Proof Is In The Peripherals


The Proof Is In The Peripherals: June 13-19

Folks, it's time for some naval-gazing.  I'm currently sitting 10th of 12 teams in my most cherished fantasy league, the one run in one form or another since 1999 with all of my old hometown buddies.  Since a poor finish here will doom me to months of taunting, it's high time to figure out what's going wrong.  Well, besides injuries, but 'complaining about injuries to your fantasy team' ranks somewhere between complaining about a bad beat in poker or whining about your great putt lipping out of the cup.

I've covered a few of my players in this space already, namely guys who are underachieving in one particular category (like Matt Holliday's lack of homers) or guys who essentially just had one bad month and one good month (like Homer Bailey or Jed Lowrie) but really, the root of the problem stems from a few guys at key positions who simply aren't carrying their weight.  Let's look into these players to see if you or I should keep hoping for a turnaround or if enough is enough...

* Where's The Power, Mauer?  I think we can all agree that Joe Mauer's 28-homer season in 2009 was a total anomaly, given that the Twins catcher first baseman has only 79 homers in the other 4717 plate appearances of his Major League career.  The days of expecting Mauer to provide a huge homer boost from your lineup's C spot are over, yet his high average, RBI totals and runs scored provide more than enough incentive to make him one of the very first catchers taken in any fantasy draft.

Now, however, not only has the power cratered, but the rest of Mauer's hitting ability is seemingly going down the tubes as well.  Mauer took a .263/.342/.336 slash line into Friday's play, all of which project as career lows over a full season, and Mauer has produced only two homers and 15 RBI over 263.  Ironically, just as the Twins made Mauer a full-time first baseman in order to keep him healthy enough to stay in the lineup, Mauer's bat has gone as cold as....well, Minnesota.

Before looking at the metrics, I wondered if Mauer was simply trying to do too much now that he was playing first, and his problems stemmed from trying too hard for homers in order to fill the stereotypical 1B power role.  This doesn't appear to the the case, however, as Mauer is actually getting the ball in the air less than he ever has; his 19.1% fly ball rate would also be a new career low while his 54.6% ground ball rate would be his highest (over a full season).  Mauer also has a .324 BABIP, so it's not a question of him being particularly unlucky with those extra grounders.

There are lots of catchers who put up middling offensive numbers but "they're good for a catcher" and thus you put up with having such a third-tier guy in your fantasy lineup.  But for Joe Mauer to sink to such levels?  And frankly, he isn't even putting up good numbers "for a catcher" given that his 89 wRC+ is topped by a whopping 18 other catchers with at least 130 PA.  If you're in a league that doesn't count last year's positions and had Mauer listed as a first baseman from day one, he has below replacement-level and not been worth having on your fantasy roster.

Unfortunately for me, I was forced into actually using Mauer at first for much of this season due to injuries to Joey Votto and Mark Teixeira.  On draft day I took Mauer, Carlos Santana and Jonathan Lucroy with the logic that I could either trade from depth later or simply rotate them all between my C/1B/Utility slots, yet while Lucroy has been terrific, the other two have been duds.

For my specific situation, I can afford to drop Mauer since ultimately right now I'm just using him as a glorified backup catcher.  That said....how can you just outright release Joe Mauer??  Heck, even my mother still busts out "well played, Mauer" as a wisecrack every once in a while, that's how much of a cornerstone star this guy has been for the last several years. 

Is he really finished at age 31?  He wouldn't be the first longtime catcher to drop off a cliff after he hit his thirties, but still, Mauer's contact rates are still relatively normal and that average could shoot up 30 or 40 points and suddenly things wouldn't look so bad.  Mauer does have a .771 OPS against righties, but his .501 OPS against southpaws is killing his overall performance.  Absolutely bench Mauer against left-handed starters for the time being and hopefully your backup (while probably not a Lucroy) can help carry the load until Mauer gets back on track.  Catcher is such a thin spot that dropping Mauer isn't an option at this point.

* Hill Of Beans.  This has been a pretty rough season in Arizona, needless to say, and Aaron Hill's performance is one of the many reasons why the Diamondbacks are struggling.  Both Baseball Reference and Fangraphs rate Hill as a below replacement-level this season, as the second baseman has only a .246/.292/.393 slash line to go with six homers, 31 RBI and 20 runs scored.

If you're a Blue Jays fan, you've seen this movie before.  Hill was one of the worst everyday players in the majors from Opening Day 2010 to virtually until the day he was traded (August 23, 2011) from Toronto to Arizona, bottoming out with just a 56 wRC+ over his last 429 PA as a Blue Jay.  Fortunately for Hill, he turned things around in the desert and posted an .878 OPS in his first 33 games as a Snake, followed by a .298/.359/.501 performance in 2012-13.  Hill wasn't just back in form, he was arguably the second-best second baseman in the game.

So what changed?  Hill is both swinging at more strikes and swinging more in general this season than in the previous two years, plus swinging more often at pitches outside the zone (32.6%, up from 29.3% in 2013) and swinging less at strikes inside the zone (59.5%, down from 61.9% in 2013).  This extra aggression in swinging at balls is hurting his patience at the plate, as the gap between his walk rate (5.3%) and his strikeout rate (17.3%) has never been wider in his entire career, even during his rough period with the Jays.

Hopefully it won't take another trade to shake Hill out of his slump, as even though Tony La Russa won't be afraid to shake up the D'Backs roster, moving Hill at this point doesn't seem too likely for a team that still has eyes towards contending in 2015 (not to mention the fact that the D'Backs would be selling very low on a valuable asset).  Should you or I trade him off our fantasy rosters?   

I was as optimistic as anyone about Hill when the season began but now I can't shake the hunch that 2014 will just end up being a lost year for him.  Nagging shoulder and ankle injuries haven't helped Hill's cause and while these knocks could be a partial reason for his struggles, he was already hitting poorly when these injuries surfaced in mid-May.  If you have a second base backup in place (or someone like Tommy La Stella is still available on your waiver wire), I'd bite the bullet and try to move Hill elsewhere.  You won't be getting his full value back, obviously, yet try trading Hill for another under-performing player like...

