2013 Disappointments

RotoAuthority Unscripted: Who or What is Drew Pomeranz?

If you didn't know much about Drew Pomeranz before yesterday (or whenever), when the A's declared that he'd be slotting permanently into their rotation in place of Dan Straily, I'll forgive you. In fact, you don't have any of the Pomeranz-related baggage that some of us do. I'll save you some trouble and tell you he's totally worth a flyer. Or is it flier? He's worth a waiver claim, that's what he is. Worth a waiver claim.

Don't worry about the history if you don't have to.

But those of us old enough to remember when Ubaldo Jimenez rocked in Colorado and then got traded to Cleveland remember that Pomeranz was what the Rockies got back for their ace. I'm pretty sure both teams felt cheated, with results like that, because here's what Drew Pomeranz was in four years in Colorado: wild, but not effectively. Not to mention homer-prone.

They only gave him one extended shot in the Majors, 96.2 IP in 2012, in which he walked 4.3 batters per nine innings, striking out 7.73. He got some grounders (43.9 GB%), but allowed too many homers (1.3 HR/9), and put up a 7.93/4.81/4.49 ERA/FIP/xFIP. The Rockies somehow got 1.0 WAR out of that, but his fantasy owners were still expecting a good prospect and...well, we didn't hang onto him long enough to enjoy the fruits of that walk rate on our WHIP's.

His shorter stint in 2013 was even worse: his posted 7.89 K/9...and a K/BB in 21.2 IP. The prospecty nametag probably meant that he was on quite a few rosters for his first start or two last year, but I'm pretty sure he didn't last much longer than that.

Traded to the A's for the amazingly fragile Brett Anderson (Fangraphs called him a "lottery ticket"), it didn't appear that he would have much chance to contribute in the rotation. Maybe he would make the Majors and pitch out of the pen, we supposed. And that was the end of the story of Drew Pomeranz and his association with fantasy baseball.

And now there is (cue the Star Wars theme song) a new hope...

The Athletics are, perhaps, more clever than given credit for: they've not only saved money, but they've now inserted the much-maligned Pomeranz into their rotation after a modestly-impressive 18.2 innings to start the season. I say modestly-impressive because, while Pomeranz bears a shiny 1.45 ERA, he also carries a less lustrous 3.73 FIP and a 3.93 xFIP. It should thus be admitted that Pomeranz has not shown himself to be a True Ace hiding out in the Athletics' bullpen and revealing himself only to the unsuspecting Mariners' lineup once during a doubleheader. Or, in terms that actually make some sense: he's been good, but maybe not quite as good as it looks.

But let's not focus on the negative: this year's Pomeranz has looked pretty seriously good. His 7.71 K/9 isn't great (especially for a reliever), but his 2.89 BB/9 is a huge improvement from anything that he's given since 18.1 innings back in 2011. The 0.96 HR/9 is also a pleasant improvement on his work in Colorado, though that was certainly expected.

Digging into his game log, that start against Seattle really was excellent: five innings, five whiffs, no walks or runs, though, to be fair, it's not like the Mariners are hitting the ball against anyone (.293 wOBA--worst in the AL). He's allowed only three runs on the year, all on separate occasions, and hasn't walked two batters in an inning since his first appearance of the season.

I'm not a scout (obviously), but we can still look into his pitch mix and velocity to see if anything has changed since his Colorado ineffectiveness. His pitch mix doesn't really worry me. Though he's been, so far, a significantly different pitcher than he was in 2013, that's got to be a good thing, as he was pretty horrible then. It's probably good news that his pitch mix resembles his longer rotation stint in 2012, with the exception that he isn't throwing his changeup nearly so much. That's encouraging, not because his results were good that season, but because his success isn't necessarily due to the fact that he's been in the bullpen and can throw more fastballs. He will likely be forced to use his changeup more now that he's in the rotation, but it looks like those pitches will mostly be at the expense of curveballs. But I guess we'll have to see.

His fastball velocity is up by about a mile per hour, which isn't any shock at all since he's been pitching out of the pen. So, no news there.

Basically, looking under the hood doesn't yet tell us that Pomeranz is a different pitcher than he's previously been. But that isn't a disaster just because his previous results were. The simple environment change from Colorado to Oakland is enough to make someone fantasy relevant. Presumably, he was once a prospect for some reason. As we see more results come in, we ought to learn more about what has and hasn't changed about Pomeranz as a pitcher.

