#ThrowbackThursdayReviews: Spider-Man (2000) for PSX

Hello, all! Welcome to my latest blog column, in which I dip into the past and pull out fragments of history both prominent and obscure. My #ThrowbackThursdayReviews will range from many different mediums, covering any movie, television series, and video game released at least ten years prior to my posting. (Sometimes, I’ll cheat around this criteria and provide “retrospective” reviews on sequels and spin-offs to older titles.) Feel free to leave comments and offer suggestions on any kind of entertainment medium you’d like me to review. Enjoy!!

 

It’s the year 2000, and with the dawn of the new millenium came an ambitious gaming developer’s maiden dive into the rocky waters of the infamous “superhero video game” genre. Neversoft Entertainment (1994-2014) had already established a reputation for delivering high-quality gaming, dishing out side-scrolling action-platformer Skeleton Warriors (1995) side-by-side with the accompanying toy-line and cartoon series (both of which were short-lived, but cherished admirably by niche fans), before taking on the third-person shooter crowd with MDKI don’t think I need to remind you all of the universal acclaim that followed them with Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater back in 1999.

Even with their storied success, Neversoft certainly had their hands full with Spider-Man, a superhero action game in which they chose to borrow elements from the FOX animated cartoon series that had ended two years prior. Up until this point in the web-slinger’s interactive history, no one had ever dared to go 3D, and whatever we got as gamers beforehand ranged from cherished, underrated gems, to pure crap. Alas, Neversoft was up to the task, releasing the first-ever 3D Spider-Man video game. Neversoft’s Spider-Man hit shelves (in North America) on August 30th, 2000, and flew right off them; it became a classic faster than the webhead himself could spit out a witty quip hanging upside down.

From tight, intuitive controls, to a awe-inspiring level of detail and creativity, Spider-Man instantly won over gamers far and wide. It also demonstrates an extensive amount of reverence to its comic book derivation, transporting you into a world that’s not only ridiculously fun to play in, but one seeping in the same spandex-clad crime-fighting escapism that inspired it.

 

STORY:

Spider-Man has a surprisingly interesting video game story, playing off of the colorful personalities of its characters and staying true to them throughout. The premise is simple, with Spider-Man supposedly being framed at a scientific demonstration before the New York City Police places a target on his head, and a frustrated Eddie Brock enacts revenge with the help of his budding symbiote. A “reformed” Doctor Octopus takes advantage of the incident, quietly gassing the ground floor of the entire city, while demonstrating his new leash on life by procuring costumed heroes and villains.

His grand scheme revolves around symbiosis: merging numerous samples of Carnage‘s symbiote together with the city’s inhabitants while he assumes control of everyone. There’s a lot of other villians in play throughout the campaign, but the conniving Doc Ock manages to manipulate their roles through contrivance, keeping Spidey in their crosshairs while he sets his master plan in motion.

Black Cat PS1

Not only is this story simple enough to keep up with, it’s dexterous enough to feel like a plot destined to land in a comic book. Doc Ock’s efforts are as feasible as they are diabolical, while the revenge and frame job storylines brilliantly showcase the contrasting personalities between Spider-Man and his lawbreaking scoundrels. My favorite part of Spider-Man is the entirety of the “Enter Venom” chapter, as it indulges in this cheeky, playful exchange between Spidey and Venom as Mary Jane’s life hangs in the balance. It’s pulpy as hell, subverts all expectations, and really lets voice actors Rino Romano from Spider-Man: Unlimited and Daran Norris kick back and have a rollicking good time with the script.

Every character feels essential to the storyline in some way, shape or form, and watching Spider-Man bounce around the city never feels nauseating. Chapters are evenly divided like episodes in a serialized television series, allowing subplots to feel properly contained while they peel off layers to the overarching centerpiece of the story. Spider-Man also offers a number of really neat Marvel cameos, from Black Cat and Daredevil, to Captain America and The Punisher. Neversoft even went out of their way to throw in a few self-referential bits of their own as an added bonus.

You can make the point that Spider-Man‘s story ends just about the way you’d expect it to, but that clearly wasn’t the point in regards to its progression. The campy, “Saturday morning cartoon” ebb and flow of the game’s campaign is inviting, and the way it strides to have fun with the wall crawler’s various encounters up until the final boss fight makes it way more engaging than it has any business being. For its time, this was essential video game storytelling.

 

DESIGN & GAMEPLAY:

Spider-Man offers 34 levels in total, with over a half-dozen boss fights and a swirling variety of platforming segments, puzzles, and blockbuster-style action set-pieces. It’s often displayed in a very linear fashion: you start at point A, and then work your way to point B while taking on a large host of different assailants. Sometimes, you’ll have to do a little bit of back-and-forth to open up shafts or unlock doors, and you’ll even be tasked with hiding in the shadows as armed thugs rob a bank.

Variety is the spice of life in Spider-Man. Each level introduces a new style of play, from a sprawling chase scene atop the city skyscrapers, to an underground sewer maze riddled with secrets. In addition, enemy types are constantly shifting between levels, with their abilities fluctuating greatly to keep you on your toes. You’ll never know what Spidey has in store for him next, and that surge of dopamine you get when you save your game file and hop on to the next chapter is perpetuated not only in the game’s spontaneity, but in its fun factor.

Spider-Man Bank

Controlling Spider-Man is a breeze, as you swing across rooftops, get the jump on unsuspecting criminals, zip line up ceilings, crawl on walls and, of course, beat some sense into countless hordes of enemies. Controls are simple and easy to learn, and with a little bit of practice you’ll be stringing along some satisfying combos, gunning down foes from afar with web blasts, and dancing around projectiles with relative ease. The camera is fixed to Spidey’s movement, and the only true control you have of it is when you turn him around to have it focus on what’s ahead of him. This occasionally makes both combat and traversal a chore, specifically when our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man is confined in some not-so-friendly, tight corridors.

Luckily, this problem doesn’t carry over in the boss fights, as you’ll be searching anxiously for weakspots while Rhino‘s polymer horns stare you down with reckless abandon, and Scorpion stings you with his extensive, metallic tail as you hoist up office furniture in contest. Authenticity lies deep within the various assortment of activities within the game, but the boss fights here are where you’ll feel like Spider-Man the most. Neversoft knocked every single showdown out of the park, exhibiting the attributes that make each villain stand out while giving the player appropriate circumstances with which to expose their flaws. They’re all challenging, some of them a little on the “cheap” side (yeah, I’m looking at you, Mysterio!), but fun enough to exercise extended sessions of trial and error. But most importantly: success is immensely cathartic. Nothing, however, beats the horrifying sight of Monster-Ock, and the blood-boiling escape that follows. It’s easily one of the best levels I’ve ever played in a fifth-generation action game.

There’s no new game plus or anything like that, but there’s ample room within the game world to collect comic books, Spidey armor, and costumes. You can easily jump back into select levels after completing them to explore, or you can be lazy like I was and just type in some cheat codes. I’ve beaten Spider-Man multiple times in anticipation for this review, and let me be first to tell you in case no one else has: this game has extraordinary replay value. It truly becomes a different playing experience when you don the Black Spidey suit and take on the campaign all over again with unlimited webbing. Hardcore gamers will face quite a challenge on their hands diving back in on Hard mode with the Amazing Bag Man, knowing that they only hold up to two web cartridges at a time. The stealth mode available in Spider-Man Unlimited opens up a whole new way to take down foes. Spider-Man is as arcade-style an action game as they come, but there are layers of depth hidden within should you choose to pursue multiple playthroughs, and multiple Spideys.

 

PRESENTATION:

Great video games have that “it” factor, where the music enhances the gameplay, the graphics pop, and the atmosphere peaks the player’s sense of imagination. Spider-Man does all of these things. It’s a very pretty game for its time, with sharply-detailed buildings and interiors, accurately-recreated characters, and a pleasing color palette that distinguishes each level from one another. Spider-Man himself is a showcase of Neversoft’s impressive graphical skills: He’s well-animated, moves gracefully through the sky as he’s swinging around the city, and just looks badass in combat. He even has his iconic Spidey-Sense here, and it bleeds right into the gameplay in informative, helpful ways. Villains and other NPCs are treated to the same attention to detail, and it shows especially when Venom wraps Spidey around his symbiote-cloaked arms, or Carnage extends himself across the screen in no time at all. Characters move convincingly, sometimes so convincingly they’re scary to look at, like, again, Venom and Carnage.

