Pitchers to Watch
August 13, 2013
By Matt Zylbert
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As the pro baseball season comes to a close, I’ve identified three starting pitchers who are very much on the rise and merit your attention over the last six weeks. Also, I strongly believe that two pitchers are on the verge of a downfall in the near-future and potentially should be avoided.
For those unfamiliar with my work, I study only totals (over/under), as you can even see in my game log, without ever taking a day off, and the root of my work lies in my feelings on the starting pitchers involved, as it is they who dictate the pace and outcome of a game more than any other position in professional sports, which makes baseball totals a very winnable endeavor - if you put the time and work in. That being said, here are three pitchers to pay close attention to that the oddsmakers may not have noticed yet, and two that they still might be overrating down the stretch.
Let’s start with the emerging starters…
Three Ascending Starting Pitchers
Brett Oberholtzer – Houston Astros
This first choice really doesn’t apply as much to those who focus on sides, as it’s hard to bank on any pitcher from the lowly Houston Astros for a victory, given how atrocious their bullpen is and the tendency of their lineup to not show up on a lot of days, but when it comes to unders, Brett Oberholtzer is a very intriguing name to be aware of. After a couple of cups of coffee at the Major League level earlier this season, Oberholtzer was recalled at the very end of July when a spot opened up in the Houston rotation, and the rookie left-hander hasn’t looked back since. Up to this point, the former 8th-round pick has made three starts - against the Rangers, Red Sox, and Orioles, no less - all of which resulting in quality outings. In fact, Oberholtzer has surrendered just two runs combined in those three assignments, while working against some of the top lineups in all of baseball. The remarkable thing about Oberholtzer, though, is that he’s not just simply limiting the damage done by these potent bats - he’s overpowering them with conviction, as evident in his 14:4 K:BB ratio in 20 innings of work. In other words, he’s been dazzling.
If I had to make a comparison, I would equate Oberholtzer to J.A. Happ circa-2010 when he was first acquired by Houston that summer. As soon as he came over from Philadelphia, Happ went on to string together a really nice stretch of solid pitching, in amassing a 5-4 record in 13 starts with a 3.80 ERA and 1.33 WHIP, while striking out 61 batters in 71 innings of work. Oberholtzer reminds me of that same type of lefty, and appears to have already locked down a spot on the pitching staff for years to come. Another fellow starter who will be a big part of their future, Jarred Cosart, also deserves honorable mention as their potential No. 2 guy in the future, but it looks like Vegas has already caught on to him. Thus, Oberholtzer is the guy to watch closely, as well as the lines related to his starts, over these next several weeks.
Henderson Alvarez – Miami Marlins
Believe it or not, the Miami Marlins are shaping up to be my biggest Over Win Total bet in 2014 (Much like the Cleveland Indians were for me this season), although that’s another lengthy discussion for a later time. In the meantime, it is their starting pitching as a group that has me absolutely wowed and thinking that they can compete as early as next year. Obviously, everyone already knows about Jose Fernandez, who looks like he’s going to be one of the National League’s top aces for the next ten years, if not more (Or less, depending on when Jeffrey Loria decides to hold his next fire sale), so that would defeat the purpose of this article if I was to focus on him here. Jacob Turner, slotted right behind him, has pitched considerably well in a Miami uniform after coming over from Detroit in the Anibal Sanchez trade a season ago, but by this point, with 20 starts as a Marlin under his belt, Vegas has taken notice of his delightful work and reacted accordingly, based on his typical over/under lines. Behind them are Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez, and while I do really like both, I feel it is Alvarez who has the highest ceiling in solidifying himself as an upper echelon starter for years to come.
I noticed the right-hander as soon as he debuted two years ago with the Blue Jays, and while he’s been mostly up-and-down since breaking into the big leagues, I’m confident that Alvarez is on the verge of permanently turning the corner and developing into the ultra-consistent starter that I always pegged him to be. It certainly looks like he has for the time being, as the 23-year old is 2-1 with a 3.18 ERA and 1.16 WHIP this year through his first eight starts with his new club, while allowing no more than four runs in any of his outings. Aside from possessing good stuff in his arsenal, I just feel like he has all the “little things” down to pat, which you can only notice by watching him. I’m impressed every time I see him - his attitude and composure - and reading more on him, it all begins to make sense: Alvarez has always idolized Felix Hernandez, and if you’ve watched him pitch, you’d recognize that he actually mimics the former Cy Young winner very closely, from his mannerisms down to his demeanor on the mound. It’s very fascinating, and to me, it’s also a main reason why I know Henderson Alvarez will be a successful starter for quite some time.
