August 2010

Stretch-run starters for hire

Right around this time last year, relatively un-owned young hurlers
like Wade LeBlanc, Clay Buchholz, Wade Davis, Homer Bailey and Robinson Tejeda (yep)
were revving things up to bolster the stretch run for any fantasy teams lucky
enough to grab ’em. Naturally, in “The Year of the Pitcher”, there’s currently a new and
improved crop that offer a lot more upside — specifically in
the strikeout department — than last year’s late-blossomers, and there’s
plenty who are available in over 85 percent of Yahoo! Leagues…

Jhoulys Chacin, Rockies:  6-9,
3.98 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 102 Ks in 95 innings

Five percent owned in Yahoo! Leagues

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It’s been a strange ride for Jhoulys this season. After battling to a solid 3.61 ERA through his first 12 outings,
the 22-year-old struggled to a 6.75 clip over seven appearances after he was questionably
shifted to the ‘pen in early July. Chacin was
consequently demoted to Triple-A for three-plus weeks until getting recalled on
August 17, laboring in his first start back. He finally flashed the dominance
he’s capable of on August 22, dealing to the tune of 7 2/3 shutout innings,
allowing just three hits and fanning nine. That should be enough for the
Rockies’ braintrust to finally realize they’re better off with the electric
young stud in the rotation than Jeff Francis and Aaron Cook, so look for Chacin to finish out the year in style.

Mike Minor, Braves:  2-0, 4.00
ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 22 Ks in 18 innings

14 percent owned in Yahoo! Leagues

The rookie southpaw opened some eyes on Sunday by striking out 12 Cubs
hitters in six victorious innings of work, improving his stellar K/BB ratio to
22/4 over three career starts. Minor has completely owned left-handed hitters
in his short stint, holding them to a .154 average and just one extra-base hit.
 The talented 22-year-old was 4-1 with a
1.89 ERA and 37 Ks in 33 1/3 innings in Triple-A before his promotion on August
7, so his relative dominance thus far is no fluke. Yes, the Braves announced
they’d be skipping Minor’s next start to give him some extra rest, but he’s
only tossed 128 1/3 total innings in 2010 so they’ll likely give his electric stuff free reign
going forward as they fight for a playoff spot.

Homer Bailey, Reds: 3-2, 4.52 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 51 Ks in 63 2/3 innings

12 percent owned in Yahoo! Leagues

Ownership plummeted while Bailey experienced an extremely disappointing
first 3 1/2 months of the season, but he’s starting to look like a repeat
offender on this list. As the Weekly 10 so eloquently pointed out, the
24-year-old has been stellar in two starts since returning from the DL on
August 15, going 2-0 with a 0.69 ERA, 0.69 WHIP and a 10/2 K/BB ratio over 13
frames. Despite a rough first 16 starts to 2010, Bailey looked like he was starting
to right the ship by firing 16 innings of two-run ball in two outings before getting
injured in late May. Remember, it was the right-hander’s stellar 6-1 record and 1.70
ERA after August 23 of ’09 that had him pegged as a huge sleeper heading into
this year, so it’s not unreasonable to expect big things going forward.

Bud Norris, Astros: 6-7, 5.23 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 112 Ks in 105 innings

Eight percent owned in Yahoo! Leagues

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Clearly, those season numbers don’t look very appealing. But look
closer, and Norris is 4-0 with a formidable 3.31 ERA and 0.93 WHIP over his
last nine starts. That includes consecutive seven-inning, two-run gems, the
first being a 14-strikeout explosion on August 14. The burly, hard-throwing right-hander’s
effectiveness is starting to catch up with his already stellar 9.45 K/9 rate, which is good for seventh in the Majors for pitchers with a minimum of 100 innings
thrown. Norris is just starting to figure out big league hitters at age 25, and
though you might not want to play him in Philly on August 24, his following
start against the offensively-challenged Mets is looking might juicy.

Joe Blanton, Phillies: 5-6, 5.32 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 95 Ks in 132 innings

14 percent owned in Yahoo! Leagues

Another stocky right-hander with ugly overall numbers, Blanton has
started to find a groove. The 29-year-old has posted a 3.12 ERA with a 23/4
K/BB ratio over his last four starts, including 16 Ks with no walks over the
last two. Blanton struggled so much through the season’s first four months that
many forgot how solid he was last in 2009, which included a stellar 5-2 stretch
with a 2.14 ERA between July and August. It’s looking like a comparable run may
be on the horizon.

