2016 Fantasy Baseball Relief Pitcher Rankings

Closers…You either hate them or you…hate them. There’s really no other alternative. The position is extremely volatile. Imagine two friends hanging out on a road trip together. We’ll call them Swaggy and D-Lo. Swaggy is confiding in D-Lo about his infidelities regarding betraying his special lady friend — we’ll call her Black Widow. And what Swaggy doesn’t know is that D-Lo is secretly filming what Swaggy is saying about cheating on Black Widow. Then somehow D-Lo’s video finds its way to the internet, but he swears he doesn’t know how it got there…and then some guy named Kobe secretly gives it a nice long chuckle. Well, closers in MLB are more volatile than even that situation! Need proof? Consider this…

There are 30 teams in MLB. Last year at some point or another — whether it was due to injury, trade, poor performance, getting caught going heavy on the PED’s, having an asinine post-game celebration, wearing a baseball cap too far to the side, or some combination of the above (I’m looking at you Mr. Rodney) — 15 players that were their team’s closer on Opening Day were not their team’s closer for at least a total of 2 months of the season (the majority of the 15 weren’t closer for at least 3 months). 15 of 30. And if I know my fractions, that reduces to 1/2. Half the teams in baseball last year had a change at closer. 50%!

The point is that while it’s nice to have a couple of those fortunate 15 for your fantasy squad, it’s really not the most important thing. There WILL be a carousel of closers that could be readily available to you if you miss out on the ones that you want. All you have to do is pay attention, hit the waiver wire, plug and play — and BOOM! You now have saves. 

This relief pitchers rankings list contains all of the pitchers who are either *expected* to be their team’s closer on Opening Day or who are *considered* to be their team’s closer but are going to start the season on the DL/suspended list. Other setup men might be mentioned within other players’ descriptions, but will not be ranked if they don’t meet the aforementioned criteria. But other setup men who I like to possibly ascend to closer status will be bullet pointed at the end of the rankings.

Below are THE BACKWARDS K 2016 FANTASY BASEBALL RELIEF PITCHER RANKINGS. Included for each player is “The Backwards K Quick Take” and a self-produced player projection for 2016.

***Please note the following:

  • The player’s names are color coded to signal different tiers at the position.
  • The rankings reflect standard 5×5 roto scoring settings (W/SV/ERA/WHIP/K) with position eligibility requirements as 10 total games played at a position in 2015, or 5 total games started at a position in 2015 (i.e. Yahoo! settings).
  • The numerical order is not necessarily a suggested order to draft them in, but it is the order that is calculated based on each player’s listed projections, unless noted otherwise.

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Severino Looks Good In Pinstripes (and other notes from 8/5/15)

The New York Yankees weren’t exactly expected by many to be legitimate contenders this season as they were considered to be too old (average age of opening day lineup 33-34 years old), they had question marks revolving around some of their key players (Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira), and their starting pitching staff lacked depth and stability. But despite their age, the offense has performed very well on the heels of the resurgence of Rodriguez coming back from his long suspension and Teixeira swinging a healthy bat. The strong Yankee offense has been able to give the team a lot of leads and then the dominant back end of the bullpen, featuring the combination of Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, has been a nearly unbreakable unit. This fierce combination of solid offense and a dominant bullpen has led to a current 1st place position in the AL East standings. However, one pre-season notion has been right — the Yankees starting pitching has been very underwhelming overall.

Yankees starting pitching ranks 23rd in the Majors in ERA at 4.35, which is the lowest ranking of any team that is currently locked into a playoff spot if the season were to end today. Masahiro Tanaka has performed pretty well, but he spent some time on the DL and is not nearly as dominant as last season. C.C. Sabathia is not earning his pinstripes as he is statistically one of the worst pitchers in the league. Nathan Eovaldi, in his first year in the Bronx, has failed to have his breakout season once again. And a carousel of pitchers in the #5 spot have not been giving the Yankees the strongest of performances.

The most consistent starting pitcher for the Yankees up to this point, both performance and health wise, has been Michael Pineda who owns a 9-7 record, 3.97 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, and 117 K/15 BB in 118 IP.  But last week, Pineda was scratched from his scheduled start and was placed on the DL with tightness in his pitching elbow and he is is expected to miss all of August. So without making a move at the trading deadline for a starting pitcher, the Yankees appeared to be in a heap of trouble and that left them to promote their top pitching prospect, Luis Severino, to start Wednesday’s game against the Red Sox.

Severino is a long, wiry pitcher at the age of 21 and he has progressed very well through the Minors, pitching at AAA before his promotion. Severino throws an electric fastball that reaches the upper 90’s and he complements it with an above average changeup and a developing slider. There have been concerns about his small size making him more suitable as a relief pitcher down the road, but there are some reports that believe Severino can make it as a starting pitcher and the Yankees appear to be content to give him a try in that role.

Throughout his Minor League career, Severino has posted a 2.30 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 2.27 BB/9, and 9.06 K/9. He possesses great strikeout potential that is matched with very good control for a pitcher that is at such a tender age. This combination of qualities is something that should bode well for him as he makes his first tour through the league as the fill-in for Pineda, which could lead to a permanent stay, even after Pineda returns, should he impress the Yankees brass.

Severino’s debut went about as well as it could’ve despite being charged with a loss. The young righty posted a line of 5 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, and 7 K on 94 pitches. His pitch count ran a little high, but the upside is easy to see and he turned a lot of heads in this divisional matchup.

Severino is the type of pitcher that clearly needs to be owned in all dynasty/keeper leagues and he should also be owned in a large majority of redraft leagues due the type of immediate upside that he possesses as a high strikeout, low walk pitcher. And Severino could prove to be quite the difference maker for both the Yankees and fantasy squads down the stretch as the playoffs approach. Don’t sleep too long on him.

