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The Proof Is In The Peripherals: June 20-26

Let's dive into this week's peripheral stats to spotlight a trio of underachievers...

* Monsterpiece Theatre.  Okay, so my preseason prediction that Justin Masterson would become a top-15 fantasy starter hasn't exactly come true yet.  But hey, it's only mid-June!  Once he rattles off four consecutive no-hitters (the rare Double Vander Meer), let's see who's laughing last!....uh, okay, hmm.  Well, what about...I said Masterson would be a top-15 starter but not necessarily THIS season.  Boom!  Lawyered!

...sigh.  Fine, okay, my prediction looks to be a little off-base.  Even after a terrific start against the Angels on Thursday, Masterson is still only sporting a 4.75 ERA this season.  It's been a tough go for Masterson since while he's for the most part done what I said he had to do in order to become a top ace, he's been hurt by a few self-inflicted flaws and one glaring flaw that isn't his fault.

That glaring flaw, of course, is the Indians' defense.  The Tribe were a pretty bad defensive club in 2013 (a -4.5 UZR/150 that ranked fifth-worst in baseball) but they've gotten even more terrible this season with a garish -13.5 UZR/150.  This obviously wreaks havoc on a pitcher like Masterson given that he generates so many ground balls; all the grounders in the world won't help if the fielders can't catch and/or throw the ball properly.  Cleveland's defensive issues are a big reason for Masterson's .318 BABIP and 65.7% strand rate, and why his xFIP is a more reasonable 3.95.

Still, a 3.95 xFIP isn't exactly ace material either.  While Masterson hasn't quite kept up his 9.09 K/9 from last season, he's still averaging 7.99 K/9, which is above his career norm.  The bigger issue is that his walks have also taken a jump to 4.65 BB/9, almost a full walk beyond his career average.  Masterson's fastball velocity is down from last season (89.1 mph from 91.6 mph) and while increased use of his slider was an important part of his 2013 success, he's only throwing the pitch 21.4% of the time this season, as opposed to 26.9% in 2013.

Easy as it is to point the finger at the Cleveland fool's gold gloves, Masterson hasn't totally helped his own cause this year.  If he's still in your fantasy rotation, he's gone from a stalwart to a pick-and-choose-the-starts kind of guy.  At this point I'd pitch him when he's at home (given his 6.20 road ERA) and that's about it until he shows more consistency.  As much as I was pumping Masterson's tires before the season started, he probably didn't go high enough in your draft that you're really wasting a pick by sidelining him or perhaps even releasing him outright given his performance thus far.  He *should* be doing better, though unless he gets a bit more zip on his fastball (possible) or the Tribe suddenly remembers how to field (doubtful), Masterson might not be more than a middling fifth starter option now.

* "Are You Now, Or Have You Ever Been, A Good Pitcher This Season?"  Brandon McCarthy is 1-9 with a 5.18 ERA this season, leading the league in losses, hits allowed and home run rate (22.7%).  Yet in many ways except the ways that count on the results page, the Diamondbacks righty is actually having one of his better seasons.  He's striking out more batters (7.6 K/9) and inducing more grounders (55.5% GBR) than ever before in his career, he has a sparkling 4.59 K/BB rate thanks to one of the lowest walk rates of any qualified starter.  At age 30, McCarthy has also actually added zip to his fastball with a heater that is averaging a career-best 92.9 mph.

So yeah, from a dramatic narrative standpoint, I probably shouldn't have stuck that monster homer rate so early in the first paragraph and instead introduced it here as the "so what's McCarthy's problem?" reveal.  Yet blargh, that homer rate is just so ugly that it can't help but be shouted from the rooftops.  The righty is using his fastball much more this season than in the previous three years (possibly due to that faster velocity) and he's also greatly increased the use of his curveball, throwing it almost a quarter of the time.  Given that McCarthy is also throwing his cutter only about a third as much (11.9%) as he did in his previous three seasons, it could be that he's simply being a bit too predictable with his fastball/curve-heavy pitch selection and batters have figured it out to the point that they're using McCarthy for batting practice.

Beyond the homers, McCarthy's 5.18 ERA is further inflated by his .331 BABIP and 65.5% strand rate, so when you look at his advanced metrics (2.92 xFIP and 3.04 SIERA), he almost looks like a staff ace.  Though McCarthy's home/road splits are very similar, it certainly wouldn't hurt him if he got away from Chase Field and into a more pitcher-friendly stadium.  The D'Backs are likely to be trade deadline sellers anyway and a canny contender in a big ballpark would be shrewd to pick McCarthy up in a buy-low move rather than splurge on a bigger-name starter with good numbers. 

As for your fantasy team?  Well, if he's still on your roster after all this time, then you are a truly loyal person.  By all rights McCarthy's luck is due to turn around and he's in for a string of excellent starts where the ball stays in the park, yet until this begins to happen (or if he's traded to a better situation), keep him firmly on your bench.

* Not A-OK.  I have two theories for why Nori Aoki has become a borderline unplayable fantasy outfielder this season.  Firstly, he lost the last half of his first name!  Like Samson, it was clearly the 'Chika' that was the source of Nori(chika) Aoki's abilities.  My other theory is that the Royals have only played the Indians six times this year so far, and Aoki missed one of them.  Once he gets the chance to knock a few more grounders at that brutal Cleveland defense, Aoki will boost that average up nicely.

In all seriousness, Aoki's first AL season hasn't gone well, as he's only hitting .264/.328/.326 as a Royal.  While Aoki has scored a respectable 36 runs, he has only 14 RBI  and he's still looking for his first American League home run.  With seven steals (in 11 attempts), he should finish the season giving you roughly 20 steals and a solid amount of runs, though basically nothing else, making him unworthy of a starting spot in your fantasy outfield.

To be fair, Aoki hit a solid but unspectacular .287/.355/.399 over his previous two seasons, so it's not like he's dropping from some huge standard of excellence.  If you're an outfielder with no power, you'd better deliver big numbers in at least two of the runs/AVG/SB categories, and Aoki didn't even really do that, scoring 161 runs and stealing 50 bags in 2012-13.  With his average down this season, that removes your last excuse for keeping him in the lineup.  He's hitting more grounders and fewer fly balls this year than in his previous two seasons in MLB, and given Aoki's .294 BABIP, it's not like he isn't getting a respectable number of those balls getting through for hits.

It's possible Aoki could still turn things around, as he has been hitting better lately during the Royals' recent hot streak, so the rising tide of the K.C. lineup could raise Aoki's ship (plus he could start scoring even more runs).  Still, I wouldn't take the risk unless Aoki really busts out over the next couple of weeks, so keep him on your bench unless he cuts loose.  Barring a late breakout, this is the most egregious case of a post-name shortening decline since Abe Ruth suddenly went from a .985 OPS in 1934 to a .789 OPS in 1935, all because he dropped the "B."  




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