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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:

screenshot-2017-01-24-at-4-01-41-pm

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Source: Fangraphs.com 

 

 

Now, Player “Y”:

screenshot-2017-01-24-at-4-01-41-pm

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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 Stock Exchange Week 3: Lending a Helping Hand

Fantasy Baseball Stock Exchange Week 3: Lending a Helping Hand

The scariest thing about drafting or picking up a free agent off the waiver wire is the inherent risk of injury, be it either of the chronic or fluky variety. Although I cannot stress enough how early it is in the season, every league owner who’s experienced at least one player injury already should be rather cautious about their future transactions. For example, David Robertson’s groin problems sending him to the 15-day DL last week, Alex Cobb’s flaring oblique putting him out of action for about a month, Matt Moore getting shelved for his elbow (poor baby,) and Adrian Beltre just recently going on the DL for his quad, which has to be the scariest injury of them all. These are just a few of the already vast ailments that have plagued some of the more promising, productive faces in the MLB this season. The worst part is that nearly all of their replacements are absolutely worthless from a fantasy perspective. Sure, Shawn Kelley is well worth a short-term flier for saves until Robertson comes back, but I’d be foaming at the mouth if the guy I played against this week added Kevin Kouzmanoff and slotted him in his third base spot all week long. This week of FBSE will delve into guys who could fill in certain spots and provide a little extra reward if you’re lucky. Of course, there’ll be others who’s stock has seemed to plummet, and they’ll get their just mentioning as well. Let’s not forget about my system of symbols showing the level of urgency you should have for adding each of the following free agents.

!!! – Must Add

$ – Worth a Look

# – Position/Category need

? – Speculative/Stash

“Hitters on the rise”

# Trevor Plouffe, 3B, Minnesota Twins #

*Disclaimer: If you don’t own Adrian Beltre, own a solid 2nd-3rd tier third baseman, and/or have drafted another proven corner infielder who’s sufficient enough to replace another injured corner infielder, please, please move on. Trevor Plouffe will not be batting anywhere near his current .326 batting average, and if you fall into such a blinding haze over his fast start and drop Pablo Sandoval for him (which actually happened in one of my leagues,) then you have already screwed yourself over. Listen to me here. DO NOT drop Pablo Sandoval for Trevor Plouffe.*

But here’s why you should add Trevor Plouffe: he’s a great fill-in third baseman. People tend to forget that two seasons ago he erupted for 24 homers and 55 RBI in just 422 at-bats. Power at that time was his only proven attribute, but here in 2014 he may have stumbled upon some decent plate discipline. Last season, he had a 6.5% Walk Rate, 21.5% Strikeout Rate, and a 0.30 BB/K Rate, all adding up to a .309 OBP and 112 strikeouts in 477 at-bats. In 2014? 16.1% Walk Rate, 14.3% Strikeout Rate, and a 1.13 BB/K Rate. That’s incredible improvement, even for a sample size as small as a 1/16th of an entire season. His O-Swing% (Percentage of pitches swung outside the strike zone that were swung at) has also seen a ridiculous decrease from last year as well, from 29.3% to 14.5%. This helps to justify his ability to get on base with his eyes, while offering a glimmer of hope for those who really want him to take off. He does have a career 77% Contact Rate to boot, though I believe it’s fair to say that his .395 BABIP right now is bound to tumble down many a flight of statistical regression stairs. If his patience at the plate is legit — I’m not yet convinced all these underlying peripherals are going to stick with over 150 games left in the season — he could be on the verge of a breakout year if they remain within the current vicinity. He still has yet to provide enough evidence that he’ll be your definitive answer at third base this year, but as a third base fill-in, he’s worth a look. He’s got a firm hold at the three-hole for the Twins most nights, so a 75/25/80 slash line with a .260-ish average is quite possible.

