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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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Opening Day Baseball Notes and Thoughts

The calendar’s turned, the season’s changed, and the game most of us live, sleep and dream has arisen from the fumes of jets soaring through baseball parks across the nation. March 31st is an exciting time for anyone willing to spend three hours of their lives relishing in gratification or wallowing in shame for 162 days, and they’ve got their favorite ballclubs to thank for that. Even Sunday Night Baseball’s endeavor in San Diego was thrilling enough to enthrall us right back into the joy and excitement of watching your team win, and the pain and disappointment of seeing their lead slip away in defeat.

Anyway, March 31st was yesterday, and I prefer to live in the now, which just so happens to be rantin’ and chantin’ about what happened yesterday, today. Of course, emotions were flying and a few stars were on display, but those moments alone don’t do Monday’s antics enough justice. Below I’ve bulletpointed most, if not all of the important scenes from Opening Day. Buckle up!

-“The first game of the afternoon would be the Cubs and the Pirates.”

Probably 80% of the country found that to be a bit ridiculous, considering how we didn’t wait all this time to watch Starling Castro ground out to short ten times in a row on national telivsion. But this was hosted at PNC Park, the 2nd most beautiful venue in all of baseball (AT&T Park is still my #1,) and the Pirates are actually really, really good. They’re aiming to make consecutive postseason appearances for the first time in over twenty years, and they played yesterday as if that’s only just a part of the master plan. Francisco Liriano had his Randy Johnson going on, striking out 10 in 6 innings to tie the franchise record in K’s on opening day. Jeff Samardzijia followed suit with 7 innings of shutout ball, himself. Unfortunately for him, Neil Walker took matters into his own hands and went bridge in the 10th to ensure that the soldout Pittsburgh crowd didn’t wasted their time watching some of the worst RISP at-bats in baseball history.

-How ’bout those Tigers roaring back in the 9th to let Kansas City know who daddy is? Ned Yost needs to pay a little more attention to the linescores, since James Shields was approaching the 100s in his pitch count before the bottom of the 7th inning even started. Not the 5th. Not the 6th. The 7th inning. It’s OK to go to one of the strongest bullpens in the American League at that point, even if your ace is avidly trying to keep up his pace for another 200-inning season. Anywho, as luck and a wee bit of home-field advantage would have it, Detroit figured out a way to get under his skin a bit, and tie it up with a two-out triple by none other than 2003 World Series Game 4 walkoff home run-hitting 37-year old shortstop-turned first baseman-turned back to shortstop Alex Gonzalez. It’s funny, he actually accounted for one of KC’s runs by mishandling a routine groundball by Norichika Aoki earlier on, so I guess he sort of had to come in clutch to redeem himself. I’m going to go out on a whim and assume that Miggy Cabrera ended up paying for his dinner following the game, ’cause Gonzalez also walked off on a line drive single off Greg Holland that would’ve been a lineout had the Royals infield not played so shallow as to avoid the runner on third from scoring, but I digress.

-The Mets pull a How I Met Your Mother series finale on the night of the How I Met Your Mother series finale!

I won’t spoil anything for those of you who have yet to see the final episode (which begs the question as to why you haven’t seen it yet,) but let’s just say that it resembled the roller coaster that was Opening Day at Citi Field. When Andrew Brown goes yard off Stephen Strasburg, Juan Lagares finds his power stroke for the first time in his life, and Bobby Parnell paints an absolute masterpiece of a fastball on the inner-third of the strikezone with two outs and two strikes in the ninth, all is right in the world and every soul in Queens is meant to live happily ever after. NOT!! Terry Collins pulled a Ned Yost, no one besides Jose Valverde found the strikezone, and that Bobby Parnell pitch I mentioned before ended up being a ball because Travis D’arnaud doesn’t know how to frame strikes. To make matters worse, the Nats scored 4 in the 10th and never looked back, and David Wright decided to be Captain America when the world was all but capable of being saved. This is why I’m a Yankees fan.

