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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When the Hard Hit Rates Don’t Match the BABIP (and other notes from 6/29/15)

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Clay Buchholz of the Red Sox kept the bats of a powerful Blue Jays offense in check all evening on Monday and he defeated them by posting a line of 8 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 5 K.  He improved to 6-6 with a 3.48 ERA and 1.24 WHIP with both healthy strikeout and walk rates (8.55 K/9, 2.05 BB/9).  Buchholz’ issue this season is that he has the occasional blow up game to cancel out some of the great work that he does.  And as I said after his last start, if he can receive some better fortune then he could have better looking stats.  It’s probably too late now, but he would have been in a position to be the Red Sox All-Star representative if he had some better luck up to this point.  To see how Buchholz is sitting on the wrong side of things, we look at league stats for pitchers hard hit rate and BABIP.

Hard hit rate is a statistic that is becoming more prevalent in the conversation in the performance of players, similar to the way that BABIP (batting average on balls in play) did several years ago.  Hard hit rate is just what it sounds like — it is the rate at which a ball is hit at a “hard” impact and it can be used for evaluating both hitters and pitchers alike.  For hitters, the harder a ball is hit, the more that it shows that they are squaring up the ball with good contact and the greater likelihood of a hit and positive offensive production.  For pitchers, the harder the ball is hit against them would suggest that they are more likely to have poor results, giving up more hits and runs.  BABIP for hitters is the rate at which balls that are put in play (i.e. any official at-bat that does not result in a home run or strikeout) go for hits.  For pitchers, BABIP is the rate at which they allow hits on balls that are playable by a defense.

So using the stats provided by FanGraphs, looking at the top 15 in lowest hard hit rate for pitchers entering June 30, 2015, we find Buchholz come in at the 11th lowest with 23.9%.  So with a pretty low hard hit rate, we would expect that Buchholz would have a pretty low BABIP or at least around the league average in BABIP, which is generally somewhere around .300. But it is the exact opposite that we are seeing from the Red Sox righty.  Buchholz actually has the 12th highest BABIP at .332.  So the fact that he has been one of the better pitchers in limiting hard contact but has one of the higher BABIP marks in the league would suggest one of two things (or both): 1.) Poor defense behind him  2.) Lots of bad luck

So now we turn to defensive statistics, yet again on FanGraphs, to see what the Red Sox defense has been doing this season.  They come in below the league midpoint in DEF (defense rating) and UZR (ultimate zone rating), but they are not ranked too low in either — 17th in DEF at 0.3 and 19th in UZR at -6.4 — so they can more or less be classified as a league average defensive team as opposed to a poor defensive team.  Because of this, we would have to lean towards attributing Buchholz’ contradictory hard hit rate and BABIP to bad luck, and it can further be shown in the fact that his xFIP of 3.19 and SIERA of 3.22 sit a bit lower than his 3.48 ERA.  As we approach the season’s official 81-games played halfway point (the All-Star break is commonly given the misnomer as the halfway point), Buchholz could be in for some better times if he keeps pitching at the level that he is (or better) and receives some added luck on his side.

Using this same method, there are a few other pitchers whose hard hit rates don’t match up with their BABIP.  Let’s take a look at the following:

  • Gio Gonzalez – .354 BABIP (2nd highest), 25.6% hard hit (21st lowest) / Nationals: -8.7 DEF (22nd), -10.7 UZR (22nd)
  • Tyson Ross – .346 BABIP (5th highest), 24.1% hard hit (13th lowest) / Padres -31.6 DEF (29th), -34.6 UZR (29th)
  • Jose Quintana – .335 BABIP (10th highest), 24.7% hard hit (15th lowest) / White Sox: -37.6 DEF (30th), -34.6 UZR (30th)
  • Jeff Samardzija – .329 BABIP (16th highest), 26.1% hard hit (24th lowest) / White Sox: -37.6 DEF (30th), -34.6 UZR (30th)
  • Mike Pelfrey – .315 BABIP (29th highest), 20.5% hard hit (1st lowest) / Twins: -6.2 DEF (19th), -4.2 UZR (18th)

Gonzalez comes up ten thousandths of a point shy of having the highest BABIP in all of the Majors (Nate Eovaldi currently has the highest), but he isn’t getting hit all that hard.  However, his Nationals defense has been pretty bad.  I would expect some regression here just given how high his BABIP is, but with the poor defense and career high line drive and ground ball rates, it’s not necessarily all bad luck that he is receiving.

Moving on to Ross, I talked about bad defenses and how they can affect pitchers in “Sometimes A Pitcher Is Only As Good As His Defense,” and his defense has been the second worst in all of baseball.  So while he should improve some, his 62.8% ground ball rate is not conducive for the poor infield defense that he has behind him and things may not get too much better.

Then both Quintana and Samardzija pitch in front of the league’s absolute worst defense (also mentioned in “Sometimes A Pitcher Is Only As Good As His Defense”), so it is no surprise that we see them appear in this statistical review.  Like with Ross, some improvement should be seen, but if the White Sox keep deploying the same defensive players and strategy then it might be tough sledding for them to show drastic improvements in their overall stats.

Then there is Pelfrey who got obliterated for the second time in four starts on Monday to give him a much uglier stat line and to push him up the BABIP charts a lot.  He’s more in the same boat as Buchholz with a mediocre defense rather than a poor one.  So he could see some better days, but because of his minimal strikeout appeal, he is not a great fantasy target to begin with.  But with some better luck, he can provide decently in ERA.

