Auto-Steal Versus Lester (and other notes from 8/13/15)

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Jon Lester‘s career as a Chicago Cub got off to a bumpy and inconsistent beginning, but since July 1, the big lefty has been exceptional and he displayed it once again on Thursday in a victory over the Brewers. Since July 1, Lester has gone 4-2 with a 1.60 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, and 63 K/9 BB in 56.1 IP over 8 starts — and his overall season line is 8-8 with a 3.21 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, and 149 K/36 BB in 146.2 IP, which is right in line with what was expected of him this season.

Something very interesting to note though is the lack of effectiveness that Lester brings against the running game. Maybe you’ve heard it already, maybe you haven’t, but in the 2014 season, Lester did not attempt a single pickoff all season long. For comparison, Justin Verlander led the league in the category with 199 pickoff attemps in 2014. How a starting pitcher who didn’t miss a start doesn’t attempt at least one pickoff over the course of a whole season is just downright outrageous and it is rather telling of a great weakness that can be exposed by the opposition.

Entering his start on Thursday, Lester had attempted just 2 pickoffs this season, but he hadn’t attempted one since April. However, in his Thursday start against the Brewers, he finally attempted another pickoff only to end up throwing it away for his 3rd error of the season. So when it comes to controlling the running game, Lester really doesn’t seem to care at all, but when he finally does, he can’t even execute it correctly because his lack of repetition in doing so gave him the yips and probably also shocked the heck out of Anthony Rizzo over at first base.

After he didn’t attempt pickoff last season, it became pretty well recognized in baseball circles and teams have most certainly picked up on that portion of the scouting report. If Lester never throws over to first base for a pickoff attempt, then base runners who are given the green light to steal can just go on Lester’s first movement of his front (right) leg, which is a big advantage for the base runner, especially when the pitcher is left-handed (because lefties generally have the better ability to hold base runners at first base since they are facing that direction before delivering the ball to the plate).

So even though the Brewers couldn’t muster up much run production against Lester on Thursday, they did end up stealing a whopping 5 bases against the Lester/David Ross tandem. Last season when Lester didn’t attempt a pickoff, he surprisingly only allowed just 16 stolen bases, and his single season career high in stolen bases allowed is 22 from 2010. But after allowing the 5 swipes to the Brew Crew, Lester has now permitted 35 stolen bases against him this season, which is the most in the league by a good margin over Tyson Ross (29 SB allowed).

With so many stolen bases allowed, it is a little surprising to see Lester possess an ERA as good as he has at 3.21. If runners are always stealing against Lester, then Lester should be pitching with runners in scoring position a lot of the time to leave him more susceptible to giving up runs. However, Lester has done pretty well to limit the damage and his strand rate is nearly right in line with the league average of 73.2%. But for future purposes, he may not be as fortunate if the opposition continues to run wild all over him. It should go without saying that if you are in need of stolen bases in your fantasy league, then using players with good speed who are set to go against Lester is a pretty wise route.

Now let’s see what else happened during Thursday baseball!

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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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Rougned Bringing a Nice Odor to the Texas Air (and other notes from 6/15/15)

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With Delino DeShields landing on the DL with a hamstring injury, the Rangers had to recall someone to take his roster spot and the guy they called upon was 21-year old Rougned Odor.  If the name sounds familiar, then you may be confusing him with the 17-year old Rougned Odor that the Rangers signed to a contract this past off-season.  It sounds completely whacky only because it is.  These two individuals both of the same name, Rougned Odor, are actually brothers.  It is an extremely odd situation and even crazier that they are both within the same organization.  I really hope that some day they form a double play combination up the middle for the Rangers — that would be amusement at its finest (it doesn’t take much to amuse me).

Anyway, for real this time.  If the name Rougned Odor sounds familiar, it is because he came onto the scene last year and made a little noise as a 20-year old middle infielder with a .259 AVG, 9 HR, 48 RBI, 39 R, and 4 SB in 114 games with the Rangers.  And then he was expected to build on that performance this season in what was supposed to be his first full year in the Majors.  Odor began the season as the team’s starting second baseman, but with a triple slash of .144/.252/.233 after 29 games played, the Rangers got a huge whiff of Odor and it was not very pleasant on the olfactory senses.  So they sent him back to AAA to figure things out.