Let’s check out the rest of Wednesday’s action…  Continue reading

A Ray of Light for the Diamondbacks (and other notes from 7/7/15)

Just who is Robbie Ray?  You may remember has as part of a 3-player deal that occurred a couple months after the 2013 season ended where the Washington Nationals received Doug Fister from the Tigers in exchange for two pitching prospects, Ray and Ian Krol.  At the time, it looked like a pretty nice fleece job done by the Nationals to acquire Fister’s final two arbitration seasons for a couple of pitching prospects that were pretty decent but didn’t have overly impressive numbers in the Minors up to that point.

Ray spent most of the 2014 season for the Tigers at AAA, but did log 9 appearances and 6 starts for the Major League squad.  However, the 8.16 ERA and 1.88 WHIP in 28.2 IP along with an unimpressive AAA performance must have been enough for the Tigers to have seen from the lefty, as they then shipped him over to the Diamondbacks in a 3-team deal that netted them Shane Greene upon the conclusion of the 2014 season.

Ray arrived with the Diamondbacks and was assigned to AAA out of Spring Training where after 9 starts, he had a 3.67 ERA, 1.70 WHIP, and 57 K/27 BB in 41.2 IP.  Ray struck out a lot of batters, but he also issued a ton of free passes and got hit pretty hard as well.  So when the Diamondbacks called him up when the need arose, not much was to be expected of the 23-year old lefty, especially after his huge disappointment in Detroit.

With the strong 7 inning performance where he did not allow an earned run against the Rangers on Tuesday, Ray improved to 3-4 with a 2.16 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, and 38 K/12 BB in 50 IP.  Those are some quality numbers and at first glance at his career numbers both in the Minors and Majors, it would be easy to dismiss this performance as a fluke.  However, three things that we need to look at are his pitch velocity, arm slot, and pitch arsenal.

Last season, Ray’s average fastball velocity according to PITCHf/x data was 91.3 MPH, and that was with a few relief appearances worked in there (pitchers generally throw harder in relief because they don’t have to “save” their arm for the whole game).  But this season in his time with the D-Backs, he’s averaged 93.3 MPH — a full two ticks higher on the radar gun.  We see it so often how pitchers with increased velocity from one year to the next go on to have more success for the simple reason that harder thrown pitches are generally harder for batters to hit.  Then looking at FanGraphs, we can see his release point from last year was higher and closer to his head than this year.  In other words, he is pitching the ball from a lower arm slot that is more of a 3/4 motion than overhand.  So perhaps Ray is finding much more comfort from a lower arm slot, and maybe it is even the reason why he is generating more velocity.  But whatever it is, it seems to be working for him and is likely more than just a coincidence.  Lastly, his pitch arsenal from last season had him throwing his slider just 3.5% of the time and his changeup 27.1%.  But this season, he’s using his slider much more often at 17.1% while his changeup is down to 9.2%.  Also, his slider appears to be much harder with a 4.2% velocity increase from last season.

So looking at these things, we are seeing a different Robbie Ray than before, which could arguably be the reasons why Ray is having much better luck this season.  And while Ray is bound to regress from his excellent ERA and WHIP numbers that he is posting right now, he may not completely implode.  His BABIP currently sits at .255, which is lower than the league average around .300, but as a fly ball heavy pitcher he should be able to post a lower BABIP as long as he’s not giving up a ton of line drives (which he’s not).  Then his strand rate of 73.2% is slightly above the league average, but it’s certainly not crazy high.  But where his regression should come primarily is in the form of more home runs allowed.  As a fly ball pitcher, he can post below a below average BABIP, but that also should mean that he should allow home runs at a higher rate than his current 0.36 HR/9 mark — especially pitching his home games in a hitter friendly park at Chase Field.  If he maintains his current strikeout and walk rates, then I could see Ray finishing the season around a 3.50 ERA and 1.15 WHIP, which would be much more than anyone expected from him.

Let’s take a look at the rest of Tuesday’s action!

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Sometimes A Pitcher Is Only As Good As His Defense (and other notes from 6/23/15)

After Danny Salazar suffered a meltdown in the 5th inning against the Tigers on Tuesday and I was simultaneously being asked by my brother what is wrong with Carlos Carrasco this season, I thought about both of those Indians pitchers, as well as rotation mates Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer, and did a little digging and and discovered some interesting things.

Here is a look at each of these four Indians starting pitchers numbers in line drive rate (LD%), ground ball rate (GB%), fly ball rate (FB%), hard hit rate (Hard%), BABIP, ERA, and xFIP this season (I’m not including a 5th Indians SP because that 5th spot for them has been in flux all season long):

Salazar: 18.8 LD%, 45.2 GB%, 36.0 FB%, 30.7 Hard%, .323 BABIP, 4.06 ERA, 2.81 xFIP

Carrasco: 20.8 LD%, 46.6 GB%, 32.6 FB%, 33.5 Hard%, .347 BABIP, 4.35 ERA, 2.87 xFIP

Kluber: 22.2 LD%, 46.2 GB%, 31.6 FB%, 27.7 Hard%, .335 BABIP, 3.65 ERA, 2.80 xFIP

Bauer: 18.1 LD%, 37.2 GB%, 44.7 FB%, 29.4 Hard%, .283 BABIP, 3.86 ERA, 4.27 xFIP

So what we see here is that Salazar, Carrasco, and Kluber are all more on the ground ball side of things while Bauer is a flyball pitcher.  So we would expect the first three guys to to have higher batting average on balls in play (BABIP) marks because ground ball pitchers tend to almost always have higher marks than fly ball pitchers, because balls that are hit in the air for fly balls have a greater chance of being recorded for an out as long as it doesn’t leave the park.  But what is odd is how high those marks are for those first three pitchers listed and it poses the question if there is something outside of their control that is affecting them since it is odd to see three pitchers from the same team with such inflated BABIP marks.

The league average BABIP is usually around .300 and the league average hard hit rate is around 30%.  Salazar, Carrasco, and Kluber all rank in the top 20 in highest BABIP, but it is only Carrasco that appears in the top 20 highest hard hit rates and none of them appear in the top 20 highest line drive rates.  Line drives account for a good portion of hard hit balls, and hard hit balls have a greater chance to fall in for hits, which would increase a pitcher’s BABIP.  But if none of these three guys are really giving up a ton of line drives and it’s only really Carrasco who is getting hit harder than the average pitcher, why are their BABIP’s so much higher than the league average?