Something interesting though that all six of the aforementioned pitchers have in common is that they all appear in the top 21 highest medium hit rates.  So while they may not be allowing a lot of hard hit balls, they all give up a lot of medium hit ones.  So perhaps it is these medium hit balls that these average or below average defenses are struggling to defend due to either poor range or misguided defensive alignments.  Nonetheless, I would still expect Buchholz to have some better days ahead of him if he continues to pitch at the level he has been.

Let’s now look at the remainder of Monday’s action!

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A Lesson in Klubotics (and other notes from 5/13/15)

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The reigning AL Cy Young, Corey “the Klubot” Kluber had been on the wrong end of some hit parades over the course of his first 7 starts of the 2015 season, which led him to an 0-5 record with a 5.04 ERA and 1.39 WHIP.  Given that his breakout 2014 performance kind of came out of nowhere (though there were signs that he had breakout potential), fantasy owners of Kluber were chomping at the bit to get rid of him.  Yes, it is unfortunate for anyone who owns/owned Kluber that they had to endure such an ugly stretch, but a closer examination of what was really going on showed that there really was never any real reason to worry.

Heading into Wednesday’s action, Kluber had a .364 BABIP and 62.3% strand rate, both of which were way worse than the league average and they were numbers to expect to regress towards the mean.  Though his ERA was bloated at 5.04, his xFIP was 3.16 and his SIERA was 3.21.  xFIP and SIERA are far more accurate measures of what a pitcher’s “true” performance is, and for Kluber’s marks to have been nearly two whole runs beneath his ERA, it was an obvious sign of things to come.  Then add in the fact that his normal catcher, Yan Gomes who is known to be a great game caller with excellent framing metrics, got injured within the first week of the season, and his impending return in a couple weeks was more reason to believe in Kluber.

With that being said, the Klubot emerged on Wednesday to hurl one of the most dazzling games of this millennium.  Outside of a bean ball on Matt Holliday early in the game and a 7th inning single given up to Jhonny “don’t spell it Johnny” Peralta, Kluber was perfect.  At the end of 8 innings, Kluber had tallied 18 strikeouts on 113 pitches.  I really think that Kluber should have came out for the 9th inning to be given the opportunity to get to 20 strikeouts, or even 21 to set a new record, especially with the ugly way that Indians closer Cody Allen has been pitching.  However, possibly playing a part in the decision of Kluber coming out of the game was the fact that manager Terry Francona was ejected earlier in the game and the acting manager for the Indians wanted to be cautious and not get in trouble with anyone for leaving Kluber out there too long.  Whatever the case, the Klubot mystified Cardinals hitters all game long and effectively reversed any doubts that any fantasy owners may have had.

Kluber improved to 1-5 with a 4.27 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, and 64 K/11 BB in 52.2 IP.  From here on out, those numbers should keep on improving.  The window to buy low on Kluber has officially closed, and this has been your lesson in Klubotics.

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This Year’s Michael Brantley Will Be A.J. Pollock

When preparing for a new season, fantasy baseball enthusiasts are always wanting to know who is going to be the next big breakout player.  Drafting or picking up a player on waivers for his breakout season gives fantasy owners a feeling of superiority, a feeling of omniscience in some sense.  Whether that feeling is justified or not is another question.  But even if your team comes in last place, you can take ownership that you “knew” Jose Bautista would bust out for 54 HR, or that your hunch that R.A. Dickey would knuckle his way into a Cy Young Award panned out.  So at The Backwards K, there is a series of posts titled “This Year’s…” where I will tell you who I think this year’s version of a 2014 breakout player will be, providing some background and analysis.

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Michael Brantley was a 7th round selection by the Brewers in the 2005 draft and he then was included in a part of a package of prospects as the “player to be named later” going to the Indians in the trade that sent C.C. Sabathia to the Brewers as a rental in 2008.  Brantley reached the Majors as a September call-up in 2009, but it was not until the 2011 season when he became more of a permanent fixture in the Indians lineup.  While Brantley was proving to be a very useful real life baseball player, he was rather ho-hum for fantasy as a low power hitter with a little speed and decent batting average.  However, in 2014, Brantley delivered a performance that made the baseball community change the way that he was viewed.

Coming up through the Minors, Brantley was a player that displayed a good feel for the strike zone and had a superb ability to put the ball in play as he struck out just 8.9% of the time as a Minor Leaguer.  He put that skill to great use in his breakout season last year as he struck out just 8.3% of the time.  The career best strikeout rate allowed him to hit for a career high .327 AVG.  However, the average was not as much of a surprise as his sudden power surge was.  Brantley seemingly came out of nowhere to hit 20 HR, which was twice the amount of his previous career high of 10 in 2013.  As a Minor League player he never even hit double digit HR in a single season, but 2014 was his magical age 27 season (the age that is widely considered to be a hitter’s prime) and all bets were off.  In addition to the power, he also chipped in 23 SB, also a career high.  But having stolen as many as 50 bases in a single season before between AAA and the Majors in 2009, it’s been expected of him to be more of a stolen base threat at the Major League level.  Brantley’s season went down as one of the biggest breakthroughs of the 2014 season and in addition to the .327 AVG, 20 HR, and 23 SB, he produced 97 RBI and 90 R to be a true five category stud.  Whether or not that level of production is sustainable is another story, as right now I am just here to tell you who could be this year’s Brantley.

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