* Put Your Lights On.  Carlos Santana has the second-lowest (.197) BABIP of any qualified hitter in baseball, so when an accomplished batter like Santana is getting so little batted-ball luck, that itself is almost reason enough to predict a turnaround.  Combine that with the fact that Santana's contact rates are close to career norms and he's walking almost as much as he's striking out, and BOOM...where do you sign up?

Of course, it may not be that simple.  Santana's miserable .175/.337/.315 line can't be totally attributed to BABIP when you consider that he's hitting the ball with less authority than ever before.  The Indians catcher/first baseman third baseman has only a 12.4% line drive rate this season, the third-lowest of any qualified hitter in baseball.  With a 49.7% ground ball rate that is well above his 43.3% career average and that aforementioned buzzard's luck with BABIP, it's essentially been a year full of routine groundouts for Santana.  (Oh, if only he could hit against his own team's terrible infield defense.)

The huge drop in line drive rate is troubling yet just because doesn't not hitting line drives doesn't mean that you're not hitting the ball well.  Several players in the bottom 16 of line drive rate are enjoying tremendous seasons (Yasiel Puig, Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, Adam Jones, Alex Gordon, etc.) so it's not the be-all and end-all of quality batting.  Santana does have seven homers, 22 RBI and 25 runs, so he's roughly on pace to post his usual counting stats.  With a boost of even 40 or 50 BABIP points, Santana could suddenly be having a pretty normal campaign.

Like Mauer, Santana switched positions this season but the Tribe ex-catcher had an even bigger transition to make in moving to third base for the first time since he was a Dodgers farmhand in 2008.  Let's just say that Santana is still getting used to the move --- he has a -43.8 UZR/150 at the hot corner this year.  By comparison, Miguel Cabrera had "only" a -19.9 UZR/150 at third last season, so as bad as Miggy was, he was basically Brooks Robinson compared to Santana.  In any case, the Santana third base experiment might be coming to an end, as Santana has only played 3B once in his last 13 games.  The red-hot Lonnie Chisenhall suddenly looks like a viable everyday option for the Tribe at third, so Santana is likely to find himself in more familiar terrain at either 1B or DH, with the odd start at catcher in a pinch.

I'll predict that with the stress of playing third removed, Santana gets back to his old self over the last few months of the season.  If and when he gets going, I'll feel more comfortable in selling low on Mauer if need be, and getting Santana regular utility at-bats (Votto is my starting 1B and Encarnacion is my starting 3B).  With everyone healthy and with me making some canny managerial lineup maneuvers, I just might be able to save my fantasy season yet!  And by save, I mean finish in, like, seventh.



The Proof Is In The Peripherals: June 6-12

I'm often asked how I started working at Roto Authority, and it all started when they took me in the ninth round of the 2011 Baseball Writer Draft.  Frankly, I was pretty ticked about falling all the way to the ninth round, though it was due to signability issues --- I took some bad advice from my agen...uh, um, er, ah, advisor and asked for a $1.5MM signing bonus.  This was obviously way above the slot price, as even second-round fantasy baseball writers aren't offered more of a bonus than two boxes of Raisin Bran and a Jeremy Sowers rookie card.  Still, our two sides were able to find middle ground and here I am, enjoying my time in the fantasy website big leagues.

Here's the latest trio of players whose metrics aren't reflecting their actual performance....

* Adams (c)An't.  Usually when I note that a player is being buoyed by his peripherals, that's a hint that you should move quickly to sell high before said player comes back to earth.  In this case, however, it'll be a bit tricky for you to trade Matt Adams since that the Cardinals first baseman is currently on the 15-day DL with a tight calf.  This is one of those injuries that could see Adams come back as soon as he's eligible in mid-June, or it could nag for long after his 15 days are up, so for starters, downplay the injury as much as possible to fellow owners.  "He's fine!  Calf injuries are a breeze!  I tore both of my calves yesterday and still completed that marathon!"

If you approach your fellow manager hat in hand and humbly pretend that you "know you're selling low on Adams," you can still pick up a decent bench piece or maybe a third outfielder or fifth starter in exchange.  Your rival might think he's gotten a steal, while you've emerged with something in return for a player who seems primed for some big regression in the second half.

"Regressing from what?" you might ask, and you have a point.  Adams has three homers, 17 RBI and 16 runs over 202 PA, not exactly big power numbers for a fantasy first baseman.  He's slashing an impressive .325/.337/.474 yet there are a few issues with that slash line.  For instance, that SLG isn't translating into homers.  That OBP is almost entirely built on the batting average, given Adams' 2.5% walk rate.  And as for the batting average, Adams is being heavily carried by a .390 BABIP, the second-highest of any qualified hitter in baseball.  Unless he keeps up that absurdly high BABIP for the entire season, Adams isn't bringing much to the fantasy table.

Come on, you've always secretly considered yourself to be the fantasy equivalent of Pat Gillick when it comes to swinging trades anyway.  Challenge yourself by shopping Adams around to anyone in your league with a lack of first base depth and seeing if, despite Adams' injury, someone will bite.

* Jed ZeppelinJed Lowrie just endured a pretty lousy month of May, and in one of my leagues, a manager responded to this slump by releasing Lowrie outright.  Not a benching, not a sell-low trade, but an outright dropping.  Needless to say, this caused something of a frenzy on the waiver wire as an informal poll of league managers (as indicated in a message board post titled "WHAT WERE YOU THINKING??!!") suggested that eight of the other 13 of us all put in bids for Lowrie's services before he was snapped up by the dude with the highest waiver priority.

Basically this item is just for the sake of more public shaming of my league rival, as most managers wouldn't dream of releasing a player with eligibility at both shortstop and second, usually bats second in a powerful Oakland lineup, walks more often than he strikes out and carries a .245/347/.380 line with four homers, 24 RBI and 32 runs scored.  Those aren't the best stats in the world, but consider that Lowrie's production was dimmed by a .200 BABIP.  His red-hot start to the season was generated by only a .313 BABIP in April, so it's not like he was getting overly lucky when he was hitting well, either.

