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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Hamels’ Potential Parting Gift to Philly (and other notes from 7/25/15)

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Philadelphia Phillies ace Cole Hamels had been in the midst of a mostly bad run over his last 7 starts before Saturday, as he had 6.10 ERA and 1.57 WHIP since June 8. There were rumblings that the trade rumors surrounding him were adversely affecting his performance, but in what could be his final start as a member of the Phillies team that drafted him back in 2002, the lanky lefty put that notion to rest by firing a no-hitter with 13 strikeouts against the Cubs at Wrigley Field on Saturday.

With the no-hitter, Hamels improved to 6-7 with a 3.64 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, and 137 K/39 BB in 128.2 IP. While the ERA and WHIP are a bit on the high side in comparison to the rest of his career, his strikeout rate of 9.58 K/9 ranks as the best since his rookie season in 2006, and his current 3.14 xFIP would be the second best mark of his career (3.02 xFIP in 2011). Also, Hamels average fastball velocity is as high as it has ever been. So the 31-year old Hamels is surely showing that he’s still got the stuff to be considered an ace in this league and he should be treated like one for fantasy purposes as well.

Hamels is still under contract through the 2018 season, scheduled to make $22.5 million in each remaining season with a $19 million vesting option for 2019. So if the Phillies do end up dealing him, this is not just a 2-3 month rental like David Price or Johnny Cueto would be. So any team that does trade for him is likely going to have to still give up a nice haul of prospects to the Phillies as they enter a rebuild mode. And any destination that he goes to, he is likely to get a boost in value because he will finally get away from the poor run support of the Phillies offense, and he also will be leaving the hitter friendly confines of Citizens Bank Park.

If I had to speculate on Hamels’ destination, I would look for the Los Angeles Dodgers to become heavily involved as the deadline approaches. With a starting rotation that has been marred by season-ending injuries to Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-Jin Ryu, a current injury that Brett Anderson is dealing with, and getting very little production from a combination of Carlos Frias and Brandon Beachy in the 5th spot in their rotation, the Dodgers are surely in the market for a starting pitcher in a season where they have an excellent chance to go all the way. Also, acquiring Hamels, who is under team control through 2018, will give the team some insurance in the likely event that Zack Greinke exercises his opt out clause at the end of the year.

The Dodgers and Phillies are familiar trade partners as they completed a deal in the off-season that sent long-time Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins to Los Angeles. And the Dodgers surely have a strong enough farm system to put together a package that the Phillies would accept, but the question is if the Andrew Friedman led regime would be willing to part with their top prospects such as shortstop Kyle Seager or pitching phenom Julio Urias. The Phillies would likely want any deal to start with Urias as a future replacement to Hamels for their rotation. But the Dodgers could also try to attract the Phillies with a Major League talent like third baseman/outfielder Alex Guerrero who has a bat that’s great enough to be a Major League regular. Of course, more players would have to added on along with Guerrero to get a deal done, but something definitely could be worked out.

Now let’s take a look at Saturday’s slate.

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What Is Hector’s Achilles Heel? (and other notes from 7/10/15)

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Hector Santiago was a pitcher that was acquired by the Angels via trade before the 2014 season and the Angels primarily used him as a starting pitcher for the 2014 season, but he more or less proved to be the same type of pitcher that he had been in his couple seasons prior with the White Sox.  He showed that he had a decent left-handed arm that had some strikeout potential but walked a lot of batters and was inefficient with his pitch counts, and he finished the season with a 3.75 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, and 108 K/53 BB in 127.1 IP.

So entering the 2015 season, much of the same was to be expected from Santiago as he opened the season with a spot in the back end of the Angels rotation, but he has surpassed anyone’s expectations.  The Angels starting rotation looked to be in some big trouble this season with Garrett Richards starting the season on the DL, Jered Weaver having extremely diminished velocity, C.J. Wilson coming off a career worst season as a starter, and the 2014 surprise Matt Shoemaker surely unable to repeat his rookie season numbers.  But even with all those question marks with the starting pitching, it would have been hard to predict that Santiago would be the Angels’ best, most consistent and reliable pitcher through the first half of the season.  So we have to acknowledge the fine job that he has done to this point, and with another strong start on Friday at Seattle, Santiago will enter the All-Star break with a 6-4 record, 2.33 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and 98 K/34 BB in 108.1 IP.  Unfortunately, there are some red flags for Santiago that call for some regression as we enter the second half of the season, and he may not be quite as fortunate from here on out.

