- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
Most fantasy owners have a pretty good idea which starting pitchers are strikeout options, and which are not. Tim Lincecum and Jon Lester miss a lot of bats, while Bronson Arroyo and Joel Pineiro do not. However, some starting pitchers might be living a bit on reputation in the strikeout category, because the stats don't lie. For example, the Philadelphia Phillies have four aces living up to their name, and three of them are among baseball's top 10 whiff artists. The fourth? Well, he's averaging a career-low 5.8 strikeouts per nine innings.
Right-hander Roy Oswalt has overcome a DL stint for lower-back woes, and I can't imagine having to deal with his issues off the field (the storms at his home in Mississippi), but it could be tough for him to keep his ERA at a solid 2.70 if he doesn't overcome his Pineiro-like strikeout rate. I'm not saying Oswalt has been lucky; he has thrown 2,000-plus innings in his career and is wise enough to find other ways to retire hitters. Nor do I presume he's reinventing himself, despite having failed to strike out as many as four hitters in any of his past five starts. Oswalt has missed a few starts, but that only partially explains why 19 relief pitchers have more strikeouts than he does.
Those who own Oswalt in fantasy leagues might be struggling in the strikeout category because one of their top pitchers just isn't delivering K's as expected. That's all it takes, really. In one of my leagues, the difference between third and 10th place in strikeouts is 50 K's. The 2010 version of Oswalt that fanned 193 hitters certainly appears the outlier here, even though he averaged a still-valuable 156 strikeouts the four seasons prior to last. Oswalt says he's still regaining his velocity after an early-May DL stint, but right now it's safe to say he's not a strong strikeout option, and fantasy owners shouldn't expect his pedestrian rate to suddenly rise. Own him for the wins, ERA and WHIP, but get your whiffs elsewhere.
Here are five other pitchers not exactly piling on the strikeouts like you thought they would:
Ted Lilly, Los Angeles Dodgers: Annually underrated, Lilly averaged 14 wins and 167 strikeouts -- with a nice 1.18 WHIP -- from 2006 through 2010, and his strikeout rate was close to his career norm of 7.7 per nine innings each of those seasons. This season Lilly boasts his usual fine WHIP (1.22) but the whiffs are lagging at 6.3 per 9. He's on pace for 132, which isn't awful, but if you expected last season's 166, it's looking like you'll need to compensate elsewhere.
Wade Davis, Tampa Bay Rays: The truth is, this right-hander has been disappointing as a big leaguer, but fantasy owners had use for him in 2010 when he won 12 games with a 4.07 ERA and 1.35 WHIP. The strikeout rate was below average, but he was just 24 years old. I didn't exactly expect a 200-K season from Davis in 2011, but he's striking out a poor 4.3 batters per nine innings. That's on pace for fewer than 100 whiffs over 33 starts. Great, we've got Carlos Silva here, but with more walks.
John Danks, Chicago White Sox: Well, Danks has a boatload of issues; he entered Monday with an 0-8 record and 5.25 ERA. The lack of wins shouldn't be what scares fantasy owners away; that could easily change. Half of his outings have been quality starts, and really only his last outing bloated his ERA and WHIP. However, since whiffing eight Detroit Tigers on April 24, Danks has fanned 13 hitters in his past six outings, covering 37 1/3 innings. If the K rate was up -- he fanned 162 hitters a year ago -- it would be far easier to keep Danks around.
Jordan Zimmermann, Washington Nationals: His ERA and WHIP look pretty nice, and I can't say I expected many wins from him, considering his team, but I did expect more strikeouts. As a rookie, Zimmerman fanned 92 hitters in 91 1/3 innings over 16 starts, and now that he's fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, it appears he's still a valuable pitcher, but no longer a whiff machine. He's on pace for 132 strikeouts this season. Hey, we'll take it, but we expected more like 175.
Carlos Zambrano, Chicago Cubs: Big Z is actually pitching well, with a 1.26 WHIP that would be his best mark since 2005, and he's done a nice job cutting his walk rate. However, he also has "cut" his strikeout rate, from 8.1 per nine innings in 2009 and 2010 to its current 6.2. Like Zimmermann, fantasy owners can't really complain, but the expectations for strikeouts were higher.