Unfortunately for our exuberance, much of the reason Pomeranz is in the rotation is because Dan Straily couldn't cut it: getting lit up for a 2.11 HR/9 and a 5.62 FIP won't keep you in many rotations, but it certainly won't keep you in the Oakland's second-only-to-the-Tigers-in-the-AL rotation. I mean, their rotation has a 0.85 HR/9 rate, including Straily's mark. So it's no wonder he's out. This despite the fact that I recently predicted (link not provided to save the author's shame) that Straily's strikeout and walk numbers suggested that he would get the chance to straighten things out, and actually do so.

So Oakland is too good for Straily, and too good for bad homer rates. This is (obviously) great news for Pomeranz, because it means he's going into the rotation. It is (somewhat less obviously, but perhaps not too much) also bad news for Pomeranz, because it means the bar for success is set extremely high, and the A's have shown that they aren't willing to put up with mediocre results, even from talented young pitchers. Like the man he's replacing, Pomeranz himself is replaceable.

Pomeranz is well worth a pickup. He should generate a few strikeouts and win some ballgames for the first-place A's, assuming he's good enough to stick in the rotation. The park ought to help keep his ERA and WHIP better than what his peripherals would suggest--and right now even the peripherals aren't bad. The upside here is pretty serious, because he'll have to be a useful pitcher just to keep starting every fifth day. Let's face it: the A's rotation is probably better than your fantasy rotation. It's sure better than mine are....

The downside is the possiblity that he'll be right back where he was a couple days ago: in the bullpen or the minors as the sixth or seventh best starter in a great rotation. If Straily is great in AAA, I wouldn't be shocked if he came back up. But hey, that's the downside that every waiver wire pitcher has. 

Out of Left Field: Thanks for Nothing, Yovani Gallardo, and Other Stories

As far as I know, this is the real last round of the Out of Left Field miniseries, and today we’ll take a look at some of last year’s most disappointing starting pitchers and ask ourselves what they might do this year.

Check out the surprisingly good pitchers, as well as the good and bad surprises at the plate. 

Mark Polishuk wrote up why CC Sabathia is a bounce-back candidate, but what about all these other disappointments? Who’s coming back and who’s toast? 

R.A. Dickey wasn’t easy to predict going into 2013, but he sure was tantalizing. To be fair, I’m pretty sure the Blue Jays were more disappointed than his fantasy owners, but it was close. His strikeout rate dropped, walk rate jumped up, homer rate really jumped, and LOB% fell. It was a bad combination.

It would be easy to say that’s the way the knuckleball bounces, and it’s probably true to an extent. Pitch to pitch, start to start, season to season, it’s tough to know what to expect out of a knuckleballer. The good news (or bad, for your ERA) was that Dickey was able to throw 224.2 IP. It might not be reasonable to take 2013 as Dickey’s floor, and 2012 as his ceiling, but if it was, those innings would tell you that all he has to do is improve a little and be very valuable. Personally, I like to take a chance on guys that show they can pitch a lot of innings because those are the guys who are reliable in real baseball and have the most chance to work out problems. 

Is Dickey a great bounce-back guy for next year? No. I mean, who knows what’s gonna happen with that knuckler? But he’s likely to come at a nice big discount and retain sky-high upside. He’s one to watch and make a cautious bid on.

Matt Cain joined Tim Lincecum in the Disappointment All-Stars of the Giants rotation. (Though we half expected this from Lincecum, hence his absence from this article. Starting now.) But what really happened with Cain? 

Basically, he had a bad April and a bout of wildness in July. Check out his splits. You can also see that a lot of what happened was correlated with the luck-dependent LOB%: he put up a 61% in March/April (terrible) and 53.3% in July (even worse). The rest of the year, he was in the 70-85% range, which is everywhere from normal to good and probably where he’ll be going forward.

But don’t take my word for it (cue the Reading Rainbow theme song), check out these two articles from RotoGraphs, from November and last week.

Yovani Gallardo spent 2009-2012 looking like he was this close to taking the next step into fantasy stardom. I drafted him often in hopes of this, knowing that the downside of stagnancy was a K/9 hovering at around 9.00. That’s a very useful floor.

Well, he did take the next step, right through those floorboards. Confusing analogy? Maybe. More simply: Gallardo lost almost two full strikeouts per nine innings and pretty much all of his fantasy value.

