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Wednesday 28th Jun 2017

Do you want to learn Mastersball's tricks of the trade to win at the NFBC?  The Masters of the NFBC is the place.

I recently had the honor of participating in an industry auction with a number of accomplished writers. It was a 12-team, AL-only format, and it was every bit as tough as the NFBC AL-only leagues I’ve been in. However, with the NFBC kicking things off this weekend, I don’t want to talk about my team. I want to hit you with some values that might be useful as you’re headed to the NFBC this weekend or as you’re looking to a similar AL-only draft.

Each year there are a certain number of players that we ‘saberheads’ think we can get at a relatively inexpensive price if we miss out on an upper tier player at a particular position. These are the “safety blankets,” if you will, at various positions.  Sometimes these can be traps if we’re not savvy enough to sense when everyone is going to hold out for the same “value” pick. In this draft, those players were Ernesto Frieri $15 and Lorenzo Cain $20. Both were targets and both went for a lot more than I expected. Though both picks made sense at the time, the odds are against turning a profit here.

Players that are getting no respect at all: Bartolo Colon $1, Franklin Gutierrez $2, Carlos Pena $4, Nate Mclouth $4, Mitch Moreland $4, Josh Donaldson $1.

Players you’re going to have to get out the wallet to own: Yoenis Cespedes $31, Mike Trout $40, Robinson Cano $36, Jose Reyes $34, Justin Verlander $34, David Price $30, Ben Zobrist $27, Albert Pujols $33, Miguel Cabrera $39.

Players that cost more than I expected:  Leonys Martin $14, Dustin Ackley $15, Gordon Beckham $15, Tyler Flowers $9, Lorenzo Cain $20, Ernesto Frieri $15, Salvador Perez $20.

Other players of interest: Manny Machado $15, Jed Lowrie $8, Chris Carter $12, Hiroyuki Nakajima $9, Dylan Bundy $3, Jurickson Profar $8, Mike Zunino $3, Will Myers $12, Bruce Rondon $10, Aaron Hicks $9, Trevor Bauer $5.

In the reserve rounds, the following players may be worth a flier:

Brennan Boesch – A lefty in Yankee stadium with modest pop.

Nate Freiman – He’s 6’8” and weighs 220. As a rule 5 draftee, he stands a good chance of making the active roster. He slashed .298/.370/.502 at Double-A in 2012.

Jeff Kobernus – The Tigers rule 5 pick stole 94 bases in the Minors over the last 2 years.  The Tigers lack a true burner, and with injury-prone Andy Dirks platooning in left field, a run at 20+ SB’s could be in the cards.

Chris McGuiness – Yet another rule 5 subject.  This little Indian brought the Arizona Fall League MVP trophy all the way home.

Roberto Hernandez – Tampa Bay made moves to upgrade their infield defense and if anyone can fix the sinkerballer, formerly known as Fausto, the Rays, formerly known as devlish, can.

Al Albuquerque – He’s the best reliever in Motown right now and it’s not even close. The problem is with his health issues in the past, it’s unlikely that the Tigers will push their luck by making him pitch on back-to-back days.

Whether you have computer draft software at the draft table doing projections for you or you have the old school pen and paper for tabulation, you probably have some sort of system to track projected stats of the players you draft and accumulate totals in each category to ensure that you are drafting a balanced team that will compete in all categories (unless you are punting).  I don’t know about you, but I usually find it difficult to impossible to hit those targets.  I’m always short somewhere and I have to decide where I want the holes to be.  I’ll typically look at a few leagues from the previous year to see where I need to be to win each category; picking a sweet spot for the total I’m shooting for (i.e. I’m not going to worry about squeezing out 40 extra Home Runs just to obtain 1 or 2 more roto points.  For offense I’ll usually just focus on HR’s and SB’s and hope that the Runs and RBI’s fall into place, trying to eliminate as much noise as possible so that I can focus on the draft itself.  In any event have you ever wondered what percentage of those targets you have to obtain on draft day?  There’s a full 26 weeks of FAAB to pick up replacements that will contribute.  What should one expect from FAAB sources?

‘The Worst Russians Ever’ owned by Gregory Glukhovsky are currently in first place in my NFBC Main Event League.  Breaking down their stats in the counting categories I discovered:  Of their 70 Wins, 57 were drafted and 13 were from waivers (81.5%/18.5%).  999K’s – 798 drafted, 201 from waivers (80%/20%).  72 Saves – 36 drafted, 36 waivers (50%/50%).  On the offensive side: 846 Runs – 824 drafted, 22 waivers (97.5%/2.5%).  242 HR’s – 235 drafted, 7 waivers (97%/3%). 789 RBI’s – 768 drafted, 21 waivers (97.5%/2.5%).  159 SB’s – 155 drafted, 4 waivers (97.5%/2.5%).

