Most popular stories from USA TODAY

  1. HF Test1039.08:13:00.0050619
Loss of pitchers' heat giving you fantasy chills?
Updated 4/24/2012 5:15 PM ET
Many fantasy owners are understandably concerned about their pitching staffs.

Perhaps it's our skeptical nature that causes us to overlook the fine early performances by Brandon Beachy, Philip Humber, Kyle Lohse and Ross Detwiler— each of whom began the week with an ERA under 1.00 — and focus on the struggles of supposed staff aces such as Tim Lincecum, Mat Latos and Jon Lester.

With the likes of Cliff Lee, Daniel Hudson and Ryan Dempster going on the disabled list, those pitching concerns might be one step away from outright panic (and we haven't even addressed all of the turmoil throughout the closer ranks).

BLOG: Pairing velocity with results is an inexact science

A common theme among several of this season's biggest disappointments is a drop in fastball velocity. Lose a couple of miles per hour off the fastball — so the theory goes — and hitters gain the upper hand. However, pitchers frequently go through what's known as a "dead arm" period toward the end of spring training that might last a few weeks.

Let's see if we can figure out what's going on with some prominent slow starters.

Freak-onomics

Two-time National League Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants was pounded in his first three starts to the tune of a 10.54 ERA over 13⅔ innings. Sure enough, he averaged 90.2 mph on his fastball — down 2.1 mph from where it was last season, according to

Fangraphs.com.

The numbers also say Lincecum is throwing his fastball less often and his changeup more than ever. Maybe he knows he doesn't have his best heater and he's trying to compensate for it. But while both of those pitches have generated better-than-average results in the past, they're both below average in the limited sample this year.

The question is: Are Lincecum's struggles temporary or a sign of imminent danger? After all, his unique throwing motion depends on his mechanics being in perfect alignment. His strikeout rate has dropped in each of the past three seasons. And he posted a sub-.500 record (13-14) in 2011.

Yes, those warning signs are troubling. But even though Lincecum's ERA is in the stratosphere — it dropped to 8.20 after he allowed one run in five innings as he got his first win against the New York Mets on Monday — his expected ERA (based on batted ball, strikeout, walk and strand rates) is at 3.31 and FIP (fielding independent pitching) is 3.20. In addition, the Giants have played less-than-stellar defense when

Lincecum has been on the mound.

Even with his reduced velocity, Lincecum has managed to strike out 24 batters in his 18⅔ innings — good for a rate of 11.6 per nine innings, which is more than he's averaged in any full season.

"The Freak" has gone through rough stretches before. He lost five consecutive starts and posted a 7.82 ERA during that span in August 2010 — and then went 5-1 with a 1.94 ERA in September to lead the Giants to the playoffs and ultimately a World Series title.

•The verdict: Don't panic. Even consider buying low on Lincecum.

Crown wobbling?

Felix Hernandez doesn't have Lincecum's ugly stat line, but the Seattle Mariners ace is also experiencing a loss of about 2 mph on his fastball (93.3 mph in 2011, 91.4 mph in 2012). Yet, like Lincecum, he's managing to strike out opposing hitters with regularity. Through four starts and 29⅓ innings, "King Felix" has a major league-leading 31 strikeouts — an average of 9.5 per nine innings.

One reason his ERA is a measly 2.76 is that he has yielded one home run — good for a 4.2% home run/fly ball rate that's less than half the major league average. Interestingly, by using the advanced metric Expected Fielding Independent Pitching, Lincecum — with a 2.81 xFIP — is on par with Hernandez, who has a 2.77 xFIP.

If there's one small warning sign with Hernandez's performance, it's a significant drop in his percentage of ground balls (41% in 2012 vs. 55% for his career). That rare combination of high strikeout and ground-ball rates has propelled Hernandez to elite status. A return to his usual velocity could get that ground-ball rate back to normal as well.

•The verdict: It's good to be the King — or at least own him in fantasy leagues.

Sore subject

Lincecum and Hernandez might not need their best fastball to be successful, but that's not the case with everyone. Michael Pineda's average velocity of 94.7 mph last season ranked him fourth among all major league starters, behind Alexi Ogando (95.1), Justin Verlander (95.0) and David Price (94.8).

But this spring, after being traded from the Mariners to the New York Yankees, Pineda showed considerably less zip on the express — 3-5 mph lower than last year. He was diagnosed with tendinitis in his pitching shoulder and put on the DL to start the regular season.

Scheduled to throw two innings in an extended spring training game Saturday, Pineda was shut down after 15 pitches with shoulder weakness. In this case, the drop in velocity clearly seems related to an injury.

•The verdict: It's tough to see Pineda healthy and contributing before the All-Star break.

The biggest losers

The idea of this exercise is to see if a lower number on the radar gun has had an impact on the stat sheet.

Thanks to helpful research by Fangraphs' Eno Sarris, we discovered the pitcher with the greatest loss in fastball velocity from last year is Justin Masterson of the Cleveland Indians.

Masterson averaged 92.7 mph in 2011 but through his first three starts this season was more than 3 mph lower at 89.6. It wouldn't necessarily be a big deal except that Masterson relies heavily on his fastball, using it more than 85% of the time. In one game last season he threw fastballs on every pitch except one.

He had a stellar start opening day but has been roughed up on the road by Seattle and the Oakland Athletics in two of the majors' most pitcher-friendly ballparks.

Even more disconcerting than his 6.65 ERA and 1.62 WHIP is Masterson's 5/4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 21⅔ innings. Even this early in the year, Masterson owners have to be at least a little concerned about a repeat of last season's numbers.

The Yankees' CC Sabathia is also down more than 2 mph from his 93.8 average in 2011. Sabathia's ERA (5.27 through four starts) has suffered as well. However, he has fanned 30 batters and walked seven in 27⅓ innings.

Philadelphia Phillies ace RoyHalladay is also down 2.1 mph from last year. Unlike Sabathia, Halladay has kept his stat line pristine. He's 3-1 with a 1.50 ERA and 0.90 WHIP. Both former Cy Young Award winners should be just fine going forward.

Interestingly, another former Cy Young winner's fastball is 1½ mph slower than it was last year, but he's still been one of the most effective pitchers in the early going. Oakland Athletics veteran Bartolo Colon has magnificent in five starts, posting a 2.62 ERA and 0.93 WHIP with a 21/5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 34⅓ innings.

Pitchers frequently lose velocity in April and regain it a few starts later. And even if it doesn't come all the way back, the talented ones are able to find ways to get hitters out other than by simply overpowering them.

The missing heat could be a concern if it lasts into May and beyond, but fantasy owners should avoid looking at results — especially this early in the season — as a truly accurate indicator of ability.

Contributing: For more analysis, strategy tips and expert chats, visit Gardner's Fantasy Windup blog at fantasywindup.usatoday.com.

Posted 4/24/2012 2:05 PM ET
Updated 4/24/2012 5:15 PM ET
Tim Lincecum's fastball hasn't quite been the same this season.
By Doug Pensinger, Getty Images
Tim Lincecum's fastball hasn't quite been the same this season.

Copyright © 2011 www.courier-journal.com. All rights reserved. Users of this site agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy/Your California Privacy Rights (Terms Updated 2011)