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

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

 

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

**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.

 

 

 

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

**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.

 

 

 

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

*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%)  

 

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*Fantasy Baseball 2015* Draft-Day “Fly Or Die”: Starting Pitchers (Part 1)

*Fantasy Baseball 2015* Draft-Day “Fly Or Die”: Starting Pitchers (Part 1)

*Since I’ve just recently realized how much time I’ve wasted with my starting rotation columns, I am now taking a more general approach to my fantasy starting pitcher posts due to time constraints. This should come as a convenience for those to read up, especially if you or someone you plan on informing has yet to start their fantasy baseball draft. Every pitching staff in the Major Leagues will be covered this week, most likely within the span of the next couple of days, which means I will provide as much info and research into as many pitchers as I can without over-analyzing players one-by-one the way I have in recent articles.*

The way I’m going to evaluate my “Fly or Die” candidates is simple: the ones I think you should draft will be split up between the “studs” the “cruisers” (or, in other words, the reliable ones who’s numbers will remain consistent with their career norms and are much better for it), the “upsiders”  (those young arms who put together ace-like numbers last season and could very well do it again), and the “sleepers.” They will make up this entire article. Conversely, the ones I don’t think you should draft will be split between the “duds”, the “bruisers” (A.K.A. those guys who suck year in and year out yet you keep drafting because they look good in their uniforms or something) and the “let it go”s (in reference to the movie Frozen, of course.) Those guys will be in Part 2 of this column.

Also, remember that I am covering these guys under the assumption that you are drafting in a standard, 8-12 team sized ESPN league, as I will be in the coming weeks.

Although I prefer to start off most of my articles with a brief introduction, I don’t believe traditional essay writing will help anyone win a fantasy league. Just like David Price on a good day, I’m going right after the topic at hand, with nibbling coming at a premium. No bias. No extra points for face recognition. No sympathy for guys who performed in the past and suck now. Just numbers. Good old-fashioned, computer-evaluated, on-field-generated, enthusiast-studied numbers. With conclusions.

Let’s get to it.

My “Fly” Candidates

The Studs:

Clayton Kershaw

Felix Hernandez

Max Scherzer

Chris Sale

Stephen Strasburg

Madison Bumgarner

Corey Kluber

David Price

Johnny Cueto

Jon Lester

Jeff Samardzijia

Matt Harvey

There’s very little I have to say about the guys in this list. They’re all strikeout artists capable of dishing out well over 200 innings and carry a penchant for limiting both walks and homeruns at an elite rate. If you want a championship fantasy team, you must draft at least one of the guys here, or you’re already screwed.

The Cruisers:

Zack Grienke

Adam Wainwright

Jordan Zimmerman

James Shields

Tyson Ross

Alex Cobb

Hyun-Jin Ryu

Hishashi Iwakuma

Anibal Sanchez

Dallas Keuchel

Particular Pitchers You Should Definitely Consider Drafting:

  • My San Diego Padres Starting Rotation column already covers why I’m so high on Tyson Ross this year. In short, he has a great three-pitch arsenal with an excellent batted ball profile and a near-elite strikeout rate. Hardly any signs of regression or doubt for another outstanding season, in my opinion
  • Alex Cobb is perhaps the closest thing to a “sure thing” on the mound these days. He’s got fantastic lefty-righty splits, pitches exceptionally well everywhere, and has the distinct advantage of striking out batters at an above-average rate (21.9% K rate last season) while at the same time emitting more groundballs than almost anyone else in the game. Both his injury history and potentially low run support from his team’s offense keeps him from reaching that “stud” nomination for me, but he’s still a vastly impressive arm and an asset in every league.
  • Hyun-Jin Ryu and Hishashi Iwakuma have been so consistently good, people never talk about them. That’s part of the reason why I consider them “cruisers” despite truly being fantasy “sleepers” and another reason why I’m also very high on them in 2015. From K/BB ratio to HR prevention, both guys have continued to shine year-in and year-out. And since they’re both capable of inducing groundballs at a rate above 50%, they have every chance in the world to finish with sub-3 ERAs a piece. These two should be ranked as top-20 starters, and besides their injury woes last year, I fail to see why not.
  • Dallas Keuchel wasn’t even drafted in standard leagues last season. I don’t even think most AL-Only leagues saw him get picked up off the waiver wire. But now he sits atop the likes of top-20 starting pitchers in my “cruiser” list. He would very well be one of my “upsiders” since 2014 was his first fantasy relevant campaign, but he had a great 2013 under the surface as well (90 xFIP-, 3.58 SIERRA), despite the ugly ERA (5.15) and strand rate (68.1%). His numbers show little signs of deviation from what they looked liked in 2014, however, which means what we saw then is what we’re most likely to get now. And that’s a beautiful thing. Sign me up for another 200+ innings, 3-4 more complete games, low-3 ERA, and 1.10 WHIP. Who cares if his K rate is below-average when he’s pounding the zone with authority? (2.16 BB/9 in 2014) The groundball master finally got his luck turned around in both ERA and WHIP, and that disastrous 17.5 HR/FB rate disappeared the minute Keuchel decided to drop his curveball entirely. He’s all about his two-seamer and slider, and if he uses them the same way he did a year ago, there’s absolutely no way he doesn’t beat every single pessimistic projection betting for a sharp regression. Keuchel’s finally figured it out, and I’m almost certain he’ll be making a lot of people beg for his draft price to stay down come season’s end.