Jake Westbrook, Cardinals: 7-8, 4.48 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 99 Ks in 152 2/3
innings

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14 percent owned in Yahoo! Leagues

Like Blanton, Westbrook doesn’t have the youthful freshness of the
first four hurlers, but his recent performance needs to be addressed. After a deadline
trade from the Indians, Westbrook has predictably thrived under the tutelage of
pitching coach Dave Duncan with a 3.60 ERA, a 1.08 WHIP and a 26/4 K/BB ratio
over four starts. The shift in leagues has transformed Westbrook into more of a
strikeout maven than ever imaginable, as his current 9.36 K/9 rate in 25
innings is almost double the 32-year-old’s career mark of 5.02. He’s only 1-1
with the new club, but more wins should be in store when September roles
around.

Position Battles – Shortstop Edition

Week 4 – Shortstop
It’s been an ugly year for shortstops. Real ugly. Only four shortstops currently rank among the top-100 players in Yahoo! Leagues, with none sitting in the top-40.  Three of those guys — Derek Jeter, Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes — are having down years, while the fourth, Troy Tulowitzki, missed over a month with an injury. Ben Zobrist and his .179 average since July 1 has been a massive disappointment, Elvis Andrus hasn’t stolen a base since August 1, Rafael Furcal can’t get back on the field, Stephen Drew is a disaster and Jason Bartlett has resumed being Jason Bartlett. 
There’s been a lot of talk about promoting a Grenade Free America lately, and apparently Major League shortstops are on board — only five of them have blasted double-digit bombs this season. Really, there are only seven or eight guys at the position who have put up acceptable fantasy numbers, and that’s begrudgingly including Juan Uribe, Alex Gonzalez and the injured Furcal. That leaves plenty of waiver wire scavengers in 12-team mixed leagues, and right now there’s a couple of widely available guys raking enough to be relevant in this season’s bare crop.
The Champ:  Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians – .287-2-16, 4 SB in 237 at-bats
42 percent owned in Yahoo! Leagues
The Skinny

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Cabrera headed into the year on plenty of mixed-league rosters after an impressive .308-6-68 campaign with 17 swipes in 2009. A lackluster first 35 games and then a fractured forearm on May 17 cause his ownership to plummet, as the fourth-year switch-hitter missed the next two months recovering. He scuffled initially after returning on July 20, but turned it on when the calendar turned to August with a .339 average plus nine ribbies, three steals and a long ball thus far. Things got even better over the past week, as Cabrera ran off a string of four consecutive two-hit efforts and has gone 14-for-31 (.452) over a current eight-game hit streak.
The Challenger:  Ian Desmond, Nationals – .267-9-49, 14 SB in 371 at-bats
26 percent owned in Yahoo! Leagues
The Skinny

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It took a few months, but the talented rookie has finally started to figure out Major League pitching. He’s hit .302 since July 1, and an even more impressive .352 with six steals over his last 21 games. After shuffling around different the lineup during an up-and-down first half, Desmond is now firmly entrenched in the Nationals’ two-hole. With five swipes in his last 11 contest and a two-homer game on August 11, the righty batsmen is starting to truly flash the five-tool ability that Washington expected when they named him the starter on Opening Day over veteran Christian Guzman.
Root-ability
These two share plenty of similarities. Both are 24-year-olds batting in the two-hole for non-contending teams. Desmond has the always-tantalizing power-speed combo going for him, while Asdrubal is the slicker fielder who recently made one of the season’s most incredible plays — a barehanded grab and throw while basically on his back. What really separates these two? ASDRUBAL, ASDRUBAL, ASDRUBAL. It’s really one of the coolest names in sports, and the extremely childish play on it, which doesn’t need repeating, is even more entertaining. And of course, with Desmond there’s that adage about never trusting a guy with two first names (yea, really trying here). So while its not a very convincing victory, Asdrubal scratches out the lead here.
Future
Desmond’s stretch has been very impressive over the past six weeks, and he now has a solid .269-13-61 line with 15 steals in 453 career at-bats dating back to last season. While it’ll be tough for him to continue his plus-.300 clip, Desmond has the higher ceiling and his power-speed capabilities hold a lot of value. On the other hand, Asdrubal has the track record and is a sure bet to hit close to .300 the rest of the way. But when it comes down to it, he doesn’t offer enough speed or score enough with the weak lineup behind him to offset his complete lack of power. With Desmond’s recent revelation on the base paths, you know you’re getting plus production in at least one category, while Cabrera doesn’t truly excel in any. In the end, Desmond just offers more and is ultimately the guy to grab.
Winner:  Ian Desmond