The answer here is the Indians team defense as a whole is just not very good and is costing these pitchers in ERA and WHIP.  According to ratings, the Indians rank 27th in the Majors in defensive efficiency as their defense has cost them 13.8 runs so far this season, and their defense is likely the reason why the Indians have the 3rd highest team BABIP in baseball. It’s not that the Indians defense makes a lot of errors, but it’s more the fact that they lack range, defensive prowess, and the ability to prevent hits from getting in and runs from scoring.  It could be attributed to poor defensive players, but it also could be attributed to poor defensive alignments set by the coaching staff and/or inefficient use of defensive shifts. Whatever it may be, the Indians had the same bad defense last year, but this year it seems to be affecting their starting pitchers more negatively.

What this means for the Indians pitchers (not named Bauer) going forward is that even though they have excellent xFIP marks (expected fielding independent ERA — measures what a pitcher’s ERA should be if defense was not a factor), huge improvements in ERA and WHIP in the near future are not necessarily a given.  Yes, they all should receive some better fortune and see their numbers regress at least somewhat toward the mean, but a complete 180 turnaround may not be in the cards and it cannot be expected that their ERA’s get as low as their xFIP’s.  However, something that may help is the recent promotion of defensive wizard Francisco Lindor to play shortstop for the Indians.  One player isn’t likely to turn around the whole defense, but Lindor has always been praised for his glove work and can at least provide some positive value in helping to prevent hits and runs.

Two other teams that have high team BABIP marks that also rank very poorly defensively are the White Sox and Padres. The White Sox have the highest BABIP in all of baseball and have the lowest defensive rating to coincide with it.  So this hurts guys like Jose QuintanaJeff Samardzija, John Danks, and Carlos Rodon who all are more on the ground ball side of things.  However, ace Chris Sale and his .283 BABIP appears to be skating by just fine (and should continue to) because he has been getting a lot of fly balls.  As for the Padres, we knew going into the season that their defense would be questionable all around with a completely revamped outfield that consisted of some poorly rated defensive players, and an infield that also looked like it was going to have some issues.  The Padres currently have the 6th highest team BABIP and rank 29th in defensive rating, so it should come as no surprise that heavy ground ball pitchers Tyson Ross and Andrew Cashner are having such abysmal seasons so far.

So these are examples of how a poor defense can affect a pitching staff, or more specifically individual pitchers with ground ball tendencies, and it should give some pause to whether or not these aforementioned pitchers can truly turn things around and post numbers to what their “expected” stats say that they should.  I like Salazar, Carrasco, and Kluber, but this revelation does shine some poor light on their outlooks for the remainder of the season.

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

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I’m the Biggest Ross That You’ve Seen Thus Far (and other notes from 6/19/15)

I have talked about Nationals pitcher prospect Joe Ross in each of his last two starts since he got the call up to the Majors a couple weeks ago.  He is the younger brother of Padres pitcher Tyson Ross and I described him as a very intriguing prospect that had good control, great strikeout potential, and heavy ground ball tendencies.  This all sounds like a formula for success!  Ross debuted against the Cubs and likely had the debut jitters in that one as he gave up 3 runs in 5 innings.  But his next start was against the Brewers and he appeared to be much more comfortable, giving up just 2 runs in 8 innings while striking out 8.  And in each game he got a lot of ground ball outs.

In his third start of the season on Friday, Ross was truly brilliant as he tossed 7.1 innings allowing 1 run on 7 base runners while whiffing 11 Pirates (and he came highly recommended in the DFS strategy post for Friday).  The excellent game improved his record to 2-1 with a 2.66 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, and 23 K/2 BB in 20.2 IP, and he has the very pretty ground ball rate of 56.6%.

Tanner Roark and Ross have been in the rotation for the Nationals due to the injuries to Doug Fister and Stephen Strasburg.  However, Fister is set to return so that is going to send Roark to the bullpen with the Nationals opting to keep Ross in the rotation for the time being.  But once Strasburg is ready to come back, Ross will either be sent back to the Minors or perhaps be kept on as a reliever.  Either way, it’s not great for his fantasy outlook for this season, but we may want to hold on to him to see just how well Strasburg fares in his return from the DL.  In keeper and dynasty leagues though, Ross is a must grab as he is definitely looking like he might be the biggest Ross that we’ve seen thus far, better than his older brother.

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

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Max Is A Scher Thing (and other notes from 6/14/15)

When the Nationals handed out a 7-year/$210 million contract to Max Scherzer, it definitely raised some eyebrows.  Scherzer’s contract was only $5 million less than 2-time reigning NL Cy Young, Clayton Kershaw, but though Scherzer was obviously a great pitcher in his own right, he did not have the same dominant track record as Kershaw.  Also, Kershaw was 26 years old when he signed his mega deal, while Scherzer was 30.  So the Dodgers figure to get all of Kershaw’s best years in this contract (and already have received one of his best), but the Nationals will have Scherzer, barring a trade, through his age 36 season and he could very well begin to digress in a couple seasons.

But for the time being, Scherzer has been worth every penny and it is best exemplified in his near perfect start on Sunday at Milwaukee.  Scherzer had a perfect game through 6 innings until Carlos Gomez hit a bloop single that barely got over the glove of a leaping Anthony Rendon at second base.  Scherzer did not let that phase him though, as he went on to finish the rest of the game for a complete game 1-hit shutout with an amazing 16 strikeouts.  If you’re into the game score stat, Scherzer finished with a game score of 100, which is the best pitching game of the season (Corey Kluber and Chris Heston both had 98) and it is the highest score since Kershaw’s score of 102 nearly one year ago when he pitched a no-hitter with 15 strikeouts.  For the season, Scherzer is now 7-5 with a 1.93 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, and 113 K/14 BB in 93.1 IP.