At AAA, Odor was a whole new hitter as he compiled a line of .352/.426/.639 with 5 HR, 19 RBI, 26 R, and 3 SB in 30 games.  And in addition, he even bumped up his walk rate to 9.7% and his strikeout rate was exceptional at 8.1%.  Though a small sample size, that type of strikeout rate was much better than his career 15.0% rate in the Minors, and light years ahead of the 24.3% rate that he had in his 29 game stint with the Rangers earlier this year.  So he clearly took being demoted seriously and really worked on improving upon some things that needed attention, which is now needing our attention.

Odor presumably will take over as the Rangers starting second baseman from this point forward, and it will be his job to lose once again, but with the adjustments he seemingly has made, I don’t think that he will be losing the job this time around.  Odor was slotted 6th in the order on Monday and he responded by going 3 for 3 with 2 RBI to keep his hot hitting going.  Odor is definitely a talented hitter with the capability to post a 15 HR/30 SB type of year over the course of a full season in the future.  And given that he is slotted at a shallow second base position, the type of production that he is capable of is a valuable commodity.  I definitely recommend him as a pickup in all formats.

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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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Houston’s Astronomical Promotion: Carlos Correa (and other notes from 6/7/15)

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With the Astros having gotten swept by the Blue Jays over the weekend, they still hold a 3.5 game lead in the AL West over the Rangers.  But being in contention for a playoff spot for the first time in years, they are not settling for anything less than putting the best team that they can on the field and they are calling up top prospect Carlos Correa to be their everyday shortstop.  The move to call him up is earlier than I would have anticipated, but it was something that I said should happen with Jed Lowrie and Luis Valbuena forming a strong platoon at third base once Lowrie returns from the DL to make room for Correa and allow him to showcase his elite talent on an everyday basis.

The number one overall pick in the 2012 draft, Correa missed a good chunk of the 2014 season due to an injury, but he has been tearing it up this season.  He began the year at AA and received a recent promotion to AAA and he has a combined line of .332/.402/.602 with 10 HR, 43 RBI, and 18 SB in 52 games between the two levels.  His production began to tail off once he reached AAA, but there’s no denying his talent and how he can help this Astros ball club.  With Lowrie being on the DL, the Astros have been using a combination of Marwin Gonzalez and Jonathan Villar at shortstop who have not been getting the job done.

Expectations for Correa, who will be 21 years old in September, need to be kept in check, but the fantasy baseball community cannot help but to be extremely excited over this promotion.  Correa definitely needs to be picked up in any league format because the shortstop position is so thing that he could realistically be a top 8 option at the position the rest of the way.

For the rest of the season I am going to project him for:  .267/.338/.384 with 7 HR, 44 RBI, 48 R, 15 SB, 77 K, 33 BB in 352 AB

Let’s take a look at what else happened on Sunday!

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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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Familia-rize Yourself With Jeurys (and other notes from 5/25/15)

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Jeurys Familia took on the role of closer for the Mets early on in the season when Jenrry Mejia went down with an elbow injury and then was suspended for 80 games for PED use.  Mejia being injured and subsequently suspended has turned out to be a real blessing in disguise for the Mets because Familia has stepped right in to exceed most likely anyone’s expectations.  With another perfect inning with 2 strikeouts on Monday to close out the Phillies, Familia now owns a 1.60 ERA, 0.70 WHIP, and 26 K/4 BB in 21.1 IP while converting 14 of 15 save opportunities.  But just who is Jeurys Familia?  Let’s take this time to “Familia”-rize ourselves with the 25-year old hard-throwing righty.

Familia has been in the Mets organization since 2008 and through the 2012 season he was brought up as a starting pitcher, but he posted modest numbers in that role (3.85 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 8.62 K/9, 3.95 BB/9).  Familia received his first taste of the Majors as a September call up in the 2012 season, but he was very ineffective in 8 relief appearances and one spot start.

Familia was able to break camp on the opening day roster as a reliever for the Mets in 2013, but once again he failed to impress because of extremely poor control, something that he also struggled with as a starting pitcher in the Minors.  And also in 2013, he underwent elbow surgery to remove bone spurs and that sidelined him for 4 months before he worked his way back to make one final appearance before the season ended.