Simply amazing.  To the surprise of no one the biggest waiver contribution was in the Saves category, but across the board over 97% of his offense was obtained on draft day.  Of course, that doesn’t mean assets weren’t available on the waiver wire.  He just didn’t need them!  He’s had David Ortiz miss one month.  Outside of that his entire draft has been a bastion of near perfect health.  Drafting Mike Trout doesn’t hurt either.  The Russians have simply dominated all offensive categories to the tune of 72 points out of a possible 75.  It’s not as though they were risk averse, as their draft included Ryan Braun, Jose Reyes, Kendrys Morales, and Martin Prado among their first 11 picks.  They didn’t ignore pitching early either, drafting Felix Hernandez in the 3rd, Yovani Gallardo in the 4th, and Jon Lester in the 6th round.  It might be the highest scoring offense I’ve witnessed of any league I’ve been in.

The Pale King is in 2nd and his stats breakdown thusly: 789 Runs – 755 draft, 44 waivers (94.5%/5.5%). 185 HR’s – 172 draft, 13 waivers (93%/7%).  717 RBI’s – 667 drafted, 50 waivers (93%/7%).  140 SB’s – 140 drafted, 0 waivers (100%/0%).  86 Wins – 80 drafted, 6 waivers (93%/7%).  1074 K’s – 975 drafted, 99 waivers.  34 Saves – 10 drafted, 24 waivers (29.5%/70.5%).  Astounding.  It seems as though FAAB is always a significant part of all the teams I manage, good and bad.  Maybe that’s because I’m constantly plagued by injuries.  Maybe my drafting skills need some serious tweaking. Perhaps both!  Over 93% of the entire offense is fueled by his draft and with the exception of Saves, over 90% of his pitching was in place back in March.

I’m not sure how they do it.  I’ve been in hundreds of drafts and every one of them both categories and positions are sniped left and right.  I have to decide whether to leave value on the table to chase statistical or positional balance, or take what the draft gives me and leave myself exposed (ending up with non competitive projections in certain categories, or being forced to start players that have part-time roles with their MLB clubs).  Knowing whether or not it is realistic to expect help with FAAB over the course of the season is critical in making draft day decisions.  Next week we’ll look at the flip side of the coin of what was presented here today.

Some casual research of the top NFBC Main Event teams has revealed some interesting random facts. Let’s jump right in.  Six of seven the top teams were drafted on March 24th, one full week before the ‘second round’ of the NFBC on March 31st.  I’ve heard ad nauseum how the later drafters have the advantage because they have more information at their disposal.  This opinion has always baffled me.  How is it an advantage if everyone has this additional info?  If you are more knowledgeable and prepared than your opponents then the clear advantage goes to the early drafter that has insight on who will win position battles and spots in the rotation.  As you get closer to the season this knowledge/edge is effectually destroyed when official announcements are made about said position battles.  No more insight needed as everyone knows.  The player once available in the 15th round is now going in the 8th.   The opportunity of profiting on this knowledge has been eradicated.  Now the aforementioned data point doesn’t prove anything as it is too small of a sample size and there are obviously many factors that go into an overall championship, but it is interesting.

Looking at only the top ten picks of the top five teams, only six players appear on multiple rosters: Adrian BeltreJoey VottoDavid PriceShin-Soo ChooJoe MauerYu Darvish.  Each of these players was rostered on two of the top five teams.  All drafted at least two starting pitchers, usually in their top eight picks.  Four of the five teams drafted at least one ace within their first four selections.  Three of the top five teams ignored saves early, waiting until after tenth round to draft a closer.  The other two teams waited until the ninth.

Kevin Kirves currently leads the Main Event by four points.  Not surprisingly he has employed the services of a rookie outfielder from Anaheim.  What is surprising is that same outfielder is absent from the rosters of the teams ranked 2nd-6th.  Mike Trout is still on four of the top ten rosters.

One of the more interesting drafts was from Nick Cassavetes.  Shawn Childs recently did a nice write up on his team’s current roster and his shot at making a run at the title: http://sportsdraftdaily.com/2012/08/hollywood-meets-fantasy/

What I absolutely love about his draft is that he went with Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander with his first two picks.  Love it, love it, love it.  Verlander was not a target for me this year, but that’s not the point.  What I love is the strategy employed here.  Nick was leveraging his draft position.  With 14 hitters already off the board, drafting another bat locks him into a deficit, but he evened the playing field by taking the two best pitchers on his draft sheet.  He did draft Mike Trout in round 22 and that helps, but you don’t have to draft the fantasy MVP to make this work.  In 2004 I drafted near the end of the first round and started off with Curt SchillingKerry Wood, and Jason Schmidt as my first three picks.  In the end I had plenty of offense.  A young Miguel Cabrera turned in a nice profit.  Vinny Castilla and Jeromy Burnitz were poised to explode moving to Coors field, yet the fantasy market ignored their potential due to the bias against aging players.  In fact, both the draft and the waiver wire were littered with offensive value.

Take what the draft gives you.  Ignore the scoffers.  Zig when others zag.  Nick did and is ‘zigging’ his way to the top of the leaderboard.