-24 runs on 30 hits in Arlington, Texas. The Phillies-Rangers games was a shootout unlike any other on Opening Day, and unfortunately for guys like me I had the displeasure of not being able to watch it. Cliff Lee pitched more like Jamie Moyer, and every Ranger on the field looked like Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa for one night only. Even though he got the win, he had to scratch and claw his way through the worst five innings he’s probably ever pitched for the Phightin’s. I do feel bad for Tanner Scheppers, though. His first Major League start ever, and he had to face the pressure of a packed house, thin air, and a power hungry National League lineup. No easy task, I’ll tell you that much. Ron Washington should’ve known better. Even my mom would’ve been wondering why this kid was on the mound, and she barely knows how baseball’s even played. I bet Jimmy Rollins gave him a hug and a kiss after the game for helping him hit his lucky 200th career blast and match his season totals from a year ago in one swing of the bat. Texas fans were probably livid over the fact that Martin Perez wasn’t given the nod, as they rightfully should, and I’m sure Freddy Garcia is out there somewhere laughing at all the carnage. Seriously, who did they think they were taking a setup man with little to no starting pitching experience and throwing him out there for 5-6 innings of work with only two pitches in his repertoire? You’ve gotta assume that they’ll at least be on top of the free agent market for an arm sooner or later. Maybe they’ll scoop up Mark Mulder from an ESPN desk somewhere and give him 150 frames. I’d love to see that. Still, the bottom line is this: Monday afternoon for the Rangers was sort of like going clubbing and hoping for a one-night stand with Brooklyn Decker, only to ultimately end up with Brook Shields. Learn from your mistake, move on, and forget it all ever happened.

-As the regular season starts for the Brewers, the Braves offense finds themselves stuck in Spring Training. This must’ve been a weird game for Braves fans, but no weirder than the following statistic. Did you know that since last season the Brew-Crew has defeated Atlanta five times and ALL of them were shutouts?? This is the same team that owned the 4th overall ranked offense in the National League. Julio Teheran now knows that he’s gonna have to beat some sense into his peers if he’s ever going to find himself victorious on Opening Day. Dan Uggla, B.J. Upton, and Evan Gattis left a combined 8 men on base, all while going 0-fer in the process. This team has too many of these guys for their own good, and unless they have another historical April they’re going to make a lot of opposing Major League pitchers look really good, just like they did for parts of last season. Yorvani Gallardo had a pretty impressive linescore regardless, with six shutout innings and four K’s over four hits, so hopefully this is the start of a comeback to being the ace that led this team to the NLCS not too long ago. It’s also nice to know that Ryan Braun was greeted with a standing ovation for lying to his teammates on national television and being suspended for PEDs. I was quietly enjoying the Pirates game when ESPN decided to air a live feed of his first at-bat back, so you could imagine the frustration I had to sit through.

-Grady Sizemore hits his first home run in over 900 plate appearances, only to be dumbfounded that the rest of his team couldn’t reach home plate.

I truly can’t believe that the Red Sox-Orioles game was one of the lowest scoring games of Opening Day. Both Jon Lester and Chris Tillman bounced in and out of trouble like a whack-a-mole to a hammer, and the big guns in both lineups bore the life out of me by blowing plenty of run-scoring opportunities with runners on. I’m going to put my money on tomorrow’s matchup looking a helluva lot like yesterday’s fiasco in Texas. Also, I was keenly watching Grady Sizemore’s at-bats and he should probably be leading off instead of Daniel Nava. He’s got that kind of batter’s eye that makes him seem selective, when he actually wants to pounce on the first thing that cuts across the middle of the plate. Let’s not forget that he was a near 30/30 guy when he was healthy, too.

