2016 Fantasy Baseball Relief Pitcher Rankings

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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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Sometimes A Pitcher Is Only As Good As His Defense, Part 2 (and other notes from 8/17/15)

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A couple months ago on June 23 in part 1 of “Sometimes A Pitcher Is Only As Good As His Defense,” I took a look into the high BABIP’s (and subsequently inflated ERA and WHIP numbers) that several of the Cleveland Indians starting pitcher possessed and made the correlation that it was largely in part due to a poor defense that was playing behind those pitchers. At the time, the Indians had a very porous defense that was ranked 27th in DEF rating (a measurement system to reflect how many runs a team’s defense saves). But since then, the Indians have crawled all the way up to be right around a league average defense at 16th in DEF rating and out of the red and into the green with 0.5 runs saved on the season.

Surely there has to be some sort of underlying reason for the Indians improvement in defense, and one of the apparent factors was a player promotion. On June 14, the Indians promoted their top position prospect, Francisco Lindor, to the Majors to become their everyday starting shortstop in place of Jose Ramirez. Lindor had widely been known for his defensive wizardry coming up through the Indians Minor League system and he has most definitely brought that with him to the bigs as a 21-year old rookie. Out of all shortstops in the Majors (minimum 450 innings played), Lindor has the 8th highest DEF rating with 7.4 runs saved — and what makes this even more impressive is that he wasn’t even in the Majors for the first 2+ months of the season. For comparison, fellow top shortstop prospect, Carlos Correa of the Astros, was called up a week before Lindor and he ranks just 19th on the list with 2.7 runs saved despite making the highlight reel on a regular basis.

Another reason for the improved defense of the Indians on a more recent note has to be with the slew of trades that they made. At the non-waiver trade deadline on July 31, the Indians dealt away both Brandon Moss and David Murphy, and then they also traded Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher. Swisher was mostly used as a DH for the Indians so he’s not very relevant in this conversation, but Moss, Murphy, and Bourn are all players who played a good amount of games in the outfield for the Tribe and they all had negative scores in UZR/150. UZR/150 measures the runs above average per 150 defensive games. So surely, none of these players were doing anything of significance to earn a steak dinner from any of the Indians starting pitchers, and just removing them from the picture altogether has had to have been a nice change of pace on the defensive side of things for this ball club.

So with Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Danny Salazar having pitched another very solid game on Monday (7 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 5 K with the W), the three Indians pitchers (Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco being the other two) who were battling inflated BABIP’s and poor overall statistics early on in the season have all been on a roll lately and have seen big improvements in their ERA, WHIP, and BABIP. Let’s take a look at each pitcher’s numbers in those categories since through June 23 (when I first wrote about this situation) and since June 23.

Danny Salazar — Through June 23: 4.06 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, .323 BABIP / Since June 23: 2.03 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, .176 BABIP

Corey Kluber — Through June 23: 3.65 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, .335 BABIP / Since June 23: 2.92 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, .259 BABIP

Carlos Carrasco — Through June 23: 4.35 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, .347 BABIP / Since June 23: 2.80 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, .238 BABIP

So as you can see, each of the three pitchers performed pretty similarly through June 23 and have also been in sync since June 23. That’s rather remarkable and is likely not all a coincidence. A good portion of the credit for their improvement since June 23 has to be given to the pitchers themselves for persevering through some rough times and for their skills as pitchers with great K/BB ratios, but this type of a turnaround likely would not have occurred without the improvement in their team defense. With the Indians’ new defensive arrangement going forward, these pitchers should be receiving a lot of help for the remainder of the season and make for elite fantasy plays.

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

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

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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

Soft Hit Rate Leaders (and other notes from 7/19/15)

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Sunday’s matinee slate of games included a slew of ace pitchers taking the hill, but by the end of the day there were two performances that stood tall from all the others, and they were Zack Greinke shutting down the Nationals and Dallas Keuchel reigning supreme in Texas.  Greinke was masterful in 8 shutout innings of work and a season high 11 strikeouts, as he extended his scoreless innings streak to an outstanding 43.2 innings over the last 6 starts.  Keuchel was just as untouchable as he worked 7 shutout innings with a career high 13 strikeouts.  These two pitchers have been getting the job done all season long and each of them leads their respective league in ERA.  They also have another thing in common, and that is they both appear among the league leaders in soft hit rate.

