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Wednesday 16th Aug 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.

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.

Today we look at how to approach drafting catchers in the NFBC second half leagues.

There is a philosophy I’ve developed when it comes to drafting catchers.  Wait.  Just wait.  Don’t get sucked into reaching for the elite backstops.  The opportunity cost is too great and even if they technically perform up to the draft spot you selected them in, the holes created elsewhere on your roster usually outweigh whatever ‘profit’ you’ve gained from taking a catcher early in the draft.  Kneeling for nine innings behind the dish takes a serious toll on the body.  All position players are subject to injury, but none so much as those who don the tools of ignorance.  Sometimes it leads to time on the disabled list, but quite often they just play through their physical ailments and as a result performance suffers. Looking merely at ADP’s top five catchers back on draft day in March, Carlos Santana is hitting .229, Brian McCann .240, and Matt Wieters .245.  All of their slugging percentages are down and their overall production has not met the expectation of owners that likely had to burn a top five pick in order to secure their services.

If I had to take on the risk of an elite catcher early, Mike Napoli is the one that might tempt me to take that path.  After the all star break in 2011 Napoli posted numbers you just don’t see from a catcher (.383/.466/.706).  He hit 18 bombs in only 61 games.  Also consider that Ron Washington was allergic to giving the former Angel regular at-bats until the very end of last year’s campaign.  In the first two months of the 2011 season, Mike could only talk his way into 108 AB’s.  This year “The Chef” has 147 April-May AB’s.  Now a regular fixture in the Ranger lineup that features Ian Kinsler, Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, and Nelson Cruz, the stage is set for an offensive explosion later this summer down south in the Texas heat at the Ballpark in Arlington.

You will no longer be able to get Yadier Molina (.337/.390/.528) in the tenth round.  I have a suspicion that few will believe Carlos Ruiz (.349/.399/.562), A.J. Pierzynski (.288/.335/.508), or Jarrod Saltalamacchia (.273/.317/.567) can sustain their success and thus they might still be relatively inexpensive plays.  The one I’ve really had my eye on for quite some time is Wilin Rosario.  I first saw him play in the Arizona Fall League back in 2009 when he smacked two homers and stood out as at least the second most intriguing slugger in the AFL field, which included the likes of Ike Davis, Buster Posey, Mike Moustakas, and Starlin Castro.  Davis also went yard, displaying light tower power, but his swing looked long.  In contrast, Rosario had a short stroke and a quick bat that made a different sound when he made contact.  He always hit it right on the screws.  The knock on him was that he might have trouble handling breaking balls once he faced better pitchers in the bigs.  It has been an adjustment but Wilin is improving.  Rosario is crushing left-handed pitchers (.297/.333/.811) but has struggled against right-handers (.215/.247/.418).  I’m going all in on the upside here.  Worst case is I’ll get the power but have to manage a poor batting average.  The price is cheap and if he improves against RHP… boom goes the dynamite!

Jesus Montero deserves a look if you can get him late enough.   Montero struggles as a designated hitter (.207/.248/.310) but he mashes when he gets to call the game behind the plate (.337/.375/.562).  This shows the upside built into his package if he can figure out away to adjust to the DH role or if Eric Wedge lets him catch more often.  Salvador Perez (39 games in 2011: .331/21/3/20) is currently in the midst of a minor league rehab assignment at Triple-A Omaha.  He’s worth a look in the later rounds.  Russell Martin’s first half has been a disaster (.208/.345/.389) but this creates a buying opportunity you won’t usually have for a catcher with pop in the Yankee lineup.  Nick Hundley (.172/.231/.280) is someone you can probably get in the final rounds.  Who wants someone batting below the Mendoza line?  Don’t forget that Hundley hit very well after the all star break last year (.367/.404/.656).  If you miss out on your earlier targets Hundley is a flier to consider.  Victor Martinez is also a stash and hold possibility as he might make a return later in the second half if his MRI exam later this month goes well.

