Proof Is In The Peripherals

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 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."

The Proof Is In The Peripherals: The Bizarro Hellickson

We kicked off last year's Proof Is In The Peripherals series by looking at Jeremy Hellickson, the man who dodged advanced metric bullets for three seasons before things went south for him in 2013.  If Hellickson had all the good luck on his side for three years, I had to wonder, who had all the bad luck?  Who was the anti-Hellickson?  Who was the guy who watched Hellickson highlights on his TV while angrily muttering to himself and eating a tuna sandwich made of bread that expired three days ago? 

In my search for the MLB pitching equivalent of Garry Jerry Larry Gergich Gengurch, I focused on three categories for the period between 2011-13: BABIP, strand rate and ERA-FIP (namely, who had the biggest negative gap between his ERA and his FIP).  Then, I lopped out a couple of high-ranking names that don't have any/much fantasy relevance for your 2014 team --- the retired Derek Lowe and reliever Brian Duensing, who doesn't appear headed back to the Twins rotation anytime soon.  That leaves us with five starters who have had nothing but buzzard's luck over the last three seasons...  

* Rick Porcello, .325 BABIP (sixth-highest of all pitchers), 68.7% strand rate (tied for 14th-lowest of all pitchers), 4.56 ERA/3.83 FIP (seventh-largest gap of all pitchers)

I've written about Porcello in the past and he has some breakout buzz around him.  Of all the guys on this list, Porcello is the one I'd feel most comfortable about putting into my rotation, as I believe the best is yet to come for the 25-year-old.  Fun fact: Porcello's 3.19 xFIP last season was the 13th-best of ANY qualified starter in baseball.  He's just a bit of advanced metric fortune away from becoming yet another quality starter in the Detroit rotation. 

* Ricky Nolasco, .314 BABIP (12th), 68.7% strand rate (tied for 14th), 4.29 ERA/3.58 FIP (8th)

I'm slightly more bullish on Nolasco than Alex Steers McCrum is, since I'm intrigued by how Nolasco's home run rates have dropped in each of the last four years and now he's pitching at Target Field.  The righty also bumped his K/9 back up to match his 7.45 career average, so I could see Nolasco being at least a guy to stream for a few starts here and there if he gets on a hot streak as he did last season after his trade to the Dodgers.

* Jordan Lyles, .307 BABIP (25th), 62.9% strand rate (1st), 5.35 ERA/4.54 FIP (5th)

This is the kind of strand rate madness that happens when you're a regular starter for the 2013 Houston Astros.  The hits just keep on coming for Lyles, as he was traded to the Rockies in the offseason and now is only a temporary starter in the Colorado rotation until Jhoulys Chacin and Tyler Chatwood are healthy.  Lyles is a good groundball pitcher, so pitching to contact might not totally doom him in Coors Field, yet with little to offer in strikeouts and (probably) in wins or ERA, why bother having Lyles on your fantasy roster?

* Mike Pelfrey, .319 BABIP (7th), 68.9% strand rate (16th), 4.80 ERA/4.16 FIP (11th)

Pelfrey's bad luck went beyond just the advanced stats, as he only made three starts in 2012 and then missed the rest of the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.  His 2013 numbers, therefore, have to be taken with a grain of salt given that it generally takes two years to fully recover arm strength following such a procedure.  That said, Pelfrey has only 5.2 K/9 over his entire career and was only a borderline fantasy guy in his best years with the Mets.  Skip him.

Honorable Mention: Joe Blanton, Jeff Francis.  Frankly, my search for the Anti-Hellickson really led to these two.  Blanton ranked first in BABIP (.330), 13th in strand rate (68.6%) and fourth in ERA-FIP gap (5.23 ERA/4.32 FIP), while Francis was the only pitcher to crack the top eight in every category --- .329 BABIP (6th), 67% strand rate (8th) and a 5.33 ERA/4.24 FIP (2nd).  The only reason I can't award either man the Anti-Hellickson Crown outright is because both men are currently pitching in the minor leagues.