A few weeks ago in “When the Hard Hit Rate Doesn’t Match the BABIP,” I examined some pitchers who had very high BABIP (batting average on balls in play) marks but who also held lower than average hard hit rates.  That particular scenario would suggest that those pitchers were either the victims of poor luck or poor defenses, or both.  So now we will take a look at the league’s best in allowing soft contact on batted balls and see what we can find in the results.

According to FanGraphs, entering Sunday, the top 15 in soft hit rate are as follows along with their BABIP:

  1. Francisco Liriano – 28.8% soft hit rate, .248 BABIP
  2. Dallas Keuchel – 24.8% soft hit rate, .255 BABIP
  3. Brett Anderson – 24.6% soft hit rate, .318 BABIP
  4. Cole Hamels – 24.0% soft hit rate, .297 BABIP
  5. Jeff Locke – 23.8% soft hit rate, .315 BABIP
  6. Max Scherzer – 22.9% soft hit rate, .242 BABIP
  7. Chris Sale – 22.8% soft hit rate, .292 BABIP
  8. Drew Hutchison – 22.8% soft hit rate, .350 BABIP
  9. Carlos Martinez – 22.3% soft hit rate, .287 BABIP
  10. Zack Greinke – 22.3% soft hit rate, .233 BABIP
  11. Trevor Bauer – 22.0% soft hit rate, .268 BABIP
  12. Wei-Yin Chen – 21.7% soft hit rate, .255 BABIP
  13. Chris Archer – 21.5% soft hit rate, .287 BABIP
  14. Gerrit Cole – 21.4% soft hit rate, .305 BABIP
  15. Shelby Miller – 21.4% soft hit rate, .276 BABIP

Balls that have softer impact off a hitter’s bat are more likely to go for easy outs, whether it is a lazy fly ball or a slow rolling ground ball, which will prevent base hits and also prevent runs from scoring.  So it should come as no surprise that on this list we find several pitchers who have been among the league’s best this season, and it includes 7 pitchers who appear in the current top 15 in ERA and 6 pitchers who appear in the current top 15 in WHIP in the Majors.  So clearly there is at least some correlation with higher soft hit rates translating to better overall stats.

Because balls that are softly hit generally go for easier outs more often, that should also translate to pitchers with higher soft hit rates to also have lower BABIP marks.  This is reflected in the list above where 11 of the 15 pitchers all have BABIP marks that are under .300, and 5 of the pitchers appear in the top 15 of lowest BABIP’s in the league.  So this provides some validation to the low BABIP’s of many of these pitchers and suggests that we shouldn’t necessarily expect a whole lot of regression for these players.

On the flip side, there are a few player on this list that have higher than average BABIP marks.  So let’s look at those players and see if maybe we can expect some overall improvement from them as we are progress into the second half of the season.

First up is Brett Anderson of the Dodgers.  Anderson’s high soft hit rate is backed up by the fact that he also has the lowest line drive rate in the league at 13.5%.  Line drives are usually categorized as hard hit balls, so the less line drives a pitcher allows, the higher his soft hit rate should be.  But despite having the knack of preventing line drives and inducing soft contact a lot, Anderson’s BABIP is a bit inflated at .318, which is higher than his career mark at .309.  The Dodgers defense ranks 13th in the league in DEF rating, so they aren’t a bad defensive team by any means, which gives even more curiosity as to why Anderson would be stuck with the higher BABIP.  So it would be reasonable to expect that Anderson can improve over the rest of the season if he can continue pitching the way that he has so far.  He currently has a 3.17 ERA and 1.30 WHIP, but he may be more deserving of an ERA under 3.00 and a WHIP closer to 1.20.  He’s not a huge strikeout pitcher (6.42 K/9) and he has a long history of injuries, but he could make for a nice trade target in season long fantasy leagues due to this discovery.

