May 2010

Jon Garland Finds a Home at Petco Park

By Tommy Rancel //

After spending nine seasons in the American League, Jon Garland
is in year two of his National League West tour. The right-hander
signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks prior to the 2009 season, and was
traded mid-season to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Garland didn’t gather
much interest on the open market this off-season. He settled on a
one-year deal with another NL West team, the San Diego Padres, worth
slightly more than $5 million. In hindsight, it may have been the
smartest move of his career.

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A
double-digit game winner in each season since 2002, Garland is already
halfway there in 2010. He goes into his next start with a 5-2 record in
nine starts. At first glance, his 2.38 ERA suggests a career season
thus far, but Garland has been the beneficiary of some good luck, and a
lot of home cooking.

Looking at FIP (fielding independent
pitching) and xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching), two
metrics that strip defense and luck from a pitcher’s performance,
Garland is pretty much the same pitcher he has always been. His 4.20
FIP is slightly lower than his career 4.70 FIP, but when we neutralize
his home run rate, his 2010 xFIP of 4.77 is actually slightly higher
than his career xFIP of 4.62.

Pitching in Petco Park has done
wonders for some of Garland’s numbers. The largest reason for his xFIP
being higher than normal is home run rate. In his career, Garland has
given up 1.10 home runs per nine innings (HR/9). Thanks to the spacious
dimensions of Petco – especially in right-center field – his HR/9 is
less than half that (0.51) thus far in 2010. In fact, he has not
allowed a home run in 25 innings at Petco; his HR/9 on the road is
0.96.
 
In addition to a suppressed home run rate, Garland has
enjoyed a lower than normal batting average on balls in play (BABIP) in
San Diego. Overall, his 2010 BABIP of .262 is nearly 30 points less
than his .289 career number. Looking at the home/road splits again, his
home BABIP of .224 is far below his relatively normal road BABIP of
.300.

Because of the lower home run and hit rates, his home
ERA (1.08) is two and a half runs lower than his road ERA (3.54). That
said, Garland has arguably been a better pitcher on the road, even if
the superficial stats don’t show it. Away from Petco, he is striking
out more than seven batters per nine innings (K/9); at home, his K/9 is
a microscopic 2.88. In addition to more Ks on the road, he is walking
fewer batters in enemy territory. He has allowed 11 walks in 28 road
innings, while handing out 16 free passes in 25 home innings (5.79
BB/9).

Regression to the mean tells us that at some point
Garland will come back to earth, and revert to career norms across the
board. However, regression doesn’t take into account that Petco Park
has been one of the most unfriendly home run parks over the past three
seasons (last or second-to-last in home runs per game every season
since 2007).

If the Padres keep up their winning ways, Garland
is likely to continue his quest for a ninth straight double-digit wins
season. However, Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools warns us of some rough patches ahead.

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The
system projects Garland to go 8-10 with a 4.18 ERA for the rest of the
season. If you can live with season-ending totals of 10-13 wins, a
league-average ERA, and little in terms of strikeouts, then Garland is
a safe play. However, if you have better talents at the head of your
rotation, you might want to consider selling high on Garland. Even
Petco Park can’t prop him up forever.

For more on Jon Garland and the surprising San Diego Padres, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools.

Age and Your Fantasy Team: Why We Should Be Worried about Garrett Jones

by Eno Sarris //

Age matters. We know, for example, that the age of a prospect matters. If he’s a 23-year-old slugger beating up on 19-year-olds in A-ball, that should be noted when looking at his stats. We also know that a slump at 37 is not the same as a slump at 27. But does the age at which a player debuts in the league matter?

It seems that it does. Baseball analyst /economist J.C. Bradbury took a look at age and career lengths (pay link) and Colin Wyers provided some summary and additional work at The JonesAge.jpgHardball Times late last year. It looks like the later you join the major leagues, the shorter your career is. Intuitively, it makes sense. If a player has to be closer to his peak to even make it to the bigs, then he will be gone earlier once he falls from that peak. To say the same thing in numbers, look at the table to the right. It shows the average career length by age of major league debut.

It’s always nice to see a player finally make it after struggling in the minor leagues for years. Ryan Ludwick, who crossed 300 major league plate appearances at 28, and Nelson Cruz (who did so at 26) are relative success stories for this group.