He isn’t old, so maybe this isn’t the beginning of the end…but that is a big, big drop. Unless I hear some good explanation for why Gallardo lost those whiffs last year and why he’s getting them backing 2014, I’m staying a long way away. There are too many good pitchers out there to waste your time on a strikeout pitcher who doesn't strike people out.

Josh Johnson, what happened to you? You used to be so black and white: awesome or on the DL. In some ways, that made you safe: the worst you could do to my teams was to wait quietly on the DL. Then came last year and a 6.20 ERA. 

Johnson obviously struggles with health, and last year he struggled with homers too (1.66 HR/9 in 2013, 0.67 HR/9 in his career). Another red flag is that his strikeout rate dropped for three years in a row from his 2010 peak and 2012. Why they returned in 2013, I have no idea. What I do know, though, is that Johnson gets to go to San Diego to get himself figured out. He’s got talent, a great pitching environment, and a team that won’t be under pressure to toss him out of the rotation if he struggles at first. He’s chancy, but this is a great situation to take a chance on. 

Ian Kennedy is surprisingly consistent. Check out his xFIP numbers from the last four years: 4.10, 3.50, 4.13, 4.19. Now his K/9 in that same time: 7.79, 8.03, 8.08, 8.09. This isn’t a guy who went from great to terrible—this is a guy who’s decent and subject to luck. In 2011 he had very good luck (and the only outlier xFIP). In 2013, he had bad luck—and increased walks.

If he were staying in Arizona, this would be enough reason for me to leave Kennedy alone. But he’s not—in case you missed it because you were ignoring him all year because you dropped him off your fantasy team in frustration—he’s a Padre now. If he outperforms that consistently mediocre xFIP it won’t just be good luck, it’ll be park factor. He’s a great buy low candidate, and you can enjoy his consistent strikeouts too.

Jon Niese gave us two straight years of K/BB’s over 3.00, which planted him firmly on my Safe to Draft list. Yeah…no. In 2013, he posted a 2.19 K/BB, not exactly good or safe. He was pretty awful in the first couple months of the season and spent some time on the DL. I cut bait. Niese turned it around, striking seven more batters out in 66 second-half innings than in 77 first-half frames and—most importantly—allowing less than half as many walks. I’d say Niese’s short-term struggles are behind him and he looks like a solid pitcher for your fantasy rotation next year. 

Edwin Jackson was, like Niese, a relatively safe seeming pitcher, albeit for the back of a fantasy rotation. He’d give you some strikeouts and not hurt you bad in ERA and WHIP when you need some extra innings. But in 2013, his K/9 dropped by a full point (7.97 to 6.93). I can excuse the very bad luck that saw his ERA balloon to 4.98 (with a 3.79 FIP and 3.86 xFIP that were totally in line with his last few seasons), but not those lost whiffs. Plus, the Cubbies aren’t exactly winning him a bunch of ballgames. Jackson is safely waiver bait next year. But, you know, keep an eye on him…. 

Ryan Dempster might be losing his rotation slot, so I’m not going to pretend you should think of him as a quality sleeper. Also, his 4.57 ERA was not out of line with his 4.68 FIP or his 4.21 xFIP, and I’m pretty sure the Red Sox know that too. And they probably know that his 4.15 BB/9 has something to do with it. Dempster still struck out a healthy 8.25 batters per nine innings, but when you walk people like Aroldis Chapman, you should strike them out like him too. At 37, it wouldn’t be a shock at all to see Dempster declining, so don’t get too excited about his very nice 2012 coming back, even if he’s traded or otherwise slotted into the rotation.

Brandon McCarthy gave us two useful enough, low-inning seasons in a row before disappointing in the desert. He’s got great control (1.40 BB/9) and keeps the ball in the park (0.87 HR/9)…so why did he put up a 4.53 ERA? My worry is that he’s too hittable (just 5.07 K/9) for his environment. Maybe put him in a friendly park with a great defense and things would be different, but I don’t see this year working out much better than last year. There isn't enough upside here to offset the downside.

Out of Left Field: Didn't See That Coming

Not long ago, we looked at some of the pleasant surprises from 2014’s hitters. Now we get to do the opposite. Sure, you know Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton and Starlin Castro ruined plenty of fantasy teams last year, but so does everybody else. You and I may not know what to do with them right now, but let’s face it, there’s gonna be a million article about those guys between now and draft day. So we’re checking out the guys you might not have noticed if it wasn’t your team they torpedoed.

