*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:

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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!!

 

 

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*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** 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.

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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 2017: Two guys who are mid-round Chris Sale & late-round Clayton Kershaw

Relative to active players, Clayton Kershaw has no level comparison at this stage in his career. His contributions on the mound are so unparalleled one could get away with assuming he’s been performing an entire standard deviation better than any other hurler in the game since his arrival. With a league-leading 2.06 ERA, 2.60 xFIP, 67 xFIP-, and 23.8 K/BB ratio since 2011, his 42.8 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is almost a third higher than the second-best WAR recipient among starting pitchers in that time frame!!

All of this is meant to assure you that, no, the Kershaw apprentice I am about to cover is not going to produce an MVP-caliber campaign in just 150 innings pitched, or a K/BB ratio higher than about 95% of all relief pitchers in the same season. However, 2016 had said apprentice showing flashes of a particularly golden Kershaw season that should at least whet the appetite of those chasing a potential late-round ace.

Here’s what Kershaw accomplished in his 2012 season, which – for fun – is going to be the comparison point I will be using for Player “X”.

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Source: Fangraphs.com

 

Now, let’s take a look at Player “X”‘s numbers from this past baseball season.

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Source: Fangraphs.com

Notice any similarities? In 121 innings pitched, Player X managed to keep pace with a full season of (2012) Kershaw in regards to K/BB%, HR/9, and FIP-. He even bested his superior in FIP, leaning on a 48.1% groundball rate that justified his ability to control the home run ball – and also calls foul against those putrid BABIP and LOB% rates. He’s a late-round-instead-of-mid-round sleeper due to his injury woes (in four years of MLB service, his 121 innings pitched in 2016 is his career high), but amidst the skepticism lies a 28-year old in his physical prime, with a fastball that touches 100 miles per hour and a ridiculously scary cutter/slider hybrid – and in 2016, it looks like he may have put everything together.

With the suspense on high, I now present to you: Player X – James Paxton. 

 

Regardless of the outlook, he’s a guy I’m targeting in all leagues because his improvements a season ago were the product of a simplified delivery . Where he was all herky-jerky in the offing is where he has subtracted to achieve promising gains in velocity, which correlates with the increasing amount of success he experienced with his “slutter”. That pitch produced massive amounts of missed swings, as it accumulated 28% and 35% whiff rates in August and September of last year, respectively. As a result, he racked up an outstanding 11.7% swinging strike rate in general, which would’ve ranked 16th in baseball among all starting pitchers had he qualified.

However, the new delivery Paxton relied on in 2016 made the biggest difference in regard to his command. Between 2015 and 2016, his first-pitch strike rate shot up by almost nine percent, helping shave his walk rate by over five percentage points. In layman’s terms, his control went from Francisco Liriano to David Price in one whole year!

The sustainability of this level of performance hinges entirely on both the repeat-ability of his delivery and his own health; two factors that could fall squarely on its head right at the dawn of the 2017 season. So, Paxton should be, at best, a back-end member of your pitching staff in any league – but a draft pick nonetheless. Take him knowing the risks involved, but well aware of the upside he carries if everything falls in place at once.

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Before being traded to the Red Sox this offseason, Chris Sale was THE difference between a win or a loss for the Chicago White Sox every five days. Despite pitching in a homer-friendly ballpark behind the worst offense in the Majors according to WAR, Sale demonstrated a poise and longevity on the mound that extended past his unforeseen durability. As a result, he’s been a top-5 fantasy stalwart as a starter – but I can’t help but feel like he continually flies under the radar alongside the Kershaws and Scherzers of the world.

Therefore, Player “Y” seems like an incredibly appropriate sleeper comparison; he, too, was just about the only true saving grace in his ballclub a season ago, but he went relatively unnoticed in a year where rookie pitchers flooded fantasy baseball message boards and Kyle Hendricks nearly rode a Changeup and a World Series run to a Cy Young nod. Like with Kershaw-Paxton, we’re gonna start with two identical seasons and start with one from Sale’s career. This time, however, we’re going side-by-side with the 2016 performances of both starters.