# Yangervis Solarte, 3B/OF, New York Yankees #

Yankee fans across the tri-state area are subject to hold their breath each and every time one of the Yankee vets do so much as cross first base. New York’s roster ranks among the very top in average age between teammates, so manager Joe Girardi is forced to mix and match his starting lineup basically everyday to keep his guys’ legs fresh. This plays well into the hands of Yangervis Solarte, who at the relatively tender age of 26 had found himself on the outside looking in for well over 2,000 minor league plate appearances prior to this season. The recent injury to Mark Teixeira may have changed the complexion of the Yankee infield significantly (wait, Francisco Cervelli AND Kelly Johnson have been sharing first base duties??) but it has also arranged an everyday spot in the lineup for Solarte as New York’s primary third baseman. Thanks, A-Rod. No, seriously, thanks, A-Rod! Solarte swings a good bat, and has hit the ground running with a .357 average and 6 doubles in 57 at-bats. His approach at the plate is reminiscent of Derek Jeter in his mid-90s youth, and by that I mean he doesn’t take walks for an answer. His career-high in walks in a minor league season was 41, yet he still managed to knock 149 hits with a respectable .745 OPS. So far with the Yankees he has constructed a 16.7% line drive rate and a 47.2% fly ball rate, so there’s some sneaky 15-homer power there as well. In case some of you are wondering if Solarte can keep pace with his batting average: he can’t. He hasn’t hit over .329 in a minor league season, and that was his only .300+ BA year. However, his BABIP has constantly hovered over .300 throughout his baseball career, and has only once drawn a disparity from his actual batting average that was more than 30 points. In other words, this guy’s not the next Paul Molitor, but he can definitely hit. Solarte is currently New York’s number 9 hitter, and I don’t see that changing in the foreseeable future, barring injuries. However, this team is going to score runs everywhere in the lineup, and the Yankee’s bottom half can hit enough to create plenty of sneaky RBI opportunities for him. Until Teixeira comes back, Solarte’s a sure bet to be a considerable boost to rosters in most formats, especially since he’s now multi-position eligible.

# Rajai Davis, OF, Detroit Tigers #

Anyone who gets a chance to leadoff the Tiger’s lineup with a healthy Ian Kinsler, Torii Hunter and Miguel Cabrera behind them deserves a roster spot in nearly every format. Rajai Davis must be licking his chops nowadays with Andy Dirks missing time (12 weeks to be exact) due to lower back surgery, and the starting left field gig seemingly all to himself. He’s got 50-stolen base speed, as well as a world of run-scoring potential in a predictably potent Detroit starting nine. However, you must be mindful of the fact that he strikes out a lot for a leadoff hitter, and doesn’t walk nearly as much as he should, so his current .352 batting average and 93% contact rate are just a Mitsubishi Mirage (see what I did there?) Still, if you need the extra boost of speed and aren’t willing to trade for a Billy Hamilton or Everth Cabrera, look no further.

Here are other guys you should consider picking up, just ’cause

$ Kolten Wong, 2B, St. Louis Cardinals $

This kid is money. After being called up late last season to do absolutely nothing at the dish, Kolten Wong has developed a knack to undermine his doubters with a strong start to the season. All of his numbers right now appear to be on pace with his minor league production: a .279/.354/.349 slash line (don’t worry too much about that slugging percentage,) a 5/5 K/BB ratio, and three stolen bases. His speed will ultimately be judge, jury and executioner in regards to his fantasy value, but the fact that he’s starting to consistently hit Major League pitching is a great sign. A host of other features are also benefiting his fantasy stock this year, from his everyday two-hole spot in the lineup against righties to a chance to get plenty of at-bats against lefties. With a contact rate in the 80s and a BABIP that’s finally in line with that of his overall minor league career, Wong has all the pieces to be a consistent hitter, run-scorer, and stolen base threat. He’s a great asset to own in most formats, and is probably a must-own in deeper ones, too.

# Kelly Johnson, 2B/OF, New York Yankees #

The move to Yankee Stadium gives Johnson a significant boost in his power numbers, yet the one thing some of you don’t know is that he’ll be first-base-eligible soon with Mark Teixeira on the DL. That’s awesome news, even though he won’t hit any higher than .240 this season. As the most versatile player in New York’s starting lineup, Johnson is the safest bet to be in the starting lineup, especially against right handers. So, he should have absolutely no problem surpassing 20 homers and 75+ RBI by season’s end. Although His plate discipline peripherals represent demons that he’ll never fight (he usually strikes out a quarter of the time, for example,) that short porch in right will be rather generous for a guy who’s fly ball rate has remained in the high 30s-low 40s his whole career. Back to his potential three-position eligibility. That alone makes him worth a look if your roster can afford it, as you can plug him in in daily leagues when the matchups for other players looks more daunting than you feared. If you truly have no second baseman and lack outfield depth, Kelly Johnson’s efforts could be a gift from the heavens for some.

