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By the Numbers: Pitchers on the brink

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A year ago, R.A. Dickey, Cole Hamels and Matt Cain were Fantasy aces, and back in March all three were being drafted in the early rounds. As we approach the season's midway point, none is even close to being universally started in leagues on CBSSports.com, as each owns an ERA in excess of 4.50.

While all three have earned bench spots in a large proportion of leagues, it's important to note each is owned in at least 93 percent of our leagues. As disappointing as Dickey, Hamels and Cain have been, dropping them in any format would be the wrong move, but at what point should owners give up on them and other underachieving hurlers?

It makes sense to put more faith in a pitcher's long-term track record than a partial-season slump, but owners who stuck through thick and thin (mostly thin) with Ricky Romero, Tim Lincecum and Tommy Hanson for all of last season got stuck with some lousy Fantasy stats. It can be difficult to know when to pull the plug, but Romero, Lincecum and Hanson were all emitting three ominous warning signals. Each was experiencing some decline in his skill indicators. Worse yet, the problems that showed up for each pitcher in 2012 had been present at some point previously in his career. Finally, each experienced a decline in velocity.

The presence of these three factors doesn't guarantee a pitcher can't bounce back from a difficult first half, but it does indicate a higher level of risk. In assessing the rest-of-season prospects for Dickey, Hamels, Cain and five other struggling starters, we'll take a look at the story behind their current stats and see if their skill or velocity trends leave us with any reason to drop or trade them.

R.A. Dickey, Blue Jays: You may think velocity isn't all that important for Dickey, but throwing a harder knuckleball over the previous three season correlated with higher swinging strike rates and an overall higher level of success. He's been throwing both his fastball and knuckler at lower velocities this year, though it's encouraging to see he's thrown them a little harder over his last two starts. Unfortunately, Dickey's command has been inconsistent and he had trouble with location in his most recent start against the Orioles. Earlier in the season, back issues hampered his performance, but he has yet to string together enough quality performances to reassure owners he is back to being a reliable starter. Because his velocity has rebounded, it's worth keeping the 38-year-old around in all formats for at least a couple more weeks, but owners can start to think about the possibility of replacing him altogether if he doesn't turn his season around soon.

Cole Hamels, Phillies: While Dickey has had issues with velocity, command and keeping the ball in the park, Hamels has been essentially the same pitcher he's been since 2010. His 2.8 BB/9 rate is slightly elevated, but according to Baseball-Reference.com, Hamels is throwing 66 percent strikes -- a rate in line with his career norms. Hamels' walk rate, along with a 23 percent line drive rate, go a long way toward explaining his 1.29 WHIP. While line drive rates are highly variable, owners can expect Hamels' walk rate to recede, as it's been inflated by three starts where he handed out more than three free passes. It's also reasonable to expect his 68 percent strand rate to improve, which will further help his ERA to shrink. There are no real signs of concern for Hamels, so his owners need to keep starting him, and his non-owners need to try to buy him at a discount.

Most Added Starters (as of 6/26)
Player % change
1. Roy Oswalt, SP, Rockies 20
2. Kevin Correia, SP, Twins 18
3. Jake Westbrook, SP, Cardinals 15
4. Eric Stults, SP, Padres 11
5. Chien-Ming Wang, SP, Blue Jays 11
6. Kyle Lohse, SP, Brewers 9
7. Kyle Gibson, SP, Twins 8
8. Stephen Fife, SP, Dodgers 8
9. Corey Kluber, SP, Indians 8
10. Hector Santiago, SP, White Sox 7

Matt Cain, Giants: Cain isn't having problems with velocity or getting swinging strikes, but when hitters are making contact with his offerings, he's getting hit hard. Line drive rates are prone to fluctuation, but a 26 percent rate in concert with a 12 percent home run to flyball ratio seems to send the message that Cain has been more hittable than usual. However, Cain's struggles occurred mainly in April. His line drive rate has remained elevated since then, but he's compiled a 3.53 ERA through May and June and he's allowed seven home runs over 66 1/3 innings. That home run pace looks even less worrisome when you consider three of them occurred in a single start at Coors Field. Cain seems to have moved past his early season woes and can be treated as a top 15 starting pitcher.