Next up is Jeff Locke of the Pirates.  Locke has a decent 3.68 ERA, but his 1.42 WHIP is a bit brutal and it is odd to see him currently posting a career high BABIP at .315 despite also currently having a career best soft hit rate.  His line drive rate at 22.9% is one of the highest out of the pitchers on the above list and is the 20th highest in the league, so that could be a stumbling block for him and a reason why he has the higher BABIP despite the good soft hit rate.  While Locke could be in for some better fortune in hit prevention, it probably should not be expected.

Drew Hutchison of the Blue Jays is an interesting case here.  He has the 8th best soft hit rate in the league, yet he has the 2nd highest BABIP.  Immediately it might be assumed that Hutchison has just been a victim of bad luck to have a BABIP at .350, but looking further into it, Hutchison also has the 4th highest line drive rate in the league at 25.0% and his hard hit rate of 31.1% is on the higher side as well at 24th highest in the league.  So despite being among the leaders in soft hit rate, he does appear to be giving up his fair share of well struck balls as well.  He should improve on his 5.19 ERA and 1.47 WHIP, but he’s no slam dunk to have a complete turnaround in the second half.

Finally, there is Pirates ace Gerrit Cole who has a .305 BABIP despite ranking 14th in soft hit rate.  Both Cole’s line drive rate at 21.1% and his hard hit rate at 25.8% are not very high marks, so the thought would be that he should be able to post a lower BABIP having one of the better soft hit rates in the league.  But his defense ranks 25th in DEF rating, so that could be the primary reason why his BABIP is a tad higher than average.  However, Cole has been able to pitch very effectively as one of the better pitchers in the league up to this point in the season, and he should continue to.  But there is room for more upside if he can get some better defense behind him.

So all in all, it appears that Anderson is the lone pitcher on this list that we could reasonably say has been on the unlucky side of things and could see some overall improvements as the season goes on.  And all the other pitchers on the list should all be considered candidates to maintain their current performance level, though some regression will come for some of these pitchers.

Let’s take a look at the rest of Sunday’s slate now.

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

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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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Miguel Cabrera to the DL for First Time (and other notes from 7/5/15)

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For the first time ever in his 13-year career, on the 4th of July, Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera has landed on the DL with a calf strain that he suffered as a base runner taking off from first to second base.  The injury is expected to sideline Cabrera for 6 weeks.  It’s nothing short of amazing how Cabrera has gone so long without ever incurring an injury that he was unable to play through, but he is now 32 years old and with this calf injury and the ankle injury that he played through for a good portion of the 2014 season, there appear to be some chinks in his armor at a time where we should be expecting him to exit his offensive prime anyway.

With his ankle injury last year, he still was able to hit .313 with 25 HR, 109 RBI, and 101 R, but remarkably, that was his lowest batting average since 2009 and his lowest HR total since 2006.  This season he is batting what would be a career best of .350, but with just 15 HR before the injury, he was once again on pace for one of his lowest HR totals and with the injury, it’s all but guaranteed that it will be one of his worst HR outputs of his career.

Cabrera is still obviously a great hitter and he will have several more years left in the league where he will produce much better than the average player.  But here is what I said about him in the pre-season rankings:

“You know how we saw the beginning of the decline of Albert Pujols in his age 31 season in 2011 when he “only” hit .299/.366/.541 with 37 HR, 99 RBI, and 105 R?  Well, we saw something similar from M-Cab last year in his age 31 season.  Perhaps it can be contributed to the bum foot that he was playing on, which has since been surgically repaired.  Even so, there is a decent chance that he continues to experience an assortment of injuries as he is now on the wrong side of 30.   So I’m pretty sure his best days are behind him, but of course he still is a better hitter than most of the league.”

So let’s go ahead and categorize this into the “assortment of injuries” column.

The Tigers will surely miss his bat, and it will be interesting to see how the offense responds to Cabrera’s absence.  With J.D. Martinez so hot right now, it’s possible that he can shoulder the load to carry the team.  But at some point, the Tigers offense should experience some rough times without Cabrera.