$ Yan Gomes, C, Cleveland Indians $

Yan Gomes was barely even drafted in most leagues, even despite a .294/345/.481/.826 slash line and 11 homers in 293 at-bats last year. NEWS FLASH EVERYONE: Yan Gomes is the Cleveland Indians’s everyday catcher (even though Carlos Santana will spell him here and there.) You’re probably wondering what he’s done so far, and the way I see it he’s only roared back onto the scene with a .270/.349/.459/.808 slash with a couple homers in 37 April at-bats. He’s got very sneaky power from a fantasy perspective, and is capable of posting a 20-homer season with 120+ games under his belt, which he will be granted this season. Forget about how many times he’ll strike out (of which there will be plenty,) and remember that you drafted Wilson Ramos and got one measly little game out of him before he hurt himself. Again.

“Hitters on the Decline”

Chase Headley, 3B, San Diego Padres

I guess you can make a case for Headley and say that he’s starting to heat up recently, with a homer and three RBI in the three game set against Detroit this weekend. However, I would refuse to stand up for him now after witnessing such an outstanding drop off in production from a couple years ago. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the only reason Headley’s fantasy relevant today is because he got extremely lucky in 2012, when he hit 31 homers and drove in 115. Let me show you my what has led me to this conclusion: Nearly all of his plate discipline and batted ball peripherals from the last three years have been like apples and oranges, except for his bloated 21.4 HR/FB rate. Last year after his breakout campaign Headley hit 18 fewer homeruns due to a HR/FB rate that dropped by an astounding 11%, yet that drop only placed it right back to the level of his career average. We must also remember that Headley’s groundball rate has crept near 50 percent throughout his career, so the fact that Petco Park couldn’t hold him in 2012 is perhaps the most statistically incomprehensible occurrence I’ve ever studied in my years as a baseball fan. If you drafted him and have noticed his putrid start, you’d only be doing yourself a favor by letting him go.

Eric Aybar, SS, Los Angeles Angels

Aybar’s stock falling might be temporary at best, but at worst he may be one of those guys you use to look up to years before as a solid fill-in who should no longer be on your radar. He’s been batting ninth for almost the entire season so far, and Kole Calhoun seems to have supplanted him as the year’s everyday leadoff man from here on out. Aybar won’t be scoring many runs, has little power (as you should know by now,) and has been less and less of a factor on the base paths over the years. His .205 average to kick off the season and zero stolen bases is part of the reason why he’s under this column, but his drop off in production across the board throughout the years is the main culprit here.

“Pitchers on the Rise”

$ Tyler Skaggs, SP, Los Angeles Angels $

Through two starts this season, Skaggs has put up a 2.40 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, and one walk through 15 innings. The last thing I want you to do is take that to the bank and rush to the waiver wire to get him, since his first two trips to the bigs in 2012 and 2013 were God awful. Still, this is someone you can use in deeper or 10-12 team mixed leagues if you lost Alex Cobb or even James Paxton to injuries. I always offer my eyes to a pitcher’s underlying statistics before deciding whether or not he’s worth a flier, and with Skaggs there is quite a bit of a bright light at the end of the tunnel. Last season with Arizona, he served up over a homer and a half per nine innings, and his average fastball velocity was sitting at 89.2 MPH. Those numbers were large reasons for his egregious 5.12 ERA and 5.01 FIP.