Position Battles – Outfield Edition

Week 3 – Outfield Speed
Once upon a time in mid-April, Julio Borbon owners were frantically searching for a speedy replacement as the Texas outfielder’s average was plummeting to somewhere around that deep limbo level from Leo DiCaprio’s dreams. Journeyman vet Scott Podsednik was off to a great start, but many owners opted for the younger and more enticing Carlos Gomez who was tearing up the basepaths. Well flash-forward four months, when Scotty-Pods sits with a .300 average and 34 steals, while Gomez sits on the DL with a paltry .228 clip and just two swipes since June 8. Another encounter currently looms between two quick-footed outfielders, so here’s some help on how to choose wisely.

The Champ: Jose Tabata, Pirates – .306-2-16, 31 runs, 11 SB in 209 at-bats
17 percent owned in Yahoo! Leagues
The Skinny

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You say TA-but-uh, I say Tuh-BA-tah. The truth is, no one really seems sure how to pronounce the 21-year-old’s name, but no matter how they do, it’s been followed up by some very complementary adjectives of late. Tabata, who posted a .297 average over five-plus Minor League seasons beginning at age 17, was called up back on June 9 after batting .308 with 25 steals in 53 Triple-A games. After scuffling in June, Tabata started putting it together in July with a .333 clip, 19 runs and five steals. Over the last calendar month, the speedy left fielder has hit .388 (40-for-103) with an incredible 15 multi-hit games (currently three straight). All those who showered the Yankees with praise while lambasting the Bucs after this prospect was dealt for Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte in 2008, well actually, no one blames you. This is a clear case of a blind squirrel finding a tasty, fantasy fruitful nut. 
The Challenger: Dexter Fowler, Rockies – .244-3-19, 47 runs, 11 SB in 254 at-bats
Seven percent owned in Yahoo! Leagues.
The Skinny

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We’ve been through this before with Fowler, who fluctuated between a hot pickup and a quick drop all throughout his rookie 2009 campaign. This year has been no different for the 24-year-old (cue lots of commas). Fowler came into the season as a sleeper, which wore off as he struggled to a .216 average through the end of May, got demoted and hit .340 for a month in Triple-A, raked in early July after being recalled, cooled off dramatically, and is currently back to tearing the cover off the ball. The rangy center fielder is batting a blistering .417 (15-for-36) with four doubles, two steals and 12 runs scored over his last nine games, while ripping multiple hits in six of his last seven starts.  
Root-ability
Unlike the first two editions of PB, these two players are pretty similar. Both exciting, young, highly-regarded prospects who seem to be emerging as quality big leaguers. The only real difference is that Fowler has gotten a lot more hype and press playing for a likeable and thriving franchise, while no one truly expected Tabata to pan out because it was the Pirates that traded for him. Fowler styles with the over-sized, straight-brimmed hat, which I’m pretty sure is still cool, and has flashed the ability to make some nasty catches in the outfield. One thing Tabata has in his favor is the entire Yankee-Hater Nation pulling for him, as it’s always enjoyable to see the Evil Empire screw up with a young player. That said, we’ll give the edge to Fowler here.
Future
As just eluded too, these guys are pretty much mirror images of each other as offensive potential goes. Both should be solid sources of steals and runs with Fowler leading off in Coors Field — always a plus — and Tabata locked in the two-hole for a seemingly rejuvenated Pirates lineup. However, Tabata, at a younger age, has currently put together a more consistent stretch of production than the higher-profile Fowler has ever been able to.
In reality, if Fowler was the guy batting .306 with Tabata’s recent hot streak, he’d be owned in three or four times the amount of leagues that Tabata is. Fowler is also hurt by the occasional day off in a crowded Rockies outfield, and the switch-hitter has been unable to master right-handed pitching with a .229 clip from the left side of the plate. So despite the streaky Fowler’s presently scalding bat, Tabata is the guy you’ll want to grab for the stretch run.
Winner: Jose Tabata

Productive Performances

Thumbnail image for la_g_kershaw1_200.jpgAny true follower of baseball statistics knows that what constitutes a “Quality Start” is completely bogus. It doesn’t take a math whiz to calculate that six innings and three earned runs equates to a 4.50 ERA, which is pretty much mediocre to bad, not quality.  On the other hand, Clayton Kershaw fires 5 2/3 shutout innings, K’s eight and gets pulled to preserve his arm because his team is up 14-0 in the sixth, well, no Quality Start for him.