For fantasy squads, it’s nothing short of heartbreaking to lose a 1st round pick to the DL for a significant amount of time. First it was Giancarlo Stanton a couple weeks ago and now it’s Cabrera.  Their production simply can’t be replicated, so you just have to make due with what you can.

Let’s check out Sunday’s action now.

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Attention C-Mart Shoppers (and other notes from 6/28/15)

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Cardinals 23-year old righty Carlos Martinez has been enjoying a wonderful season in his sophomore year and first year as a full-time member of the starting rotation.  He had a meeting with the division rival Cubs on Sunday night baseball, the same dynamic young Cubs offense that handed him his worst start of the season back on May 4 when they touched him up for 7 runs on 9 hits and 4 walks in just 3.2 innings.  So Martinez was out for some revenge on the nationally televised game and he earned it with a line of 6 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 3 BB, 6 K with the victory to improve to 9-3 with a 2.80 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 100 K/39 BB in 93.1 IP.

With the shiny 2.80 ERA, Martinez is outpitching his xFIP of 3.17 and his SIERA of 3.36.  It would appear that he is getting a bit of fortune on his side with a .284 BABIP and 83.3% strand rate.  The BABIP isn’t low enough where we would think that he is in for a huge regression though, because he has a solid defense behind him and he has been adept at limiting hard contact this year at 25.7% (23rd lowest in the league).  However, the strand rate sits at 3rd best in the league and that should begin to regress at least a little bit, which would negatively affect his ERA.  But overall, it is hard to believe that this breakout performance is a fluke.  More likely, it is a case of a young talented pitcher with electric stuff learning how to pitch at the Major League level.

Where Martinez has improved the most over last year is in his ability to get left-handed hitters out.  Last season, working mostly as a relief pitcher, Martinez gave up a .297 AVG and .462 SLG to lefties and a .244 AVG and .301 SLG to righties. So far this season, lefties are still hitting for more power against him, but the hits are coming at a far less rate.  He’s holding lefties to a .221 AVG and .393 SLG this season, and righties are at a .223 AVG and .313 SLG.

The weapon that has been effective for him in guiding him toward this improvement against lefty bats is the development of his changeup.  According to PITCHf/x data, Martinez threw a changeup just 2.9% of the time in 2014, but this year he is going to that offspeed pitch 15.6% of the time.  And it’s the changeup that is inducing both ground balls (66.7%) and swinging strikes (19.5%) at the highest rate of any pitch for him.

Martinez’ 2015 campaign has been more than the Cardinals could have asked for, but early on in the season I suggested that Martinez would probably be put on some sort of innings cap since he only pitched 99.2 innings last season and his career high for a single season is only 108 innings from 2013.  Cardinals management recently came out and said they believe Martinez could exceed 170 innings this year, which is a higher limit than I would have thought because often time teams don’t like their young, inexperienced pitchers to have much more than a 30-40 inning increase from either the previous season or their career high.  But if he does exceed 170 innings, I wouldn’t imagine that he goes too much higher than that.

This would mean that the Cardinals may have to get creative in the second half to limit his innings and to have him available for the post-season.  But with the 9 game lead that the Cardinals currently have in their division, if they can maintain it, then they could afford to skip Martinez’ start when they have an off day scheduled and/or put him in the bullpen in September.  Doing so, also could work out in the team’s benefit because after the All-Star break when Martinez is in uncharted territory for himself in innings pitched, he could begin to show signs of wearing down — poorer command, decreased velocity, etc.  So extra rest or a shift to the pen could be beneficial on both ends if that happens.

So if you own Martinez, then it could be a sneaky move to begin to shop him around for another piece that could help your fantasy team.  Because if/when Martinez begins to display any sort of fatigue in the second half of the season, then other fantasy owners are not going to find him as attractive and they will hear rumblings from larger media outlets (or perhaps the Cardinals organization themselves) that Martinez will be treated more carefully with skipping his turn in the rotation or moving to the pen.  Besides being completely shut down for the year, being moved to the pen would be the worst case scenario, unless it is to close games due to a Trevor Rosenthal injury.  If Martinez is in the pen as a setup man in September then he will not be doing much to help any fantasy squads, especially for the playoffs in head-to-head leagues. So I would say that it is okay to ride him while he’s going well, but just beware of the events that may unfold and to be open minded about trading him away in season long redraft leagues.

