Streaming in the Sunlight

It’s every owner’s goal to build a pitching staff full of horses who can go out every week and pitch well. Even when one of them struggles, you can confidently leave them in your starting lineup the following week and know that they’re much more likely to bounce back and pitch well than continue to give up runs. ESPN’s Matthew Berry has a list of pitchers who you should start every week, regardless of matchup, and says that all of those pitchers are above the Wandy Line. The higher up the list, the more stable the pitcher is. Any player above this line is a must-start pitcher, and they are likely all going to be owned in your league. For example, everyone wants Clayton Kershaw. He’s at the top of Berry’s list and hasn’t given his owners any reason to believe that will change. You start Kershaw each and every week, and it simply doesn’t matter who he’s pitching against due to his track-record of dominance and consistency over a long period of time.

Not everyone is lucky enough to have a staff with a Kershaw or a Verlander at the top and several other solid, must-start pitchers beneath them. When this is the case, owners stream pitchers, meaning they pick up and start a pitcher for one or two starts only, due to how he has been pitching recently and/or the matchup he’s facing this week. At the beginning of the year, many in the fantasy community were encouraging owners to start anyone who was pitching against the Marlins or Astros. It’s been a solid strategy even though the Astros haven’t been as terrible as everyone thought (20th in total runs scored), the Marlins have been atrocious. They have scored the fewest runs in baseball and have been without their best and only real offensive threat, Giancarlo Stanton, for a majority of the season. Even though Stanton is back, the Marlins will continue to be the worst offense in baseball for the rest of the season.

Today, I was watching the Braves play the Mets. After a late game last night and a day game today, the Braves put out their B squad agains the formidable Matt Harvey. Through six innings, Harvey had a no-hitter and was making guys like Gerald Laird and Reed Johnson look terrible. While he gave up three runs towards the end of the game, mainly off of bad luck, he finished with seven strong innings of 13 strikeout baseball while only allowing three total bases. Harvey is a dominant pitcher but facing the Braves bench players certainly helped his numbers.

Harvey’s start reminded me that even an average pitcher should be started in the day part of a double header when some of the starters are sitting. It’s just enough of an advantage that an average pitcher looks good, a good pitcher looks great, and a great pitcher almost throws a perfect game. The same strategy goes for getaway games in the middle of the week when one series is wrapping up and another is starting the next day. Similar to the day part of a doubleheader, managers will rest starters on getaway games which gives the pitchers a good matchup and their owners an ideal time to stream.

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Yo, check the WHIP!

A pitcher with a good earned run average is valuable in all formats, but looking at a player’s ERA is not the best way to predict how effective they will be going forward. Meanwhile, WHIP (Walks + Hits / Innings Pitched) paints a more accurate picture of what a pitcher’s true stats will look like. This is because ERA only takes into consideration how many runs a pitcher is giving up while WHIP shows you how those runs were allowed.

I’m planning my lineup for this upcoming week, and I looked closer at Colorado Rockies closer Rex Brothers. I picked him up because I thought he would be a cheap source of saves after Rafael Betancourt went to the DL. He’s been in my lineup for a couple of weeks, and he hasn’t done anything bad to make me look closer at his numbers. While I was going through the free agent list looking for a holds guy, I decided to look at my relievers numbers, and I saw the discrepancy in Brothers’ ERA and WHIP. The stark contract made me turn white. His ERA is a microscopic 0.30 while his WHIP is a lofty 1.21.

A WHIP substantially over 1.00 means that a pitcher is letting guys on base. His ERA shows us what he does once he allows those runners on base. Brothers’ high WHIP and insanely low ERA signaled to me that he lets guys on and then doesn’t let them score. My first thought was to check his strand rate percentage* which looks at the percentage of runners on base that a pitcher doesn’t allow to cross home plate.

I was right. Brothers’ strand rate percentage this season is 97.2%. In general the MLB average is 72%. This shows us that Brothers’ ERA is far from sustainable, and you must make a decision about how he fits in to your team. He will likely continue to be a source of saves, but ninth inning implosions and collapses are in your near future. He might record two saves in a week, and then in his third outing, give up several runs in less than an inning and take a loss. I’m going to stay away from a guy like that, and go with a reliever like Jose Veras of the Astros who has an ERA of 3.72 but boasts a WHIP of 1.10. His ERA is almost three and half runs higher, but his WHIP shows me he’s a better pitcher.

