Will anyone from the Cubs’ rotation stave off regression?

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CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 02: Chicago Cubs Pitcher Kyle Hendricks (28) leaves the field as he is removed from the game during the fifth inning of the 2016 World Series Game 7 between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians on November 02, 2016, at Progressive Field in Cleveland, OH. Chicago defeated Cleveland 8-7 in 10 innings to win the World Series. (Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)

Of the many factors that fueled the Cubs’ historic run to a World Series title, it’s hard to underestimate the impact of the three-headed monster of Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta. Not only did each of their top three starters excel when it mattered most, but they had been propelling the Cubs’ success all season.

That is evident, given that Hendricks and Lester make up two-thirds of the National League Cy Young award finalists, and that Arrieta’s season was disappointing only in contrast to his own 2015 Cy Young campaign.

Though less glamorous, the back-end of the rotation played an important role as well. John Lackey and Jason Hammel’s respective ERAs of 3.35 and 3.83 were plenty good for a fourth and fifth starter. Collectively, all of the Cubs’ starters compiled a 2.96 ERA. That mark didn’t just lead the majors; it practically lapped the competition, as no other team’s rotation finished with an ERA below 3.60.

This was a talented quintet heading into this season, but it would have been hard to foresee this level of success. In 2015, only Arrieta and Lackey had ERAs below 3.30.

So what happened? Did Arrieta’s rising tide in 2015 lift the entire rotation in 2016? Did the Cubs unlock some critical pitching secret? Or was their minuscule rotation ERA a mirage?

When it came to run prevention (or at least run prevention as measured by ERA), the Cubs were clearly in class by themselves. Yet in terms of the aspects of run prevention their starters could control — avoiding contact, walks and fly balls — they were hardly alone. They weren’t even the best, if we are to use xFIP as a measure of those skills. The 3.76 xFIP put up by the Cubs’ starters ranked third, behind the Dodgers (3.69) and Mets (3.72), and was only slightly lower than that of the Nationals (3.81) and Indians (3.85). If the Cubs’ starters weren’t substantially better at those three skills than pitchers from a handful of other rotations, are we at risk of overrating them for next season?

It wasn’t just one or two pitchers whose ERA may have been skewed. Each of the Cubs’ five primary starting pitchers had an ERA that was lower than his xFIP. Both Hendricks and Lester finished with ERAs that were more than a run lower than their xFIPs. Their skill indicators were indicative of pitchers with mid-3.00s ERAs, but because both had extremely favorable BABIP and strand rates, they were able to post sub-2.50 ERAs.

Lester and Hendricks were among just six qualifying starters with a strand rate above 81 percent. Lester’s 84.9 percent strand rate was not only the lowest for any qualifier this season, it was the second-lowest since J.A. Happ compiled an 85.2 percent rate in 2009 (the highest rate was Zack Greinke’s 86.5 percent mark in 2015).

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Source: FanGraphs

While Hendricks and Lester were the biggest overachievers according to xFIP, the whole rotation benefited from ultra-low BABIPs and strand rates that were at least two percentage points below the major league average of 72.9 percent. Given that the entire Cubs rotation posted favorable rates, one has to wonder if they have found a way to render xFIP irrelevant.

Before we jump to that conclusion, let’s remember that xFIP stands for Expected Fielding Independent Pitching. If we take a literal interpretation of xFIP, we can conclude that, without the defense supporting them, the Cubs had a good rotation, and maybe even a great one, but they weren’t necessarily elite.

What is clear is that the Cubs did boast an elite defense this season. According to FanGraphs, they compiled 69.0 defensive runs above average (DEF), which was more than 15 runs worth of defensive value greater than that accrued by any other team. As the graph below shows (with the Cubs alone in the upper-left corner), teams that were above-average defensively stood a better chance of having a rotation that outperformed their xFIP.

era-xfip-def

It stands to reason that pitchers who benefit from superior team defense will fare better at preventing hits on balls in play and stranding baserunners. The Cubs ranked ninth in DEF in 2015, and only two of their seven starters with at least seven starts (Arrieta and Dan Haren) outperformed their xFIPs. This season, there were upgrades in the middle infield, as Addison Russell improved his play at shortstop, and Javier Baez improved upon Russell’s 2015 production at second base. In right field, Jason Heyward was a dramatic improvement over Jorge Soler. Just on the basis of those changes alone, the defense could have had an across-the-board impact on the Cubs’ rotation.

Yet if we break down each pitcher’s BABIP on airborne balls or batting average allowed on grounders, no clear pattern emerges. Arrieta, Hendricks and Hammel each did an above-average job of getting outs on grounders, but Lester and Lackey were normal in this regard. Lester, Arrieta and Lackey may have received significant help from Heyward and the rest of the Cubs’ outfield, but that did not extend to Hammel or Hendricks. Lackey owed much of his low BABIP to getting line drive outs, but that seems like a random result, given how much higher the rest of the rotation’s line drive BABIPs were.

Source: FanGraphs

Source: FanGraphs

The Cubs’ defense was so far ahead of the rest of the majors, it’s hard not to give them some credit for the rotation’s success. At least for the four starters who appear to be returning for 2017, there is no reason to draft them next season as if they will fully regress to the level of their xFIP. If you do, not only will you miss out on them on draft day, but you will be undervaluing them for the coming year.

As for Hammel, who is now a free agent, he may be able to post a below-average BABIP without the Cubs. He has had a lower-than-average BABIP for three seasons running, including during the latter portion of 2014, which he spent with the Athletics.

Each of the Cubs’ Big Four will be worth drafting in standard mixed leagues next spring, and Arrieta, Lester and Hendricks are all candidates to be among the top-15 starting pitchers in average draft position. Of the four, Hendricks is one least likely to get drafted too early. He may have found a way to legitimately cheat BABIP — and xFIP — as his increased changeup usage and movement led batters to post a lower BABIP against him this season.

The steep decline in Arrieta’s control was partially masked by the .118 batting average he allowed on grounders. No matter how good the Cubs’ infield defense is, that was less than half of the major league average and smells like a fluke. Lester’s .053 fly ball BABIP also looks suspicious, not only because it was so much lower than the major league norm, but also because he allowed a good portion of fly balls in play to left field (see below), which was the relative weak link defensively for the Cubs in the outfield.

chart-2

Lackey has outperformed his xFIP by at least a run in each of the last two seasons, but it doesn’t look like he’s found any sort of special sauce. This season, his low ERA was BABIP-driven. Last season with the Cardinals, Lackey had a normal .295 BABIP, but he had an 82.6 percent strand rate that was a strong outlier among his recent rates.

Even though Hendricks is the least proven in the group, he is the one I will draft with the greatest confidence. Arrieta and Lester will probably be among the first 10 starters drafted in many leagues, but each could regress just enough to make that a slight overpay.

The post Will anyone from the Cubs’ rotation stave off regression? appeared first on Todays Knuckleball.

Source: Knuckleball

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Would leaving the Cubs hurt Dexter Fowler’s fantasy value?

