Fantasy baseball Pitching Report: Cubs pitching unexpectedly solid
If you traveled to Vegas this offseason, you probably could have convinced one of the many sports books in town to give you about +20,000 that the Cubs would have three starting pitchers ranked inside the top 40 fantasy starting pitchers through the first two months of the season. You'd also be a lot richer today if you made that bet, because Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood and Scott Feldman all rank among the top 40 pitchers as we sit here in the first week of June.
The Cubs have had a better year than their record indicates, and it all starts with the rotation, which has a 3.64 ERA (tied 9th), 3.65 FIP (5th), 1.20 WHIP (6th) and 5.4 WAR (tied 7th), despite Matt Garza missing the first six weeks of the season. Now that he's back, the Cubs look very formidable with him backing up Samardzija.
As fantasy owners, we know what to expect of them. Garza is a well-established commodity, and Samardzija has developed into an ace and strikeout machine. But what about Wood, Feldman and Edwin Jackson? Can the former two possibly keep this up all year? Is there more to Jackson's struggles than meets the eye? How should fantasy owners treat these three for the rest of the season?
If there's one guy in this group I'm actively avoiding, it's Wood. At 26 he's the youngest of the three, so a sudden level jump seemingly would be most plausible from him. The problem is that his peripheral stats don't support the surface numbers. He has a 2.75 ERA, but his FIP is up at 3.63. His WHIP is a sterling 1.01, but his BABIP is .218. Part of that owes to the fact that he currently has career bests in ground ball rate (37 percent), line-drive rate (18.5 percent) and infield fly ball rate (14.6 percent). Still, he can't possibly hold hitters to a .218 BABIP all season. He's striking out just 6.25 batters per nine innings, a career low, while walking three batters per nine innings. He should remain owned in all mixed-league formats, but I'd be willing to bet we've already seen his best this season.
Feldman is 5-4 with a 2.82 ERA and 3.93 FIP, so you might think he's prone to the same regression possibilities as is Wood. However, Feldman's success is built on a more solid foundation. He's fanning 7.57 batters per nine innings and walking just 2.82. He has a 16.5 percent line drive rate, 50.6 percent ground ball rate and 13.8 percent infield fly ball rate. His .254 BABIP is low, but not quite as obviously unsustainable as Wood's. Most importantly, his cutter has become a real weapon, ranking ninth in the league according to Fangraphs. He, too, should be owned in all mixed leagues, and has a real shot at keeping this up all season.
Unlike his teammates, Jackson's superficial stats are ugly. He's 1-8 with a 6.29 ERA. However, he nearly has the best FIP of the bunch at 3.65, just two hundredths of a run behind Wood. The line on the back of his card might be unsightly, but he's still getting 0.8 WAR this year. While Wood and Feldman have been a bit fortunate, Jackson has been very unlucky. He has a .354 BABIP and 55.9 percent strand rate. He has 56 strikeouts in 58.2 innings and his ground ball rate is north of 50 percent. If you're in a shallow mixed league, odds are an owner or two have already lost faith in him this year. Now is a great time to take a low risk, high reward shot on Jackson. If you're in a deeper mixed league, resist your urges to cut him. A course correction is coming soon.
• Julio Teheran, Atlanta Braves -- After a rough April, Teheran righted the ship in May, allowing 10 runs in 35.2 innings. His strikeout totals are down a bit from his days at Triple-A Gwinnett, but he's offsetting that by walking fewer batters -- now, he's issuing just 1.86 free passes per nine innings. He's also been a tad unlucky this year, evidenced by a .312 BABIP, but he's also got an impressive 46.8 percent ground ball rate. He may not hit the strikeout numbers we were hoping for during spring training, but he should be universally owned.
• Matt Garza, Chicago Cubs -- We touched on Garza earlier in the column, but he warrants further mention in the barometer. He looked great in his first start, tossing five shutout innings with five strikeouts against the Pirates. He struggled against the Reds his next time out, but gave up just two runs in seven innings against the Diamondbacks on Friday. The early velocity numbers are good; his fastball is sitting in the 92-93 MPH range, essentially right in line with his career numbers. It's clearly too early to draw any conclusions, but he looks like the Garza of old. He may not be in a Cubs jersey much longer, but you could do well to get your hands on him, and the price might still be pretty low for the time being.
• Jake Westbrook, St. Louis Cardinals -- The last time we checked in on Westbrook, he was set to meet with Dr. James Andrews, and it looked like his season was about to be cut short. Since then, he's been able to get through a bullpen session and now is set for a rehab assignment. The Cardinals expect him to make two starts in the minors, and if all goes well he will rejoin the rotation. If an owner with an itchy trigger finger cut him loose when the news looked grim, jump on him and add him to your roster.
• Jon Lester, Boston Red Sox -- Lester has had a rough go of it lately, allowing 13 runs in his last 19.1 innings, a stretch covering three starts. His two starts before that were great, including his one-hit shutout of the Blue Jays, but he surrendered 11 earned runs in 17.2 innings in the three outings prior to that. His full-season numbers still look great, but this inconsistency slides him down my rest-of-season rankings a few notches.
• Wei-Yin Chen, Baltimore Orioles -- Chen will resume his throwing program this week as he continues his return from an oblique injury, but it's hard to justify keeping him on your roster while he's on the DL. He's an effective enough pitcher, but he's far better in real life than he is in fantasy. He simply doesn't strike out enough batters to make a meaningful contribution in the category, and his strong rates are unsupported by his advanced stats. If all goes well, he should be back with the O's in a few weeks, but don't feel like you have to hold onto him if you need the roster spot.
We mostly cover developments in the bottom-third of the closer rankings, because that's where the action is. However, I'd like to take a minute or two to acknowledge the efforts of three underappreciated AL closers: Greg Holland, Glen Perkins and Tom Wilhelmsen.
• For a time early in the season, it looked as though Holland could lose his job to Kelvin Herrera. Holland struggled in a few successive outings while Herrera was lighting up the radar gun. Over his last 16 outings, though, Holland has allowed just one earned run while striking out 24 batters and walking just four. Two of those walks came in the first appearance of the stretch, too.
• Perkins has blown a pair of saves in recent weeks, but his body of work over the entire season has been impressive. His 3.05 ERA doesn't look especially great for a closer, but he has a 2.15 WHIP and is fanning a ridiculous 14.37 batters per nine innings. That's nearly Aroldis Chapman territory. There hasn't been a ton to smile about in Minnesota this year, but Perkins has been a bright spot.
• Wilhelmsen is getting the job done despite a major drop off in strikeouts from last year. In 2012, he whiffed 87 batters in 79.1 innings. This year, he has 17 strikeouts in 24.1 innings. His velocity remains elite, sitting comfortably at 96-97 MPH, but for one reason or another the Ks just haven't been there. The fact that he has been able to be just as successful, though, is a telling sign. Wilhelmsen is not just a reach-back-and-fire guy. This is a legitimate pitcher with multiple ways of getting batters out with consistency. And you have to believe that the strikeouts are bound to come back. He's a great trade target right now.