-Ditto for the Cardinals-Reds, but part of me expected no less than a 1-0 Red Birds shutout. Yadier Molina decided to put matters into his own hands in the seventh when Cueto turned around to check his texts before realizing at the last second that Brayan Pena wanted the fastball down and not down the middle. I think Adam Wainwright could’ve mowed down this Reds lineup in his sleep, especially after watching that hilarious double play by Joey Votto. Cincinatti will have problems scoring runs in the middle of that lineup so long as Votto thinks it’s best for him to take a thousand pitches before breaking the plate. BOLD PREDICTION: Jay Bruce bats third by the end of the year, Brandon Phillips cleans up and nabs another 100-RBI season, and Votto continues to fulfill his dream of walking a billion times in the season as the everyday leadoff man. Back to the game. This was a fun pitcher’s duel, and chances are the entire opening series will play out exactly the way yesterday’s proceedings did.

-The new-look Chicago White Sox looked awfully good in the Cell, smacking the daylights out of Ricky Nolasco while – GASP! – preserving a win for Opening Day ace Chris Sale. There are two guys in this team’s lineup who I expect great things from: Adam Eaton and Jose Abreu. They both bring plenty to the table offensively, and helped contribute greatly to yesterday’s victory. I find their already demonstrated skillsets to develop into a one-two punch in the top of the lineup all year long, and considering the fact that they’ve raked everywhere else should raise all sorts of confidence for fans on the South side. The White Sox won’t pitch a lick (besides Sale, of course,) but their offense is revamped and reloaded. Scoring runs for them shouldn’t come at as much of a premium as it did last season.

-The Toronto Blue Jays may need a reality check, and fast. R.A. Dickey fell apart faster than a demolished building over TNTs, and Jose Reyes found his way back onto the Disabled List before the first game of the second was even over. He’s probably better off. The Blue Jays got spanked, and the Price was right for Tamba Ray all the way through the last pitch. This still raises red flags for a team littered with other red flags. Toronto’s starting rotation leaves no glimmer of hope, even if you consider the inclusion of Drew Hutchinson. Their one-two guys are Dickey himself and Mark Buehrle, who both have respectable track records, but have no business trying to win games in the AL East from a statistical standpoint. Seriously, they’ve been that bad when pitching in this division. If their general office is going to rely on their farm system to save them in June, then calling that sort of thing “wishful thinking” would be an extreme understatement. It sucks have to watch the same team hang their hats on being the basement ballclub in their division, but because of the fact that their pitching woes were never addressed during the offseason, their chances of competing look very, very slim.

Thinking positively, these Tamba Bay Rays seem to be leaving a different smell in the air this season. Wil Myers, Matt Joyce and Evan Longoria will be looked upon to do the damage they inflicted on the knuckleballer and his boys on a daily basis, and there’s no reason to assume they can’t if each one of them is healthy. In other words, this is no longer the same offensively-challenged offense that most of us scoffed at years ago. I know it’s only one game, but this matchup was in my opinion the most polarizing of all Opening Day matchups on display. The Rays look like they can score runs at will, and the Jays have already begun trending downward.

-After last night’s dazzling Opening Day debut, ESPN should declare every Monday night start with Jose Fernandez toeing the rubber as “Fernadez Day.” The linsecore leaves quite the telling mark: 6 IP, 1 R, 5 H, 9 Ks. He had his mother AND his grandmother in attendance, and they were certainly treated to a gift wrapped up in a wonderful pitching performance. His reaction to Carlos Gonzalez’s solo shot basically sums up his demeanor on the mound, and was only one of the many animated moments he expressed in Miami last night. He’s the most fun a baseball fan could ever have watching a ballgame on television, and the Marlins as an organization can do no wrong in building around him and Giancarlo Stanton while making him a marketing extraordinaire. He enjoys being in the spotlight, so why not put his face on the map?