Obviously, the quality of the arms presented in my “cruisers” list descends ever so slowly going down, yet I personally feel like each guy up here is capable of serving the same purpose: to be a reliable workhorse who you could start with confidence practically every fifth day. For example, even though I no longer view Adam Wainwright as a bona-fide #1 starter in fantasy doesn’t mean he no longer carries significant value; are we supposed to just forget about how he just finished his fourth campaign in five years with 220+ innings pitched and a sub-3 ERA? The downside of drafting most of these guys, however, is the risk of paying too much for their consistency. Wainwright, Zack Greinke, Jordan Zimmerman and James Shields are all top-20 starting pitchers ranked within the 39-69 range in ESPN standard league drafts. That’s plenty expensive, if you ask me. And even though the surface stats from last season help make a valid case for where they stack up, there are about ten other guys I could think of off the top of my head who have similar all-around numbers with more strikeouts in even fewer innings and starts. Nonetheless, these guys are practically innings-eaters who help your ratios way more often than they could ever hurt them. Just don’t go completely out of your way to acquire them, especially when your alternatives are:

The Upsiders:

Garrett Richards

Gerrit Cole

Jacob DeGrom

Jake Arrieta

Michael Wacha

Alex Wood

Andrew Cashner

Yordano Ventura

Collin McHugh

Jose Quintana

Michael Pineda

Particular Pitchers You Should Definitely Consider Drafting:

  • Jacob DeGrom is plenty legit. I wrote about him this past September, and here’s the conclusion I made about him then, verbatim: “nearly all of deGrom’s advanced stats for each one of his pitches are identical to those of former Royals great Zack Greinke. And you don’t need a reality check to know how great that guy is. Dynasty league owners have stepped upon a pot of gold, while everyone else better start rushing to the waiver wire (available in over 41% of ESPN leagues) and cashing in before the bank’s closed and the word is out.” Well, the word is out now; he’s currently ranked within the overall top-100 in all ESPN standard league draft boards. DeGrom has everything going for him, and it’s because of his stuff and his almost overnight pitching adjustments that allows me to conduct an “upsiders” list that helps prove my point about not reaching for top-20 arms because of guys like him. Even if he experiences the expected regression most breakout starters face the year after, that shouldn’t keep anyone from picking him up on draft day – he’ll still be every bit worth the price of admission.
  • I’m particularly worried about Jake Arrieta repeating his 2014 performance, because he relied very, very heavily on his slider (29.4% usage rate), and overused breaking pitches tend to cause shoulder and elbow problems that eventually lead to season-ending injuries (like Tommy John, for example). Then again, maybe I shouldn’t be, because I’ve recently read a few articles about how he’s manipulated the grip on the baseball to throw either sliders and cutters depending on the count. In fantasy, that doesn’t make him any more valuable, but it also quietly means that Arrieta may have perhaps found a way to throw this nasty, disgusting, should-be illegal pitch with less effort than one could imagine. Which means that he probably won’t face all those aforementioned shoulder and elbow ailments. If that is indeed the case, Jake Arrieta WILL repeat his 2014 performance. Maybe that 0.29 HR/9 rate will rise like it should, but other than that Arrieta’s season prior screams, shrieks and shouts “elite” across the board – from K/BB ratio to batted ball profile. With newfound control, he’s become one of the game’s nastiest arms, and has every single advanced stat, sabermetric and peripheral database backing that up. There’s quite literally no starting pitcher I’d recommend reaching for more than him.
  • Alex Wood and Jose Quintana are awfully underrated. The former has high-9 K-upside with improving command (2.36 BB/9 last season, way down from his 4.15 clip in 2013), an amazing groundball/fly ball ratio, and an even more amazing place to call home in Turner Field. Besides the home ballpark and the K-upside stuff, Quintana’s a very similar case, especially in the “walks allowed” department. Both guys are my sleeper picks to break the top-25 at the end of the season, at the very least. Wood no longer has to worry about job security since the Braves have freed up a starting spot for him (FINALLY!!!), so his 2.78 ERA and 8.95 K/9 in 2014 could go a very long way for prospective owners over a span of, say, 200+ innings. His newly discovered knuckle-curve and it’s ever-rising 15.3% swinging strike rate are one of many things that support said notion. Quintana’s just quietly been getting better. His K-BB ratio has been on the rise, and his SIERRA dropped to a career-low 3.50 in 2014. If he had 2013’s strand rate, he’d easily finish with a 2.75-2.80 ERA, and even though his WHIP may hurt his fantasy value a bit (1.24 in 2014) he eats up more than enough innings and gets more than enough strikeouts to offset that. This dude, pitching in Cellular Field, deserves a whole lot more love than he’s been getting.
  • After missing the end of last season due to a patellar tendon issue in his left knee, Garrett Richards seems poised to be ready for baseball sometime in April of this year, which makes drafting him at his current value (#104) a far less volatile investment than you think. That’s great news, because Richards is on of the best pitchers on this particular list. His surface and advance stats are absolutely jaw-dropping, and his increased command has allowed him to strike out batters at an awesome clip (8.75 K/9 in 2014). His groundball rate (50.9%) somewhat justifies the absurdly low HR/FB rate (3.9%, lowest in baseball), and I have little doubt in him keeping the ball in the seats any less than 6% going forward. He’s also really good at limiting solid contact, with a .264 BABIP and Major League-leading .261 opp. slugging percentage. With one of the dirtiest sliders in the game (43.8% K rate, 17.4% SwStr) and slash rates all trending in the right direction, Garrett Richards’s upside is so bright, it’s blinding. Buy, buy, buy.