Lowrie's contact rates are all up from last season and he still only has a .263 overall BABIP, so there's plenty of evidence to suggest that his batting average is due to rise again.  Don't be like that one guy in my league, since there's no reason Lowrie should be availa...wait, he's only owned in 65% of Yahoo leagues?!  What the what, people?!  Pick him up for, at the very least, your bench right this minute!

* Young And Restless.  Poor Chris Young has had so much bad injury luck over the last several seasons that frankly, I have to just tip my cap to all of the good fortune that's come his way in 2014.  The veteran righty signed a minor league deal with the Mariners just before the season started and has thus far enjoyed a successful comeback year, posting a 3.27 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and a Major League-low 6.5 hits/9 over his 63 1/3 innings.  Heck, he's even regained the title of Most Prominent Player Named Chris Young from a certain Mets outfielder

Okay, now sit back, Young's good numbers come with a zillion caveats.  Young is benefiting from Safeco Field in a major way, as he has a 1.89 ERA (and a .142 opponents' batting average!) in five home starts as opposed to a 4.80 ERA in six road appearances, five of them starts.  Young has the second-lowest BABIP (.188) and eighth-highest strand rate (82.8%) amongst all qualified starters.  He is generating only a 25% ground ball rate, yet is also only striking out 4.26 batters every nine innings.  That nice 3.27 ERA is instantly belied by a 5.40 FIP, 5.74 xFIP and 5.90 SIERA.  According to Fangraphs, Young isn't even performing at the level of a replacement player given his -0.1 fWAR (Baseball Reference is more generous, giving Young 1.2 rWAR).

Whew!  It's like the baseball gods took all of Young's luck from his last six injury-riddled years and filtered it all into his 2014 campaign.  While I wish the guy nothing but the best in his career revival, I also have to warn fantasy owners to stay away.  His peripherals are all so absurdly out of whack that I can't even recommend him as a "start only at Safeco" type of streaming pitcher since once the regression happens, it could get ugly.  Definitely keep Young on your bench for his start in Tampa Bay tonight and hope the Rays don't hit him hard enough to inflate his numbers and hurt your chances to sell high on him.  Then again, wait, am I counting on the 2014 Rays to actually play well?  That's asking a lot.



The Proof Is In The Peripherals: May 30-June 5

In many ways, this column mirrors Homer Simpson's questions to the president of Kwik-E-Mart.  "Is this guy REALLY a good player?...Really?....Him?"  While the Kwik-E-Mart president specialized in wisdom and convenience store management, advanced metrics are my area of expertise, and I have all the answers* to your fantasy needs.

* = editor's note: for legal reasons, we should point out that Mark doesn't actually have all the answers.  He's just full of himself.

* GyuckyJedd Gyorko was the rarest of specimens: a legitimate Padres hitting prospect.  He tore up the minors and then had a strong rookie season in 2013, posting a .745 OPS and hitting 23 home runs while gaining fantasy eligibility at both second and third base.  Naturally, Gyorko was a highly-sought after player in many a fantasy draft last spring, which makes his brutal start to the year all the more disappointing.

Through 206 PA, Gyorko has posted sub-replacement level offensive numbers, slashing .173/.218/.288 with five homers, 24 RBI, two steals and 13 runs scored.  He's striking out (25.7% K-rate) almost five times as much as he's walking (5.3% BB-rate) and you can't blame Petco Park -- Gyorko has a hideous .410 OPS in away games.

It's possible Gyorko could be feeling some of the pressure that comes with signing a big contract extension, or it could be that we may have jumped in the gun in anointing Gyorko as a top young second baseman.  His strikeout-to-walk rate was similarly skewed in 2013, and his power potential may have been overrated by a weird power surge that came in August and September of last season.  Gyorko hit 15 of his 23 homers in those two months, though his overall slash line (.245/.297/.510 in 219 PA) over that period is hardly that of a well-rounded hitter.

Gyorko is only 25 years old and only a season removed from being considered one of baseball's top 100 prospects, so if you have him in a long-term keeper league, don't start freaking out quite yet.  In a regular league, however?  Dump him.  It's a tough call to offload a mid-round draft pick type of player after just two months, especially at a thin middle infield spot, yet Gyorko has been so terrible that you're only hurting your team by continuing to give him starts.  He should've been riding the bench for the last three weeks, and by this point he may not even be worth the roster spot going forward.

* Klu Season.  An abnormally high BABIP is usually a scarlet letter that signifies a pitcher having a tough season, yet as of Thursday evening, the five highest BABIPs belonged to a veritable dream rotation.  Jordan Zimmermann (.369) is not quite at his usual form and Stephen Strasburg (.357) is probably drawing grumbles from a few owners with unrealistic expectations since he *only* has a 3.42 ERA (and a 10.67 K/9, and is generally awesome.)  The Braves' Alex Wood is next with his .353 BABIP, though that misfortune is somewhat balanced out by his 81.1% strand rate. 

The next two on the list are Corey Kluber (.350) and Madison Bumgarner (.346), and obviously you don't need me to tell you that Bumgarner is a top-tier fantasy ace.  What may surprise you through two months of 2014, however, is that Kluber has been even more of a plum than Bumgarner --- in fact, he's been better than almost everyone in terms of fWAR, as Kluber's 2.6 fWAR is topped only by Felix Hernandez's 2.8 fWAR amongst qualified starters.

The Indians righty seems to be having the breakout campaign that some pundits expected of him going into this year, and fantasy owners who spent a late-round draft pick on Kluber are proud as peacocks.  Heck, maybe you didn't even have to draft Kluber at all, given that Mock Draft Central's average draft position report doesn't even list Kluber within the top 76 (!) pitchers taken.  Kluber's modest bandwagon probably thinned out even more after his first start (five runs over 3 1/3 IP against Oakland) but since then, Kluber has been white-hot.

That high BABIP is the only thing that isn't cutting the mustard for Kluber, as with a bit more batted-ball luck, his 3.10 ERA would be even lower, as indicated by his 2.22 FIP, 2.70 xFIP and 2.78 SIERA.  A 45.8% grounder rate?  Six percent home run rate?  74.4% strand rate?  10.28 K/9 against only a 2.11 walk rate?  These kinds of statistics make almost any pitcher green with envy.

