Presto for Preston (and other notes from 7/22/15)

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Preston Tucker is an outfielder that was drafted by the Houston Astros in the 7th round of the 2012 draft as a four-year standout at the University of Florida, and he’s been a player in the Minors that has shown a nice power stroke and a bit of an advanced plate approach. After beginning the year at AAA and hitting .320 with 10 HR in just 25 games, the Astros promoted Tucker to the Majors in early May after George Springer landed on the 7-day DL with a concussion. At the time, it was unclear whether or not the Astros intended to keep Tucker on the roster once Springer was ready to return, but Tucker began to hit and the Astros kept him on as a left-handed bat since they were in 1st place in the division and in “win now” mode.

Tucker eventually hit a prolonged slump once the calendar flipped over to June as he had a .189 AVG for the month, but the Astros stuck with him, which shows the confidence that they have in him to be the type of player that they feel he can be (side note: The Astros also drafted Preston’s younger brother Kyle Tucker with the 5th overall pick in this year’s draft). And to even further show the Astros’ faith in Tucker, he has been hitting out of the 2-hole since July 3 after Springer suffered yet another injury that landed him on the DL, and Tucker has responded very well in that role.

On Wednesday, Tucker belted 2 home runs and is now hitting .264 with 8 HR, 26 RBI, and 26 R for the season, and .321 with 4 HR, 9 RBI and 9 R since being inserted into the 2-hole. Springer isn’t expected back for about another three weeks barring any setbacks, so Tucker seems likely to continue to be placed in a very favorable spot in the Astros lineup on a regular basis and he’s got the skills to keep on improving his overall triple slash of .264/.324/.466. And in the Minors, he has a 25 HR and a 24 HR season to his name, so he definitely has the type of pop that can make him a useful fantasy commodity.

Along with the power potential, Tucker has shown an advanced plate approach in the Minors that I alluded to previously. Currently, Tucker has a walk rate of 7.6% and a strikeout rate of 20.0%. Neither number is terrible as they are actually right on par with the league averages of a 7.5% walk rate and a 20.1% strikeout rate, and his 20.0% strikeout rate is actually lower than average for a player with his type of 25+ HR power. But in his Minor League career, he had a 9.3% walk rate and a 16.4% strikeout rate. However, his strikeout rate in 420 plate appearances in AAA is 21.9%, so perhaps he won’t get too much better than his current rate there, but he’s still just 25 years old and can develop those skills with more experience in the Majors. Just know that the potential is there for improvement in this area and this is something that makes him someone to monitor for now and for the future.

Another aspect of Tucker’s Minor League game that hasn’t yet translated over to his Major League career so far is his ability to left-handed pitching. For the season against southpaws, he is hitting just .218/.259/.255 with no home runs in 55 AB, and this poor hitting performance for a lefty vs. left-handed pitching is not atypical for many players. However, according to Minor League Central, Tucker actually hit left-handers very well throughout his time in the Minors at .321/.377/.512. That line is actually better than his line against right-handed Minor League pitching. So while he may not be hitting Major League lefties all that well at the moment, there is some definite capability of improving, and is probably the reason why manager A.J. Hinch is not being afraid of putting him high up in the batting order against lefties.

Once Springer is ready to return to the lineup Tucker will probably get bumped down in the order and also lose some playing time, but he appears to be showing enough to be given a good amount of consideration for both season long fantasy leagues and in DFS. At the very least, it’s looking like Tucker can at least be on the strong side of a platoon, and Adam Lind is a good example of the type of player that we might see Tucker develop into in the future. Provided that he doesn’t make too much noise from now till the end of the season, Tucker could enter the 2016 season as quite a sleeper.