The Sleepers:

Phil Hughes

Jake Odorizzi

R.A. Dickey

Kevin Gausman

Drew Smyly

Derek Holland

Mike Fiers

Drew Hutchison

Matt Shoemaker

Taijuan Walker

James Paxton

Kyle Lohse

Rick Porcello

T.J. House

Jason Hammel

Yusmiero Petit

Drew Pomeranz

Shane Greene

Henderson Alvarez

Noah Syndergaard

Particular Players You Should Definitely Consider Drafting:

  • The Minnesota Twins couldn’t have more sleepers this year, and Phil Hughes is just another example of why you could wait to stack up in any particular position at the end of fantasy drafts. I could go over his historical 2014, where he set the MLB record in strikeout-to-walk rate (which, to put into perspective, meant he finished the season with as many wins as walks allowed), but that’s not even the fully story here; Hughes completely retooled his repertoire. He stopped throwing sliders, threw more knuckle-curves, and started using his cutter again (which is one of the game’s best, according to it’s 32.4% K rate and 71 opp. wRC). Get this: hitters combined to put up a miniscule .606 OPS against those three offerings! With a 90% usage rate amongst that trio of pitches, it’s easy to see why Hughes suddenly became so good with the Twins, as his 3.65 ERA and 1.13 WHIP were both career-highs as a result. His 2.65 FIP and 3.18 xFIP are so juicy I’d go as far as to say that Hughes will be twice as good in 2015 as he was a year ago. You owe it to yourself to steal this gem off the draft board.
  • Jake Odorizzi had an insane amount of bad luck on the road last season, with a 6.32 ERA and a 5.39 FIP that was driven by a 15.7% HR/FB rate and an even more unrealistic .347 BABIP. Owners probably figured that he simply cannot pitch away from the Trop, but there wasn’t anyone less unlucky on the road in all of baseball. You should see his fantastic home splits (2.62 ERA, 2.63 FIP) and egregious strikeout potential (9.32 K/9) as upside, because there’s no way Odorizzi will ever perform that poorly again in road starts, especially since: A) all of his advanced stats (besides the ERA estimators) are near-exact carbon copies, C) the inclusion of his newly discovered split-change helped sharpen his lefty-righty splits to the point where he actually performed better against left-handed hitters than right-handed ones, and B) most Major League starters couldn’t hold down a 2+ HR/9 rate in a 80-90 innings pitched span if they tried. I’d love to sneak away with this guy at the bottom of my pitching staff.
  • I wanted so bad to see Drew Hutchison break out in 2014 that I picked him up off the waiver wire in mid-July with the hopes that his extremely bad luck would dissipate into a magical stretch run. Suffice to say, it never happened, with his ERA finishing somwhere close to 4.50.   But that doesn’t mean Hutchison can’t put it all together this year. Remember that he posted a 8.92 K/9, 15.8% K-BB rate and 3.59 SIERRA in 2014; all of which is more than enough proof that whatever the hell happened to his ERA and WHIP was perhaps a big, season-long fluke. At 24 years old, he’s got a shit-ton of upside, and his best years are well ahead of him. Hell, his breakout could even happen this year. Fingers crossed!
  • James Paxton has had one helluva start to his Major League career, with a 2.66 ERA and 3.43 xFIP through his first 17 starts. Backed by a solid Mariners defense and one of the best groundball rates in baseball, I’d be willing to wait decades for Paxton’s strikeout rate (career 7.35 K/9) to catch up with his batted ball profile. His herky-jerky overhand delivery may have contributed to him missing so much time last season due to injuries, but you gotta overlook such concerns when he’s the 123rd ranked starting pitcher (391st overall) in standard ESPN draft boards. There’s literally no risk in taking him in the last round, and his upside has me seeing him stand amongst the elite in a matter of years. If Paxton can stay healthy, pitch 180 or so innings, and learn to throw something other than his fastball (71.4% usage rate!!) He will most certainly wind up becoming a top-40 starting pitcher at the end of the year.
  • Ditto for Taijuan Walker, who’s just about locked up his spot in Seattle’s starting rotation with his strong Spring Training performance. Those who paid close attention to him in the minors understand exactly where I’m coming from here, as the hard-throwing, uncle Charlie-wielding right-hander was supposed to have his Stephen Strasburg breakout already. With only 8 Major League starts under his belt, it’s tough to make a conclusive statement on his career 2.89 ERA and 3.28 FIP, but what I can come up with is the fact that his brief experience is merely a taste of what’s to come. Also, he’s been working on getting more control of his curveball (a pitch that hitters batted .074 against last season), so that he could eventually throw it more frequently to complement his zippy fastball. He’s got plenty of time to truly find himself, but I personally believe that he’s worth a look in most leagues right now because his stuff is so good. I’m sure you already know he’s gonna be great once he both assimilates to the Big Leagues and understands his arsenal. Since his draft price is nonexistent, there’s nothing to lose if you’re willing to bet on 2015 being “the year” for him.
  • I’m going to wrap up Part 1 with some super quick looks at Drew Pomeranz, Shane GreeneHenderson Alvarez, and Noah Syndergaard. If Pomeranz wins a spot in the Oakland Athletics’s starting rotation in Spring Training, I probably won’t expect him to go any longer than 150 innings pitched (career-high is 96.2 IP with Colorado back in 2012). Chances are he will, since his ST performance has been exceptional, and that means he’ll provide some sneaky K-upside with relatively solid ratios.
  • Just like Pomeranz, Shane Greene probably won’t throw for a lot of innings with Detroit as the projected 5th starter, and with a potential innings limit hanging over him (don’t quote me on that, since I’m basically speculating via his minor league IP totals). However, he’s also just as good a bet to rack up more Ks than innings pitched, with a mid-to-high 3 ERA and a decent WHIP.
  • Henderson Alvarez couldn’t strike out Will Ferrell if his life depended on it, but the spacious Marlins Park and a sparkling groundball rate led him to a neat 2.65 ERA and 1.24 WHIP last season. Relative to starters within his draft range, he eats innings for breakfast (187 IP in 30 starts), and devours weak contact for lunch (3.70 SIERRA). Because he’s very good at keeping the ball in the park, he’s the type of FIP-beating contact specialist you should be on board with in regards to completing your starting rotation.
  • With a little more luck, Noah Syndergaard would’ve had an outstanding AAA campaign last season, and his strikeout skills have remained dominant throughout all minor league levels. Because of the way minor league contracts work in regards to full-season service time, He may be someone you’d be better off stashing later in May than drafting late in March, since the Mets probably won’t let him loose in the Majors until then. In any event, he should be a lock in their rotation whenever he’s called up, and I think he’ll be pretty good initially. On top of that, Zack Wheeler is under the knife by way of Tommy John Surgery, and Dillon Gee is their fifth starter as of this writing. I couldn’t spell this out any more frankly than I already have.
 