Here’s an advanced look at what Sale’s 2016 looked like:

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Source: Fangraphs.com 

 

 

Now, Player “Y”:

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Source: Fangraphs.com

A gradually declining groundball rate and subsequent drops in whiff and swinging strike rates led to Sale having his first +1 HR/9 season of his career, but none of that mattered because he still produced a 5-Win (I.E. Cy Young-caliber) season off the heels of a career-high 3.58 ERA. Because he didn’t throw 226 innings like his superior, however, Player “Y” amassed just a 2.8 WAR mark in 179.2 innings pitched – but you wouldn’t know it if your only source of comparison were these two tables.

That 5-Win threshold is the upside possessed by Danny Duffy, the well-deserving recipient of a 5-year, $65 Million contract extension about a week ago. Before we dig a bit deeper into his fantasy value, let’s take a look at what he brings to the table:

Yep; he sure did break the Kansas City Royals single-game strikeout record for a starting pitcher! This was the pinnacle of what could have been a hardware-heavy campaign had Duffy pitched a full 34-35 starts with 200 innings – but, again, we must consider exactly how he’s reached this point.

Like Paxton, he (super-duperly) changed his delivery in 2016, opting to work exclusively from the stretch a-la Yu Darvish and Carlos Carrasco (the latter of which I’m sure one good friend of mine will appreciate seeing acknowledgments here). Again, like Paxton, this led to an uptick in velocity, and universally jaw-dropping increases in command. You think Paxton’s walk rate was bad? Duffy never posted a double-digit K/BB rate in his entire Major League career up until this point. You know what his K/BB% was last season? 20 percent!!

Add in the night-and-day difference in plate discipline-based peripherals, and what we – and millions of restless Royals fans – got in return for his advancements was a pitcher we didn’t see coming, but probably should have all along. Believe it or not, Duffy has a devastating slider AND changeup! By just simply finding the strikezone, his slider picked up a six percent jump in whiffs relative to his career usage, while the changeup induced swings and misses at a rate of 19.78 percent; eight percentage points higher than his career averages prior to 2016. The respective strikeout rates on both pitches last year? 41.1 and 30.1 percent! In regards to whiffs, Duffy virtually carries Sale’s slider, Marco Estrada‘s changeup, and Max Scherzer‘s fastball (fun fact: last season, both fastballs carried just a single percentage of disparity).

Until he finds a true groundball offering (his two-seamer, quite frankly, is a shit pitch that generates far more fly balls than anything else), home runs are going to be Duffy’s bugaboo, and unfortunately I can’t envision a season going forward where his Bronson Arroyo-esque HR/9 rate in 2016 will deflate to anything considerably lower. Also, the wheels fell off rather abruptly in September/October, during which he posted a 5.50 ERA and served up nine bombs (despite his xFIP sitting at a pretty 3.56 mark during that period). Endurance from Duffy is going to be a question mark going into 2017, as he bested his professional baseball career-high in innings pitched a year ago; Kansas City paid him like an ace, but there’s no guarantee he drops a top-20 campaign on us just yet. He’s also an injury risk in just about the same vein as Paxton, so there’s that, too.

Still, he’s the (slightly) healthier, more reliable option of the two lefties I’ve covered here, which makes him a much safer draft pick in either the middle rounds or that awkward phase in the draft where all elite names are off the board and owners begin to farm for key position depth in certain areas. That being said, I absolutely love everything about Duffy post-delivery change, and I personally wouldn’t mind reaching a little for his services on draft day. In leagues that include quality starts, strikeout-walk rates and/or innings pitched, I highly recommend that you do as well.

 

Other left-handed starters to consider on draft day (Some are recommended for deeper leagues):

Sean Manaea

Robbie Ray

Blake Snell

Daniel Norris

Matt Boyd

Julio Urias

–  Tyler Anderson 

Tyler Skaggs

**FANTASY BASEBALL 2016** Quick Looks: Baltimore Orioles (Infield)

Alas, Baseball is back, everyone!! The days are getting longer, the weather is getting warmer, and the path to Opening Night is getting shorter. While March is otherwise known for being Winter’s last hurrah, the rest of us are well aware that it’s only a matter of time before the coats get hung back up and the grass grows green. Spring is fast approaching, and the advent of America’s Pastime looms anxiously. 

