Iwakuma Tosses No-No (and other notes from 8/12/15)

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Since returning from the DL with a lat strain on July 6, Seattle Mariners right-handed pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma had seen a mixed bag of results with a couple of really good starts mixed in with a couple of bad ones and a few mediocre ones to compile a 3.64 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in 47 IP. However, in front of the home crowd on Wednesday, Iwakuma laid to rest any concerns by tossing a no-hitter with 7 strikeouts and 3 walks against the Baltimore Orioles.

Over the last few seasons, Iwakuma has been one of the more underrated pitchers in the game, which is probably due to his lack of strikeout appeal. Since Iwakuma came over to the Majors from Japan in 2012, the average strikeout rate for starting pitchers has been 7.24 K/9 and Iwakuma has posted a 7.52 K/9 in his career. So while he has been a bit above average in strikeouts, he’s surely not the master artist of the strikeout. But where Iwakuma comes up big in his game is in his precision control.

During that same time frame since 2012, the average walk rate among starting pitchers has been 2.76 BB/9, yet, for his career, Iwakuma sits nearly a full walk lower at 1.78 BB/9. Iwakuma also has a knack for limiting hits thanks to a strong 50.5% ground ball rate that induces a lot of soft/medium hit ground balls that go for easy outs. So Iwakuma’s exceptional walk rate combined with his ability to get a lot of ground ball outs has allowed him to post a 1.08 WHIP, which is the 5th lowest WHIP out of all pitchers in the Majors since 2012 (minimum 400 innings pitched). There probably aren’t many baseball fans who would have guessed that.

Now that Iwakuma has proven himself to be healthy and productive with this no-hitter, he should go on to perform just as he has over the last few seasons as long as he doesn’t incur another injury, and that is some incredibly useful fantasy material.

Now let’s check out the rest of Wednesday’s action.

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Cueto Ditches the Reds, Now Bleeds Royal Blue (and other notes from 7/26/15)

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Johnny Cueto was the next big name to be traded on Sunday as the Cincinnati Reds decided to get something in return for the impending free agent. Their trade partner was the Kansas City Royals who sent three prospects over to Cincinnati: Brandon FinneganJohn Lamb, and Cody Reed — all of whom are left-handed pitchers. Let’s first take a look at what this trade does for the Royals and the fantasy impact it makes.

The reigning American League champion Royals have not slowed down at all this year as they have a 7.5 game lead in the AL Central and own the best record in the American League. They have been so successful behind a relentless offense, tremendous defense, and a dominant bullpen. The Royals offense is surely not a powerful one as they rank just 24th in the Majors in home runs, but they are very pesky and strikeout the least in all of baseball, which means they are constantly putting the ball in play and making things happen on the base paths. By any defensive rating system, the Royals defense ranks as the top defense in the league by a large margin. And their bullpen, also ranks the best in the league with a 2.12 ERA with the “HDH” formula of Kelvin HerreraWade Davis, and Greg Holland to work the 7th, 8th, and 9th innings.

What the Royals have severely lacked though this season with the loss of James Shields to the Padres is an ace type pitcher to step up and be the leader of the pitching staff. The young fireballer, Yordano Ventura, was expected to kind of take over the reigns, but he has struggled to put together a consistent performance. Jason Vargas, Danny Duffy, and Jeremy Guthrie are unspectacular options that are back end of the rotation type of starters who have not contributed much at all, and Vargas got hit with a season-ending injury this past week. Their most reliable starting pitcher so far has been the free agent signing of Edinson Volquez, but seldom does he display the ability to blow anyone away with ace type of stuff anymore and is not someone to anchor a staff. Out of starting pitchers this season, the Royals have received a 4.27 ERA, which ranks 22nd in the Majors, and they also have received the 2nd lowest amount of innings pitched from their starting pitchers.

So the need in Kansas City was apparent. Enter Mr. Cueto. Since 2011, Cueto has had the 2nd best ERA (2.51) next to Clayton Kershaw out of all pitchers with a minimum of 500 innings pitched. What’s most impressive about that is he has done so despite pitching his home games in one of the most hitter friendly parks in the league at Great American Ballpark.

