It's hard to believe, but we're already approaching the quarter pole for the regular season. With that in mind, it's time to try and determine which hot starts are sustainable, and which aren't. Two former fantasy aces have gotten off to hot starts, and one pitcher's sizzling start to the season looks more believable than the other.
All PITCHf/x data courtesy BrooksBaseball.net
Johan Santana- 7 starts, 37 IP, 1 W, 2.92 BB/9, 9.97 K/9, 33.3 percent GB, 2.92 ERA, 1.16 WHIP
Santana doesn't appear to have missed a beat after missing all of the 2011 season recovering from shoulder surgery. His strikeout rate is sky high, and he's still limiting the walks, albeit, not at his previously remarkable rate. He has made a flyball approach work throughout his career by missing bats, so his low groundball rate shouldn't raise any red flags. He has had some good fortune on flyballs, but his xFIP of 3.30 paints the picture of a pitcher who has earned his current ERA.
His fastball velocity is notably down, with his four-seam fastball and sinker both sitting in the upper-80s, as opposed to the low-90s of his peak seasons. Surprisingly, even with his diminished velocity, he has a whiff/swing percentage well above league average on both pitches. His slider remains a weapon, but it is his change-up that remains his knockout punch. The gap in velocity between his four-seam fastball and his change-up is greater than 10 mph, and hitters are flailing helplessly with an 18.03 percent whiff rate. Having missed all of 2011, fatigue could eventually become an issue, but if an owner is looking to “sell high,” on Santana's hot start, don't be afraid to buy.
Jake Peavy- 8 starts, 57.2 IP, 4 W, 1.40 BB/9, 7.49 K/9, 29.6 percent GB, 2.65 ERA, 0.92 WHIP
Today's ugly start notwithstanding, Peavy appears to have turned the clock back to his glory days with the Padres. A look deeper will reveal that's not exactly the case. His 3.77 xFIP in and of itself points to some regression being in order. Blindly looking at xFIP is a mistake, but Peavy is playing with fire with his flyball rate and homer friendly home ballpark. Today was the beginning of the regression, as he allowed two home runs in 5.1 innings. That still brings his season total to just four home runs allowed.
He is helping himself by pounding the strike zone, but his strikeout rate is roughly league average, and thus, not high enough to offset his propensity for giving up flyballs. Peavy is throwing his four-seam fastball and sinker in the 91-92 mph range, which is just a bit below his career average velocity of approximately 93 mph. As I noted above when discussing Santana, velocity isn't everything. Peavy is using his four-seam fastball as a swing-and-miss pitch, and doing so quite effectively. He's getting empty swings by throwing the pitch up in the zone to left-handed batters, and right-handed batters. What this means is that when hitters are making contact, they are hitting it in the air. Batters are putting 14.89 percent of his four-seam fastballs in play, and 8.16 percent of those balls are taking flight. The cost of getting strikeouts with his four-seam fastball will almost certainly be giving up some taters as the season marches on.
Unfortunately for Peavy, if he hopes to continue to retire batters via the strikeout, he'll need to continue to lean heavily on his four-seam fastball up in the zone. The only other pitch he throws that gets an above average whiff/swing rate is his change-up, which he throws just eight percent of the time. His slider is a below average swing-and-miss pitch (an extension of last year's results using the pitch), and his curveball and two-seam fastball are about league average.
I don't expect Peavy to turn into a useless fantasy dud, but there is unlikely to be a better selling opportunity for maximum value than now. Should owners have difficulty dealing him off his dud against the Tigers today, his next scheduled start comes against the low scoring Cubs at Wrigley Field on Sunday. Because the game is being played in a National League park, both lineups will be absent a designated hitter. If he pitches well in that start, it will be time to kick trade efforts into high gear.