There’s also Garrett Jones knocking on the door after his great 2009 season. In just 358 plate appearances, Jones made an impression, especially as a slugger. Take a look at the Bloomberg Sports Fantasy Tools JonesGrab.jpgspider graphs on the left for an idea of how good he was last year.

While Ludwick and Cruz have gone through slumps and have made it through to the other side, Jones is currently slumping. Since he debuted at 26 and didn’t get a regular gig until last year at 28, it’s possible that we should be more worried about his current slump than we should about your garden-variety slump. After all, the average player that debuted at 26 only lasted three years in the bigs.

In Jones’ defense, players with lesser debuts might be happy to be putting up the .259/.352/.411 line that he currently sports. Those numbers are above-average compared to the average hitter, but slightly below average for a corner outfielder. But after showing a .274 ISO (isolated slugging, i.e. slugging average minus batting average) last year, his slugging has fallen off, and his current .152 ISO is below his .192 minor league ISO. Since ISO takes 500 plate appearances to stabilize, his career major-league .219 ISO is just barely statistically significant. If he did experience a little power surge, it would take Jones away from a guy on pace for 20 home runs to one closer to being useful in mixed fantasy leagues.

But it’s no sure thing that a surge is coming. For one, Jones is chopping the ball into the ground (47.7% this year, 41.8% career) while his flyball rate is low for a supposed power hitter (33.6%). Via minorleaguesplits.com, we can see that Jones has hit more groundballs than flyballs every year since 2006 in the minor leagues. Even during last year’s big league breakout, he hit just 41.3% flyballs. He’s no flyball-heavy slugger.

Most of his swing rates are similar this year to last year’s breakout numbers, but there’s evidence that the league has adjusted to Jones in the pitching mix he’s seeing. FanGraphs tracks Linear Weights, which use game-state statistics to attempt to give value to specific pitches. Jones was very good against fastballs last year – his plus-14.6 runs put him just short of established sluggers Lance Berkman (+15 runs) and Brad Hawpe (+16.4 runs) against the heater. So this year, pitchers are throwing the fastball less often: 49% of the time, versus 54.9% of the time last year. It’s up to Jones to adjust now.

Given the fact that Jones hits a lot of groundballs and is seeing a different pitching mix this year, we probably shouldn’t expect a repeat of last year’s power binge — and he probably isn’t a good buy-low candidate. Placing him in the context of other late-blooming players like Cruz and Ludwick only makes the picture worse. If you own Jones in a deep league, you might as well just hold. In a shallow league, you might find something better on the waiver wire.

For more on Garrett Jones and other late-blooming baseballers, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools.

Is the Captain on His Last Legs?


By R.J. Anderson //

Nearly 50 games into the regular season and Derek Jeter does not look like Derek Jeter. It starts with his .275/.319/.399 slash line, which looks like it belongs to Jeter’s backup in any given year. Jeter is walking in fewer than 5% of his plate appearances – a career low – and striking out more than in recent years. Is there any upside to keeping the Yankees’ captain, or is this the beginning of the end?

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Jeter is seeing significantly fewer pitches than normal. Between 2005 and 2009, Jeter’s seasonal low for pitches per plate appearance was 3.72, this year it’s 3.59. Making matters worse is that Jeter is hitting nearly 70% of his batted balls on the ground. Given the limitations of batted ball data – i.e. whether the ball is being hit hard, or softly – it’s impossible to say whether Jeter is replicating his trademark out (the slow grounder to shortstop) more often than usual. Two things are certain: 1) Jeter’s .300 BABIP is well below recent norms and 2) Jeter is swinging outside of the zone more than he ever has before. That could be a sign of pressing or a sign that Jeter’s plate approach is waning.

While Jeter should not be expected to continue to perform this poorly heading forward, the reality is that he is a soon-to-be 36-year-old shortstop. Mike Axisa of the wonderful River Avenue Blues site recently tweeted that only three 36-year-old shortstops in the last 50 years have posted an OPS+ of 100 or better. Those three were Barry Larkin, Ozzie Smith, and Luis Aparicio, three of the all-time positional greats.

Deciding whether to sell low on Jeter or not might be the most difficult decision some fantasy owners will make this season. Simply put, there’s no right answer. Yes, he’s old for a starting major league shortstop. But he’s also coming off a fantastic season and is one of the finest talents to ever take the field. The best news might come from 2008. Jeter had similarly poor outings in April and May — posting OPS of .654 and .715 respectively – before hitting his stride and finishing as an above-average hitter. That was just two seasons ago, so it’s certainly not impossible to think Jeter could do it once more.