During those years, Cueto has posted BABIP marks of .249, .296, .238, and .234 this season. Now the .296 mark is around league average, but all the other marks are very low and the question of whether or not it is sustainable comes into play. Over the last two seasons, Cueto has been giving up more fly balls and has had a knack for inducing soft contact. So while the BABIP marks are low and he shouldn’t be expected to maintain his current season mark, he still should have the ability to keep his BABIP lower than average over the course of the rest of the season with Kansas City. Throw in the fact that his new team has incredible range and defense all around the diamond and that speaks even more to the notion that Cueto can be a low BABIP machine as his defense will track down a lot of batted balls for him.

The switch from the NL to the AL should hurt his strikeout rate in theory since he will have to deal with pitching to the designated hitter instead of opposing pitchers. His current strikeout rate is at 8.27 K/9, so I would imagine that he might fall to a rate near 7.50 K/9 or lower over the remainder of the season. However, the home park switch from Great American Ballpark to Kaufmann Stadium is a nice move for him with Kauffman Stadium being much more friendly to pitchers. Also helping to offset any regression that he may incur in strikeout rate is the fact that he will be pitching for a winning team that has a shutdown bullpen. Despite an excellent 2.62 ERA, Cueto’s win-loss record sits barely over .500 at 7-6. The Reds bullpen blew three wins for Cueto, so he could easily be in double digits in the win column already. So his new buddies down in the bullpen should be able to provide him a boost in win potential.

Overall, I definitely don’t think that the trade for Cueto has any negative impact on his fantasy value. If anything, it should help him a bit as long as he doesn’t falter under the greater spotlight of pitching for a 1st place team. And for the Royals, this is obviously a huge get for them as they look to make a return to the World Series. The Royals certainly needed to make a move to acquire an ace because it was going to be a rough go if they entered the post-season with Volquez as their number one guy, and Cueto’s presence will also ease the workload of one of the most used bullpens in the league. Now let’s take a look at the Reds side of it.

Out of the three prospects that the Reds received, Finnegan is by far the most attractive so he will be the main focus on the Reds side of the deal. Finnegan was drafted by the Royals in the 1st round just over a year ago and he made a rapid ascension to the Majors as the Royals brought him up late in the season as a bullpen arm. Finnegan then went on to shine in some high leverage situations in the post-season. The left-handed Finnegan is relatively small in stature for a Major League pitcher at 5’11” 185 lbs. and because of that, he often draws comparison to former closer great Billy Wagner. Finnegan doesn’t throw as hard as Wagner did though, but he still comes in with some good velocity as he averages around 93 MPH on his heater. He complements his fastball with a slider and changeup, with the slider functioning as his primary out pitch.

He has compiled a 2.59 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and 21 K/13 BB in 24.1 IP as a relief pitcher in the Majors, but the Reds will send him to AAA to get stretched out as a starting pitcher where he could possibly debut for them before the season ends. Finnegan’s most immediate area of work appears to be in his control. In college at Texas Christian University before he was drafted, Finnegan did show some control issues and those same issues seem to be present in his short Major League work thus far. If he can figure out how to issue less walks then he can have a pretty good future in the league, but with just 85.1 IP as a professional since he was drafted last June, it’s a little difficult to gauge where he is at and how he may or may not progress.

For redraft leagues, Finnegan is not really someone to pay attention to because he will be getting stretched out in the Minors, and if he does make it to the Reds Major League rotation this season, I wouldn’t necessarily expect immediate success. For keeper and dynasty leagues though, Finnegan is well worth a look, though in any competitive dynasty league he shouldn’t be available as a free agent.

Now let’s take a look at the rest of Sunday’s slate of action.

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Cingrani’s Return to the Rotation (and other notes from 7/20/15)

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The Cincinnati Reds announced that left-handed pitcher Tony Cingrani would be returning from the DL with a shoulder injury on Wednesday against the Cubs and he will be inserted into the starting rotation after working in relief for the whole 2015 season so far.

