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Closing Time: Mark Buehrle’s wheel of fortune; Tim Lincecum’s reign of terror

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Another strike, hosers (USAT)

Let's get one thing out of the way up front: I really like and appreciate Mark Buehrle. I love watching him pitch; everything around the plate, quick pace. Baseball as it oughta be. And by all accounts, he's a swell guy, too.

Let's get another thing out of the way: everyone knows his 1.91 ERA isn't going to last. The luck stats are all flashing here because luck stats are mandatory with any outlier batting average or ERA. (It's funny when someone goes under the hood on Troy Tulowitzki, then seems surprised by the gigantic BABIP. You can't bat .414 without one. Same theme applies to homer spikes.)

Back to Buehrle, it's important to note a sneakier part of his 6-1, 1.91/1.17 start: the schedule. It's been paper-soft thus far, and that's about to change.

Buehrle's latest gem came Wednesday, a seven-inning beauty (3 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 6 K) over the Phillies. It's always sunny when you start against Philadelphia, the 26th-best offense (by runs) in the majors. And it fits the early-season theme for Toronto's left-hander.

If you look at the seven teams Buehrle has faced thus far, you won't find a Top 10 offense. Here's the list: Philly (26th), Kansas City (21st), Boston (13th, and they hit him), Cleveland 22nd, Baltimore 19th, Houston 28th, Tampa Bay 11th. That's good work if you can get it. (And there's also a school of thought that suggests early-season games favor a pitcher like Buehrle, a control artist who's more about timing and location than pure power. Mat Olkin dug into that theme many moons ago; Gene McCaffrey and Patrick Davitt tossed it around recently.)

Alas, no one's scheduling luck lasts forever. Buehrle's next four assignments shake down this way: Anaheim (third in scoring, and I refuse to call them "Los Angeles), at Texas (15th, plus the Arlington factor), Oakland (fourth), and Tampa Bay (11th). So much for the Astros and Phillies.

If you prefer to go more traditional with Buehrle's luck stats, you'll find the usual flashing lights. The 80.9 percent strand rate is the highest of his career; ditto the microscopic HR/FB clip (2.1 percent). His BABIP is around his career average despite a whopping 26.7 percent line-drive rate; that doesn't make a lot of sense. FIP puts his true ERA in the low 3s, and a handful of other estimators suggest something over four. His strikeout and ground-ball ratios have dropped, walks about the same as last year.

Of course, "regression" is not an answer on it's own; it's the start of a conversion, not the end of one. I still think Buehrle can be a mixed-league asset if used judiciously (considering opponents, ballparks, and opposing pitchers as well). It's format-dependent, sure; these things usually are. If you're in a K/9 or low-innings league, his lack of strikeouts (5.6/9) are probably a deal breaker.

Here's my rest-of-season Buehrle forecast, for whatever it means to you: 25 starts, nine wins, 3.99 ERA, 1.34 WHIP. Season to taste.

Another silly piece of fantasy advice is the "sell high" ticket you'll see tagged on a player like Buehrle, an established veteran with no significant upside. Most fantasy leagues are far too sophisticated for that – and if your league isn't, you don't need any help in the first place. In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king.

But if you do own Buehrle and are considering cashing out now, here's a realistic name to consider: see if you can move Buehrle for Travis Wood.

Wood's nifty 2014 start came crashing down on the South Side of Chicago on Wednesday: an ugly eight-spot against the White Sox. But when you face the American League's best offense, these things can happen. Wood walked an uncharacteristic five men in the four-inning slaughter; that's not something that's going to repeat often. He walked just seven men in his other six turns, and he's still striking out over three men for every free pass.

Wood's 3.11 ERA and 1.15 WHIP from last year were targeted by the Regression Police, with good reason. His peripherals didn't support those ratios. But again, the important question is "regression to what level?" Wood's significant strikeout spike this year suggests improvement, and he's also trimmed his walk rate and bumped up his ground-ball rate. I'm projecting an ERA in the mid-3s from here on out, and will dip twice next week when Wood faces the Cardinals and Brewers. (If only he weren't tied to the rest of those mediocre Cubs.)

Tim Lincecum is another two-start pitcher for next week (Atlanta, surprisingly cushy, and Miami, surprisingly dangerous), if you feel like talking yourself into that mess again. I'm not sure how much proof some rotoheads (and dinosaurs) need. I know we've had this discussion many times before, but with Lincecum's lofty ownership level (58 percent), some need the memo again. I don't know your password. I can't make the drop for you.

Lincecum had his third disaster start of the year in Wednesday's loss at Pittsburgh (4 IP, 8 H, 4 R, 2 BB, 4 K). His average fastball is under 90 mph this year, a notable dip from his salad days. He's allowing line drives 30.8 percent of the time (obscenely high), and he's had a gopher problem since the beginning of 2012. How much evidence is enough? More hittable is more hittable.

You want a big bank of numbers, so try this one out for size: since the beginning of 2012 (when the significant velocity dip started), Lincecum has a 4.83 ERA. That's over 419.3 innings, kids. I know the K/BB rate is still pretty, but I'm not giving Lincecum any kind of a homer pass (even with elevated HR/FB rates) when his stuff is this different.

These crummy results are not a fluke. And name brands shouldn't die this hard.

Speed Round: No reason to chase the Juan Francisco story, what with Adam Lind (back) and Brett Lawrie (hamstring) expected to return this week . . . A shame Rick Porcello's tidy start isn't accompanied by something fun, like a bunch of strikeouts or ground balls (both rates are notably down). But with a microscopic walk rate, a good supporting cast, and a mediocre division, there's a Circle of Trust badge for Porcello (5-1, 3.49/1.06), just the same. I'm not thrilled his double-dip week routes him to Baltimore and Boston (though neither offense is crushing it right now), but I'll nonetheless endorse Porcello in weekly formats . . . Wilmer Flores is up to be the Mets new answer at shortstop. He can't be worse than Ruben Tejada. You know Flores is worth the grab in NL-only (saying that tells you nothing), but I'd also grab him in the deeper shade of mixed leagues (I made the move in Yahoo Friends & Family). Although it's the pinball PCL, consider what Flores has done over 136 Triple-A games: .318/.357/.524, 20 homers. With a bat like that, the Mets should live with Flores's spotty glove. He's third-base eligibile for now, shortstop coming . . . Matt Wieters visited Dr. James Andrews and lived to tell about it; the Baltimore catcher will play through his elbow discomfort. Of course, Wieters isn't a pitcher . . . Hey, Jim Johnson got a save, a nifty rebound from a messy ninth inning Tuesday (you could smell the stench on the BART). But I still expect Sean Doolittle to be the best reliever going forward here (ignore the ERA, look at the zero walks, 21 strikeouts, 1.00 WHIP). My west coast scout agrees . . . I doubt you can sell Jonathan Villar for anything particularly zesty, but when I hear "jammed thumb" I get nervous. See if someone needs a middle infielder, maybe they'll pick out the right answer for you. 

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