With that in mind, I plan to make the month an exciting one by taking a brief look at each of the 30 Major League Ballclubs until the end of the month. This should be of great use for those in deeper league formats because it exposes the potential gems the fantasy waiver wire might have to offer over the course of the season. Also, though: you get a crystal clear overview of the fantasy landscape that sort of puts a value tag on each individual player who’s bound to conjure up at least a modicum of playing time. 

I’ll be covering both the American and National Leagues alphabetically, with today’s discussion focusing squarely on the Baltimore Orioles – a ballclub that somewhat defines the very nature of this topic piece.

 

BALTIMORE ORIOLES INFIELD

 

 

 

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Anyone who’s new to baseball, yet keen enough to comprehend the importance of a ballclub’s various attributes will find the Orioles’ infield an immediate strength. Chris Davis totally rebounded from his pedestrian 2014 with a 47-homer, 117 RBI campaign that saw him sitting among the very top of all fantasy first baseman rankings. Without going into too much detail explaining how he managed to pull it off; research suggests that he altered his approach to his strengths, pulling more flyballs and making harder contact than ever before. He still strikes out way too much, but considering the overall wealth of power he’s provided the last four seasons combined (coupled with the fact that he did have one of the worst single-season BABIP marks I’ve ever seen back in that disastrous 2014 season), I wouldn’t be surprised if he was taken off most standard draft boards within the first 2-3 rounds.

 

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Manny Machado‘s supposed gap power mutated into systematic wall-scraping almost overnight, as the now 23-year old superstar third baseman saw a 22-homer jump prior to playing just over a half season’s worth of games in his 2014 debut. Even scarier is how much more aggressive he got on the base paths, as the young stud managed to pull off an immensely impressive 20 steals on the side. These things, however, do little to describe just how ridiculously impressive Manny Machado’s entire skillset truly is. He has an amazing eye for the plate (25.7% O-swing rate), makes a ton of contact (6.8% swinging strike rate, 91.1 F-Strike Contact rate), and is one of the game’s most disciplined at-bats (9.8% BB rate and 15.6% K rate). All of these things come together to define an elite ballplayer who has the potential of finishing the next 7-8 years as one of the top-5 best hitters in the game. Given all the upside he already carries, Machado absolutely needs to be an early-round priority in any league.

 

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Very few positions in baseball offer as many impact sleepers as second base, and Jonathan Schoop lends heavily to that philosophy. Behind the terrible plate discipline (0.11 BB/K ratio) and insanely aggressive approach (61% swing rate), lies an improving product with the ability to leapfrog over the best in the Bigs in a fortnight. In just 86 games played and 321 plate appearances, Schoop nearly matched his previous career-high in home runs with 15, and notched 73 R+RBI with a .279/.306/.482 slash line (good for a 112 wRC+). Had his knees been under him all season long and was capable of collecting over 150 games of playing time in 2015, there’s a decent chance he’d be labeled in many people’s current discussions as pre-Atlanta Dan Uggla’s second coming. Other awesome numbers to consider come in the form of his batted ball profile, as he’s greatly increased his opposite field% (a big reason why his 2015 BABIP was so goddamn high) and jettisoned his hard hit rate by well over eight percent (which, in other words, meant that his rate of hard contact was less like Stephen Drew‘s and more like Robinson Cano‘s). Somehow, he’s only projected to be the 20th best second baseman according to ESPN, and I’d be lying if I told you they weren’t being excessively conservative here.

Unlike his constituents, there really isn’t much to see here with J.J. Hardy. He hasn’t hit 20 or more homers or slugged over .400 since 2013, and although that’s not too long ago it’s important to consider he’s also 33 with dwindling contact rates and increasing strikeout totals.  His notoriously pedestrian batting average clips offer little to no compensation, and since we ALL know this mo-fo doesn’t steal bases we’re pretty much left with a 39-year old Derek Jeter doppleganger. I guess the best way for me to sum up J.J. Hardy at this stage in his career is: do you really want this on your fantasy team?

Ditto for Ryan Flaherty, who’s only real staying power is his pop (9 homers in 301 plate appearances in 2015). Since he makes minimal contact at the plate and doesn’t run at all, it’s impossible for me to imagine – barring injury – him getting any regular playing time in Baltimore – let alone the deepest of fantasy leagues.

