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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We Are All Marco (and other notes from 6/24/15)

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“Which one of you is Marco?”

“We are all Marco.”

Name that movie!

Of course that is none other than everyone’s favorite sex trafficking classic Taken, starring Liam Neeson who brings some serious badass-ery as ex-government agent Bryan Mills.  But on a day that Blue Jays pitcher Marco Estrada flirted with perfection, we all weren’t Marco, but rather we all wanted Marco who is just 13% owned in Yahoo fantasy leagues at the time of writing this post.

If you recall, Estrada also took a no-hitter into the 8th inning of his previous start against the Orioles before giving up a hit and a run in that 8th inning.  In his start on Wednesday at Tampa Bay, he was perfect through 22 batters after Josh Donaldson made one of the top plays that we will see this season, full on diving into the stands along the third base line to catch a foul ball.  The very next batter then hit a soft dribbler to Donaldson at third base and he charged in on it, barehand grabbed it, and then fired it over to first base, but the runner beat the throw by the slimmest of margins to break up the perfect game and the no-hitter.  Estrada went on to pitch 8.2 shutout innings, allowing 2 hits and no walks while striking out 10.  However, he was unfortunate to not come away with the victory as his offense could not muster any runs while he was still in the game.

With the amazing effort of near perfection, Estrada now has a 3.45 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and 63 K/23 BB in 73 IP.  His ownership level in season long fantasy leagues is sure to skyrocket, but is it worth it to pick him up?  The quick answer is yes it is worth it as long as you’re not dropping anyone of value, because there is little harm in picking up players who are hot.  But you have to know what kind of player that he is so that your expectations are kept in check.

Estrada has been around the league for several years now and he’s always been a pitcher to post ERA’s that are higher than his SIERA because of the fact that he is one of the more extreme fly ball pitchers in the league and gives up a lot of home runs.  In fact, he led the league last year in HR allowed with 29 despite having only pitched 150.2 innings.  However, he has always had the knack for posting above average strikeout rates and walk rates with career marks now at 8.37 K/9 and 2.46 BB/9.  Estrada is at his best when he is locating his changeup well, because that is his bread and butter pitch.  It is also a pitch that he is throwing at a career high rate this season, upwards of 32.0% of the time, so he seems to be having a good feel for it.

It was expected that with Estrada joining the AL East after spending his whole career in the NL that he would become even more homer prone and would see a downtick in his strikeout rate.  Well so far, his strikeout rate is down from his career rate, but he is actually managing a career best HR allowed rate at the moment, which is the primary reason for his success this season.  If he can keep preventing the long ball then he is going to have a good chance to put up a career best season.  However, it is tough to say if he will be able to do so or not.  I would lean towards him not doing so because of the division that he pitches in, so he could see an inflation in his numbers soon.  But even so, he should be a positive contributor in WHIP without hurting the ERA too much, and also chipping in a decent amount of strikeouts.  If you need the pitching help then I think that it is okay to grab Estrada, but just know that he will have starts where he just gets pounded by the long ball.

Let’s see what else happened on Wednesday!

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I’m the Biggest Ross That You’ve Seen Thus Far (and other notes from 6/19/15)

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I have talked about Nationals pitcher prospect Joe Ross in each of his last two starts since he got the call up to the Majors a couple weeks ago.  He is the younger brother of Padres pitcher Tyson Ross and I described him as a very intriguing prospect that had good control, great strikeout potential, and heavy ground ball tendencies.  This all sounds like a formula for success!  Ross debuted against the Cubs and likely had the debut jitters in that one as he gave up 3 runs in 5 innings.  But his next start was against the Brewers and he appeared to be much more comfortable, giving up just 2 runs in 8 innings while striking out 8.  And in each game he got a lot of ground ball outs.

In his third start of the season on Friday, Ross was truly brilliant as he tossed 7.1 innings allowing 1 run on 7 base runners while whiffing 11 Pirates (and he came highly recommended in the DFS strategy post for Friday).  The excellent game improved his record to 2-1 with a 2.66 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, and 23 K/2 BB in 20.2 IP, and he has the very pretty ground ball rate of 56.6%.

Tanner Roark and Ross have been in the rotation for the Nationals due to the injuries to Doug Fister and Stephen Strasburg.  However, Fister is set to return so that is going to send Roark to the bullpen with the Nationals opting to keep Ross in the rotation for the time being.  But once Strasburg is ready to come back, Ross will either be sent back to the Minors or perhaps be kept on as a reliever.  Either way, it’s not great for his fantasy outlook for this season, but we may want to hold on to him to see just how well Strasburg fares in his return from the DL.  In keeper and dynasty leagues though, Ross is a must grab as he is definitely looking like he might be the biggest Ross that we’ve seen thus far, better than his older brother.

Let’s check out the rest of Friday’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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This Year’s Phil Hughes Will Be Brandon McCarthy

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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Phil Hughes was drafted in the 1st round (23rd overall) by the Yankees in 2004 and he absolutely decimated Minor League hitters to make him one of the highest rated and most anticipated pitching prospects of the 2000’s.  Armed with a devastating curveball, Hughes made his Major League debut in April of the 2007 season as a 20-year old after the Yankees rotation was plagued by injuries.  In his second Major League start, he displayed exactly why he was so highly touted, as he was in the midst of a no-hitter after 6 and 1/3 innings before he was forced from the game with a hamstring injury.  Hughes was placed on the DL and he had a long recovery time, but he eventually returned to the Yankees and completed his rookie season showing flashes of brilliance but also showing that he had a lot of areas to improve upon.  However, in the next six seasons with the Yankees from 2008-13, Hughes failed to resemble anything that looked like a player that was once considered the top pitching prospect in the game.  Through the 2013 season, Hughes had a career line of 56 W-50 L, 4.54 ERA, and 1.32 WHIP to go along with 7.57 K/9 and 2.83 BB/9.  Despite those very mediocre statistics and coming off the worst season of his career, Hughes managed to land himself a 3-year/$24 million deal with the pitching starved Twins in the off-season leading up to the 2014 season.  Yeah, league average (or worse) baseball players get paid way too much, which makes me think that I should be playing professional baseball rather than writing about it.  If only I could throw a curveball, or hit one for that matter…

Hughes moving from Yankee Stadium to the much friendlier confines of Target Field in Minnesota was certainly a much more appealing situation, but in 2014 he actually pitched much better on the road than at home.  At Target Field, Hughes had a 4.25 ERA while giving up 11 HR.  On the road, Hughes managed a 2.78 ERA while only allowing 5 HR.  So if it wasn’t the home park that aided a breakout season for Hughes, what was it?  It was all about control.  Hughes amazingly issued only 16 free passes on the season and paired with his 186 strikeouts, he set an all-time single-season record for best K/BB ratio at 11.63 K/BB.  Also playing a positive factor might have been the reintroduction of his cutter and the scrapping of his slider.  Hughes threw a cutter regularly from 2009-11, but in 2012-13 it was nearly non-existent and he had used a slider instead.  But last year, the slider was gone and the cutter was back in full effect and at the highest usage of his career, and for the first time the cutter had a positive pitch value for him.  Overall, Hughes finished his age 28 season with a record of 16-10, 3.52 ERA, and 1.13 WHIP.  This was the first time in his career that Hughes posted an ERA under 4.00 and a WHIP under 1.25.  Better late than never, right?

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