You can probably expect a wee bit of regression as the season goes on but Kluber put up good peripherals in 2012-13 as well, so this Cy Young-candidate year isn't totally out of nowhere.  If Kluber is in your rotation now, hang onto him.  If he isn't, see if you can convince your rival owner that Kluber is an overachiever and will come back to earth.  Your fellow manager might not believe this argument, but hey, someboddy is bound to be victimized by your logic.

* Elias KotEHHas.  As in, "ehh, this guy is nothing special."  (This is in no way a reference to Mr. Koteas' acting abilty, as he's a fine Canadian actor!)  On a whim, I decided to look for the "most average" starter in the majors according to the BABIP and strand rate metrics.  With .300 being the average BABIP and the average strand rate clocking at roughly 70%, the two pitchers who come closest to this theoretical sweet spot of neutral luck at the Padres' Tyson Ross and the Mariners' Roenis Elias.  We already covered Ross last week, and I'll bet you already guessed from this section's goofy title that we're focusing on the rookie Seattle southpaw.

While Ross has value in starts at his home ballpark, Elias has actually pitched worse at the hitting graveyard that is Safeco Field than he has on the road, posting a 3.58 ERA in six away starts and a 4.61 ERA in five home starts.  He therefore doesn't even have value as a two-start streamer, and judging by the rest of his good-but-not-great numbers, it's possible Elias might be the most average pitcher in the league.  The lefty has a 4.02 ERA, 7.89 K/9 and 2.19 K/BB ratio, and he's a bit too casual with the baserunners as evidenced by his 1.34 WHIP.  His peripherals (4.03 FIP, 3.75 xFIP, 3.87 SIERA) aren't bad at all, however, and he has a nice 47.% grounder rate.

To steal a phrase from ESPN's Keith Law, Elias is essentially "just a guy" for the back of your fantasy rotation.  He won't kill you, but he isn't likely to deliver you an out-of-nowhere gem of a start.  Since this is also his rookie season, Elias could start to wear down as the year goes on...or maybe even gain confidence and improve as he gets used to the majors.  Based on this x-factor and his middling track record so far, I'd stay away from Elias if you're looking for a fifth starter, though be warned that many is the fantasy owner who picked up the 'promising' starter with the big pedigree only to see that starter get rocked.  A steady-but-unspectacular guy like Elias may have more fantasy benefit down the stretch if he's still pitching on this same level in August.



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."



The Proof Is In The Peripherals: May 16-22

Bad news, your beloved author is the latest victim of the Tommy John surgery epidemic that is sweeping the baseball world.  I blew out my elbow while giving my space bar particularly firm taps for both of the spaces in Rick van den Hurk's last name.  If you write it as "Vandenhurk" or even "Vanden Hurk," Rick himself will drop whatever he's doing and berate you over the phone.  (How does he even know?!)  You can read all about it in the ghostwritten autobiography Hurk!: One Right-Hander's Journey From The Netherlands To The Major Leagues To The KBO And Everywhere In Between Including Some Minor League Stops Like Jupiter, Florida.  Yeah, I know, don't get me started on the title, Rick insisted.  He just really dug his time in Jupiter.  Anyway, since the Tommy John surgery will put me on the shelf, Rick hired J.K. Rowling to finish ghostwriting his book.  Expect a new chapter where one of Rick's starts for the Marlins is interrupted by a giant spider.

...and, SCENE.  Let's turn from that frivolous nonsense to some cold hard baseball data as we examine the advanced metrics to see whose performances are for real.

* Sonny Gray Real Estate.  The young A's righty isn't just a boon to writers (like me) who love punny headers, but also he's been a big get for fantasy owners.  Gray has more or less picked up right where he left off following his heroics for Oakland late in 2013 and in the playoffs, carrying a 2.17 ERA over eight starts into Friday night's outing against the Rangers. 

This is a classic sell-high scenario for Gray owners, in my opinion.  If you're counting on him to be an ace on your staff, you have to be hoping for an uptick in strikeouts (from his current 7.17 K/9), his good batted-ball luck (.271 BABIP) to continue and for Gray to keep leaving 82.2% of his baserunners stranded.  Frankly, it could be a tall order.  In fairness, most fantasy owners likely drafted Gray with the intent of using him as a No. 3 or No. 4 starter rather than as an ace, so it's all been Grayvy...er, gravy thus far, but trading Gray for a more proven veteran arm could be a canny move.  Gray's trade value will likely never be higher than it is right now, so if you can package him as part of a deal for a starter from the Felix-or-Yu class, that's a deal I'd be inclined to make.

* Lince, U Been Gone.  It wasn't too long ago that Tim Lincecum, not Sonny Gray, was the Bay Area's hottest rotation star in the making, yet Lincecum's star has dimmed following a couple of rough seasons in 2012-13.  Lincecum signed a two-year extension with the Giants last fall and, since his 2012-13 advanced metrics indicated he pitched better than his 4.76 ERA suggested, there was some thought that Lincecum was indeed prime for a comeback year.

Instead, we've seen further evidence that the prime Lincecum may have Lincecame and went.  Lincecum's ERA is 4.78, his fastball velocity is continuing to drop (89.7 mph, a career low) and with that loss of speed comes a loss of effectiveness.  According to Fangraphs' Pitch Values metrics, Lincecum's fastball is averaging -6.9 runs below average (sixth-worst in baseball) while the standardized version of the metric (wFB/C) ranks Lincecum's heater fourth-worst among qualified starters.

Despite all of this grim evidence...man, he SHOULD be better according to his peripherals.  Lincecum has a 3.22 xFIP, 3.44 SIERA, he's averaging better than a strikeout per inning, his 3.12 BB/9 is his lowest since 2009 and he has a hideous .363 BABIP.  You'd think a guy who pitches at AT&T Park wouldn't have a 17.5% homer/fly ball rate, yet Linecum is a living affront to that belief.  This would be by far Lincecum's highest homer rate in a season, coming close to doubling his 9.2% career mark.

