn to accept the bad with the good.
We're getting down to it now, though. Every lineup decision matters all the more as we enter the season's homestretch, and some of the pitchers we've stood by the longest are failing us when it matters most.
So are they still inside the Circle of Trust or out of it? Or are they on the fringes, teetering the line between trust and mistrust? (See, Jack, there can be some middle ground.)
It's not so much about whether to stash or drop these pitchers. They're all worth rostering still in most leagues. It's more a question of how to implement them. Those inside the Circle of Trust are worth starting every week, regardless of matchups, but for those outside of it, you'll want to pick your spots.
For these 12 starting pitchers, who've all been shaky of late, here's where I stand.
Aaron Nola SP
PHI Philadelphia • #27 • Age: 28
Aaron Nola's ERA has been a problem all year, but little else has. His walk rate is the best it's ever been. His strikeout rate is the second-best. His 3.48 xFIP and 3.63 xERA would both also suggest he deserves better than he's gotten. Whatever is wrong with him, then, must be small. He says he's had trouble keeping his fastball down, which would seem explain the elevated fly ball and home run rates. It's likely he's had some bad luck even on top of that, his latest start Thursday being a prime example. His upside is such that two months of ace production remains likely.
Zac Gallen SP
ARI Arizona • #23 • Age: 26
Bottom line is I don't think he's healthy. Zac Gallen hasn't looked like Zac Gallen since suffering an elbow sprain in May. "Sprain" in this instance is a euphemism for ligament damage, and you may remember there was some fear he would need Tommy John surgery at the time. He has delivered several respectable starts since then -- ones in which he's allowed two runs or fewer, ones in which he's had more than a strikeout per inning -- but the consistency just isn't there. Nor is the crispness -- his swinging-strike rate is a pathetic 9.6 percent, down from 12.1 last year. I worry it could all go kablooey.
HOU Houston • #59 • Age: 27
It's fashionable to ditch Framber Valdez now that his former control issues have resurfaced, resulting in 6.1 BB/9 over his past seven starts compared to 2.1 in his first six, but there are reasons to hang on. His 70.1 percent ground-ball rate is just other-worldly. It was 10 percentage points lower last year, and he still finished a distant first among qualifiers. He doesn't need to be a control artist when he's so good at limiting damage on contact, and it explains how, despite all the walks lately, he has yet to score negative Fantasy points in a start all season. I'll bet on the control coming back, at least partially.
CIN Cincinnati • #58 • Age: 28
No need to lose our heads over this one, guys. Just one look at Luis Castillo's ERA after Monday's eight-run disaster at Cleveland will lead you to abandon all hope, but keep in mind it was up over 7.00 at the start of June. He just enjoyed an 12-start stretch in which he compiled a 1.95 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 9.5 K/9, looking every bit like the second-rounder we drafted him to be, and you're saying one little hiccup -- OK, a great, big belch -- is going to make you turn tail? Nah. He seems healthy. His stuff is intact. Blips are unavoidable, even for those still making up ground.
NYM N.Y. Mets • #99 • Age: 29
It sure felt like Taijuan Walker was getting away with something when he had a 2.12 ERA through his first 12 starts. His xFIP was in the high threes, his strikeout and walk rates were both lackluster, and his ground-ball rate was way too low for him to have given up only three home runs at that point. But I gave him the benefit of the doubt because he had routinely outperformed his xFIP in the past, including just last year. Well, he's still outperforming his xFIP, because now it's up to 4.39. Meanwhile, he has a 6.70 ERA in his past nine starts thanks in part to him giving up his fair share of home runs.
MIA Miami • #28 • Age: 23
The laws of nature have caught up to Trevor Rogers, a 23-year-old rookie who officially threw only 29 2/3 innings (postseason included) during the pandemic-shortened season last year. He's at about 80 more than that this year. It stands to reason, then, that the Marlins would want to reel him in even if they're not outright saying it. His last six starts have all gone less than six innings, and while he hasn't gotten pummeled in any of them, the ratios have slipped so that he's been of no benefit to your Fantasy team. I believe in the talent still, but you'll need to deploy him carefully from now on.