Carnage PS1 (2)

Voice over work is fantastic overall, with various alumni from both the mid-90s cartoon series and Spider-Man Unlimited reprising their roles. Stan Lee narrates throughout the game, holding off Bruce Campbell’s more facetious, satirical approach until the PS2 era of Spider-Man games. He’s great here, and if the game was looking for that little bit of extra “oomph” to seal its mark in video game history it definitely found it in the voice of the Spider-Man co-creator.

The soundtrack is a delicate range of industrial rock and nu metal, with some bongo-style drums sprinkled here and some electric keyboard there. Tommy Tallarico is responsible for putting it together, and despite a couple weak tracks he really compiled quite the impressive assortment of sounds here. Other sounds in the game, like sewage water dripping from the ceiling, missiles exploding over rooftops, or Spider-Man’s webbing sticking to enemies and surfaces, are all carefully edited and sound accurate.

Besides extra costumes, Spider-Man offers collectibles in the form of comic book covers, storyboards, and pre-rendered cutscenes that were peppered throughout the campaign. The pre-rendered cutscenes look awful by today’s standards, and I’m not convinced that they were blowing people away back in 2000, either, but they’re quirky for the most part and do a great job heightening the aesthetic portrayed in-game. The storyboards are okay, although if I’m being honest they didn’t move me much considering they’re virtually hand-drawn blueprints of the cutscenes. I love the curation of the comic book covers, though, as the game displays them with a detailed explanation behind the events explored in each one. As someone who’s never really read a ton of comics, I felt inclined to do my research and study up on all of the characters presented in the game just by passing by this expansive library of Spider-Man history.

I also love the animated approach to the menus. Spider-Man shifting about in the middle of the screen, the dualshock controller dangling by a web as you study the controls, the demo footage of  Spidey beating up waves fo thugs; all these things culminate into a well-rounded package demanding your attention and answering with bottomless appeal in the process.

 

The Verdict:

Venom Chase PS1

Neversoft’s Spider-Man is best known for its winning formula of strong gameplay, fun, varied levels, and an unceasing unpredictability – and rightfully so. It’s easy to lose yourself in this exaggerated comic book tale, and be wowed again and again by Neversoft’s outstanding attention to detail on all fronts. This game plays well for its age, looks good for its age, and enhances the relevance of its brand by both playing to and understanding its appeal.

This is a Spider-Man game in the same sense that the Arkhum trilogy is a collection of Batman games: it gives players the most realized version of the character, in an enthralling, authentic video game world that literally feels alive. I’ve played many Spider-Man games in my time, and I have yet to come across one as magical and as captivating as this one. Neversoft’s Spider-Man set the precedent for future Spider-Man games, and even 18 years later has stood the test of time as a classic title that absolutely deserves to be in every comic book fan’s video game collection.

 

RATING: 9.2

+ Absolutely nails the feeling of playing as Spider-Man

+ Fantastic level design, and head-spinning level, enemy variety

+ Memorable boss fights

+ Top-tier presentation across the board

+ Fun, simple story with plenty of comic book flair

– Camera is occasionally frustrating to work with 

– For a title at the tail end of the PSX cycle, the pre-rendered cutscenes leave a bit to be desired

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*FANTASY BASEBALL 2018* Stock Exchange – Starting Pitchers to add this week (5/28)

CRITERIA: All players in this column are owned in less than half (50%) of all ESPN fantasy baseball leagues at the time of posting. Ownership rates listed next to each player correspond to ESPN leagues. ALSO NOTE that this column has a stern focus on 12-16 team standard fantasy leagues, specifically those with a 5×5 Rotisserie/Head-to-Head format.

 

ADD OF THE WEEK:

Ross Stripling, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers (29.8%)

 

Through 41.1 innings pitched this season, Ross Stripling is currently 1.4 Wins Above Replacement: a figure that ranks higher than Charlie MortonJose Berrios, and teammate Alex Wood.

Let that marinate for a moment…

In a combined 174.1 career innings pitched between the starting rotation and the bullpen leading up to the 2018 campaign, Stripling was only worth 1.8 WAR – but here we are, literally talking about a top-20 starting pitcher in fantasy.

A lot of what has led to this distinction is very legit. Look at this magnificent Statcast profile, where all the categories in red indicate either a top-10 or top-5 ranking in all of baseball:

Screen Shot 2018-05-28 at 1.07.36 AM

Ross Stripling has been a master of weak contact all along!? The data suggests so, and the surface stats this year have echoed that to the heavens. But how is he doing this?

Here’s one way he’s doing this:

 

 

 

In an age of high launch angles and hitters who look like Dee Gordon muscling up pitches downstairs for power, Stripling has lived in the most desired part of the strikezone with astounding success. He throws his curveball exclusively on the bottom half, and it’s a masterful strikeout offering there as it’s limited hitters to a .115 wOBA and has generated over 43% whiffs. I could throw more heatmaps at you explaining how his fastball is suddenly so good, but that’s simply just a matter of him heaving more of them upstairs to righties consistently (and those same righties are only hitting .200 up there).

His slider, despite registering relatively low whiffs, has become Stripling’s primary source of weak contact. Besides his changeup (another great pitch, but one that he hardly throws for some reason), no other offering in his repertoire has a lower average exit velocity against hitters – and he’s throwing it the most (33.6% usage rate). He could do a better job at keeping it below the belt, as only 42% of them have hit the lower-third of the strikezone, but it’s been really good at avoiding barrels (51% groundball rate, 38.5% infield flyball rate) while the fastball and curve do most of the dirty, swing-and-missy stuff.

You wouldn’t believe this, but there’s a decent chance that Stripling’s been unlucky this whole time! Dude has a .352 BABIP, but that .211 expected batting average in the table above says it’ll actually regress substantially. Couple that with the low exit velocities, and if I’m being honest here: we’re looking at breakout-Jake Arrieta-level contact management!

Now, onto the legitimacy of Stripling’s 24.3% K-BB%: right now, it’s a little fluky. The walk-limiting is very legit (69.8% first-pitch strike rate, 47.5% Zone rate), but he doesn’t complement that with a ton of swing and miss (9.8% swinging strike rate). Hitters are also making a lot of overall contact (79.1%), so I’d have to believe the combination of a 32.7% K rate and 7.6 swinging strike rate on his fastball is infused with a gooey center of called third strikes. If he threw the curveball more, I’d melt all over the chair from which I’m writing this, but there’s a lot of pitching to contact going on with the high usage of both his fastball and slider. There’s definitely 22-23% K rate upside here, but if he wants to punch guys out with the big boys he’s gonna need to go full McCullers.

Either way (and I might be getting just a little ahead of myself when I say this), Ross Stripling, right now in this very moment, looks like a fantasy gem: the kind of waiver wire add that leads owners one step closer to a trophy in October. There’s way, way too much here to love, and although the strikeouts will come crashing down to a level somewhere in-between his first two Major League seasons, Stripling seems to have learned a few things in the bullpen that have carried over. He’s living proof that the depth in this Dodgers rotation, despite all the injuries they’ve already endured so far this season, is truly remarkable.

 

*Jack Flaherty (52.6%) & Alex Reyes (50.8%), SP, St. Louis Cardinals*

*Yes, I know they’re both over 50% ownership now!! But I started compiling this list three days ago, where they were both sitting around 40%.*

By now, it’s probably too late for me to endorse either of these gentlemen in deep leagues, but both of them still (somehow) fit the criteria of my column, so it’s virtually a fool’s errand if I don’t say a few things about them. Starting with Flaherty (since he’s currently the healthy one), I’ve noticed that he’s grown quite fond of his slider: a pitch that has held hitters to a .095 opp. batting average on a 45.5% K rate. It’s a truly devastating offering.

 

(Obviously, you need to stop reading this from here and pick him up if he’s still lingering in your waiver wire…)

 

He’ll desperately need that pitch all season long to stay relevant, for two reasons:

  1. Like any other breakout starter this season (see: Pivetta, Nick), the high usage of his slider (26.6%) makes his fastball just a smidge more effective (21.2% K rate and .250 opp. OPS)
  2. He shelves his curveball (10.7% usage,) and throws his sinker too much (17.4% usage, 1.269 opp. OPS)

There’ll be nights where he’ll get pounded, because his sinker’s so insanely hittable – but those will likely be offset by other outings where his fastball/slider combo is taking the world by storm. This is truly all a matter of pitch selection: something you’d hope he’d improve on as he continues to rely on his strike-throwing ability (45.5% Zone rate) to get back to his strikeout offering.