 

I drafted two NFBC Mixed League auction teams at the Bellagio back in March.  In the first auction I drafted Jacoby Ellsbury(60-day DL shoulder), Cory Luebke(Tommy John surgery), Brett Gardner(elbow), Sergio Santos(shoulder), Doug Fister(two DL stints for a costochondral strain), Justin Morneau(wrist), Vernon Wells(thumb surgery) and Scott Rolen(shoulder).  If you have a MASH unit even half the size of mine, you may be excited to know that the NFBC is offering you a second chance by offering mid-season leagues once again this year.  The leagues will be offered in early July during MLB’s three day All Star Break.  That gives you a full month to prep and take advantage of your mulligan.  Taken from the NFBC website, here are the current dates the drafts will be offered along with available time slots:

Monday, July 9
$125 Pay Top 3 League, 7 pm ET
$500 Pay Top 3 League, 8 pm ET
Tuesday, July 10
$250 Don Mathis Pay Top 3 League (uses first half stats), 7 pm ET
$125 Pay Top 3 League, 8 pm ET
Wednesday, July 11
$250 Pay Top 3 League, 7 pm ET
$125 Pay Top 3 League, 9 pm ET

In the coming weeks we’ll examine potential targets and possible busts.  Should you discount the first half busts?  Or do they present buying opportunities? But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  The most difficult thing about drafting is not player evaluation, but knowing the market; knowing when other teams will target the players you want to draft.  That challenge is never more difficult than in mid-season leagues when the industry is generally void of cheat sheets, draft guides, and reliable ADP rankings.  A good starting point is to examine ADP rankings from this spring.  What follows is taken from NFBC satellite leagues during March, so at least they aren’t skewed with January and February draft data.

1.1 Matt Kemp
1.2 Albert Pujols
1.3 Miguel Cabrera
1.4 Troy Tulowitzki
1.5 Ryan Braun
1.6 Adrian Gonzalez
1.7 Jacoby Ellsbury
1.8 Joey Votto
1.9 Robinson Cano
1.10 Jose Bautista
1.11 Carlos Gonzalez
1.12 Justin Upton
1.13 Hanley Ramirez
1.14 Prince Fielder
1.15 Evan Longoria
2.1 Curtis Granderson
2.2 Dustin Pedroia
2.3 Ian Kinsler
2.4 Clayton Kershaw
2.5 Jose Reyes

Starting at the top, how far Matt Kemp falls will be interesting.  He will probably be back from his hamstring injury, but one has to wonder just how much he will run.  He earned his #1 overall ADP by being a 40-40 threat.  In 36 games he has stolen two bases and has been caught thrice.  With two stints on the disabled list with an injury to the same hamstring, I wouldn’t assume any speed production from the elite slugger.  It’s difficult to justify a #1 overall selection from an OF with no guaranteed speed, no matter how much they mash.

Then there is the Albert Pujols problem.  How much will he be discounted, if at all?  He has hit 5 HR’s and batted over .300 over the last two weeks.  Maybe he just had more trouble than the average hitter adjusting to all the new pitchers in the American League.  In spring training he looked lighter that I’ve ever seen him before.  He still looks lean to me.  Perhaps he has lost some strength?

Miguel Cabrera could easily go number one with 1B and 3B eligibility, putting up the stellar numbers we’ve come to expect from him.  After a slow start Ryan Braun turned on the jets and is now flirting with a 45-35 pace.  Carlos Gonzalez is en fuego with stats that prorate to a 45-25 season to go with a .333 batting average.  We haven’t even mentioned the best hitter in all of baseball yet.  Josh Hamilton is on pace for a phenomenal 65 bombs and 175 RBI’s.  Hanley Ramirez is blazing at a 30-30 clip.  Everyone we have mentioned thus far could be taken at or near the top.

Jacoby Ellsbury and Evan Longoria are obviously not in the picture this early.  One has to wonder if Adrian Gonzalez has staying power in the first round.  I think not.  Then there are the breakouts such as Adam Jones, who is in the midst of his best season at age 26, cruising just below a 50-30 clip.  He’s out producing Ryan Braun.  I’m just sayin’….  Robinson Cano has righted the ship after a chilly April and will probably go right around where he usually does towards the end of the 1st.

With Paul Konerko hitting like Albert Pujols, and the latter looking more like Mark Belanger at the plate until just a couple of weeks ago, the fantasy world has been turned on its statistical head.  In this type of drafting climate I would submit a KDS preference of 1.15.  Without a well defined early 1st round ADP it’s not worth sacrificing an early 2nd round pick (moving down in the 2nd round) just to move up in the 1st round pick.  The one exception to this is Hanley Ramirez, who is worth taking #1 overall to lock up a (.300/100/30/100/30) type of slash line at shortstop.