For more on Derek Jeter and other struggling veterans, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools.

Has Anything Changed with Jeff Niemann?

by Eno Sarris //

Sometimes, you just like a guy. In the case of Jeff Niemann, there are things to like. He’s got a great nickname, for one. “The Big Nyquil” is big – six-foot nine – and owns a skillset capable of lulling a fan to sleep. His 16 pitches per inning in his rookie year, and his Trachsel-like pace on the mound, inspired the nickname, popularized by Rays blog DRaysBay.com.

NiemannGrab.jpgAs a fan of undervalued players, that’s good enough reason for this fan to follow Niemann, and even enough reason to draft him. Look how Niemann stacks up against the top 10 pitchers in baseball this year, in the Bloomberg Sports Fantasy Tools spider graph to the right. With his great start (and only 14 pitches per inning), is he worth more attention?

First, the role of luck in Niemann’s career should be charted. Take a look at his underlying statistics and the difference in ERA below. Pretty interesting that a pitcher could be so similar in two years and yet have such different ERAs, isn’t it? The fact that the two xFIPs (a number that strips out batted-ball luck and normalizes home-run rates, then produces a number on the ERA scale) are exactly the same gives you a clearer picture of Niemann’s true ability level.

NiemannStats.jpgThis table seems to suggest that Niemann’s underlying game hasn’t changed much, so we should probably expect something more like last year’s surface stats in the future. In fact, with his strikeout rates declining, could we expect worse?

It’s not all bad with Niemann. He has increased his groundball percentage (from 40.5% to 45.6%). Unfortunately, thanks to work by Harry Pavlidis that published just last week, we can see that Niemann’s new groundball percentage is pretty close to the average groundball rate on all pitches in baseball so far this year (44%). So he improved… to average.

What about swing rates? Take a look at the table on the right, with statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.com. Almost every single swing rate is either the same or marginally worse thisNiemannStats2.jpg year. Batters are reaching at pitches about the same, seeing about as many pitches inside and outside the zone, and making contact just a little bit more this year. That last number is swinging strike percentage (or whiff %), and it’s below-average (8.5%). That’s why Niemann doesn’t rack up the strikeouts.

It’s fine to like a pitcher, whether for his quirks on the mound or aspects of his game. But when you are playing fantasy baseball, and you have a player that has secondary statistics that have remained static while their ERA has fluctuated, it’s best to trust the underlying numbers. As you can see in this case in particular, those secondary statistics remain more stable.

In the case of Niemann, they paint the picture of a mid-rotation major league starter, and a low-end option in most mixed leagues. If Niemann’s perceived value is that of a more elite pitcher, take advantage and sell high.

For more on Jeff “The Big Nyquil” Niemann and other surging pitchers, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools.

Is it Time to Dump Chone Figgins?

By R.J. Anderson //

When the Seattle Mariners signed the speedy Chone Figgins to a four-year deal over the off-season, a .193 batting average and eight stolen bases is not what they envisioned. Yet, to date, Figgins has produced just that total and looks hapless at the plate, leading some to wonder whether the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim knew what they were doing when they let Figgins walk.

While the Angels almost certainly held intimate knowledge of Figgins, even the most pessimistic account of his aging patterns would be hard-pressed to forecast his strikeout rate jumping from the teens to more than a quarter of his at-bats. Data provided by FanGraphs has Figgins’ contact rate at a career-low 80.9%, whereas in recent seasons Figgins has made contact at an 86% rate. That is concerning, but the good news is that Figgins is still drawing walks. What about that batting average though?

Figgins’ batting average on balls in play is a measly .250. His career rate is 88 points higher; over the last three seasons, Figgins’ low is .356. Using batted ball data to dissect his game, Figgins is hitting as many grounders as ever, but fewer liners than usual. Behold though, the one real caveat about batted ball data in general: Line drive percentage. Since human scorers tally what is a fly ball and what is a line drive, there are discrepancies year-to-year and park-to-park. A quick glance at previous years shows that the Angels’ scorer might take some liberties in qualifying close fly/liner cases as line drives rather than fly balls.