In Francis' case, you could chalk his luck up to pitching at Coors Field, yet his away splits have actually been worse than his home splits over his career.  You can safely write him off as a fantasy option under even the more dire of circumstances, as if he does get called up to the Reds, it's not like he'll get much help from the Great American Ballpark.

Blanton is a more curious case.  He has a 3.53 xFIP from 2011-13 but a 5.23 ERA, thanks in large part to a propensity for giving up the long ball.  You (and the Angels) would've thought that moving to Anaheim from homer-happy Philadelphia would've helped things last season, but nope, Blanton instead posted the worst home run rate (19.1%) of his ten-year career.  In a bizarre twist, the thick Pacific air of Angel Stadium seemed to hurt every home run hitter except for those facing Blanton.  The gap between his real-life stats and the advanced metrics are just so out of whack that I can't *quite* entirely write him off, especially since he signed a minor league deal with the A's and could get to throw in another pitcher-friendly ballpark. 

So from the numbers, all hail Rick Porcello as the Bizarro Hellickson, while Blanton lurks as the deposed king in exile.  If Blanton gets called up for a spot start or two at the Coliseum sometime this year, there are worse streaming choices.

The Proof Is In The Peripherals: Season In Review

Another fantasy season is in the books and with it, the first season of the "Proof Is In The Peripherals" column.  We've had a few laughs, shed a few tears, made a few obscure pop culture references that nobody understood, and overall, had more fun than a termite at a lumberyard.  Now that we've come to the end of the year, however, let's dip back into the advanced metrics one more time and see which players gained the most (and least) benefit from all those beloved peripherals...

BABIP Buster Of The Year: I think we can safely say Edwin Encarnacion is for real.  Double-E followed up his 42-homer performance from 2012 by hitting .272/.370/.534 with 36 long balls in 2013, and that's even with missing the last couple of weeks with a wrist injury.  Encarnacion did all this despite being tied (with Andrelton Simmons and Matt Wieters) for the third-lowest BABIP in all of baseball -- only Darwin Barney and Dan Uggla produced lower BABIPs this season than Encarnacion's .247 mark.  Imagine what this guy could do if he had more batted-ball luck on his side, eh?  Provided that this wrist injury isn't anything too serious, Encarnacion looks like a solid late-first round/early-second round pick in next year's fantasy drafts, especially since he'll retain his 3B eligibility.

BABIP Squanderer Of The Year:  I touched on Michael Bourn's declining steals numbers back in July and things didn't pick up for the Cleveland outfielder over the season's last two months.  He ended the year with only 23 stolen bases, by far his lowest total since becoming a regular in 2008, and not much else 5x5 help at the plate with his .263/.316/.360 line, six homers, 50 RBI and 75 runs scored.  You have to look pretty far down the list of the league's highest BABIPs to find a fantasy dud since, by the statistic's very nature, guys with high BABIPs will likely be big producers, but Bourn's .338 BABIP (tied for 24th-best in baseball) should've produced more pop.

Bourn's overall numbers aren't terrible for a fourth outfielder, but I'm guessing you drafted Bourn expecting a heck of a lot more than solid bench production.  If he's losing his speed, then frankly, Bourn's fantasy usefulness becomes extremely limited.  I'm putting a big red flag next to his name for my 2014 draft. 

BABIP Creation Of The Year: Look no further than Chris Johnson, the man with the league's highest BABIP.  Johnson had been kissed by the BABIP gods in the past (he had a .351 BABIP from 2010-12) but Johnson hit .321/.358/.457 this season despite swing and contact rates that were largely in line with his career totals.  Johnson was definitely hitting the ball hard, as his 27% line drive rate ranked eighth in baseball, but let's be honest, it was the .391 BABIP that really sealed the deal in making him into an offensive force. 

Johnson's ability to score consistently high BABIPs make him more than a one-year wonder, but since he lacks the power and run-scoring abilities of other top-tier fantasy third basemen, I'd hold off on taking him relatively early in a draft.  I'll need to see him do it again first, since y'know, four straight high BABIP years apparently isn't enough for me.  "Okay Superman, the rest of my criminal buddies have punched you in the stomach and broken their hands, but I'm sure that if MY punch hits you just right, I can....ouch, yep, that's a broken hand."