I have a confession to make.  I once drafted Angel Berroa.  Yes, it’s true.  In the first year of the NFBC, back in 2004, I drafted the Royals anti-slugging shortstop as my starting middle infielder.  Coming off a Rookie of the Year effort (.287/17/21) it seemed logical at the time, albeit a little insane in retrospect.  I was counting on him for 20-plus thefts.  Berroa struggled and only ended up with 14.  Even more problematic was that fact that he was on my bench for a healthy chunk of those.  Particularly joyous was watching him swipe four bags Saturday June 19th at Citizens Bank Park, all while riding the pine of my fantasy roster.  We all know that stolen bases are the scarcest of all offensive counting stats, and 28% of my middle infielder’s speed production for the season had just evaporated in one evening.  Could this tragedy have been avoided?  In this case, yes.

I failed to consider the opposing catcher’s caught stealing percentage.  Mike Leiberthal was the Phillies starting catcher that year.  He was coming off a season in which he threw out just 18% of all base stealers, which ranked last in 2003 by an 8% margin!  He ended up throwing out just 21% in 2004.  Good for next to last.  With the competition of the NFBC one cannot afford these types of oversights.  Whether you are considering benching a regular (for example Dee Gordon in a slump or facing a tough matchup) or starting a marginal Judy hitter with some speed, the opposing catcher’s arm should always be part of the equation.

You aren’t going to bag cheap steals against the Diamondbacks this year.  Miguel Montero has gunned down an eye popping 59% of would be base stealers.  It doesn’t get much easier against the Dodgers either as A.J. Ellis is tossing out 46%.  Yadier Molina, JP Arencibia, and Matt Wieters are all at approximately 38%.  Nick Hundley and Carlos Ruiz round out the sharpshooters at about 37%.  It’s going to be tough sledding against the Cardinals, Padres, Orioles, Blue Jays, and Phillies.

Entering the season, Buster Posey had never posted a caught stealing percentage below 37%.  In 2012 he’s been successful throwing out just 24% of those on the base paths.  Jarrod Saltalamacchia has thrown out just 16%.  If you have anyone with even a modicum of speed headed to Fenway, get him in your lineup.  Rod Barajas used to be solid, but his arm has weakened as he enters the twilight of his career.  Opposing base stealers have been successful 91% of the time this year.  It’s a small sample size, but if I’m looking for an edge when deciding a flip of the coin play I’m riding that wave.  In 23 games behind the plate Joe Mauer is eliminating just 13% of opposing base thieves.  Other ‘targets’ include Devin Mesoraco 17% and Bobby Wilson 21%.

 Boston travels to Toronto this weekend.  I own Rajai Davis in more than one league and I am starting him this weekend even though he’s merely a platoon player at this point.  In June Toronto has six total on tap vs. the Red Sox and three more against the Angels.  Davis makes for a sneaky half-week play here and there if you can afford the roster spot and need a speed boost.

The second week of June, Xavier Avery is a must start as the Red Sox host the Orioles for a three game set.  Baltimore’s leadoff hitter also faces the Pirates thrice and Angels twice in June.

If Jarrod Dyson was dropped in your league, he’s worth a look next week if he’s no longer limited by his hamstring injury.  Dyson has three games against the Twins and another three against the Pirates.  Japanese rookie Norichika Aoki faces the Pirates this weekend and is worth consideration as a spot play as well.

Of course the pitcher’s ability to hold runners and their time to home plate are huge factors in this as well, but that’s a topic for another day.  Knuckleballers are great to run on because catchers have such difficulty handling their offerings.  Unfortunately Tim Wakefield retired, but at least R.A. Dickey is still around.

In the inaugural NFBC season in 2004 it seemed so easy.  Target a couple of aging veteran sluggers moving to Colorado, such as Jeremy Burnitz and Vinny Castilla, in the late rounds and hammer pitching early.  Unfortunately the implementation and evolution of the mysterious humidor the last decade has all but eliminated this Coors Field magic elixir from draft day strategy.  It’s still a hitter’s park, but merely e pluribus Unum.

Twenty games into the Rockies home schedule it seemed to me there had been a lot of scoring in Denver so I tabulated some numbers (thru Thursday’s games):

When the visiting team starts a right-handed pitcher, Colorado scores 7.7 runs per game.  However, when a southpaw takes the mound that figure drops to 5 runs per game.  Combined the 6.5 clip is the highest rate since 2001, supposedly the last of the pre-humidor years.   The information in the public domain surrounding the humidor has so much myth and legend mixed in with fact it’s hard to discern anything with certainty other than the numbers filling the box score.  Tim Lincecum created a stir in September of 2010 when he threw a ball back because he thought it was juiced.  I’ve seen the clip in which he tossed the baseball back to the umpire, requested a different one, and then muttered ‘****ing juiced balls….’. Certainly a pitcher can tell if there’s something up with a ball as he can feel if it has been dried out, rubbed down, etc.  Timmy isn’t the only one to make this complaint over the years.   I’ve heard stories that they run out of humidor balls on occasion.  I’ve heard tales that some balls are more ‘water-logged’ than others.  All that I can surmise with certitude is that scoring is up the first quarter and if I wait for the sample size to become ‘significant’ it will be too late to use that knowledge for the 2012 fantasy season.

