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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J.D. (Just Dongs) Martinez Goes Yard Thrice (and other notes from 6/21/15)

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J.D. Martinez spent parts of three seasons on the Major League squad for the Astros and he never was able to compile a full season of success.  The Astros then released him before the start of the 2014 season and the Tigers picked him up and he ended up breaking out for a real surprise season with a .315 AVG, 23 HR, 76 RBI, 57 R, and 6 SB in 123 games. Martinez was able to complete this transformation and breakout by completely retooling the mechanics of his whole swing, and it’s always nice to know that there are actual tangible reasons as to why a player finally has a breakout season.  The high batting average of .300 wasn’t necessarily going to be there this season given that his .315 AVG from last year was driven by a likely unsustainable .389 BABIP, but it was reasonable to expect that this season he would be able to put up similar power production with the maintaining of his new swing mechanics.

After a month of the 2015 season, Martinez was hitting just .216 on May 8 but the 6 HR that he had at that point were respectable.  The culprit of the low batting average was the fact that his BABIP was much lower than last season (which was expected) and he was also striking out at a much higher rate.  However, over the last couple weeks, Martinez has really trimmed down his strikeout rate to a nearly identical mark that he was at last season.  With the decrease in strikeouts, Martinez’ batting average has gone up a lot and now sits at .275 after his big day on Sunday, and his .325 BABIP is a much more realistic mark to suggest that this could be the area in AVG that he finishes the season with.

His game on Sunday consisted of a 3 HR and 6 RBI performance to give him 16 HR and 41 RBI for the season so far to put him on pace to do even better than last year in those areas.  Also, his ISO is now up to .240, which is right in line with his last year’s mark of .238 to further prove that his power is legitimate and for real.  The triple dong outburst from Sunday has me believing that the J.D. stands for Just Dongs.  Expect to see him continue his power stroke as the season goes on, and he makes for a good play as a part of a Tigers offense that can do very dangerous things.

Now let’s check out what else happened on Sunday!

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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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Pat Venditte Gives A’s Bullpen a Hand (or Two) (and other notes from 6/5/15)

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Switch hitting has been a prevalent part of the game for decades because generally speaking, hitters do better against opposite-handed pitching than they do against same-handed pitching as I have outlined in “Fantasy Baseball Strategy: Using Platoons to Your Advantage.”  The idea behind it all is that hitters just tend to see the ball better out of opposite-handed pitching and have an easier time dealing with breaking balls that break toward them instead of away from them.

Many ball players will practice and develop the ability to hit from both sides of the plate when they are young as a way to gain this slight advantage, but it certainly is tough to master.  When I was in Little League, I would head to the batting cages before all my games to warm up and I would practice switch hitting just for fun.  As a natural righty, I would flip over and hit lefty in the cages sometimes and while I could consistently make contact with the ball, the same type of power was just not there.  So I think it is an impressive feat for any player that is a switch hitter and can hit equally for average and power from both sides of the plate.

But what about pitching with both hands?  If having the ability to hit both right-handed and left-handed gives an advantage for hitters, then wouldn’t the same be true for a pitcher who can throw with both hands?  A pitcher with this ability could pitch right-handed to all right-handed batters and pitch left-handed to all left-handed batters to obtain an advantage much in the same way that switch hitting does.  For me, trying to switch hit is hard enough, so I can’t imagine trying to switch pitch.  Heck, I can’t even brush my teeth left-handed let alone throw a baseball with the same type of accuracy and force that I do with my right hand.  But there is a pitcher in the Oakland A’s organization named Pat Venditte who was just called up to the Majors for the first time in his career, and you guessed it, he is a switch pitcher — the first of his kind to appear in the Majors since 1995.

The soon to be 30-year old Venditte was originally drafted by the Yankees and spent 7 years in their Minor League system before catching on with the Oakland organization for the 2015 season.  Venditte has been a relief pitcher for basically the entirety of his Minor League career (250 relief appearances in 259 total games pitched) and he has done pretty well with a career 2.37 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, and 9.99 K/9.  With numbers like that and the ability to switch pitch, it is a bit of a wonder why it has taken so long for him to receive a promotion to the bigs.  Not only does he switch pitch, but he also does it with a sidearm motion from both sides, giving him even more novelty.

Venditte made his Major League debut right upon his call up on Friday against the Red Sox and he pitched two scoreless innings allowing just one hit while also striking out one batter.  He’s going to work in middle relief for the A’s, but one has to wonder if he could ever work his way into the closer’s role.  He gained experience as a closer in his first two seasons in the Minors, but he has only recorded one save in the last 4+ seasons.  And because of his soft tossing ways (sitting around 85 MPH on his fastball), he does not profile as a typical closer.  However, Billy Beane and the A’s are known to be revolutionary in utilizing uncommon approaches to maximize the most out of the players on their roster.  And with last year’s closer Sean Doolittle back on the DL with his shoulder injury and severely diminished velocity, and fill-in closer Tyler Clippard likely to be shopped around since he is in the last year of his contract on a last place team, it wouldn’t be too crazy to think that Venditte could be closing out games for the A’s this season at some point if he shows success in a middle relief role first.

This is mostly just speculation on my part as I think it would be amazing to see a switch pitcher succeed and ascend to a more prolific role, so I wouldn’t put too much value into it.  It will be entertaining to watch and interesting to see what he can do.  If he ever does become a Major League closer, I will give him a hand, but it’s not like he needs one.

Let’s check out what else happened on Friday!

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