The Lucky Hurler Award: This one has to be shared between two pitchers, Travis Wood and Hisashi Iwakuma.  My criteria was to give this trophy to the pitcher(s) who had the lowest BABIP, highest strand rate and the biggest negative gap between their FIP and their ERA, and technically only Iwakuma fit the bill.  His 81.9% strand rate was second-highest in baseball, his .252 BABIP was the sixth-lowest and he posted a 2.66 ERA and a 3.44 FIP, tying the Mariners righty for the largest favorable swing in that category.  Iwakuma was tied with Wood, whose .248 BABIP was third-lowest in baseball and whose strand rate was a *bit* short of elite level, at only 77.4% (18th-highest). 

So if Wood wasn't quite up there with Iwakuma, why am I giving him a share of the award?  It's because if Iwakuma had pitched to his 3.44 FIP/3.28 xFIP/3.40 SIERA, he's still a good pitcher.  Wood, on the other hand, threw up a 4.50 xFIP and 4.50 SIERA to go with his 3.89 FIP --- if the normal regression had taken place, Wood wouldn't have been worth keeping in a fantasy rotation given his unimpressive strikeout and win totals.  So, in the spirit of John Castino and Alfredo Griffin's tied Rookie Of The Year vote in 1979, I'm just going to split the difference and give Wood and Iwakuma each a share of the award.  Double stars, everybody wins!  As for next year's fantasy drafts, I'd avoid Wood but keep an eye out for Iwakuma, who's been an underrated force out in the Seattle rotation for two years in a row now.

The Unlucky Hurler Award: It's another split vote, as Edinson Volquez and Edwin Jackson were the only two pitchers to rank in the top ten in the categories of largest BABIP, lowest strand rate and biggest gap between an ERA and FIP.  Volquez and Jackson actually both finished one-two in the ERA/FIP gap and strand rate categories, with Volquez posting a 5.71 ERA/4.24 FIP and 64.5% strand rate and Jackson stranding just 63.3% of baserunners and posting a 4.98 ERA/3.79 FIP.  Volquez also had a .325 BABIP (fourth in the league) while Jackson was right behind at .322.

Now, "unlucky" may be a bit of a relative term here since by now, fantasy owners should know what to expect from both guys.  Jackson is your prototypical fifth starter in a fantasy rotation that could easily be dropped out for a good streaming option.  Volquez had a bit of sleeper buzz last spring since he was pitching out of Petco Park, but he couldn't even get it together there, and has probably spent his last bit of fantasy capital.  It's not like either guy was counted on as a heavy option for fantasy owners but still, you can't deny that both pitchers' bad seasons weren't quite as bad as their statistics would indicate.

The Pitching Fortune Squanderer Award: Let me unleash the Colbert balloons for this one since I CALLED IT.  Hey, Jarrod Parker!  You had a .260 BABIP, 73.2% strand rate, you pitch in Oakland and you still couldn't do better than a 3.97 ERA, only 6.12 K/9 and a blergh peripherals line of 4.40 FIP/4.41 xFIP/4.48 SIERA?  It's almost like you were hampered by pitching an increased number of innings in 2012 or something.  Let me dust off my hands triumphantly for that call, one of the few many that went my way this year.  Parker threw 197 innings this season and is bound to pitch at least a few more during the Athletics' playoff run, so if arm fatigue is an issue, next year could also be shaky.  Or, since the kid doesn't even turn 25 until November, maybe he's building up that arm strength and next season he'll morph into a workhorse ace.  Parker is worth a slot as a fourth or fifth starter in your 2014 fantasy rotation but don't rely on him for any more than that...yet.

The Proof Is In The Peripherals: Hellickson Redux

The last week of the season is a weird one here at TPIITP.  All year long, we've been using the advanced metrics to weed out the "hey, he's on a roll!" or "boo, this guy stinks!" gut reactions from your fantasy moves, helping you look at the big picture behind a small sample size of a few games or even few weeks' worth of numbers.

