After missing parts of the 2008 and 2009 seasons with a variety of injuries, fantasy owners hoped they could get a full season – with something close to full production – from Jake Peavy in 2010.  

After all, strikeouts have always been among Peavy’s strengths and he was mowing down hitters at a prodigious clip in the first half of 2009 when he whiffed batters at a rate of 10.1 K/9.  Upon returning to action in September, it was with a new team (and a new league) and limited expectations.  He made three starts down the stretch for the White Sox and was flat-out dominant, working 20 innings, allowing 11 hits and six walks while striking out 18.  He won all three of his starts and finished with a 1.35 ERA.  Despite the injury which limited his action, Peavy had a solid overall year with 16 Wins, a 3.45 ERA, a 1.12 WHIP and 110 strikeouts in 101 innings.

Fast forward to 2010 and things suddenly aren’t so rosy.  In his first three starts of the season, Peavy has worked 18 innings, but has surrendered 12 earned runs (a 6.00 ERA), 19 hits, and eight walks.  He carries an unsightly 1.500 WHIP.

Those numbers are bad enough, but what’s even more alarming (and the point of this article) is the lack of strikeouts.  Peavy has struck out only 10 hitters in the young season.

This is where I insert the disclaimer that this is a small sample size.  Certainly, Peavy won’t own a WHIP greater than 1.50 for the entire season, just as he was unlikely to repeat his low WHIP from his final three starts in 2009.  Still, if he’s going to make 30 starts this year, we are talking about 10% of his season.  And I’m of the school of thought it’s never too early to look at the cause of some early season struggles.  Because you may discover those roots run deep, signaling a much larger issue.  Besides, Peavy is a strikeout pitcher, and that makes up a chunk of his fantasy value.  Since winning the NL ERA title as a 23 year old in 2004, Peavy had posted a strikeout rate lower than 9.4 K/9 only once.  That was in 2008 when he logged 8.6 K/9 and missed a month with a right elbow strain. 

Currently, one reason behind Peavy’s lack of punchouts is he just can’t seal the deal.  A full 33% of all hitters have fallen behind the count 0-2 against Peavy in his three starts this year.  That is truly an outstanding rate, given that among starters in the AL, only Dallas Braden has jumped ahead 0-2 more often than Peavy. (Braden is at a whopping 41%.)  Obviously, jumping ahead in the count so often should give Peavy and Braden a huge advantage.  While hitters are predictably struggling against Braden when they are facing an 0-2 deficit, batting a meager .083/.120/.083, Peavy is having no such success.  Batters are pounding Peavy to the tune of .294/.368/.353 when falling behind 0-2.  Yikes. By comparison, last year Peavy jumped ahead 0-2 a full 31% of the time (again, an outstanding rate) but limited hitters to a line of .104/.131/.156 when jumping ahead by that count.

Peavy’s inability to close out hitters once they fall behind is can be attributed to the fact he just isn’t missing bats this season like he has in the past.  After getting hitters to swing and miss at 17% of his strikes over the last three years, he’s not close to approaching that kind of success in his first three starts of ’10.  His swinging strike percentage has tumbled to 12%.  He’s gone from exceptional to average in this area.

Then, there’s his fastball, which has clearly lost some velocity.  Peavy’s average fastball is clocking just over 90 mph in his three starts.  As recently as two years ago, he hitting 92 mph with regularity.  The last time his average fastball dipped below 91 mph was way back in 2003.  That was Peavy’s second year in the majors and with a 7.2 K/9, it was his worst strikeout season of his career.

So we have a pitcher who is underperforming, a pitcher who isn’t missing bats, can’t close out hitters after jumping ahead in the count, and has lost some heat off his fastball.  Despite missing time with the elbow injury in 2008 and the ankle problem in 2009, Peavy has been a beacon of consistency – until this season.  The table below shows his rates we’ve discussed going back to 2006.

Year K/9 0-2% 0-2 BA SwS Avg FB
2006 9.6 26% .184 20% 92.1 mph
2007 9.7 26% .184 17% 92.5 mph
2008 8.6 23% .167 17% 92.1 mph
2009 9.7 31% .104 17% 91.8 mph
2010 5.0 33% .294 12% 90.4 mph

Peavy may very well recover his form and deliver another solid fantasy season.  Or, this could be the beginning of a phase of his career where he simply becomes a third or fourth tier fantasy starter.  Returning from injury and pitching away from San Diego for the first time in his career, it certainly feels like he’s at a crossroads.  In any case, the roots of Peavy’s problems are enough to cause some serious concern among fantasy owners.  This is a situation to monitor over his next couple of starts.