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*Fantasy Baseball 2015* – San Diego Padres Starting Rotation: Cash Money

*Fantasy Baseball 2015* – San Diego Padres Starting Rotation: Cash Money

*Since my home computer is currently down, I have no choice but to write up my articles by spending more time in school. This means that I will most likely be able to only cover a handful of teams and players every week before Opening Day – at least until i fix my computer problem. This issue also explains why I haven’t posted anything since my Giants starting rotation column, but I assure you I will find ways around working without my “tools” for now. Thanks again for sticking around, and I hope above all else that you enjoy my write-ups.*

Last season, the San Diego Padres boasted the fourth-best pitching staff in the Major Leagues. They were fourth in total ERA, 12th in strikeouts (7th in the National League), and 7th in opponents batting average. Although the overall numbers are neat, a lot of San Diego’s success last year (however much of it they endured) came from a starting rotation that finished in or just outside the top-10 in ERA, opp. BAA, walks allowed, and quality starts. Sure, you can make the excuse that the spacious Petco Park was a huge reason for their impressive stats, coupled with the fact that they still are a team that belongs to the light-hitting National League. However, a quick glance at some underlying stats and peripherals says otherwise…

2014 San Diego Padres Starting Rotation Pitching Stats

Andrew Cashner:           123.1 IP,  2.55 ERA, 1.13 WHIP,  6.79 K/9,  2.12 BB/9,  3.09 FIP,  3.53 xFIP

Tyson Ross:                    195.2 IP,  2.81 ERA,  1.21 WHIP,  8.97 K/9, 3.31 BB/9,  3.24 FIP,  3.11 xFIP

Ian Kennedy:                   201 IP,     3.63 ERA,  1.29 WHIP,  9.27 K/9, 3.13 BB/9,  3.21 FIP,  3.44 xFIP

Odrisamer Despaigne:    96.2 IP,    3.36 ERA,  1.21 WHIP,  6.07 K/9,  2.99 BB/9,  3.74 FIP,  4.01 xFIP

Robbie Erlin:                    58.2 IP,    4.76 ERA,  1.38 WHIP,  6.90 K/9,  2.30 BB/9   3.66 FIP,  3.89 xFIP

*Jessie Hahn and Eric Stults are excused from this list because, as I write this, they no longer pitch for San Diego.*

This is what their starting five would consist of this season: two All-Star-caliber aces, a proven veteran with strikeout potential, and a couple of youngsters riddled with upside to spare.

Let’s not forget that San Diego did indeed sign free-agent James Shields to a four-year, $75 million contract, pushing everyone else one step back in the rotation (in real-life, not in fantasy). He’s the type of guy who could (in the regular season) pitch anywhere, like if Adam Wainwright’s loyalties varied on a basis of which team offered the best one/two year deals instead of remaining a Cardinals starter his whole life (albeit the fact that Shields has only pitched for two different Major League squads before the Friars acquired his services.) The man has been smart enough to spend his best years in pitcher-friendly confines, and that hasn’t changed a bit here; in fact, James Shields may have made the single greatest career decision of his life by coming to San Diego. But more on that in a moment.