For the 2014 season, Familia once again found himself working in the Mets bullpen as that apparently was where they saw him best suited long term.  Familia went on to post some quality numbers with a 2.21 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 8.50 K/9, and 3.75 BB/9 in 77.1 IP while also chipping in 5 saves filling in at closer when needed.  His SIERA at 3.21 was a full run higher than his ERA, but the improvements that he showed all across the board were encouraging.

So that brings us to 2015, where despite a relatively spotty track record, Familia has by no means “lucked” his way into the brilliant performance he has given.  His walk rate of 1.72 BB/9 is considerably lower than any rate he has posted in the past, but he is achieving that by getting ahead in the count a lot more often than he has in the past.  From 2012-14, Familia’s first pitch strike percentages were 42.3%, 51.9%, and 52.8%, but this year he is all the way up to 58.2% and obviously it is a lot easier to prevent free passes if a pitcher is getting ahead in the count early and often.

And how about that strikeout rate of 10.97 K/9?  That is also a much higher number than he’s accustomed to, but the improvement is for real.  Familia uses a four-seam fastball, a sinking fastball, and a slider.  It is his slider that has really taken his game to the next level this year as he is getting a little bit different movement and greater velocity on the pitch this year.  In the past it has been a pitch that averaged 86.1 MPH and has fallen out of the strike zone a lot, often times not getting close to the zone which made it easier for hitters to lay off of it.  But this year, he is averaging 88.6 MPH on the pitch and it’s staying higher with a little less horizontal movement, and he is able to effectively throw it in or much closer to the zone to get hitters to swing and miss on it.  With a 31.0% swinging strike rate on his slider this year (compared to 26.4% last year), Familia’s slider has become one of the better ones in the game.  Overall, Familia has an 18.2% swinging strike rate on all his pitches, which is 5th highest among qualified relievers.

His .191 BABIP is a low mark and he will likely see some regression there, but his overall performance is right in line with what the metric systems suggest it would be, as his 1.71 SIERA is not far off from his 1.60 ERA.  So if you were worried about Familia not being able to keep up his amazing performance, this all should ease your worries a bit.

Now let’s take a look at the rest of Memorial Day’s action!

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

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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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Mr. Holland’s Opus is Not Music to My Ears

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Greg Holland of the Kansas City Royals has been one of the most dominant closers in the game in the last two and a half seasons, and with another scoreless outing and converted save on Thursday, Holland now has a 0.90 ERA and 1.00 WHIP while converting 7 of 8 saves opportunities on the year.  He’s on his way to another incredible season, right?  Well, maybe not.

Despite that 0.90 ERA, Holland has a SIERA that is an incredible 4 runs higher at 4.90.  In case you don’t know what I am referring to, SIERA stands for “Skill Interactive ERA” and it is a modern analytic statistic that is designed to measure how a pitcher has done as an individual in regards to the things that he can control (strikeouts, walks, home runs allowed), as opposed to ERA measuring what actually happened which is inclusive of balls in play and defense (things out of a pitcher’s control).  SIERA is a better statistical measurement of a pitcher’s future performance.  Read more about it here.

So what is going on with Holland that we need to worry about?  The most important thing to know about is his decline in fastball velocity.  For the last three seasons, Holland has been one of the hardest throwers in the game averaging around 96 MPH with his heater, but this year it’s all the way down to 93.5 MPH on the young season according to PITCHf/x data.  That’s a pretty big decline that is surely the primary factor in his strikeout rate sitting at a paltry 5.40 K/9 on the season — nowhere close to the 13.02 K/9 he had from 2012-14.  Holland is also fortunate to have just a .154 BABIP, despite hitters not making hard contact off him this year.  That’s a number that is surely to rise a lot, and if he still isn’t striking out batters when it does, then his ERA is going to be looking more like what his current SIERA is.

However, there is some hope for a turnaround soon.  Holland missed about 3 weeks earlier this season due to a pectoral injury.  So it is possible that injury is still hampering him and could be the reason for his diminished velocity.  But conversely, if that’s the case, then it could be an injury that lingers even further into the season and he will be getting hit hard because of it.

We’ll have to wait and see what developments (or non-developments) occur over the next couple of weeks, but for now Royals setup man Wade Davis needs to be owned in most fantasy leagues.  Davis has yet to allow a run this year and he was a perfect 6 for 6 in save opportunities during Holland’s absence on the DL.