Season Games Runs Runs per Game Home Runs
2012 20 130 6.5 27
2011 81 439 5.37 94
2010 81 479 5.91 108
2009 81 464 5.72 98
2008 81 411 5.07 92
2007 82 478 5.82 75
2006 81 456 5.62 75
2005 81 451 5.56 86
2004 81 496 6.12 111
2003 81 517 6.38 113
2002 81 498 6.14 97
2001 81 554 6.83 124
2000 81 633 7.81 112

Chris Nelson was placed on the 15 day disabled list on Wednesday.  Jordan Pacheco has been the prime beneficiary and has started six straight games at third base.  He is also capable of filling in at first base, second base, or donning the tools of ignorance in a pinch.  In 65 home AB’s over the 2011-12 seasons he’s posted solid rate stats (.290/7/3/13).  With NFBC’s midweek moves, Pacheco is a useful bench bat/spot play with upside.  Tyler Colvin has been getting more AB’s in The Rockies outfield and at first base to give Todd Helton a breather.  The former 1st rounder has been productive at home (.333/6/2/9) in just 36 AB’s.  On the flip side, both Todd Helton (.186/.314/.372:road) and Dexter Fowler (.189/.268/.270:road) have struggled to hit whenever they leave Blake Street.  I’d bench them during away games.

Looking ahead, the Rockies will host the Houston Astros next week.  Jason Castro and Justin Maxwell are worth a look to see if playing four games at 5,280 feet will elevate their game.

********************************************************

This week it will be interesting to see how the AB’s are distributed in Miami with Emilio Bonifacio hitting the DL and Gaby Sanchez optioned to AAA.  Chris Coghlan was called up and got the start in left field on Sunday as Ozzie Guillen moved Logan Morrison to first base.  Bryan Petersen will probably continue to get the starts in center field, but I’m interested to see if Austin Kearns gets a chance.  I’m not a believer in Coghlan.  Kearns is streaky.  If you’re looking for lightning in a bottle Austin might be your huckleberry.

The venues my band has played over the years run the gamut from the po-dunk hole in the wall bars with 15 disinterested inebriated patrons, to large festivals containing a raucous 5,000+ fully engaged in every song.  There is a palpable difference in intensity and the notion that it can’t impact ones performance is peculiar.   There’s an unspoken myth floating in some sabermetric circles that there’s little difference between pitching in the 8th inning and closing out games in the 9th.  Rubbish.   If I’m a David Robertson owner I’m not panicking right now, but I am concerned.   After 12 consecutive scoreless appearances to start the season, most of them dominant, the new Yankee closer struggled mightily in his first two games in the Big Apple trying to preserve the lead in the 9th.   In his first outing against the Devil Rays he gave up a hit and walked two to load the bases before getting out of the jam.  Truth be told, he probably would have walked 10 if not for the ocean sized strike zone in place that inning.  The next evening his luck ran out as the strike zone shrunk back down to normal size and Robertson served up four hits, a walk, a home run, and a Yankee loss.  It is obviously way too early to give up on Robertson or Soriano (1.69 WHIP), but I am glad that I own Cory Wade in my AL Only league.

In February Big Lead Sports reported that San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker had no problems finding a replacement for Eva Longoria.  Roto owners still trying to replace Evan Longoria have a much bigger challenge.  Recent injuries to Kevin Youkilis and Pablo Sandoval have decreased an already limited third base supply.  If you missed out on the Will Middlebrooks sweepstakes, is there anything coming down the pipeline?