Jimmy Paredes qualifies as more of an outfield option than an infield one, Christian Walker‘s an unproven first base prospect with no where to go even if disaster strikes, and Hyun Soo Kim will probably patrol left field. So, with that in mind, Baltimore features only one other decent infield option: Mark TrumboAnd, to make things clear here, 2016 will perhaps be the last time he ever qualifies at first base or the outfield, ever. So, for Trumbo, he needs a renaissance now – especially if fantasy owners are going to trust him. Truthfully, though, he should be trusted as an asset in most leagues anyway, since I’m assuming Baltimore will be wise enough to stick him into their DH spot a la David Ortiz, and his foot problems are finally in the rear-view mirror. Last season was a pretty good indicator of the latter, as the 30-year old picked things up a bit during the second-half of 2015: .282 batting average, 11 homers and 32 RBI in 66 games played. Let’s not also forget that Trumbo was on track to becoming one of the more revered power hitters in the game before he was shipped off to Arizona in ’14, and from there we’ve got ourselves a pretty damn fine end-of-draft buy. Just remember that he’s not exactly a .300 hitter or anything like that.

 

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Matt Wieters rounds out the Orioles’ projected starting infield, and despite all the injury woes that have put severe clamps on his playing time the last couple of seasons he comes into Spring Training with a full bill of health. All you need to know about Wieters, given that he’s a catcher and the catcher position’s always unpredictable, is that he was one of the rare fantasy gems behind the plate before the injury bugs came into play. From 2011-2013, he launched 78 dingers and averaged 71 RBI, with a passable batting average. His game solely depends on leaving the yard and driving home a respectable amount of men on base, and nothing statistically suggests that’ll change in 2016 – barring any significant collapses. Since he missed so much time last season, he comes off as more of an end-of-draft pick you could sneak in at a crazy-low price – you’ve just gotta remember that he’s down there somewhere.

If, in any event, Wieters spends most of his 2016 the same way he spent most of his 2015 campaign, the Orioles are lucky enough to have a backup as capable as Caleb JosephHe’s got particularly good pop against righties, and thrived with runners in scoring position last season in the wake of Wieters’s injury. The wealth of playing time he had in 2015 proved that he’s a Major League catcher with upside. The problem with Joseph, however, is that he’s still slightly more upside than current production. He’ll need to cut down on his strikeouts (20.3% K rate in 2015) a bit and make harder contact (30.6% clip) if he’s to be considered a guaranteed solid option both in fantasy and real life, because he’s struggled to carry even a decent batting average through either of his first two Major League campaigns. He is getting better (he sprayed the ball way more often in ’15 than in ’14, helping lead to a near-30 point boost in batting average) and his defense behind the plate is plenty serviceable, so at the very least he’s worth keeping an eye on in AL-only leagues.

 

 

**FANTASY BASEBALL 2016** The Non-Keeper League’s “Prime 9” – Starting Pitchers

Hey guys! Glad to be back working on the fantasy outlook of this year’s upcoming baseball season. These next couple months is going to require a whole lot of dedicated analysis, depth chart cross-referencing, and looking back at many of last season’s player statistics. With that said, I’m hoping that my new situation will allocate me more time to invest in mapping out a clearer, more successful draft plan for those who happen to stumble upon my posts – and if I’m lucky enough I might even be able to stay active during the course of the regular season.

This week’s featured discussion is all about the very best of the best, with each post covering each respective playing position. I figured that since I’m going to cover as much of the fantasy talent pool as I can, a great place to start would be with labeling the top performers in the game. How I’m going to proceed with said labeling is simple: I will display my personal list of the nine best players at each position – in other words, a top-nine within the prime 9 – with detailed explanations for most of them meant to justify my stance.

Keep in mind that my opinions are influenced both by a large gathering of data and statistics, and the fact that I’m looking art things from the perspective of an ESPN standard league (I.E. 10-12 teamers with usually 7-9 pitcher spots and a relatively shallow bench).

 

So, without further ado – here are my Prime 9 for the 2016 basebeall season!