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10 September 2016: Chicago Cubs center fielder Dexter Fowler (24) smiles on the field prior to a MLB baseball game between the Houston Astros and the Chicago Cubs at Minute Maid Park in Houston. Houston Astros defeated Chicago Cubs 2-1. Photo by (Juan DeLeon/Icon Sportswire)

Dexter Fowler hasn’t always hit for average. He’s had his ups-and-downs as a base-stealer, and he’s had his moments where he has provided some power. The one thing, however, that he has consistently done for fantasy owners is score runs. It’s been rare for him to stay healthy, but regardless of how many games he plays, he almost always stays on a 95-plus-runs pace for a full season.

That said, Fowler has taken his run-scoring up a notch since he became a Cub. In 2015, he crossed the 100-run threshold for the first time, scoring 102 times. It not only helped that set a career-high with 156 games played, but that he spent far more time in the leadoff spot than he had in any previous season.

Prior to coming to the Cubs, Fowler had never started more than 92 games as a leadoff hitter, but in ’15, he was listed first on the lineup card 146 times. This season, he appeared in only 125 games, but he still tied his second-highest total of runs, scoring 84 times. Not surprisingly, given how prolific the Cubs’ offense was this season, Fowler increased his run-scoring pace. If he had made the same number of plate appearances as he did in ’15 (690) and maintained his run-scoring pace over the additional games, he would have scored 105 times.

This season, the Cubs scored 808 times, which ranked third in the majors. That is the highest total of runs and the highest rank of any team that Fowler has played for in his career.

On Saturday, he officially declined his part of a $9 million option for the 2017 season, making him a free agent.

Hitting atop a highly productive lineup had its benefits for Fowler and his fantasy owners, but what might he have to lose if he doesn’t re-sign with the Cubs? According to FanRag Sports’ Jon Heyman, Fowler is likely to test the market rather than accept a qualifying offer.

It’s not all that easy to tell how Fowler might fare with another club, because he has played almost his entire career for good offensive teams. In his eight full seasons in the majors, only twice has he played for a team that scored fewer than 700 runs. One of those teams was actually the 2015 Cubs, who scored 689 runs and finished 15th in scoring. Remember that, on that team, it was the first time Fowler had scored at least 100 runs, and it was also only the second time he was even on a 100-run pace for a full season. Incredibly, Fowler’s .346 on-base percentage was the lowest mark from any of his eight full seasons.

The lowest-scoring team Fowler ever played for was the 2014 Astros, and that season may tell us something about what could happen to his run production in a post-Cubs era. That squad finished 22nd in the majors with 629 runs, of which Fowler scored 61. The graph below shows that the 2014 season was a low point for him in terms of runs scored per plate-appearance, as he averaged 0.12 runs each time he officially came to the plate. Over the course of a full season, that would have been an 86-run season. That was well below Fowler’s run-scoring pace in each of his full seasons with the Rockies and Cubs.

fowler2

Though owners don’t draft Fowler for his RBI contributions, those could be hurt by a move to a worse offensive team as well. His 2014 and 2015 rates of RBI per plate appearance, .069 and .067, respectively, were his two worst marks since 2009. Fowler’s low RBI rate in 2014 is underscored by the fact that he took 50 percent of his plate appearances with the Astros in either the third or fourth spot in the order. At his worst, Fowler would have been a 45-RBI producer even with full-time play, but this season, he showed he could go on a 60-RBI pace out of the leadoff spot.

The worst-case scenario for Fowler, then, would be for him to move to an inferior lineup and lose 20 runs and 15 RBI from his full-season pace. One possibility, of course, is that he returns to the Cubs, and his value stays about the same. Given that Fowler is coming off a season in which he posted career-highs for walk rate and on-base percentage, he is probably due for a slight decrease in value no matter what. Playing for just about any other team would probably mean an additional downgrade for Fowler, but that’s necessarily true for every team.

The two teams that finished just behind the Cubs in runs — the Cardinals and Indians — will likely be in the center fielder market this offseason. The Nationals, Tigers, Rangers and Astros could also sport potent lineups in 2017, and each could use a center fielder.

One of the worst offensive teams of 2016, the Athletics, have a center field void to fill, but Fowler is probably not within their budget. The most likely landing spot that could mean a loss of fantasy value is the Mets. Particularly if they don’t succeed in bringing Yoenis Cespedes back, Fowler would be one of their more attractive options. The Mets were hardly an offensive juggernaut in 2016, tying with the Brewers for 25th in runs scored, and if Cespedes and Neil Walker don’t return, they could be even worse in 2017.

Even with the missed time, Fowler was arguably among the 40 most valuable outfielders in fantasy this season. In the worst-case scenario, he would have numbers next season that look similar to the ones put up by Brett Gardner this year (.261/.351/.362 with 80 runs, 41 RBI and 16 stolen bases). Gardner was not a top-50 Rotisserie outfielder this season, and he was on the fringes of being one in points leagues.

Conceivably, where Fowler winds up could make the difference between him producing like a mid-round option in standard mixed Roto leagues to being a replacement-level outfielder in those formats. In points leagues, the potential loss of runs and RBI could render Fowler as unworthy of drafting.

The post Would leaving the Cubs hurt Dexter Fowler’s fantasy value? appeared first on Todays Knuckleball.

Source: Knuckleball

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Is it all downhill for the Mariners’ rotation in 2017?

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13 September 2016: Seattle Mariners Pitcher Taijuan Walker (44) throws a pitch in the first inning during the game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim played at Angel Stadium of Anaheim in Anaheim, CA. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)

The burners on the Hot Stove have been clicked on, and the Mariners were involved in some of the earliest transactions of this offseason. Their fuzzy outfield situation started to take shape, as they exercised their option on Seth Smith and lost Nori Aoki on waivers to the Astros. While the Mariners won’t be getting a complete makeover this offseason, there are surely many more moves to come.

The one part of the roster that could look very much the same five months from now, when they open up their 2017 season in Houston, is their rotation. Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma will be back. James Paxton should return as well, and barring a setback in his recovery from surgery on his right foot and ankle, so should Taijuan Walker. The fifth starter’s spot is up for grabs, but the two main candidates, Nathan Karns and Ariel Miranda, both spent significant time in the Mariners’ rotation this season.

With Hernandez and Iwakuma not performing at their typical levels, the rotation lacked star power, yet they were critical to the Mariners’ 86-win effort. Collectively, the starters posted a 4.25 ERA, which was the ninth-lowest mark in the majors and the fourth-lowest in the American League. As effective as the starters were at preventing runs, they will likely have to do an even better job if the Mariners are to make the postseason next year.

Given that they did not have a single pitcher with at least 10 starts who posted an ERA of 3.75 or lower, that wouldn’t seem to be too tall of an order. Then again, only four teams’ rotations outperformed their FIP by a larger margin than the Mariners’ rotation did. According to FIP, the Mariners’ rotation should have been just the 19th-best in the majors at run prevention with a 4.48 mark.

Of the eight pitchers who made more than two starts for the Mariners, five finished with an ERA that was lower than his FIP. Wade LeBlanc was traded in September and Iwakuma’s ERA and FIP were only 0.15 apart, but the ERA-FIP differentials for Miranda, Hernandez and Walker give each of them the look of an overperformer. All three had BABIP rates below .275, and Miranda’s was downright microscopic at .203.

