I started the Two Good Starts, Two Bad Starts column a few weeks back when I realized that I often begin to change my perception of a pitcher after a pair of consecutive starts that defy my expectations. It’s rarely a good idea to change your decision rule about starting or sitting a pitcher on the basis of two starts, but at least you can be more open to the possibility that the pitcher in question maybe isn’t as good or as bad as you thought.
In last week’s column, I raised the possibility that Wei-Yin Chen might be viable at some point in some deeper mixed leagues by drawing attention to a couple of good starts that were backed up by a rising whiff rate and increased fastball velocity. In his subsequent outing against the Nationals, his velocity remained higher than it had been, but he got just three swings-and-misses on his way to a seven-run shellacking over 4.1 innings. I’m still intrigued by Chen’s resurgence in velocity, but I’m glad I haven’t dedicated a roster spot to him yet.
This is a good reminder to take a cautious approach with decisions, even as you entertain the possibility that a pitcher may be more or less worthy of starting than you had been previously assuming. (It’s a reminder I wished I had heeded when I decided to use Yefry Ramirez in two leagues this week after being impressed by his first 14.1 major league innings.)
With that word of caution in mind, I am holding back on giving Sal Romano a second chance for now. I’ll be watching his Tuesday night start against the Indians with great interest, though, as he’s been a different pitcher lately.
Two Good Starts: Sal Romano
The Results: 6/29 vs. MIL, 5 IP, 7 H, 2 R, 2 BB, 5 K; 7/4 vs. CHW, 5 IP, 6 H, 4 R, 0 BB, 6 K.
What’s Different: Looking at the results from Romano’s last two starts, you can see I’m stretching the definition of “good starts” here. Then again, for someone who has registered game scores of 40 or lower in eight of his 18 starts this year, these game scores (48 and 45, respectively) are an upgrade. So are the strikeout-to-walk ratios and, more notably the 27 combined swinging strikes out of 179 total pitches. That 15.1 percent whiff rate is what really got my attention.
Romano also had a 17-whiff game on June 19 against the Tigers. It’s fair to point out that the Tigers and White Sox (Romano’s most recent opponent) are highly prone to swinging and missing, but it’s also worth noting that Romano’s average fastball velocity over his four most recent starts, which encompass those two matchups plus two others in between, has been 94.9 mph. Over his prior 14 starts, he was nearly 1 mph slower on average at 94.0 mph. Much more dramatic have been his increase in Swing%, from 43.3 to 50.0 percent, and his decrease in Contact%, from 85.7 to 73.8 percent.
Recommendation: In facing the Indians, Romano will get a good test of whether he can maintain these gains against a tougher opponent. The White Sox and Tigers are among the most aggressive lineups in the majors, while the White Sox and Brewers are among the worst at making contact. The Indians have the majors’ second-lowest swinging strike rate and a slightly below-average 46.1 percent Swing%. If Romano fares well and racks up another big whiff total, it’s worth trying him in out NL-only leagues and maybe some very deep mixed league formats.
Two Bad Starts: J.A. Happ
The Results: 7/1 vs. DET, 5.2 IP, 10 H, 7 R, 1 BB, 4 K; 7/7 vs. NYY, 2.2 IP, 4 H, 6 R, 6 BB, 5 K.
What’s Different: In the span of six days, Happ’s ERA ballooned from 3.62 to 4.44. Is the popular trade target wilting under the watchful eyes of scouts? Overly excited at the prospect of no longer having to buy milk in a bag?
Whether those are possible root causes or not, the upshot is that Happ is having some location issues. In his two most recent starts combined, he has pitched within the strike zone at a 34.8 percent rate. While his control has faltered against righties and lefties alike, it was nearly absent against lefties in Saturday’s start against Yankees. As the graphic from Baseball Savant’s Gamefeed shows, Happ missed frequently low and away against lefties. Happ faced only six left-handed hitters in that game, but three of his six walks came against them.
In both starts, Happ was more prone to flyballs than usual, posting a cumulative 55.6 percent rate. He has pitched from a lower release point the last two starts, but he actually had a similar batted profile three starts ago against the Astros, even though he had a higher release point (and better results, too).
It’s not exactly clear, then, what is behind Happ’s mini-slump, but better control and command wouldn’t hurt going forward.
Recommendation: Happ had a similar pair of games featuring flyballs galore and poor control at the beginning of June, but he got away with it, thanks to some BABIP help. A common thread across the two concerning pairs of starts and the three starts sandwiched in between them is a lack of whiffs. Over the total of seven starts, Happ has a 21.3 percent K-rate and just a 7.6 percent swinging strike rate.
The lefty’s 3.16 ERA in June belied the fact that some decline was already setting in, and we are seeing the fruits of it in his two July starts. It’s best to sit Happ for now in most mixed leagues, and if you don’t own him, don’t bother to emulate whatever team trades for him at the deadline.
Al Melchior has been writing about Fantasy baseball and sim games since 2000, and his work has appeared at CBSSports.com, BaseballHQ, Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster and FanRagSports. He has also participated in Tout Wars' mixed auction league since 2013. You can follow Al on Twitter @almelchiorbb and find more of his work at almelchior.com.