Something else I’d like to point out about Flaherty that I (really, really) like is how he’s attacking lefties:

Flaherty vs LHH 2018

Flaherty BA vs LHH 2018

Consistency in baseball could sometimes mean insanity, where a pitcher’s confidently doing something horribly wrong that’s leading to poor results. That’s certainly not (yet) the case here, with Flaherty making a very conscious effort to work glove-side against opposite-handed batters.

And it’s working: Despite racking up three more Ks against righties, he’s been holding left-handers to a .200/.289/.200 slash, without allowing a single homer against them.

The upside with Flaherty resides in his command, his slider, and whether or not he’ll start mixing in his curveball more and ditch his sinker. He’s got two out of the three so far, which a chance at top-30-ish results if he could make a few in-game adjustments.

Alex Reyes is presumably making his big league return this Tuesday against the Brewers, after missing all of last season due to Tommy John surgery. He’s gotten plenty of time to shake off the rust, but with a 44/7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 23 scoreless rehab innings there’s not much that suggests his recovery has been a slow burn. I don’t have much tabular data to hype you all up here, but there is this fun little tidbit by SB Nation that offers a glimpse at what he’s capable of.  His last rehab start had him finishing with 13 punch outs over 7 innings of work – including a stretch where he struck out 9 straight hitters – and granted him the opportunity to express an increasing level of confidence in his stuff.

Expect great things from Reyes this season, health-permitting, because it sounds an awful lot like he’s all the way back to form, with renewed vigor on his side. His arsenal is immaculate, and if he’s in the business of attacking the strikezone for St. Louis the same way he did back in Memphis, then the ceiling is the roof for sure.

 

Andrew Heaney, SP, Los Angeles Angels (31.1%) 

If you missed out on the three guys above (which is very possible considering how hot they’re both flying off the shelves right now), then stop everything you’re doing right now and pick up this sterling alternative.

From a 61.9% first pitch strike rate (48th best in the league if it qualified), an 11.9% Swinging Strike rate (tied for 27th best), and one of the lowest average exit velocities in all of baseball…

chart

…Heaney – like the aforementioned Reyes – has come all the back from Tommy John Surgery guns blazing. He’s owned righties to the tune of a 27% K rate and a .683 opp. OPS, upped the usage of his devastating curveball to a career-high 24.5% clip, and has discovered a true equalizer in his third pitch – the changeup (5.1 pVAL, which would trail Zack Greinke for fifth-highest in the Majors). Solid control, a universally great arsenal, a top-20 K-rate, and fantastic contact management skills all amount to an ace-like value if the stars continue to align like they are right now. I’ve been singing my praises of Andrew Heaney for weeks, and after a dominant performance in Yankee Stadium, it’s about time you do, too. BUY, BUY, BUY!!

 

Daniel Mengden (27.4%) & Trevor Cahill (24.2%), SP, Oakland Athletics

The hope for myself and my fantasy baseball column is that, within the next week or two, I’ll have compiled enough viable evidence to offer up sprawling, comprehensive Sell-High/Buy-Low articles that’ll help you gain a leg up above the competition as the season reaches “grind or go home” territory. As an owner of three separate fantasy teams, I think it’s vitally important to know the true value of each and every player I have, and have an idea of what direction they’re all headed in.

Daniel Mengden is headed in a direction that woefully disagrees with his current success, but this isn’t a Sell-High article, and you don’t always win fantasy matchups by playing the FIP game. This is a buy for the short term, in the hopes that the 25-year old’s .246 BABIP (17th lowest in all of baseball) could hold off his average exit velocity (89.2, 44th highest out of 138 starting pitchers) and expected slugging percentage (xSLG) of .507 just a bit longer while owners wait for their pitching staffs to heal up, or for the next Jack Flaherty/Alex Reyes/Ross Stripling/Andrew Heaney to arrive. Mengden is without a doubt a stop gap pitcher, and if you think I’m simply coming after him because of his discount Rollie Fingers ‘stache, then allow me to elaborate further:

Brooksbaseball-Chart (1)

These are Mengden’s whiffs this season. His slider is the only pitch that’s generating a double-digit whiff rate (per BrooksBaseball). The sinker, a new pitch he’s supposedly developed this year, has not only helped prevent him from currently having a league-average strikeout rate, but it’s also not generating sinker-level groundballs (43.2% groundball rate). His hard hit rate, according to Fangraphs, is wayyyyyyy higher than it’s ever been, but he’s also getting twice as many infield flies than before. Hitters are also making a lot of contact against him (82.3%), so that won’t really matter in the long run.

But the short run value is decent enough to warrant an add. He’s not walking people (0.81 BB/9), I just mentioned his newfound ability to get a ton of pop-ups, and his Swinging Strike and Chase rates aren’t nearly as bad as his K rate suggests they are. I think he could skate by long enough for you to throw stones at me in June when I (hopefully) fire up my Sell-High piece.

 

If he stays healthy all season long, Trevor Cahill will probably have much better numbers than his teammate for a number of reasons. One of them is that his whiffs look like this:

Brooksbaseball-Chart (2)

He’s not a very sexy ROS pickup, either (he’s extremely fragile, and his sinker and fastball are really that bad at getting swings and misses), but Cahill has a couple of good out pitches that could carry him to relevance the same way it did a season ago before he got hurt. The changeup, however, is why you pay for Cahill at all, as it is – to put it bluntly – the only reason reason why he’s recently been a solid starting pitcher. It’s a pitch so spectacular (.364 opp. OPS, 44.4% whiff rate) that he’s now throwing it almost as much as he’s dishing out his sinker.

chart

So long as he continues to mix his curveball enough (36.4% K rate, .636 opp. OPS) to complement those two other offerings, Cahill will be A-OK. He’s got a drool-worthy groundball rate that’ll help keep the homers in check, a contact profile highlighted by a 14% swinging strike clip, and the benefit of having about half of his starts at O.Co Colliseum Ricky Henderson Field. Sure, he’ll probably land on the DL in a month or so, and he’s still hard to watch when he’s not throwing strikes (42.1% Zone rate, 29.9% Edge rating), but there’s no denying the instant value he’ll provide to both your strikeouts and your ratios while he’s active. Think of him as a Rich Hill-lite: the perfect high-floor, low-stress starting pitcher to round out any standard league rotation.

 

Kyle Freeland, SP, Colorado Rockies (40.7%)

Now, this is going to be fun! Kyle Freeland, a soft-tossing left-hander who calls Coors Field home, is probably the last guy on this list you’d think of rostering in a standard league beyond the purposes of a (road) stream, but I IMPLORE you to reconsider as I convince you of his worthiness.

Let’s look at a couple of graphs and talk about what they both mean, shall we?

 

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Okay, you probably have no idea where I’m getting that – and that’s okay! Because I’m gonna ask that you take another look at his two months of work this season in both graphics, and then focus on that plot point and tabular data from July of 2017. What do they have in common? Besides opposing batting averages, Freeland’s thrown the most four-seam fastballs in those months, with his xFIP is at its lowest in all three (if you ignore his body of work last August). He also un-coincidentally ditched his sinker during those three months, and the consistent use of his cutter/slider over the sinker this year is for good reason: it’s a far, FAR better complementary offering:

Screen Shot 2018-05-28 at 12.14.47 AM.png

This month, in particular, Freeland’s posted a 2.05 ERA on a 3.06 FIP, with a .245 opposing wOBA. This month, he’s also buried his sinker pretty much entirely: he’s only thrown it a little over 6% in May. If you combine his slider and cutter usage (according to BrooksBaseball), we’re looking at over 30% of them in May, and when combined with his four-seam we’re sitting at a 80% cumulative usage rate; good enough for an overall opposing batting average roughly around .170!

Now, if you happen to have already read Craig Edwards’s in-depth analysis of Freeland’s new fastball approach on Fangraphs, I’m gonna sound like a bit of a broken record if I go on, because another reason for his recent dominance lies in the pitch tunneling he’s discovered with the three pitches.  Freeland is pitching like someone else entirely, and although the new approach hasn’t made him too much better against right-handed hitters (8.3 K-BB rate against RHH), he’s downright untouchable against same-handed guys now (38.9% K rate, .241 opp. wOBA against lefties). This is an easy deep league BUY, especially considering that his performance at home (1.97 ERA, 24.1% K rate, 1.14 WHIP) is pacing his away numbers (4.17 ERA, 16.1% K rate, 1.21 WHIP).

