8 Starting Pitchers Hoping to Avoid Sophomore Slumps

Jose Fernandez leads the group of the impressive young arms returning for their second season.

Last year, the MLB saw one of the more interesting seasons churned out by rookie pitchers as a collective group, especially in the National League. Jose Fernandez was basically the lone bright spot of the Miami Marlins organization, coming in third in the Cy Young voting behind proven veterans Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright. Michael Wacha was the story until his last start of the playoffs, winning his first four starts with a 1.00 ERA. Gerrit Cole and Shelby Miller made their initial splashes on the bigs in 2014, as well.

The question now becomes: Who will be able to avoid the sophomore struggles after their solid performances last year?

Jose, Can't You See

The Cuban native was by far the most successful rookie pitcher of the 2013 season, and he was only 20 years old when he made his first start in the bigs, going five innings and only allowing one run with eight strikeouts. That was just the start for the former first-rounder Fernandez, as over the course of 28 starts, he only had three where he didn’t reach the five-inning mark.

He also allowed more than two earned runs only five times, two of which he allowed just three earned runs. The games where he gave up more than three earned runs all came within his first 10 outings of the season.

In general, Fernandez had a very even-keeled season; he did well throughout the entire year, without any long stretches of struggles. What’s most interesting, when reflecting on his campaign, is when he thrived most. During his first 10 starts, the Rookie of the Year logged a 3.78 ERA, .303 opponent on-base percentage and 52 strikeouts over 52.1 innings. These numbers are decent, maybe a bit more impressive because he was a rookie at the age of 20.

However, it's not as impressive as when you look at the numbers over his last 10 games, where he posted 1.32/.222/84 in 68 innings pitched. After the whole league had finally gotten to see him over the course of 18 games, he was able to see a huge jump in his performance. Based on this line alone, Fernandez displayed that he plans to be a Cy Young contender year-in and year-out.

Fozzy's Favorite Phrase

Possibly the greatest story of the 2013 playoffs was that of St. Louis Cardinals rookie pitcher Michael Wacha. During the regular season, however, Wacha was not thought of as the exciting young arm of the Cardinals staff.

Although he had success during the regular season, he had a rough outing in his second start and was back down in the minors after his third one in June. He then came back to the big leagues in August and was moved into the bullpen after his first start back.

When he moved to the bullpen, Wacha did well, striking out 19 in 10 innings with a 2.53 ERA. Then the Cards realized the former Texas A&M pitcher needed to start again.

Upon making his move back into the starting rotation, Wacha decided to turn up the heat. He had a 1.72 ERA in his last five appearances, having an opponent batting average of .198. He carried his incredible streak into the postseason, becoming one of the major reasons that the Cardinals made it to the World Series.

Wacha will be a good player to take a risk on this season for fantasy owners. His fastball-changeup combination provides a consistent repertoire that is less risky than a starter who lives off his curve or slider. Wacha can afford to make mistakes with locations with his changeup because his changeup looks just like his fastball. He will supply owners with a healthy amount of strikeouts, and should make a good push as one of the better number two-three starters in fantasy baseball.

St. Louis Stud

Wacha’s fellow rookie teammate, Shelby Miller, has been one of the more revered prospects of this decade. Known for his above average fastball and curveball, Miller has consistently been one of the top ranked prospects in the Cardinals system, and he showed why during the 2013 campaign.

Miller was one of the better pitchers in baseball throughout the regular season, boasting a 15-9 record. He also finished with the 10th-best ERA in the NL with the 16th-best among qualifying starters, finishing better than Chris Sale, David Price and James Shields. While it's still unclear why Miller didn't pitch in the playoffs, there is no question that he is in the plans in the long run for the Cards.

One thing to keep an eye on with Miller is that he caught fire during the first portion of his starts, and was not necessarily lights out in the remaining part of the season. He logged a 2.02 ERA with a .201 opponent batting average against during the first third of the season. Those numbers became 3.67/.248 in the second third and then 3.63/.255 in the last third. This was only his first season and he shows a lot of promise, but Miller has to be a bit of a concern in the middle of the season for owners, as you have to figure he is more prone to fatigue than other sophomore pitchers, still recovering from last year’s grueling grind.

How Ryu?

The Dodgers have one of the deeper staffs in baseball, obviously led by the best lefty in the game, Kershaw. Zack Greinke is the clear-cut number two and Dan Haren was the big offseason risk the team took. The starter some might be quick to forget about is the second-year Korean, Hyun-Jin Ryu. The lefty finished fourth in the National League Rookie of the Year voting, behind Fernandez, teammate Yasiel Puig and the aforementioned Miller.

Ryu’s season was interesting - he started off hot, cooled down and plateaued in the middle of the season, and then caught lightning in a bottle in the last third of the season.