For a refresher, or if you are unfamiliar with Cingrani, he is a former top pitching prospect in the Reds organization and he zoomed his way through the Minor Leagues, showing complete dominance with 1.45 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, and 11.85 K/9 vs. 2.70 BB/9 in the course of his Minor League career in 223.1 IP.  He became a fixture on the Reds Major League roster in the 2013 season when he posted a 2.92 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and 120 K/43 BB in 104.2 IP in 23 appearances (18 starts). With that strong rookie season, Cingrani was a popular pick to breakout even further in the 2014 season.  However, Cingrani was a big bust in 2014 with injuries playing a role, and he finished the season making just 13 appearances (11 starts) to compile an ugly 4.55 ERA, 1.53 WHIP, and 61 K/35 BB in 63.1 IP.

It wasn’t necessarily just injuries though that prevented Cingrani from repeating his rookie season success.  Also potentially playing a factor was his pitch usage.  Cingrani has always been a pitcher to rely very heavily on his fastball as it is a pitch that he has now thrown a whopping 79.7% of the time in his short Major League career up to this point.  There are just not any starting pitchers in the league who throw fastballs at that type of rate because it’s just not a good formula for success — for a point of reference, the highest fastball percentage of any starting pitcher this season is Gerrit Cole at 69.5%.  With fastballs being thrown at the rate Cingrani has thrown them at, opposing hitters only have to worry about looking for a fastball most of the time and if that’s what they are guessing, then 4 out of 5 times they would be right.  What Cingrani does have going for him with his fastball though is that he gets a lot of vertical movement on the pitch, or in other words, his fastball has rising action that can make it difficult for hitters to catch up to when it is up in the zone.

To go with the fastball, he will mix in an occasional slider and changeup, but his changeup just isn’t that great of a pitch as it has induced swinging strikes just a mere 4.2% of the time.  So the lack of a quality third pitch offering also adds to the poor formula for success for a starting pitcher.  Starting pitchers generally want to have at least three quality pitches and be able to use them all with confidence.  Having at least three pitch options helps to keep opposing hitters guessing more to get them off balance.

So with such a heavy reliance on the fastball and a lack of a quality third pitch (and significant use of it), Cingrani would appear to profile more as a relief pitcher, despite what his Minor League success would suggest.  In the Minor Leagues, he was likely able to get away with these things better because the talent level obviously is much lower than the Majors and his deceptive delivery probably aided him as well.  So in his 2013 rookie season, it should have come as no surprise that he was able to carry over that same type of Minor League success over to the Majors initially.  With Major League teams being so unfamiliar with him since they never had seen him before, that deception likely created a lot of confusion for hitters.  But after more and more game film on him was made available with each additional start he made in the Majors, better scouting reports were probably generated and given to the hitters, which caused some regression for Cingrani as the 2013 season went on, and it must have also given hitters in 2014 better preparation when facing him.

So for the 2015 season, the Reds shifted Cingrani to the relief role where many scouts believed his mostly fastballs approach could be better utilized.  It was believed that he could possibly be the heir apparent to Aroldis Chapman at closer since Chapman will be a free agent at the end of the 2016 season.  As a reliever this season, Cingrani has shown occasional dominance, but poor control has gotten the best of him at times and he had a 3.47 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, and 26 K/17 BB in 23.1 IP before landing on the DL with a shoulder injury.

With the flawed pitch usage, poor control, and returning from a shoulder injury, it is hard to envision Cingrani’s return to the rotation going over very well.  But with the Reds being sellers nearing the trade deadline, they could be shipping off Johnny Cueto and/or Mike Leake, which is going to leave them pretty starved for starting pitching.  So it probably wouldn’t hurt to give Cingrani another shot at starting, but his best chance at a quality career may be in the bullpen ala Zach Britton.

For deeper season long fantasy leagues, he should be scooped up just knowing what his upside is as seen from his 2013 rookie season.  In dynasty leagues, it would be a more fine addition if by some chance he is able to turn some type of corner.  But overall, I wouldn’t be expecting anything extraordinary for him — but taking a chance on him isn’t the worst of ideas either.  If you pick him up, then you just kind of have to cross your fingers that he makes adjustments because he’s not likely to succeed if he sticks with the same approach.

Let’s check out the rest of Monday’s action.

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