 

1A: Starting Pitchers

1. Clayton Kershaw

2. Chris Sale

3. Max Scherzer

4. David Price

5. Jake Arrieta 

6. Zack Greinke

7. Madison Bumgarner

8. Carlos Carrasco

9. Corey Kluber

 

  • Jake Arrieta may have won last year’s Cy Young, but the far-and-away (at least in terms of WAR) #1 pitcher in the world throughout the 2015 season was Clayton Kershaw. Even despite spending much of the first half fighting off the BABIP demons that thrust his current skill level into myriad skepticism, the tall, bearded left-handed finished the year yet again with a ace reliever’s K/9 rate, a microscopic walk rate, and more innings pitched than anyone else in baseball. Once again, his ERA estimators found him to only be just a few shades worse than his sub-2 ERA performance suggested, and his groundball tendencies continued to trend upward (although it did fall off by a percentage point last year). Oh, and did I mention how he lead the Majors in every rotisserie category besides wins and ERA? Kershaw’s career trajectory speaks enough to justify his placing at the top of the starting pitcher pile, and regardless of how many times opposing ballclubs knock him around in April – you’re gonna wanna have him around for when he spends the rest of the season unleashing the wrath of his revenge.

 

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  • I’ve seen enough of Chris Sale to proudly make the following bold statement: he is today’s version of Randy Johnson – from the herky-jerky side-arm delivery, to the bullet-speed fastball and knee-buckling/awe-inspiring slider. Sans Kershaw, no one is nastier, no one as frightening, and no one nearly as game-changing. His steadily-improving soft-hit% and even steadily-er declining xFIP are mere supporting notes to his otherworldly strikeout ability and elite-level control, and when they culminate the results are mesmerizing. Since 2013, Sale is third among all qualified starting pitchers in strikeouts (barely lagging behind Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer due to over 60 fewer innings pitched), second in xFIP, and ninth in WHIP. It’s really hard to believe he’s still getting better as he’s coming into 2016 at age 26 (!), but that’s exactly the case – and that’s incredibly exciting news for Chris Sale fans. I will say that Sale’s bugaboo has recently been his slightly sporadic health, but even that is worth the risk of a first or second-round draft pick because his skills – and upside – are totally out of this world (seriously, mark my words if we see a 300+ strikeout season in the horizon).

 

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  • Max Scherzer arguably had the best season of his career last year with Washington, and skeptics believe that he’s actually gotten even better as his new chapter with the Nationals wears on. Like Kershaw and Sale, Scherzer’s an otherwordly strikeout maven, and because his last 4-5 seasons are seemingly rife with extraordinary consistency (with the advantage of a totally clean bill of health during that span) placing him just below the two southpaws was an absolute no-brainer for me. With Scherzer, you always know what you’re going to get: top-of-the-class strikeout potential, a lot of innings pitched, a lot of flyballs (and a lot of homeruns allowed), and hardly anything else in between. He’s probably the safest fantasy ace out there, and if you’re looking for a quality arm in the first-round – or lost out on the other two guys I just discussed – look no further.
  • 4, 5 and 6 are where I truly needed to dive into some critical research to affirm my stance on these particular rankings. David Price relies heavily on his four-seam, two-seam and cut fastball for success, but in recent years he’s seen a spike in K/9 thanks to the evolution of his changeup. By increasing its usage rate by over five percent the last two seasons, Price’s swinging strike rate has gone up by almost three whole percentage points!! The result as been one of the league’s best strikeout-to-walk ratios in recent memory, and coupled with his own unwavering consistency of success on the mound (xFIPs of 3.30 or lower in each of his last five seasons), I find Price among the very best the sport has to offer in 2016.
  • Jake Arrieta has little else to prove in my eyes, but although I predicted he’d breakout as a true Major League ace in 2015, the year he had still came with a little bit of luck on his side. Among the top-15 starting pitchers in ERA last season, he has the fifth-widest discrepancy between actual ERA and xFIP – so the odds seem to be against him enjoying another historical campaign of this magnitude. However, he’s my #5 best starting pitcher to draft for a reason: beyond all the lucky outs and high strand rates lies a guy who’s pretty damn nasty. Every one of his offerings besides his sinker registered a 25%+ K rate, and his 11.1% swinging strike rate ranks among the top-20 of the entire league. His extreme groundball tendencies have allowed him to register ridiculously high soft-hit and incredibly low hard-hit percentage rates, and coupled with the strikeout ability (and 2.66 xFIP in over 380 combined innings since 2014), we’ve got ourselves an even better version of Felix Hernandez. If you don’t believe he’s this good, then you simply haven’t watched him pitch; he makes for one of the most uncomfortable ab-bats you’re likely to see from the right side of the rubber.
  • Perhaps the only reasonably-priced blockbuster acquisition of the Winter Meetings (given the circumstances behind the signing itself), Zack Greinke cashed in on a Cy Young-worthy 2015 and has found a new home in Arizona, where his very presence could make a huge difference for the D-Backs in a number of areas. For the sake of this post, however, let’s focus on his main selling point: his arm. Since 2012, only five other starting pitchers have been more valuable than Greinke in regards to WAR, and four of them I’ve just discussed. A large amount of that has to do with his unwavering excellence in practically every important measure of statistics. Within that same span of time, Greinke is 11th among all qualified starting pitchers in innings pitched, 12th in strikeouts, and a whopping 3rd and 7th overall in ERA and WHIP, respectively. Lastly; Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw are the only two individuals to gather more wins in that span, and coupled with the D-Backs having scored the 8th most runs in all of baseball this past season, there’s plenty to be excited about here for those who play rotisserie or most category leagues.

