Sell High Candidates: Which Breakout Pitchers Can Continue To Excel (Gio Gonzalez & More)

There are quite a few pitchers who have gotten off to amazing starts to the 2011 campaign, surprising many fantasy owners.  Who’s for real?  Who should we cut bait on now?  Let’s take a look at a few of them:

Gio Gonzalez – Oakland Athletics
In his first three starts Gonzalez is sporting a 0.47 ERA and 1.26 WHIP.  The problem is that he has done it with a BABIP of .212 and a strand rate of 100.0%.  Obviously that’s not going to continue, which is simply the first strike that comes against him.

Gonzalez has also continued to struggle with his control.  In 19.0 innings of work he has walked 12 batters, good for a BB/9 of 5.68.  It’s hard to imagine continued success if he is going to walk that many batters.  Think it’s an aberration?  In his minor league career he had a BB/9 of 4.01.  In his previous three seasons he posted the following BB/9:

  • 2008 – 6.62 (34.0 IP)
  • 2009 – 5.11 (98.2 IP)
  • 2010 – 4.13 (200.2 IP)

If he continues to walk people the numbers are going to come tumbling down.  It’s really just a matter of time.  Yes, being a good groundball pitcher (50.0% in ’11) helps, but it’s not enough.  I’d be wary of Gonzalez moving forward, as the numbers scream for a possible regression.

Matt Harrison – Texas Rangers
After stymying the Yankees on Friday night (8.0 IP, 1 ER, 7 H, 3 BB, 3 K, W), Harrison is at 3-0 with a 1.23 ERA and 0.91 WHIP.  He certainly has had luck on his side, with a .203 BABIP and 93.0% strand rate, but there are other numbers at play as well.

Thus far this season he’s posted a line drive rate of 9.8%, after being over 20% in his previous three seasons.  Can that continue?

Harrison also offers little upside in the strikeout department (5.73 K/9 in ’11, 6.42 in his minor league career).  He does have good control (2.07 BB/9 in his minor league career), which helps to back-up his 2.45 mark in ’11. 

Is good control and an improved groundball rate (52.5% in ’11) enough to warrant grabbing him off waiver wires?  I wouldn’t expect him to induce six groundball double plays very often, meaning the results against the Yankees could’ve been very, very different.  While those in AL-only formats could consider him, there’s a risk for a major regression at hand.  If you are in a mixed league, that risk coupled with the low strikeout rate is enough of a reason to stay away.

Justin Masterson – Cleveland Indians
The “Masterful” Justin Masterson.  There really is a lot to like after his first three starts, as he is 3-0 with a 1.33 ERA and 0.93 WHIP.  A lot of people have written him off due to his struggles the past few years, but there was an awful lot of bad luck at play (68.6%, 66.6% strand rates the previous two years).  He also hadn’t shown very good control, something that he had consistently displayed in the minor leagues (2.28 BB/9).

He is one of the elite groundball pitchers in the league, currently sporting a 65.0% groundball rate.  Since 2009, among pitcher with at least 300 innings pitched, Masterson is second in the league with a 57.8% groundball rate (Joel Pineiro leads the way at 58.2%).  That certainly says a lot about his potential to produce, assuming the luck is there. 

Not that he’s going to be able to continue his .242 BABIP, but for a groundball pitcher, marks of .314 and .324 (which he posted in ’09 and ’10) is going to hurt.  Improvement there will go a long ways to his success.

I know people are going to point towards his 5.31 K/9 and say that he’s worthless, but that’s short-sighted.  Over his minor league career he posted a 7.46 K/9 and he showed in his second start of the season (9 K in 6.1 IP against the Mariners) that he has the potential to pile up the strikeouts.  If he can strikeout five-to-six batters a night, to go with the rest of his repertoire, he has the stuff to be a breakout starter in 2011.

If others in your league have not yet bought into his early season success, I would highly recommend it.  Yes, there is the chance for a regression, but he has the stuff to be a useful starter all year long.

Chris Narveson – Milwaukee Brewers
He’s won only one game in his first three starts, but he’s sporting a 1.45 ERA and 1.18 WHIP.  Considering his realistic .286 BABIP (though he has benefited from an 86.4% strand rate), there certainly is reason to take notice.

The real question when it comes to Narveson is his 9.16 K/9.  If he can come reasonably close to sustaining it, the sky is the limit.  If he can’t, there’s going to be a regression.

Over his minor league career he posted a K/9 of 7.50.  At Triple-A in ’09 he posted a 9.1 K/9, though a lot of that came while working in the bullpen (only 6 starts in 26 outings).  In September of 2010 he did show the potential to maintain this type of mark in the rotation, with 37 Ks in 37.1 innings of work.  In August he had 20 Ks in 26.1 innings of work.  The fact is that this hasn’t just come out of nowhere.

Can it continue, however, with a fastball that has been averaging 87.9 mph, however?  I’m not so sure about that.

He has looked good and is certainly worth owning, but he is no guarantee to continue.  Having never shown this type of strikeout success in the past, it’s hard to say that three starts is a given.  Even if you include August and September of 2010, you are looking at 14 starts.  It’s a lot better, but it still shouldn’t be accepted as the new norm.

Tread carefully, but pitching in the NL, he’s certainly worth owning in most formats.  Just don’t become too attached, because there is a good chance that a regression could be coming.

What are your thoughts on these four pitchers?  Who do you think is for real?  Who would you avoid?

Make sure to check out these other great articles from Rotoprofessor:


  1. Chuck says:

    Any comment on Zach Britton?

  2. apuma33 says:

    How do you feel about Kyle Lohse’s success thus far? Is his performance in 2011 an aberration, or will PC Duncan continue to improve on his abilities?


    • Rotoprofessor says:

      Lohse has been on the Cardinals long enough that whatever effect Duncan was going to have has already been felt. He has a .246 BABIP and 0.81 BB/9. I don’t care what kind of control you have, that just isn’t going to last.

      It feels like an aberration, but he’s worth using while he’s hot.

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