_______________________________________________

FAST TAKES (Two-Start Fever)

 

Vince Velasquez, SP, Philadelphia Phillies (22.7%)

Vince Velasquez is the Dylan Bundy of the National League: An elite strikeout rate, an absolutely terrible flyball rate that leads to a ton of homers, and just about a league average walk rate. He’s the ultimate “boom-or-bust” starting pitcher, where you’ll either get 6 IP, 2ER, 10Ks, or 4 IP, 7ER, & over 10 baserunners. He’s worth deploying with confidence in deeper leagues and NL-Onlys that need the strikeouts (especially with that upcoming road start at AT&T Park), but the big, big, BIG risk here is today’s meeting in Los Angeles, as the Dodgers (13th lowest K rate in MLB) are feeling more confident at the dish with Justin Turner coming off the DL this past weekend.

 

Kyle Gibson, SP, Minnesota Twins (20.1%)

Gibson has the light-hitting Royals on tap for Tuesday’s start, and he’ll need to reign in the walks a bit (11.3% BB rate) to be successful against one of the best contact-producing lineups in the league. You’re gonna wanna hope he does so that you could afford benching him against the hot-hitting Indians a week from now. Either way, he’ll rack up plenty of strikeouts (11.9% swinging strike rate, 9.32 K/9) thanks to his wipeout slider and changeup. This will certainly be the week where he cements his fantasy status.

 

Matt Boyd, SP, Detroit Tigers (14.2%)

Boyd has been rosterable all season, despite pitching just as poorly as he did a season ago from pretty much every angle of sabermetric analysis. His slider is a beaut (33.3% K rate, 15.85 swinging strike rate), and he’s throwing it way more than ever, but the rest of his arsenal is really bad so it doesn’t matter in the long run. He’s got the Angels (scary) today, and the Blue Jays (breezy) on Saturday, and I would like to believe that this will be where the ERA-outperforming, low-BABIP train makes its final stop.

 

Marco Gonzales, SP, Seattle Mariners (7.1%)

I see a lot of prime Jaime Garcia in Marco Gonzales’ pitch mix and his ability to throw a ton of strikes, which is a good thing considering how important both will be for him to close the gap between his ERA (4.05) and his xFIP (3.21). I don’t think he’ll ever limit the hard contact the way things have gone throughout his career, but with a 2.93 ERA over his last five starts, and a pair of home starts lined up against the light-hitting Texas Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays, it can’t possibly hurt to bet against that hurting his linescores too much.

 

Domingo German, SP, New York Yankees (5.6%)

Alright, guys! Now, we’re approaching “strictly deep league/AL/NL-Only” territory, here! German’s outpiched his ERA by almost two full runs, while rocking a K/9 over 10 and a 13.6% swinging strike rate. His zone rate is not good at all (41.3%), so every at-bat is an adventure with him. Still, though: take a chance on his low hard-hit rate (30.7%, per BaseballSavant) and high curveball/changeup usage prevailing against the Astros and the Orioles. (Especially the Orioles; they’re awful!)

 

Dan Straily, SP, Miami Marlins (6.1%)

You know you’ve gotta give Straily a try against the strikeout-prone Padres at Petco, but he’s listed here because his weekend date with the Diamondbacks is equally enticing. Arizona’s offense has been putrid this month, tallying just over 2 runs per game, with Jake Lamb getting absolutely no help from anyone else in this lineup while Goldy continues to scuffle out of control. Get in, get your two quality starts, and then get the hell outta Dodge!

 

Brent Suter, SP, Milwaukee Brewers (2.5%)

I highly doubt there’s another active pitcher in baseball throwing a slower fastball than Brent Suter (86.7 average MPH), but luckily for you that may not matter as he’s got the Cardinals at home, and the God-awful White Sox in Chicago. Both teams can’t hit lefties to save their lives, but keep in mind Suter’s much-considerable platoon split. Something’s gotta give here.

 

Nick Tropeano, SP, Los Angeles Angels

Easily the “sleeper” stream of the week in 12-16 mixed leaguers, Nick Tropeano should have no problem keeping the BABIP down for a couple more turns as he takes on the Tigers (15th in OPS) in Detroit before hosting the Rangers (26th) in Anaheim. He’s got a neat 11.5% swinging strike rate, but absolutely nothing else that’s positive, so don’t get too attached if he cruises through the next seven days.

 

Hey guys! Do you agree or disagree with my list here? Were there any “sleepers” that you may have scooped up that I ignored? Let’s talk about it! Leave a comment below and get the conversation started!!

 

 

**FANTASY BASEBALL 2018** Stock Exchange – Hitters to add this week

CRITERIA: All players in this column are owned in less than half (50%) of all ESPN fantasy baseball leagues. Ownership rates listed next to each player correspond to ESPN leagues. ALSO NOTE that this column has a stern focus on 12-16 team standard fantasy leagues, specifically those with a 5×5 Rotisserie/Head-to-Head format.

ADD OF THE WEEK:

 

C.J. Cron, 1B – Tampa Bay Rays (43.2%)

 

Mike Scioscia, Albert Pujols, and a number of other “interesting” developments in Los Angeles kept C.J. Cron as far away from everyday playing time with the Angels as possible – even after producing a .792 OPS and 1.4 WAR in just over 114 games back in 2016. The Tampa Bay Rays, always looking for underrated talent, decided to “shoot their shot” and traded with the Halos this past winter, acquiring Cron in a corresponding move that designated Corey Dickerson (LOL, WUT!?) for assignment.

 

And so far, so good for them and the former 1st round draft pick, as the 28 year-old has worked his way up to a .289/.339/.522 slash with 10 homers in 174 plate appearances this season. Benefitting from a prime spot around the middle of the Rays lineup, he’s also racked up a combined 50 runs scored and runs batted in, currently catapulting him above Joey Votto, Rhys Hoskins, and Hanley Ramirez as the third most valuable first baseman in Yahoo fantasy leagues.

 

I think, for the purposes of this article and for the current fantasy landscape, that this is a hot start worth cashing in on. Cron’s always had above-average power (career .191 ISO), and he’s currently rocking the highest hard-hit percentage of his career at 38.8% (as per Fangraphs). Match that with a high-70s contact rate and a BABIP that demands little regression, and we might just have ourselves a true “late bloomer” emerging like a phoenix in a fantasy wasteland of a ballclub. (Seriously, what other bat on this team sans Wilson Ramos would you even dare place a flier on in a standard league?)
The consistency of C.J. Cron at the dish is indisputable – at least according to Baseball Savant, it is:

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Solid contact peripherals across the board, the ability to spread hits across the field, and a xOBA bolstered by a decent amount of barrels. This is an everyday starting first baseman, folks! Given the scarcity of the position at this point of the season, it’s hard to write off Cron at all because of his past, since his past suggests he’s actually been pretty good.

But “pretty good” could change to something a bit uglier in a heartbeat, and here’s why: C.J. Cron neither walks nor hits the ball very hard. His 33.4% Chase rate has contributed to a paltry .2 BB/K ratio (4.6% BB rate, 23% K rate,) and his 88.4 mph average exit velocity is the 214th highest of all hitters in baseball. Here’s another table to put that last bit into perspective:
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(Oh, hey there, Kris Bryant…ummm…what’chya doin down here???)

 

As with any hot-hitting castaway in fantasy, we have to remember where they’ve come from, because for all the success Cron has already achieved in his new home we can’t neglect the sins he’s dragged with him along the way.

However, if he could make the most of his 92.9 mph average exit velocity on flyballs (just look to the right of the red markings on the above table) and cheat a little bit more for power (I.E. go for something along the lines of his pull percentage from last season,) then we might be talking about how a bargain bin first baseman helped save our fantasy leagues (or, at the very least, provided a timely jolt in the wake of an injury).

 

 

QUICK TAKES

 

Mark Trumbo, OF – Baltimore Orioles (30.3%)

 

Like many of the guys listed below, Trumbo is little more than a temporary stream, with Baltimore lined up to take on Boston at Fenway Park this weekend before embarking on a 7-game road trip to Chicago (White Sox) and Tampa Bay. If you’re lucky, an abundance of homers can be found on the cheap, with the Red Sox’ most homer-prone starters (Drew Pomeranz at 1.82 HR/9 and diminished fastball velocity, Eduardo Rodriguez at 1.49 HR/9) taking the hill this weekend, and of course, the putrid White Sox (5.36 team ERA and 1.17 team HR/9) and Rays (4.57 team ERA, 1.14 HR/9) pitching staffs entertaining the O’s next week.