Especially since he also boasted a well-above-average 80 percent strand rate, Miranda’s low ERA appears to be misleading. As an extreme fly ball pitcher, the lefty can be expected to prevent hits on balls in play at a higher rate than most pitchers, though not at a rate quite that low. He also benefited from throwing 39 of his 55 innings at Safeco Field.

screen-shot-2016-11-05-at-11-58-52-am

Source: FanGraphs. Statistics are for starts only.

Hernandez, on the other hand, was right in line with the .272 BABIP he posted over the previous two seasons. He has been able to induce swings on his changeup and curve when they are low in or beneath the strike zone, and those are regions where he has been effective at holding batters to low BABIP rates on those pitches. While the Mariners were looking for an ERA lower than 3.82, there is little reason to think that he was actually lucky to be even that good. In light of the fact that he has been contending with mechanical issues for two seasons, as well as declining velocity, it’s far from a given that Hernandez will bounce back in 2017. If he doesn’t, he may be settling in as a pitcher with a high-3.00s ERA.

The outlook could be brighter for Walker, even though he looks like a good bet for some BABIP regression. He got off to a solid start, compiling a 3.48 ERA through his first 12 starts, with 63 strikeouts and 15 walks over 67.1 innings. In his 13th start, a 3.1-inning effort against the Rays, Walker was pulled with pain in his right foot. The irritation impacted Walker’s performance from that point forward, as he recorded a 4.97 ERA over his final 13 starts. Having had surgery to correct the problem, there is now reason to hope that Walker can have a full season that will be much more like his first his first two months of 2016.

The outlook isn’t especially encouraging for Hernandez or Iwakuma, who continued to lose velocity and his ability to get swings-and-misses on pitches outside of the strike zone. That doesn’t mean, however, that the Mariners’ rotation is doomed to mediocrity. It just means that the 20-somethings who will fill the remaining spots need to pick up the slack. A healthy Walker could help in that effort, and Paxton could emerge as the rotation’s new ace. He enjoyed a breakout in 2016 that was obscured by a .347 BABIP as well as a 66 percent strand rate. To be sure, Paxton will have to limit the hard grounders that helped to inflate his BABIP, but if he can stay healthy and provide innings, he could put up numbers similar to the ones Hernandez has posted over the years.

Even if Miranda doesn’t live up to the standards he set during his late-season run, he could be a serviceable fifth starter. First, though, he would have to beat out Karns for the job, and Karns himself could be far better than he was prior to getting demoted to the bullpen and ultimately succumbing to a back strain. Like Paxton, Karns was hurt by unfavorable BABIP and strand rates, which could reverse themselves, and he is a good fit for Safeco Field. The Mariners’ park has become a good venue for left-handed power hitters, but the right-handed Karns has exhibited reverse splits over his career. In parts of four seasons, Karns has held lefties to 0.8 home runs per nine innings and a .233/.330/.358 slash line.

Without top pitching prospects close to the majors, the Mariners may enter the season without much rotation depth, so regardless of how good their top six options are, it’s a need that will have to be addressed. Even if they do acquire more depth, and even if they wind up not needing it, the Mariners’ starting pitching could be an area of concern. However, Hernandez and Iwakuma don’t need comeback seasons in order for their starting pitching to be a strength. That will hinge on rest of the rotation stepping up, but fortunately, there are plenty of signs showing that this can happen in 2017.

The post Is it all downhill for the Mariners’ rotation in 2017? appeared first on Todays Knuckleball.

Source: Knuckleball

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Does anyone believe in Tanner Roark?

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October 01 2016: Washington Nationals starting pitcher Tanner Roark (57) during a National League baseball game at Nationals Park, in Washington DC. (Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire)

Every year, we come away from the fantasy baseball season more confused about the value of certain players than we were when we started. This typically happens when a player succeeds or struggles beyond our expectations, and we’re left without a clear explanation for it.

With 2016 fully in our rear-view mirror, Tanner Roark stands out as such a player.

He was largely ignored on draft day, to the surprise of no one. Though Roark was set with a spot in the Nationals’ rotation, he did little to inspire the confidence of fantasy owners in a 2015 season that was split between starting and relief roles. He was especially ineffective as a starter, compiling a 4.82 ERA with 12 home runs allowed in 65.1 innings.

Yet a month into the 2016 season, Roark started to gain popularity in standard mixed leagues, as he posted a 2.03 ERA in April with 30 strikeouts in 31 innings. Though his strikeout pace slowed down, Roark kept cruising, and he finished out the season as a top-20 starting pitcher, boasting a 16-10 record, 2.83 ERA and 1.17 WHIP.

We fantasy owners can be open-minded enough to buy into a player’s dramatic improvement, if we are shown some clear reasons for believing it can last. Roark offered no such obvious assurances. He was a little better at getting swings-and-misses in 2016, but an 8.9 percent whiff rate is still unspectacular. Roark got his home run problem under control, allowing only 17 in 210 innings, but he was not a considerably better ground ball pitcher than he had been before. In the one area in which Roark had been reliably above-average — control — he was decidedly a letdown, walking 3.1 batters per nine innings. To judge Roark by his xFIP, he is exactly the same pitcher he was a year ago — one who would have had a 4.17 ERA after accounting for defense and luck.

On the other hand, in both of the seasons in which Roark has been a full-time starter, he has been an innings-eater with a sub-3.00 ERA and a WHIP below 1.20. Hasn’t he earned some benefit of the doubt?

At least for the dozen owners who participated in a CBSSports.com mock draft earlier this week, the answer was no. Roark slid to the 11th round of my mixed points league draft, and I picked him up with the 11th pick in the round. At that point, 39 starting pitchers had already been selected, and he was my fourth starter behind Johnny Cueto, Julio Teheran and Kenta Maeda.

In a format like this one that has five starting pitcher slots, it’s not unusual for starters drafted this late to eventually find their way to the waiver wire, so if this were a league we were going to play out, there would have been little risk in drafting Roark in that spot. Yet, despite the apparent lack of great peripherals, Roark could be a tremendous bargain if he lasts this long in real drafts.

Though he failed to display exceptional control this past season, there was still an area in which Roark excelled. No qualifying starting pitcher allowed hard contact at a lower rate than Roark did. According to FanGraphs, only 24.3 percent of the batted balls he allowed resulted in a hard-hit ball, as compared to the major league average of 31.4 percent.

Going back to Roark’s rookie season of 2013, no starter who has pitched at least 200 innings has a lower hard-hit rate than Roark. The table below lists the top 10 starters over the last four seasons combined in terms of lowest hard-hit rates, and two fantasy aces who are perennial xFIP overperformers are also on the list.