*ESPNs Tristan Cockcroft wrote an article that explains many of baseball’s advanced statistics. It’s a helpful resource for baseball fans and fantasy owners.

Troy Tulowitzki’s Hurting…Again

If the season ended today, Troy Tulowitzki would get a majority of the votes for National League MVP. In a year where quality offensive shortstops are almost non-existent, Tulo has been arguably the best player in baseball. He’s batting .347 with a .413 OBP while hitting 16 homers and driving in 51 runs. Furthermore, I saw Jayson Stark tweet out today that Tulowitzki’s offensive win percentage is an astounding .838, meaning that a team full of Tulo’s would go 136-26. Tulowitzki and teammate Carlos Gonzalez have been carrying the Rockies who are only two and a half games back in the NL West.

But last night, Tulowitzki broke his rib and will be out at least four-six weeks. Owners must tread lightly with him because he has a track record of missing large amounts of time due to injury. On May 8th of last season, Tulowitzki had an MRI on his strained groin, and doctors said after his two week stint on the DL, he would be back in the middle of the lineup. Long story short, he had groin surgery and missed the rest of the fantasy season. His track record worries me that his recovery is going to have some kind of a setback. I struggle with Tulo because I love beast middle infielders, and he’s about as good as they come when healthy.

This puts owners is such a tough spot. Before his injury, there was almost nothing you could do to get Tulowitzki. Suddenly, after the injury, you could probably get him for 80 to 85 cents on the dollar which would be a bargain if he comes back and plays productively for the rest of the season. If he has a setback and misses more time, he quickly becomes a liability instead of a bargain, and you feel like an idiot. I would read several accounts of what is being said about his injury and then follow your gut feeling. I feel like he’ll probably be out a little longer than the original diagnosis, because while it takes four to six weeks for a rib bone to heal, there is a large amount of deconditioning that happens because the player can’t stay in baseball shape due to the breathing limitations. Check out Stephanie Bell’s blog post about his injury for a trusted opinion from a physical therapist who knows baseball injuries. In the meantime, I think Tulo’s replacement, Josh Rutledge, is a solid option. He’s batting .348 with an OPS of 1.003 since his demotion last month.

The Attractiveness and Danger of Rookie Starting Pitchers

I bought the hype on Michael Wacha. I’m having a hard time not getting on the Gerrit Cole train. I have no reason to doubt that Zach Wheeler will be extremely effective when he gets called up to the majors, which will likely be in the next week or so. But fantasy owners must remember to tread lightly with their young fantasy arms.

While rookie starters can provide a spark to both your team and their big league clubs, you cannot forget that these players are still kids who have very limited experience pitching to, much less being effective against, Major League-caliber hitting. Furthermore, dynamic stuff doesn’t necessarily correlate to recording outs.

Even though Gerrit Cole is the talk of the majors today, I’m going to discuss Michael Wacha because of his slightly larger sample size (three to one which, I admit, is still really small) and because his starts have ranged in quality which give us something more to talk about than just drooling all over Cole’s fastball.

I thought Wacha would be great in his first start because A) he has dynamic stuff B) is a product of the Cardinals organization, so when they call him up, I actually believe he’s ready C) he was facing the scuffling Royals. Sure enough, he went out there and dazzled us with a seven inning, two hit, one run game with six strikeouts and no walks. He actually got his first Major League hit before allowing one. That’s beast.

The problem with that kind of a start is that I went all in and decided that Wacha would be great again the following week when he started twice. I benched Jon Lester, Derek Holland, Josh Johnson, and R.A. Dickey in favor of the Wonder Kid. Yes, several of those guys are struggling, but I still chose a rookie with one start under his belt to pitch two of my five starts. And I got punished.

4.2 innings, ten hits, and six earned runs later, I was wondering what I had done. I had thrown my prized but inexperienced fighter out against the very angry Diamondbacks, and they showed him that he wasn’t in the Pacific Coast League anymore. To make matters worse, the Cardinals decided to push back his start from Sunday to Tuesday, so he wouldn’t even be able to clean up the mess he had made all over my team. Naturally, out of spite, I cut him and started my big three this week (Kershaw, Miller, and Samardzija).