We all knew that Scherzer was one of the best pitchers in the game coming into the year, but let’s take a look at what is making him even more amazing this season.  First, and probably most important, is his huge improvement in his walk rate.  Coming up through the Diamondbacks Minor League system, Scherzer was the typical hard throwing prospect with some control issues and he compiled a walk rate of 4.13 BB/9.  When he first entered the Majors, he had a little bit below average control, but steadily improved over the years to be above average in the area, and his career best came in his 2013 AL Cy Young season with 2.35 BB/9.  But this season, he has taken it to the next level with a current 1.35 BB/9.  He is doing so by throwing a first pitch strike a whopping 70.3% of the time, which is the third highest in the league and is shattering his previous career best of 64.5%.

Another reason for his continued dominance is that he is working with a lowered BABIP of .268, but even though that mark is much lower than his career rate of .303, there is some belief to it given that he is inducing more fly balls than ever this season being in the top 5 in the Majors in fly ball rate and fly ball/ground ball ratio.  Fly ball pitchers are able to maintain a lower BABIP than ground ball pitchers because fly balls are more easily caught for sure outs.  And even though he is allowing more fly balls, not many of them are leaving the stadium for home runs as he has allowed only 6 in 13 starts.

With these improvements this year, Scherzer is going to be able to continue to baffle hitters in his first season in the National League and is looking like as “Scher” of a thing as any pitcher out there.  It is going to be a great race for the NL Cy Young.

Let’s check in on the rest of the Sunday card of games!

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Spend a Ton o’ Bux on Buxton? (and other notes from 6/13/15)

With the Twins on a 5-game losing streak to fall out of 1st place in the AL Central, they are still in a good position to contend for a playoff spot being just 2 games back of the Royals and currently possessing one of the two AL Wildcard spots, though there is lots of baseball to be played.  They have been one of the most surprising teams of the season as they were predicted to finish last place in the division by most baseball outlets.  But they want to make a statement and show the league that they mean business and they plan on competing all the way through the end of September, and that big statement that they are making is promoting top outfield prospect Byron Buxton to the Majors for his debut on Sunday.

The Twins have been running out a combination of Jordan Schafer, Shane Robinson, and Aaron Hicks out in center field this season, none of which have been very impressive nor expected to be a big part of the Twins future.  So it’s been a bit of a void in their lineup and with both Schafer and Hicks on the DL now, the time has come for Buxton to make his long awaited debut.

Buxton was the #2 overall pick in the 2012 draft (behind Carlos Correa) and he displays tremendous all-around tools.  In 2013 between A and high-A ball, Buxton hit .334 with 12 HR, 77 RBI, 109 R, and 55 SB.  Much of his 2014 season was lost due to a wrist injury and then a concussion, so he was limited to just 31 games.  The 21-year old began this season at AA and had been doing pretty well with a triple slash line of .283/.351/.489 to go with 6 HR, 37 RBI, 44 R, and 20 SB.  He obviously has some great talent, but what can we expect from him as a rookie and should we be spending a ton o’ bux on Buxton when bidding on him off the waiver wire?

What Buxton doesn’t have going for him that I feel fellow recently called up top prospect Carlos Correa does is playing on a team that actually has a chance to compete.  Yes, the Twins have been doing well and have been playing great baseball, but I don’t think that they have an actual chance to be competing in the pennant race and they will fall out of contention soon.  If the Twins do indeed start to scuffle and Buxton isn’t performing well, then he will be ticketed back to the Minors, whereas I believe Correa is here to stay no matter what.  So there is some risk in spending big on Buxton, but I would imagine that he does adequately enough to stick around.

Another difference between Correa and Buxton that I see is Correa appears to be more advanced in his ability to put the ball in play, which should help him to see more success early on in his career.  Buxton has a career 20.2% strikeout rate in the Minors, which isn’t horrible, but I think that number is going to rise a lot in his first tour of the Majors and it’s going to prevent him from contributing positively with his batting average.

However, what Buxton might lack in batting average, he can make up for with his blend of power and speed.  The power is not as prevalent as the speed, but it’s something that is sure to develop as his carer goes on and he can someday be a 20-25 HR hitter.  His speed though is off the charts and should be something that makes an immediate impact as long as he can get on base enough to attempt stolen bases.

I believe that Correa is a more complete offensive player right now, but Buxton might edge him out in upside.  But given that Correa plays a much shallower position of shortstop while Buxton plays the deepest position of outfield, Correa is definitely the more valuable fantasy commodity for this season.  For the rest of the season, I will give Buxton the line of:  .248 AVG, 5 HR, 37 RBI, 38 R, 16 SB, 88 K, 25 BB in 319 AB.  However, Buxton’s long term potential may be unmatched and he is the most hyped outfield prospect since Mike Trout.

Let’s see what else happened during Saturday’s slate!

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The Ya Ya Yas (and other notes from 6/10/15)

I am going to go ahead and say without any official report of it that the Diamondbacks/Dodgers game on Wednesday was the first game in baseball history that featured two players named Yasmani or Yasmany to homer in the same game, and that it was also the first game ever to feature three players whose names all start with “Yas” who all homered.  This looks like another one for the Elias Sports Bureau to tackle and as stupid as it is, I think it is pretty remarkable.  So let’s take this opportunity to give a little bit of a rundown on the “Ya Ya Yas.”

Yasmany Tomas of the Diamondbacks went yard for his 2nd HR of the season.  The Cuban defect has for the most part produced well for the Diamondbacks, but I am sure that they were expecting and would like to see more power out of that beastly 6’2″ 255 lb. frame of his.  So it was a very pleasant sight to see him deposit one over the fence on Wednesday.  Despite the lack of power, Tomas has been getting it done with his batting average at .331 because of his wonderful ability to hit the ball to the opposite field and up the middle so often.  This great skill that he has makes it incredibly hard for defenses to defend him, especially since opposing teams may not have great scouting reports on him in his first season.  His high AVG is being supported by a BABIP that is currently well north of .400, but I am still optimistic about Tomas’ outlook due to his opposite field approach and for the likelihood that his power numbers will increase as he gains more experience during the season.  With 3B and OF eligibility in fantasy leagues and being a part of one of the top offenses in the league, Tomas is a quality fantasy option.

