By R.J. Anderson
Here’s a fun trivia question: Who has the fourth-most innings pitched over the past three seasons, behind only Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, and Dan Haren? Nope, not Cliff Lee or Felix Hernandez. Nor Justin Verlander.
It’s James Shields. The Tampa Bay Rays ace has made at least 31 starts in each of his three full major league seasons while completing at least 215 innings, and winning at least 11 games. Shields’ durability would be one thing, but when combined with solid performances — notably by advanced metrics, like Fielding Independent Pitching or even Adjusted Fielding Independent Pitching (both of which attempt to strip the luck aspect out of evaluating pitchers) — Shields becomes one of the better and more underappreciated talents in the league.
Oddly enough, Shields is actually being drafted well ahead of his 133 B-Rank; his ADP is currently 110. His 2010 Bloomberg Sports projection calls for 217 innings, a 3.89 ERA, 13 wins, and a 1.23 WHIP. That line places him smack in the middle of strong three-star pitchers such as A.J. Burnett, Brett Anderson, and Rays teammate Matt Garza.
Shields has the luxury of pitching in front of one of the best defensive teams in baseball, which should help his rate stats. One thing Shields does, perhaps better than anyone else in the division, is mix his pitches. When he came into the league, he was extremely reliant upon a plus change-up. Talk to a handful of scouts during that period and his change-up was right up there with Johan Santana’s for the honor of best in baseball. Since then, though, Shields has continued to add pitches and tweak his arsenal. He throws a cutter now and has a plus curve to go with it. He locates all of those pitches well.
The only real flaws in Shields’ game is the lack of run support (presumably something that should even out over time), and home runs allowed. Shields’ run support was just 4.42 runs per game last season, despite the Rays’ offense setting numerous
franchise records for offensive production; that was the fourth-lowest total among AL starters. Meanwhile, Shields has allowed at least one home run per
nine innings in each of his big league seasons. Last year’s 1.19 HR/9 IP was a
career high in seasons where he threw more than 150 innings, so expect
a little regression there.
Still, the positives far outweigh the negatives. The Rays’ franchise single-season record for wins by a pitcher is 14. With a little help, Shields could break that record this season, and could do so as a strong number-two or number-three option on your pitching staff.
For more on James Shields and other starting pitchers, check out Bloomberg Sports’ fantasy kits.
by Eno Sarris
We continue our way around the infield after examining the post-hype prognoses for Chris Davis and Rickie Weeks. It’s about time that I admit my dark secret – I actually own a fantasy team that features all of these players around the horn on the infield. As I joked on this podcast with the folks at BaseballPress, this is not a strategy to try at home, and it’s only the particulars of this league that forced me into a corner. On the other hand, finding an undervalued player that has shown elite skills in the past for a bargain price is useful in any league.
So does Stephen Drew count? He has certainly shown plenty of strong attributes at the plate – but not in the same season. If he puts these disparate parts of his game together, though, he could become an impact player at shortstop. It’s been shown by researcher Tom Tango that a player’s peak age range is 27 through 29. Lo and behold, Drew is 27. Could this be his year?
There’s a bit of a split between Bloomberg Sports’ projections for Drew and the wisdom of the crowd on this one. The Bloomberg Sports Fantasy Kit projects Drew for an underwhelming .268 batting average, albeit with 18 home runs. Shown graphically to the left, these numbers don’t combine to instill confidence. In what is perhaps a nod to the fact that manager A.J. Hinch is thinking of batting Drew second this year, he is projected for a decent 80 runs. Are those runs scored combined with the poor batting average and mediocre home run total enough to make fantasy owners right for drafting him more than 100 spots earlier than his B-Rank (B-Rank 229, ADP 127.6)?
There’s obviously some value in his complete package of skills. His skills looks better on a Bloomberg Sports spider graph, where you can see how he stacks up in the offensively-challenged position of shortstop. Even that graph might be selling Drew short, though.
