Fantasy Baseball Existentialism: Nightmare Declines

As a Giants fan, I can relate to what Tigers fans and fantasy owners of Justin Verlander must be feeling right now. One day, Tim Lincecum was the best pitcher on the planet, then he wasn’t quite as good, and then he was awful. One day, Matt Cain was really good at throwing baseballs, and then suddenly he wasn’t. They weren’t even that old, either. They still aren’t!

Lincecum posted a 2.81 ERA, 2.81 FIP, 26.9 percent strikeout rate, and 22.4 WAR from 2008-11 while winning two Cy Young awards and a World Series ring. Since showing up for the 2012 season, Lincecum has put up a 4.77 ERA, 3.99 FIP, 22.9 percent strikeout rate, and just 2.6 WAR over 79 starts. The nearly one run difference in his ERA and FIP over the last two-plus seasons has provided some reason for optimism, but at a certain point we’re going to have to accept that he just gives up more runs than his peripherals suggest he ought to.

From 2005-12, Cain went 85-78 with a 3.27 ERA and 3.65 FIP, prompting the Giants to give him a 6-year, $127.5 million extension during the spring of 2012. Now, Cain’s xFIP during that span was 4.19 due to what appeared to be an unsustainable 6.8 percent HR/FB ratio. Since the start of last season, his HR/FB ratio is 11.9 percent, which is the main culprit for his 4.14 ERA and 4.21 FIP. His xFIP has actually gone down to 3.98. Perhaps with Cain, fly-ball luck eventually ran out and he became the mediocre pitcher his peripherals always suggested he was. As an extreme fly-ball pitcher, he’s always been able to maintain a low BABIP (.264 from 2005-12 and .257 in 2013-14).

Verlander showed signs of decline last season, but he appeared to right the ship down the stretch and in the postseason. He’s in year two of a 7-year, $180 million deal—the extension replaced the final two years of his previous deal, so it can also be seen as a 5-year deal that starts next season—and the Tigers have to be feeling buyer’s remorse already.

After posting 6-8 WAR seasons from 2009-12, he slipped to 5.2 WAR last year. This season, he’s posted a 4.98 ERA over 15 starts with a strikeout rate of just 15.8 percent. After averaging 95 mph on the heater in 2011, his fastball velocity has slipped down to an average of 92.6 mph.

Verlander is 31 years old with a lot of mileage on his elbow ligaments. Lincecum just turned 30, he’s undersized, and his velocity began declining in 2009 and never came back. Cain will be 30 in October, and while his velocity hasn’t changed much since 2010, he just doesn’t look like the same guy anymore.

Do former aces who begin to decline ever get it back? Or once it starts to go does it just keep on going?

It isn’t just Verlander, Cain, and Lincecum in the midst of nightmare declines. Cliff Lee, who is owed $25 million this year and next with a $27.5 million option for 2016, has been on the shelf for a month with an elbow problem. He pitched well before being sidelined, but he’ll turn 36 in August. CC Sabathia will be 34 in July and his ERA since the beginning of last season is 4.87. Even the maniacally hard-working Roy Halladay eventually broke down. As dominant as Clayton Kershaw has been, there will come a day for his inevitable decline and fall.

It isn’t just pitchers like Verlander, Cain, and Sabathia having disappointing seasons. In-their-prime position players like Evan Longoria and Buster Posey have let their fantasy owners down, too. It’s one thing for pitchers with a lot of wear and tear to begin to break down, but how do you explain 27-28 year old star positional talents letting you down? Pitchers fall apart, but young hitters shouldn’t being to slip like this, right? Has the diminutive Dustin Pedroia started his decline phase? Why does Robinson Cano have only four home runs and a .109 ISO? When will the Mariners want a do-over on that contract?

There’s just so much we don’t know. As Philip Roth wrote in The Human Stain, “What we know is that, in an unclichéd way, nobody knows anything. You can’t know anything. The things you know you don’t know…All that we don’t know is astonishing. Even more astonishing is what passes as knowing.”

With the knowledge that we know we know nothing, the question is: when is the right time to cut your losses as a fantasy owner? And, what good does it do to cut your losses if you have to sell at the bottom of the market anyway? You might as well hold on, hoping against all odds that Lincecum’s ERA starts to match his peripherals, that Cain’s fly balls start dying on the warning track again, that Verlander and Sabathia turn back the clock or learn to get hitters out with diminished velocity, that Longoria and Posey begin to match their track records, that Lee’s elbow returns to health, and that Cano and Pedroia aren’t yet in the decline phase.

All things are prone to decay and decline, yet it doesn’t truly hit home until it happens to you. Jim Cavan wrote:

Sports, at their core, are pastimes, our respite from the rancid rancor of politics and the monotony of daily life. It’s an outlet—social, emotional and psychological—through which we exercise our innate competitiveness in an arena that isn’t nearly as rancorous as Washington or as frustratingly mundane as our living rooms are. Watching the Knicks, for me, is a chance to frolic in a [bleeped]-up alternate universe where nothing makes sense. Where nothing is supposed to make sense.

I never thought Lincecum or Cain would fall this far, at least not this quickly. But here we are, and even though it doesn’t make much sense, their declines are at least more true to life than those awesome championship parades.



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Mark Reynolds graduated from Dominican University of California in 2008 with a degree in Political Science. Since graduating, he's been "blogging" about baseball and other topics.

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Tom
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Tom

“Do former aces who begin to decline ever get it back? Or once it starts to go does it just keep on going?”

I’m afraid in the post PEDs era, it just keeps on going.

lowcountryjoe
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lowcountryjoe

I like the quote you pulled. It was one of the sentences that grabbed me, too. The answer is “No!” But then there’s always the Bartolo Colon and Scott Kasmir turn-around that make you go, “Not so fast, Pal.” There are others but I’m a lazy dude and a fan of the Athletics so they came to mind.

JimNYC
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JimNYC

Anybody can have one down year (Christy Mathewson in 1906 comes to mind), but examples of pitchers who came back from multiple down years to be dominant are rare:

Tom Seaver, 2.6 WAR in 1980-1982; 10.0 WAR in 1983-1985
Curt Simmons: 3.8 WAR in 55-56; 8.9 WAR in 57-58
Chuck Finley: 4.0 WAR in 91-92; 8.4 WAR in 93-94
Whitey Ford: 5.0 WAR in 59-60; 10.8 WAR in 61-62
Luis Tiant: 1.0 WAR in 69-71; 14.7 WAR in 72-74
Jack Morris: 3.8 WAR in 89-90; 8.5 WAR in 91-92

And a lot of those guys are stretching the definitions.