Yasmani Grandal had that huge breakout game earlier this season where he hit 2 HR with 8 RBI at Milwaukee, and up until Wednesday, that one game had accounted for approximately 40% of his power production all season long.  But with a HR on Wednesday, Grandal is now hitting .277 with 6 HR and 21 RBI in 45 games played.  Grandal was one of the main pieces that the Dodgers received in return for dealing Matt Kemp to the Padres in the off-season, so the team clearly believed in him and so far so good.  He’s not posting numbers that are off the charts, but he’s been a rock solid option at catcher.  However, it should be noted that as a switch hitter, Grandal is much more productive as a left-handed hitter.  From the left side this season, he is slashing .283/.400/.492 with all his HR and RBI coming as a lefty, and a nifty ratio of 26 K/24 BB.  So keep this in mind if you own him and set your lineup daily, and also note that he makes for a very nice play in DFS (daily fantasy sports) when he is up against a right-handed pitcher, particularly ones that don’t throw too hard.

Yasiel Puig of the Dodgers ended up missing about 6 weeks with a strained hamstring, so he has a lot of time to make up for.  Earlier this week, he came off the DL and has been making his return well known.  On Wednesday, he had a perfect day at the dish, which included a 3-run bomb, to push his hitting streak to 4-games since returning (9 for 15 in those 4 games).  But the sign of a true recovery from his injury might be when he steals his first base of the season.  During his rehab of the strained hamstring, he suffered a setback otherwise he would have been back a few weeks ago.  So he might approach it safely initially, but if he starts to steal bases like he is capable of then that will signify all systems are a go.  Puig clearly has monstrous fantasy appeal and it’s scary to think of how good the Dodgers offense could be with him back, considering how they obliterated a lot of pitching without him.

Let’s take look at the rest of the hump day action.

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BLOW-PEN Report: Cubs, A’s, Astros, and Rays

In previous BLOW-PEN Reports, I have talked about Steve Cishek needing to be replaced by A.J. RamosNeftali Feliz making way for Shawn Tolleson, Addison Reed not being the man for the D-Backs, and Fernando Rodney to eventually be replaced by Carson Smith.  So far, so good with those predictions.  Today I bring to you another edition of the BLOW-PEN Report to check in on four situations that require our attention.

CHICAGO CUBS

On Saturday, Hector Rondon, who began the season as the Cubs closer was inserted into a save opportunity to begin the 9th inning, but after walking the leadoff batter he was relieved by Pedro Strop who proceeded to close out the game cleanly for the save.  After the game, manager Joe Maddon told reporters that it wasn’t a case of changing who his closer was and that he just wanted to put his team in position to win the game.

So then on Sunday, Rondon appeared yet again to protect a lead, but this time it was to begin the 8th inning where he pitched a perfect inning but failed to strike anyone out.  But this time it was not Strop who pitched the 9th inning for the save opportunity.  Instead it was Jason Motte, former Cardinals closer.  Motte pitched a perfect inning with one strikeout for his first save of the season.  Maddon then went on to say that Strop was unavailable, but if he was unavailable then it was not because of a large recent workload since he only pitched twice in the last three days with a 9 pitch outing and a 14 pitch outing.

I am finding it hard to put much value into what Maddon has said, which makes it hard to know what to make of this situation, but I’ve said it so many times now — Maddon has done some interesting things with his bullpens in the past, so with this development, the closer situation can be very fluid the rest of the season.  Rondon didn’t exactly do a whole lot to merit any type of demotion from the closer’s role, but he also wasn’t pitching lights out either with a 3.09 ERA and 1.29 WHIP and 10 for 13 in save opportunities entering Sunday’s game.  But no one else in the Cubs bullpen was exactly performing significantly better than Rondon either.  Whatever the case, Rondon may have fallen out of Maddon’s favor, which would contradict what Maddon said after Saturday’s game.  If that is the case, then Strop and Motte are candidates for saves moving forward, and even lefty Travis Wood.

Strop has very little experience closing out games, but he does have powerful stuff and the ability to miss a lot of bats as his strikeout rate on the season currently is 10.04 K/9.  Motte does have the closer experience having saved 42 games for the Cardinals in 2012, but he has not been the same pitcher since returning last season from Tommy John surgery.  Motte’s velocity has been nowhere near his pre-Tommy John levels, which has adversely affected his ability to strike batters out.  Motte’s strikeout rate this season is a measly 5.91 K/9 and he’s also having a little trouble limiting the walks with a walk rate of 3.38 BB/9.  Wood is just a wildcard who couldn’t hack it in the rotation, so he was moved to the bullpen in mid-May.  Since the move to the pen, Wood has had a 2.84 ERA, 1.58 WHIP, and 9 K/3 BB in 6.1 IP, and he would probably only be an option for saves in a situation where the opposition has a lot of lefties coming up in the 9th inning.

If I have learned anything about Maddon over the years from his time as a bench coach with the Angels to managing the Rays, it is that he has an incredible baseball mind and will do unconventional (but smart) things to help his team to win ball games, and he does not really care for labeling a single pitcher as his closer.  For fantasy baseball team owners, Maddon is a big headache in this regard and it’s going to be difficult to predict what his next move will be the next time his team has a 3-run or less lead in the 9th inning.  Then to complicate matters even further, the Cubs are one of a few teams who are considering signing current free agent Rafael Soriano.