 

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  • Last season, Madison Bumgarner bested his previous career-high in strikeouts with 234 and WHIP with a 1.01 clip; won 15+ games again; threw for more innings and fewer walks than ever before; and finished with a sub-3 ERA for the third year in a row. He’s also 26 and has already posted three separate top-15 starting pitcher campaigns, so yeah; he’s definitely worth at least a second-round pick in all standard leagues.

 

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  • Carlos Carrasco and Corey Kluber were the nastiest 1-2 punch in the Majors last year, but thanks in large part to a ton of terrible BABIP-induced luck, their respective seasons have gone down more in secret from the masses. Did you know that last season both Carrasco and Kluber closed out the top-five in K-BB%, were top-ten in xFIP- (Carrasco third, Kluber seventh), and despite having abnormally high BABIPs finished within the top-15 in WHIP? Had the baseball gods not mired them in such misfortunes, chances are at least one of them would’ve intensely contested for a Cy Young award. Let’s not also forget that the Indians are going to be much better both at the plate and on the field, so wins will be easier to come by for these two in 2016. However, I can understand how either pitcher rounding out my Prime 9 may be a bit of a stretch. Carrasco barely averaged over six innings a start in 2015, and it’s still uncertain if he’s physically durable enough to be a 200+ innings eater down the line. Kluber’s groundball rate fell sharply over the course of the year, leading to a career-high flyball rate and a spike in HR/9. If you can overlook these concerns – and conform to the fact that nothing ever really went their way for most of the 2015 season – then you won’t regret taking them on the very, very cheap come draft day.

 

 

*Fantasy Baseball 2015* – September’s Drive To Survive: Starting Pitchers

After spending a great portion of both the Spring and Summer without a functioning personal computer, I am finally back at school, and capable of writing up baseball posts again while I try and solve my laptop issue. I hope to keep you all informed on the comings and goings of the fantasy universe throughout the rest of the season, which hopefully includes a review of most, if not all, of the big names and sleepers of the 2015 campaign. 

You’d be amazed how quickly perspectives could change in September. Division leads could evaporate into heated dogfights between rivals jostling for position, supposed “aces” of staffs could collapse and fall victim to the fatigue of the stretch run, and everyday players’ groin strains or hamstring ailments, usually requiring brief 5-15 day stints on the bench or in Minor League rehab, could shelve them for the rest of the year. These unfortunate occurrences have the potential to be death to a Major League squad, and surprisingly enough they’ve become a natural part of the game. Anything could happen, and anything does happen quite a lot in baseball during those final 30-35 days of the season.

The worst part is realizing that these circumstances play a substantial role in the complexion of your fantasy team. All the hard work you may have put in to your pitching staff in order to get your foot in the door of the postseason could be vanished by terms as haunting as “innings limit” or “skipped starts.” Teams who fall apart and lose their ways could damage the confidence of their star players, thus leading to individual cold stretches that just so happen to have spurred right when your matchups began to count more than ever. Moreover, these developments, as I’ve already hinted, usually never reach a solution at this point of the baseball season. Half of your entire roster can consist of players who carried your team all year long, and are having as difficult a time staying on the field as they are producing to their expected level of output. And I haven’t even mentioned the impact September call-ups could lay in the aftermath of all this.

