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The Proof Is In The Peripherals: July 25-31

The original Abbott & Costello "Who's On First" routine is an absolute masterpiece of comic confusion and cannot possibly be duplicated.  That said, my recent attempt at explaining the WAR metric to my 66-year-old dad was at least in the ballpark.  While my dad didn't quite grasp the statistical process that goes into calculating WAR, he seemed pretty on board until I fired up the all-time fWAR leaderboard and revealed that Roberto Clemente, his favorite player ever, had "only" the 34th-best fWAR ever.  He could naturally handle Willie Mays or Henry Aaron being ranked ahead of Clemente....but Chipper Jones, Wade Boggs and A-Rod or basically anyone who played after 1980?  Nope, that soured him on the metric altogether. 

Let's delve into the advanced metrics to see which fantasy players are or aren't worth your time as some leagues approach their own trade deadlines...

* EdLose.  A pitcher with an 8.09 K/9 and a 3.94 ERA would fit pretty nicely into most fantasy rotations, and in a just world, Edwin Jackson would be owned in way more than only three percent of Yahoo leagues.  Unfortunately for Jackson, I'm starting to think he celebrated signing his big Cubs contract in the 2012-13 offseason by joining a local theatre production of The Scottish Tragedy and saying the lead character's name on an hourly basis.  (Note: I don't believe the Cubs' "billy goat curse" yet I totally believe the Scottish curse.  My English degree strikes again!)

For the second straight year, Jackson's peripherals are greatly outperforming his actual ERA.  The Chicago righty owns a 4.29 FIP and 3.94 xFIP following last night's outing against the Padres, yet he has a whopping 5.68 ERA to show for it on the ledger.  He's plagued by a .345 BABIP and a 64.6% strand rate, though some of Jackson's problems are also due to a 3.89 BB/9 and a ground ball rate that's down almost 10 percent from 2013.  Hitters are also scorching the ball against Jackson, as his 26.3% line drive rate is the highest of any qualified starter.

I'm guessing there isn't any rush to add Jackson in your league, yet just in case you noticed his ERA/xFIP discrepancy and thought he was just unlucky and due for a correction, don't outsmart yourself.  Jackson should be performing better than he is, yet he has enough red flags in his performance that even if his ERA and xFIP lined up, he'd still be someone I'd hesitate to use as anything more than a streaming starter.  This said, I'll change my tune if the Cubs employ a "two negatives make a positive" strategy and stage a production of Macbeth at Wrigley Field to shatter all the curses at once.

* The Rich Gets Richards.  Speaking of line drive rate, looking at the league-wide table reveals a correlation between high line drive rates and high BABIPs, which isn't a surprise.  There's a tendency to think of a high BABIP as meaning that a pitcher is just getting a lot of dribblers get through the infield, yet naturally a hard-hit ball is going to have a better chance of finding a gap in the defense than a weakly-hit ball.  The trick, naturally, is to somehow make those liners to be basically the only types of balls that are falling for hits against you, which Garrett Richards has done during his breakout season.

Richards' 21.8% line drive rate ranks him 24th among all qualified starters, yet thanks to a .263 BABIP, his tendency to allow hard-hit balls hasn't stopped him from posting a 2.62 ERA.  He can thank a good Angels defense and some plain ol' good luck for that, yet Richards has helped himself by drastically cutting down on his homers (4% homer rate in 2014, down from a 9.3% career average) and posting a 9.11 K/9 that dwarfs his previous career-best 6.27 K/9.

While the nice BABIP and the 76.3% strand rate both indicate some overachievment, Richards' advanced metrics (2.65 FIP, 3.21 xFIP) still reveal that he's having a heck of a season.  I think it's safe to say at this point that he's the real deal for fantasy purposes, and the only red flag I could see is if he starts to tire as he racks up the innings.  The Angels apparently aren't planning to rest him down the stretch, so if you're more worried than they are about Richards holding up through September, this might be a good time to sell high.

Fun fact: I had a seeming first base overload of Joey Votto, Mark Teixeira and Adam LaRoche a couple of months ago in one of my leagues, and I was shopping any of them for a quality starting pitcher.  Another manager offered me Richards straight up for LaRoche and I pooh-poohed the offer, figuring that Richards was something of a flash in the pan.  Instead I took a seemingly more stable pitcher and traded LaRoche for....Andrew Cashner.  Yikes.  Let this be a reminder to not take my fantasy advice as a rock-solid guarantee, folks.   Even Babe Ruth struck out once in a while.  Yes, that's right, I regard myself as the fantasy writer equivalent of Babe Ruth, though it's mostly based on hot dog consumption.

* BOOM!  Rios-ted!  I'll be the first to admit that there can sometimes be a disconnect between fantasy stats and real-life peripherals, simply because four of the basic 5x5 categories are pure counting stats.  Alex Rios' 2014 season is a nice example of this disconnect.  Rios is drastically short on power (four homers and 42 RBI) this year but otherwise, his 16 steals, 41 runs and .299 average over 397 PA makes for a pretty decent year, right?  He's even ranked as the 98th-best fantasy player in the game, according to Yahoo.

In actual fact, there are way more than only 97 guys more valuable than Alex Rios in 2014.  In Fangraphs' eyes, he's barely better than average with a 103 wRC+ and 0.8 fWAR, and while that fWAR score factors in a subpar defensive performance, keep in mind that Rios' offense has been boosted by a healthy .360 BABIP.  Were it not for this huge slice of batted-ball luck, Rios could be seen as a player on the decline in his age-33 season rather than a guy frequently mentioned as a midseason trade candidate.

Rios is no stranger to wild swings in performance, of course.  From 2007 to 2012, Rios posted these full-season fWAR totals: 5.0, 5.4, 0, 3.4, -1.1, 4.3.  If you had Rios in a keeper league throughout that stretch, he must've tested your last nerve.  Last season saw Rios earn 3.1 fWAR, though his wRC+ was only 104 as his value was boosted by a somewhat incredible 42 stolen bases; players usually don't post their best base-stealing numbers when they're 32.  Rios hasn't been as dangerous on the basepaths this year, however, as while he has 16 steals, he's also been thrown out nine times.

In short, it's a confusing time to be an Alex Rios owner.  Should you overlook the power outage and sell while the getting is good, or should you hang onto a player who (as noted) isn't really hurting you that badly from an overall fantasy perspective?  You obviously want more power from a starting outfielder yet Rios is still scoring some runs and he'll end up in the 25-steal range. 

My RA colleague Andrew Gephardt cited Rios as a strong sell-high candidate under the logic that his offensive numbers could really crater if the Rangers trade him to a team in a less hitter-friendly ballpark.  Given that Rios' home/road splits are pretty even, I'd argue that a real-life trade could actually be great for Rios' fantasy value --- a change of scenery to a contending team might heat up his bat, not to mention the fact that he'd be escaping the Murphy's Law fog that seems to have devoured the Rangers' season.  I'd hang onto Rios past the July 31st trade deadline but we get deeper into the August waiver period and no trade appears to be on the horizon, that's when I'd try to move him in a fantasy deal.  Hopefully that BABIP can stay sky-high for a few more weeks to keep him attractive to a fellow manager.




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