If I had to guess at this point, I would say that Motte would be the leading candidate for saves as Rondon appears to be in the doghouse, and Maddon probably is putting some value in the fact that Motte was one of the game’s best closers for a year and has the closer mentality.  But I would not trust Motte at all to do well if given an extended look since he’s just not striking many batters out.  But Strop is also a good speculative add and would probably have a greater chance of success than Motte.  But ultimately, unless the Cubs bring in someone via trade or signing Soriano, then I think that this will be a closer by committee situation the rest of the way. Continue reading

Robinson Cano? More like Robinson Can-blow! (and other notes from 5/30/15)

On Saturday, Robinson Cano went 2 for 4 and hit his 2nd HR of what has been a extremely painful season for the Mariners second baseman and his fantasy owners.  But could the longball on Saturday be a sign of things to come?  I definitely would not count on it.

I was very down on Cano entering the year and this is what I said about him in the pre-season: “It seems to me as if Cano is just in the decline phase of his career and I personally would not have him on any of my teams as his name value exceeds what I perceive to be his actual value.”

If you thought the 1990’s had a lot of bad trends with nu-metal music, frosted tips, and playing pogs at recess, then wait till you see Cano’s laundry list of horrible trends this season that give him little hope of returning to fantasy stardom.

  • With 4 straight seasons from 2010-13 of ISO marks above .200, Cano’s power suffered a severe decline last season to a .139 ISO, and this season it is even worse at .094.
  • Cano entered the 2014 season with a career ground ball/fly ball ratio of 1.54.  Last season, he ended up with a ratio of 2.13 and also has the same 2.13 ratio so far this season.  Hitting the ball on the ground more is an indicator of his loss in power.
  • The average distance on his HR + fly balls has declined from 292 feet in 2013, to 279 feet in 2014, to 272 feet this season.  The loss in average distance here is also indicative of his loss in power.
  • After having walk rates of 8.8%, 9.5%, and 9.2% from 2012-14, Cano is walking only 5.9% of the time this year.
  • Even though last season Cano saw a big dip in his power, he still showed great contact skills with a 10.2% strikeout rate (2nd best of his career).  However, along with a further dip in power this year, he is now striking out at a career high rate of 15.6%.
  • With a .323 career BABIP, Cano has long been able to be well above the average player in this regard.  But he currently has a .297 mark this year, which would be the 2nd lowest of his career.
  • The low BABIP this year can be attributed to only going to the opposite field 18.8% of the time this year, which would be the lowest mark of his career and well below his career rate of 26.8%.
  • Not using the opposite field as much along with the career high ground ball/fly ball ratio and lower BABIP suggests that he is pulling the ball on the ground a lot into shifted defenses for easy outs.

With all this being said, if you’re a sad Cano owner then it would be perfectly fine to bench him, or even better if you can find an owner hopeful of a Cano rebound to take him off your hands.  For the rest of the season from May 31 onward, I will give Cano a very unexciting line of:  .271 AVG, 8 HR, 47 RBI, 55 R, 3 SB, 68 K, and 30 BB.

So in homage to Cano’s agent, hip-hop mogul Jay-Z, I leave Cano and his owners with this:

If you’re having baseball problems, I feel bad for you son, you got 99 problems, and a pitch is one

Now let’s see what else happened on Saturday’s slate…

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What Would Doo Do? (and other notes from 5/27/15)

For anyone who owns Sean Doolittle in fantasy leagues, the question was going to be “What Would Doo Do (in his first game back from the DL)?”  @whatwouldDOOdo also happens to be the Twitter handle of the Oakland lefty, and he does tweet some funny stuff and is worth the follow on Twitter if you’re into that sort of thing.

Doolittle had been recovering and rehabbing from a shoulder injury that has had him on the DL all season, but he was finally activated on Tuesday and got into game action on Wednesday.  Doolittle entered the 6th inning of Wednesday’s game against the Tigers in a very low leverage situation with the team down 3 runs and the bottom of the Tigers order coming up.  Doolittle caught Nick Castellanos looking on strike 3, got Bryan Holaday to hit a flyout, gave up a single to Dixon Machado, and then struck out Anthony Gose swinging through a fastball.  So in box score terms that was 1 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K.

Looks pretty good, right?  He should be back to closing games in no time?  Well, it is possible but hold that thought.  While he did finish his first outing back with a clean inning and even struck out 2 batters, let’s not forget that 2 of the batters he faced are normally bench players and one of the other batters cannot hit lefties worth a lick.  Then throw in the fact that Doolittle’s fastball was sitting at just 89 MPH, which corroborates reports of his velocity being way down in his rehab appearances, and we could possibly have a tease situation on our hands if we were to just look at the box score.

Doolittle’s fastball is a pitch that has regularly averaged 94 MPH on the gun over the last couple of seasons, so to be sitting at 89 MPH and topping out at 90 MPH does raise a decent level of concern.  Coming back from a shoulder injury, it shouldn’t be expected that Doolittle has the same type of velocity, but a 5 MPH difference is very discouraging.  To look on the brighter side of things though, the fastball is a pitch that he throws 85-90% of the time, so he’s not one to rely on changing speeds a whole lot.  Instead, he is more about locating the fastball where he wants it to be.  So he doesn’t necessarily need the really good velocity, but it also is an extreme plus to have it and hitters may start to tee off on him if he’s without good velocity. 

Doolittle of course can regain the velocity as the season goes on and as his shoulder gets stronger.  However, without any guarantee that happens, Doolittle may be in for some tough times.  If I owned him, which I do, I would shop Doolittle around to owners that are looking for saves to see if you can get something that may be of good use to you.  It won’t be a star player, but a quality role player can go a long ways.  There’s a chance that Doolittle ends up being fine, reclaims the closer role after a couple more good innings, and goes on to be a quality closer the rest of the way.  However, I would be fine taking my chances and getting rid of him if I can find the right deal.