If you’re not in the playoffs for your current fantasy baseball league, this probably isn’t the article for you. Quite a few no-names are expected to pop up throughout this post, with the focus falling squarely on helping competing owners get a competitive edge in any feasible way possible. Those who are out of it are either scoping out players they can’t wait to draft next season, or deciding who their flex is going to be this Sunday in fantasy football. If you believe that you fall into said categories, very little here will interest you. As for the rest, I am prepared to drop the insight you’ll need to bring the fantasy title home.

Today’s post covers pitchers, mostly starters, who are available in a wide variety of ESPN leagues (no more than 40% owned,) and carrying the upside necessary to make a positive difference in your roster. Be mindful of the fact that I will be referring to general peripherals more often than I usually feel comfortable with (like ERA, WHIP, and strikeouts, instead of batted ball and plate discipline data,) considering that there are only two weeks left in the baseball season, and individual performance can swing greatly on a day-to-day basis.

Drew Smyly, Tampa Bay Rays (39.9%)

Take a moment to imagine what getting six months and 200 innings out of Drew Smyly could do for your fantasy team. Acquired from the Tigers last season in the then-blockbuster David Price trade, the 26-year old left-hander has rode the Rays’ insistence to consistently pitch up in the strikezone to the tune of a 2.74 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, and +9 K/9 in over 100 innings pitched for the Rays. If I so happened to extrapolate his 2015 numbers into a full, injury-free campaign, he’d rank just past the top-15 for qualified starting pitchers! To sum it all up – Smyly has absolutely dazzled since moving to Tampa, and the adjustments he’s made to his pitch sequencing and location has paid off across the board, resulting in the makings of a dark horse ace both in real life and fantasy baseball. Even with his complete inability to keep the ball on the ground (32.9% FB rate would rank 4th lowest among all starting pitchers if he qualified) and even more alarming inability to keep the ball in the yard (16.2% HR/FB and 1.82 HR/9 rates,) Smyly has put together a solid 3.64 ERA and 1.18 WHIP to go along with an elite 10.27 K/9 and 21.3% K-BB rate this season. It’s amazing how incredibly under owned he still is (though a lot of that has to do with his returning from a shoulder tear that almost cost him the entire campaign,) but such unfortunate mishaps have allowed him to quietly emerge as the perfect lighting-in-a-bottle waiver wire add while the getting’s still good. Just remember that his flyball tendencies leave the door wide open for a potential 4-inning, 7-earned run shellacking.

Ian Kennedy, San Diego Padres (34.9%)

No other starting pitcher in baseball this season has been more polarizing in overall performance than Ian Kennedy. He ranks 20th in the Majors in K/9 with a 9.04 clip, but has matched that with the second-worst HR/9 rate among qualified starting pitchers (1.66.) The result of such remarkably different statistical outliers is an ugly 4.29 ERA, a decidedly average 1.27 WHIP, and a meager win total of 8, cementing his 2015 campaign as a near-massive disappointment to owners who paid too much to acquire him on draft day in the first place. However, if you ever take a moment to look deeper into Kennedy’s exploits you’ll notice that he’s turned a bit of a corner since the All-Star Break. His 3.58 second-half ERA (3.58 xFIP) and 1.21 WHIP has resembled that of a top-30 starting pitcher, especially when you consider his +10 K/9 in that span. However, the homers and walks have been a problem for him all season long, and his last three starts (coming right after a stretch where he racked up 60 K’s and allowed more than three earned runs just once in his previous eight starts) have been collectively putrid. These are all factors you must consider if you’re willing to take a leap of faith on Kennedy the rest of the year, as his batted ball profile and propensity to strikeout a whole lot of hitters suggest that, even with the improved second-half numbers, he’s a roll of the dice every time out. Can he continue to pitch like the 3.58 xFIP starting pitcher he’s been for the final two weeks of the season? Or will the home runs and walks eat him up and spit him alive? Those in NL-Only leagues have no excuse not to add him for his upside, but in deeper mixed leagues Kennedy could very well be the difference between a championship or a waste of a six-month investment.