Take his batting average. Not only has he hit .291 before (in 2008), but he’s shown the different components of being able to do it again. Check out his reach rates (the percentage of swings at pitches outside of the zone) since he hit the majors: 30.6%, 21.8%, 28.2%, 22.3%. It may not be a surprise that his walk rate has oscillated similarly: 6.2%, 9.7%, 6.2%, 8.2%. On the plus side, one element of his game has steadily improved: His contact rate has risen from a poor 74.3% to a solid 84.2%.
What does it all mean for his batting average? it means that Drew is struggling with his aggressiveness but is making more and more contact as he figures it out. The recipe for a good year might just include a nice middle ground for his reach rate (say around 25%), an average walk rate (last year the ML average was 8.9%) and an above-average contact rate (the ML average was 80.5% last year). He’s done each piece before – it follows that he could hit each benchmark again, ideally in the same season.
Because he’s not a speedster (19 career stolen bases), the power is the other attractive part of Drew’s profile. His isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) has also jumped around more than Ozzie Guillen after a liter of Red Bull: .201, .133, .211, .167 (ML average is usually around .155). This is probably related to another component stat that Drew is struggling to harness: his line drive percentage (23.8%, 16.5%, 22.6%, 18.9%). It seems that his power rises and falls with his line drives. The lesson here is that he’s had nice line drive rates twice before – he can do it again.
Why would this year be the year that he once again puts together a good line drive rate with a strong approach at the plate and gives us something that looks like 2008 (or better)? Well, spring training stats are obviously a small sample size, but sometimes those mere 40 or 50 at-bats can give us hope. It is also worth mentioning that John Dewan has shown that about 75% of players that improve their slugging percentage by more than .200 in spring training go on to perform better than their career average during the upcoming season. Drew’s close. His slugging percentage this spring? .609. His career number? .445.
For more information on Stephen Drew and his fellow shortstops this year, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Kit for yourself.
By Tommy Rancel
Stephen Strasburg is the top pitching prospect in baseball, but he may not even be the most important young pitcher in his own division. Tommy Hanson of the Atlanta Braves is not only a major league starter right now; he’s also poised to become one of the National League’s best starting pitchers.
Even in his own backyard, Hanson plays second fiddle. Braves outfielder Jason Heyward is generally regarded as the top prospect in baseball. In addition to the top ranking, Heyward has been the most talked about player this March, highlighted by a windshield-shattering home run display.
Strasburg and Heyward have the hype, but Hanson is the only one with major league experience, and major league success.
In 2009, the 23-year-old right-hander won 11 games in his first 21 major league starts. According to baseball-reference.com, only 22 players (classified as first-year players, not necessarily rookies) other than Hanson won 11 games in their first 21 starts with a sub-2.90 ERA since 1901. Hanson posted a 2.89 ERA and 116 strikeouts in 127.2 innings.
Despite his young age, Hanson showed control usually found in a veteran starter. He struck out nearly a batter per inning (8.18 K/9) while keeping his walks at a manageable 3.24 per nine innings (BB/9). Hanson excelled at missing bats, with a swinging strike percentage near 10% (9.9%) and a contact rate (percentage of swings against that are put in play, including foul balls) of 77.2%.
Hanson has a good fastball that runs around 92 miles per hour. His secondary pitches–curve ball and slider–are even better. He induced 18.1% whiffs on his slider and 15.6% on his curveball. The major league average for a right-handed pitcher’s slider is around 13%, and 11% on a curveball.
While Hanson tossed just 127.2 innings at the major league level, he threw 194 cumulative innings in 2009. That increases the likelihood that he’ll be good for 30-plus starters this season. Bloomberg Sports’ projects him for exactly 30 starts and just over 180 innings. If that projection holds, Hanson could pass 15 wins in 2010, with some strong supporting numbers too.
One knock on Hanson would be his home run rate. As a neutral pitcher with a 40% flyball rate, Hanson allowed just 0.72 home runs per nine innings. This was due to a lower than normal home run-to-fly ball rate of 6.9%; a starting pitcher is usually around 10% to 12%. Hanson should give up a few more long balls in 2010, but his ability to keep men off base could limit some to solo shots.