Now that there's only five games remaining in the season, however, the sample size can't help but be small.  Since August I've narrowed the "recent metrics" window to just the previous month's worth of results, but at this point, you can't get any narrower.  Nobody can predict what'll happen in these next five days.  I can't, you can't, Nate Silver can't....well, he might be able to, but still, he wouldn't return my requests to co-author the column this week.

With this in mind, I'm going to forsake the usual stat-based analysis and revisit my first column of the year, which considered the case of one Mr. Jeremy Hellickson.  I singled him out since Hellickson was one of the prime examples of a pitcher who advanced metrics revealed to be pitching over his head for not one, but two seasons.  As I noted last April, Hellickson had the highest strand rate (81.8%) and lowest BABIP (.244) of any pitcher in baseball during the 2011-12 seasons, numbers that helped him to a 3.02 ERA over 366 innings despite these unimpressive peripherals....

2011: 4.44 FIP, 4.72 xFIP, 4.78 SIERA, 35% ground ball rate, 1.63 K/BB, 5.6 K/9

2012: 4.60 FIP, 4.44 xFIP, 4.44 SIERA, 41.8% ground ball rate, 2.10 K/BB rate, 6.3 K/9

Chalk it up to a bit more veteran experience, a bit of turning 26 and entering his baseball prime, or maybe Hellickson just got fed up with all the fantasy naysayers, but he went out and had the best advanced metric season of his career.  Though 169 1/3 IP, Hellickson posted...

2013: 4.27 FIP, 4.19 xFIP, 4.16 SIERA, 39% ground ball rate, 2.71 K/BB rate, 6.9 K/9

The boost was largely due to an uptick in strikeouts, as Hellickson struck out a career-best 130 batters.  Now, those still aren't a superb set of peripherals, but hey, they're decent enough numbers for The Luckiest Pitcher In Baseball to work with, right?  What now, is he going to flirt with a 2.50 ERA?

Uh, make that flirt with a 5.20 ERA.  To be exact, Hellickson's ERA sits at 5.16, a stunning number for a guy who'd beaten the odds for two years and is now getting busted even with better cards.  Only two qualified starters (Edinson Volquez and Edwin Jackson) have a larger negative gap between their ERA and their FIP than Hellickson's 0.88 drop. 

It came down to a lack of help from the BABIP and strand rate gods; Hellickson had a somewhat high .305 BABIP and a somewhat low 67.9% strand rate.  That's all it took for Hellickson to go from a fantasy dark horse into an easy roster drop come June.  I'll give it to him, however -- even in failure, he makes for an interesting advanced metric test case.

The question now is, what should be make of Hellickson for your 2014 fantasy season?  I recommended drafting him last year and, by thunder, I'm sticking to my opinion and saying you should keep Hellickson in mind as a last-round, rotation-depth selection in your next draft.  His poor season will drop him off just about every other owner's rader and, as I noted, next year is his age-27 season and he does seem to be improving as a pitcher. 

With a bit more development and a bit of luck, Hellickson could finally stop starring in Advanced Metrics: The Movie and just be your garden-variety pitcher whose peripherals more or less mirror his actual statistics.  It'll make him a lot less fun to write about but after seeing what he did to my fantasy rotation's numbers this year, I've already been to Hellickson and back.

The Proof Is In The Peripherals: September 19-25

It occurs to me that in the Harry Potter universe, where Quidditch reigns supreme as the most popular sport of the wizarding world, that there must be fantasy Quidditch leagues.  And, by extension, there must be fantasy Quidditch websites that pour deep into the advanced metrics to let you know who the top Chasers and Seekers REALLY are.  And, by extended extension, there must be a wizarding me who is writing his weekly column as we speak, and wondering if there's some Muggle out there who bothers to write about that curious non-magical sport of baseball.

Whatever.  Let's leave behind the world of fantasy and get into the world of....uh, fantasy to examine the LAST FULL WEEK OF THE FANTASY SEASON!!!!  AUUUUUUUGH! 