Jake Arrieta and Johnny Cueto have been able to post ERAs lower than their xFIP because of consistently-low BABIP rates. Kyle Hendricks managed the same feat this year, and August Fagerstrom, formerly of FanGraphs, has already pointed out the similarities between Hendricks and Roark. Of the ten starters who have been the best at limiting hard contact, seven have BABIPs of .280 or lower. Of the other 181 pitchers who qualified for this list, only 29 (or 16.0 percent) had a BABIP that was no higher than .280.

screen-shot-2016-11-04-at-11-20-56-am

Source: FanGraphs

As Fagerstrom points out, Roark’s excellent sinker command and mix of five plus-pitches enables him to induce weak contact, as well as compile a high called-strike rate. Roark doesn’t get the strikeouts that Arrieta, Cueto and Hendricks do, though with the uptick in whiff rate, he wasn’t too far off this season. Because of the relative lack of Ks, Roark does not deserve to be drafted in the same neighborhood as the other three, but he should probably be much closer to the first five rounds, which is where each of them was taken in the mock draft.

Roark may be underrated and underdrafted not only because of his 20.1 percent K-rate, but also because of his 8.5 percent walk rate. However, his struggles with control were mainly limited to his final nine starts, when he was throwing his sinker for a ball 37.4 percent of the time (per Brooks Baseball) and walking 25 batters over 53 innings. Prior to that, the balls-thrown rate on his sinker was just 33.8 percent, and his walk rate was a slimmer 7.5 percent. Both of those marks were still higher than his previous career norms, but they show that Roark’s decline in control may not have been as dramatic as his full-season numbers would suggest.

Unlike this year, Roark will be on the minds of owners on Draft Day 2017. How much weight they give his 2016 season won’t be known until then, but there is a good chance that he won’t get his full due for his run- and hit-preventing abilities. The 2015 version of Garrett Richards — the one who didn’t get as many strikeouts and had mild control issues — might be the best comp for Roark next season, and that level of performance should still make him a top-30 pitcher. Particularly in points leagues, where innings take on added importance, Roark shouldn’t be falling below the realm of No. 3 starters.

The post Does anyone believe in Tanner Roark? appeared first on Todays Knuckleball.

Source: Knuckleball

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Fantasy Baseball: Is Bryce Harper still a first-rounder?

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April 30, 2016: Washington Nationals Right field Bryce Harper (34) [5424] at bat during a MLB game between the Washington Nationals and the St. Louis Cardinals. The Nationals defeated the Cardinals 6-1 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, MO. (Photo by Tim Spyers/Icon Sportswire)

Just hours before the crazy, wonderful finale to the 2016 World Series, a dozen fantasy analysts and aficionados gathered online to take part in a 2017 fantasy baseball mock draft. I took part in the event, which was hosted by the fantasy editorial team at CBSSports.com, and had the 11th pick in this fictitious 12-team Head-to-Head points league. After the first 10 picks elapsed, I realized I already had an unexpected dilemma.

Bryce Harper, one of 2016’s consensus top three picks, was still available. And I was prepared to let him slip at least one more pick.

It was clear that Harper was not going to be a top-three pick. His 2015 MVP season was now sandwiched by campaigns in which he at least a cut below the elite. Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw further strengthened their cases to be the top pick overall, and Mookie Betts, Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Josh Donaldson, Kris Bryant and Jose Altuve solidified their status as potential early first-rounders. And Harper never even came through with that postseason “walk-off bomb” he kept hinting at with the guy at the laundromat.

Still, I didn’t expect he would fall to me at No. 11. Yet, instead of pouncing on him, I passed him up for Anthony Rizzo. Paul Goldschmidt was just taken with the 10th pick, and I didn’t want to miss out on Rizzo’s consistent power, on-base and run production. Then, as I expected, Harper was taken with the final pick in the first round.

I was surprised to have this dilemma and impressed by how difficult of a choice it was. I wondered if there was a consensus around this choice that I wasn’t privy to, so I went to Twitter to find out. It turned out that the majority of respondents in my poll agreed with my choice, but by no means was the result a runaway.

If Harper is a borderline option to take with the second-to-last pick in the first round, then we may be living in a world where he isn’t a bona fide first-rounder anymore. Superficially, that seems like a harsh correction for a player who rolled into this year’s All-Star break with 19 home runs, 52 RBI, 50 runs, 13 stolen bases and a .399 on-base percentage.

Harper wasn’t far off his 2015 home run and RBI pace, and if he hadn’t been typically hitting one or two spots ahead of Ryan Zimmerman (.169 batting average with runners in scoring position in the first half), he might have been on a more robust run-scoring pace. If Harper’s .252 BABIP was weighed down by bad luck, he might have deserved better than his .256 batting average and 11 doubles.

Even with the declines in his run-scoring and doubles pace and in his batting average, in this points format, Harper finished the first half as sixth-ranked outfielder. That still means he had underperformed, but he was in position to finish as one of the very top outfielders in fantasy.

As we now know, that didn’t happen. Instead, Harper increased his strikeout rate by nearly half and batted .226 with five home runs the rest of the way. If we take a closer look, it’s apparent that Harper’s struggles were not just limited to the second half. His first half numbers were strongly boosted by his work in April, when he was launching flyballs at a 52.3 percent rate and sending those flies 286 feet on average (per FanGraphs). By hitting nine home runs and six doubles in that month alone, Harper hit more than one-third of his homers and one-fourth of his doubles during that stretch. Over the rest of the season, Harper’s flyball rate was just 40.5 percent, and his average flyball distance was a modest 267 feet.

As to why Harper hit for so little power for so much of the season and why he struck out 22.8 percent of the time in the second half, we can’t be sure. He did deal with some neck issues at least briefly, and then there was the Sports Illustrated report of a persistent shoulder injury. It’s extremely plausible that Harper was hampered by injuries, but there is no definitive proof of it. Whether his struggles can be tied to a health concern or to just plain inconsistency, they are going to be a drag on his perceived value for 2017.

Yet we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the factors that put Harper in the conversation for first overall pick this past spring. He displayed a slightly better skill set than Trout in 2015 and had a much better supporting cast to help with run production. After a season in which he played 153 games, I didn’t discount Harper’s injury risk enough, but no one, myself included, is likely to make that mistake in next spring’s drafts. Upside alone shouldn’t elevate Harper into the top three picks overall, but how far should his inconsistency and questionable health drop him?

One thing that Harper has working in his favor is the weakness of the outfield pool, even in the upper stratum. Even though Betts outproduced Trout in this particular format this year, the Angels’ center fielder is far and away in a class all his own. He has been producing at this level for five years running, is the superior power hitter to Betts and walks far more often. Once Trout is off the board, Harper is as viable as any remaining outfielder, including Betts.

When comparing Harper and Trout, consistency and health are tie-breakers between two outfielders with unparalleled skill sets. When comparing Harper with Betts or any other outfielder, there is no tie to break when it comes to upside. At his best, Harper is at least equal to Betts in batting average, not far behind in steals, and blows him away in regard to power and on-base percentage. One can make an argument for drafting Betts over Harper, but it’s argument based on privileging safety over potential. With a first-round pick, that’s a reasonable thing to do.