Scott Rolen is exhibit 1,373 of why spring training stats don’t mean jack.  The Reds third-baseman claimed this spring that he was pain free for the first time in four to five  years and that he finally had full range of motion in his shoulder after playing without it the last few seasons.  The box score from exhibition games seemed to corroborate that his stroke was back (.356/.442/.578).  I saw several of Cincinnati’s spring training games.  Every time the former Cardinal made contact he smoked the ball.  Even his outs were line drives right at defenders.  Like so many pre-season success stories, Scotty’s March mashing seems like a distant memory from an alternate universe (.174/.238/.304: in 29 real games).   The Reds claim that Rolen’s shoulder is barking again and have placed him on the disabled list.  Todd Frazier stands to benefit the most from the move. The 2007 supplemental first round pick had already seen a start in left field where Chris Heisey (.200/.253/.286) and Ryan Ludwick (.184/.271/.342) have been disappointments.  Rolen’s injury opens the door, but Dusty Baker’s fickleness could force him back to the pine if Todd goes hitless two straight games.  Frazier remains a batting average risk, but has 15-15 potential if he earns regular playing time.

Kung Fu Panda remains out with a fractured hamate bone in his left hand.  Conor Gillaspie’s three hits and zero walks in 20 plate appearances earned an option back down to AAA Fresno.  Charlie Culberson (.284/27/5/24/1) was called up to replace him on the 25-man roster.  He will man the keystone for the Giants, but qualifies at third base in the NFBC.  The 2007 first round pick stole 25 bases in High-A ball two years ago, so he could provided double digit steals and homers if you are desperate and everything clicks for him right out of the gates.

There was a conspicuous lack of interest in Brandon Inge in Sunday night’s FAAB bidding.  I grabbed him with a token $15 bid in one league and he remains unowned in a few others.  Fascinating.  Third base is a scarce position…or so I thought; yet the Motown castoff is deemed unworthy of even a bench spot or occasional spot play in favorable matchups.   Since 2006 Inge has averaged 67 Runs, 79 RBI’s and 19.6 HR’s every 550 AB’s.  Granted that comes gift wrapped with a career .234 BA, but for waiver wire fodder among corner infielders he possesses decent upside.   He has two 27 HR seasons on his resume, and don’t forget his pre All Star break numbers in 2009 (.268-51-21-58-2).  That’s good production over 86 games. Obviously you can’t bank on that, but for a buck or two that’s a solid ROI dart.

I’ve flown cross-country to Sin City many times since my initial trek out west for the NFBC at the Stardust Hotel and Casino back in the spring of 2006.  I’ve visited numerous hotels up and down the strip.  I never stayed at the Mirage, but I’ve seen countless of them each and every fantasy season.  We are one month into the NFBC.  It’s easy to panic and overreact to something based on a small sample size.  Take me for example, dropping both David Robertson and Edward Mujica recently to plug perceived holes elsewhere.  I gave away two probable closers all to fix roto problems that might in the end turn out to be merely illusions.  Let’s take a look at some xFIP and ERA discrepancies to see if we can identify some of these.

 

Pitcher ERA xFIP K BB
Wei-Yin Chen 2.76 4.58 23 12
Ryan Dempster 0.95 2.89 29 9
Barry Zito 1.76 5.22 15 13
Ted Lilly 1.38 4.71 15 9
Derek Lowe 2.39 4.51 10 12
Jeremy Hellickson 2.75 4.86 23 15
Johny Cueto 1.31 4.00 26 7
Kyle Lohse 2.11 4.06 24 7
Brandon Beachy 1.62 3.91 27 10
Jake Peavy 1.99 3.73 39 6
Joe Saunders 1.24 3.71 24 9
Ross Detwiler 1.59 3.69 21 9
Wandy Rodriguez 1.64 3.55 27 10

 

These hurlers are not pitching as well as their ERA might indicate.  There’s no way Barry Zito , Ted Lilly or Derek Lowe can keep this up with such poor K/BB ratios.  Not to mention that Barry’s .186 BABIP is unsustainable.  The one exception might be Jeremy Hellickson (though I’m not crazy about his K/BB ratio).  With Tampa Bay’s great fielders and continual defensive shifts, we should not be surprised when some of their starters outperform their xFIP.  Last year Jeremy Hellickson posted a similar line (2.95 ERA/4.72 xFIP).