Andrew-Cashner-San-Diego-Padres

The Padres have a fantasy relevant starting rotation, and the intrigue surrounding this talent bunch is immense. Andrew Cashner had the honor of anchoring these guys a year ago, and it is mainly because of him that I give such praise for them. His numbers above almost look too good to be true, but with a little bit of research you’d be stunned to find out that they could have been even better. Cashner’s repertoire was treated to a heightened decrease in walk rate, thanks in large part to his improved command. His fastball (20.4% K rate) and slider (31.8% K rate) are exceptionally lethal, yet their strikeout potential was hindered by his reliance of throwing two-seamers (36.7% usage rate, 11.9% K rate.) If he so much as breathes a thought about cutting that usage rate down in favor of his nastier stuff, Cashner’s K/9 could shoot up to the low-to-mid 8s in a heartbeat. As far as the rest of his game is concerned; Cashner’s a treat to watch, and an even juicier subject to dissect through data. His batted ball profile is amazing, with a groundball rate pushing 50%, and a flyball rate just scraping past the 30% mark. Pitching in Petco Park with sinking 94-98 MPH heat, there’s a great chance he never succumbs to a long ball drought, which means his estimators (3.70 SIERA, 95 xFIP-) can only catch up to his ERA if he runs into a season-long string of bad BABIP luck. While I’m not exactly a fan of the Padres’ infield defense this year, I didn’t like them last season, either. So, even if San Diego screws Cashner out of another mid-2 ERA season through shitty fielding, those numbers I mentioned before suggest that he’ll find a way to be dominant all the same. In ESPN standard leagues, he’s being taken right in the middle of the overall pack, which is 40th among all starting pitchers. For a guy with upside dripping from his pores, that’s an absolute joke, if you ask me. He was a steal in 2014, and he’ll be a steal again.

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Tyson Ross and his brilliant performance last season did all but catch me by surprise; he was even more fantastic in his limited run back in 2013. What did surprise me about Tyson Ross is how he pitched to reach the level of success he currently sits at. PitchFx trackings prove that Ross has been living off the strength of only three pitches – two of them fastballs, but those trackings also show some incredible rate stats for all three of them.

Tyson Ross PitchFx Advanced Stats

4-Seam Fastball          14 BB%,    15.9 K%,   .192 opp. BAA,   .606 opp. OPS,  .287 opp. wOBA

2-Seam Fastball          10.2 BB%  14.6 K%,   .275 opp. BAA,    .712 opp. OPS,  .324 opp. wOBA

Slider                            5.2 BB%,   35.4 K%,   .210 opp. BAA,   .569 opp. OPS,   .254 opp. wOBA

Ross is going to walk batters no matter what (3.57 career BB/9) so those walk rates for his fastball offerings must be taken with a grain of salt. Besides, when a guy can strikeout 15% of the batters he faces with either one, while complementing that slider, who’s really paying that much attention to walk rate anyway?? Now, let’s talk a little bit about that slider. Suffice to say, it’s the very reason why his K rate is so gosh darn good (hopefully Cashner’s out there in Arizona reading this.) Because he commands it so well, hitters have a difficult time squaring it up, as indicated by the K% above and the 53.2% groundball and 24.5% infield flyball rate. A 16.3% HR/FB rate helps to provide an example of what happens when he misses with it, but location rules, and Ross has plenty of it in that regard. Besides all of this, there really isn’t that much else to say about Tyson Ross, especially since he shares the same kind of batted ball profile as Cashner: a lot of groundballs, and not much of anything else. The only difference between the two is that San Diego’s potentially awful defense can’t hurt his ERA estimators that much at all, because guys are universally swinging and missing at his entire three-pitch arsenal. If anything, Ross is a much safer bet in drafts of most leagues because of the high-K advantage, and although he’ll walk quite a few guys, no one’s holding their breath like another Ulbaldo Jimenez meltdown is imminent. Draft him in all leagues with confidence, and if you know someone who’s got a hard-on for nasty arms, groundballs and spacious ballparks, reach for him if you can/have to; the baseball world is no longer sleeping on him.

MLB: San Diego Padres at San Francisco Giants

I was hoping for Ian Kennedy to put it all together again last season after developing more velocity on his fastball (91.8 avg. MPH, up from 90.3 in 2013) and switching up his usual pitch sequencing in favor of his curveball and changeup. While he did indeed have general success, Kennedy finished the season as the ultimate high risk/high reward mid-rotation fantasy starter. In his 19 quality starts (128.2 innings), he posted a 2.24 ERA and 1.01 WHIP, along with 122 strikeouts (8.54 K/9.) These are top-20 starter numbers from a guy who wasn’t even drafted in most leagues, let alone 8-10 team mixers. However, his other 14 starts (despite a similar K rate) were terrible, as he compiled a 6.10 ERA and 1.88 WHIP in 73.1 innings. This in stark contrast reminded us exactly why he wasn’t drafted in most leagues. let alone 8-10 team mixers. If I run a broader split, like, say, before and after the All-Star Break, Kennedy still does few favors for himself.