On Monday, I woke up and checked out the match-ups, only to realize that Wacha is going twice this week against the Mets and the Marlins. There was a part of me that was upset I didn’t start him, but the more logical side of me keeps repeating “Remember his last start. Remember his last start.”

Wacha went out last night and pitched like a guy who knows what he’s doing, firing six strong innings of two run ball. The three walks is higher than you’d like to see, but we gotta remember that this kid doesn’t turn 22 until July 1. He’s shown us he can pitch well on the big stage, so now we just have to give him, and the rest of the rookie class, time to mature and develop.So knowing all this, how should we value Wacha and other rookie starters for the rest of the season?

First and foremost, we have to be realistic. All of these guys are going to be on innings caps, so their value for this season is limited. There’s almost no chance that any of these guys are going to still be playing when it comes time for your league’s playoffs. With that being said, they can be a vital and important part of getting your team into the big dance, but only if you need them to. Oftentimes I’m inclined to throw in one of the rookie pitchers into my lineup when I have a proven staff of workhorses who can get the job done. Don’t do that

I think the best strategy is to play match-ups. Wacha against the Mets and Marlins? Yes please. Kevin Gausman against the Rangers? I’ll take a pass. The important thing to remember is every time you start a pitcher, especially a rookie pitcher, you’re taking a risk. The aforementioned Kevin Gausman was all the rage before he took the mound against the Blue Jays on May 23rd. Here are his last three starts:

May 28 @ Washington Nationals: 7 earned runs

June 2 vs. Detroit Tigers: 1 earned run

June 8 @ Tampa Bay Rays: 7 earned runs

Washington is second to last in total runs scored, and Detroit is fourth in baseball. I would have started him against the Nationals and benched him against the Tigers, and I would have been totally and absolutely wrong. Playing the match-ups is the safest bet with rookie starters but each and every time you start them, you’re playing a game of Russian Roulette with your weekly pitcher numbers.

The Potent Punch of El Oso Blanco

Catcher’s always the most frustrating position to fill for fantasy baseball owners. Even during the sporadic years when one or two catchers distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack (Joe Mauer in 2009), the other 30 to 31 starters oftentimes hurt your team across the board almost every week. A couple of seasons ago, I actually tried going a week without a catcher because I thought playing with eight guys who actually contributed to my bottom line would be better than slotting in a crappy, replacement level catcher in my lineup. Even though my batting average and OBP did go up, I couldn’t deal with the -Empty- slot staring at me all week. I caved and started someone awful the following week.

Historically, I’ve always been one of the reachers on catcher, and it’s almost always for Joe Mauer. His ability to win the batting title each and every season makes him an attractive pick, but ever since I drafted him in ’09 and traded him right before his MVP barrage, Joe and I have have had a love-hate relationship. This season, I drafted Brain McCann (14th round, 161 overall) due to his potential upside after his shoulder returned to 100 percent and Jonathan Lucroy (16th round, 185 overall) as his backup. Lucroy was abysmal until very recently, so I was immediately looking for a replacement until B-Mac returned. And in walked Evan Gattis on all four of his paws.

As a huge Braves fan, I knew all about Gattis and even got to see him mash some below-average pitching in spring training. I expected him to make the Opening Day roster, but I thought Gerald Laird and his experience would be the guy until the proven, stable McCann retuned. I was right about Gattis making the roster, but I was wrong about the impact he would have once he made the squad.

I saw his first home run and thought about what a good story he was and how ESPN might pay some attention to the Braves the next day. I saw his second home run get launched deep into the seats, and I sat on the couch with a pensive, thoughtful look on my face. After his third home run, which was absolutely smashed into the upper deck of Marlins Park, I whipped out my phone and picked him up. I beat my dad by about six seconds, and he immediately texted me two words: “U suk.”

I rode El Oso Blanco until the day McCann returned, and then I promptly cut Gattis and made Brian McCann my everyday starting catcher. I took a deep breath and felt good about my chances for the rest of the season. I thought that Gattis would remain on the big league roster, but I didn’t see how he would get enough at-bats to remain relevant. I was wrong.