Let’s see what else happened on Wednesday! Continue reading

DONG-aldson Alert (and other notes from 5/26/15)

Josh Donaldson had an incredible night at the plate as he took the first offering that he saw from John Danks way beyond the left field fence for a solo dong in the 1st inning.  Then he ripped a double off Danks in the 3rd inning, which put the fear in Danks to walk him next time in the 5th.  Donaldson then came up in 7th and knocked a single up the middle off Jake Petricka.  And for the grand finale, he took David Robertson deep to the opposite field for a 3-run walkoff DONG-aldson home run.  Overall, Donaldson finished the night 4 for 4 with 2 HR, 4 RBI, 5 R, and 1 BB.  The perfect night put him at a .315 AVG, 12 HR, 33 RBI, 40 R, and 2 SB in 48 games as he is proving to be a fantasy juggernaut in his first season as a Blue Jay.

Heading into the season, it was much assumed that the home park switch from Oakland to Toronto would give Donaldson a boost to his HR total, but he is on an absolutely torrid pace right now as he is hitting .380 with 9 HR and 21 RBI in 100 AB at the Rogers Centre.  And not only is he obliterating pitchers when he is at home, but as I have mentioned several times, he also makes left-handed pitchers want to curl up into a ball and die in the corner of the dugout.  Versus lefties this season, Donaldson is hitting .474 with 4 HR and 9 RBI in 36 AB.  So Donaldson facing a left-handed pitcher at home is just about the most optimal situation for any hitter in the Majors.

At a .338 mark, Donaldson’s BABIP may seem a little high at first, because his line drive rate is pretty low at 15.5%.  However, his hard hit rate is up at a career best pace, and he is spraying the ball to all portions of the field instead of being primarily a pull hitter like in years past.  Those are some great indicators that he is doing things differently and well, and it gives some hope that he will be able to have a BABIP that’s higher than his career mark and subsequently hit for a nice average.

I think that we all knew that Donaldson would be able to put up some solid numbers this season moving to a hitter’s park and being a part of one of the most powerful lineups in the Majors.  But he is delivering so well on his potential that Billy Beane has absolutely got to be second guessing trading him away when he still could have been under team control for 3 more years.

For the rest of the season from May 27 onward, I will give Donaldson a line of:  .284 AVG, 23 HR, 71 RBI, 71 R, and 4 SB

That means that I am projecting him to finish the season with a final overall line of:  .292 AVG, 35 HR, 104, RBI, 111 R, and 6 SB.  That is a fantasy monster.

Now let’s check out the rest of Tuesday’s slate…

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Cash In With Cashner (and other notes from 5/22/15)

Let me first start by congratulating Andrew Cashner on a ridiculously awesome mullet.  It suits him well.  I’ve been known to grow out my hair pretty long in a mullet type fashion in the back, but I could never in my wildest dreams make it look as stylishly good as his.

Ever since Cashner came over to the Padres and became a full-time starting pitcher, he has to be one of the unluckiest pitchers when it comes to wins and losses, if not the unluckiest.  In 2013 Cashner squeaked over the .500 mark with a 10-9 record off of a 3.09 ERA in 31 games (26 starts), and last year he went just 5-7 in 19 starts despite having a superb 2.55 ERA.  Those seasons of mediocre win/loss records despite the sparkling ERA’s were surely attributed to pitching for a Padres team that had the 24th worst run scoring offense in the Majors in 2013 and the absolute worst in 2014.

On Friday night against the Dodgers, Cashner pitched 6 innings of quality baseball where he gave up one unearned run on 5 hits and 1 walk while striking out 3.  However, he was once again unable to come away with one for the W column and was handed a no-decision.  Cashner’s ERA improved to 2.89 and his WHIP to 1.27, but his record of 1-7 definitely does not reflect anything resembling what it should for a pitcher with his stats.

But what happened?  The Padres offense was supposed to be vastly improved by adding guys in the off-season like Justin UptonMatt KempWil MyersDerek Norris, and Will Middlebrooks, so they must all be flaming out as disappointments, right?  Well, not exactly actually.  Upton, Myers, and Norris have all been enjoying good seasons, and the Padres are actually 11th in the Majors in run scored and have been the beneficiaries of their home field Petco Park turning into a launching pad of sorts.

When Cashner has taken the hill, his offense has only averaged 2.00 runs per game, and in 6 of his 9 starts, the offense has scored 2 runs or less.  For comparison, his teammate James Shields has received at least 3 runs of support in all of his starts for 5.33 runs on average, and other teammate Tyson Ross has received 4.33 runs of support in his starts.  So it’s not that he has been pitching for a team with a horrendous offense like in years past, he has just had the misfortune of his offense being powerless specifically in the games that he has started.  He has been matched up versus the likes of Max ScherzerDallas Keuchel, Jon Lester, and Zack Greinke (twice), but he’s also opposed Brandon McCarthyRyan VogelsongRubby De La Rosa, and Daniel Hudson.  So the 2.00 runs of support per game are hardly excusable.

With an increase in slider usage from 15.9% last year to 19.9% this year, Cashner is striking out a lot more batters this season with nearly a +2.00 K/9 bump up to 8.68 K/9.  The swinging strike rate that Cashner is inducing supports the increase in strikeouts as well, as it is up from 8.0% last year to 9.9% this year, and a large portion of that is from the slider.  However, he has been a victim of the weird, inexplicable transformation of Petco Park into a more hitter friendly park that I alluded to earlier.  He is allowing 1.29 HR/9 on a 14.3% HR/fly ball rate.  That’s not something that is likely to continue as he has been very good at limiting the long ball regardless of where he has pitched (0.75 HR/9 on the road in 2013-14).

I think that Cashner is a good candidate that you may want to try and buy and cash in with him.  By all metric systems, Cashner is pitching the best that he ever has since becoming a full-time starting pitcher and the win/loss record is a fluke that the Cashner owner in your league may not realize or just something they are getting tired of dealing with.  It’s a very optimistic sign that he is striking out more batters, and with a legitimate reason that he is doing so (the slider).  Things will turn around for him soon.

Let’s dive into Friday’s other games in action.