Before the ASG           3.47 ERA,    1.19 WHIP,     9.63 K/9,      2.46 BB/9,       19.4 K-BB%,     2.93 FIP,      3.13 xFIP

After the ASG              3.87 ERA,    1.43 WHIP,     8.69 K/9,      4.23 BB/9,       11.3 K-BB%       3.67 FIP,     3.96 xFIP

Nothing is scarier than drafting someone who Jekyll-and-Hyde’d their way back into fantasy relevance. This is the very case with Ian Kennedy. Had he continued to flash excellent command like he did in the first-half, he’d just just as valuable – if not, more valuable – as his aforementioned, younger staffmates. But because he reverted back to the same Ian Kennedy who got traded mid-season of 2013 and walked everybody, I have not a single clue what to make of him in 2015. Despite what the overall numbers look like (3.63 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 207 Ks) they could have looked better with a solid second half, or even much, much worse with an awful first. In any event, he’s still got great stuff at the end of the day, and last I checked Francisco Liriano had the exact same kind of year as Kennedy (albeit in a bad first half and awesome second half) and he’s being taken just before Kennedy in most ESPN head-to-head/rotisserie drafts. Even though he’s a fantastic back-end-of-rotation guy to own anywhere, he’ll need to learn how to be more consistent for me to be comfortable with his mid-round placement value.

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I think now’s a good time to discuss the $75 million dollar elephant in the room. James Shields came up in the big leagues at a time when the American League East was the toughest division to pitch to in all of baseball, and wound up putting together a pretty decent 3.89 ERA for the Tampa Bay Rays in a span of nearly 1,500 innings pitched. Of course, he left as a free agent to be picked up by the Royals, and, unlike his ERA, his stock went way up. Now he’s in the National League, and regardless of whatever point you make about his declining changeup deception or egregious shift from pitching behind arguably the best defense in the American League to arguably the worst defense in the National League, things are looking up for Shields. Like I said earlier, this is perhaps the greatest career decision he could have made, and he picked an excellent time to make it; a formidable Padres starting rotation, a much improved (though now-staggeringly right-handed) lineup, and one of the game’s better bullpens help to justify that. Another reason why this move is great for Shields is because his stuff is just about the same as it’s been for the last couple of years now (despite his fastball, cutter, and changeup all experiencing subtle dips in K rate since the Kansas City signing.) So, with an above-average groundball rate and a walk rate that’s in freefall (2.5% decrease in BB% between 2013 and 2014), Shields shouldn’t have much trouble maintaining a low-3 ERA and 1.10-1.15 WHIP for a few more years; two factors that look outstanding when one can pitch well over 200 innings in a full season.

This is a guy you should draft as your bona-fide #2 in deeper (12-16 team mixed or 10-12 team NL-only) leagues, but as I look at his ADP in standard head-to-head/rotisserie draft boards, I start to worry a little bit. Despite firmly taking over as the ace of the Padres in real life, he’s being taken well ahead of of both Ross (#85) and Cashner (#140) in standard drafts – and those are two guys who had better overall statistics than Shields. On top of that, Shields isn’t getting any younger (he’s 33 years old as of this writing), and his strikeout rate isn’t gonna get any better with it dipping a good four percent since 2012. Maybe that last part changes if he decides to mix his fastball (29.6% usage rate, 10.9% BB rate, .791 opp. OPS) a bit more with his two-seamer (12% usage rate, 1.8% BB rate, 14.9% K rate, .564 opp. OPS), but I don’t see that happening any time soon.The weirdest thing about all of this is that each of his offerings had a K rate over 14% in 2014, so perhaps he does indeed have one more 8 K/9 season in him before settling into a FIP-beating, pitch-to-contact sort of guy. If Ervin Santana found a way to do it with just a two-seamer and slider, Shields shouldn’t have much of a problem pulling that off with three different fastballs, a changeup, and a knuckle curve.

James Shields’s best seasons came with exceptional batted ball peripherals, and pitching in Petco Park could do a lot to help him have another one, regardless of who’s playing behind him. So long as his groundball/flyball rate remains above league average (which it has for pretty much his entire career), Shields should continue to limit home runs at the same rate he did back in Kansas City, which would in turn keep his ERA and other surface stats nice and tidy.

All in all, I have faith in Shields putting together another solid fantasy season. He’s reliable, durable, and consistent if anything else. Leaving the American League could do wonders for him, even if his defense probably won’t. It’s just a shame that he’s so overpriced, because starting pitchers within the top-20 are usually more than capable of striking out more batters than he can, and carry more upside. There’s no way I could justify his price tag, but he’s a good pitcher, now facing weaker opponents in an even weaker league. So who knows?

