In each installment of Rotation Roundup, I review the week ahead for a handful of borderline pitchers for standard mixed league owners, and weigh their short-term value against those of similar alternatives. This is not a forum in which I expected to discuss Chris Sale, Corey Kluber and Stephen Strasburg.
In the cases of Sale and Kluber, there are reassuring signs in the face of surprisingly poor recent performance. Sale is throwing his fastball with his typical velocity, averaging right around 95 mph (according to BrooksBaseball.net) during his two recent subpar starts. However, he has just an 8 percent whiff rate during that span, and he is throwing his fastball with less spin, according to the PitchFX data on Texas Leaguers.com. It's certainly a trend to watch, and even though Sale gets just one start in Fantasy Week 6 (May 11-17) after he returns from his suspension, it's premature to bench him.
Kluber has not only maintained his velocity as well, but he's putting up the strikeout, walk and ground ball rates of a pitcher who should have an ERA near 3.00 rather than one just above 5.00. The most notable change from a year ago is an increase in the percentage of Kluber's pitches in the strike zone that hitters are swinging at. While Kluber is getting whiffs at a 13 percent rate, his strikeout rate isn't quite what it was last year, as he is getting far fewer called strikes. As with Sale, though, this is hardly reason to sit last season's American League Cy Young Award winner.
Part of Strasburg's success in the past has come from fooling hitters on pitches outside the zone, but he hasn't done much of that this season. Whether that is reason to sit Strasburg could be a moot point this week, as he may miss his next turn in the rotation due to a shoulder cramp. That could leave him with one start rather than two, but even so, he could be a risky play. Strasburg's situation is one to monitor closely over the weekend.
Dallas Keuchel has been neither hurt nor ineffective by any means, yet I can recommend with confidence that he should sit this week out in Fantasy. My explanation for that recommendation and several others are just below.
Recommended starters for standard mixed leagues
Ian Kennedy, Padres (at SEA, vs. WAS): After strong back-to-back starts, it's fair to say that Kennedy has put his early-season hamstring injury behind him. Over his most recent pair of outings, Kennedy went a combined 13 innings against the Rockies and Giants, allowing three runs on 10 hits with 11 strikeouts. That good, but not great, strikeout rate could get even better, if the 15 percent swinging strike rate over those starts portends bigger things ahead. Heading into the weekend, Kennedy is being started in only 53 percent of the leagues on CBSSports.com, but especially with two starts, he is practically a must-start option this week.
Josh Collmenter, Diamondbacks (vs. WAS, at PHI): Given that Collmenter has been a flyball pitcher throughout his major league career, you wouldn't expect that he would fare all that well at his home park of Chase Field. A 3.11 career home ERA tells us otherwise. For whatever reason, Collmenter pitches with better control at home, gets more infield flies and coughs up homers at a slightly lower rate than he does on the road. He has done this over the course of 323 2/3 innings, so it appears to be legitimate. Couple Collmenter's home start against the Nationals with a trip to face the flailing Phillies, and it's looking like a great week to use him. Just maybe he can even extend his streak of games without a walk from three to five.
I'd start Collmenter over: Jimmy Nelson, Nick Martinez.
Francisco Liriano, Pirates (at PHI): Liriano is almost universally owned in CBSSports.com leagues, but he is currently starting in 74 percent of them. In weeks where the list of two-start pitchers is especially star-studded and Liriano has a tough opponent, it's a tough but understandable call to bench him. This is not the time, however, to give the veteran lefty a breather. A matchup against the Phillies is too good to pass up, and Liriano is the sort of pitcher who can beat out plenty of two start pitchers in strikeouts with just his one start. With 15 walks over 32 innings, Liriano is having all-too-familiar issues with control, but by his standards, they are actually mild. He has exceeded three walks only once in five starts, and his 62 percent strikes thrown rate is his second-highest of the last five years.
