Ten Struggling Starters: Are They an Ace or Joker?

You have all played with cards before. In the majority of games, the ace is the card you want – the unbeatable, old faithful, shut down card. And the joker is the one messing with your head, screwing up your game in every way possible.

Well, this is a baseball analogy that makes perfect sense. In a starting rotation, you want your ace of the staff pitching the big games and coming through for you every fifth (or fourth, if you play in Colorado) day.

A startling trend, deep into this 2012 season, has seen a handful of aces losing velocity, missing location, and getting knocked around by opposing offenses.

So let’s play a game: Ace or Joker? Which of the following 1o starters will bounce back to ace status, and which 10 are jokers and doomed to season long struggles and failure?

With all due respect to outliers like Clay Buchholz and Ricky Romero (both have 8 wins and high ERA’s – isn’t run support nice?), or guys who haven’t fallen far enough to make the cut (Clayton Kershaw, C.C. Sabathia, Felix Hernandez), let’s shuffle the deck:

1. Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants

Why not start with the biggest fish out there? Lincecum’s fall from grace has been well-chronicled this year and deservedly so. It’s not every day that a two-time Cy Young winner entering his prime just randomly starts getting blown out regularly. I’m an avid anti-Giants fan, so I’ve been following this story closely. Just watch him pitch. Something is clearly wrong, and I don’t see any adjustments being made.

His line this year: 2-8, 6.07 ERA, 1.54 WHIP, 3 Quality Starts (QS) out of 15

Verdict: Joker.

2. Mat Latos, Cincinnati Reds

Latos continues to prove me right – I said when the Reds traded some of their better prospects to the Padres for Latos last year, that it would come back to bite them. Sure enough, away from Petco Park, Latos has been a disaster in his first season in Cincy. Don’t let the record fool you – Latos tries to force pitches by hitters, resulting in 16 HR allowed already. Will he be an ace? No. But he will bounce back and have a sub-4.00 ERA.

His line this year: 5-2, 5.20 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 5 QS out of 14

Verdict: Joker

3. Jon Lester, Boston Red Sox

We all know Lester is a notorious slow starter, but at what point in a season is that no longer an acceptable excuse? I’d say approximately six weeks ago. On a team that is slowly spiraling out of control, the one mainstay in that rotation needs to really step his game up. It’s not like Lester isn’t getting run support (nearly 4 runs per game), he’s just not executing to his fullest potential. That being said, Lester will bounce back.

His line this year: 4-5, 4.48 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 9 QS out of 15

Verdict: Ace

4. Yovani Gallardo, Milwaukee Brewers

Gallardo has always been a puzzling pitcher to me. He has the tools to be one of the best in baseball, and has certainly shown flashes of brilliance here and there. But he’s maddeningly inconsistent for a Brewers team that needs consistent pitching to balance out the line up production lost when Prince Fielder moved on to Detroit in free agency. I’m not sure if Gallardo will ever put it all together, but he will continue to toss quality starts and the numbers will improve.

His line this year: 6-5, 4.22 ERA, 1.41. WHIP, 12 QS out of 15

Verdict: Ace

5. Ian Kennedy, Arizona Diamondbacks

Last year’s Cinderella story in the National League during the regular season was the Arizona Diamondbacks, led by their “ace” Kennedy. Don’t get me wrong – Kennedy was fantastic last season (21-4, 2.88). But it also seems fluky, given his career numbers prior to 2011. All signs are pointing to him returning to human form in 2012, as Kennedy is giving up about 7 hits and 4 runs per outing.

His line this year: 5-7, 4.13 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 9 QS out of 14

Verdict: Joker

6. Dan Haren, Los Angeles Angels

Haren has struck out at least 192 batters in five different seasons, and posted a nice 16-10/3.17/1.02 stat line in 2011 for the Angels. See, the thing with sinker ball pitchers is that they are either filthy dominant or leave the pitch hanging, and then baseballs fly very, very far. Where even Torii Hunter can’t reach them. Haren hasn’t been himself this season, but he will make an adjustment for the second half and turn in a solid season.

His line this year: 5-7, 4.24 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 7 QS out of 15

Verdict: Ace

7. Jeremy Guthrie, Colorado Rockies

What the Rockies thought they were getting in a trade for Guthrie blows my mind. They must have failed to recognize that he was a career 47-65 with a mid-4.00’s ERA during his time in Baltimore. Potential doesn’t always equal results, but he was still brought into Colorado to be the ace of the staff. How has that gone? Well, a bullpen demotion and 15 HR allowed in 11 starts is not a pretty place to be.

His line this year: 3-6, 6.68 ERA, 1.74 WHIP, 2 QS out of 11

Verdict: Joker

8. Roy Halladay, Philadelphia Phillies

The fact that Halladay was pitching through an injury for a few starts explains a LOT. He still has surprisingly decent numbers when you look deeper, but a Hall of Fame pitcher should not have an ERA approaching 4.00 this late in the season. I figure the two-time Cy Young winner will be back with a vengeance when healthy, though it might be too late by then to save the flailing Phillies.

His line this year: 4-5, 3.98 ERA, 1.15 ERA, 8 QS out of 11

Verdict: Ace

9. Adam Wainwright/Jaime Garcia, St. Louis Cardinals

Both of these guys have ace-level stuff and have been there in the past. Wainwright has stepped his game up recently, but still has horrid overall numbers. Coming back early from injury might have played a role in his bad first couple months. Garcia is now on the DL himself, so time will tell if a little R&R solves his problems. But if the Cards want to contend down the stretch, they will need both of these guys at full strength.

Their lines this year: Wainwright – 5-7, 4.46 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 6 QS out of 14/Garcia – 3-4, 4.48 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, 6 QS out of 11

Verdict: Wainwright – Ace, Garcia – Joker

10. Edinson Volquez, San Diego Padres

Unfortunately for the Padres, they didn’t get off unscathed from the Latos trade. The starter they got in return from Cincinnati is Volquez, who is a similar case to Gallardo. Both have electric stuff and a crap ton of potential, but it goes wasted on spotty control and mental mistakes. Volquez will improve his numbers a little bit, but he’s not an ace of any rotation, and I’m not sure he ever will be.

His line this year: 3-7, 4.11 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 8 QS out of 15

Verdict: Joker

Let me know who you think will bounce back by commenting below!

– Jeremy Dorn (@Jamblinman)

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