Harper is preferable to the rest of the outfield pool, and it’s a no-brainer. (I’m excluding Bryant here, as he is also eligible at third base. However, there is a case to be made to draft him over Harper, even if you plan to use him in an outfield slot.) Everyone else, from Giancarlo Stanton to George Springer to Charlie Blackmon to A.J. Pollock, has consistency and/or health concerns of their own and nowhere near the same upside.

But does being one of the three best outfielders make Harper a player who needs to be taken in the first round? I would not only argue that he should be, but that I actually made the wrong call in this mock draft. In this particular situation, I should have taken Harper with the 11th pick and risked losing Rizzo to the owner at the turn.

It’s practically a lock that he would not have taken two first basemen with his picks, but even if he did, one of Joey Votto or Miguel Cabrera would have been available for my next pick. I would have preferred, for example, the combination of Harper and Votto to the combination of Rizzo and Stanton that I actually drafted.

If I had been drafting a few spots earlier, I still would have taken Harper over someone like Max Scherzer or Manny Machado, as I would have had better fallback options at starting pitcher or shortstop than I would have had at outfield. In short, I don’t see a potential scenario where Harper should go undrafted within the first 12 picks, and he could reasonably go as early as eighth overall.

The post Fantasy Baseball: Is Bryce Harper still a first-rounder? appeared first on Todays Knuckleball.

Source: Knuckleball

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How much better is Josh Tomlin without the home runs?

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CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 01: Cleveland Indians Pitcher Josh Tomlin (43) on the mound after allowing a home run during the first inning of the 2016 World Series Game 6 between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians on November 01, 2016, at Progressive Field in Cleveland, OH. Chicago defeated Cleveland 9-3. (Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)

Kris Bryant’s first-inning solo shot in Game 6 of the World Series was the 37th home run allowed by Josh Tomlin this season. Given that no pitcher with at least 500 innings this decade has a higher HR/9 ratio than he does, that mammoth total is hardly surprising. What is rather shocking is that it was the first home run he had allowed this postseason.

Just as Daniel Murphy’s postseason power explosion of 2015 brought to light his late-season improvements that would have otherwise been underappreciated, Tomlin’s playoff exploits give us an excuse to notice his recent evolution.

If you missed Tomlin’s turnaround over the season’s final weeks, you’re probably not alone. Just prior to the time when fantasy owners were preparing for their final push towards a title, he had been so ineffective that he was temporarily removed from the Indians’ rotation. In six August starts, he made it past the fifth inning only once and compiled an 11.48 ERA and a 1.95 WHIP for the month.

Tomlin was not only a much better pitcher in September, but he had been far different pitcher than he had been over the course of his seven-year major league career. He is notorious for his issues with home runs, but he has been fantasy-relevant at times for his excellent control and low BABIP rates. If you needed to shave your staff’s WHIP, he was usually there to help.

Over the season’s final month, Tomlin not only reverted to his low-WHIP ways, but suddenly the extra-base hits were evaporating. Over his last five appearances (including four starts) covering 26.2 innings, he allowed opponents to post a modest .114 Isolated Power, and he gave up just one home run.

If you guessed that Tomlin was getting more ground balls, you’d be right, but that change actually started to occur at the beginning of August. Through his first 19 starts, he had a 41.0 percent ground ball rate, which was actually slightly higher than his prior career rate of 37.3 percent (per FanGraphs). Over his final 11 regular season appearances, he was showing some mild ground ball tendencies with a 49.2 percent rate. That continued through the postseason with a 53.6 percent rate.

Yet the increase in grounders doesn’t fully explain Tomlin’s late-season surge. It’s a tempting explanation, as he started using his sinker more often beginning in September, and his sinker ground ball rate began to rise. It’s only a small part of the story, as he was still using the pitch just 15.3 percent of the time from September forward, per Brooks Baseball. Even when Tomlin wasn’t throwing his sinker as often, he wasn’t giving up many extra-base hits with it.

In contrast, the results that Tomlin got with his cutter were dramatically better down the stretch and in the playoffs. The changes were significant, because he threw his cutter more than any other pitch this season. Through August 30, he allowed 20 of his 35 homers on his cutter, with opponents amassing a .264 Iso. Since then, including the postseason, Tomlin has thrown 194 cutters, and only two extra-base hits — both doubles — have resulted, along with an .038 Iso.

By nearly shutting out batters on extra-base hits with his cutter, Tomlin’s post-August Iso is less than half of what it had been. The table below shows his overall Iso, along with ERA, WHIP and other rate stats for the first five months of the season and for the remainder, including the postseason.

In slashing his Iso, Tomlin also substantially decreased his ERA and WHIP while not sacrificing his walk rate. If there is an area where he appeared to have paid a price, it was his K/9 ratio. Strikeouts are a category that Tomlin can ill afford to sacrifice, but in the postseason, he has a 5.6 K/9 ratio that isn’t too far off his earlier mark. It’s Tomlin’s September K/9 ratio of 3.4 that brings down his post-August mark, and in that month, he wasn’t getting called strikes as often as he was previously.

screen-shot-2016-11-02-at-10-52-48-am

So how did Tomlin’s cutter generate such dramatic improvement? Grounders did have something to do with it, as the increase in his cutter ground ball rate, from 39.3 to 48.9 percent (according to Brooks Baseball), mirrored his overall increase in ground ball rate.

He was also able to get weaker contact in general by locating his cutter more often outside of the strike zone. As the graph shows, Tomlin has had much better success with his cutter when it’s to the right side of the zone from the catcher’s perspective (this is the case against both righties and lefties). Through Aug. 30, Tomlin was throwing his cutter to the right of the plane of the zone 37.2 percent of the time, but since then, he’s been hitting that region at a 51.0 percent rate. Over the last two months, he has been able to induce swings at a 40.2 percent rate when his cutter is to the right of the plane of the strike zone.

tomlin-cutter

When considering Tomlin’s fantasy value for next season, we have to weigh the possibility that his foray into ground ball pitching and inducing weaker contact may not have legs beyond these last two months. If we suspend our disbelief and assume that this version of Tomlin is what we’ll get in 2017, then we might get something like the sort of pitcher Jameson Taillon was in this year’s rookie campaign. Taillon had terrific control, a merely decent strikeout rate and, aside from a three-homer outburst at the hands of the Cubs, a penchant for keeping the ball in the park. He also had a 3.38 ERA and 1.12 WHIP that appear to be within Tomlin’s reach.

As a 32-year-old, Tomlin won’t have Taillon’s upside, and there is no guarantee he won’t revert to his homer-happy ways. I probably won’t draft him in standard mixed leagues, and certainly not before the late rounds. However, the possibility of Tomlin being the older equivalent of Taillon will give him greater appeal in deeper mixed leagues, not to mention AL-only formats.

The post How much better is Josh Tomlin without the home runs? appeared first on Todays Knuckleball.

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Fallen Fantasy Baseball Aces: National League

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01 NOV 2015: New York Mets starting pitcher Matt Harvey (33) pitches during Game 5 of the 2015 World Series between the New York Mets and the Kansas City Royals played at Citi Field in Flushing,NY. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

A pitcher can do enormous damage to his fantasy cred in just a few months. As I discussed in my previous column, Sonny Gray went from stud to dud in the eyes of fantasy owners over the course of this season. It looks as if there are a few pitchers with whom he can commiserate over in the senior circuit.