We’ll continue to use the same methodology as before: I scientifically scan the wOBA list and look for surprises. The catch is…I did it backwards this time.

Alcides Escobar was supposed to make me look like a genius, since I boldly ranked him equal to Elvis Andrus. Instead, Escobar was pretty much the worst player in baseball. With a slash line of .234/.259/.300 and just 22 stolen bases he killed any team he was on. His .264 BABIP was a partial cause, but I can’t really chalk this one up to bad luck so much as credit his 2012 to good luck. There is one bright spot that his him on my radar (my bench radar) for next year: he wasn’t caught once in those 22 steal attempts. If he hits at all, he should be stealing plenty. 

J.P. Arencibia was supposed to be all power and no batting average. And he was. Just…a little too much emphasis on the no batting average, as a .231 BABIP led him to a value-sucking .194 average, not to mention his ticket out of Canada. I suspect Arencibia won’t turn out to be the sort of guy who posts .300 BABIPs, but he managed a .288 mark in 2012 and Texas could be a good place for him to get a little better luck. I’d imagine he’ll be nearly free next year and is probably a better option than most number two catchers, just for the power upside.

Josh Rutledge tore things up as a coffee cup rookie in 2012, and with 2B/SS eligibility in a lot of leagues, and Coors Field to call home, he was a hot sleeper pick last year. The results were underwhelming. It isn’t clear if Rutledge will get a shot to start next year, but he remains someone to watch, as his minor league numbers suggest a power/speed profile waiting for luck and opportunity.

Michael Morse gets a lot of bad press for his defense. And his horrible 2013. But you don’t care about defense, and his struggles last year appear to have been injury-related. Before last year, he’d been doing some serious slugging whenever he was on the field, and if he’s healthy, he ought to be able to continue that slugging, and probably for a very low price.

Paul Konerko is a guy I once gave up on. It was 2003 and a .226 BABIP made him look washed up at a young age. Wrong. So is bad luck all that happened this time? I hate to say it, but at 38, I doubt Konerko is bouncing back again. The White Sox do too, and his playing time is likely going to be reduced with Jose Abreu in the fold and Adam Dunn still accepting paychecks.

Will Middlebrooks was a huge disappointment, shuttling to and from the minors and basically not doing much good at all. He finished 2012 with promise and power and probably got drafted like a starter. Ouch. I suppose the promise and the power are still there, but if the Red Sox trusted him going forward, they wouldn’t be thinking about re-signing Stephen Drew. Never trust a fantasy player more than his own team does.

Rickie Weeks seemed like a good bounce-back candidate after a down-but-not-horrible 2012. At least, things couldn’t get worse, right? Obviously they did, as Weeks hit a putrid .209/.306/.357. His BABIP didn’t really crater so much as dip, going from .285 in 2012 to .268 in 2013, so it isn't easy to say this was just two bad-luck years in a row. The Brewers ran out of patience and Scooter Gennett is projected to be their starter at second base. It looks like Weeks’s days of fantasy relevance are behind him. 

Ike Davis can’t even get traded. He was a trendy pick going into last season, and fell somewhat below expectations. (Side note, be careful when searching for Davis’s stats…don’t get him confused with the Ike Davis who played shortstop from 1919-1925.) His overall season was terrible, but things got less bad when he returned from the minors: he put up a .286 average in July and August. Bid carefully, but he isn’t an ignore, which gives him some of the best prospects of anyone featured here today.

Josh Reddick smacked 32 longballs in 2012…and he did it with just a .305 OBP, so the red flag was there, in retrospect. He was a waste of roster space in 2013, losing ground in his flyball rate, and seeing his HR/FB rate crater from 14% to 8.9%. I don’t know if it will go back up, because I have no idea why it got that high in the first place. Reddick seems like someone to watch but not draft. Plus, he had wrist surgery in October, so that isn’t good. 

Brett Lawrie underwhelmed in his first full season…two years ago. Then he did pretty much the same thing last year, but in 25 fewer games. He’s still the guy with a killer cup of coffee from 2011, and the excellent prospect pedigree…but sometimes it just doesn’t work out. I’d draft him as a backup, but chances are someone will want to take the risk on him more than I do. Don’t let it be you.

