When attempting to identify an undervalued fantasy asset, some owners will look at first and second half splits. If a specific player really excelled in the second half of the season, that player is often viewed as a player on the rise. Edwin Jackson and Brian Matusz are two players that fall into that category this season. Despite their strong finishes, both players still enter 2011 with question marks. In the RotoGraphs Player Rankings, Jackson and Matusz ranked right next to each other in the Red Hot Chili Peppers tier (the fourth tier). While I could sit here and debate Mike Podhorzer’s taste in music, it would probably be more helpful to you, the reader, if I took a look at how Jackson and Matusz will perform this season, and whether they will build on their strong second halves.
Edwin Jackson has teased fantasy owners from the day he entered a major league rotation. While his performances have been inconsistent the last two seasons, he has quietly coming off two strong seasons in with he posted a WAR above three. Jackson has always been a pitcher fantasy owners dream on. If he could ever reach his true potential, Jackson could become one of the stronger pitchers in fantasy baseball.
Fortunately, this could be the season that happens. Following a trade to the White Sox, Jackson was exceptional in eleven starts. Jackson has flashed this potential in the past, but has never been able to sustain that success over a full season. The difference this season could be White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper. Cooper has been extremely successful turning around pitchers with big ability but poor results (think Gavin Floyd, Jose Contreras and Matt Thornton).
Sure enough, once Jackson came to the White Sox, all of his peripherals moved in the right direction. Jackson’s strikeout rate jumped to 9.24 with the White Sox and, perhaps more impressively, he cut his walk rate to 2.16. In 75 innings pitched, Jackson posted a 3.17 FIP with the White Sox (3.15 xFIP). When the White Sox acquired Jackson last season, Cooper mentioned that he always wanted to work with Jackson. For that reason, I’m buying Jackson’s second half improvement in 2011. Your league-mates who have been burned by Jackson in the past may snicker when you draft him, but it will be well worth it when Jackson posts the best season of his career.
Brian Matusz is another player that excelled down the stretch, but for very different reasons. Once Buck Showalter rearranged the Orioles defense, Matusz really began to shine. While the new defensive alignment helped Matusz post a .269 BABIP down the stretch (a number that will rise this season), he also started to show improvement as well.
Matusz was able to increase his strikeout rate by one whole strikeout per game over the course of those 14 starts. Perhaps that is another sign that Matusz, 24, is taking a step forward. He absolutely dominated batters in 25 Sept/Oct innings, posting his lowest FIP and xFIP of the season. It’s not as if Matusz posted those numbers against weak teams either. Over the course of those 14 starts, Matusz faced AL East opponents in seven of them. Based on his youth, and former prospect status, Matusz would be a good bet to improve this season.
Both pitchers still come with some issues, however. Jackson is a perennial tease, Matusz pitches in the toughest division in baseball and neither pitcher will benefit from their ballparks. Yet, both have shown enough promise to warrant increased expectations. I may be a bit biased (I am a White Sox fan), but I have more confidence in a Jackson breakout than I do with Matusz. That’s not to say Matusz isn’t worth taking a shot on, he absolutely has the skills to excel this season. As your draft drags on, don’t ignore the potential of Jackson or Matusz. Both pitchers have a strong chance at outperforming their draft positions and posting the strongest seasons of their careers.