Based on the Twitter poll results shown below, Gray can certainly relate to Adam Wainwright’s plight. Remember last January when the Cardinals’ righty called into a satellite radio show to gripe about being the 22nd pitcher taken in the FSTA draft? Judging by this Twitter poll, Wainwright will be even angrier about next year’s drafts, as many owners will target at least 30 starters before him.

In this year’s drafts, Matt Harvey was generally taken as a No. 1 starter, but that was before he went 4-10 with a 4.86 ERA and underwent surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome on July 18. Respondents are far more sanguine about his chances to be a top-30 pitcher next season, but understandably, his stock has clearly fallen as well. The same can be said about Aaron Nola, who was among the most productive starters two months into the season, only to find himself beset by serious health and performance issues thereafter.

You almost certainly won’t have to give up an early-round pick to draft any of this trio, but will any of them turn out to be a bargain? Just as Gray merited a closer look, these three will undergo some scrutiny to see if they could be worth taking among the first 30 starters.

MATT HARVEY, NEW YORK METS

2016 Stats: 92.2 Innings, 4-10, 4.86 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 76 K

Whatever explanations you may have for Harvey’s inconsistencies in 2016, those now take a back seat to concerns over his recovery from surgery. There have been some success stories involving pitchers coming back from thoracic outlet syndrome, with Jaime Garcia and Alex Cobb being the most notable. Both were arguably a little better than they were prior to surgery, and for Harvey, that would mean resuming his progression toward being one of the best starters in the majors. Then again, Jeremy Bonderman and Shawn Marcum were never quite the same after surgery, and Noah Lowry never resumed his career.

In other words, Harvey has a chance to be a top fantasy starter again, but he also comes with tremendous bust potential. There is really no way to know which direction his career will take, but there is comfort in knowing that there is a lot of uncertainty — due to inconsistency, inexperience or questionable health — surrounding just about every starter beyond the top-20. It’s not a bad idea to gamble on Harvey once those pitchers have been drafted.

ADAM WAINWRIGHT, ST. LOUIS

2016 Stats: 198.2 Innings, 13-9, 4.62 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 161 K

As mentioned above, owners (and not just in the FSTA draft) had some trepidation about drafting Wainwright early going into this season, as he was coming back from having missed most of 2015 with a torn Achilles tendon. For the many owners who targeted him as their No. 2 or 3 starter, even more caution was warranted. Wainwright turned out to be one of the most contact-friendly starters in the majors and his control wasn’t what it once was.

Perhaps the most concerning trend was the decline of his trademark curveball. Over his career, the pitch has been reliable for getting grounders and whiffs, but in 2016, Wainwright established career-lows with a 43.3 percent ground ball rate and a 29.8 percent whiff-per-swing rate on his curveball (per Brooks Baseball). He did experience a midseason resurgence, recording a 2.67 ERA in June and July, as he got more grounders and whiffs with his cutter. That trend reversed itself, and Wainwright finished with a 5.54 ERA over his last dozen starts.

It’s easy to downgrade Wainwright simply because he’s 35, but an even better reason is that he has been a below-average strikeout pitcher in his last two full seasons. That leaves him with a thinner margin of error, making the assumption of a rebound in ground ball and walk rates and in innings too risky. Unless he is still available once the first 40 starters are off the board, I won’t be drafting Wainwright next spring.

16 APR 2016: St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright (50) sits in the dugout between innings during a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds at Busch Stadium in St. Louis Missouri. (Photo by Scott Kane/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by Scott Kane/Icon Sportswire)

AARON NOLA, PHILADELPHIA

2016 Stats: 111 Innings, 6-9, 4.78 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 121 K

Nola was a late-round pick in most leagues last season, but if he had remained on the trajectory from his first two months of 2016, there is a good chance he would have been an early-rounder for 2017. Through his first 12 starts, Nola compiled a 2.65 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and a 27.2 percent strikeout rate. There didn’t seem to be anything he couldn’t do, as he pitched with control and command, inducing lots of soft contact when he wasn’t missing bats altogether.

Then everything fell apart. From that point forward, Nola registered a 9.82 ERA and a 2.06 WHIP over eight starts before getting shut down with a sprained UCL and a strained flexor tendon. For as awful as Nola’s overall performance was, he continued to maintain high strikeout and ground ball rates. It didn’t matter, though, as he was generally getting clobbered whenever opposing hitters were able to make contact.

Nola lost horizontal movement on his four-seamer and curve, but his biggest problems were with his sinker, which was his most frequently-used pitch. From his first 12 starts to his final eight starts, Nola lost more than an inch of horizontal movement and 181 rpm of spin on his sinker, according to TexasLeaguers.com. During that initial two-month stretch, Nola limited hitters to a .246 batting average on his sinker, but afterwards, the pitch yielded a .444 batting average, per Brooks Baseball.

This was no mere regression, but rather an utter collapse. The change was so dramatically out of line with Nola’s early-season achievements, as well as his performance as a rookie and a prospect, that I’m willing to discount it. His health status bears watching this offseason, but barring any setbacks with his recovery, I’m looking to draft Nola once I have taken my first two starters. His upside as a 23-year-old is just too great to pass up.

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Fallen Fantasy Baseball Aces: American League

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11 May 2016: Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann (27) waits for a new ball after giving up a solo home run to Washington Nationals shortstop Danny Espinosa (8) at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. in an interleague game, where the Washington Nationals defeated the Detroit Tigers, 3-2. (Photograph by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire)

It’s not exactly breaking news that we fantasy owners tend to get overly enthused about young, up-and-coming players. Still, I was taken aback by the results of a recent poll I ran on Twitter. I had just written a piece on Sean Manaea, who had one of the more encouraging rookie performances in 2016. I knew owners were excited about him for 2017, and I started to wonder how excited they might be. So I asked the denizens of Twitter if they liked him better than the Athletics’ most accomplished starter, Sonny Gray.

Because Manaea is a 24-year-old coming off a strong second half, I figured he might make it a close contest, but I was floored that he actually beat Gray in the poll. While the former All-Star had a disappointing and injury-plagued season, he is only two years older than Manaea. Gray was also typically drafted just last spring as a No. 2 starting pitcher. This wasn’t just a case of enthusiasm for a rookie that may have gone overboard; it was also about an ace who had quickly fallen out of favor.

This led me to realize that Gray’s season — and 2017 outlook — deserved a closer look. As a pitcher who entered this season as an ace, but is no longer viewed as one, Gray has some company. In the American League alone, Dallas Keuchel and Jordan Zimmermann saw their values take substantial hits. I’ll put all three hurlers under the microscope, and in a future column, I’ll also assess the fantasy fortunes of some fallen National League aces.

Since he was the inspiration for this column, let’s start off with Gray.

