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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The Butler Did Do It, But Can He Continue To? (and other notes from 6/12/15)

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Joey Butler of the Tampa Bay Rays has been the team’s primary DH since being called up and he has been scorching as of late and with a 3 for 5 game on Friday night, Butler is now hitting .342 with 4 HR, 16 RBI, 14 R, and 3 SB in 34 games.  Now I am all for riding hitters while they’re hot, so by all means let the Butler service your team for now, but before picking him up you need to know that the Butler might start hitting like an old maid in short time.

Up to this point, Butler has been a career Minor Leaguer who is now with his third organization.  Butler had received just 21 Major League appearances before this season, and at 29 years old he is not some emerging hot shot prospect who is taking the baseball world by storm.  He has had some nice success as a Minor League hitter with a career .294 AVG, 15-20 HR power, and some sneaky double digit SB speed.  So I am not meaning to say that Butler is a terrible player who doesn’t deserve any consideration, but we need to see the reality in this fantasy situation.

The reality is that Butler should soon begin a swift downfall.  His excellent batting average is being driven by an astronomical .456 BABIP, which would rank as the highest in the Majors if he had enough plate appearances to qualify.  It is true that his 27.7% line drive rate would rank favorably  as the 9th highest and his 10.8% soft hit rate would rank as the 11th lowest, but those rates are likely to trend in the wrong directions soon.  But even if he does happen to keep up those rates, no player can sustain a BABIP like that and he has his strikeout rate working against him as another factor that should bring his AVG down.  Butler has struck out 27.9% of the time, which is a pretty high rate.  It’s not quite in the territory of his teammate Steven Souza, but it’s still up there and it is very realistic since his swinging strike rate of 16.3% would rank as the 5th highest in the league.  To make things worse in the plate discipline area, his high strikeout and swinging strike rates are paired with a horrific 1.6% walk rate.  Butler had a 11.1% career walk rate in the Minors, so he does have some upside to do better there, but it’s not likely something that is going to change over night to make a drastic turn.

The fact of the matter is that Butler has been an extremely free swinger and while free swingers can succeed in the league, like Adam Jones or the retired Vladimir Guerrero, free swingers with high strikeout rates will have much more limited success in the long term, if any success at all.  But like I said, using hitters in fantasy while they are hot is a fine strategy, but it’s knowing when to cut them loose that is equally as important.

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

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Built Crawford Tough (and other notes from 5/31/15)

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Coming up through the Minors, Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford seemed to be a relatively light hitting, low batting average shortstop with some great glove work, and in his first 3.5 seasons in the Majors since coming up in 2011 he had shown exactly that.  He has slowly progressed though in his time in the Majors, as his ISO climbed from .092 to .101 to .114 to .143 last year.

But whether it’s due to a change in his swing mechanics, maturing as a hitter in his age 28 season, or some combination of both, Crawford has legitimately taken big strides this season as he now has a .207 ISO after hitting his 8th HR of the season on Sunday.  What can deem this power surge as legitimate?  Well, did you know that Crawford’s average distance on his HR and fly balls is 4th in the league at 314 feet?  That’s a huge improvement over the 278 feet he averaged last year and the fact that he sits amongst the league leaders in that category provides validity to the power stats.

I originally had said a bit ago that I didn’t think Crawford would get to 20 HR, but I now have to change my stance on that with the revelation of this stat.  He’s now hitting .299 with 7 HR, 34 RBI, 26 R, and 3 SB on his way to a career year.

Let’s review the rest of Sunday baseball action.

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Familia-rize Yourself With Jeurys (and other notes from 5/25/15)

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Jeurys Familia took on the role of closer for the Mets early on in the season when Jenrry Mejia went down with an elbow injury and then was suspended for 80 games for PED use.  Mejia being injured and subsequently suspended has turned out to be a real blessing in disguise for the Mets because Familia has stepped right in to exceed most likely anyone’s expectations.  With another perfect inning with 2 strikeouts on Monday to close out the Phillies, Familia now owns a 1.60 ERA, 0.70 WHIP, and 26 K/4 BB in 21.1 IP while converting 14 of 15 save opportunities.  But just who is Jeurys Familia?  Let’s take this time to “Familia”-rize ourselves with the 25-year old hard-throwing righty.

Familia has been in the Mets organization since 2008 and through the 2012 season he was brought up as a starting pitcher, but he posted modest numbers in that role (3.85 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 8.62 K/9, 3.95 BB/9).  Familia received his first taste of the Majors as a September call up in the 2012 season, but he was very ineffective in 8 relief appearances and one spot start.

Familia was able to break camp on the opening day roster as a reliever for the Mets in 2013, but once again he failed to impress because of extremely poor control, something that he also struggled with as a starting pitcher in the Minors.  And also in 2013, he underwent elbow surgery to remove bone spurs and that sidelined him for 4 months before he worked his way back to make one final appearance before the season ended.

For the 2014 season, Familia once again found himself working in the Mets bullpen as that apparently was where they saw him best suited long term.  Familia went on to post some quality numbers with a 2.21 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 8.50 K/9, and 3.75 BB/9 in 77.1 IP while also chipping in 5 saves filling in at closer when needed.  His SIERA at 3.21 was a full run higher than his ERA, but the improvements that he showed all across the board were encouraging.

So that brings us to 2015, where despite a relatively spotty track record, Familia has by no means “lucked” his way into the brilliant performance he has given.  His walk rate of 1.72 BB/9 is considerably lower than any rate he has posted in the past, but he is achieving that by getting ahead in the count a lot more often than he has in the past.  From 2012-14, Familia’s first pitch strike percentages were 42.3%, 51.9%, and 52.8%, but this year he is all the way up to 58.2% and obviously it is a lot easier to prevent free passes if a pitcher is getting ahead in the count early and often.

And how about that strikeout rate of 10.97 K/9?  That is also a much higher number than he’s accustomed to, but the improvement is for real.  Familia uses a four-seam fastball, a sinking fastball, and a slider.  It is his slider that has really taken his game to the next level this year as he is getting a little bit different movement and greater velocity on the pitch this year.  In the past it has been a pitch that averaged 86.1 MPH and has fallen out of the strike zone a lot, often times not getting close to the zone which made it easier for hitters to lay off of it.  But this year, he is averaging 88.6 MPH on the pitch and it’s staying higher with a little less horizontal movement, and he is able to effectively throw it in or much closer to the zone to get hitters to swing and miss on it.  With a 31.0% swinging strike rate on his slider this year (compared to 26.4% last year), Familia’s slider has become one of the better ones in the game.  Overall, Familia has an 18.2% swinging strike rate on all his pitches, which is 5th highest among qualified relievers.

His .191 BABIP is a low mark and he will likely see some regression there, but his overall performance is right in line with what the metric systems suggest it would be, as his 1.71 SIERA is not far off from his 1.60 ERA.  So if you were worried about Familia not being able to keep up his amazing performance, this all should ease your worries a bit.

Now let’s take a look at the rest of Memorial Day’s action!

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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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Top 25 Shortstops for 2015 Fantasy Baseball

*The order of these rankings are based on a valuation system for a 5×5 roto scoring league with 5 games played minimum for position eligibility.  This is not necessarily the order I would draft these players in, as different factors should impact which player to choose.

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