Let’s take a look at the rest of Wednesday’s action.
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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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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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Montgomery’s Monumental Mound Montage (and other notes from 6/30/15)

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Before we get into what Mariners left-handed rookie starting pitcher Mike Montgomery has done this season, let’s look at what his background has been like.  Montgomery was originally drafted by the Royals in the 1st round of the 2008 draft, but he had performance issues in 2011 and 2012 when he was in the upper levels of the Minors.  In 2011, he had a 5.32 ERA and 1.50 WHIP in 150.2 IP at AA.  In 2012, he had 6.07 ERA and 1.62 WHIP in 149.2 IP splitting time between AA and AAA. The extremely poor seasons undoubtedly had the Royals souring on Montgomery, which is likely one of the reasons that they felt it was okay to include him in a trade that sent him along with Jake OdorizziWil Myers, and Jake Leonard to the Rays in exchange for James Shields and Wade Davis.

In the Rays organization, he showed small improvements, but for the most part he was still appearing as a disappointment. In 2013 at rookie-ball, high-A, and mostly AAA, Montgomery had a 4.59 ERA and 1.42 WHIP.  In 2014 still with the Rays, he had a 4.29 ERA and 1.31 WHIP in 126 IP at AAA.  So now it was the Rays who had seen enough of the lefty and they shipped him off to the Mariners for Erasmo Ramirez one week before the 2015 season began.

Montgomery began the 2015 season at the Mariners AAA affiliate and was showing his best stuff since 2008-09 when he was in the low minors in the Royals organization.  To begin the year, Montgomery had a 3.74 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in 53 IP over 9 starts, and was also displaying some of the best that he’s ever shown in strikeout rate (7.98 K/9) and walk rate (2.55 BB/9).  So when James Paxton went down with an injury just four short weeks ago, Montgomery was called up from AAA to make his Major League debut for the Mariners.

Over his first four starts, Montgomery had decent performances, but was nowhere near dominating.  His 2.73 ERA and 1.14 WHIP were nice, but the 12 K/8 BB in 26.1 IP were far from impressive and suggested that he was getting a bit lucky in the ERA and WHIP departments in his first tour through the league.  However, the now 26-year old rookie (it’s his birthday today, July 1), took things to a new level in his 5th start of the season against the team that drafted him, the Kansas City Royals.  Despite the fact that the Royals have been the hardest team to strikeout all season long, Montgomery not only struck them out 10 times, but he also pitched a complete game shutout scattering just 5 singles without issuing a walk. Maybe it was the revenge factor against his former organization that traded him away that drove him to the surprise game, but whatver it was, it was certainly something for the baseball community to take notice of.

His very next start came on Tuesday evening at Petco Park versus the Padres, and he ended up tossing a 1-hitter with 7 K/4 BB for his second complete game shutout in a row.  So with back to back CGSO, Montgomery has delivered a monumental mound performance, becoming the first Mariners pitcher to complete such a feat since Freddy Garcia in 2001.  The first shutout against the Royals could have been passed off as a bit of luck as a once in a lifetime type of game, but to repeat with another shutout has to give him some merit.

What gives Montgomery’s shutout performances some validity is that he had the strong strikeout numbers to go with it, which was a drastic change from his paltry strikeout rate of 4.10 K/9 from his first four starts.  And as a former 1st round pick, there was obviously something to like about Montgomery at some point.  So even if it took 6-7 years, perhaps this is a situation where a pitcher is finally figuring things out.

Montgomery gets another nice matchup in his next start against an A’s team that performs better against righties and ranks in the bottom half of the league in wOBA and ISO versus lefties.  So if he is on the waiver wire, it wouldn’t be a terrible spot to pick him up and start him for.  But after that start, it’s going to get tricky for Montgomery because Hisashi Iwakuma is on track to return sometime before the All-Star break, and that could mean that Montgomery will be booted from the rotation. It is also possible that Roenis Elias could be the pitcher to be removed, so Montgomery owners will want to hold onto him until everything is settled.

I am still not entirely sold on Montgomery, but for now he should be picked up in deeper leagues in the event that he does continue to blossom and show that these two shutout games aren’t just flashes in the pan.

Let’s check out the rest of Tuesday’s games.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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