 

Pitcher ERA xFIP K BB
Yovani Gallardo 5.79 4.02 31 14
Rick Porcello 4.91 3.71 20 6
Matt Harrison 5.40 3.68 19 7
Aaron Harang 5.24 3.88 32 16
Tim Lincecum 5.68 3.42 33 17
Felix Doubront 5.19 3.37 30 12
Josh Johnson 6.61 3.38 26 12
Adam Wainright 5.61 2.66 34 7
Josh Tomlin 5.27 3.69 19 5
Ivan Nova 5.58 3.82 28 9
Chris Volstad 6.55 3.38 21 10
Zack Greinke 4.11 2.75 35 10

Zack Greinke is an interesting case.  Zack has a career BABIP of .310 but this year that number has risen to .368.  Gravity will pull that number back down to earth, but will he ever live up to his xFIP? Last year the former Cy Young award winner posted a 3.83 ERA but had a 2.56 xFIP.  That discrepancy of 1.27 roughly matches this year’s gap.  He also had a 3.13 ERA at home and a 4.70 line on the road.  Those road struggles have continued this year with a 7.20 ERA whilst traveling but a dazzling 1.80 ERA in Milwaukee.  This home/road split has manifested most years during his career.   It’s just a guess, but I have to wonder if his road struggles might be at least partially attributed to differences in the pitching mounds.  I’m a believer that subtle variations in height, slope, and firmness can have a significant impact.  I discussed this briefly a couple of years ago with former Major League pitcher Nate Robertson.  According to former Tiger there’s definitely a difference, and there were certain ballparks he liked to pitch in more than others because of the mound.  The slightest difference could alter the action of the plant foot, affecting the release point and ultimately the ability to command pitches effectively.

Josh Johnson .439 BABIP tells me something is not right.  I don’t think ‘bad luck ‘ can explain it.  His line drive rate of 29.8% is double last year’s 14.8% and his career 20.1%.  In my opinion his shoulder is not fully healthy after an off-season of rehab without surgery.  His average fastball velocity of 92.7 mph is down a tick from last year and down a couple ticks from the 95 mph he threw in 2009-2010.   Tommy John recoveree Adam Wainwright also makes the list.  Interestingly his fastball velocity is also down 1.4 mph from last year.  However, Wainwright’s vastly superior K/BB ratio portends of better things on the immediate horizon for the Cardinal ace.  His line drive rate is right in line with career norms at 17.9%.  His home run per fly ball rate of 28% should regress to career norms (8.2%) in short order.

 

 

How many of you drafted Barry Zito knowing that he would have a sub 2.00 ERA right now?  Ok, of those who said yes, how many also drafted both Jason Hammel and Bronson Arroyo?  If you said yes again you are either psychic or crazy.  Maybe both.  What is behind these unexpected performances from veterans who had struggled mightily the previous year?  I want look at some of the veteran hurlers coming off poor seasons and dig beneath the surface peripheral stats that merely tell us that they’re doing a good job and try to find out why they are pitching so well.

Pitcher 2010 Slider Pct. 2011 Slider Pct. 2012 Slider Pct. 2011 ERA 2012 ERA
Jake Peavy 15.9 16 20.4 4.92 1.67
Jason Hammel 19.1 17.2 24.6 4.76 1.73
Barry Zito 14.5 8.5 37.4 5.87 1.67
Bronson Arroyo 13.6 15.6 22.3 5.07 2.7
Ervin Santana 36.9 38.3 30.9 5.58 7.23
Mat Latos 22.9 24.4 14 3.47 5.97

Obviously there are numerous factors at play here, not just how often a pitcher throws a slider.  Being formulaic would be silly.  You can’t just throw the slider more often, leave it at that, and assume improved results.  It has to be a quality pitch and sequenced properly.  Just ask Philip Humber, who caught the Mariners off guard by doubling his slider usage.  It’s an extreme example, but one that illustrates the possible effects of changing pitch arsenal and pitch frequency.  However, the Red Sox apparently got the memo and sent Humber to the showers after pounding him for 9 earned runs in his next outing.  We do know that a slider puts more stress on the elbow.  Could an increase in throwing the slider indicate a return to health?  Notice how Barry Zito stopped throwing his slider as much last year.  This year the former USC Trojan is working it in 37% of the time.   He’s also throwing his fastball 20% less this year.  Perhaps this is in part because he’s experienced a decrease in fastball velocity four straight years.  It will be interesting to see how hitters adjust to the new and improved version of the southpaw and whether or not a high level of success is sustainable once the updated scouting reports make their rounds.

I’m sure that Jason Hammel is thrilled to escape the confines of Coors Field, but that’s not the only factor in play here as he’s throwing his slider 9% more often than last year.  Bronson Arroyo is letting it slide more frequently as well.  The Reds' rocker has also ramped up his cutter percentage to 21.4%, up 14% from last year. Jake Peavy hasn’t thrown his slider this much since 2007.  He’s also throwing it with more velocity (2 mph more on average).  As a Peavy owner I’d like to think of this as another indication that he’s healthier than he has been in years.