Surely you can't expect a column devoted to peripherals to ignore these advanced metrics, and so I'm still hanging onto hope that the Freak can regain something closer to his old form.  My case is helped by a gem Lincecum threw in his last start, when he held Pittsburgh to two hits over 7 2/3 IP while recording eleven K's and four walks.  Maybe it's a sign that Lincecum just had some early-season struggles and now his luck will start to turn around.  If you've got Lincecum at the back of your fantasy rotation, don't go looking to drop him just yet.

* Chris Mess.  Those who pegged Chris Johnson as a major regression candidate can take a bow.  Johnson owner of a career .361 BABIP,  rode extraordinary batted-ball luck to strong seasons in three of the last four years and looked like a half-decent source for batting average and double-digit homers at your third base spot if his good fortune continued. 

Well, the BABIP spotlight is again shining brightly on Johnson, yet it's not helping him whatsoever.  Despite a .362 BABIP, Johnson is only hitting .279/.306/.357 with one homer, nine RBI and eight runs scored through 147 PA.  Since Johnson rarely takes a free pass, makes a lot of unproductive outs (a career 4.8% walk rate and 23.7% strikeout rate) and doesn't have all that much power, you wonder if he'd even still be considered a Major League starter were it not for his being propped up by his BABIP over his career.  I'd look for other third base options unless Johnson turns things around soon, since when a BABIP that generous that can't give you an empty average, there's little fantasy value to be found.



The Proof Is In The Peripherals: May 9-15

This week's trio of players includes one guy who is already good and could be even better, one guy who's due for some regression and one player who I'm a little unsure about.  Let's see what the peripherals have to say about our three selections...

* (Don't) Swing The Bat, Carlos.  Perhaps we were all just a little too ready to believe that Carlos Beltran would a) be a hitting machine forever, and b) he'd clean up hitting at Yankee Stadium.  Furthermore, Beltran's strong 2013 season included a troubling career-low 6.3% walk rate that was papered over by a .314 BABIP and a big spike in line drive rate.  This season, Beltran is matching that walk rate but the hits aren't getting through the cracks (.250 BABIP) and he has only managed a 14.4% line drive rate, leading to a .241/.291/.448 slash line and five homers in 127 PA.  Beltran's contact rates are, if anything, up from last season and over the years he's become more of a bad-ball hitter, as he's been both swinging at and hitting pitches outside the strike zone.  Still, a little more patience would be nice to see that OBP over .300, at the very least. 

I'm not capital-w Worried about Beltran quite yet because of that below-average BABIP, but if you can swing a nice trade for him right now, I wouldn't advise against it.  Beltran *did* just turn 37 a couple of weeks ago and since it's rare enough for players to be still be reliable bats at that age, you can't be too surprised by a sudden dropoff in production.  To set the peripherals aside and use an old-school argument, it could also be that Beltran is having a bit of an adjustment period in returning to AL pitchers after spending almost a decade in the National League.  Whatever the reason, keep an eye on Beltran over the next couple of weeks to see if he's just in a slump or if this could be cause to jettison him off your fantasy roster.

* Down The Pipes With Koehler.  There is a lot of upside to having a Marlins starting pitcher on your fantasy roster, especially if it's Jose Fernandez or Nathan Eovaldi.  Heck, even Henderson Alvarez has been a quiet gem despite the fact that he doesn't strike anyone out.  While Alvarez might be a K-rate anomaly, however, I feel safe in predicting that another low-strikeout Miami hurler is due for a regression quite soon.

Tom Koehler (who really should be nicknamed 'The Plumber') was a rather unheralded 18th-round draft pick in 2008 who has risen like a backed-up sink to become a (not a plumbing) fixture in Miami's rotation over the last two seasons.  He currently owns a stunning 1.99 ERA through seven starts and is currently riding a streak of 15 2/3 scoreless innings.

Unfortunately for Koehler, his 5.76% strikeout rate is lower than the water pressure in my old shower.  As you might expect for a guy with only 134 strikeouts through 201 1/3 career innings, Koehler is a groundball pitcher (50% grounder rate this season) but his bigger weapon in 2014 has been luck.  An 86.8% strand rate and .195 BABIP have kept his ERA lower than the water pres...oh, I've used that one?  Am I finally out of lame plumbing jokes?  Anyway, Koehler's unimpressive peripherals are the reason for his 4.01 FIP, 4.35 xFIP and 4.46 SIERA.

The right-hander's recent hot streak undoubtedly earned him a few adds to fantasy rotations, yet don't get carried by a couple of good starts.  If Koehler is hit hard by the Dodgers on Monday, that's probably the only sign you need that his luck has run out.  Even before Monday, if you find another good option on the waiver wire, you can go ahead and (okay, one more) flush Koehler from your rotation. 

* Run, Don't Walk(er).  Geez, I'm really laboring with the "don't" puns for this week's headers.  You know who isn't laboring?  Neil Walker owners, that's who!  (nailed THAT segue)  For four years now, Walker has been an under-the-radar kind of player who will still be around near the end of your draft (a 275.5 average draft position according to Mock Draft Central) yet will provide above-average production at the usually-thin 2B spot.  Walker gave the Pirates a .274/.340/.426 line from 2010-13 and this year it's basically been more of the same, as Walker has a  .254/.345/.431 with six homers, 18 RBI and 18 runs.  His 121 wRC+ ranks him sixth amongst Major League second basemen.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the 2014 Walker experience is that we might not have yet seen his best.  Walker has cut back on his strikeouts, with only a 10.7% K-rate as compared to the 17.4% mark he posted from 2010-13.  Furthermore, Walker only has a .250 BABIP --- this could be a bit of normalization after he'd posted a .313 BABIP over the previous four seasons, but then again, it's also possible that his batted-ball luck will get closer to his career norms.  The BABIP might be the only way in which the Pirates' overall offensive deep freeze has really gotten to Walker, but he's otherwise a thoroughly solid fantasy player.  He's the kind of underrated guy you can get from a less-enlightened rival manager who might be more attracted by a bigger name or a top prospect off to a hot start.