Last week we looked at the most accomplished player in the fantasy industry.  If we narrow the focus to strictly fantasy baseball accomplishments our attention shifts to an Idaho pig farmer.  It would take too long to list all his accomplishments, but over $350,000 in career earnings and two NFBC Main Event Overall Championships should tell you all that you need to know.  If I wasn’t able to draft a team myself and I had to select one person to draft a team for me, Lindy Hinkelman would get the call.  Lindy’s team is currently ranked 40th overall and 2nd in his Las Vegas Main Event league.  Let’s examine the master’s draft and see what we can uncover:

1.14 Hanley Ramirez
2.2 Justin Upton
3.14 Zack Greinke
4.2 B.J. Upton
5.14 Madison Bumgarner
6.2 Billy Butler
7.14 Andre Ethier
8.2 Gio Gonzalez
9.14 Brandon League
10.2 Edwin Encarnacion

Lindy took three starting pitchers in his first ten picks.  Déjà vu.  Last week we saw that Chad Schroeder did the exact same thing.  The difference however is that Lindy secured his aces earlier.  He rostered two elite pitchers in his first five picks.  I love this approach and I always try to secure AT LEAST two elite starters within my first six picks.  On occasion I’ll even push the envelope and make it three.   A few times I’ve kicked things off by taking three Cy Young candidates out of the shoot in rounds one through three and I’ve had success using that strategy.  It is essential to lay an ERA, WHIP, and strikeout foundation.  The importance of this cannot be overstated.  Many fantasy players are much too flippant about their pitching staffs and assume that they can just draft an R.A. Dickey in the 20th round, as if those types of pitchers grow on trees in the later rounds.  If you don’t have at least two ERA/WHIP anchors stabilizing your staff, finding enough quality pitchers with high strikeout rates in the later rounds and on the waiver wire before destroying your ratios is an extremely difficult task.

It’s also worth mentioning that the two cornerstones to his staff were pitchers who had FIPs that outperformed their ERAs in 2011: Zack Greinke (3.83 ERA/2.98 FIP), Madison Bumgarner (3.21 ERA/2.67).  I love what he did here.  He took two pitchers with 2nd round upside.  Laying the ERA/WHIP foundation and locking up 400 K’s.  At the same time he didn’t sacrifice offense, at least not in theory.  Sure, Hanley Ramirez and Justin Upton have had disappointing seasons.  That doesn’t change the fact that these were excellent picks.  You’re not going to hit on every player you select.  That’s impossible.  All you can do is play the percentages, lay a good foundation and build in enough realistic upside picks as part of your roster construction.  That’s exactly what Lindy did.  It was reasonable to expect 20-30 from Hanley and 30-20 Justin Upton.  Throw in BJ Upton in round four and you have a 70 HR, 90 SB start with your first three bats, juxtaposed with two Cy Young caliber hurlers.  Gio Gonzalez’s 220 K’s rounds out a formidable top end with 620 K’s.

Andre Ethier is another good pick that just hasn’t paid the dividends one would have hoped for.  Lindy has an excellent eye for talent and a keen sense for identifying those players that have a decent chance of going much higher in 2013 drafts.  Hanley Ramirez is historically an early first rounder.  Billy Butler is in his age 26 season with five years of experience under his belt, poised to take the next step.  Andre Ethier is a proven 30+ Homer veteran who was slowed by injuries in 2011 and needed only a dose of good health to generate a profit. Gio Gonzalez switched from the AL to the NL to deliver an improved ERA, WHIP and a boost in K’s, and Edwin Encarnacion, the sabermetric darling finally broke out after what seemed like 15 years in the majors.

11.14 Sean Marshall
12.2 Justin Morneau
13.14 Mike Minor
14.2 Torii Hunter
15.14 J.P. Arencibia
16.2 Zack Cozart
17.14 Nick Hundley
18.2 Jonathon Niese
19.14 Chase Utley
20.2 James Loney

Noteworthy here is that he didn’t take a catcher until the 15th round.  We’ve discussed the wisdom of waiting on catchers before in the NFBC zone.  Position scarcity is not a driving force in his drafting decisions.  Zack Cozart at 16.2 represents just his second middle infielder.  He took three outfielders in his first ten picks.  In the later rounds Lindy found a jewel in Josh Reddick (21.14) and an underrated Chipper Jones in the 26th round.

If Vegas books post a line on NFBC Las Vegas League One, I’m putting my money on the man from Idaho.

No, this is not another Mike Trout article.

Chad Schroeder has been and remains the best fantasy player in the world.  Virtually every year, whether it’s in baseball or football -- the NFFC, FFPC, or NFBC -- his teams rise toward the top of the leaderboards.  He’s won more championships than I can count.  In 2012 his NFBC teams are at it again.  For a number of weeks Chad has been leading the NFBC XII ($50,000 prize) and the NFBC Main Event ($100,000).  If he wins both a $75,000 bonus will kick in, bringing the grand total to $225.000.   I’ve studied and dissected his drafts (as I do anyone who performs well) to try to identify a common thread. To this date I cannot find one, other than he wins and wins a lot.  This week we’ll examine his first place Main Event team anyway to see what we can uncover.