Conversely, both Ervin Santana and Mat Latos are throwing their slider much less this year.   That’s a red flag.  A pitcher could simply ditch the pitch due to lack of command or ineffectiveness.  He could also be compensating for discomfort or injury in the elbow or shoulder.  I avoided the former Padre in all leagues this year due to concerns about his shoulder.  I don’t think Latos can be the same pitcher unless he goes back to using his slider more.  He’s tried to compensate by throwing his changeup more often, but the results have not been pretty.  He needs to use his slider frequently to be effective and that elevates the health risk.   My eye will be on Santana during his next start to see if I can discern why he’s using this part of his arsenal less often.  If he’s unable to command his slider, that would explain a lot.   He rarely uses his changeup so hitters can then just sit on his fastball and tee off.  In just 5 starts Ervin has already served up 10 round trippers.

I ran into Justin Verlander on a cold Saturday in Detroit at Comerica Park in January of 2006.  He was coming off a strong season in the minors in which between High A Lakeland and Double-A Erie he posted a dominant line of 1.29/0.90 with 136 K’s and just 26 BB’s in 118 IP.   I knew that scouts raved about his fastball, but I didn’t know how fast it was.  So I asked him.  With a slight scowl on his face and even more disdain in his voice he replied, ‘I don’t know…it gets up there.’ Ha.  It was a simple question.  Was it really that offensive?  Somehow I felt that he would have been less offended if I’d asked him the size of his jockstrap.

I was preparing for the 2006 NFBC draft, looking for endgame fliers to fill out my staff.   From other sources I would glean that the former Monarch could dial it up to 101 mph and could compliment it with a plus curve.  Fortunately, Justin’s cup of coffee in September of 2005 was bitter (7.15/1.76) and kept him off of fantasy radars, enabling me to nab him with the 29th pick of the 2006 Main Event.

Matt Moore’s cup of coffee last year was sweet.  In fact it came with 5 lumps of sugar and lots of cream (2.89 ERA/1.28 WHIP/15 K’s/9 IP).  He topped it off with a dominant win against the Texas Rangers in the playoffs.  Through three games this season Matt Moore has a 5.12 ERA, 1.65 WHIP, 11 K’s, and 12 BB’s in 19 IP.  One could argue that the effectual ‘fantasy’ difference between Verlander and Moore as rookies is hype, a cup of coffee, and twenty-plus rounds (Matt Moore: 85 ADP).  Repeat after me:  There is no such thing as a pitching prospect on draft day.  Even if there were such a thing, you should never draft them in the first twenty rounds of a 15 team NFBC mixed league draft.  OK, with that out of the way, let’s look at some pitching prospects to track in the coming weeks.

With three stops between High-A and Double-A last year, Joe Wieland filled the stat sheet with a 150/21 K/BB ratio in 155 innings while posting a 1.97 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP.  In his first career major-league start at Chavez Ravine, the Rangers’ fourth round pick was hit hard, giving up 6 earned runs in 5 innings.  In Petco he posted a much more roto-friendly line, striking out 7 with only 1 walk in 6 IP.  He held the Phillies to just one earned run.  He’s someone to watch as he could get more results like this at home as his 2-seamer gets more sinking action closer to sea level.

Wily Peralta had a solid year at Double-A Huntsville last year (3.46/1.29/117 K’s/120 IP) before turning it up a notch for 5 starts in Nashville (2.03/1.03/40 K’s/ 31 IP).  I like his 2-seamer that breaks away from lefties and quickly gets in to jam right-handed hitters.  His off speed stuff is decent.  My concern is whether or not he’ll continue to locate his secondary pitches once he faces National League competition.  He was called up Saturday to replace Kameron Loe (bereavement leave) on the Brewers 25-man roster, so his stay may be a short one, but the Dominican should get a chance later in the year to break into the rotation.

Jarrod Parker will take the mound for the Athletics Wednesday.   His 13 free passes in 11 innings this spring do not instill confidence in the short term.  I need to see strike one on the first pitch and a lot of 1-2 counts from Oakland’s number one pitching prospect before I forecast good things in the box score.