The Proof Is In The Peripherals: May 2-8

I'm not saying I think about baseball too much, but I recently complimented my girlfriend by calling her "the Mike Trout of girlfriends."  I think she appreciated the compliment, once I explained to her who Trout is.  All will be made clear once I figure out the math on this Wins Above Replacement Girlfriend formula and present it to her as an anniversary gift.  Romance, thy name is Polishuk.

Speaking of advanced metrics, let's check out this week's players who may or may not be living up to what their peripheral statistics are saying...

* Dancin' Homer.  In my second column of the season, I was all "Ha ha, isn't that cute, the guy named Homer has the league's worst home run rate."  This joke was a lot less funny for Homer Bailey's fantasy owners when we hit the end of April...and Bailey still had the league's worst home run rate.  To be specific, Bailey had the worst HR rate among non-qualified starters, as Bailey's outings were generally so short that he wasn't even a qualified stater.  Uh, yikes.

As a Bailey owner myself, this was not the start I was hoping for, and after he was shellacked by the Braves on April 25, I was hit with a swarm of buy-low offers for Bailey's services.  My fellow managers were shrewd enough to know what I'm about to explain, namely that it's way too early to give up on the Homeboy since by all peripheral accounts, he should be performing much better.

Heading into Thursday's start against the league-leading Brewers, Bailey owned a 9.91 K/9, a 3.63 K/BB rate, a 48.2% ground ball rate, a 3.12 xFIP and a 3.21 SIERA.  These are the numbers of a very solid number two starter in a fantasy rotation, not the numbers of a guy with a 6.15 ERA...and yet that was Bailey's fate thanks to a terrible .421 BABIP and the ghastly 29.2% homer rate that stood almost three times his career average.  There's no reason to sell low on Bailey when his luck is at his lowest ebb, as that BABIP and homer rate are so far out of whack that they're bound to normalize sooner rather than later.

In fact, the evening-out process may have already begun last night, when Bailey held Milwaukee to three runs (none on homers) on eight hits over eight innings, striking out four and walking one.  While it admittedly came against a Brewers lineup that's missing most of its top bats, it was still a much-needed quality start for Bailey and a sign that he'll soon be back to his normal self.  So, to the guys in my fantasy league, COOL IT WITH THE TERRIBLE OFFERS.

* Owings 747.  One of the few bright spots for the Diamondbacks in their disastrous start to 2014 has been the play of Chris Owings, the well-regarded prospect who beat out Didi Gregorius for the everyday shortstop job in Spring Training and is now hitting .313/.367/.398 over his first 91 PA.  Now, it's probably a sign of just how brutal Arizona's start has been that even this "bright spot" has only two RBIs, seven runs scored, no homers and his batting average is inflated by a .406 BABIP.  

This all being said, I still like Owings as a semi-decent fantasy prospect for the remainder of the year for a couple of reasons.  Owings' career minor league slash line of .291/.320/.441 (over 2079 PA) is a sign that his current production at the big-league level isn't too outlandish -- while his minor league slugging numbers are somewhat inflated by a couple of very hitter-friendly ballparks, we can also probably expect him to add a bit more pop in the majors simply by dint of the fact that he plays at Chase Field.  The OBP boost in the majors is a good sign for Owings, and though he has spent several games hitting from the eighth spot in Arizona's lineup, he has yet to receive an intentional walk.  Presuming he keeps getting regular PAs in front of the pitcher, Owings is bound to get a few cheapie walks to boost those on-base totals.  He also has four steals in as many opportunities, so a 20-steal season is a distinct possibility.

Finally, shortstop is a very thin position.  While I'm not expecting a ton from Owings, even a guy with an empty average and 20+ steals is still giving you something positive at short, even if the power numbers aren't there.   Owings is an excellent fantasy backup to hold onto throughout the season, but if he's your starter, I'd start sniffing around for a sell-high trade partner.

* Shelby Comin' Round The Mountain Throwing Balls.  There was a lot of bad buzz surrouding Shelby Miller when the Cardinals basically forgot he existed last October, but now that Miller has a 3.15 ERA through his first six starts of 2014, he's back to normal, right?

Well, if you love it when one of your starter issues more free passes than an amusement park during a thunderstorm, sure.  Miller has a league-leading 21 walks in 2014, giving him an ugly 5.5 BB/9 against only a 6.8 K/9.  If that wasn't enough, he's also among the league leaders in homers allowed.  Miller's ERA is being propped up by a .237 BABIP and the fact that, besides the homers, runners simply aren't scoring on him --- he owns a ridiculous 94.7% strand rate.  Taking all of this into consideration, it's no surprise that Miller has a 6.19 FIP, 4.89 xFIP and a 5.11 SIERA.

It's hard to figure what's exactly going wrong with a pitcher who, for virtually all of 2013, looked like one of the better young arms with baseball.  Fangraphs' Chris Cwik thinks Miller's troubles could stem from an increased use of his cutter, while Craig Edwards of the Viva El Birdos blog thinks Miller might be (for now) a one-pitch hurler who can't rely on anything besides his fastball.  Whatever the problem is, if Miller is in your fantasy rotation, make him someone else's problem and try to trade him before the advanced metric demons come calling.



The Proof Is In The Peripherals: April 25-May 1

This week we're taking a look at the early leaders in some of the major advanced metric categories and, I'll say this right up front, all of these guys will regress.  There's no question about it.  (I'm pretty sure that Zack Greinke will allow at least one baserunner to score this season, thus breaking up his current 100% strand rate.)  That said, there's a pretty solid crop of players currently leading the way in most of these categories.  Let's check out the numbers, with Thursday's games not included...

* This Is Your Cue To Trade For Johnny.  As noted, Greinke is the strand rate leader, but you don't need me to tell you that he's awesome.  Similarly, the pitching BABIP leader is Jason Hammel, whose .130 BABIP belies a low strikeout total and a 4.47 FIP, so I think we can all count on Hammel as a fifth starter or streaming candidate and not much else. 