Joe Ross SP
WAS Washington • #41 • Age: 28
Joe Ross has been so bankable for so long that it's easy to be lulled into false sense of security, as happened with Taijuan Walker. But none of the usual performance indicators are anything more than average. His xFIP, FIP and xERA are 4.09, 4.43 and 4.19, respectively. Shoot, his actual ERA is 4.02, but because taking out his worst two starts leaves him with a 2.66 ERA, we tend to overlook it. If that damage was spread out over more starts, chances are we wouldn't trust him so much. I'm not saying you should cast him aside, never to use him again, but you have to recognize that you're playing with fire.
Hyun-Jin Ryu SP
TOR Toronto • #99 • Age: 34
I'll admit to being a little worried about Hyun-Jin Ryu, whose rise in ERA (4.48 in his past 12 starts vs. 2.62 in his first 10) has corresponded with a drop in K/9 (5.9 vs. 8.9). He's so good at limiting walks and home runs that he doesn't need to rely so much on missed bats, but there's a big difference between the strikeout-per-inning guy we've seen the past three years, who was good for a 2.30 ERA, and the one we're seeing now. He looked like he might be coming around with a stretch of four good starts in five, which is why I retain some hope, but his last start was just a debacle.
MIA Miami • #22 • Age: 26
The simple answer might be that Sandy Alcantara's latest start, in which he allowed 10 earned runs in 3 2/3 innings, raising his ERA from 3.12 to 3.79, came at Coors Field, and every pitcher deserves a pass at Coors Field given the myriad of effects that playing a mile above sea level can have. But he does technically have a 5.91 ERA over his past seven starts, and judging by feedback I've received, worrywarts gonna worry. Were you worrying when he two-hit the Yankees in his previous start, striking out 10? He's a proven workhorse who's excellent at suppressing hard contact. His limited strikeout ability may leave him vulnerable at times, but you shouldn't lose faith.
Yu Darvish SP
SD San Diego • #11 • Age: 35
Whatever trust issues you developed with Yu Darvish in July, when he put together a 7.36 ERA in five starts, probably dissipated in his first August start, when he struck out 12 over seven innings, allowing two earned runs. It was the home runs that killed him in July rather than any loss of stuff. Of the 20 homers he has allowed this year, nine came during that one month. He's putting the ball on the ground less than ever this year, so maybe this sort of stretch was inevitable. But between his six-pitch arsenal and long track record of success, I think we can trust him to self-correct when whatever was working stops working.
Sonny Gray SP
CIN Cincinnati • #54 • Age: 31
I tend to lean on xFIP as the best singular predictor of a pitcher's performance, which should give me an affinity for Sonny Gray. His 3.26 xFIP would rank fifth among qualifiers, after all. But in his case, I'm (mostly) convinced that the whole doesn't equal the sum of its parts. It's been a long, winding road to bring me to that point, but I'm basing it on last year as well. As good as he is at missing bats and putting the ball on the ground, he's just not efficient enough. Too many walks, not enough innings. Maybe he's had some bad BABIP and home run luck this year, bloating his ERA and WHIP, but even if he hadn't, I'm not confident he'd be more than a matchups play.
Kenta Maeda SP
MIN Minnesota • #18 • Age: 33
In seven starts since the beginning of July, Kenta Maeda has a 3.43 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and 11.4 K/9, but his last two have been less than great. He's still predisposed to early hooks, lasting no more than five innings in four of his past six starts, which greatly limits his win potential on a team that's already packed it in for this year. But it's also true that he's fixed whatever was wrong with his splitter earlier this year, seeing his swinging-strike rate climb back to where it was in past years. The long and short of it is that he's usable again, but what we saw from him in 2020 was simply too good to be true.