Things get internally competitive with the fifth spot in the Padres rotation. Both Odrisamer Despaigne and Robbie Erlin are both duke-ing it out through each other’s individual Spring Training performance, but the likelihood that either one runs away with the job for the entire season remains uncertain, especially since Brandon Morrow‘s in the fight as well. Nonetheless, you might as well just flip a three-sided coin, here, because whoever does come out on top will probably be just as good as the other two in a similar capacity. Morrow is notorious for looking like a modern-day Roger Clemens when he’s on and for also walking the park when he’s…starting any baseball game, ever! He has cut down on the walks in recent years, but 2014 saw a return to BB rate hell (2.97 BB/9 in 2012-2013, 4.64 BB/9 last season.) He’s also never healthy, having missed 35 Major League starts over the last three years. While the overall talent among this trio is close, Morrow’s the last guy I’d want to win fifth-spot roulette.

As for Despaigne and Erlin, they’re gonna need to be incredible off the gate for me to consider them mixed-league relevant. Despaigne didn’t strike out anybody last season (6.07 K/9,) but, like just about everyone else I’ve mentioned in this article, has an excellent batted ball profile. All of his pitches move – a lot – so with better command some of those groundballs he induces could lead to strikeouts. His curveball and supposed “eephus” offerings present a lot of K-upside that I personally can’t wait to see in the future, but as of right now they only complement an arsenal not yet fully realized. He’ll probably be the next Ubaldo Jimenez (again, without the imminent collapse) in the next couple of years, so in my opinion he’s worth keeping an eye on in deep leagues with deeper benches if he wins the starting gig.

Erlin, on the other hand, has great control (2.20 BB/9 in 2014), but has no where near the kind of batted ball luck that Despaigne features. His strand rate last season was just over 67%, and his opposing BABIP well over .300 (.332.) You can thank his fastball for that (.961 opp. OPS,) as well as his ludicrous 27.3% line drive rate, but hopefully more service time will highlight this particular problem as an outlier. The rest of Erlin’s stuff is actually pretty good, and his peripheral stats are begging and pleading for a bounce back season, if indeed he is allotted one in the Majors this year. His minor league career suggests that he’ll be in line for more strikeouts down the line (though not that much more,) and the overall environment he finds himself in is the perfect place for a potential breakout. By a slight edge, Erlin is my favorite of the fifth-spot trio, and would at the very least be a solid fifth or sixth starter in very deep NL-only leagues.

It’s difficult not to be excited for the San Diego Padres in 2015. All of the offseason moves finally gave the fanbase something to cheer about for the first time in years, and seeing how all the pieces on paper will fit on the field is an intriguing prospect. But maybe the most important thing of it all was the organization’s insistence to fortify the ballclub’s starting rotation; strengthening a strength that could potentially help them be a force in the National League West. Even though the fifth spot in the rotation currently remains a question mark, this is overall one truly awesome starting five regardless. Chances are they’ll make quite a bit of noise throughout the year.

 

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*Fantasy Baseball 2015* – “Mike Trout: Perfectly Imperfect”

*Fantasy Baseball 2015* – “Mike Trout: Perfectly Imperfect”

Happy February, everyone! Super Bowl Sunday is officially in our rear-view mirrors, and I know most of us got baseball on our minds with Spring Training right around the corner. I could almost smell the balmy air and Fort Lauderdale palm trees already. The simple thought of pitchers and catchers reporting in just over a couple of weeks is immensely tantalizing. Personally, reading baseball columns and watching classic playoff games on Youtube just doesn’t cut it for me; I yearn for Opening Day more than anything else in the world right now, and nothing else will satisfy my thirst for baseball season to officially commence.

Which is why I’ve decided to get the ball rolling on all things fantasy baseball.

Today’s article is a little more focused than my other ones, since I’ll only be covering one player here (big shout out to the guys at Fangraphs for the inspiration), yet it’s still primarily just a warmup for me. With over 6-7 months of analyzing on the horizon, I figured I’d start flexing my muscles a bit now before things intensify. Still, for those of you who are reading this, I feel confident that my piece here is informative enough for you to walk away with an extra bit of important data.

Now, onto the article…

When someone hits over 25 homers, drives in 100+ RBI, bats over .285 AND slugs over .550 in his first three full Major League seasons (all of which coming before turning 24 years old), the argument can be made that he just might be the greatest player of our generation – or even any other generation to boot. So, why even bother mentioning Mike Trout in any sort of capacity? Anyone who didn’t spend 2014 living under a rock knows that Trout rightfully claimed his place as the #1 overall player in fantasy baseball. Clearly, he has become the be-all and end-all of “best in the game, right now” conversations. But we must keep in mind that the Mike Trout of last year wasn’t exactly the Mike Trout of 2013 or his breakout 2012 season – both for reasons good, and bad.

What I mean by that exactly is Trout found slightly different ways to accomplish his current hierarchal goals, and not all of them might lead to success in 2015. But because he’s so special, and so talented, he produced MVP-calibur numbers anyway. Here are some standard numbers I’ll use to revert back to what I was alluding to with Trout’s constant adjustments:

2012: .326 BAA, 30 HR, 83 RBI, 129 R, 49 SB, 10.1 WAR

2013: .323 BAA, 27 HR, 97 RBI, 109 R, 33 SB, 10.5 WAR

2014: .287 BAA, 36 HR, 111 RBI, 115 R, 16 SB, 7.8 WAR

This numbers comparison is meant to be mild, as Trout’s overall production has not fluctuated much at all from a fantasy perspective. What I’m aiming to do with it here, though, is show you one way in which his play style is starting to change – eventually to the point where he might even start sacrificing production in certain areas to maximize it elsewhere. More than ever, we started seeing that last season. Look again at the steep drop off in batting average, as well as the considerable rise in homeruns, and then take another moment to peep at the even steeper drop off in stolen bases. I’ll get into more detail with the former later; what concerns me most is the latter. Where have Mike Trout’s stolen bases gone? What kept him from swiping bags at the deliciously vast rate of his other fantastic seasons?

