More September Pitching notes (AL)

September is one of the trickiest times of year in fantasy baseball, primarily because of pitching.  Between call-ups, dead arms and pennant races, there are almost too many variables to account for.  It's next to impossible to predict how well minor league pitchers will fare on their first showing in the majors.  You just never know how they will react to the larger than life stage, how quickly hitters will recognize their pitches or what might go wrong mechanically once they experience their first tough situation.  Will you have the next Bobby Madritsch or the next Felix Diaz?  Regardless of how good the guy's numbers are in the minors, you just never know.  So unless you are in a keeper league or simply desperate for a pitching miracle I'd avoid September call-ups until they pitch a couple of outings, no matter how impressive their resume is.

Most pitchers experience a dead arm period at some point during the season.  Fatigue usually sets in usually after a few more innings than they pitched last year.  For some pitchers, it lasts only a couple of starts.  For others, it may last the rest of the year because they try to compensate and end up with irregular mechanics.  It really depends on how much the pitcher is used per start, what kind of repertoire he has, how much support he gets... many of the same things that affect his performance normally.

Nate Robertson, for example, is a strong play every start from here on out.  Although he looked like a pitcher on the downswing, he is not.  His dead arm period just happened to coincide with a brutal schedule in which he faced the Yankees, White Sox, Indians, Rangers, Red Sox and Angels consecutively.  His slider flattened out and as a result he got hit very hard.  But since then his slider has rebounded, he's pitched very nicely and the bonus is that his schedule includes Kansas City, Tampa (twice), Minnesota and Baltimore, none of whom have had much luck against lefties.

I suspect Mark Mulder's recent struggles are in part due to a dead arm.  He simply hasn't demonstrated his usual control.  Fortunately, the A's are scoring lots of runs for him so his win totals keep rising.  The question is just how long will this last.  Last year he finished an injury-abridged 186.2 innings.  This year, he's already at 197.  He's averaged nearly 4 walks per outing in his last 6 starts so he may be coming out of it soon.  He better because his scheduled starts for the remainder of the season include the Blue Jays, Indians, Rangers (twice) and possibly Anaheim on the final day of the season.

Several people have indicated that they expect Johan Santana to come back to earth because of his workload this year.  That may be a little overcautious.  Santana didn't do a lot of pitching for the first month and a half of the season.  The reason was that he was still a little tentative about his post-surgery elbow.  He didn't feel comfortable letting go.  The result was that he couldn't locate his pitches and he got hit pretty hard.  he also had some problems tipping his pitches because he was concentrating so hard on keeping his mechanics straight.  In retrospect, getting knocked out early so often was probably a blessing in disguise.  If you look at his pitch counts this season, he has not gone over the 120 pitch mark in any of his starts.  In fact, he has topped 110 pitches just 7 times.  Not only is he striking lots of batters out, but he's pitching very efficiently.  His 15.2 pitches per inning is 7th best in the AL, which is amazing since Brad Radke (15.1) is the only guy ahead of him that isn't an extreme groundball pitcher (Jake Westbrook, Ryan Drese, Jon Lieber, Carlos Silva and Mark Mulder are the others).  As I pointed out at the All-Star Break last year, Johan Santana is arguably the best pitcher in the American League.  He was for the second half of last year and he certainly looks like it this year. 

Cliff Lee on the other hand, is probably going to continue his struggles.  He's already thrown 20 more innings than he threw last year, but unlike Santana he's been terribly inefficient - 17.8 pitchers per inning -  worst in the American League.  Given the woes of the Cleveland bullpen, it not a good bet that any runners he might leave on base the rest of the way will be stranded.  He's a great pick-up for next year, but for the rest of this season he may be a WHIP and ERA albatross that drags down your title hopes.

Had he pitched enough innings to qualify, Erik Bedard would be the most inefficient pitcher in the AL, averaging 19.4 pitches per inning.  That's just terrible.  He has also thrown 100 more innings than he threw last year when he was recovering from reconstructive surgery.  I don't expect any long term issues there, but I doubt he'll be any help down the stretch.  As a long range keeper, he's a mixed bag.  His biggest disadvantage is pitching to Javy Lopez.  Lopez is notorious for setting up well outside the strikezone any time a pitcher gets a second strike on a hitter.  It's almost laughable watching veteran hitting teams like the Yankees and Red Sox ease closer to the plate whenever they get a second strike.  Bedard's stuff is so good, mostly all they can do is foul off pitches or let them go for balls, despite Lopez not moving his glove.  Maybe the umps are noticing that his glove is hovering over the opposing batter's box.  Who knows.  But I don't think it's coincidence that Bedard's longest outing of the year - a 7-inning, 10 strikeout performance - came with Robert Machado behind the plate.

Bruce Chen, on the other hand, might be a nice sleeper down the stretch.  He still has a gopherball problem but it's not nearly as bad as it was in previous years when he got kicked from team to team.  It will be interesting to see how he finishes.  He's got what looks like a tough schedule, but might not be as bad as it looks.  Tampa struggles against lefties and both Fenway and Yankee stadium favor lefties.  Minnesota hasn't been particularly strong against them either.  If he can keep the ball in the yard in those starts, he could turn in a very nice stretch run until his final two starts with only one speed bump when he faces the Yanks at Camden.  I would sit him regardless for that one.

Scott Elarton, although risky, might be a nice play down the stretch.  He hasn't walked more than 2 batters in any start since June 27 and has averaged 5 strikeouts a start over his last 9 starts.  Like Chen, he has an excellent minor league pedigree but the home run has been his bugaboo.  If he can keep them to solo shots the rest of the way, which certainly seems possible considering he has 2 starts against KC (13th in the AL in walks), Anaheim (14th) and Minnesota (10th), he may be worth the risk.

Jon Lieber has not been all the Yankees hoped he'd be, but there's still a chance that he could be useful down the stretch.  For the past month, the Yankees have been using a 6-man rotation, which means that each pitcher gets an extra days' rest.  For a sinkerballer like Lieber, that's not necessarily a good thing.  Just like his first few innings of each start are the most dangerous because he's more likely to elevate the pitch, pitching on 5 days rest hurts both his control and the sink on his pitches.  Back into a normal rotation and with a double header coming up, Lieber could pitch on short rest a couple of times in September.  That could be just what he needs to silence his critics.