Sonny Gray, Oakland

2016 Stats: 117 Innings, 5-11, 5.69 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 94 K

Gray began the season with four consecutive quality starts, which resulted in a 3-1 record and a 2.73 ERA, but then his season spiraled downward in a hurry. His trademarks had been an aversion to extra-base hits and a high degree of efficiency, but over the next five starts he displayed neither, allowing a .336 Isolated Power and averaging just over four innings per start. Gray was better after returning from a brief disabled list stint for a strained trapezius, but he was a long way from prime form. Before missing nearly all of the final two months with a strained forearm, Gray had allowed 10 home runs over 68 innings and lasted fewer than six innings per start.

The key to Gray’s problems was a sinker that wasn’t sinking as much. According to Brooks Baseball, Gray lost more than an inch of vertical movement on the pitch. He wasn’t getting as many swings-and-misses on it when he located it below the strike zone, and batters were pummeling it for a higher BABIP when it was in the horizontal center of the zone.

The loss of sinker movement in and of itself isn’t a major concern, and in a vacuum, neither is a midseason dip in velocity. However, given that Gray was diagnosed with a forearm strain just over a month after his velocity started to sag, owners should take a more cautious approach with him on draft day than they did last spring.

He was sufficiently healed to return for a late September appearance, but Gray should be considered a mild health risk. I wouldn’t spring for him before I had already filled my first three pitching slots, but if he is fully healthy, there is no reason why he can’t return to being a top-30 starter.

Dallas Keuchel, Houston

2016 Stats: 168 Innings, 9-12, 4.55 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 144 K

Fantasy owners never quite bought into Keuchel as Cy Young-level ace, as he was typically drafted outside of the first three rounds, according to Fantasy Pros’ ADP data. Given that Keuchel’s 2015 Cy Young campaign was fueled in part by favorable strand and BABIP rates, there was good reason for skepticism. However, the drop in his performance went above and beyond what even the most cautious owners were expecting.

Keuchel started to turn his year around in the second half before succumbing to shoulder fatigue with just over a month left in the season. Even so, he tested the patience of his most loyal owners, posting a 3.94 ERA over seven starts after the All-Star break. More telling was his 1.08 second-half WHIP, and the improved BABIP and walk rates that underlined it coincided with a rebound in his sinker velocity, as depicted below. Whereas hitters were batting .323 against Keuchel’s sinker in the first half and just .253 in the second half, the improvements were less apparent in his overall ERA and Iso allowed. Keuchel did allow three home runs on his sinker in the second half, but according to ESPN’s Home Run Tracker, all three had “just enough” distance to clear the fence.

brooksbaseball-chart-1

Barring any further shoulder trouble, there aren’t clear reasons to have lower expectations for Keuchel going into 2017 than we had for him coming out of his Cy Young season. It seems doubtful that many owners would take a gamble on him as a No. 2 starter, yet that’s a reasonable expectation for his performance. If you can get Keuchel next spring outside of the first 30 starting pitchers taken off the board, you could luck into a huge bargain.

Jordan Zimmermann, Detroit

2016 Stats: 106.1 Innings, 9-7, 4.87 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 66 K

It’s a stretch to call Zimmermann an ace, but he did pitch like one in 2014 and even in the very early weeks of 2016. His success this past April came despite an average fastball velocity that hovered around 92 mph — right where it was in early 2015, but more than 2 mph below where it was in the first weeks of 2014. Despite a typically mediocre strikeout rate (17.4 percent), he finished April with an 0.55 ERA, as he was extremely stingy with hard contact and pulled fly balls. Zimmermann also was fortunate enough to have stranded 92 percent of his baserunners (per FanGraphs).

Unlike in 2015, Zimmermann’s velocity never rebounded significantly, and from May forward, he was less effective on balls in play and less fortunate with his strand rate. His struggles could have resulted from neck and groin issues, the former of which caused him to miss the entire month of July. No sooner had Zimmermann returned from his neck injury than he missed yet another month with a lat strain.

As with Gray and Keuchel, Zimmermann could return healthy for 2016 and be a much improved pitcher. All three also share a penchant for allowing more contact than a typical early-round fantasy pitcher. What sets Gray and Keuchel apart from Zimmerman is a strong proclivity for inducing grounders. Two or more seasons ago, Zimmermann could be a coveted fantasy pitcher with a strikeout rate below 20 percent partially because of great control, but also partially because strikeouts weren’t quite as ubiquitous. Even if Zimmermann can get back to where he was in 2015 (2014 levels may be asking for too much, as it was an outlier), it won’t be enough for him to be a standout in the current environment. If I were to draft Zimmermann at all next spring, it would be in the late or reserve rounds.

 

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Can Francisco Lindor regain his luster against lefties?

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OCT 15, 2016: Cleveland Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor (12) bats during Game 2 of the American League Championship Series against the Toronto Blue Jays and the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field in Cleveland, OH. Cleveland defeated Toronto 2-1. (Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire).

No one doubts the defensive wizardry of Francisco Lindor, but it’s shocking to remember that just 15 months ago, fantasy owners were more likely to think of the Indians’ shortstop as a glove-first player than as an elite fantasy hitter. In the midst of a superb postseason, in which he is posting a .958 OPS over 11 games, Lindor is cementing his reputation as a top producer among a growing cohort of offensively-minded shortstops.

Yet, his postseason stats notwithstanding, Lindor is winding up his 2016 season with questions about where he stands among the shortstop pecking order for next spring’s drafts. This is in stark contrast to a year ago when, over the final two months of his rookie season, he quickly set expectations.

As a minor leaguer, he had never shown much power, and he had never hit as high as .290 at any stop in the upper minors. When he was 43 games into his major league career, Lindor had a .253/.286/.368 slash line that was neither surprising nor especially interesting to fantasy owners. Then he exploded onto the fantasy scene, batting .361 with seven home runs, 17 doubles, four triples and 10 stolen bases over his final 56 games. For just over one-third of a season, Lindor played like an early-rounder.

Owners responded by making Lindor the sixth-highest drafted shortstop and a top-80 player overall in 2016 drafts, according to FantasyPros’ aggregate ADP rankings. That’s roughly where he wound up in terms of end-of-season value, ranking as a top-seven shortstop in ESPN and CBS leagues, yet he wasn’t quite the same offensive force that he was over the latter third of 2015.

With 99 runs scored and 78 RBI, Lindor did become a more prolific run producer, but then again, the Indians as a whole were a much better run-scoring team this season. He kept his batting average, on-base percentage and stolen base pace steady, but Lindor hit with decidedly less power. Over the final 56 games of ’15, he was on a full-season pace to hit 50 doubles and 21 home runs. While few fantasy owners drafted him for that level of power production, he fell far short, finishing with 30 doubles and 15 home runs.

As torrid of an extra-base pace as Lindor was on in late ’15, he wasn’t radically far off it this season when he was facing right-handed pitchers. He amassed a .172 Isolated Power against righties during his rookie-year hot streak, and he followed that up with a .139 mark this season. The much more glaring discrepancy came against lefties.

Over the latter third of 2015, Lindor registered a .280 Iso against southpaws in 90 plate appearances, but this season, his Iso against lefties was just .124 in 221 plate appearances. While the former rate of extra-base hits might have looked too good to be true, it reinforced the superior splits against lefties Lindor put up against lefties at Triple-A Columbus. Before his call-up, he had a .179 Iso against lefties, as compared to an .098 Iso against righties.