Garza The Garzarian  Like his Ghostbusters sorta-namesake, Matt Garza goes by many names.  "Garza The Traveler" fits because he has already pitched for four clubs in his career and been rumored to be dealt to a dozen others.  "Garza The Destructor" may fit if you're a Rangers fan and you're blaming Garza as one of the key reasons why your team is having another September collapse.  Garza has a 4.94 ERA in 11 starts with Texas, not at all what the Rangers were expecting when they acquired the righty from the Cubs before the trade deadline.  Fantasy owners also weren't thrilled to see their guy go from the NL Central to the American League, let alone one of the most hitter-friendly stadiums in baseball.

If you've stuck with Garza this long, do you dare let him start if you're in a key fantasy playoff situation?  I'd bite the bullet and say yes.  Garza has an even 6.00 ERA over his last six starts, but his advanced metrics (3.74 FIP, 3.28 xFIP, 3.47 SIERA, 9.5 K/9, 3.00 BB/9) are quite good, and in fact, even better than his career averages.  It's just that Garza hasn't struck any oil in Texas; he has a .350 BABIP over those last six outings, not to mention a 57.8% strand rate, the second-lowest of any qualified starting pitcher over the last 30 days.  His next two starts are against the Royals on the road and against the Angels at home, so not exactly easy matchups, but Garza by all rights should be delivering a much more stable ERA than his real-life numbers would indicate.  Give him at least one more start before writing him off as a giant marshmallow.

Kelly Kelly Kelly Kelly Kelly Kelly Kelly Kelly Kelly Kelly K-E-L-L-Y, Why?  Because his peripherals aren't good, that's why.  Cardinals righty Joe Kelly has been a solid contributor in wins (eight in his last 10 starts) and ERA (2.74) since becoming a full-time starting pitcher, including throwing five shutout innings against the Rockies at Coors Field last night.  That's pretty impressive, but there's a lot to be wary about when it comes to Mr. Kelly.  Heading into the Rockies start, Kelly had a 4.46 FIP, 4.26 xFIP and 4.42 SIERA over his last five starts --- that's much more concerning than his 2.48 ERA over the same span.  Kelly doesn't strike many batters out (a 5.28 K/9 and 3.41 BB/9), and even in that Rockies victory, he recorded exactly zero punchouts and two walks over his five innings. 

Kelly has enjoyed an 88.5% strand rate over the last month, even more comically high than his 84.4% seasonal total.  You could argue that Kelly has been lucky all year, so why quit now, but his next start will come against the red-hot Nationals, so that might be reason enough to turn to another spot starter if you need some rotation help in your league's final days.

Cuckoo For Coco  The preseason fantasy expectations for Coco Crisp were simple.  He was the guy who'd be your third outfielder and base-stealing specialist, not a guy who'd be relied on to provide any real pop outside of a maybe a decent batting average and a decent amount of runs.  As it happened, Crisp has only swiped 19 bags this year after averaging 40 steals over the previous three seasons....but he's making up for it with one of his very best hitting seasons.  All at age 33, too.

Crisp took a .257/.328/.432 batting line into Tuesday's action, has already set a new career high in homers (19), and is well on pace to shatter his previous career high for runs; Crisp scored 86 times in 2005 and already has 83 runs this season.  He's really turned on the power as of late, as his nine homers over the last 30 days is the third-highest total in baseball over that stretch.  Crisp has hit .287/.327/.614 over that period and that's with a .250 BABIP, so you can't even say he's lucking out and hitting them where they ain't.  Well, okay, technically he is, since "over the fence" counts as "where they ain't."  And I'm not talking about fielders, I'm talking about Oakland fans!  #Zinger

I'm prone to write off Crisp's power surge as a bit of good fortune, but his low BABIP hints at even more production if he starts getting the bounces.  This seems hard to believe, but Crisp is still available in 20% of Yahoo fantasy leagues.  If you're in one of those leagues, act now to add one of the league's hottest bats to your roster.

The Proof Is In The Peripherals: September 12-18

There is precious little time left in the fantasy season so let's get right into looking at a few well-known names who you should be sticking with down the stretch, plus one who you should be thinking about turning into a spot starter...