But here’s where things begin to lean in his favor…

Skaggs reportedly adjusted his pitching delivery this Spring, which in turn has led to a three-MPH uptick in velocity (for those at home who aren’t doing the math, he’s been averaging 92.2 MPH on his heater this year.) He has also worked on a two-seam fastball to help induce more outs on contact, as his 5.4 K/9 rate in 2014 suggests. The results from that experiment has been an unfathomable 3.11 GB/FB rate so far into the young season. That would help explain his current drop off in homers allowed, from 7 in 38 innings pitched last year to just the one in his last start through 15 frames. Even though he showed good command with a solid 3.38 BB/9 in 2013, Skaggs seems prepared to even lower that in return for a boat load of extra outs. None of these stats are concrete, and there are already a number of pitchers who are performing way beyond the rule of averages right now, but if I had to make a case for Tyler Skaggs figuring it out with a sub-4 ERA and great control peripherals I most certainly would.

$ Kyle Lohse, SP, Milwaukee Brewers $

Because of how he masks the same play style on the mound as Mark Buerhle and Tim Hudson, Kyle Lohse is only as good as the offense behind him. And right now, it’s pretty good. There were stretches last season where, even if Lohse threw for 8.2 innings of one-run ball like he did yesterday afternoon, he’d still end up with either a loss or a no-decision. However, the return of Ryan Braun and the mental resurgence of everyone else in the lineup has helped lead this team to a nine-game winning streak and an MLB-best 10-2 record. It appears that Kyle Lohse will get the run support he dearly deserved last season, when he went 11-10 with a 3.35 ERA. That’s huge for fantasy owners, and others who desperately want or need to take a flier on a solid starting pitcher. Lohse is an excellent arm who seems to never get the respect that he deserves. In his last three seasons, Lohse has averaged 199.1 innings pitched, with a 3.16 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, and a 1.72 BB/9 rate. He even threw better in Miller Park than on the road last season, with an outstanding 2.97 home ERA. Because he doesn’t miss a ton of bats (don’t mistake his 9.15 K/9 this year as a statistic that’ll stick,) his FIP and moderate GB/FB rates take a considerable hit every season. I get that, but I’ve yet to believe that he’ll regress now after out-pitching those peripherals ever since he moved to the National League seven years ago. Lohse should win a bunch of games with the Brew-Crew collectively figuring it out at the plate, and with his otherworldly control his numbers should be right around where they’ve been for what seems to be forever now.

$ Jose Quintana, SP, Chicago White Sox $

Chris Sale isn’t the only lefty who’s been dealing down in the south side of Chicago. Jose Quintana’s consistency has been overlooked for so long most fantasy owners are afraid to stream him. I don’t get it. Just yesterday I took a stroll down his career statistics and they’re all pretty solid for someone who’s owned in a tenth of leagues across
the world. Quintana’s K rate has gone up year after year, he’s kept his BB/9 under 3 throughout his 3-year career, and has been really good at the Cell with a 3.53 ERA across 31 starts. His development as a starting pitcher is particularly encouraging given his age — he’s only 25. He’s continuing to show signs of more promise this year with a 8.53 K/9 and 2.45 GB/FB rate through his first three starts this season, so for those who need a replacement for an injured arm Quintana should fit the bill quite nicely in the short term, and perhaps even the rest of the year.

“Pitchers on the Decline”

Jim Johnson, RP, Oakland Athletics

Johnson’s control woes and inability to close out ballgames has forced Bob Melvin’s hand and has stripped him of the closer job for the time being. In just 5.1 innings pitched, he has a blown save with nine hits and six walks allowed. A common theme throughout the season has been the art of the blown save, and unfortunately for Johnson he may be one of the few who could find themselves under a completely different role in the season when all is said and done. The closer-by-committee that Bob Melvin has decided to roll with doesn’t help matters either, so finding a replacement for saves in the interim involves a lot of soul searching and even more luck. The way I see it, he’s worth stashing in deep leagues, but you’re better off letting him go for an extra starting pitcher or hitter in shallower ones.

Rex Brothers, RP, Colorado Rockies

Over the course of the last week, Colorado has made it very clear that LaTroy Hawkins will take over the closer duties, with Rex Brothers holding the fort in the 8th inning. Although I don’t agree with this gameplan, it is what it is, and Brothers is free to be dropped in all leagues besides those that count saves. You might get lucky and still have Hawkins available in your waiver wire, so if that’s indeed the case make your move, quick,

I’ll be right back at it next week with another FBSE update.

 

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