-With Patrick Corbin done for the season, and Brandon McCarthy ending up as their best starter for Opening Day, the Arizona Diamondbacks are essentially the Toronto Blue Jays of the National League. McCarthy had a good start to his start that ended up in bedlam, and the D-Backs bullpen once again found a way to put their team in a position to lose. I love the lineup, though, and there’s a chance that they’ll lead the league in runs scored and home runs with the addition of Mark Trumbo, but there’s only so much offense they can support their arms with on a nightly basis. The Mad Bum was Mad Dumb, but I firmly believe that his short leash was due to the defense behind him letting him down. Bumgarner could’ve gone 6 innings if he truly had his way. I can’t remember the last time the Giants scored 9 runs, but batting Brandon Belt second in front of Angel Pagan is a pivotal move that could pay dividens for Bruce Bochy. Belt did cash in handsomely last night, going 3 for 5 with a homer and three runs scored. Sandoval, Posey, Pence and Mike Morse followed him in that order, which is more than enough reason for me to believe that San Francisco may have something going for them offensively this year. We’ll see.

-The King’s Court must’ve been scrunched up somewhere in the left field bleachers of Angels Stadium, because Felix Hernandez TOTALLY had his way with this Los Angeles lineup. Sure, Mike Trout went fishing on a sinker that didn’t sink enough off the plate, but he was rolling afterwards. And when you let a former Cy Young get in his groove, you might as well step up to the plate without a baseball bat. The boxscore says 10-3 Mariners, but Jered Weaver actually had the lead in the 7th before coughing it up. At least he tried. Kevin Jepsen came in for relief in the 9th, but the results were nothing but comedic. Five earned runs in just two-thirds of an inning. Because of him, someone out there did the Happy Dance because they own Justin Smoak in their fantasy baseball league (three-run homer with two outs, in case you’re wondering.) Robinson Cano’s season debut was pretty good, going 2 for 4 with a double and a walk, so there shouldn’t be much concern about him slumping at the dish from the jump. For those of you who play fantasy baseball, pay attention to Abraham Almonte and Brad Miller, two guys who could easily go 10-10 with a lot of runs scored. They could be a surprisingly good one-two tandem in this lineup as the season rears on. Kyle Seager has no business batting 6th for Seattle, by the way. If Llyod McClendon expects him to do his usual damage, he should at least be batting him behind Smoak. Seattle’s one of my fringe teams for 2014, and if last night indicated anything for me they look like they could possibly contend in the AL West if the momentum remains.

-The Cleveland Indians forgot to read 50 Shades of Sonny Gray, but the Oakland A’s forgot to read the baserunning instruction manual prior to the game. I’ll get to the pitching duel and Gray’s performance first. In six innings of work, Gray exhausted himself to the tune of 105 pitches thrown. You can blame the three walks for that, but his 7 Ks and 9 groundball outs are enough for both his manager and his fantasy league owners to write home about. This kid is nasty. His stuff is great. His ceiling is nonexistent. And last night was just the beginning. Justin Masterson was even better, going 7 innings with only 1 walk and throwing 92 pitches. The next time they meet will certainly be quite the juicy matchup.

Now, the miscue. Josh Donaldson probably went back to the locker room after the game to make sure all of his stuff was still there, because his own teammates robbed him of a two-run go ahead double. Instead, with runners on first and second and one out in the 8th inning, the deep fly ball he hit off the top of the center field wall turned out to be just a single that moved everyone up. My inital reaction was a speechless expression of disappointment. I couldn’t scream and yell in anger if I wanted, and I own Donaldson in half of my fantasy leagues. Still, seeing that knock come without a run or two really did piss me off. I thought these guys learned to advance on deep fly balls in Little League. Who stays put on a deep fly ball when they’re on second base!? What were they thinking!?!? If only Shaquille O’Neal played baseball, he’d be all over this play on some post-game show somewhere. Of course, Jim Johnson couldn’t hold off the Murderous Row that is the bottom third of the Cleveland Indians lineup (relax, I’m only being overly sarcastic,) and allowed them to break even in the ninth. He looked like he still needs a few more tuneups before he’s ready to roll, and he’s not the only reliever who fell apart yesterday, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt…

I’m going to be averting from TV Reviews a bit as the season goes on, and this Notes and Thoughts series will be a staple I will put up at least a couple times a week for baseball fans.

Happy Baseball, everyone!

 

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