It’s for this reason, and the fact that Ryu sits around 90 mph, unlike Miller who is around 94 mph, that I trust him more than Wacha and Miller. He was not one of the top 30 pitchers in strikeouts throughout the league, even though his K/9 was solid at 7.22. Why is this good? It means he’s more inclined to throw less pitches; which is why he was able to recover like he did later on in the season.

Although his batting average against is .252 and his WHIP is a bit over 1.20, he is a very conservative third starter for fantasy owners. He will remain a consistent player throughout the year.

Transformation of Cole Into a Diamond

The Pirates future superstar made his appearance on the scene in June and stuck with the club until it finished its first postseason run since 1992. The young thoroughbred was able to provide an instant impact to the Steel City nine. Cole had a respectable 7.67 K/9 to add to his 3.22 ERA. Furthermore, he won 10 of his 19 starts, with the corsairs winning in the two other starts he didn't have decisions.

The former UCLA Bruin only allowed more than three runs once in the entire season, and he went five or more innings in every start. Fantasy owners need to take an early risk on this guy; he is the real deal. He could potentially be one of the few starters who averages nine strikeouts per nine innings, as there were only 11 last year, and he could still last consistently into the sixth or seventh inning. Even though Fernandez is the most proven of this year’s sophomore class, Cole will definitely be the most exciting one. It’s doubtful that he will continue to average 96 mph on the gun, but he will still be able to gas up hitters frequently and dominate 2014.

Ray Unloads His Quiver

After being bounced around to his third club, Chris Archer finally got his chance in the majors with the Tampa Bay Rays. After a brief stint in 2012, the righty earned his spot in the rotation this past June and kept it for the rest of season. Even though he ended the season with a 3.22 ERA and WHIP of 1.13, Archer had a very average season.

In June, he only went five or more innings in half of his starts and logged a 4.40 ERA, too. From August to September Archer had 4.13 ERA and opponents hit a whopping .260 off of him. The Rays were only .500 when he took the mound during this two-month span, as well.

July was when Archer really made his mark on the season. During his five starts of the month, he threw two complete-game shutouts, and only allowed three combined runs among the other three starts. He had the second-best ERA in the month at 0.73, trailing only Hiroki Kuroda’s 0.55. In fact, no one who logged at least 25 innings besides Kuroda had better success than Archer in a given month. While this small sample size shows Archer’s potential, he is still a big question mark for how much of a workload he can handle through a full season.

The Guy the Mets Traded Beltran Away For

Matt Harvey has been all the rage in the past two seasons - he threw gas, he put up good numbers and was the NL starter for the All-Star game held at Citi Field. Well, now Harvey is on the shelf for the season, even though he plans to make an early comeback late this year.

While Mets fans might all be thinking about their new acquisition, Bartolo Colon, they should be considering their season with the former Giant first-round pick, Zack Wheeler. Mets fans have long anticipated the 1-2 punch of Harvey and Wheeler, but neither of them will be in those roles for the season.

Wheeler had a solid rookie showing in 100 innings pitched. Starting in every one of his 17 appearances, he only failed to make it out of the fifth inning twice, and made it through at least the sixth inning 10 times. His best stretch came in July, starts four through eight, where he went 3-0, including a win over the team who drafted him in 2009.

Opponents didn’t do so hot against him, hitting a .222 clip, while he had his best ERA over any month during the season, 2.73. Wheeler looked good with a 7.56 K/9, and he could possibly bring that up a bit if he continues to sit around 94 mph and his curveball develops like it is expected to. Wheeler is not an overwhelmingly great option for fantasy owners. He should fair well this year, but I would not consider him a reliable starter week-in and week-out. He’s a decent fifth fantasy starter, and should be a late-round pick and drafted in most leagues. Down the road, Wheeler will be a stud, but this season will take a toll on him, as he will be starting with the big league club from day one.

The Pitcher With a Name to Live Up to

While he has the best last name on this list, Tony Cingrani is probably the most underrated pitcher amongst the group. Like Archer and Miller, the Reds’ lefty got a taste of the bigs in 2012 and decided to stick around for all of 2013. He started in his first seven appearances, posting a 3.12 ERA and 3-0 record with 46 K’s in 40 innings. He stayed with the club when Johnny Cueto came off the DL, instead of the being sent back down to the minors, in order to help the ailing Cincinnati bullpen.

His numbers show that he didn’t do so hot in the pen, but in reality he only had one poor outing - his last one where he gave up three runs in four innings. In the four previous relief appearances he went 3.1 innings and only allowed one earned run.

He then moved back into the starting rotation for July and flourished. Cingrani had a 2.51 ERA and a .181 opponent batting average over his last 11 starts. Unfortunately, he started having back issues over his last three starts, and was unable to make it out of the second inning in his last one because of his discomfort.

There doesn’t seem to be much talk of his back being a problem now, so he may be one of the better sleeper pitchers you can find. At the end of the season, Cingrani had 120 K’s in 104.2 innings with a 2.92 ERA and is expected to be in the starting rotation for this season.