* Vottomatic For The People  Well folks, your pal Mark suffered a tough beat in one of his head-to-head leagues.  I finished a gross 12th in the standings, thus putting me well outside of the eight-team postseason bracket.  Since it's a 16-team league with 14 everyday starting lineup positions, my strategy has been to always count on a few key superstars to carry a team that (sadly) usually ends up needing a lot of waiver wire reinforcements over the course of a season.  Over these critical last few weeks, my cornerstone stars let me down, including none other than my first-round pick, Joey Votto.

Now, while Votto didn't produce enough to keep me in the race, this isn't to say that you should be benching him.  Far from it.  Over his last 133 PA entering Tuesday's action, Votto has posted a .216/.391/.412 slash line with five homers, 12 RBI and 13 runs scored.  So yeah, it's not exactly a *bad* month aside from the batting average, which can be explained by Votto's .246 BABIP over the last 30 days.  If anything, Votto is just a victim of his own high standards.  As I noted last week about Felix Hernandez, benching a superstar since they're "cold" is going to backfire on you more often than not.  A star's slump may seem dire if you're relying on them to carry your entire fantasy lineup, but odds are they're still more productive than most.  For example, if you benched Votto in disgust after he went 0-for-10 over two games against the Cardinals on Sept. 4-5, you missed him rack up six hits in his next four games.

* A.J. All Day  These are heady times for the Pirates and their fans, and basically the only downside for the Buccos right now is that ace A.J. Burnett has been a bit shaky lately.  If you're a Burnett owner who has reaped the benefits of the righty's impressive year, don't be worried that your man's initials are going from "A Jewel" to "All Junk."  Burnett has a 5.02 ERA over his last five starts and yet his peripherals are roughly the same as they've been all year long.  In fact, the advanced metrics (2.45 FIP, 3.01 xFIP) suggest the bounces simply haven't been going Burnett's way as of late.  Don't be worried about the 36-year-old Burnett running out of gas late in the season, as this is a guy who has averaged 202 IP over the last five years.  Burnett is still a must-start fantasy option down the stretch and it also gives you a bit of a vicarious thrill in rooting along with the feel-good Pirates, doesn't it?....uh, unless you're a Cardinals or Reds fan.

* C.J. No Way  I swear, I didn't plan this as an "all-initial" gimmick, it just happened!  C.J. Wilson is 3-0 with a 3.13 ERA over his last five starts but don't be fooled, the CeeJ has been dodging more bullets than Neo.  He's allowed almost as many walks (14) as strikeouts (18) over those last 31 2/3 innings, and he owns a 4.97 FIP and 4.94 xFIP over that stretch.  Wilson has been bailed out by an 84.9% strand rate, which is pretty unlikely to continue for much longer.  Wilson is the kind of pitcher who's ideally a fourth or fifth fantasy starter in the best of times, so if I was a Wilson owner, I'd be ignoring the recent results and being very careful with his starts the rest of the way.  If he's facing the Astros, sure.  If he's facing the Rangers, hold the phone. 

* Santana The Man-na  The ballots are in, and Carlos Santana is the BABIP-Buster of the Week.  This isn't a "bench-or-play?" situation since only a grade-A clown would bench a top-tier fantasy catcher like Santana down the stretch drive, but I just wanted to give a tip of the cap to the Cleveland backstop for putting up a huge fantasy month despite a .224 BABIP over his last 109 PA.  That number isn't doing Santana's average any favors, but overall, he's hitting .244/.394/.488 with six homers, 15 RBI and 15 runs over that stretch. 

Santana is thus far taking full advantage of the fact that the Tribe's September schedule is mighty weak, so there's a good chance that he'll keep this up and win himself a number of fantasy playoff MVP trophies.  In fact, I have Santana myself in one of my leagues, and it's no coincidence that I'm in a battle for first place that may go right down to the final day of the season.  He's such a big part of my team that even writing about his hot streak is probably a huge jinx....uh oh, wait....

The Proof Is In The Peripherals: September 5-11

With the fantasy baseball season nearing a close, here are some last-minute add/drop/bench/keep playing recommendations based on advanced metrics.  Your shot at a league title could very well hinge on these very tips.  We're through the looking glass here, people.