At the very least, if a pitcher throws a quality start it usually means he’s keeping his team in the game, so the stat isn’t completely devoid of value in the real world. But in the Fantasy World, QS is a term that should never be uttered or written. It takes no account of WHIP or strikeouts, and no one wants a guy with an ERA much north of four on their roster.

So let’s create with a term that represents a valuable outing from a fantasy starter in a league with the typical five pitching categories. We’ll keep it simple and call it Productive Performances. I thought Fruitful Fantasy Flings, while more artistic, was a little over the top (suggestions welcome).

If you don’t feel like taking the time to understand the convoluted way I came up with this term, skip down to the rankings. All you need to know is that a Productive Performance is an outing that appreciably benefits a fantasy team’s pitching totals without damaging any one particular category.

To earn a Productive Performance (PP), a pitcher needs to positively contribute in three out of the four categories that starters impact – Wins, ERA, WHIP and Ks – and the ERA for that start must be 4.50 or below. Here are the standards I’ve come up with needed to qualify as positive – basically an above-average output that legitimately helps a team’s weekly totals in that category:

  • A win 

  • An ERA of 3.68 or below (Allowing three earned runs over 7 1/3 innings equates to a 3.68 ERA)

  • A WHIP of 1.29 or below

  • At least five strikeouts

However, if a pitcher qualifies in only two of the categories, but one of them is an exceptional output, he will notch a PP as long as his ERA and WHIP are both equal to or below 4.50 and 1.50, respectively.  Stay with me here…

Here is what qualifies as exceptional:

  • A win

  • An ERA of 3.00 or below

  • A WHIP below 1.00

  • At least 7 Ks

There are two other specific types of outings that qualify: Because why not make this more confusing? If the starter allows three earned runs over exactly seven innings (ERA of 3.86) while earning a win and keeping his WHIP at 1.65 or below, he’ll have netted a Productive Performance regardless of his strikeout total. Also, any time a guy throws at least six innings without allowing an earned run, it’s a PP no matter what the other numbers are like. These performances are just too valuable in the real world to ignore.

OK then…here are the top-10 ranked pitchers in Productive Performances this season: 

1. Adam Wainwright – 18
T-2.  Josh Johnson – 17
Roy Halladay – 17
Jered Weaver – 17
Tim Hudson – 17
T-6. Clayton Kershaw – 16
Carl Pavano – 16
T-8. Felix Hernandez – 15
Brett Myers – 15
Tim Lincecum – 15
Ubaldo Jimenez – 15                                                                                 

  • What stands out here is that King Felix has not exactly been the elite fantasy force that his American League-leading 19 Quality Starts would try to suggest. Also, CC Sabathia, Chris Carpenter an
    d Matt Cain, all ranked in the Top-9 in Quality Starts, are nowhere to be seen on this list. You may not have realized it, but Carl Pavano and Brett Myers have been killer fantasy starters all year.
          

Finally, so you can get some use out of all this confusion, here’s a list of starters available in at least 70 percent of Yahoo! leagues with the most PPs over the last two months:                   

Jon Niese – 7  

Joe Saunders – 7                                                                                                                                                       

Vin Mazzaro – 7                                                                 
Jake Westbrook – 6 (should rise rapidly after trade to Cards)                                           
Wade LeBlanc – 6                                                                                                  
Wade Davis – 6 (four straight)                                                                       &nb
sp;               
Dave Bush – 6                                                                                                                          
Freddy Garcia – 6                                                                                                           
Travis Wood – 5 (only seven total starts)                                                                            
Brandon Morrow – 5                                                                                                       
Ian Kennedy – 5                                                                                                                        
Kyle Kendrick – 5                                                                                                                   
Jason Hammel – 5                                                                                                                     
Jeremy Guthrie – 5


  • Thumbnail image for medium_09-02-mets-niese.jpgAll these guys are very useful for spot starts, while Niese, Mazzaro, Davis, Westbrook and Wood should garner serious consideration in all formats.

So if I ever become President of the non-existent Fantasy Baseball Association, Productive Performances is sure to be the principle measurement of a starter’s value in all leagues. But until that time, you’re not likely to see this term again except on this blog, serving as a future barometer for relevant fantasy hurlers. Good talk.