This year Schroeder started drafting Joey Votto from 1.8 and followed that up with Andrew McCutchen at 2.8.  He started off with two players that have returned early 1st round value.  I highly recommend this strategy.  J  Let’s take a look at his first 10 picks:


1.8 Joey Votto
2.8 Andrew McCutchen
3.8 Brett Lawrie
4.8 CC Sabathia
5.8 Paul Konerko
6.8 Adam Jones
7.8 Yu Darvish
8.8 Gio Gonzalez
9.8 Emilio Bonifacio
10.8 Brandon League

As you can see, a key to any championship is drafting players that don’t suck.  Draft players that perform well.  Ok, setting aside the jests, he took 3 starting pitchers with his first 10 picks.  Gio Gonzalez struck out 197 batters in 32 starts last year in the AL, so it stood to reason he’d pick up a few more K’s in the senior circuit facing a pitcher instead of a designated hitter.  He is on pace for 220 strikeouts this year.  The whirling Darvish is on pace for 224 K’s.  The command problems and WHIP liability are no surprise, but neither is his dominance. CC Sabathia survived a brief stint on the disabled list and is still on pace for 200 K’s.  The Yankees left-hander has had five straight years of 197 or more punchouts.  Getting 600-650 K’s from starters 1-3 obviously lays an excellent pitching foundation.  He addressed the corner infield positions locking up sure power and worried not about position scarcity.  No catchers or middle infielders appear in the early mix, as he waited until the 8th round to secure Emilio Bonifacio.  In his first three picks he laid an offensive foundation by locking up 70 HR’s and 60 SB’s.  In his first six picks those totals rise to 130+/75.  He only took one starter, which is interesting as I and others have advocated nailing down two aces in the first six draft picks.  Let’s look at the next ten picks:

11.8 Rafael Betancourt
12.8 Angel Pagan
13.8 Chris Perez
14.8 J.P. Arencibia
15.8 Logan Morrison
16.8 Ian Desmond
17.8 Brandon McCarthy
18.8 Allen Craig
19.8 Gordon Beckham
20.8 Mike Carp

Waiting on closers paid off.  Chris Perez claimed that he pitched through an injury last year that decreased his effectiveness, but fantasy owners focused more on his drop in K’s and ERA/WHIP spike.  An oblique injury in spring training further lowered his ADP.   All setting the stage for another great value pick for this fantasy professional.  Three closers in rounds 9-13 round out the second third of his fantasy rotation.  In round 14 we see the first catcher selection, and in round 16 he drafted just his second middle infielder.  So much for position scarcity, Ian Desmond has broken out in a big way.

21.8 Henderson Alvarez
22.8 R.A. Dickey
23.8 Brett Cecil
24.8 Bartolo Colon
25.8 Josh Thole
26.8 Tyler Clippard
27.8 Marlon Byrd
28.8 Robert Andino
29.8 Nick Masset
30.8 Bronson Arroyo

R.A. Dickey has to be the pick of the year.  Strategy wise at this point, he’s already laid the foundation for his staff and is selecting pitchers with upside. Dickey in effect is that 2nd elite ace that I advocate getting in the first six rounds.  Obviously if you can draft Cy Young in round 22, by all means, do that instead.  Another outstanding draft for Chad that has put him in the driver’s seat, headed yet again for another huge pay day.

In the preseason we looked at a lot of the overhyped rookies and cautioned that burning a high draft pick to secure their services is a low percentage play.  Yes, you will hit the occasional Yahtzee, but more often you’ll end up scratching your head as you watch young bucks struggle as the league adjusts to them. Let’s take a look at some of the youngsters and what they’ve produced for fantasy owners through the first 16 weeks.

Yu Darvish is not Daisuke Matsuzaka, so don’t even go there.”  That was the mantra I heard from more than half of the touts backing the latest Japanese sensation this spring.  Maybe not, but there sure are a lot of similarities.  Let’s look at how these two each performed through their first 18 games in the states: Daisuke (3.84/10/123/1.23), Yu (3.88/11/132/1.37).  Matsuzaka issued 38 free passes, Darvish has handed out 61, good enough for the 5th highest total in baseball.  With Darvish you get a couple of extra K’s, a lot more walks, and a higher WHIP.  The hype machine drove the rookie’s price tag into the 5th round on Draft day in Las Vegas, a heavy cost for someone who had yet to throw a single pitch in the Major Leagues.  He was taken ahead of pitchers such as Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Brandon Beachy.

Matt Moore was another heavily hyped rookie taken in the 5th round, ahead of proven veteran Matt Cain.  The Devil Ray had just 9 innings on the Ranger rookie, but the results so far aren’t any better (4.39/6/99/1.46).  Investing so much is in unproven youngsters is high risk-low reward proposition.

Desmond Jennings (.238/39/6/28/17) was drafted in the 4th, Brett Lawrie (.278/52/8/37/7) in the 3rd, and Eric Hosmer (.226/39/9/40/9) in the 2nd round.  Jennings and Lawrie might live up to their draft position, but that is their upside.  Par is the best-case scenario.  In short, if you load up with too many puppies TOO EARLY on draft day, you’re loading up on downside.  The return on investments Jesus Montero (.257/29/9/36/0) in the 8th, Dustin Ackley in the 9th (.226/52/6/27/9) has also been less than expected.