* Long Live The King.  It seems like a waste of bandwidth to even bother writing "keep starting Felix Hernandez" since, well, duh, it's Felix Hernandez.  Panicky owners who are approaching fantasy playoffs, however, might consider dropping their ace as a pre-emptive measure given that King Felix has pitched more like King Joffrey over the last month.  After all, we live in a world where even Justin Verlander is susceptible to being dropped

Hernandez is an ugly 1-5 with a 6.42 ERA over his last six starts, but whereas Verlander has had a few warning signs for a couple of months now, I can safely chalk Felix's bad form up to simply poor luck.  The big ERA is fueled by a .350 BABIP and 54.6% strand rate, as Hernandez's advanced stats (3.25 FIP, 3.19 xFIP, 3.47 SIERA) show that the Mariners stud has pitched just slightly worse than usual in his last six outings.  King Felix could snap back into form at any time, and you just KNOW that if you drop him in your league, he'll immediately fire off four consecutive no-hitters.  Don't be That Guy who outsmarts himself and costs himself a league title by dropping an A-lister after one cold spell.

* Double Dutch.  If you want to worry about an AL West starter, try Derek Holland.  The Rangers southpaw lasted just 4 2/3 innings against the A's in his last start, an outing that could mark the beginning of a rough patch.  Holland has a 2.63 ERA over his last six starts but a .227 BABIP, 87.2% strand rate, 4.52 FIP, 4.33 xFIP and 4.48 SIERA indicate that he's been getting away with some dodgy pitching.  Control has been the biggest problem over that six-start stretch -- Holland's BB/9 has ballooned to 4.54, well above his season average of 2.97.

I'm not saying you should cut Holland, but maybe just strategically sit him against certain opponents.  His next start against the Angels could be an example, as he has been rocked by the Halos throughout his career.  Holland has delivered just a step behind ace-level numbers all year long but he doesn't have the track record of someone like Hernandez when it comes to just dismissing slumps as slumps and not potentially worrying trends.

* Ruf Ryders' Anthem.  There haven't been many bright sides for Phillies fans this season, but if you love the Phils and love fantasy bargains, at least you might've gotten on the Darin Ruf bandwagon early.  The right-handed hitting Ruf has hit .254/.347/.509 with 12 homers over 199 PA for Philadelphia, with a weird reverse-splits trend of hitting righties hard (.934 OPS) and withering against lefties (.600 OPS, albeit in only 51 PA). 

Despite this nice power display, Ruf is owned in just 20 percent of Yahoo fantasy leagues.  I'd recommend him as a cheap pickup for your September stretch drive despite a few worrying trends.  Ruf has been almost all power over the last month, with a whopping .302 ISO (sixth-highest in the majors over the last 30 days) and only a .219/.290/.521 line.  That said, his BABIP over that same stretch was only .231, so there's certainly room for growth.  Pick up Ruf, give him a few strategic starts in your outfield or at first base against certain pitchers, and enjoy some hot and tasty homers fresh off the waiver wire.  Ahhh, is there anything sweeter than waiver wire power?

The Proof Is In The Peripherals: Aug. 29-Sept. 4

What's that?   You want to know how I'm doing in my fantasy leagues?  Oh, thanks for asking, you're too kind!  In my five leagues, I'm currently sitting 4th and 10th in my head-to-head leagues (position is kind of moot just as long as you're in the playoffs) and in my roto leagues I'm in 3rd, 5th and....ugh, 11th.  That's the league I'm in with all my old buddies from my hometown, so I'm going to hear a lot of trash talk over the winter and/or offers to take over the writing of this column.

The biggest reason I'm not leading all five leagues is because I follow my advice from these columns mostly just bad luck, I figure.  My fantasy BABIP is probably no bigger than .220 for the season, plus my strand rate is through the roof.  Yes, that's the ticket.  All just bad luck.  Anyway, for those of you who still have a shot in most/all/any of your leagues, here's a peek into the peripherals....