Santiago currently sports the 3rd lowest BABIP among all Major League pitchers at .244.  Santiago’s low BABIP can possibly be substantiated by the fact that he has been the most extreme fly ball pitcher in the entire league this season with a 50.8% fly ball rate.  Fly ball pitchers are more capable of maintaining low BABIP marks due to the fact that fly balls that stay in play are generally easier to record for an out than ground balls, which can go for hits in a number of ways unless it is hit directly at an infielder.  So at first glance, his low BABIP isn’t a terrible issue, but then upon examining his hard hit and soft hit rates, it becomes much more of a question if the low BABIP is something that he can maintain.  Currently, his soft hit rate is the 11th lowest in the league at 15.3% and his hard hit rate is the 8th highest at 33.4%.  What this reflects is that when hitters are making contact against Santiago, they are generally able to avoid hitting it softly and instead they hit it at a medium impact or a hard impact — and of course logic will say that hard hit balls will go for base hits much more often than soft hit balls. So the fact that Santiago has been able to rank so well in BABIP despite being on pace for career worst soft and hard hit rates, it would suggest that he has been rather fortunate.

In Santiago’s favor though is that he has one of the better outfield defenses in the league, much in part to the reigning American League MVP Mike Trout who seems to track down a myriad of fly balls that seemingly few center fielders would be able to get to.  So as I mentioned about the Indians pitchers and how their poor defense grossly affects them in “Sometimes A Pitcher Is Only As Good As His Defense,” it also works in the opposite way with pitchers who have good defenses backing them.  So because Santiago has Trout and others roaming the outfield behind him, he’s going to get a lot of should-be gappers hit off him that will be caught, which helps keep his BABIP down as a fly ball pitcher.  But even so, he should see some sort of regression in the area if he continues to allow hard contact at such a high rate because even Trout can’t catch them all.

Another thing of note with Santiago is that his 88.9% strand rate is the 2nd highest in the league next to Zack Greinke. That type of strand rate is astronomically high as the league average tends to hover around 72.0% and last year’s highest was Doug Fister at 83.1%.  So Santiago is bound for some regression in this area, especially as a fly ball pitcher.  Fly ball pitchers generally allow more home runs, and home runs obviously clear the bases of all runners so that none of those base runners allowed would count as stranded/left on base.  And indeed, Santiago does allow his fair share of home runs at 1.08 HR/9 this season, which matches his career mark as well.  His career strand rate has been relatively high at 79.8%, so perhaps it is somewhat of a skill, but nonetheless it should begin to regress.  Looking at the other pitchers with a strand rate of 80.0% or higher this season, most of them are ground ball pitchers because pitchers with higher ground ball tendencies are able to induce ground ball double plays to strand runners.

One final caution regarding Santiago is his innings count.  He came up through the White Sox farm system as primarily a relief pitcher, and that is what the White Sox used him as initially when he reached the Majors as well.  So his career high in innings pitched is only 149 set in 2013, but he is currently on pace to finish the season with 203.1 innings pitched.  While it is not as great of concern as his hard hit rate, BABIP, and strand rate, it definitely is something to watch once he surpasses his previous career high.

Something very positive in Santiago’s breakout season thus far is his big improvement in his control, which has led to greater efficiency with his pitches and being able to work deeper into games.  His walk rates from 2012-14 have been 5.12 BB/9, 4.35 BB/9, and 3.75 BB/9.  However, this year he is all the way down to 2.82 BB/9 and is averaging 6.16 IP/start. And the improved walk rate is backed up by a career high first pitch strike rate of 59.3%.  So as long as he can keep getting ahead of hitters in the count, then he should be well on his way to a career best walk rate — it’s just the other things that we need to monitor as Hector’s possible Achilles heel.

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

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All-Star Snubbery (and other notes from 7/6/15)

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For fantasy baseball purposes, the All-Star Game player voting and selection has zero bearing on anything, but the game and festivities themselves are a nice break in the action where we can have a short hiatus from constantly checking on box scores, live updates, MLB.tv, and the like.  It’s a period where our significant others will be glad to have us paying more attention to them and less attention to a bunch of dudes in tight pants (*in most cases, wink wink).

So on Sunday the All-Star starters were announced, as voted on by the fans, and on Monday the rest of each league’s roster was released.  As always, there were some interesting and undeserving selections that people are going to have some beef with.  These were my AL All-Star predictions and these were my NL All-Star predictions.  Overall, out of the 68 players that have been announced as All-Stars so far, I selected 50 correct for a 73.5% success rate.  That’s lower than I would have expected, but these managers made some unexpected choices.  Here are the rosters as reported by CBS Sports:

AL Starters (fan vote)

C Salvador Perez, 1B Miguel Cabrera, (injured, will not play), 2B Jose Altuve, SS Alcides Escobar, 3B Josh Donaldson,(leading vote-getter overall), OF Mike Trout, OF Lorenzo Cain, OF Alex Gordon, DH Nelson Cruz

The AL starters didn’t pan out as I exepcted, as I felt that the fans would get it right by electing Jose Bautista over Alex Gordon and I predicted that the Royals faithful would be able to get Kendrys Morales in over Nelson Cruz.  So the Royals will have four starters, which I suppose is better than the eight that they were projected to have at one point. Cain is a borderline All-Star, but Gordon definitely has no business being here.