Drew Hutchison made his MLB début Saturday and the Royals gave him a rude welcome.  It’s just one start, but I think Hutchison may need more seasoning in the minors.    His 2-seamer has good movement when he has it working well, but the amount of movement he get’s out of it is inconsistent.  It’s very hittable when it flattens out and it’s not good enough that he can afford to make mistakes with it over the plate or good hitters will tee off once they’ve seen him a couple of times.  His 4-seamer can be an effective pitch that he can dial up to 94 and he should be able to get some K’s getting hitters trying to chase it up in the zone.  His slider should be an effective pitch against righties but lefties will feast on it.  On the bright side, I love pitchers who limit the walks and Drew is typically very stingy with handing out the free passes.  Hutchison struggled with his command when he got in trouble during the 5th inning Saturday night against the Royals, but that should change with more experience as long as he trusts his stuff.

The San Francisco Giants selected Kurt Ainsworth in the first round back in 1999.  In 2002 he posted solid ratios (3.41/1.24) and struck out 119 in just 116 innings in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League.  It was enough to put the former LSU Tiger on my fantasy radar and make him an end game sleeper pick in deep leagues.   However the ERA and WHIP scars from his short stint as a Baltimore Orioles’ starter back in 2004 (9.69/1.69) still remain.  I survived the carnage and lived to tell about it, but my fantasy team did not. Being placed on life-support in April and pronounced dead in mid May, my roto squad faced an insurmountable uphill climb on it’s way to the fantasy graveyard.

Since that ill-fated year I’ve come to call this phenomena ‘The Ainsworth Effect.’  No, it wasn’t just Kurt that sank my squad, but he and others like him sealed my fate.   If you’ve played 5x5 leagues long enough you’ve experienced this.   Ask Edinson Volquez and Edwin Jackson owners last year.  Or ask Bronson Arroyo owners who got sucked in in years past by a shutout or two straight quality starts.  Showing just enough to fool you into thinking that the water is fine.  So you plug him back into your starting lineup to watch him give up 10 earned runs in 1 Inning and then get pulled from the game.  Unless you have Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, AND Cliff Lee all on your squad there’s just no way to recover from too many of these ERA/WHIP bombs.   It didn’t take long for me to realize that this notion that you can wait on drafting pitchers was a myth.

When Luke Hochevar took the mound for the Royals home opener Friday afternoon, a nauseating feeling of déjà vu came over me as I watched the first inning unfold.  Michael Brantley started off with a single.  Followed by Asdrubal Cabrera who doubled to right field.  Then, even though Eric Hosmer was playing so far off of first that he was almost positioned as a second basemen, and Yuniesky Betancourt was just a few feet to the left, Shin-Soo Choo found a way to hit between them.  I had to push rewind to make sure my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me as I watched Yuni display the range of a Sumu-wrestler; inexplicably unable to coral the grounder.  Two runs came in to score.  Luke retired the next two batters before the real fun began.   Shelley Duncan, fooled on an 0-1 fastball up and out of the zone, tried to check his swing and poked an ‘excuse-me’ floater just over the head of Hosmer, driving in Choo to make it 3-0.  Next, legendary slugger Casey Kotchman fell behind 0-2 before tapping a soft liner into right.  Then young keystoner Jason Kipnis drove a deep drive to center that fell near the warning track.  It was a very catchable, but center fielder Jarrod Dyson looked either stoned or hungover trying to track it down as it fell in for a triple -- 5-0 Tribe.  Offensive stalwart Jack Hannahan joined in the soiree with a single to center, driving home Kipnis.  The Indians had batted around and they weren’t done yet.  Brantley approached the dish for the second time in the inning.  This time he crushed a drive deep off the top of the right field fence, just missing a HR by inches.  By now Hochevar looked so frustrated that he seemed to be throwing batting practice.  This Indians team that couldn’t hit their way out of a wet paper sack the first week of the season suddenly looked like Harvey’s Wallbangers.    2/3 IP and 7 ER -- wonderful.   If Luke gets the hook at this point it would take 18 Innings of scoreless baseball just to get a roto squad back to par.  He essentially just vaporized two complete game shutouts.

The moral of the story is, the longer you wait on pitching the more ERA bombs you’ll have bombarding your squad.  It doesn’t take too many of these before the damage is irreparable.  At that point it won’t matter how many Cy Youngs you pick up off of the waiver wire unless you’ve got the aces at the top end of your rotation to sustain such debacles.   I know that there are many ways to skin a cat, but it’s rare that I’ve had success in the NFBC format without at least two elite WHIP anchors on my squad.   Armed thusly, I’m able to survive whatever Brian Matusz, Charlie Morton, and Rocky Biddle throw my way.  As we watch the cream rise to the top of the NFBC overall standings in the coming months, it will be interesting to see which types of roster construction strategies had the most success.

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