Pitching by the Numbers: Future tripping

Michael Salfino
Yahoo! Sports

We're well past the quarter turn now so you would think that year-to-date performance greatly influences current starting pitching rankings, even though those rankings are supposed to only consider future performance.

But the relationship between what's actually happened thus far in 2012 with starters and what's expected to happen going forward can be most tenuous.
But which rankings to use? I don't want to go on a witch hunt here. The idea isn't that whoever does the rankings is an idiot. They may well be correct: Maybe Chris Capuano is going to be pretty much non-rosterable for the rest of 2012, even though he's been the fourth-most valuable pitcher in the league to date. So I've averaged three current rankings that will remain unnamed to get a consensus view. I know I'd probably do something very similar if charged with this rankings assignment – put too much weight into my preseason view. While I strive to be hyper rational here, I suffer from the same decision-making biases as you and everyone else in my unguarded moments.
But let's give credit where it's due to BaseballMonster.com for their rankings based only on 2012 performance in standard roto categories wins, Ks, ERA and WHIP. Here are the starters who have thus far most dramatically outperformed their expected future ranking:

Player Team Future Rank Rank YTD Diff.
Chris Capuano LAD 89 4 85
Tom Milone OAK 80 38 42
Lance Lynn STL 41 9 32
R.A. Dickey NYM 45 17 28
Edinson Volquez SD 88 61 27
Chris Sale CHW 32 7 25
Ryan Vogelsong SF 50 28 22
Jake Peavy CHW 28 11 17
Brandon Morrow TOR 27 10 17
Edwin Jackson WAS 49 32 17
Gio Gonzalez WAS 15 1 14

The argument must be made that there is something about these pitchers that is completely unsustainable. While it's wise I think to expect regression to the mean for Capuano, why this much? It's too easy to expect everyone to simply revert to career norms that were compiled in other places. Plus Capuano's expected ERA last year was 3.67, not exactly scrubby. And he's a pitcher with a career K/9 we can round to 8.00 and a career K/BB approaching 3.0. So this ranking I think is still too tethered to preseason rankings, which should be given no special weight. Maybe an injury is expected, but Capuano threw nearly 200 innings last year.
Milone is not a strong enough K/9 guy for most Yahoo! formats, so there's no need to debate him. But where's the evidence that Lynn can't be a good pitcher? He's a huge man in the prime of his athletic life who threw 164 innings in 2010 and started in Triple-A last year. I'm not too worried about a severe innings cap. He also throws very hard and mainly throws fastballs and changeups, the winning combo in my book. So I wish I owned him everywhere and so should you.
Dickey is amazing. I don't think the Ks are for real but it wouldn't shock me if the spike at least in year-to-date numbers is sustainable. The thing that chafes me about Dickey is that he's a proxy for "knuckleball." So he throws and it's like, "Man the knuckleball is a great pitch." Yes, when Dickey throws it. Let's give the artist credit and not the brush. But again, what's the expected correction based on? The Mets not being able to allow him to keep posting wins? I wrote in the Journal about how at least the bullpen doesn't blow saves for him (just one when he's left with a lead in his Mets career). And I don't think that's an accident because it must be really hard for hitters to adjust again to normal pitching in the same game.
Volquez is generally hated for leading the league in walks – a good reason to hate any pitcher, I know. But Darvish walks more per nine than Volquez and is still widely loved (see below). I don't get it. I see very similar pitchers, especially adjusting for home park. Expected wins doesn't come close to explaining the difference. Oh, and I will definitely take Jackson over Darvish right now in any challenge bet for the remainder of 2012. I do not think it will be close.
And, yes, Gonzalez has been the most valuable pitcher in the sport.
Sale of course has been touted here all year. (And those were some pretty good touts and I'm sorry they were after most drafts but we had to stick with the 2011 data until we just about ran out of meaningful samples. Also, my opinions aren't really the point here, to be honest. That's what Twitter @MichaelSalfino is for.)
Now let's tick some readers off by pointing out how relatively crappy some of their darlings have been and imply that this is unlikely to change as much as they hope/expect.

Player Team Future Rank Rank YTD Diff.
Felix Hernandez SEA 3 23 -20
CC Sabathia NYY 6 26 -20
Yu Darvish TEX 16 40 -24
Cliff Lee PHI 7 36 -29
James Shields TB 13 42 -29
Ricky Romero TOR 19 52 -33
Dan Haren LAA 8 43 -35
Tommy Hanson ATL 34 64 -30
Zack Greinke MIL 5 41 -36
Jon Lester BOS 23 Not ranked N/A
Tim Lincecum SF 24 Not ranked N/A
Ian Kennedy ARI 25 Not ranked N/A
Matt Moore TB 29 Not ranked N/A
Yovani Gallardo MIL 31 not ranked N/A
Hiroki Kuroda NYY 33 Not ranked N/A
Mat Latos CIN 38 Not ranked N/A
Adam Wainwright STL 39 Not ranked N/A
Max Scherzer DET 43 Not ranked N/A

All those unranked guys didn't make the mixed league cut off of rosterability in standard Yahoo! mixers. They are widely owned, of course, but have done lots of damage to date. But look how stubborn we are in holding on to our 2012 forecasts. That implies that all of these pitches are going to dramatically improve but the wiser bet is that most of them do not.
The pitchers from Greinke to Hernandez are assets but not nearly as big so far as they are expected to be. So if this consensus view for future value is shared by your leaguemates, it seems to me they should all be traded. There's Darvish, who I would look to move first and foremost. I'll let their owners defend them in the comments. And remember, I'm not saying to release these pitchers or that they stink or even that they won't improve. I'm saying that it's unlikely that they will improve as much as the market apparently thinks. And the key point is that the market mainly thinks that because they thought that. So that means you can extract the most certain value right now via trade. Good luck.