Given how much less power Lindor has shown against lefties this season, one would expect that he would have profiled much less like a power hitter in his batted ball splits. The opposite was actually the case. He hit grounders at a slightly lower rate and pulled the ball and made hard contact much more frequently. However, Lindor’s gains in his pull and hard-hit rates against lefties have come almost entirely on ground balls. Versus left-handed pitchers, he increased his ground ball pull rate from 44.1 to 55.3 percent, and his ground ball hard-hit rate rose from 8.8 to 20.0 percent.

Source: FanGraphs

Source: FanGraphs

The lack of increased power on elevated balls is apparent in the average distance of Lindor’s flies and liners. Those hit balls actually traveled 12 feet less on average this season as compared to the final 56 games of Lindor’s 2015 season.

He has had particular trouble generating power on pitches in the outer third of the strike zone when batting right-handed. During the two-month stretch in 2015, Lindor compiled a .636 Iso on pitches in that region, but this season, he got a total of two extra bases for an .049 Iso. It didn’t help matters that lefties pitched to Lindor in the outer third at a 12 percent rate this season, as compared to nine percent during last year’s hot streak.

Maybe Lindor’s strong numbers against lefties from late 2015 were partly the product of a small sample size, but it’s hard to reconcile his meager 2016 power stats — particularly on pitches on the outer-third of the plate — with the clout he showed over two months in his rookie year. It’s a skill that Lindor demonstrated against lefties as a 21-year-old, and it seems like a strong bet that he can at least partially regain it next season as a 23-year-old.

If Lindor is to be trusted as a top-five producer at his position, he will need at least a partial return to his dominance against lefties. His prospective owners can’t just count on the likes of Jonathan Villar, Jean Segura and Eduardo Nunez to regress to make way for Lindor among the shortstop elite. Even if they do regress, Carlos Correa could rebound, and Trevor Story and Aledmys Diaz could stay healthy for a full season while continuing to hit for power.

It’s getting crowded at the top of the shortstop pool, but owners should figure that Lindor will be right there with Manny Machado, Corey Seager, Xander Bogaerts and company. There should be better things to come, particularly when he’s facing lefties.

The post Can Francisco Lindor regain his luster against lefties? appeared first on Todays Knuckleball.

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Second-Half Fantasy Baseball Surgers: Jefry Marte

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13 August 2016: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Infield Jefry Marte (19) [7226] at bat during the second inning of the Major League Baseball game between the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field in Cleveland, OH. Cleveland defeated the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim 5-1. (Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)

In this final installment of this series on second-half surgers, I’m going farther below the radar than I’ve gone for my previous profiles. Jefry Marte didn’t get much attention from fantasy owners last season, and very few of us are probably surprised by that. Even if you have the knowledge of him ranking 11th among third basemen (min. 250 plate appearances) with a .229 Isolated Power, you’re not shocked. Despite the power display, Marte struggled to carve out a substantial role with the Angels, who desperately needed offense. If the Angels appeared to be viewing him as an afterthought, why shouldn’t have fantasy owners?

Marte, a one-time prospect with the Mets who was acquired in January from the Tigers, didn’t see his first action with the Angels until May 13, and it wasn’t until mid-June that he started to get semi-regular playing time in a utility role. Heading into the final series of the first half, Marte had accumulated just 110 plate appearances and had a .228 batting average and .282 on-base percentage to show for it. So when C.J. Cron went down with a broken left hand on that final weekend before the All-Star Game, Angels manager Mike Scioscia gave Rule 5 player Ji-Man Choi the bulk of the playing time at first base instead of Marte.

When Choi flailed early in the second half, Marte got his chance to play as the regular first baseman for three-and-a-half weeks. Shortly thereafter, he briefly took over at third base for Yunel Escobar, who suffered a concussion. Marte came to the plate 84 times in those substitute roles, batting .312 with five home runs and five doubles. When Escobar returned at the beginning of September, Marte was given a chance to fill the season-long offensive void in left field — a position he had never played prior to 2016.

He hit just .235 over the final month, but an uptick in his walk rate allowed him to actually increase his OBP from .301 to .310. He also continued to come through with power, slamming four home runs and four doubles in 78 plate appearances. The Angels’ left fielders collectively posted a .275 wOBA in 2016, a mark that only the Phillies’ left fielders couldn’t beat. Marte, though, was the best of the bunch, finishing with a .316 wOBA as a left fielder and a .335 wOBA overall. In the second half, as he struck out less, walked more and hit for more power, the only Angel with at least 100 plate appearances who topped his .367 wOBA was Mike Trout.

Though Marte’s role in 2017 is unclear, it’s hard to see how he doesn’t get a chance to hold down an everyday role. If the Angels exercise their team option on Escobar, Marte’s best chances to win regular playing time would come at first base and left field. As an everyday player, he could put up rate stats very similar to the ones he compiled in the second half of 2016. He would have to maintain the gains he made in his strikeout and walk rates, but there is little reason to doubt his power numbers.

The seeds of Marte’s power breakout were planted in 2014, when he was playing for the Athletics’ Double-A affiliate in Midland. It was there that he increased his ratio of home runs to balls-in-air (fly balls and line drives) to 7.2 percent from the previous season’s 2.4 percent (per StatCorner). It wasn’t until his 2015 campaign in Triple-A that Marte started to loosen his ground ball tendencies, and he posted a .213 Iso despite playing in a poor home run-hitting environment in Toledo. In his first exposure to the major leagues, he hit four home runs and four doubles in 90 plate appearances with the Tigers.

As a pull-happy hitter with power, Marte offers similar pros and cons to Padres outfield prospect Hunter Renfroe. Specifically, both offer potential owners a power-for-batting average tradeoff. However, Marte has better plate discipline and is less fly ball-prone, so he figures to post a higher batting average and OBP than Renfroe. He may not have quite as much thump as Renfroe (note the relative lack of up-the-middle and opposite-field power in the spray charts below), but then again, Marte will almost certainly be far less coveted on draft day, even if he is assured of an everyday role. Renfroe may still carry the prospect label, and Marte lost his at least three years ago, but the 25-year-old Angel is only seven months older than his Padres counterpart. He also enters next season with eligibility at three positions.

jefry-marte hunter-renfroe

Source: MLBfarm.com.

If the Angels leave Marte in limbo this spring, he won’t have much value even in AL-only leagues. It would seem they could use his bat in the lineup. If he has a chance to play regularly, the same could be said for fantasy owners, at least in deeper formats. Third base has become deep enough that owners in standard mixed leagues don’t need to gamble on the likes of Marte in drafts and auctions. In, say, a 15-team mixed Rotisserie league, he would be a good late-round candidate to fill a corner infield slot. If he realizes the potential to hit around .270 with 25 home runs, he could turn out to be much more than that.

The post Second-Half Fantasy Baseball Surgers: Jefry Marte appeared first on Todays Knuckleball.

Source: Knuckleball

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