A combination of injuries and the fact that Gattis continues to crush has meant that Fredi has had to find a way to get The White Bear into the lineup as much as possible. One fact has remained true this entire season: when Gattis is in the lineup, he’s almost always doing damage. You’re likely only going to get three to four starts a week from him, along with a couple of pinch hit appearances, but you’ll be beating almost every other owner at catcher due to his impressive production. Gattis leads all catchers in home runs and RBI with 14 and 37 respectively, but he’s 17th among catchers in plate appearances (Joe Mauer leads with 229, while Gattis only has 156). Furthermore, Gattis is six for eight as a pinch-hitter with four home runs and a double. Despite not getting the at-bats of a starter, Gattis continues to pack a lethal blow with his slashing left-handed swing.

Even though Gattis is ranked highly at a shallow position (he’s the fourth best catcher and the 106th best overall player), he’s only owned in 71% of Yahoo! leagues. If he’s available, pick him up. If not, try to get him from an owner by making the argument that he simply won’t get the at-bats or the playing time for him to keep these numbers up. This simply isn’t true as Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said in mid-May that he’ll be demoted to AAA before Gattis will. The Legend of El Oso Blanco will only continue to grow.

Fantasy Frustrations

Fantasy baseball, just like “real” baseball, is beautiful because it reflects life in so many ways. There are days and weeks where your team couldn’t get any better, and consequently, neither could your mood. Then there are weeks where you send out eight or nine different trade offers because you’re convinced your team will never take another category. It’s the crazy and wonderful life of a fantasy owner. As I write this post, my team sits at 57-62-7, good enough for seventh place in my league. If the season were to end now, however, I wouldn’t make the playoffs, and that’s everything because once you make it into the big dance, anything can happen.

My offense has been horrendous all year. While my home run and RBI totals are towards the top of the league, everything else about my offense has struggled tremendously. I’m tenth in steals, eleventh in AVG and runs, and last in OBP and total bases. I’m not going to win many games putting up numbers like that. Meanwhile, I’m in the middle of the pack in just about every pitching category, but when you look at the names on my staff, I don’t see how I’m not at the top. I have Clayton Kershaw, Shelby Miller, Jeff Samardzija, Jon Lester, Derek Holland, Josh Johnson, and R.A. Dickey. Some of them are having rough years or have spent extensive time on the DL, but all I need is three to four of them a week to go out and pitch well. I’ve usually picked the wrong guys to go each week, but you can never have too much pitching.

This is week 10 of the season, and everything has flip-flopped. I’m playing my friend who’s been in the top three all season, and who has the best offense in our league. When I checked to see what his starting lineup was going to be for this week, every single on of his hitters was in the top 100 for the season. However, his pitchers were a patchwork of average draft picks and questionable pickups (personally, I’m not a Jeff Locke believer). We texted about how we expected a roughly even split because I was going to win all the pitching categories, and he was going to take all the hitting categories. As I sit and write this post, we are indeed tied at 7-7 for the week, but I’ve taken 6 of 7 hitting categories while he’s taken 6 of 7 pitching categories.

Lead by the immoral Yasiel Puig, my outfield has 63 total bases, 11 homers, and 25 RBI, more than my friend’s entire team by a long shot. But my pitching staff has been another story. My 5.20 ERA and 1.63 WHIP have ensured that I likely won’t take even one pitching category. Despite my best hitting week of the season, I think I’m going to lose 8-6. Even though I want to pull my eyelashes off from frustration, I’ve got to remember to stay patient. My hitting is finally coming around now that Edwin Encarnacion is third base eligible, and Yasiel Puig has tuned out to be greater than the mighty Achilles.*

The beautiful thing about head-to-head match-ups is that every week is a fresh, clean slate. It doesn’t matter that my pitching staff dramatically underperformed or that Yasiel Puig hit four home runs. What matters is the next seven days and how I think players will play over that stretch. Fantasy owners who panic and freak out lose. Always.** Take a deep breath, continue to improve your team, and get ready for next week because next week is the only way to improve.