Now let’s check out what else happened during Sunday baseball!  Continue reading

Rodney’s Reprise? (and other notes from 6/26/15)

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About six weeks ago is when I first began suggesting that Fernando Rodney be removed from the closer’s role to make way for the young and more talented Carson Smith, and then I gave it a full rundown in the “BLOW-PEN Report” on May 23.  Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon ended up giving Rodney a lot of leash because he likely didn’t want to have to remove Rodney as his closer, but McClendon finally saw enough.  On June 6, Smith recorded his first career save in perfect fashion.

Since Smith took over as the team’s closer, entering Friday’s game, he had converted 5 straight save opportunities by pitching 5.2 innings allowing 2 runs on 2 hits and no walks while striking out 8.  So he has been having little issue in finishing games stress free.

Since Rodney lost the closer’s role, entering Friday’s game, he has done much better, only being scored upon once in 5 outings for 1 run in 5.2 IP with 4 K/3 BB.  In that small sample, it hadn’t been the best of performances, but clearly it was much better than what he had been doing in the 9th inning trying to close out games previously.

Friday night presented an interesting situation for the Mariners though as Smith was brought on in the middle of the 8th inning where he let Mike Trout and Albert Pujols reach base before getting a double play to end the inning for a total of 10 pitches thrown.  And then Rodney was brought in for the 9th inning to try and close the game against the bottom part of the Angels order, and he successfully did so after allowing one hit.

Initially when I first called for the switch of closers in Seattle, I had said that Smith was the better pitcher but that McClendon would probably eventually give Rodney another opportunity to close if he proved that he was able to work out his issues in lower leverage situations.  But then when Smith began to have so much success and displayed that he could potentially handle 9th inning duties with ease, I thought that Rodney would never be getting his job back.  So the way things played out on Friday is a bit peculiar to me since Smith did nothing in the way of performance to give back the job.

However, in this game, the higher leverage situation was actually in the 8th inning with the Angels best hitters (and two of the best in the AL so far this season), Trout and Pujols due up.  So the thought process for McClendon could have been that they really needed to get by Trout and Pujols before even thinking about seeing a save opportunity for the game, which meant that they needed to go to their best option.  So then McClendon might have thought that once Smith got by the heart of the order, then Rodney could come in to a more ideal situation to face the weaker hitters and possibly instill some confidence in him should he finish the game cleanly.

So I am still going to have to believe that Smith is the closer until he blows some saves (fingers crossed that he doesn’t). Maybe Rodney will snipe some opportunities away like he did on Friday, but I see little reason why Smith shouldn’t remain the man for the job and I would be shocked and lose any faith I had in McClendon as a manager if he were to switch things back with no probable cause.  But we will have to wait and see just what happens next.

Let’s check out the rest of Friday baseball.
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The Ya Ya Yas (and other notes from 6/10/15)

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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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C. Heston From the NRA to the NHA? (and other notes from 6/9/15)

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So we know that Hollywood legend Charleton Heston was the president of the NRA (National Rifle Association), but there’s a new Heston in town by the name of Chris Heston who became the 238th member of the NHA (No-Hitter Association) on Tuesday.  Heston of the Giants managed to no-hit the Mets while recording 11 strikeouts in the process.  What spoiled the perfect game wasn’t a walk or an error, but rather Heston beaned three separate batters.  This sounds like a job for the Elias Sports Bureau, but this might be the most hit batsmen recorded by a pitcher who completed a no-hitter.  Whoever had Heston in the “first no-hitter of the season” pool has to be a rich person, but one sick individual to make such an adventurous pick.

Heston is a 27-year old rookie and he has been one extremely tough pitcher to figure out this season.  It seems as though he is either really good or really bad.  He has 5 starts this season where he has given up at least 5 earned runs, but then the other 7 starts he has made he has gone at least 6 innings allowing either 0 or 1 earned run.

