Small sample mirages
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Veteran pitchers Barry Zito of the San Francisco Giants, Jake Westbrook of the St. Louis Cardinals and Paul Maholm of the Atlanta Braves have been flawless, as far as ERA is concerned, through two starts apiece this season.

But we know better than to trust any of them.

Zito, who blanked the Colorado Rockies over seven innings Wednesday in his latest start, had a similarly effective last April. He had just one win and three no-decisions, but he also had a 1.67 ERA and a 0.93 WHIP in 27 innings.

Then it all fell apart, and Zito regressed to the pitcher he has been over the past four years.

He had a 4.94 ERA and 1.68 WHIP in May, a 4.54 ERA and 1.51 WHIP in June and a 6.46 ERA and 1.60 WHIP in August, and finished 15-8 with a 4.15 ERA, 4.49 FIP and a 1.39 WHIP in 184 1/3 innings.

He has been nearly identical in three of the last four seasons. He had a 4.03 ERA, 4.31 FIP and a 1.35 WHIP in 2009, and a 4.15 ERA, 4.25 FIP and 1.34 WHIP in 2010. His 5.87 ERA in 2011 was caused by an unusually low strand rate and high HR/FB, and stands as the outlier. Zito isn't as bad as he looked in 2011, but he also isn't going to finish with an ERA south of four.

Westbrook might inch into the 3.90 range like last year, but not if he keeps pitching like he has over his first two starts.

Yes, he didn't allow an earned run, but he walked 10 batters and struck out just four over 15 2/3 innings. He currently has a 4.71 FIP after two starts.

Westbrook's biggest strength is that he is an extreme ground ball pitcher, which allows him to keep the ball in the park.

But he has walked more than three batters per nine innings in two of the last three seasons (2.68 BB/9 in 2012), and has a below-average 69.6 percent strand rate for his career. According to FanGraphs, the average MLB strand rate has been 71.4 percent or higher in each of the last four seasons.

Maholm should post the best stats of the three pitchers this season, but he's not going to suddenly become a strikeout-per-inning guy.

The lefty has fanned 13 batters in 12 2/3 innings this season, but his two starts came against the Philadelphia Phillies, who started slow and have the sixth-most strikeouts in base, and the Miami Marlins, who are last in runs scored with 16 through nine games.

Maholm has recorded a 3.67 ERA over the last two seasons, and he had a 3.54 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in 68 2/3 innings after coming over from the Chicago Cubs in a midseason trade, but an ERA in the 3.60 range is his ceiling.

He needed a .286 BABIP and 7.5 percent HR/FB to accomplish a 3.66 ERA in 2011, and a .281 BABIP and a 75.7 percent strand rate to post a 3.67 mark last year.

He has a .305 BABIP, 71.3 percent strand rate and a 10.2 percent HR/FB in his career.

It's a nice start for all three pitchers, but they shouldn't get too comfortable at the top of the ERA leaderboard with Clayton Kershaw.

Kershaw has a permanent home up there, but these three are just renting, and their lease is about to expire.




Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Thomas J. Harrigan at tharrigan@sportsnetwork.com.

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