Jon Lester, Red Sox: Despite only a slight loss of velocity, Lester saw his K/9 rate drop from 9.7 in 2010 to 8.6 in 2011 to 7.3 last season. His swinging strike rate continues to erode and his K/9 rate this year has plateaued, moving to just 7.4. A big part of Lester's decline over the previous two seasons was his increased difficulty in getting swings-and-misses on his curveball and those troubles have worsened in 2013. Back in 2010, Lester got whiffs on 15 percent of his curves, while so far this year that rate has is down to 8 percent, according to BrooksBaseball.net. Lester was getting strikeouts and avoiding runs in his early starts, but he was getting more called strikes then. Now that he's getting fewer of those, he's repeating last season's mediocre level of performance. It's getting to the point where Lester is overowned and can be dropped in shallower leagues, if owners can use his roster spot for a more compelling alternative.

Ian Kennedy, Diamondbacks: When Kennedy finished with a 2.88 ERA and was a Cy Young contender in 2011, he looked like a 2012 regression candidate. So when his HR/9 rate came down to earth and then some last season, it wasn't a complete surprise. Even if owners couldn't realistically expect Kennedy to get back to his 2011 levels, he seemed like a good bet to improve on last year's numbers, but they've actually worsened. While it was unclear how often Kennedy might be victimized by the long ball, you had to figure at least he would throw strikes, maintain a low walk rate and help owners with WHIP, but none of that has materialized. Kennedy's percentage of pitches in the strike zone has dropped sharply in back-to-back years now, so he appears to be a long way from returning to his 2011 form. He has turned in good starts his last two times out, but one of those was against a Padres lineup that whiffs a lot. Kennedy is still too shaky to start in many mixed leagues, but with his recent success, it's premature to drop him.

Yovani Gallardo, Brewers: Gallardo's fastball velocity lost a tick last season and he didn't get as many swinging strikes, but Fantasy owners didn't feel the effects as he still managed to get a strikeout per inning. When Gallardo began this season with even lower velocity and fewer whiffs, it appeared he was about to lose much of his Fantasy relevance. The Brewers' opening day starter has increased his velocity over his last five starts -- though it's still not quite where it was a year ago -- and he has gone three straight starts without giving up an earned run. Owners just shouldn't go overboard with the recent uptick in Gallardo's strikeout rate, as he is still not getting swings-and-misses consistently. There are enough positive signs so that owners can continue to keep Gallardo on their rosters, but it's not clear yet whether he can sustain his recent gains in strikeouts and ERA. If he doesn't, Gallardo won't be beyond dropping in standard mixed leagues.

Jeremy Hellickson, Rays: Hellickson is yet another starter who isn't throwing as hard this season, but even though his results haven't been good, strikeouts haven't been the problem. He's increased his K/9 rate from 6.3 to 6.8 and his swinging strike rate from 10 percent to 11 percent, but his ERA has ballooned to 5.11 despite a decrease in WHIP. That's because Hellickson, who had excelled at stranding runners over the previous two-plus seasons, has allowed two of every five runners to score this year. Just maybe, Hellickson was a little lucky to have stranded so many runners prior to this season, but he certainly isn't as bad as he's been so far in 2013. It may not be realistic to expect Hellickson to approach his typical near-3.00 ERA, but he should still be good enough to use as a streaming option in standard mixed leagues.

Jason Hammel, Orioles: During last season's breakout, Hammel averaged a career-high 93.6 mph on his fastball (per FanGraphs.com) and that helped fuel career-bests in ERA, WHIP and strikeout rate. His velocity has dipped to 92.7 mph in 2013, but the deterioration of his stats has been far more dramatic. Hammel is currently owned in only 57 percent of the leagues on CBSSports.com, so he's not posing a dilemma for owners in standard mixed leagues. However, with a 5.30 ERA and a 1.44 WHIP, is he even worth owning in, say, a 15-team mixed league? From last year's performance, we know Hammel can get strikeouts and grounders, so if the 2012 version reappears sometime in 2013, he's worth keeping around. The problem is there have been no signs of that happening, so Hammel is droppable, even in some deeper formats.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us via Twitter @CBSFantasyBB . You can also follow Al at @almelccbs .

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