When looking for other young pitchers with similar starts to Hanson, Clayton Kershaw comes to mind. In 2008, Kershaw made 21 starts, going 5-5 with a 4.26 ERA. He then made 30 starts last season, posting a sparkling 2.79 ERA over 171 innings. Hanson’s stuff rivals Kershaw’s, as does his upside in terms of strikeouts and swing-and-miss ability.
Hanson is getting a lot of respect in drafts this year. He is the 25th-rated starting pitcher and places 95th overall in B-Rank. His average draft position (ADP) is 67.8. The ADP looks a bit high, but Hanson is worthy of a seventh-round draft pick is shallow leagues. Don’t hesitate to pull the trigger on him in your draft.
For more on Tommy Hanson and other potential young aces, check out Bloomberg Sports’ fantasy kits.
By Jonah Keri
The next two episodes of Bloomberg Sports’ fantasy baseball podcast are now live.
In Episode 3, Mark Berniker, Wayne Parillo and I tackle top pitchers and mid-round values.
In Episode 4, we tackle the outfield crop beyond the first round of the draft.
For more fantasy baseball player rankings and draft tips, check out Bloomberg Sports’ fantasy kit.
By R.J. Anderson
Casey Blake will enter this season as the Los Angeles Dodgers’ starting third baseman for the second consecutive season. Blake, 36, qualifies as a solid if unspectacular player. Last season he hit .280, popped 18 homers, drove in 79 runs a season, scored 84 runs and stole all of three bases. He’s an above-average hitter, no doubt, but is he worth a roster spot in a 12-team mixed league?
Such a question would be so much easier if the Dodgers used Blake like the Cleveland Indians did for years. Last season, Blake appeared in 134 games at third and two at first and left. The year before he appeared in enough games to become eligible at third base and first base, and in the past he’s been eligible at three positions at once. But if a Manny Ramirez suspension wasn’t enough to get Blake out in the pasture, then the addition of Jamey Carroll and Garret Anderson almost certainly won’t lure Blake to another position.
That means Blake’s numbers matter only relative to other third basemen in the league. Bloomberg ranks him as the 13th-best third baseman, and one going well below his B-Rank slot of 152. Instead, Blake is being drafted, on average, at 282nd. That’s a gap of more than 100 slots, indicating that Blake is being undervalued. He’s projected to nearly match last year’s numbers, with 19 homers, a .276 average, and 79 RBI.
That makes Blake a more attractive option than other hot corner bearers like Jorge Cantu, Mark DeRosa, Alex Gordon (destined to start the season on the disabled list), Scott Rolen, and Miguel Tejada.
Is Blake worth a roster spot? He’s not a sexy option, but yes, he’s worth drafting in 12-team mixed leagues. Target him in the late rounds, and take advantage of the huge gap between his likely value and his perceived value.
information on other good third base options, check out Bloomberg Sports’ fantasy kit.
By Jonah Keri
Bloomberg Sports’ new podcast, Fantasy Baseball Intelligence, makes its debut today. Co-hosts Mark Berniker and Wayne Parillo will offer fantasy baseball analysis and commentary throughout the season, with Bloomberg Sports writers also contributing as guests.
In Episode 1, Mark, Wayne and I cover the top seven picks of the draft. Power? Speed? Early grab for a top pitcher? We weigh the options.
In Episode 2, we explore the rest of round one, round two, and strategies for planning the top of your draft.
Since converting into a full-time reliever in the 2007 season, Downs has been one of the best set-up men in baseball. His ERA hasn’t finished above 3.09 and his Ground Ball Percentage (GB%) has never fallen below 55.7% in that time frame. That last part is important since keeping balls on the ground, and by extension in the yard, is an important part of a closer’s duties. Downs did save nine games a season ago, but Blue Jays Manager Cito Gaston seems like he’d rather Downs fill the type of roving reliever role that J.P. Howell has with the Rays, saying: “I’ve got a feeling that Scott, he’ll pitch anywhere you want him to pitch. He’s not going to be upset if he’s closing or not closing.” Not a good sign for the Scott Downs For Closer supporters out there.