The man who's second in both strand rate (98.4%) and BABIP (.161) is a different story, however.  Johnny Cueto looks to be back in fine form, and even with his inflated advanced metrics, he's still posting a 3.21 FIP, 2.80 xFIP and 2.89 SIERA through his first five starts.  Most importantly, he's lasted into at least the seventh inning in all of those starts, and there hasn't been any indication that the oblique and shoulder injuries that derailed his 2013 season are still an issue.  Injuries might be just about the only thing that slows Cueto down --- he was still really good when he did pitch (3.23 xFIP in 11 starts) last year, which made his frequent DL trips all the most frustrating for his fantasy owners.  If you've got him on your roster this year and are tempted to sell high, do so only if you're getting a crazy bounty in return, since there's no reason Cueto can't pitch like a staff ace for the remainder of the year.

* They Call Him Mellow YelichChristian Yelich doesn't have any homers, owns only five RBIs (thanks, Marlins lineup) and his league-high .458 BABIP is bound to plummet.  All that said, I am all-in on Yelich in his first season as a Major League regular.  He won't get much chance to drive in runs hitting leadoff in Miami's mostly punchless batting order and he didn't even provide much power in his otherwise dominant minor league career, yet Yelich is a strong candidate for a .300 average, lots of runs scored (thanks, Giancarlo Stanton) and 20-25 steals.  Yelich stole 32 bags in Class A ball in 2011, and while he hasn't approached that total since, it could be more a case of him not getting the green light rather than an awkward decline in stealing ability.  With 82 big league games under his belt, Yelich is an impressive 14-for-14 in stolen base chances.

Just a couple of days into one of my fantasy leagues, I put my whole season on the line when I acquired Yelich, Mike Trout and Tommy Hunter in a blockbuster swap that cost me Bryce Harper, David Ortiz and Glen Perkins.  Yes, you should probably always take Trout when offered* and Harper's early struggles are making this look like a huge win, but Yelich's inclusion was the cherry on top.  I'm not necesarily scared off by a giant BABIP when you consider that Yelich's walk and strikeout rates are essentially the same as his minor league averages in both categories.  This kid can flat-out hit, and Yelich owners should be happy to enjoy the ride.

* = it's weird, I wrote this same sentence earlier this week on my fantasy seafood website, Boato Authority.

* Attention, V-Mart Shoppers.  We have a tie in handing out the Jodie Foster Award For Best Contact Hitter over the season's first four weeks, as both Kurt Suzuki and Victor Martinez took a 93.8% contact rate into Thursday's play.  Now, let's dispense with Suzuki right now -- he posted a 70 OPS+ in 2012-13, his walk rate is over twice his career average and a lot that overall contact rate success is based on Suzuki swinging and making contact on 86.2% of pitches thrown outside the strike zone.  Only four players in all of baseball topped 86.2% in that department in 2013, so while catcher is a thin position, Suzuki is not a viable fantasy option in anything but the deepest of leagues.

Fun fact: one of the four players who beat that 86.2% O-contact rate in 2013 was Victor Martinez, who ranks third overall in his category from 2010-14.  Martinez's bad-ball success in recent years has naturally led to some terrific offensive numbers and he's keeping that up this season with a .308/.361/.492 slash line and three homers.  His RBI and run totals are low, though that could be due to a Detroit lineup that has surprisingly struggled to score runs thus far. 

Martinez has always been a very good contact hitter but he's taken that to extremes this year with a 2.8% strikeout rate that is the lowest of any qualified hitter in baseball.  This is another stat that is sure to markedly increase (V-Mart has a 10.7% career K-rate) but it seems a pretty safe bet that Martinez will be hanging around the top of the contact rate leaderboard by season's end.  I admittedly gave up on him after his tough start to 2013, only to eat crow after Martinez hit like mad from June onward. 

I noted the shallow fantasy catcher pool earlier so be aware --- the Tigers have given Martinez two starts at catcher thus far, after starting him behind the plate just three times in all of 2013.  Most leagues require at least a half-dozen appearances at a position to gain eligibility but there's a good chance that V-Mart will once again be playable at catcher at some point this season, which obviously greatly boosts his fantasy value.  It's hard to work with those lower power totals from a first base or utility spot, but I'll take a catcher with an .852 OPS all the livelong day.



The Proof Is In The Peripherals: April 18-24

As you might expect, most of the game's hottest hitters at this point in the season still have comically-inflated BABIPs.  (Case in point: Chase Utley's unreal .475 BABIP.)  A few of these top bats, however, have yet to be kissed by the BABIP cherubs, which could be a hint that their strong starts are a little more sustainable.  Let's dip into their advanced metrics to see what's up....

* Joey BatmanJose Bautista's emergence as a major power hitter has come with little-to-no help from BABIP.  The Toronto slugger has only a .256 BABIP since the start of the 2010 season, and even that modest figure was boosted by a .309 mark in 2011.  Bautista only has a .226 BABIP so far this year but it hasn't impacted his hitting, as he carried five homers (tied for the AL lead) and a .267.459/.644 line into Thursday's action.

Since BABIP isn't really a factor in his production, Bautista's other metrics suggest that his early-season success has been due to a) pitchers not giving him anything to hit, and b) Bautista crushing it out of the park on the rare occasions when he does see some good pitches.  His 29.4% home run rate is obviously unsustainable and will drop, and you'd suspect the same will happen to Bautista's 26.2% walk rate, which is almost double his career average and six percent higher than his previous single-season high. 

That said, Bautista is only swinging at 18.1% of pitches outside the strike zone, which is a notable drop from his 24.4% mark from 2010-13.  A little more patience at the plate makes Joey Bats all the more dangerous. If Bautista's walk rate settles even halfway between 26.2% and the 13.1% from last year, that's still a big increase in his offensive value and, fantasy-wise, it would lead to more runs scored due to greater on-base numbers.

Though this is Bautista's age-33 season, nobody really doubted that he would still be a premier hitter as long as he could stay healthy, so the jury is still out on whether Bautista can avoid the knocks that led him to miss 114 games in 2012-13.  The injury bug is still the only major red flag on Bautista since otherwise, his bat looks as strong as ever, and the extra walks are a good sign.