As a counterpoint, those who grabbed Jason Kipnis (.271/55/11/53/20) in the 11th, Yoenis Cespedes (.306/27/13/45/7) in the 12th, or Mike Moustakas (.269/46/16/50/3) in the 15th were rewarded for their faith in youth and the price was a little more reasonable in the double digit rounds.  However, the mines still populate the youth field throughout the draft.  Brandon Belt (.237/21/4/31/6), a 14th round selection, has been virtually unplayable most of the season.  Mat Gamel didn’t show much in his 69 at-bats (.246/.293/.348) before tearing his anterior cruciate ligament and Lorenzo Cain only made it through five games before a groin strain and various other maladies sidelined him until after the All Star break.

The bulk of youth booty came in the second half of the draft: Bryce Harper (.270/49/8/26/12) in the 17th, Jose Altuve (.289/51/5/27/16) in the 18th, Mike Trout (.354/69/15/47/31) in the 20th, Wilin Rosario (.254/33/15/39/3) in the 22nd, Lance Lynn (3.27/11/115/1.21) in the 23rd, Tommy Milone (3.34/9/86/1.19) in the 26th, Jarrod Parker (3.00/7/76/1.22) in the 27th, and Trevor Plouffe (.259/44/19/38/0) also in the 27th.

I have taken my lumps in this area over the years, but I have learned that the shiny new toy frequently loses its luster quickly.  A successful draft strategy properly balances certainty and upside.  Build a foundation with as many rock solid performers as you can, THEN throw your darts in the later rounds when it won’t hurt so much if you swing and miss.  There are exceptions to every rule, but this general principle has served me well.

I was watching a fantasy baseball preview television program in the spring of 2011.  As you might recall, fantasy nation was enamored with the thought of Adam Dunn playing half of his games at US Cellular Field.  His ADP had reached an all-time high.  One of the stat heads touting the ‘three true outcomes’ epitome had crunched the numbers using his abacus and was glowing with his praise, but one of the player analysts tempered the optimism with a question, ‘Are you at all concerned with Dunn’s ability to adjust to DH-ing?’  Before the former player could continue his thought, the sabermetrician interjected his riposte full of snark, ‘Not at all.  Hitters hit.’

Ah, that they do.  I totally agreed.  Hitters do hit…..except when they don’t.  Last year the White Sox designated hitter did everything but hit, hacking his way to a (.159/.292/.277) line.  The former National struggled mightily as a DH (.176/.316/.315).  The only thing is that when he played first base he struggled even more (.122/.268/.174).  The debate continues.

Retired veterans Gary Sheffield and Frank Thomas both swore up and down throughout their careers that they hit better when they were able to play in the field.  They claimed their performance suffered when relegated to sitting around in the dugout for a couple of hours only to occasionally walk up to the dish to take a few cuts.  The reader can decide on their own just how significant these and other splits are.  I diligently scour numerous split stats looking for any edge I can get.

Jesus Montero is slashing a paltry (.190/.231/.272) as a designated hitter, but as a catcher he’s hitting fairly well (.309/.338/.496).  Make of it what you will, but I noticed this split a month into the season and used it to my advantage in daily contests at Draftstreet.com as well as avoiding the backstop in midseason leagues.  Three plus months into the season, this ‘sampling error’ has yet to correct itself.  Until Montero figures out a way to adjust to his largely sedentary role, I’m going to avoid him unless he’s in line to be the starting catcher.

Moving to the mound, San Francisco Giants hurlers have put up a 2.31 ERA at AT&T Park, but when they travel that number inflates to 4.85.  Proving that trend are Madison Bumgarner (1.81 Home/4.43 Away), Ryan Vogelsong (1.43 Home/3.59 Away),  Barry Zito (3.09 Home/5.19 Away), and Tim Lincecum (3.43 Home/9.00 Away).

At PNC Park Pittsburgh’s staff has generated an MLB second best 2.39 ERA, but outside of the ‘burgh’ their ERA rises to 4.70.  Kevin Correia (3.50 Home/4.68 Away) and Jeff Karstens (0.64 Home/6.50 Away) are still available in some NFBC leagues and should put up serviceable numbers and a handful of wins at home.

Cleveland Indian pitchers at Progressive Field are sporting a 3.78 ERA, but on the road that number is a league worst 5.36.   Ubaldo Jimenez (3.66 Home/ 6.49 Away), Justin Masterson (3.54 Home/5.06 Away), and Derek Lowe (2.86/5.81) hold true to that form.  I don’t own Jimenez or Masterson, but if I did I’d bench them away from ‘the Jake.’  Lowe becomes an interesting $1 pickup if he gets a two-start week at home and you’re chasing wins.

If you’re streaming two-start pitchers off of the wire and are looking for good matchups, the Colorado Rockies away from Coors are a good play.  The San Diego Padres are last in the majors with a mere 320 runs on the season.  That comes out to 3.55 per game.  The Rockies rank sixth in runs scored with 4.83 per game, but on the road they only score 3.54 per game. Everyone knows that Safeco field is a pitchers park, so it’s not surprising that the Mariners rank last in runs scored at home (2.86 runs per game).  What you may not know is that those same Mariners rank third in runs scored on the road (4.78 runs per game).  If you think your marginal starter is in for a quality start when Ichiro and company come to town, you might be disappointed.  Other noteworthy team splits include:  Milwaukee (5.56 Home/3.69 Road), Arizona (5.09 Home/3.50 Road), New York Mets (4.08 Home/5.09 Away), and San Diego (2.98 Home/4.11 Away).