Wei-Yin Chen, Baltimore Orioles (37.7%)

The last thing Wei-Yin Chen will compel you to do is awe in astonishment when he’s on the mound. He’s as boring a fantasy starter as they come, but in many ways that’s a great thing. In 20 of his 29 starts this season, Chen has gone at least six innings, with 12 of those involving seven or more frames of work. An even more impressive stat than those follows: 23 of Chen’s 29 starts have seen him pitch at least five innings without allowing more than three earned runs, and in 18 of them he didn’t give up any more than two. Of course, this consistency has been the only net positive to his performance (hence the low ownership rate,) as his league-average 19.3 K percentage and sky-high 1.40 HR/9 rate have helped labeled him as no more than a streaming option in most leagues. If you’re pitching-desperate, however, you can’t afford to let those deficiencies scare you into taking a flier. With only two more weeks left in the season, Chen is a safe bet to continue being as steady as they come.

Kris Medlen, Kansas City Royals (29.9%)

Don’t pick up Kris Medlen expecting him to go all 2012 second-half on the American League, as the Royals are very much content on limiting his pitch count start-to-start, and Medlen doesn’t strike out nearly as many batters now as he did back then. I’m suggesting you do so for his steady, no-nonsense approach to a ballgame; the kind that harkens back to the good ol’ days where 6+ K/9 guys can have plenty success in the Majors just for trusting their defense and forbidding walks. A 53.4% groundball rate and a mid-2 BB/9 add coal to the fire, while helping accentuate Medlen’s appeal as a “reach for the stars” grab, especially in knee-deep mixed leagues. Again, I can’t stress enough how anemic his strikeout totals will be, and like practically every other starter I’ve mentioned so far, home runs appear to be a bugaboo you’ll have to live with, as his 0.92 HR/9 indicates. Still, I like Medlen’s approach a whole lot; he understands the importance of cutting his fastball inside and out to both righties and lefties and enforces that into his pitching style (which is, again, inviting a wealth of contact) as a means to work efficiently and to his pitch limit. Another thing I like about him is his rock solid 25.3% Hard-hit percentage, suggesting that his stuff plays everywhere when his two-seam fastball is REALLY sinking.

Rick Porcello, Boston Red Sox (26.3%)

One of the primary culprits for Rick Porcello‘s god-awful performance this season was his pitch sequencing, in which he convinced himself to throw more four-seam fastballs up in the zone while focusing less on his patented sinker. The results of such are all over his surface stats, and there’s absolutely nothing he can do at this point of the season to pull this campaign anything close to fantasy-relevant. But since returning from a triceps injury late last month, Rick Porcello has strung together four quality starts, all of which resulted in him throwing no fewer than seven innings and allowing no more than three earned runs. With a 34/8 K-BB ratio and 3.06 ERA in his five starts following his exodus from the Disabled List, you’d have no other choice but to believe he’s scrapped his newfound pitching habits. Ask any sabermetrician about such and they’ll confirm it, as Porcello’s sinker usage rate has skyrocketed to its highest clip in years. The groundballs are back in steady form, and the strikeouts have come for him without his ERA taking a hit. Porcello has recently looked like every bit the starting pitcher Boston pursued in the offseason, and although he can’t possibly carry your pitching staff on his own, he definitely deserves to be on it right now.

Tyler Duffey, Minnesota Twins (21.6%)

The last of the starting pitchers I’m going to discuss ad nauseam, Tyler Duffey has surprised with his emergence into fantasy radars. Since his callup last month, Duffey has gone at least six innings in five starts, racking up seven or more strikeouts in all of them. Despite walking a whole lot of guys already (18 free passes in only 45.2 innings,) he’s managed to only allow three homers while maintaining a mid-8 K/9. Those on the fence about gambling with Duffey should also be aware of the fact that he’s only gotten better over the last couple of weeks; the right-hander has allowed only three earned runs with a 22/4 K-BB ratio in that span. The Twins’ high-powered offense could definitely provide Duffey with a couple more wins as the season winds down, and so long as he keeps up this forward momentum he’ll also help win a championship in a vast majority of deep and AL-Only leagues.

Other starting pitchers worth considering:

Jake Peavy, San Francisco Giants (22.3%,) Kyle Gibson, Minnesota Twins (21.5%,) Cody Anderson, Cleveland Indians (17.2%,) Jerad Eickhoff, Philadelphia Phillies (8.9%,) Jhoulys Chacin, Arizona Diamondbacks (5.6%)