* Zobocop.  I've long been Roto Authority's most ardent Ben Zobrist supporter, so I was more than a little concerned when Zobrist's power fell off a cliff in 2013.  The pop has returned thus far in 2014, as Zobrist is slugging .472 and already has three dingers (after hitting just 12 all of last season).

So all is good, right?  Well, not exactly.  Zobrist's 17.6% homer rate is well above his 10.7% career average, so that's going to dip a little.  What's more troubling is that Zobrist's line drive rate is 10.9%, while his ground ball rate is 52.2% --- both numbers represent around a nine-percent dip and rise, respectively, from his 2013 rates.  His infield fly ball rate is also up to 17.6%, about a nine-percent increase over his career average.

So essentially, Zobrist isn't the hitting the ball as hard and most of the time, he's hitting it either on the ground or popping it up.  Since his BABIP is only .279, it's not like a lot of these grounders are getting through, either.  (His batting average is .283.)  It's kind of a weird collection of stats for Zobrist and it seems like his offensive production thus far is being mostly carried by that inflated home run rate and a 15.6% walk rate, which would be a career-best if sustained.  I'd keep as eye on Zobrist since, if his peripherals don't normalize, they could portent a more significant problem than just a loss of power.  Still too early to think about trading or releasing him from your fantasy roster, obviously, but still, have an eye.

 * Commissioner Gordon.  Finally, we'll look at a player who isn't off to a good start.  There's no truth to the rumor that Alex Gordon's 2014 season is being sponsored by Del Monte, since Gordon has done little more than produce cans of corn since Opening Day.  Gordon took an even-steven 50% fly ball rate into Thursday's action, which isn't necessarily a bad thing...but when only 4.8% of those flies are leaving the yard, there's a problem. 

Curiously, in other aspects of hitting, Gordon has never been better.  He's drastically cut back on his strikeouts, he's making contact on a whopping 96.7% of pitches within the strike zone and he's on pace for the best overall contact rate (86.2%) of his career.  A .268 BABIP could be partially to blame, though with just an 11.9% line drive rate, it's not like Gordon is hitting the ball with much authority.  You could chalk it up to the team-wide power malaise that has struck the Royals in the early going, or maybe Gordon needs another visit from George Brett to get his hitting back on track.  It's not like Brett is busy posing with pop stars or anyth....oh wait...  



The Proof Is In The Peripherals: April 11-17

With only a couple of weeks of baseball in the books, it's still a little early to start picking out guys who are over- or underachieving based on their advanced metrics.  Ergo, this week's column will focus on two players who already had red flags on them heading into 2014, plus one bit of wackiness....

* This Land Is Verland.  Much has been written about Justin Verlander's below-average 2013 season, as he posted five-year lows in strikeouts (217), innings (218 1/3), fWAR (5.2) and K/BB rate (2.89), while also posting five-year highs in WHIP (1.315), walk rate (8.1%), ERA (3.46), xFIP (3.67) and SIERA (3.61).  Combine this with a fastball that has been steadily declining for five seasons now, and you have a year that makes you wonder if all those workhorse innings are finally starting to catch up to the V-Man.

Verlander's two 2014 starts haven't done much to inspire confidence.  While he has a 2.57 ERA over his 14 innings, Verlander's xFIP is a garish 5.91 thanks in large part to his lack of strikeouts.  The Tigers ace has only five K's thus far --- since the beginning of the 2009 season, this is only the second time that Verlander has recorded so few strikeouts over a two-start period.  Adding insult to injury, Verlander has just as many walks as strikeouts.

I feel I should be writing OF COURSE, IT'S STILL EARLY in big neon lights for every entry here, plus Verlander's next start is against the Padres at Petco Park, so he could easily throw a gem and make this entry obsolete.  Still, for Verlander owners counting on their man to return to his top-of-the-rotation form, the early results aren't promising.  Just throwing it out there...you might want to start quietly seeing what you could get for Verlander in a trade.

* Got Melk?  Several of the early-season hot bats have yet to record their first walk of 2014, and since Melky Cabrera has a decent career walk rate of 7.2% and owns a career .337 OBP, the free passes will eventually come.  At the moment, I doubt the Blue Jays are too concerned about Cabrera's lack of walks given that he's hitting a cool .333/.333/.644 through 45 plate appearances.  That slugging percentage really stands out given that Cabrera already has four homers through 10 games, which is more than he hit during the entire 2013 campaign.

Power has never really been a big part of Cabrera's game (a career .411 SLG and he averaged only eight homers per 162 games from 2005-13) and even in the homer-friendly Rogers Centre, it's very unlikely that Melky is a Jose Bautista-esque late-blooming slugger.  What is good news, however, is that Cabrera is looking like a real ballplayer again.  In 2013, Cabrera could barely run or swing the bat with any authority whatsoever, and it wasn't until September that he had a benign tumor removed from his lower spine -- no wonder his health was affected.

There were some whispers that Cabrera was struggling because he was off PEDs, but with a freak injury like a spinal tumor, it's much more likely that the tumor was the source of the Melkman's problems last year.  I had him pegged as a sleeper outfielder in my drafts and he's paid big dividends thus far.  This is almost a case where Cabrera's early numbers didn't matter, since as long as he was running and swinging with no issues, you know he's likely to return to his normal production levels (and, ideally, his 2011-12 production levels).

* Homer Happy.  Finally, this was just too good a statistic to pass up: the one pitcher in baseball whose name is literally Homer has a 100% home run/fly ball rate through his first two starts.  Two balls in the air = two homers for Jhonny Peralta and Yadier MolinaHomer Bailey has done a great job of keeping the ball on the ground (60.6% ground ball rate) and is just getting burned for it, as opponents hold a .438 BABIP against him.  Bailey's 7.71 ERA is countered by a 3.41 xFIP and 3.70 SIERA so there's no point in panicking, yet that homer rate is pretty amusing.  Imagine if it kept up?  Surely, David Dewitt Bailey would have to pull a Mike/Giancarlo Stanton and start insisting that he be called by his heretofore unrevealed birth name of "Grounder."





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