 

Trumbo’s hard hit percentage (per Fangraphs) is at a career-high 44.2%, and his average exit velocity is sitting at almost exactly the same speed it was in his 47-homer campaign two years ago, so maybe he makes himself fantasy relevant again and becomes the add of the week seven days from now??

 

Tucker Barnhart, C – Cincinnatti Reds (17.6%)

 

From a research perspective, there’s a lot to love about Tucker Barnhart. This year, he’s hit a ton of line drives (29.7% LD rate,) made a ton of hard contact (37.9%,) and is carrying a .76 BB/K and 123 wRC+ – all while hitting behind Joey Votto, Scooter Gennett and Eugenio Suarez  in “bandbox central” Great American Ballpark.  The catcher position is razor-thin this year, so his .171 ISO plays in most leagues when it coincides with the aforementioned peripherals. This table below is also encouraging:

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Exponentially higher launch angle, hard hit percentage and weighted on-base average between now and last year are all huge gains, despite the average exit velocity barely trending upward.

If I didn’t have so much faith in a top-10 season from Mike Zunino, I’d own Barnhart everywhere right now. Point is: he’s knocking on the door of relevance, and unless you have top-class backstops like Gary Sanchez or Yasmani Grandal or Wilson Contreras, there’s no real reason why you should still be reading this while he’s still lurking around in your waiver wire.

 

Greg Bird, 1B – New York Yankees (34.5%)

 

Greg Bird is expected to return to the Bronx within the next couple of weeks, and despite his lengthy injury history and a rather lukewarm 2017 outing, we’re still talking about a 25-year old with plenty of upside, hitting in a tiny ballpark with an even tinier short right-field porch. And did I forget that the Yankees also pace the Major Leagues in runs scored and OPS? The sky’s the limit for Bird (and his counting stats) if he’s healthy, and while expectations should remain tempered as the state of his ankle hangs in the balance of his rehab stint, and Tyler Austin does his best to at least push the conversation of a 50/50 split in playing time, this is an easy DL stash – especially if he could channel some of that magic from his 2015 rookie season.

 

Mitch Moreland, 1B – Boston Red Sox (26.9%)

 

If I was drinking coffee right now, I’d be spitting it out after seeing this:

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WOAH!! WHAT’S THIS!? A 52% Hard Hit rate!? A career-high average exit velocity approaching 93 mph!? A .644 xSlugging Percentage!? Is this really what Mitch Moreland is doing lately!?

 

Okay — now that I’m done yelling, I must say that this current body of work is extremely encouraging for Moreland, as the Statcast data from previous seasons seems to be at a disagreement with the rather pedestrian surface stats he’s accumulated over that time frame. Now, I don’t know how sticky any of this is, with Moreland having procured only 108 plate appearances so far this season, but there’ll always be ducks on the pond for him with the Red Sox constantly plugging the bases with on-base gods up and down their lineup (3rd in MLB in runs scored and wOBA). All he really has to do is continue hitting over .350 with men in scoring position, and push that launch angle up a bit, in order to ascend to the top 15-20 of the fantasy first baseman rankings. Stream him against the O’s this weekend and see where it goes from there.

 

Brandon Crawford, SS – San Francisco Giants (20.9%)

 

He’s striking out more than he ever has in his Major League career, walking less than he ever has in his Major League career, yet Brandon Crawford has managed to hit .300 over his last 99 ABs with a pair of homers and 26 combined runs and RBI. An insane 29.4% line drive rate explains why his BABIP (.370) is so monstrously high – and also helps justify the recent hot streak. However, I’m still not a fan of his rest-of-season prospects: despite a higher hard hit% than last season, he’s not driving the baseball (29.7& pull rate,) and his contact rate has been falling to 70%. He’s really only listed with everyone else here because he’s a shortstop, and the shortstop position is always scarce.

Ride him while he’s hot and hope for the best if you’re nursing a shortstop injury, but the best-case scenario for Crawford owners is to sell-high for value elsewhere.

 

Daniel Descalso, 2B – Arizona Diamondbacks (16.9%)

 

Daniel Descalso’s career Hard hit rate (as per Fangraphs) is sitting at 28.4%, with a career .367 slugging percentage and .126 ISO. As of this writing, he’s hit the ball hard over 41% this season as the Diamondback’s current three-hole hitter, matching that with a .514 slugging percentage and a .252 (Yes!! A .252!!) ISO. You KNOW I had to go straight to Baseball Savant for this one, and YIKES!!
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That’s a full jump in batted ball figures ACROSS THE BOARD! Look at the quantum leap in xWOBA (xWeighted On-Base Average) between 2017 and now!!! How about that ridiculously high launch angle!? It’s clear what Descalso’s trying to do, and if the aforementioned slugging percentage nor the 10% barrel rate doesn’t spell it out for you, then I truly don’t know what else will.

 

Maybe this might:

 

Not only is he pulling more than half (51.8%) of his batted balls, Daniel Descalso has more barrels per plate appearance (6.1%) than Joey Votto, Nelson Cruz, Didi Gregorius, Kyle Seager, Michael Brantley (who’s also experiencing a tiny bit of a flyball revolution of his own,) and batting average Mosiah Odubel Herrera!!!

 

Owners in deeper 12-team NL Onlys and all 16-teamers owe it to themselves to monitor this development, because it’s looking very, VERY real (and also because Descalso’s also 1B/3B/OF eligible). And not that I’m comparing the two, but let’s not forget what a change in hitting philosophy did for Daniel Murphy a couple seasons ago…

 

Travis Jankowski (7.2%) & Franmil Reyes, OF San Diego Padres (18.6%)

 

Finding fantasy value from Padres hitters is a daunting task, but anyone could catch fire for a few weeks and hold the fort down for you during those brief little stretches. That’s why Jankowski’s here, as his speed plays everywhere and he’s hitting for a high average right now (that’s totally being supported by his outrageously lofty .421 BABIP). Grab him for steals and a few extra hits to pad your batting average if you’re in a 5X5 Head-to-Head or Rotisserie league, as well as Points leagues considering that he’s also walking over 14% of the time. Once the 0-fers begin to pile up, you know what to do.

 

I can’t really say the same thing for Reyes, however, as a hot stretch from him should prompt fantasy owners to rest their laurels on him a bit. He simply owned AAA this season with a 1.180 OPS and a .396 ISO(!!). He leads both the Majors and Minors with 14 homers, amassing a combined 74 runs+RBI in only 36 games, so we should all hold hands together and pray he finds this sort of success in the Bigs.

 


With a raw power score of 70 on the 20-to-80 scouting scale in the Arizona Fall League last year, and an elite batted ball profile that had him ranked among the top of the Minor League exit velocity leaderboards, now’s an exciting time to be either a Padres fan or a fantasy owner shaking their virtual bid around like a polaroid picture. While he’s already arrived (and has made no impression at all so far, going 0-7 with 3 Ks,) waivers in most leagues might have him locked away until Friday morning. Unless you’re staying up tonight hoping and praying that he clears those waivers, I highly suggest you spend away if you’re like me and you just lost an A.J. Pollock-type talent in your outfield.

____________________________________________

Hey guys! Do you agree or disagree with my list here? Were there any “sleepers” that you may have scooped up that I ignored? Let’s talk about it! Leave a comment below and get the conversation started!!

TV THROWBACKS – Spectacular Spider-Man: “Survival of the Fittest” Review

Hello, all! Welcome to my latest blog segment, which I would love to dedicate my childhood and my fondest television memories to. This one’s all about past TV shows – specifically those with serialized elements – and how they fared as a series overall. Like most shows I covered, I will be doing single episode reviews with a bit of in-depth analysis wherever I feel is most necessary (sometimes I’ll even do it strictly out of pure passion!), along with some extra thoughts at the end of them from time to time. I hope to branch this out into separate categories of old TV shows, and maybe into more segments related to these classic series. At least for now, however, it’s a nostalgia trip that should be a fun and educational experience for myself, you all as readers, and those who maybe didn’t get a chance to watch the particular show that I’m covering. Anyways: Enjoy!