It was the Fourth of July under a sweltering 95 degree Pittsburgh heat when Andrew McCutchen left the on-deck circle for his first plate appearance of the day.  Chants of "M-V-P, M-V-P" resonated throughout PNC Park.  Right they are.   The Pirates have the second best record in the National League and are primed to make a playoff run.  The Pirates center fielder is also poised to make a run at fantasy MVP.  Heading into the break the five tool star is slashing (.362/58/18/60/14) with an incredible (.431/27/8/27/4) over the last 60 days.

When the season resumes on Friday Pittsburgh can look forward to a dream schedule.  38 of their remaining 77 games are against the four worst pitching staffs (ranked by earned run average) in the National League:  the Colorado Rockies (last with 5.26), Houston Astros (next to last at 4.47), Chicago Cubs (14th with 4.36), and the Milwaukee Brewers (13th with 4.24).  The Buccos also get a visit from the San Diego Padres (staff earned run average of 4.65 away from Petco Park); travel to Great American Ballpark (most Home Run friendly stadium in all of baseball), and to Miller Park (second most Home Run friendly stadium) for six games apiece.

Pittsburgh has a reputation for being a light hitting team.  Year-to-date they rank 21st scoring 4.05 runs per game (as a guage the Texas Rangers lead the majors with 5.15 per game).  The first two months of the season the Pirates were dead last scoring a punchless 2.94 runs per game.  However, since June 1st the fans down by the three rivers have witnessed an offensive eruption of epic proportions, as the Pirates rank second to none scoring a whopping 5.65 runs per game.

McCutchen’s bat has led the charge, but he’s had plenty of help.  Over the last 30 days Michael McKenry (.326/.389/.674), Pedro Alvarez (.287/.392/.621), Neil Walker (.314/.405/.505), Garrett Jones (.300/.337/.550), Drew Sutton (.317/.344/.500) and Casey McGehee (.315/.373/.554) have all made opposing pitchers feel the power of the Zoltan.  There is enough on this group’s collective resumes combined with a juicy upcoming schedule to make most of these undervalued hitters decent targets in midseason leagues.  The Pirate’s brass is not resting on their laurels and is targeting Carlos Quentin and Justin Upton among others to bolster what is already shaping up to be a solid lineup.

The Pirate pitching staff gets some good matchups as well, with 36 of their remaining games coming against teams ranking near the bottom in run production: Houston Astros (23rd), Miami Marlins (26th), Los Angeles Dogers (27th), Chicago Cubs (29th), and the San Diego Padres (30th).  Remove A.J. Burnett’s crooked outing at Busch stadium back on May 2nd (12 earned runs) and he ends up with a 2.59 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP.  With 10 wins in 15 starts, the W’s should continue to pile up facing the leagues’ bottom feeders.  I’ve even picked up Jeff Karstens (3.92/1.22) in a couple of leagues for spot starts against some of their weak opponents. 

Down on the farm Starling Marte continues to hit (.290/.350/.492).  Get out a few FAAB dollars if he gets the call.  In the mean time Sutton is patrolling left (career: .271/.322/.420).  Justin Wilson (3.44/1.15) has increased his K-rate and improved his fastball command at Indianapolis and could get a look if Erik Bedard continues to struggle.  He is risky, but worth a stash and see if he gets the call as he offers value for his strikeout and win potential.

First impressions carry a lot of weight, even in the mind of the fantasy market on draft day.  Jose Bautista’s April of liquid nitrogen (.181/.320/.313) is hard to forget and it has skewed his 2012 overall numbers (.239/.359/.549).  In June the Blue Jays right fielder blasted an insane 14 moon shots, knocked in 30 runs, and slashed a juicy (.271/.408/.750).  At that pace he’d tally 84 bombs and 180 runs batted in.  Video game numbers that nobody can keep up, but they drive home the point that April was a mirage, and those who focus too much on his year-to-date batting average are going to mistake an asset for a potential liability.  The Dominican masher went yard 9 times in May while posting a .257 batting average.  Consider .260 his baseline with .300 upside.  He served up 30 post all-star break homers back in 2010, and his 23 blasts over the last 60 days illustrate that repeating such a feat would be no surprise.

In short, Bautista may be the most intriguing first round pick.  He’s going to lead the league in home runs, probably runs batted in, he’ll be near the top in run production, and swipe 4-6 bags, all the while giving you a batting average that doesn’t hurt.  With third base and outfield eligibility there may not be a more valuable pick in the first round in midseason leagues.  In terms of raw statistics, Carlos Gonzalez and Ryan Braun probably have more value, but they lack the flexibility that Bautista affords you later in the draft.  In terms of roster construction the Blue Jays most valuable player has value that is difficult to quantify, but very real.  You don’t have to leave value ‘on the table’ due to lack of room in your starting lineup.