Chris Rusin – Chicago Cubs
It’s awfully hard to get excited about anything within the Chicago Cubs organization, as most Cubs fans might even attest to, but based on his early work this season since being recalled, it looks like left-hander Chris Rusin is here to stay as a big-league starter. Thus far, Rusin has only made five starts in 2013, and while his overall statline hasn’t been overly impressive or anything (2-1, 3.08 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 18:9 K:BB ratio in 26 innings), I still feel there’s enough evidence here to warrant a “sleeper” label for the youngster. Yes, if you look at his stats, you’ll notice a very ugly rookie campaign for the southpaw a year ago, when he registered a 6.37 ERA and 1.65 WHIP (Yikes) in seven starts, but I’m telling you: This is someone who is on the rise, and because of how opposing hitters drilled him for a .314 batting average in 2012, Vegas may not catch on until it’s too late. Although he’s only produced modest work in just five starts this season, this is someone who looks poised to be a part of the Cubs’ pitching staff for the foreseeable future.
In his most recent assignment, Rusin contributed the brightest outing of his still-very-young Major League career, when he went into St. Louis and beat the mighty Cardinals by shutting them out over six terrific shutout innings, scattering seven hits and striking out five. Two starts prior, he went into San Francisco and blanked the defending World Champions over seven innings, while out-dueling the seemingly unbeatable-at-home Madison Bumgarner. And right before that, his assignment was in Arizona, where he proceeded to keep those dangerous D-Back bats at bay, en route to an impressive victory. Yes, the sample size is small, and yes, Rusin is only a former 23rd-round pick, but I see something here. And when I latch on to a new pitcher very early on, good results usually follow. Vegas might not even be giving much thought to Chris Rusin, which potentially makes them very vulnerable if they provide a higher-than-anticipated line on an under he’s in.
Honorable Mention: Jarred Cosart, Liam Hendriks, Dan Straily, Tyson Ross, Tyler Thornburg (When he’s permanently in Milwaukee’s rotation)
Two Descending Starting Pitchers
Corey Kluber – Cleveland Indians
While still quite young and relatively inexperienced, I believe Corey Kluber has already peaked and contributed the best pitching we may ever see from him. That might be a bold statement, considering Kluber is just 27-years old and in only his second year as a big-league starter, but from what I’ve seen while watching him on the hill, his ceiling is very low. At the moment, the right-hander has very desirable numbers - a 7-5 record, 3.54 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, and an outstanding 116:26 K:BB ratio in 122 innings - but I just don’t see him keeping it up. Not only that, I don’t even envision him coming close to resembling that type of a marvelous pace, as I have him clocking in as a guy who consistent sits with a mid-4’s ERA year in and year out.
In my opinion, Kluber’s unusual high strikeout rate is just that: unusual. Without question, it’s a large contributing factor in his 2013 success, something of which he wasn’t doing much of last year, and as long as those whiff numbers decline, which I anticipate, Kluber should go back to getting clobbered again (5.14 ERA, 1.49 WHIP in 2012). Admittedly, I might be a little biased, as I latched on to him as soon as he was called up last year and used him as an overs machine, which worked out nicely, with 7 of his 12 starts resulting in the total score surpassing ten combined runs, but at the end of the day, I’ve watched him numerous times now and I just don’t see him keeping up what he’s done this year. At the moment, the Cleveland right-hander currently sits on the disabled list with a sprained finger (And it’s on his throwing hand, which could also be crucial in halting any potential progress), adding even more fuel to the fire. Pay attention to when he comes back from injury and see how Vegas treats his games; if they keep showing him respect, such as offering over/unders of 8 or lower with him involved, then that’s money to be made, as far as overs are concerned. You can bet I’ll be watching as close as anyone, obviously.
John Lackey – Boston Red Sox
There’s no denying that John Lackey has done some pretty special things this season, made even more remarkable by the fact that he didn’t even pitch last year, not to mention how he was one of the unfortunate scapegoats of that infamous 2011 Red Sox squad when he had the worst campaign of his career, and was seemingly on his way out of Boston. Alas, two years later, Lackey is pitching like his old self again out of nowhere in posting a true renaissance season, as he currently carries a very pleasant 3.32 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, and a fabulous 123:29 K:BB ratio in 133 innings. He’s provided quality steady pitching all season long, while helping the Red Sox attain first-place in the always-tough AL East, but that’s exactly my point: Exactly how much longer can he keep it up?
You obviously have to give credit where credit is due and acknowledge what a model of consistency Lackey has been this entire year (He’s gone six innings or more in 17 of his 21 starts, including 11 straight), and that’s certainly indicated in his over/unders record, as all but three of his games have resulted in unders, which is an astounding one-sided record in that department. In fact, it’s the best record by a pitcher - by far - for unders in all of baseball. But again, that just adds to my feeling here that there has to be some sort of decline sooner rather than later. Not only do you have to consider the vastly underrated Law of Averages, which should bring his over/unders record more towards the norm, but also consider that Lackey is starting to get hit a bit, as three of his past five outings have seen the right-hander yield four runs or more. Even if the wheels don’t completely come off his splendid campaign, as long as Vegas continues to show him respect for what he’s done from his whole body of work in 2013 in terms of offering a relatively low line for his games, there’s money to be made in his overs down the stretch. Keep an eye out for those.
Honorable Mention: Randall Delgado, Kris Medlen, Chris Tillman