I still remember the scrutiny and the uncertainty that once swirled around Spectacular Spider-Man at the time of conception. Despite the tantalizing focus on Peter Parker’s high school life juxtaposed with his superhero persona, many feared that the simplified animation and low budget would hurt the series’ chances of winning over loyal fans and uninitiated children alike. In addition, it was taking on a Kids WB viewership that was in steep decline, with the original kids network mantra being renamed into The CW4KIDS amidst an internal transitional phase and the emergence of Saturday morning cable television programming. Even from what you can now (unfortunately) consider pure retrospect, the show was all but doomed regardless of whether or not it subverted expectations.

The great thing about retrospect, however, is that sometimes it’s a wonderful thing to look back on what was instead of lamenting over what could have been. That’s most definitely the case here with Spectacular Spider-Man, as it immediately established itself as a worthy standout title in a sea of depreciating cartoon series. Also, personally, the greatest thing about “Survival of the Fittest” is the retrospect factor it provides through a second viewing. For a first episode in a prematurely axed pot of gold, it almost never gets any better than the deliciously comic book-faithful display we got by director/writer Victor Cook and co-writer Greg Weissman.

Josh Keaton’s turn as the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man is the heart of gold that beats incessantly throughout the show’s 2-season run, and right off the bat he absolutely owns the role. Like Tom Holland’s live-action spin on the character in last summer’s Homecoming, Keaton sells the wisecracking, overly-ambitious ego of the superhero with the vulnerability and humanity of the high school super-nerd. Peter’s use of spidey-sense, web-slingling and wall-crawling are all vital tools that helped build up his superhero reputation all summer long – the very first scene in this series is a beautifully-animated romp that exhibits the skills he’s discovered within that time – but he also acknowledges the responsibility that comes with those very same attributes. What Keaton does here that’s so special is make it all incredibly arresting stuff. Peter sneaking in on Aunt May’s disclosed conversation with a neighborhood friend about finances while he fakes his steps downstairs for breakfast, for example, goes a long way toward testing  Keaton’s versatility, and in that instance he immerses the viewer into the protagonist’s plight. He just sounds like Peter Parker here as he thinks to himself how he’ll manage to help provide alongside his guardian, and even for those who have read hundreds of different Spider-Man comics beforehand, it’s simply one of those really cool moments where the show decides to invest in character progression and voice over transparency as much as its overwhelming world-building.

Much of the episode’s title is in reference to Adrian Toomes and his first sinister run on the show as the Vulture. Even here, in merely less than a minute of screentime, do we get an absolutely fantastic bit of both backstory and exposition as Norman Osbourne finesses Toomes out of the picture of his latest flight technology just in time to sweep up all the credits for it. It not only fuels the Toomes revenge story that follows, but also introduces us to the slimy, patronizing figure Osbourne generally represents in the comics. To make things even more exciting, the episode pairs this internal struggle for Peter (since, after all, Harry is both his best friend and Norman’s son) with an underground task force (the Destroyers, if I’m not mistaken) that happens to ambush Spider-Man via helicopter. Vulture’s plot remains in the center of the action, but it also blends nicely with the duality of Peter’s current position: after spending all summer fighting crime, he gets his first true test of responsibility (saving Norman from mere peril) at the same time a hidden villain emerges to “squash the bug”.

 

 

The swift transition to Peter’s high school life introduces a complete flurry of characters I came to love almost on sight. Harry Osbourne and Gwen Stacy are exceptionally well-grounded teenagers who share an amazing chemistry with Peter, and both James Arnold Taylor and Lacey Chabert bring these historical comic book figures to life. The brief moment of introduction for Eddie Brock gives us a world of history between him and Peter with brevity, while the already-deteriorating presence of Dr. Curt Connors is pleasantly teased. We even get to see the surrogate father/son dynamic between Peter and Norman manifest before Norman dumbs down his own son in disgust. Jonah Jameson’s hilarious encounter with Peter also shines as a reminder over the “Park financial struggles” subplot.

Lastly, the animation here, while simplified, looked great at the time and still holds up today. Spectacular Spider-Man easily has some of the best fighting scenes in the history of American comic book cartoons, and we got an early taste of the series’ brilliance with a sprawling finale atop the hefty Manhattan skies. Character models are most certainly exaggerated in comparison to the grittier aesthetic of the comic books, but everyone here still looks true to form, while both Spider-Man and his rogue’s gallery (Vulture for this episode) are given a contemporary touch infused with spirited elements derived from their comic book origins. All in all, this is a very pretty show to watch.

 

The Verdict:

“Survival of the Fittest” is a great debut for any show, but at the time it couldn’t have been more necessary for the legacy of Spectacular Spider-Man. It’s a brisk 23 minutes of entertainment that throws a whole world of comic book lore and origins at you, while somehow maintaining a fast pace and establishing an original story all at once. I was hooked when I first began the series, and I simply can’t wait to watch it all over again.

 

RATING: 9/10 

 

 

 

*FANTASY BASEBALL 2018* Stock Exchange – Hitters to add this week (5/25)

CRITERIA: All players in this column are owned in less than half (50%) of all ESPN fantasy baseball leagues at the time of posting. Ownership rates listed next to each player correspond to ESPN leagues. ALSO NOTE that this column has a stern focus on 12-16 team standard fantasy leagues, specifically those with a 5×5 Rotisserie/Head-to-Head format.

 

 

ADD OF THE WEEK:

Jesus Aguilar, 1B, Milwaukee Brewers (39.5%)

 

Few teams in baseball this season have endured as many injuries to their 25-man roster as the Milwaukee Brewers. The crowd of reliable frontline hitters and pitchers flooding DL shelves has turned this team into a fantasy carousel, where value is passed around between whoever’s hitting at the top of the lineup, or whoever’s (actually) closing out the ninth inning.

Jesus Aguilar is the latest of bench bats in the Brewers starting nine to run with his increased playing time, as injuries to both Eric Thames and Ryan Braun (who actually returned yesterday) gave him the opportunity to prove himself worthy of internal preferment.  Currently owning a .324 batting average and slugging over .570 with a .252 ISO,  he’s made his stickiness in the starting lineup more of a certainty than a question.

With anything that suddenly looks good in fantasy, it’s important to view players from all the angles, because you just might be negligent of something important. This is Jesus Aguilar’s “something important”

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This is some really, REALLY encouraging data here, considering his wOBA has gone up 12% and his contact rate (despite chasing about 3% more than a season ago) has gone up 8% between now and last season, where he slashed .265/.311/.505 in just over 300 at-bats. Let’s assume that I missed out on picking up Aguilar in my fantasy league (I did), and I needed to go another direction to satisfy my newfound pessimism. Petty Me arrives at BrooksBaseball and sees this to my disappointment:

 

 

Improvement! Across the board improvement! And he’s done it by absolutely absorbing the entire middle half of the strikezone – inside and out – with plenty of power. You could still easily find outs against him way upstairs, and he’s still no Adrian Beltre below the knees, but, considering a higher contact rate from a power hitter usually suggests better, more consistent contact, this is a very promising thing to see.

Aguilar’s power will no doubt remain the driving force that determines where his wOBA is headed, because for as well as he’s slugging the ball he’s not walking enough (9.1% BB rate) to be much of a threat elsewhere. At 27 years of age, I’m very bullish on Aguilar’s gains from last season, as well as manager Craig Counsell‘s confidence in keeping him in the three-hole even after Braun’s return from the DL. Dude is currently batting .318 with and .839 OPS with men on base; figures that are only going up with his performance in May. Couple that in with the advantageous ballpark factors of Miller Park, and we have a waiver wire add who’s dying to pad someone’s fantasy stats. Get him before he’s gone.

 

Tyler O’Neill, OF, St. Louis Cardinals (38.3%)

Since last season, Tyler O’Neill has had my attention, but you can only like a potential impact call-up so much when Mike Matheny is managing the team he’s on. Somehow, someway (and rest assured, days and months after this post, I’ll still be absolutely dumbfounded that I’m saying this) O’Neill has hit his way past hot-hitting Dexter Fowler in the lineup, garnering everyday playing time at least until he cools off from his 3-homer, 6-RBI barrage over the last six games.

Everyone should be eyeing how this guy moves, because he can do sexy stuff like this:

 

 

O’Neill’s power has always been his calling card, as it helped him win the Southern League MVP back in 2016 before blasting 44 more longballs heading into his call-up this season. In fact, it’s his only reliable source of fantasy relevance, because unlike Aguilar who draws walks sometimes and carries an above average contact rate, O’Neill doesn’t come close to doing either of those things and strikes out way too much.

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Here’s a combination of data that’s even uglier than the table above.

