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The Proof Is In The Peripherals: May 23-29

This week we're taking a slight break from the usual format here at TPIITP.  We're foregoing both the usual ramblings about obscure ex-Marlins pitchers and the usual highlighting of guys who are over- or under-performing according to their advanced statistics.  Instead, this time we're going to highlight some players who are on the wrong side of some key metrics and, rather than staying away from said players, I'm actually recommending you pick them up since these red flags aren't too dire in these specific cases.  So, I guess that makes them orange flags?  Who knows.

* No K's Is Okay.  Few things catch a fantasy manager's eye like strikeouts.  Managers will drop a good starter who doesn't record many K's yet hold onto a mediocre starter who does miss a lot of bats in the vain hope that said starter will eventually have the lightbulb click.  In fairness, this isn't a bad strategy -- most pitchers with low K-rates tend to fare poorly over the long run.  There are a lot of guys having outright bad seasons on the list of the 30 qualified starters with the lowest K/9 totals in baseball, and most of the low-strikeout guys having good seasons are being helped by great BABIP luck (hi Tim Hudson), a huge strand rate (I see you, Mark Buehrle) or both (hello, Alfredo Simon, Tom Koehler and Dillon Gee). 

I'd like to focus on one pitcher, however, who's having a very under-the-radar solid season despite not missing many bats.  That man is Pirates groundball specialist Charlie Morton, who carries a 3.45 ERA, 3.87 FIP, 4.10 xFIP and 4.03 SIERA into his start tonight against Washington.  Those numbers, combined with Morton's measly 5.81 K/.9, aren't much to write home about....yet surely Morton deserves to be owned in more than six percent of Yahoo fantasy leagues.

Without strikeouts, Morton gets by on a staggering amount of grounders.  The righty has a 60.2% grounder rate over the last two seasons, the highest of any pitcher in baseball with at least 100 innings pitched in that span.  Combine that with a modest 7.5% home run rate this season, very few walks and some decent batted-ball luck (.281 BABIP, though on the flip side, Morton only has a 64.6% strand rate), and you just might have a Buehrle or Hudson for this generation. 

The other stat that stands out for fantasy purposes is Morton's 0-6 record, which you can attribute to a) pitcher wins being meaningless and b) the Pirates only giving Morton 3.11 runs per game of support, lower than all but 17 other starters in the big leagues.  The question in having Morton on your fantasy team is this: are you willing to trade off strikeouts and possibly wins in order to help your ERA and WHIP?  If you're looking for a dirt-cheap option who is almost surely still available in your league, Morton is your guy, and he could be a valuable arm to hold onto if you're in a long-term keeper or legacy league.

* No-Home Homers.  It's tougher to put a good spin on a guy with an inflated home run rate, as by the stat's very nature, a pitcher is allowing more runs than expected.  In this column alone this season, I've written about how Homer Bailey and Tim Lincecum are having better seasons than their ERAs would suggest, except they've been harmed by too many long balls. 

One pitcher who's succeeding both in real-world ERA (2.64) and in peripherals (3.64 FIP/3.24 xFIP/3.37 SIERA) despite getting dinged for a lot of dingers is Tyson Ross.  The Padres right-hander is another grounder specialist (60.8% GBR) yet also has an 8.49 K/9 and is getting only modest help on the BABIP (.277) and strand rate (74.4%) fronts.  Ross has also been on a deja vu sort of hot streak, as he's posted a line of seven innings/one ER in each of his last four starts.  The only real blip on Ross' radar is that 15% homer rate. 

Now, at this point you might be wondering how a pitcher who spends half his time at the home run-swallowing chasm known as Petco Park could have the 13th-highest HR/FB rate in the majors.  If you guessed that Ross is a big-time beneficiary of the Petco Effect, congratulations, you win a signed photo of David Schwimmer!  In six home starts this year, Ross has a 1.54 ERA and batters have a measly .526 OPS against him; in four road starts, Ross has a 4.56 ERA and opponents are cranking him to the tune of an .858 OPS.

For fantasy purposes, however, this makes Ross a predictable asset.  If you have him in your rotation, simply always start him in San Diego and then keep him benched when he's on the road.  This tactic should work well in a normal rotisserie league, though in a head-to-head format, it's more problematic -- Ross essentially becomes useless to your weekly matchup whenever the Padres are on road trips.  And, while Ross' 2013 home/road splits were also pretty stark, I should note that his poor road numbers this year were inflated by two rough starts against Milwaukee and San Francisco, two of this season's biggest-hitting teams.  It's possible Ross has turned the corner altogether this season to become a reliable fantasy rotation stalwart, though for now, you should only require his services when he's in his own ballpark.

* No Power?  No Problem.  Twenty-eight teams have more home runs this season than the Cardinals (25 HR) and Royals (20 homers), so maybe there's just something wacky going on in Missouri.  "SHOW ME some power, Cards and Royals!" said Mark, submitting his bid for the Most Obvious Joke Of 2014.  Power obviously isn't a prerequisite to to be a very valuable fantasy player, yet when one of the game's most consistent producers over the last decade suddenly has his home run totals dry up, it's suddenly a concerning time to be a Matt Holliday fantasy owner.

The usually-reliable Holliday has dipped to a .267/.366/.369 slash line with 25 RBI, 24 runs and only two home runs this season.  The RBI and run totals are okay, the OBP is good and that average could be higher, but the real issue is the lack of pop off Holliday's bat.  This is a guy who has averaged a .531 SLG and 25 homers per year during his previous 10 seasons, yet now he's barely averaging one homer a month?  This is Holliday's age-34 season, so it wouldn't be the biggest shock in the world if 2014 marked the start of his decline phase.  He's on pace for a career-high 51% ground ball rate and on pace to tie his career-low 31.7% fly ball rate. 

Power shortage aside, however, this looks like a pretty normal Matt Holliday season in terms of contact, walk and strikeout rates.  Two weeks ago, Fangraphs' Mike Podhorzer cited Holliday as a candidate for a homer surge due to an unusual discrepency between Holliday's average batted ball distance and his HR/FB rate, so nobody should be surprised if Holliday suddenly racks up four homers in a week and gets his thunder numbers back to his usual standards.  (I really want to get 'thunder numbers' into the lexicon as an alternative to 'power numbers,' but I doubt it'll happen.)

If you're a nervous Holliday owner thinking about moving your man, I'm not sure I'd advise such a trade.  If you can find a trade partner who's going to give you something tremendous, go for it, but otherwise, it's likely your opposing managers will look at Holliday's two homers and try to lowball you.  Holliday's track record has earned him at least another month before we can really start to worry, so talk to me in July.  Personally, I just hope he inexplicably develops a ton of outfield range so I can start referring to him as "Roamin' Holliday."



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