Initially, I thought that maybe he was just a pitcher who did some really good home cookin’ while struggling on the road, but with his clunker last week at home versus the Pirates and this no hitter on the road versus the Mets, that theory can be safely laid to rest.  The fact of the matter is that Heston has just had a couple really bad starts at Coors Field that have negatively skewed his overall stat line.  I hate to cherry pick certain games out of a player’s stat line, but taking those Coors Field games out does make a big difference as he would have a 2.71 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, and 60 K/15 BB in 63 IP (compared to a 3.77 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and 66 K/18 BB in 74 IP including the Coors Field starts).

Heston doesn’t come as heralded as some of the other rookie pitchers because of his age and the fact that he’s not a hard thrower topping out around 90 MPH.  But with a sinker, curveball, and changeup arsenal, he is able to generate a ton of ground balls at 56.2%, which is the 6th highest in the league, and he also has above average control with sneaky strikeout potential (career rate of 7.96 K/9 in the Minors).

Earlier in the season when I was still trying to figure out what to make of Heston, I suggested the possibility of him being this year’s Matt Shoemaker as the old, non-glamorous rookie pitcher who falls into a rotation spot and outperforms expectations with great control and the sneaky strikeout potential.  The more I see of him, the more I think that Heston will be that pitcher and he is worthy of a fantasy play as long as he’s not playing at Coors Field.

Let’s see what else occurred on a full Tuesday slate of action…

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Last Call on Carson Smith (and other notes from 6/6/15)

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After being scored upon in 9 of his last 13 appearances and collecting 2 blown saves and 2 losses in the process,  Fernando Rodney was not the arm called upon on Saturday evening to protect a lead in the 9th inning for the Mariners.  Instead, manager Lloyd McClendon turned to the youngster Carson Smith who had no issues with a clean inning of work with one strikeout to earn the first save of his career.

I have been singing this tune for weeks now as reported in detail on May 23 in “BLOW-PEN Report:  Fernando Rodney and His Broken Arrow,” and even before that I issued some tidbits on the situation.  Rodney just has been horrible this season and it was only a matter of time before Smith was given a chance to close out a game.  However, unlike the situations in Miami and Texas that I also reported on in the BLOW-PEN Report before those closer situations changed, I think that Rodney will get a chance to try and prove himself again.  The fact that McClendon stuck with Rodney for so long in his time of struggle suggests to me that he really prefers Rodney as his closer and/or does not think that Smith is prepared to be thrusted into that role full-time in just his first full season in the Majors.  And as I suggested in the BLOW-PEN Report, it could be a case of Rodney tipping his pitches, which is something that would be fixable if that’s what the ultimate issue is.  But whether or not Rodney does work out the kinks to earn his manager’s trust back is certainly far from likelihood.

For now, I think that Rodney will see one of the next save opportunities and if he does well then he will continue to see more until he blows another.  But obviously Smith needs to be picked up in all league formats as he has very dominant stuff to be very successful as a Major League closer.  If not right now, then Smith should assume the role as closer for the Mariners later this summer when Rodney could possibly get traded if the Mariners are not in contention, or the beginning of next year.  So for keeper and dynasty leagues, he should have been grabbed a while ago.

Smith currently has a 1.08 ERA, 0.68 WHIP, and 29 K/5 BB in 25 IP.

Let’s check out the rest of Saturday’s slate.
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Pat Venditte Gives A’s Bullpen a Hand (or Two) (and other notes from 6/5/15)

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Switch hitting has been a prevalent part of the game for decades because generally speaking, hitters do better against opposite-handed pitching than they do against same-handed pitching as I have outlined in “Fantasy Baseball Strategy: Using Platoons to Your Advantage.”  The idea behind it all is that hitters just tend to see the ball better out of opposite-handed pitching and have an easier time dealing with breaking balls that break toward them instead of away from them.