To illustrate, on one team I own Paul Konerko, Adrian Gonzalez, and Adam Dunn.  All three are must start players.  Even if Mark Teixeira himself fell to the 20th round of that draft, I was stuck.  I either had to let a ton of value slide to someone else, or make a selection that would negate the value of an earlier pick.  I think we’re all aware that position flexibility has value, but this value isn’t always reflected in ADP.  There are no ADP’s out for midseason leagues, but I have to think that Jose Bautista will be valued similarly to what he was in the preseason (1.10 ADP), which makes him a solid early first round pick on my draft board.

Another element in the slugger’s favor is that stolen bases are more plentiful than they have been in the past.  The wire has been populated with 40+ stolen base potential pickups such as Rajai Davis, Quintin Berry, and Everth CabreraMichael Saunders, Elliot Johnson, and others were also available with 20+ potential.  Speed is available late and in the free agent pool.  Yes, power is also there, but it is harder to spot and doesn’t come in condensed form like the 50 jacks Bautista provides.

Miguel Cabrera is the other first rounder with multi-position flexibility. It’s worth noting the Detroit Tigers schedule after the all-star break:  12 games vs. Cleveland, 9 vs. Minnesota, 10 vs. Kansas City, and 6 vs. Toronto. Their schedule also includes three games at the Ballpark in Arlington and three at Fenway Park.  Now, respective team ranks in ERA: Boston 20th, Kansas City 24th, Toronto 26th, Cleveland 28th, and Minnesota 29th.  I’m loading up on Tigers if it fits my draft scheme.  Jhonny Peralta, Quintin Berry, and Delmon Young all have significant upside.

Jim Thome was neglected on the waiver wire this past weekend.  In a couple of leagues I won him uncontested.  Interesting.  Thome is long in the tooth, but his bat still has pop.   Watch his usage over the next week.  If he plays against righties he will have value as a frequent spot play.  If he gets close to everyday AB’s you just might have a steal on your hands.  I’m hoping that he has a poor week so that his price will remain ultra cheap.

We continue our positional review for the NFBC mid-season leagues to be drafted at the All-Star break. This week, the shortstops are front and center.

Starlin Castro boasts MLB’s lowest walk rate at 1.9 percent.  By that metric, the league’s most impatient player serves as an ironic cornerstone for Theo Epstein’s Chicago Cubs if there ever was one.  Delmon Young’s lack of plate discipline is enough to make me cringe and his rate is 3.1 percent.  Castro swings at 41percent of pitches outside the strike zone, fifth worst in the majors.  It’s not surprising that his 3.5 pitches per plate appearance aren’t helping to escalate opposing starters pitch counts.  His OBP of .317 doesn’t exactly lend itself to league leading run totals.  So how on earth could I have Starlin Castro ranked as the top fantasy shortstop heading into mid-season drafts?  Because of the words of wisdom from Hollywood sage Bill Murray, ‘It just doesn’t matter!’

Ok, that’s not totally true.  Those stats do matter, but Castro has a number of trump cards in his hip pocket that puts him at the top of my list.  I’ve been hearing for a long time now that Castro’s high BABIP is unsustainable and that as soon as his ‘luck’ runs out his batting average will fall along with his fantasy value.  If it truly is luck driving his incredibly stable BABIP numbers for last 27 months (2010: .346/2011: .344/2012: .351) then the Cubs shortstop should head to Las Vegas during the All Star Break and clean out the casinos.  Maybe Starlin Castro is simply a very skilled hitter?  Good hitters can maintain high BAPIPs.  Over 18 years Derek Jeter has compiled a career BABIP of .354 and 11 of those years he posted a BABIP of over .340.  The Yankee captain has done this with a career 20.2 Line Drive rate (Castro’s career rate is 20.6). Let’s look at the career BABIPS of some of the elite hitters in the game:  Joey Votto .358, Carlos Gonzalez .349, David Wright .344, Joe Mauer .343, Josh Hamilton .339.

Starlin Castro has a career BABIP of .346, and I hope in future drafts my competitors assume he just keeps getting lucky.  I’m more focused on his increasing line drive rate (19.5/20.1/23.5), his steady batting average (.300/.307/.308), rising slugging percentage (.408/.432/.451), isolated power trend (.108/.125/.142), and rising home run per fly ball rate (2.6/5.5/8.3).  He’s shaping up to be 15 HR 35 SB type of player with decent counting numbers and a batting average that’s better than you think.  The fact that he isn’t taking walks make that average more impactful since he’ll rack up more official AB’s than others that are more patient at the dish.  Plus he’s only 22 so the best is yet to come.

Hanley Ramirez deserves to be second even though he’s only hitting .258 and hasn’t sniffed .300 since 2010.  He is still on target for a 25-25 season and has batting average upside if the old Hanley ever decides to show up again.  He represents an interesting case because his career BABIP is .335, but last year his BABIP fell to .275 due to injuries and other issues.  This year Marlins third baseman has only raised that number to .286.  I am slightly concerned since he’s had two surgeries on the same shoulder.  The BABIP should bounce back to his established career norms and his batting average along with it.