* No, I don’t think he’s going to bat .435 for the rest of the season and hit four homers a week, but I stand by what I said last week – he’s way to dynamic of a player for the Dodgers to send him down. More than that, I can’t see how they can bench him and play Andre Either. The Dodgers will clearly be at their best with Crawford in right, Kemp is center, and Puig in right. The dude has a hose.

** I jumped the gun of the Biogenesis drug bust. While I think that some players, including Braun, will end up being suspended at some point in the future, I don’t see it happening this season. The legal ramifications of this scandal will be drawn out for quite a long time.

The Power of Prince Fielder

Prince Fielder isn’t getting as much love as he deserves. While many fantasy analysts continue to have him at the top of their first basemen rankings, it seems like all anyone wants to do is compare him to his teammate Miguel Cabrera. For example, Rotoworld’s advice after yesterday’s game was:

“Fielder had two singles to go along with his 12th homer, and even his one out was an RBI sacrifice fly. The first baseman is now hitting .283/.395/.519, and his 48 RBI would be more impressive if he wasn’t on the same team as Miguel Cabrera.”

It’s not Prince’s fault that he’s batting behind the best hitter in baseball because those stats speak for themselves. His 48 RBI are four behind the leader at first base, Chris Davis, who’s hotter than molten lava right now. Prince also had a rough May where he hit a couple homers and drew a ton of walks. He started blazing hot in April, cooled off in May, and now he’s back to being Prince Fielder in June. Some suggested Prince as a buy-low candidate, but only careless owners would sell Prince for anything other than full market value. The only interesting offer I got during May was Prince for Chris Davis which, in hindsight, would probably have been a pretty fair trade, but I’ll take Prince over Davis for the rest of the season. He’s one of the best hitters in the game, he’s put up huge numbers before, he plays in the best lineup in baseball, and he can eat his weight in cheeseburgers.

I think Prince’s value in baseball is even more substantial than his impact on fantasy teams which is saying something because he’s been a first-round-pick for several consecutive seasons. This is because he’s a virtual lock to bat .300 with an OPS of around .900 while hitting 30 homers and driving in 100 men. But Prince really earns his 20 million dollar paycheck because of how he boosts the production of his teammates, namely Miguel Cabrera. If you think it’s an accident that Cabrera won the Triple Crown in his first season with Prince batting behind him then you clearly aren’t paying attention. If you need further proof, Cabrera is putting up bigger numbers this year which ESPN’s Jayson Stark said is an absolutely unprecedented occurrence. No player in the history of baseball has ever topped their numbers after winning the Triple Crown. And yes, Prince is still batting behind him this season.

As counterintuitive as it sounds, Cabrera being so good has definitely hurt Prince’s production at the plate. Managers would rather pitch to Cabrera and let him do his thing rather than issue a walk and allow Prince to do twice the damage. This season, pitchers are pitching to Cabrera, rarely for better and almost always for worse, and then walking Prince to pitch to scuffling Victor Martinez. Going into tonight, Prince leads the American League in walks with 35. Prince is putting up solid, top-tier fantasy numbers, but the reason he’s not a top five or ten player is because Cabrera is taking some of his production due to the way pitchers are handing the three and four spots in the Tigers lineup. I would guess that some fantasy owners are getting Prince at about 85% while others are getting Cabrera at 115%. As a Prince Fielder owner, I’m totally fine to get him at 85% if that correlates to a .283/.395/.519 slash line while he leads the American League in walks and is in the top three in RBI.

Cabrera’s numbers are unsustainably high, and as the season progresses, owners are likely to see him come back to earth. I say come back to earth, but I still think he finishes the year as the best player in fantasy, wins the MVP, and makes a run at the Triple Crown once again again. I just don’t think he’s going to have over 50 homers and have almost 200 RBI. As Cabrera becomes slightly more human, Prince will begin to see more pitches he can drive, and his numbers, especially his power, will increase to his usual figures. If someone is trying to sell PF, get him while you still can. Getting Prince for even 95 cents on the dollar is a good deal for any fantasy owner. If you own the Hamburglar*, just stay patient and enjoy the production of a first-round player for the rest of the season.

*Prince may act like the Hamburglar, but he looks more like Grimace, the giant purple…ummmm…thing?