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Prepare For Total deGromination (and other notes from 5/21/15)

deGromination:  Definition – when a pitcher with favorable splits to pitching at home shows pure domination in a home start

Jacob deGrom of the New York Mets burst onto the scene in 2014 for a breakout rookie season despite a rather unimpressive Minor League track record, but there was little to suggest that he was in for any severe regression this season.  With a matchup versus the Cardinals on Thursday, deGrom was utterly masterful as he struck out 11 in 8 scoreless innings, allowing only one base runner to reach on a Matt Carpenter single in the 1st inning.

Over deGrom’s last couple starts where he had a very rough go at Wrigley Field in Chicago but then turned in a good outing at home versus Milwaukee, I have alluded to the fact that deGrom seems to be very uncomfortable in road starts, but is extremely dominant in home starts at Citi Field.  It isn’t uncommon for some pitchers to struggle on the road, whether it is the home team crowd getting on the pitcher’s nerves, the discomfort pitching on a mound that they are not as familiar with, or just foreign surroundings in general.  Some pitchers can handle it, but some cannot.  It’s just the nature of the beast.  But for deGrom, the home/road splits are very pronounced and are definitely something that needs to be of knowledge to anyone who owns the soon to be 27-year old righty, or anyone who plays DFS (daily fantasy sports).  Let’s take a look at the splits including Thursday’s excellent outing.

Career at home:  10 W-4 L, 1.50 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 9.30 K/9, 1.83 BB/9 in 108.1 IP (16 games)

Career on road:  4 W-6 L, 4.21 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 8.83 K/9, 3.49 BB/9 in 87.2 IP (15 games)

Given that deGrom didn’t debut in the Majors till May 15 of last season, these numbers span over 31 starts in just over a year’s time.  This may be a small sample size in the grand scheme of things, and he wasn’t nearly as bad on the road last year as he has been this year so far, as it’s been two really bad games against the Cubs and Yankees that have hurt his road numbers.  But regardless, it is very difficult to ignore what is going on here.

DeGrom’s next scheduled start comes at home versus the Phillies before he will likely get two road starts at San Diego and Arizona.  Obviously he is a must start at home against a rather weak Phillies offense, but those road starts may be difficult for him as Petco Park doesn’t seem to be the pitcher friendly park that it once was, and Chase Field in Arizona is definitely a hitter’s haven.  I wouldn’t necessarily bench him for those road starts, but strong consideration has to be given to doing so, and with any road starts versus good offenses in general.

Let’s see what else happened on Thursday’s split morning/afternoon slate.

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U Can’t Touch This, Hammel Time! (and other notes from 5/19/15)

Well, when you got three different Jason Hammel‘s coming at you like a Denny’s Grand Slam hologram card like in the picture above, I imagine it would be hard to touch him!  Do you remember those hologram collector’s cards from Denny’s?  When I was a kid, Friday nights were always “out to eat dinner” nights with my parents and brother.  The places that we would frequent the most included Coco’s, Bob’s Big Boy, Flakey Jake’s, and of course Denny’s.  Denny’s had the promotion if you ordered one of their signature “Grand Slam Meals” then you would receive a collector’s Grand Slam hologram card by Upper Deck.  So being the collectors that we were, we would venture out to Denny’s restaurants to try and collect all the different players cards that they had to offer.  We wouldn’t just go to the local Denny’s, because each restaurant location had different cards.  So we would go to Denny’s a couple towns over in each direction to try and get them all.  But I just remember ending up with one too many Danny Tartabull cards.

But anyway, onward to talk about MC Hammel.  Hammel pitched on Tuesday at Petco Park versus the Padres and had an excellent game giving up one unearned run on 3 hits and 0 walks while striking out 8 Padres in 7 IP in a no-decision.  The brilliant effort leaves him with a 3-1 record, 2.70 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, and 49 K/6 BB in 53.1 IP.  Now we have seen Hammel go on some pretty good runs over the last few years, but what stands out about this 8 start stretch to begin the season is the low amount of walks.  His 6 walks in 53.1 IP translates to a walk rate of 1.01 BB/9, which would easily be a career best and he would be quite the force if he can maintain it.

Over the course of his career, Hammel has had a slightly better than average walk rate with 2.99 BB/9 heading into the 2015 season.  However, he did showoff one of his best seasons in the category last year with a 2.25 BB/9, so maybe he was on to something.  But is Hammel going all 2014 Phil Hughes on us this year when Hughes had a miniscule 0.69 BB/9 and an all-time best strikeout to walk ratio of 11.63?

Hammel’s great first pitch strike rate of 63.0% backs up the low walk rate, but his PITCHf/x rate of pitching within the strike zone 50.9% of the time, although higher than the recent years and 28th best in the Majors this year, is not indicative of a walk rate as low as he has.  For comparison, out of the top 7 pitchers in BB/9 in 2014 (all 1.41 BB/9 or lower), 6 of the 7 pitchers were in the top 10 in zone% ranging from 52.6%-61.1%.  Hammel could end up being that one who does sneak in to the top of the rankings in BB/9 despite not being one of the elite in zone%, but the odds are against him.

So what can we expect from Hammel the rest of the season?  Even if his walk rate does not remain as low as it currently is, which I don’t believe it will, he definitely seems to have turned a corner with his command and control dating back to last season.  So he can surely end up maintaining a walk rate under 2.00 BB/9.  His slider is his out pitch and it is good enough to allow him to keep a strikeout rate at or above 8.00 K/9.  Some areas that he may see some regression in are in his HR allowed and BABIP.  Currently, he is allowing HR at a rate of 0.84 HR/9, which is well below his marks the last couple of seasons.  And his BABIP of .262 is likely not sustainable, and although it may not get as high as his career mark of .304, it is surely to increase at least somewhat.  One more thing with Hammel is that he has never gone very deep into games and he has had some injuries that he has dealt with over the last few seasons, so he is not exactly the perfect model of health.

But with all this being said, Hammel still should be a fairly productive pitcher for the rest of the season.  For the remainder of the season I’ll give him:  9 W-6 L, 3.48 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, and 122 K/31 BB in 137 IP.

Now let’s see what else happened on Tuesday…

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