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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** 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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