Josh Willingham has long been one of my favorite guys for when-he’s-on-the-field power.  So he was on plenty of my teams for the train wreck that was 2013. It looks like either injury or skill decline was the culprit for his struggles, as his .269 BABIP was bad but hardly the sort of thing that makes you hit .208. Whatever the underlying problem was, it showed up in his strikeout percentage too; it spiked to over 27%. He’s 35, so I wouldn’t be shocked if age-related skill decline were responsible for his lousy season, but I’d take a late-round risk that it was his injury. The reward is still a lot of power.

Just like with the surprisingly good players, the bad surprises are still people to watch leading up to draft day. New information could come out about their health status, or their playing time—or they could be killing the ball in Spring Training. Use these recommendations as a starting point as you scout these guys for potential value next year.

Go Bold Or Go Home: CC Sabathia Will Regain His Form

Players with so-called "bad bodies" are easy targets for criticism, seemingly no matter how they perform on the field.  Every offseason brings with it a new round of speculation that THIS will be the season that CC Sabathia finally breaks down, since obviously a pitcher who has flirted with the 300-pound threshold for much of his career can't POSSIBLY keep being effective at that weight. 

And, of course, when Sabathia did struggle in 2013, the critics had a field day...ignoring the fact that it was Sabathia's 13th season and he turned 33 in July, so he's around the age when a lot of pitchers start to decline anyways.  If you're wrong about something for 12 years, you can't suddenly blame victory on the 13th try.  Ironically, there's a school of thought that suggests Sabathia struggled because he weighed less, having dropping roughly 20 pounds over each of the previous two offseasons.  Between that and a minor elbow surgery in October 2012 that essentially curtailed his offseason throwing program, Sabathia was entering the 2013 season on a totally different level of preparedness.

It's for that reason I believe that Sabathia is due for a rebound this season.  Sure, it's his age-33 season and he's put a lot of miles on that left arm, but it seems like a lot of factors conspired against Sabathia last winter and it all snowballed into arguably his worst professional season.

Now, "worst."  Sabathia posted a 4.78 ERA, 7.5 K/9 and 2.69 K/BB rate over 211 innings.  His 13% home run rate was the highest of his career, and his 44.7% ground ball rate was his second-lowest of his past eight seasons.  The southpaw's advanced metrics?  A pretty respectable 4.10 FIP, 3.76 xFIP and 3.95 SIERA, and the discrepancy in ERA could be explained by his slightly-inflated .308 BABIP and a slightly-below average walk rate (67.4%).  Batters were making good contact against Sabathia (his 22.3% line drive rate was the third-highest of his career) but his grounder/fly ball ratio was just about at his career average, so I feel safe in saying that the inflated home run rate might've been somewhat of a fluke, though it also had a big spike in 2012.

Sabathia only averaged 91.1 mph on his fastball last year, losing more speed after averaging 93.8 mph in 2011 and 92.3 mph in 2012.  The loss of velocity isn't a good sign, yet Sabathia has been trending away from the use of his fastball anyway over the last three years.  2013 saw him put a renewed emphasis on his changeup, throwing the pitch 15.3% of the time, his highest usage in three years.

It's a testament to Sabathia's quality over the last decade that 2013 was seen as such a major dropoff for him, since as noted, his numbers last season weren't really all that bad if you factor in the peripheral stats.  Of course, fantasy owners expected much more than "not all that bad" and the Yankees sure needed more than that from the guy they still owe $76MM to over the next three seasons.

Let's presume, however, that 2013 is Sabathia's new standard.  If that's rock bottom for him and his ERA evens out to his xFIP or SIERA, I think most fantasy owners would be pretty satisfied with that at the back of their rotation.  So Sabathia at his worst is still a good rotation option; an improved Sabathia (with a proper offseason throwing regimen and more time to get used to his slightly-lighter frame) provides that much more value, with even a chance that he'll come all the way back and be able to headline a rotation.

If you're drafting Sabathia this spring, don't trust him to actually be the ace of your staff.  Instead, pounce on him as a third or fourth starter, and you'll probably have relatively free reign to do so given how many people have been scared off by his most recent season.  There's a lot of room for upside with Sabathia and I feel he'll perform much closer to his usual standards than his 2013 numbers.  Unless, y'know, this is the year he breaks down since you just can't trust those overweight players!*

* = editor's note: Mark is literally eating a hamburger and french fries as he's writing this

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