Taking everything into consideration, Gregg looks like the Jays’ most likely pick. Losing teams rarely spend nearly three million dollars on a reliever that’s not finishing games for them, and 20-plus saves for Gregg at the trade deadline could make him more attractive to a contender, potentially enabling the Jays to add prospects to their farm system. Gregg’s Average Draft Position is 329th, making him a cheap late-round pickup that could end up paying dividends – even if only for a few months.
by Eno Sarris
Earlier this week, we took a look at the Post-Hype Sleeper label and some arguments for and against its existence. That led to an in-depth profile of Chris Davis and his hopes for a strong season. Now it’s time to take a look at a second baseman who has seemingly been all hype and disappointing performance for a decade now.
Will this finally be the year for Rickie Weeks? Seven years into his career, he’s still only 27, at an age when many players hit their prime. He’s been injury-prone and his batting average has oscillated between terrible and mediocre. But he’s also tantalized fantasy owners with good power and speed for stretches.
As you can see from the x-axis on the Demand vs. Scarcity chart from the Bloomberg Sports Fantasy Sports Tool below, Weeks is the latest-drafted three-star second baseman this year. Bloomberg Sports’ projections are pretty optimistic, as they predict a .267 average with 20 home runs and 19 steals. Those numbers result in a
B-Rank of 124; fantasy players have been more
skeptical, drafting him
much later (183.1 ADP). The sweet spot for drafting him then could be in the 14th or 15th round, in 12- or 10-team mixed leagues.
Still, skepticism remains. Last season actually looked like it might be his breakout year. A bit more than one-quarter of the way into the season, Weeks had hit nine home runs with a .272 batting average. But on May 18th, Weeks learned he had torn the tendon sheath on his wrist and would miss the rest of the season. Wrist injuries can sometimes take a long time to heal; at least Weeks has youth, and time – nearly a full year from his surgery to Opening Day 2010 – on his side.
Because of the small sample size that Weeks created in 2009, we have to take his early-season success with a grain of salt. Let’s instead look at the three years that led up to 2009 and see if there was improvement in some underlying categories for Weeks: power and contact.
Though his power has jumped around a little, there are two reasons to be optimistic. His 2008 Isolated Slugging (slugging percentage minus batting average) of .164 was slightly above-average (the league-average ISO that year was .152). Weeks has shown the ability to put up near-.200 ISOs , though (.198 in 2007); both 2007 and 2008 were more powerful years than the first three of his career. Another reason for donning the rose-colored glasses is the fact that Weeks is hitting more balls in the air with every season. The general trend of his career has taken him from a worm-burner (30.8% flyball percentage in 2005) to more of a flyball hitter (43.5% last year). It wouldn’t take a big leap to make Weeks the cheapest 20-home-run second baseman in the game this year.
The biggest black mark on his career to date (save for his injury-prone nature) has been his struggle to make contact. Again, there’s reason for optimism. Save for last year’s small sample of a blip, Weeks has improved his contact rate every year he’s spent in the major leagues. Getting that rate up from 73.1% in 2005 to 78.1% in 2008 moved him from Adam Dunn territory (72.9% last year) to Kendry Morales‘ neighborhood (78.8% in 2009).
The fact that Weeks has improved his ability to make powerful contact is a real positive, and despite all the injuries, the upside is still there. Considering that he’s going just slightly before decent but unspectacular options like Orlando Hudson (B-Rank: 206) and still has the potential to double Hudson in the power and speed categories, the “Post-Hype Sleeper” label might just apply in this case.
By this measure, Butler finished as the 170th-best player in baseball in 2009. Loney finished one slot below as the 171st player. Those six extra steals by Loney seem to have erased much of the advantage Butler had over him in the other categories.