My guess is his recent search for more power. Obviously, his dip in batting average also coincides with his increase in dingers. If I knew any better, Trout settling into the two-hole along with the presence of Albert Pujols following him in the batting order has a lot to do with it. But then again, batting 2nd in the Angels lineup didn’t stop him from being aggressive on the base paths in 2013 (20 SB in 89 GS), and Pujols played more than enough games in the three-spot to help prove that. In any event, Trout took 22 fewer stolen base attempts in 2014 than 2013 – 22!! And after swiping 33 bags in 2013, he only stole 16 in 157 games last season. He’s only been caught nine times over the last couple of years, so the bottom line is he needs to quit fooling around and attack the basepaths more.

Like I said before, Trout was reaching for more homers. This just so happens to correlate with his decline in batting average. Fangraphs made an excellent piece describing how Trout adjusted his approach at the plate to cover the upper half of the strikezone better, since his heatmaps exposed it as his “weakness”. The result, on the basis of peripheral stats, was a spike in all air-centric batted balls: flyballs, popups, infield popups, etc. His 47.2% FB rate, for example, did as much as it could to keep his HR/FB percentage in the upper teens, and also provides some reasoning behind his jump in homers (career-high 36 longballs, compared to 27 in 2013).

Surprisingly enough, though, Trout’s transformation from a balanced batted ball type hitter (I.E. someone who hits groundballs and flyballs at or around the same rate) to an extreme flyball hitter did absolutely no favors to his consistency at the plate. Again, it JUST SO HAPPENS to correlate with his decline in batting average.  Here’s where Trout’s three-year numbers comparison gets a little more eye-opening:

2012: 10.5% BB rate, 21.8% K rate, 1.35 GB/FB rate

2013: 15.9% BB rate, 19% K rate, 1.16 GB/FB rate

2014: 11.8% BB rate, 26.1% K rate, 0.72 GB/FB rate

Naturally, a high-contact hitter like Trout should benefit greatly with an increase in flyballs, but because he spent a vast majority of 2014 learning how to cover the upper-third of the ‘zone, he wound up striking out so much that such benefits were never realized. Still, to whiff this much for a full season – regardless of the reasoning – is totally unacceptable. His second-half last season is almost too telling in that regard, as his K-rate surfaced around a staggering 30%. Although his power-hungry approach helped him maintain a plus-.500 slugging percentage and a cool 141 wRC, almost all of his post-ASG standard and advanced stats took a severe nosedive because he kept fanning. It’s a growing trend that could potentially damage his fantasy output in 2015, if he doesn’t re-adjust his game again.

All of this information I’ve provided is not meant to drive draftees away from Mike Trout; remember that he struck out almost 200 times last year and still won the American League MVP. He’s a top-flight talent, playing at a incredibly deep position in fantasy, and producing at a one-of-a-kind pace. There’s simply no one like him, and as a avid baseball fan in general, he is the epitome of why I love nerding out over analyzing player statistics on a daily basis. However, I hold no biases when it comes to the numbers, and the numbers suggest that Trout is somewhat trending in the wrong direction. He’s too focused on hitting that high fastball (or high changeup or whatever pitchers throw up at him) over the yard, instead of simply playing to his strengths, which essentially is spraying the ball with a naturally powerful swing. As a result, he’s allowed his K-rate to reach near-Mark Reynolds heights, and for some reason, has forgotten how great a threat he is on the basepaths. He doesn’t have to prove that he could hit 40 homers, and I personally think he shouldn’t dare try to, because his skill set is great enough to produce a decade of 30-30 seasons with way more value (an way less physical effort) in comparison.

But who knows? Maybe I’m just pointing out stats that could wind up becoming outliers to a greater 2015. Maybe I’m proving a valid point, and Trout’s power numbers will continue to climb with the same amount of ascendance as his strikeout rate. All that I’m trying to prove comes from the numbers. And the first thing I saw was a .287 batting average, which, while impressive, is still following a pair of Miggy-esque clips. He’s only 24, so who the hell cares what I see, right? He’s already taken the world by storm, so why bother drawing up red flags? Because he’s only 24. He’s still got room to grow. Yet even if his strikeouts continue to rise, and his batting average continues to fall, Trout will most likely find other ways to be “the guy” in your fantasy lineups. That’s the sort of thing that sets him apart from anyone I’ve ever seen. I project him to at least demand a spot in the top-10 of all fantasy league rankings by season’s end, and that has a lot to do with him being such a magnanimous contributor in almost every single other category. Also, if you can also stomach the prospect that Trout might continue to swing for the fences more and conversely neglect to steal bases, then by now you should be able to make your own conclusions about how else he may fit into your draft strategy.

 

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