Many ball players will practice and develop the ability to hit from both sides of the plate when they are young as a way to gain this slight advantage, but it certainly is tough to master.  When I was in Little League, I would head to the batting cages before all my games to warm up and I would practice switch hitting just for fun.  As a natural righty, I would flip over and hit lefty in the cages sometimes and while I could consistently make contact with the ball, the same type of power was just not there.  So I think it is an impressive feat for any player that is a switch hitter and can hit equally for average and power from both sides of the plate.

But what about pitching with both hands?  If having the ability to hit both right-handed and left-handed gives an advantage for hitters, then wouldn’t the same be true for a pitcher who can throw with both hands?  A pitcher with this ability could pitch right-handed to all right-handed batters and pitch left-handed to all left-handed batters to obtain an advantage much in the same way that switch hitting does.  For me, trying to switch hit is hard enough, so I can’t imagine trying to switch pitch.  Heck, I can’t even brush my teeth left-handed let alone throw a baseball with the same type of accuracy and force that I do with my right hand.  But there is a pitcher in the Oakland A’s organization named Pat Venditte who was just called up to the Majors for the first time in his career, and you guessed it, he is a switch pitcher — the first of his kind to appear in the Majors since 1995.

The soon to be 30-year old Venditte was originally drafted by the Yankees and spent 7 years in their Minor League system before catching on with the Oakland organization for the 2015 season.  Venditte has been a relief pitcher for basically the entirety of his Minor League career (250 relief appearances in 259 total games pitched) and he has done pretty well with a career 2.37 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, and 9.99 K/9.  With numbers like that and the ability to switch pitch, it is a bit of a wonder why it has taken so long for him to receive a promotion to the bigs.  Not only does he switch pitch, but he also does it with a sidearm motion from both sides, giving him even more novelty.

Venditte made his Major League debut right upon his call up on Friday against the Red Sox and he pitched two scoreless innings allowing just one hit while also striking out one batter.  He’s going to work in middle relief for the A’s, but one has to wonder if he could ever work his way into the closer’s role.  He gained experience as a closer in his first two seasons in the Minors, but he has only recorded one save in the last 4+ seasons.  And because of his soft tossing ways (sitting around 85 MPH on his fastball), he does not profile as a typical closer.  However, Billy Beane and the A’s are known to be revolutionary in utilizing uncommon approaches to maximize the most out of the players on their roster.  And with last year’s closer Sean Doolittle back on the DL with his shoulder injury and severely diminished velocity, and fill-in closer Tyler Clippard likely to be shopped around since he is in the last year of his contract on a last place team, it wouldn’t be too crazy to think that Venditte could be closing out games for the A’s this season at some point if he shows success in a middle relief role first.

This is mostly just speculation on my part as I think it would be amazing to see a switch pitcher succeed and ascend to a more prolific role, so I wouldn’t put too much value into it.  It will be entertaining to watch and interesting to see what he can do.  If he ever does become a Major League closer, I will give him a hand, but it’s not like he needs one.

Let’s check out what else happened on Friday!

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Archer Hits the Bullseye (and other notes from 6/2/15)

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Chris Archer of the Rays flashed nice potential since becoming a mainstay in the rotation in 2013, but he has really taken things to a whole new level this season and this Archer keeps on hitting that bullseye each time he toes the rubber every fifth day.  His latest gem was a 15 strikeout performance on the road at Angel Stadium on Tuesday evening to bring his record to 6-4 with a 2.01 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, and 92 K/20 BB in 76 IP.

I have been expecting some regression to happen for Archer, but it just isn’t happening and he is looking stronger with each successive start.  A little regression should still be on its way, but Archer is pitching like a true ace and it’s time to examine what has changed from the previous seasons to spark this transformation.

First, we will look at his control.  In 8 seasons of Minor League work, Archer posted a hideous walk rate of 5.00 BB/9, so the natural thought was that this was going to be a large obstacle for him to overcome once he reached the Majors.  Archer got a taste of the Majors at the end of 2012 and then became a mainstay in the Rays rotation in the middle of the 2013 season.  Since he broke into the Majors from 2012 through 2014, his walk rate was not spectacular but it was respectable at 3.13 BB/9, which was a large improvement from his Minor League performance.  This season he has taken his control to a whole new level with at a very good mark of 2.37 BB/9, which can be largely attributed to his new found ability to throw first pitch strikes.  In 2013, Archer threw first pitch strikes 58.1% of the time, and it was very similar in 2014 at 57.5%.  Now this season, he has bumped that all the way up to 64.0% to back up his solid walk rate.

