MLB Handicapping: Struggling Aces
by Trevor Whenham - 04/15/2009
If there is an overriding story that has developed so far in this young baseball season it's the number of aces or top-of-the-rotation pitchers that have been decidedly lousy out of the gate. There have obviously been exceptions, but it seems so far that it's a safe assumption to blindly bet against any ace. The list of casualties is like an all-star roster. Let's take a look at a few of the bigger names:
CC Sabathia - He got it together in his second game, but he didn't make it out of the fifth in his opener at lowly Baltimore, and he gave up six runs.
Cole Hamels - Hamels had the misfortune of starting his season in Colorado, but the thin air can't be blamed for his struggles - seven runs in 3.2 innings.
Brandon Webb - The Arizona ace opened with six runs in four innings against Colorado, and then wound up on the DL with shoulder soreness. Maybe it's the Rockies that are giant killers.
Daisuke Matsuzaka - Dice-K opened with consecutive brutal games, capped by a one-inning, five-run embarrassment at Oakland. Something clearly wasn't right, and he wound up on the DL.
Tim Lincecum - The young NL Cy Young winner is statistically primed to have an off year after increasing his inning load significantly last year. It's too soon to tell, but it could be true. He's lost velocity early this year, and he's lasted just eight innings in two starts. That's what happens when you allow seven runs.
Cliff Lee - Another defending Cy Young winner who has looked not at all award winning. He's allowed 11 runs in 10 innings over two starts, and he has not had the control to scare anyone. It's not charitable to say, but this looks a lot like the Cliff Lee of old.
Fausto Carmona - Cleveland fans hoped that this would be a bounce back year for the pitcher that was dominant two years ago, but it sure doesn't look like it so far. He's averaging a run per inning in two starts.
Chien-Ming Wang - Through two games his ERA is 28.93. That shouldn't be possible, but that's what happens when a guy allows 15 runs in less than five innings.
That's not even a complete list, either. The public isn't playing baseball to a significant extent right now, but those that are have likely lost a good bit of money on these big names over that period. So what can we learn from this? Here are five possibilities:
Some guys just aren't April pitchers - For whatever reason, some guys take a while to find their stride. Sabathia, for instance, has never really been reliable in the first few games of the season. It was tempting to think that he would be dominant with his new team and his new contract given how he was last year, but history tells us that his first start was not at all unexpected. Spending some time looking at history is the best way to deal with a lot of top pitchers early on.
Motivation can be a factor - You would think that the season would be motivation enough, but big pitchers have their reputations for stepping up in big games. Guys can often get caught thinking that it's a long season, and an early game against a bad opponent is meaningless. That can lead to less than ideal performance.
What happened in spring? - For the most part what happens in spring training is virtually meaningless. The one exception to that in some circumstances, though, is with pitchers. A record doesn't matter, but how a player is performing in spring can tell us how he is prepared for the start of the season. For example, both Lincecum and Hamels had well-reported problems with velocity in the spring, so it probably didn't make a lot of sense to back them right out of the gate.
Don't let this cloud your future perceptions - These pitchers have all been far worse than they were expected to be, but that doesn't mean that they are all doomed to suffer through terrible seasons. They might, or they might be starting the All-Star Game. Just as it's important to remember that no one start can tell you much about a pitchers' form, it's important not to let poor performance now make you unnecessarily negative later on. That can cause you to miss out on value, just like jumping on the bandwagon of a hot prospect that gets off to a strong start can cost you money.
Patience, grasshopper - The baseball season is really, really long. There is no reason to rush into betting games before you are comfortable. If you are confounded by how pitchers are playing and don't feel like you have a read on things then just hold off until things stabilize and start to make a bit more sense. Baseball is a beautiful game to bet on because it gives you so many games so you can be patient and find your favorite spots. Use that to your advantage.