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If he qualified, O’Neill’s O-Swing rate would rank 10th highest in all of baseball. If he qualified, O’Neill’s Contact rate would rank dead last in all of baseball. If he qualified, O’Neill’s Swinging Strike rate would be the highest in the Majors by a boatload. That’s a terrible, no good, very bad trio of categories to be flat out suck-y at.

Luckily, his upside is enticing enough to dig a little deeper. BaseballSavant has his expected batting average at .292, his expected slugging percentage at .611, and his expected weighted on-base average just below .400. He’s also doing considerable damage against fastballs, with a vast majority of his current .704 slugging percentage being aided by his 1.077 clip off the pitch. He can’t hit breaking balls at all (63.6% whiff rate and .080 wOBA), and pitchers have clearly taken notice of that (42.3% usage rate against O’Neill), but so long as he could keep his average exit velocity (91.6) and launch angle (13.9 degrees) above average, he could provide a healthy jolt to standard league teams over the next few weeks.

Considering how poor his plate discipline is, owners should do everything in their power to ship him to the highest bidder if he’s truly catching fire.

 

Austin Meadows, OF (33.5) & Josh Harrison, 2B/3B, Pittsburgh Pirates (44.9%)

Austin Meadows has Starling Marte and his injured oblique to thank for the increased playing time that has coincided with his call-up earlier this month, and it’s clear the intention was to hit the ground running. With a .440 batting average and OPS over 1.300 through his first six games, Meadows has been demanding our attention. He’s flashed great power so far with his first couple of Major League homers being backed by an overall 92.9 average exit velocity and a 13.7 degree launch angle, but I think his contact skills (91.7% Contact rate, 4.3 Swinging Strike rate) are going to prevail going forward. Meadows has to complement that with his speed, and the jury’s still out on that considering he’s only swiped 27 bags in the Minors since 2016.  Ride him while he’s hot, though, because he’ll definitely continue to put a ton of balls in play and (maybe, hopefully) create chaos on the basepaths. Any kind of power you get from him (.359 and .397 slugging percentages in AAA last season and this season, respectively) is an added bonus.

Josh Harrison is flying off the shelves at a pace as rapid as his new teammate, and that’s to be expected from a leadoff hitter with a penchant for keeping his batting average above the norm. Like Meadows, Harrison needs to steal bases in order to remain fantasy relevant, and the potential for double-digit swipes is apparent with him constantly hovering around 10 bags a year. The increased power he displayed last season is exciting, and his recent trend of hitting more flyballs and creating more hard-hit contact has to be a welcoming sight for owners and potential buyers. He still profiles as one of those “just outside the top-50 for outfielders” types because most of his greatest assets are being superseded by a bunch of other hitters, but I see valuable bench depth in standard leagues, while those desperate owners in deeper 12-16 team mixers and NL-Only’s are advised to scoop him up at their earliest convenience.

 

Brandon Nimmo, OF, New York Mets (3.5%)

LOVE Brandon Nimmo’s profile! A high launch angle (18.6 degrees), line drives (24.1%) and flyballs (46.6%) spread all over the field, and a hard-hit rate over 40%!? This is stud-like stuff from a guy who’s pretty much been flip-flopped into and out of the Mets starting lineup all season. Easy 20-homer pop is to be expected from the style of contact he’s producing, but his plate approach is what could potentially make him a fantasy stalwart. Compared to the rest of this week’s free agent list, Nimmo is practically Joey Votto at the dish.

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If it qualified, Nimmo’s Swinging Strike rate would tie Whit Merrifield and Kyle Seager for the 39th lowest mark in all of baseball, while his Chase rate (or O-Swing according to the table above) would barely trail that of Matt CarpenterMookie Betts, and Mike Trout (!). For the sake of brevity, I’m going to restrain myself from hyperbole and reassure you his emergence is no fluke: last season, he walked 15.7% of the time, and was on the verge of something special last September/October where he slashed .260/.387/.479 on a .368 wOBA. I’m picking him up everywhere – standard leagues and deep – with the hopes that I’ve stumbled upon a pot of gold.

 

 

 

**FANTASY BASEBALL 2018** The inevitable, totally necessary Freddy Peralta review

As of this writing, 28 starting pitchers have begun their Major League careers in the scaling altitudes of perhaps the best hitter’s ballpark in existence in Coors Field – and 21-year old Brewers pitching prospect Freddy Peralta’s debut ranks among the very best. With a little help from Baseball Savant and a magnificent piece from Fangraphs writer Jeff Sullivan, I’m going to (try and) quickly break down how he managed to make Brewers franchise history in a hitter’s paradise.

 

The short of it is that Peralta – at least on Mother’s Day – “deceived” his way through the Rockies starting nine by “hiding” his fastball. What this means is that in his windup, Peralta keeps his throwing hand hidden behind his back for a longer period of time than most other pitchers. It remains hidden until the very last second when he whips his body forward, raises his throwing hand only at about a quasi-three-quarter throwing angle (or “crossarm” angle, for short,) and is at the point of release. 91% of the 98 pitches thrown by Peralta were labeled as fastballs, but you wouldn’t know it as he collected 13 strikeouts – a franchise record for all Milwaukee Brewers starting pitching debuts – on 16 swinging strikes through 5.2 innings of shutout ball.

 

Here’s the scouting report on Peralta:

 

“Peralta makes up for being an undersized righty by generating enormous extension to plate, causing his low-90s fastball that touches 94 mph to play up consistently. The pitch is his primary source of whiffs, many of which he induces inside the strike zone, and was at the heart of his Minor League-best .178 batting average against among starters in 2017. His short slider and changeup are both Major League offerings, with the changeup currently ranking ahead of the slider in the eyes of many scouts. Peralta’s penchant for generating whiffs helps to offset his below-average control, an aspect of his game that requires further refinement after he issued a career-high 4.7 walks-per-nine in ’17.”

 

Now, here’s a pair of heatmaps provided by Baseball Savant, shown below.

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Note that the scouting report says Peralta (apparently) also flashes a slider and changeup, yet the only other pitch labeled in the heatmaps is a curveball (12.5 swinging strike percentage).

Don’t tell Carlos Gonzalez how he looked after this 1-2 offering:

 

 

Anyways — heatmaps are fun because they provide at least a tangible perspective of what the pitcher is trying to do with his pitches, as well as indicate which ones he’s using/is most comfortable with by displaying location. See how many fastballs are at the middle-to-upper half of the strikezone? Peralta’s Ks most likely stemmed from what most saber-nerds consider as perceived “ride.” Kind of like when tall, lanky Chris Young used his height and his usually high release point to get whiffs upstairs with his fastball (albeit for a short, short period of time), Peralta’s ability to physically hide the baseball through his delivery disrupts the hitter’s timing, keeping them in a state of limbo right until the ball is approaching home plate.

 

It’s the only logical explanation for whatever scientific phenomenon took place on Sunday: Peralta’s fastball averaged around close to 92 MPH, a myriad of his whiffs and Ks came at or around the heart of the strikezone, and the heatmaps hint at a wildness (35.7 Zone%) that was covered up by a glaring lack of contact (63.6% Contact rate).

 

Now, on to the “fantasy” impact of all of this research. What does the week’s hottest waiver wire add have to offer? And is it worth embarking on what most people spent a priority waiver claim to acquire? The answer, at least for now, is “maybe?”

 

Personally, I’m stuck in the middle in regards to calculating Peralta’s true value going forward, because despite how deceptive he may have been in Coors, there are red flags to be concerned of; some of which I’ve already mentioned. If the scouting report is accurate, and his control issues in the minors carry over, we’re looking at about 3-4 walks every start, with a limited arsenal more reliant on chicanery than any actual consistency of location or command.

 

However, the scouting report suggested he had a slider, and (again, thanks to Jeff Zimmerman and his FG piece) maybe he does have one, or a cutter of some sort?

 

Here’s Peralta setting it up with straight, 91 mph cheese right middle-in to perennial MVP candidate Nolan Arenado:

 

Now, the cutter on 2-2 (while the Rockies broadcast booth ironically praises Arenado’s on-base percentage):

 

And while you’re at it, watch some late-life paint on the knees to Trevor Story to break even in the count:

 

 

This could also help explain the timing imbalance for most Rockies hitters as they continually swung their way right back to the dugout. This is the defining pitch for Peralta, if he’s going to be a successful big league starting pitcher – let alone a high-end one.