Jimmy Nelson, Brewers (vs. CHW): Nelson bounced back nicely from an awful outing in Cincinnati, notching a quality start against the Cubs. His 2 1/3-inning adventure against the Reds, in which he walked five batters, has been the only real blemish among Nelson's five starts. Even including that start, Nelson has thrown a respectable 64 percent of his pitches for strikes, while getting swinging strikes at a 12 percent rate and holding opponents to a .310 slugging percentage. Regardless of the opponent, Nelson should be starting in more than 36 percent of our leagues. In facing the White Sox, who are among the majors' bottom feeders in runs scored, Nelson deserves a rotation spot in 12-team mixed leagues.
I'd start Nelson over: Edinson Volquez, Nick Martinez.
Nick Martinez, Rangers (vs. KC, vs. CLE): In one of the biggest upsets of the early season, Martinez began 2015 by reeling off five straight quality starts. He owes much of his success to a dramatic improvement in control, which actually began late last season, and he had 11 straight starts with two earned runs or fewer to show for it, right up until Thursday's three-run outing at the Rays. Martinez has also recently moderated his flyball tendencies. In having allowed seven extra-base hits this season -- all doubles -- not all of Martinez's results can be chalked up to improved skills, as his aversion to extra-base hits looks downright fluky. He is due for regression at some point, but the Royals and Indians may not be the ones to make him pay because neither squad is especially inclined towards hitting flyballs.
Strictly deep league options
Dallas Keuchel, Astros (vs. TOR): Surely, no one in their right mind would sit a pitcher who ranks among the top three in Fantasy value. Asking owners in standard mixed leagues to bench Keuchel may be the toughest sell I have ever made in this column, but as much as I've enjoyed his production to date, it's a move I'll be making this week. There is no denying he is a great ground pitcher, but there is only so long he can maintain an .078 batting average allowed on grounders. In facing the Blue Jays this week, Keuchel will contend with the majors' highest-scoring team. Finally, with just one start, you can't count on him for strikeouts, so you might as well hand over his rotation spot to a better bat-misser, like Liriano, or one of the many viable two-start options.
Chris Heston, Giants (at HOU, at CIN): Heston has failed to post a quality start only twice in six tries, but the two misses were a long, long way from quality. Those outings had the makings of his biggest challenges, as he faced the Rockies at Coors Field and then the Padres, who have been scoring runs at home and on the road. It's too early in Heston's career to know if his struggles in those tough matchups were a sign of vulnerability or a mere coincidence. With the Astros and Reds coming up on Heston's schedule, I'm taking a wait-and-see approach as he faces two of the majors' best power-hitting teams in good hitter's parks.
Alfredo Simon, Tigers (vs. MIN, at STL): Simon has cooled off considerably after going 4-0 with a 1.65 ERA through his first four starts. Not only is he stranding fewer runners, but he's getting fewer grounders and yielding more extra-base hits. His control has come off the rails as well, as he has thrown 58 percent of his pitches for strikes over his outings against the White Sox and Royals. That's a tough feat to pull off against a pair of teams that swing at a lot of pitches outside of the strike zone. The Twins and Cardinals are similarly aggressive, but given Simon's recent track record, I would expect them to bail him out if he gets wild.
James Paxton, Mariners (vs. SD, vs. BOS): Overall, April wasn't kind to Paxton, but he finished the opening month strong with a seven-inning, two-run start, and then he began May in identical fashion. Despite the apparent success, I'm not convinced that Paxton's back. The southpaw failed to throw even 60 percent of his pitches in both starts, and he was merely average in coaxing hitters into swings and misses. While his whiff rate has flatlined at 8 percent, he was saved by a collective .211 BABIP against the Angels and Astros. Paxton could be regression-bound, especially with a pair of potentially tough matchups on the schedule.
Alex Colome, Rays (vs. NYY, at MIN): Colome is owned in just 36 percent of our leagues, but no pitcher has been added in more leagues over the past week, thanks to an impressive season debut against the Orioles and a solid follow-up at the Red Sox. Now with a two-start week on the horizon, even more owners could be looking to add the 26- year-old. While Colome has performed well, it's a mere 10 inning sample, and he has been wild and flyball-prone for much of his minor-league career. Especially since he is facing a couple teams with better-than-average offenses this week, the safer move is to go with a more proven option.