AL Reserves

C Russell Martin, C Stephen Vogt, 1B Albert Pujols, (will start in place of the injured Cabrera), 1B Prince Fielder, 1B Mark Teixeira, (replaces injured Cabrera on roster), 2B Jason Kipnis, SS Jose Iglesias, 3B Manny Machado, OF J.D. Martinez, OF Jose Bautista, OF Adam Jones, UTIL Brock Holt

Brian McCann got left off the team, which is probably the correct call, but another Yankee Mark Teixeira made it onto the squad because of the injury to Miguel Cabrera.  Despite Alex Rodriguez’ strong performance to this point, he was omitted from the roster, which may speak volumes as to how the players and coaches feel about him.  Jason Kipnis made it on as a reserve second baseman, but Brian Dozier definitely should have been included somehow.  Jose Iglesias and his superior defense made it over Jose Reyes, which I do not have an issue with.  But one big issue that I do have is Adam Jones making it onto the roster when there are outfielders like Brett Gardner and George Springer who are having much more impressive seasons.  Brock Holt doesn’t really have the stats that scream “All-Star,” but I have no issue with him making it as the Red Sox representative because he really has been that team’s MVP with his ability to play all over the field.

AL Pitchers

RHP Sonny Gray, RHP Felix Hernandez, RHP Chris Archer, LHP David Price, LHP Dallas Keuchel, LHP Chris Sale, RHP Dellin Betances, RHP Brad Boxberger, RHP Kelvin Herrera, RHP Wade Davis, RHP Darren O’Day, LHP Glen Perkins, LHP Zach Britton

All the starting pitchers selected were no-brainers, but it got a little tricky with the relievers.  Dellin Betances, Glen Perkins, and Zach Britton have undoubtedly been the the American League’s best closers, but Huston Street could have easily been selected over Brad Boxberger.  Then there’s no issue with manager Ned Yost selecting his own setup man Wade Davis and the Orioles setup man Darren O’Day, but it is a bit of a homer pick by Yost to choose Kelvin Herrera.  Herrera is having a nice season, but nothing too dominant, and this spot could easily have gone to Street or he could have chosen one of the outfield snubs.

AL Final Vote Candidates

SS Xander Bogaerts, OF Yoenis Cespedes, OF Brett Gardner, 2B Brian Dozier, 3B Mike Moustakas

Out of the final vote candidates, Brett Gardner and Brian Dozier are clearly the most deserving of being All-Stars, but given the strong backing for the Royals players this season, I expect Mike Moustakas to win the vote.  Moustakas is having a breakthrough season at the plate being able to hit left-handed pitching now, but there are better players that deserve it more.

NL Starters (fan vote)

C Buster Posey, 1B Paul Goldschmidt, 2B Dee Gordon, SS Jhonny Peralta, 3B Todd Frazier, OF Bryce Harper, (leading vote-getter in NL), OF Matt Holliday, (injured, participation questionable), OF Giancarlo Stanton, (injured, will not play)

All the NL starters went as I predicted and everyone is deserving of the starting nod besides Matt Holliday.

NL Reserves

C Yadier Molina, C Yasmani Grandal, 1B Anthony Rizzo, 1B Adrian Gonzalez, 2B DJ LeMahieu, 2B Joe Panik, SS Brandon Crawford, 3B Nolan Arenado, 3B Kris Bryant, (replaces injured Stanton on roster), OF Andrew McCutchen, (will start in place of the injured Stanton), OF Joc Pederson, OF Justin Upton, OF A.J. Pollock

Right away there’s a snub that with Yadier Molina making it over Derek Norris.  Having Molina as an All-Star is purely just a reputation pick because Norris has been the better offensive catcher all season long and though his defense hasn’t been as good as Molina’s, he still ranks pretty high up there for NL catchers.  With Joey Votto’s recent slump, it’s no surprise to see Adrian Gonzalez selected by Bruce Bochy.  Also no surprise to see is that Bochy went with the homer picks and selected his middle infielders, Joe Panik and Brandon Crawford to the team.  One of them should have been left off the roster in favor of Troy Tulowitzki who has been ripping the ball as of late.  Kris Bryant is a questionable pick to take Giancarlo Stanton’s place on the team, but the fans will surely like to see Bryant partake in the Home Run Derby if they can’t see Stanton.  And it is a bit odd that Andrew McCutchen was selected over his teammate Starling Marte despite the fact that Marte has been having the superior season.  Perhaps Marte’s recent oblique injury had something to do with it, but he is still on the active roster and not on the DL.