The next thing that has changed for Archer appears in his pitch data.  According to PITCHf/x, the past two seasons he has utilized both a four-seam and a two-seam fastball, but this year he has nearly ditched the two-seamer and is pitching the four-seamer 48.6% of the time.  Also, he is using his slider nearly 10% more than last season at a 37.7% clip so far, and that slider pitch is also 1.5 MPH greater in velocity than last year.  It would also appear that this year Archer’s release point on all of his pitches has been a bit higher.  And with the slider in particular, his release point has been higher and it has also shifted to the right a little (from the catcher’s point a view) so it resembles the release point of his fastball more, which is probably making it very difficult for hitters to pick up what the pitch is when it is coming out of his hand.  Combine this with the greater velocity and the higher usage of the pitch, and it is no surprise that he is generating swinging strikes on the slider 21.9% of the time (compared to 17.3% last year).

One last thing just for kicks, Archer has also been able to induce more ground balls on all his pitches this season.  Overall, his ground ball rate is at 50.3% as opposed to 46.5% last year.  Great control, lots of swinging strikes, and inducing ground balls in bunches — sounds like a recipe for success to me.  You have to expect his ERA to rise some, but it is becoming more and more apparent that Archer’s improvements surely have validity to them and he should go on to finish the 2015 season pitching at a high level.

Now let’s take a look at the rest of Tuesday’s MLB slate…

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Marlins First Baseman Bour is Not a Bore (and other notes from 5/29/15)

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***For clarification, from what I’ve gathered, “Bour” is pronounced the same as “bore” or “boar.”  Not pronounced the same as “Bauer.”

So maybe Marlins first baseman Justin Bour is portly shaped like a boar at 6’4″/250 lbs., but he is proving to be far from a bore as he began to see some regular playing time even before Mike Morse landed on the DL.  But now that Morse is on the DL, the first base job would appear to be Bour’s to runaway with, and so far so good for the 27-year old left-handed slugger.

Consider this:  Bour now has 4 HR on the season and the pitchers he has taken deep are Jordan Zimmermann, Brad Brach, Gerrit Cole, and now Matt Harvey after Friday’s bomb that proved to be the game winner for the Marlins.  That’s 3 of the top starting pitchers in the National League and also pitchers that do not allow a whole lot of home runs.  He is now hitting .361 with 4 HR, and 9 RBI in 61 AB.

I’ve been talking about Bour and his power potential for a few days now, and he really needs to be owned in more leagues.  Yes, he’s not going to hit in the high .300’s, and chances are that he won’t even hit anywhere above .300, but Bour is a hitter who has never shown any significant propensity to striking out.  His Minor League career strikeout rate is a respectable 17.5% and he never once struck out at a 20% clip at any stop in the Minors.  In limited action last year with the Marlins, he did strikeout 22.9% of the time, but this season in 14 games at AAA he struck out just 9.7% of the time.  And in his time in the Majors so far this season, he is at a very nice 15.2% mark.  So he does appear to have a greater feel for the strike zone than most hitters that carry his type of power potential, which is a big plus when mining for up and coming power hitters.

About that power potential, Bour’s yearly best total in his professional career was 23 HR at high-A ball in 2011.  But in 2013 and 2014 at AA and AAA, Bour’s HR per AB rate was 1 HR every 19.5 AB.  And now at 27 years old, Bour should be entering his prime where his power potential could achieve new levels.  Bour may not see regular playing time against left-handed pitching in his first extended go-round in the Majors, but he is looking like a very nice play against righties at the very least, as he is being inserted into the cleanup role right behind Giancarlo Stanton.

So if you are in the need of some power then it wouldn’t hurt to give Bour a go, as he likely won’t kill your team in AVG either.  I would think of him along the same lines of Adam Lind.

Now let’s see what else happened on Friday’s slate!

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

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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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