Bend It Like Gordon  With "Gordon" being such a British-sounding name, you'd think the British soccer legend would be named "Gordon Beckham" and the American baseballer would be "David Beckham" rather than the other way around, wouldn't it?  (And if it was just "Gord Beckham," he'd be Canadian.)  That's just one bit of misfortune that has befallen the White Sox second baseman in life.  Another is the .255 BABIP he's carried around for the last month that is primarily responsible for his .245/.336/.368 line over his last 29 games.  I do like Beckham as a sleeper for your last fantasy month and since he's available in a measly 11% of Yahoo leagues, you'll likely to able to add him for nothing.

Beckham has shown glimpses of his vaunted potential, and while he hasn't truly broken out, he's at least been on the radar.  Beckham has enjoyed a couple of hot streaks (including a .303/.337/.447 line over in 20 July games) and he's doing a better job of putting bat to ball, increasing his contact rate to a personal high of 86.4% and cutting his strikeout rate to a career-low 12.4% this season.  This increased contact has been apparent even in the last month of struggle, as Beckham has actually had a higher walk rate (9.8%) to strikeout rate (9.0%).  If this better contact manifests itself into some more balls finding empty spaces in September, Beckham will be a nice little boost to your 2B/MI situation.

We Called The Dog 'Indiana'  I'm not going to argue with my Roto Authority colleague Alex Steers McCrum when he suggests that you should pick up Junior Lake.  Given Lake's numbers and his multi-positional value at third base and outfield, he certainly has enough momentum for you to take a flier on him.  What I wouldn't do, however, is expect Lake Superior when you're more likely to get Lake E(e)rie.

/pauses for laughter

/none comes

Ahem, uh, okay.  Since Lake made his Major League debut on July 19, he has hit an impressive .312/.345/.459 in 166 PA, with four homers and 16 runs.  While this roughly mirrors what he was doing in Triple-A Iowa, however, it should be noted that Lake isn't exactly an elite prospect --- he was rated as only the No. 15 prospect in the Cubs' system by Baseball America's preseason guide.  Not to say that the guy can't pick up his game, but this isn't a case of a touted phenom bursting onto the scene.  Turning to the advanced metrics, Lake has only a 68.1% contact rate, an ugly 0.18 BB/K ratio and a whopping .391 BABIP that is letting him get away with his lack of consistency at the plate.  As I said earlier, it's fair game to pick Lake up since hey, stranger things have happened than a guy retaining BABIP luck over a couple of months.  That said, if you own Lake now and your league's trade deadline hasn't passed yet, you should definitely try to sell high.  If you can work "T-t-t-t TODAY, Junior!" in your trade pitch, all the better.

Half-Eagle, Half-Lion, All-Homer  It has to be frustrating being an A.J. Griffin owner given the right-hander's propensity for shooting himself in the foot.  Over the last 30 days Griffin has allowed precious few hits (.210 BABIP), stranded an above-average number of his runners (79.7%) and yet he has just a 4.33 ERA to show for it.  In fact, despite those nice peripherals, Griffin actually should be doing worse given his 6.37 FIP and 5.25 xFIP.  

The problem is Griffin's tendency to allow home runs.  He's allowed a league-leading 32 longballs this season, nine of them in the last month alone for a 2.29 HR/9 since July 29.  These are high numbers for anyone, especially a guy who pitches his home games in the Coliseum.  Griffin has had good peripheral luck all season (.243 BABIP, 77.5% strand rate) which has been the only thing keeping him from having a worse home run rate than Charlie Brown.

Since throwing a complete game shutout against the Reds on June 26, Griffin has a 4.55 ERA over his last 11 starts.  It's a tough call to just outright release a guy whose overall numbers (3.94 ERA, 2.79 K/BB ratio, 134 strikeouts in 169 IP) are pretty good but if you're heading into a playoff situation in your fantasy league, you don't want to have That Guy on your staff who gets shelled in his one start in a week and single-handedly blows up your ERA category for the matchup.  Griffin is another guy who I'd quietly be shopping in the final days before your trade deadline.

Site Map     Contact     About     Advertise     Privacy Policy     MLB Trade Rumors     Rss Feed