Jose Reyes always represents the most possible downside from the shortstop position on draft day.  He’s an injury waiting to happen and even when he’s on the field you just don’t know what you’re going to get.  Pass.  Troy Tulowitzki is out at least eight weeks and could be shut down for the season with the Colorado Rockies out of the playoff race.  Jimmy Rollins has righted the ship after a slow start slashing (.323/.363/.604) in June.  With Chase Utley and Ryan Howard poised to return to the Phillies lineup the former MVP makes for an interesting choice in July drafts.

The prices for Rafael Furcal and Mike Aviles are likely to be sky high and I’m not sure I’d want to buy high with either of them given their injury histories.  The market for Dee Gordon may have cooled significantly.  There remains a ton of upside here.  I’m surprised that his BABIP is only .282 given his tremendous speed, 20.8 percent line drive rate and 58.9 percent ground ball rate.  There’s not enough of a track record here to know what’s going to happen, but he’ll have to raise his .274 OBP to generate the run and stolen base production his owners are expecting.

Another Judy to consider if you don’t like Gordon is Everth Cabrera who has 11 swipes in just 34 games.  If he can hit enough to stay in the lineup (big if) he has the speed to lead all shortstops in steals in the second half.  Jhonny Peralta will come mega cheap and remains part of a potentially lethal Detroit lineup.  He has done nothing to inspire confidence in 2012 (.258/.336/.394) but we all know he is capable.  He might be available as a flier if you ‘punt’ the position until the mid to late rounds.

Can I be Frank?  Even though most call me Greg, I’m going to be frank with you.  There are some players every year that I put on my ‘do not draft under any circumstances’ list.  Exhibit A in 2012, for me, was Albert Pujols. It didn’t matter how far he fell in the draft, he wasn’t going to fall far enough for his price to be attractive and I wanted no part of him. He just signed an enormous contract; strike one.  He moved from the AL to the NL where he will see more breaking balls (According to the testimony of dozens of players who have made the switch.  I haven’t actually crunched the data on this but I don’t doubt it’s veracity) and more importantly he had to learn the repertoires of dozens of new pitchers; strike two.  Finally, when I watched Albert in preseason games this I was concerned just how much he’d thinned out.  It’s the lightest I’d ever seen him.  Perhaps he had lost some strength?  In any event, it was yet another change that had potentially significant downside.   Strike three.  In 2011 Adam Dunn topped the list for some of the aforementioned reasons plus his new role as a DH.  Sometimes I miss out on values as a result, but overall ‘the list’ serves me well.

As I size-up the keystone, I’m currently planning to avoid Dustin Pedroia in midseason leagues.  I love his makeup, his gamer mentality, and his hustle.  The problem from a fantasy perspective is he’s so dedicated that he frequently plays through injuries and will lie and say he is healthy when he’s not, or he’ll downplay a significant injury that could linger and drag his stats down for a considerable stretch of time.  Pedroia is nursing a thumb injury and has scuffled at the plate after missing six games due to the ailment.  Word is that he’s fine and that he’s just trying to get his timing back.  We’ll see.  Aside from the thumb he just isn’t running this year.  Three stolen bases in 5 attempts isn’t enough production from someone who had a 17 overall ADP in March.  He might start running again, or he might just do what he’s done 2 of the last 5 years: end up with fewer than 10 bags.  The scrappy second baseman is on pace for just 12 bombs this year.  Statistical anomaly?  He’s averaging 15.6 homers every 600 AB’s over his seven-year major league career.  There is a decent chance that you’ll get 15-5 type production from this 2nd round pick.  All the while you have Jason Kipnis on a torrid 25-40 clip, Mike Aviles chugging along at 20-20, yeoman Jose Altuve reporting in at a 10-30 pace and coupled with a .319 batting average.  The latter breakouts will surely be much cheaper than the former MVP.

After a slow April, Robinson Cano has been his normal self (since May 1st: .319/30/11/27).  He should once again be the first second baseman off the board.  One could make a strong case that Jason Kipnis (.284/46/11/41/17) should be next, but I’m leaning slightly towards Ian Kinsler (.274/51/7/35/10) based on his track record, presence in a better lineup and the ballpark in Arlington.  Dustin Pedroia (.268/34/5/26/3) will probably be taken third and then the Indians’ rising star fourth in most drafts.  Dan Uggla (.251/46/11/41/0) rounds out the top 5.

Kelly Johnson (.258/34/9/30/7) is repeating last years counting numbers with an improved batting average and is a fine option if you miss out on the upper tiers.  Aaron Hill (.272/25/7/27/6) is another safety blanket that will be available in later rounds.  Owners have been waiting for a long time for Danny Espinosa (.230/32/6/19/9) to improve his batting average.  I have the misfortune of being stuck with the Nationals second baseman on one of my teams.  He becomes an asset if your roster is deep enough at MI to platoon him and start him only when he gets AB’s against left handed pitching (.375/.474/.667).  Against right handers he does more harm than good (.191/.271/.303).  First round selection Gordon Beckham has heated up the last thirty days (.265/17/5/16).  He’s done this before and only time will tell if this is just another hot streak or if this post-hype prospect has finally started to figure things out.

Darts at the end might include Rickie Weeks (.177/22/5/16/6) or Brian Roberts, who is hitting .318 in his first 22 AB’s since finally returning from the disabled list.

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