NL Pitchers

RHP Max Scherzer, RHP Zack Greinke, RHP Gerrit Cole, RHP Michael Wacha, RHP Jacob deGrom, RHP Shelby Miller, RHP A.J. Burnett, LHP Madison Bumgarner, RHP Trevor Rosenthal, RHP Mark Melancon, RHP Jonathan Papelbon, RHP Francisco Rodriguez, LHP Aroldis Chapman

I am a bit surprised that Clayton Kershaw is not on the All-Star roster, but I do not have a problem with A.J. Burnett appearing to be the one to have beaten Kershaw for it.  Kershaw just hasn’t been as dominant this season, despite leading the league in strikeouts, and it’s a nice honor for Burnett to go to the game in what is going to be his final season in the Majors.  It is a bit of an upset for Mark Melancon to make the squad over both Jeurys Familia and Drew Storen.  Yes, Melancon has leads the league in saves, but Storen and Familia have been much more dominant.  If Ryan Braun had been selected as the Brewers representative, then that would have left Francisco Rodriguez off, which also would have opened up a spot for either Storen or Familia.

NL Final Vote Candidates

RHP Johnny Cueto, RHP Jeurys Familia, LHP Clayton Kershaw, RHP Carlos Martinez, SS Troy Tulowitzki

Despite the Reds playing host to the All-Star festivities, I expect Clayton Kershaw to beat out Johnny Cueto for the final vote.  MLB fans around the nation just love Kershaw too much for him to not win this 5-man popularity contest.

Now let’s look at Monday’s slate of action! Continue reading

Getting Cranky With Greinke (and other notes from 5/16/15)

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Zack Greinke pitched on Saturday night versus the Rockies and he finished the game going 6 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 5 K with the loss.  It is a tough luck loss for Greinke, but he is looking like a nice sell candidate for any Greinke owners out there.  He is 5-1 with a 1.52 ERA and 0.88 WHIP and he pitches in front of an offense that can score with the best of them, so the opportunities to log a lot of wins will be there.  And his strikeout to walk ratio of 44 K/11 BB is very solid.  So what’s not to like?

According to PITCHf/x data, Greinke’s fastball velocity for the most part has progressively gotten worse every season since 2009 from 93.7 MPH to 90.6 MPH this year.  Greinke is dealing with a 1.2 MPH decline in his fastball velocity from last year to this year, which would qualify as the largest drop in a single season during the time frame from 2009-present.  Though he has maintained his excellent control, his strikeout rate is down from 9.21 K/9 last year to a current season mark of 7.42 K/9 with the likely culprit being the aforementioned velocity loss.

From when Greinke first entered the Majors in 2007 all the way through 2012, the slider pitch was his bread and butter and he used it anywhere from 15.1% to 19.2% of the time during those years.  But a strange thing happened in 2013 after he signed a 6-year/$148 million contract with the Dodgers.  His slider usage that year mysteriously dropped to 5.4%.  The reasoning behind it though was that Greinke understood that the slider is known to be the most stressful pitch on the arm/elbow, so he intentionally used it less that year an in effort to preserve his health for the long term and for the duration of his newly minted deal.  However, that slider had been his most effective pitch over the course of his career, so subtracting it from his arsenal (or using it more seldom) had an adverse effect.  Greinke’s strikeout rate was at just 7.50 K/9 in that season, which was one of the lowest marks that he had ever since having a breakthrough season in 2008.  Perhaps it was a coincidence, but I see it more as a causal relationship because in the following 2014 season, Greinke apparently had a change of heart and ramped back up his slider usage to 17.5% and finished the season with a healthy 9.21 K/9.

So with his slider usage back up last year and currently at an all-time high this year, could it be that it has had adverse effects to be the cause to his diminished velocity?  There is no actual way of knowing, but I believe it to be a valid theory.  Furthermore on Greinke and being a sell candidate, his SIERA currently sits about 2 full runs higher than his actual ERA, he is stranding base runners at a high mark over 85%, and his .217 BABIP is super low.  He has only once posted a BABIP under .300, and that was way back in his rookie season.

With the name value, the stunning stats on the surface, and playing for a good team, you should be able to get a good return on the Greinkster.  I envision him to be more of a 3.50 ERA, 1.20 WHIP type of pitcher while maintaining strikeout and walk rates near his current marks. That’s not terrible, and at least the great win potential is still there, but there’s someone out there who will look at his current stats and erroneously think that he is a fantasy ace.

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