 

So, we’ve got a scouting profile – and an embarrassment of visual evidence – that suggests a breakout is possible under certain circumstances. However, we’ve also only seen one start, and word around the league about Peralta’s performance has spread like wildfire – at least from a mainstream perspective. He could be the talk of the town at a point where his team is maddeningly desperate for starting pitching, or he can be solved in a matter of days and this post could wind up as little more than a pre-mature over-analyzation over 5.2 innings of “beginner’s luck” in a scary pitching environment.   

 

At the very least, I wanna assume that his strikeouts aren’t going anywhere, as part of the reason why we’re even talking about a Major League start from Peralta is because he consistently hovered around a 30% strikeout rate for about a couple years and change between AA and AAA – or 236.2 innings pitched, to be exact. I wanna believe that, in a world where Jhoulys Chacin and Junior Guerra are (currently) an organization’s best starting pitching options, that a guy like Freddy Peralta could stick around for a while amid the fanatics and the skeptics; because the “unusual-ness” of his first impression not only incites further study, but also tests the limits of success when a guy’s biggest asset is literally manipulating the vision of the guy standing 60 feet, 6 inches away from him.

 

THE VERDICT
If you’re a fantasy owner who’s hungry to make a bid right now, or are still on the fence about trying him out on Saturday, I’d say BUY, since you really won’t be able to if he continues to roll – BUT I say that under the context of depth. This isn’t necessarily a gamble you risk if you’re rich in starting pitching options, or are dropping a potentially valuable player in exchange. He’s still a fringe option who could get hammered, prompting you to stream in an anxious attempt to fix your ratios. On the other hand, he might be an valuable back-end arm, retaining his relevance by literally “riding” his fastball to an elite strikeout rate while his walk rate humbles your confidence in him from time to time. That being said, he’s absolutely worth streaming everywhere in deeper 12-16 mixed and NL-Only leagues.

 

How microtransactions in video games has morphed into illegal gambling

Purchasing a video game years ago only required that you spent $60 at the counter, and you had access to the whole experience. While the price tag remains the same today, content is now being hidden behind paywalls called microtransactions and loot boxes.  Some consider them merely as elements to the medium’s evolution. Others relate them to gambling, citing them as predatory and hazardous.

Microtransactions are in-game upgrades or goods purchased with real money. They allow the player to accelerate the once-organic process of either leveling up or progressing from one stage or challenge to the next. They’ve been around for almost a decade, with publishers slapping extra price tags on them in case certain players crave an immediate advantage in the game, or just want any one of the cosmetic items offered for sale.

 

Click here to get a closer look into microtransactions and loot boxes in video games

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Newer games such as Call of Duty: World War II, Destiny 2, and Fifa 18 feature these options, but now also provide spenders with “loot boxes”: in-game supply crates that provide randomized cosmetic or gameplay-enhancing items. This remixing of market philosophy takes what was once a purchase going towards a certain item or power-up and turns it into a game of chance, where the consumer is guaranteed content for purchasing but is unsure of what he or she will get.

When Kensgold first began investing in this gaming practice back in 2013, he spent over $30 on a mobile building game a-la Clash of Clans. Four years later, he had spent over $10,000 on microtransactions containing loot boxes, allocating those funds mostly on free-to-play mobile games before buying a gaming computer and spending the rest on popular PC titles like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.  

According to a Kotaku article, he admittedly became addicted to putting his hard-earned money on the line.

“I think it stems from the fact that I had set a precedent in those mobile games that a hundred dollars isn’t all that much,” Kensgold said. “It’s not a really big deal if I see that skin and I really want it, because it looks awesome. And if I just drop 100 bucks I’m pretty much guaranteed to get that kind of thing.”

In theory, purchasing microtransactions is an ideal practice for people who don’t have the time necessary to spend hours and hours grinding through a video game to earn and unlock everything. In practice, however, they have been infused with the presence of loot boxes, and the randomized, “50-50” nature of reward those have introduced makes the act gravely concerning. Kensgold realized this the hard way, as his spending spree eventually encouraged him to seek out counseling with a therapist before sending a letter to gaming publisher Electronic Arts (EA) publicizing his addiction.   

His story has spurred a more scientific look at what loot boxes are doing to people. A two-part YouTube video by The Game Theorists plunged into the human aspect of purchasing them, with a pair of discoveries – Skinner’s Box, and the “dopamine” effect of gambling – being the most relevant to Kensgold’s gaming experience.

 

Click here to get a more in-depth look at loot boxes in video games, and how they “hack” your brain…

…then click here to learn even MORE about it!

According to the video, behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner created the Skinner Box, a device meant to test the reaction of both animals and humans after they are rewarded by studying the number of times they press a button.

“His studies showed that if you only gave a reward to the test subject some of the times, either randomly or on a set timer, they kept coming back, pressing the button over and over again,” said Matthew Patrick, the creator and narrator for the Game Theorists video.

Patrick also said that dopamine – a neurotransmitter in the central nervous system that triggers excitement when one anticipates a reward – is set off by the “pressing of the button”, leading him to believe that the nature of obtaining and opening loot boxes is a brain hack.

“Because your brain is rewarding you for buying and opening these boxes, regardless of what crap sprays you’re getting inside, you naturally feel an impulse to buy more,” Patrick said.  

Star Wars: Battlefront II is now considered public enemy #1 for this particular use of loot boxes. When Electronic Arts released it back in November of 2017, it did not have a progressive system of leveling up: no matter how long or how well people played, they would not get rewarded based on those efforts. This meant that the only way for players to level up or get better in-game items was to acquire and open as many loot boxes as they could get, which encouraged the game’s “predatory” system of microtransactions to take center stage.

“They (Electronic Arts) added that in-game currency option, and that microtransaction option made it worse,” said Hector Rodriguez, a pro-sports gamer who’s spent time playing a number of video games including Battlefront II that offer loot boxes. “Now you have to buy these boxes just for you to get the certain equipment you need so that you could be better than your opponents.”  

 

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Electronic Arts (EA) has experienced a sharp increase in sales over the last three years thanks to their cherished sale of “live services,” including microtransactions and loot boxes in recent video game titles.

Backlash against the game was so heavy-handed that it brought the issue of gambling in video games not only to the public, but to state governments around the world. Hawaiian legislator Christopher Lee proposed a state-wide bill prohibiting the sale of video games – physical, or digital – containing any “gambling mechanisms” to anyone under the age of 21.

A recent article by ArsTechnica revealed that Belgium now considers video game loot boxes as “criminal gambling,” as The Belgian Gaming Commission indicated that games such as Overwatch, Fifa 18 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive all met the criteria of being “games of chance.” Gaming publishers (Blizzard for Overwatch, Electronic Arts for Fifa 18, and Valve Corporation for Counter-Strike: GO) are all subject to face fines of up to $800,000 in euros and five years in prison if they do not remove these gameplay elements.

 Justin Nohar, a long-time gamer who prefers first-person shooters like Call of Duty, fears that young children in today’s society will be most affected by these kinds of video games.

“Knowing that most of these video game gamblers are young kids, that’s really dangerous,” he said. “When you get deep down and you don’t realize what that is, what that’s doing to you and how it continues on in your life, your life is going to fall apart.”

Here are some MLB Home Run charts by year, and how they ignite the “juiced ball” conversation

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The data represented in these charts are the total amount of home runs hit throughout Major League Baseball between 2013 and 2017. There isn’t a ton of fluctuation in the data – especially considering the short time frame – but if I was to label any one year as an outlier I’d point to the 2017 season. Consider the total number of home runs hit in 2013 and compare the difference; you’ll end up with over 1,400 more round trippers!

Here’s exactly why I chose this specific topic: the entire league has recently experienced a dramatic change in how hitters develop, and how the actual baseballs used in-game are studied. SBNation provided a comprehensive look into the MLB investigating “juiced” baseballs, leading to league-wide regulations that now require all baseballs to be stored in a standardized manner. Baseball analysts are afraid that most – if not, all – ballparks will have to eventually install humidors in order to control the number of home runs hit year by year, which would help maintain a certain balance of performance between pitchers and hitters.

I’m personally not a fan of this move, and I feel that it means the purity of the sport will eventually be turned into something more artificial. Some analysts who’ve studied the recent, historic increase in home runs have already drawn suspicions that it is a direct result of more hitters trying to hit more homers, and I personally believe that – for the sake of baseball experiencing a natural evolution – the shift in perspective from hitters should both be acknowledged and embraced.