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Figgins’ struggles are exacerbated by circumstance. In April of 2009, Figgins hit .244 with an inflated strikeout rate and wound up fine. In September and October of 2008, Figgins hit .234. In 2007, Figgins hit .250 in April and then .156 in May. He then torched the league for a .461 average in June, .351 in July, and .342 in August. Those months are only cherry-picked in the sense that the following results are known.

The expectations for Figgins’ season outlook have certainly depressed, but at the same time, presuming that Figgins cannot hit for the Mariners when five weeks ago everyone thought he would makes no sense. It’s that fly-by-the-seat style of roster management that leaves notoriously slow starters ripe for the grabbing come this time of the year.

If you own Figgins, hold onto him. If someone in your league dropped him, run to the waiver wire and take advantage of your competition’s short-sightedness.

For more on Chone Figgins and other struggling players, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools.

Geovany Soto: Back And Better Than Ever

By Tommy Rancel //

It was not too long ago when Geovany Soto was considered a future star in Chicago. The Cubs catcher looked like a major offensive weapon at a position largely void of heavy hitters, hitting .285/.364/.504 (AVG/OBP/SLG) in his breakout 2008 campaign and earning National League Rookie of the Year honors.

The bar was set high for Soto in 2009. But his season got off to a rough start. As a member of Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, word broke of a failed drug test. In addition to the off-field problems, Soto struggled on the field for most of 2009, hitting just .218/.321/.381 in his second full season.

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Soto saw steep declines in several categories, including: home runs (23 to 11), RBI (86 to 47) and runs scored (66 to 27). After playing 141 games in ’08, he played just 102 games in ’09, as a strained oblique knocked out a chunk of his summer.

Healthy, and seemingly clear of trouble, Soto has rebounded to 2008 levels and beyond. The 27-year-old is hitting .298/.463/.468 after 32 games in 2010. He has already scored 17 runs after crossing the plate just 27 times last year.

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Soto’s strong start is similar to that of Carlos Ruiz; whom we spoke about last week. Like Ruiz, Soto has been the beneficiary of a lucky batting average on balls in play (BABIP). His career BABIP is .310. So far this year that number sits at .353. On the other hand, his .246 BABIP in ’09 suggests there was some bad luck last season.

His high 2010 BABIP is driven by a robust 26.4% line drive rate. As mentioned in the Ruiz post, only four players had an LD% above 24% last year. Soto’s career rate is 20.3%.

There will likely be some regression here, but it shouldn’t be too damaging. ZiPs projects him to hit .275 at season’s end. That’s an expected 23-point drop from his current level, but still above his career average of .268.

In another similarity to Ruiz, Soto is walking more than ever. Soto has always had a good walk rate (12% career), but is now walking nearly 1/4 of the time. For the first time in his career, his walk rate (23.6%) tops his strikeout rate (23.4%). That’s a rare feat seen only among players with the sharpest batting eyes.

The improved walk rate has a direct correlation to improved pitch selection. Career-wise, Soto has swung at 18.8% of pitches outside of the strike zone (O-Swing%). In 2010, he is chasing just 12.5% of pitches out of the zone – the second-lowest percentage in the majors (min. 90 plate appearances).

If you own Soto, hang on to him. His batting average will likely regress, but the improved plate discipline should allow him to maintain an excellent on-base percentage. He also continues to show good power from behind the dish, another rarity.

If you don’t have Soto and need a catcher, make sure to put his name at the top of your shopping list. The bounty is likely too high right now, but if his average starts to slip, the price may come down. At that point, be prepared to strike quickly.

For more on Geovany Soto, Carlos Ruiz, and potential breakouts, check out Bloomberg Sports’ fantasy kits.

Shane Victorino’s Strange Season

By Eriq Gardner
By almost any
measure, Shane Victorino has put up a season so far that’s
downright freakish.
The Flyin’ Hawaiian
came into the 2010 season a good bet to be slightly above average in
every major statistical category. Throughout his career, Victorino has
always put the ball into play, striking out just 13 percent of the time.
That’s typically led to a pretty decent batting average (.283 for his
career) and he has buttressed his fantasy value with decent pop (two
straight seasons of double-digit home runs) and excellent speed (61
combined steals in 2008-2009).
This year,
Victorino is slightly off his career batting and speed numbers. He’s
hitting .275 and is on pace for 25 steals, when most people expected at
least 30. 
Then again, we can hardly call
Victorino a disappointment. Right now, he’s slugged 8 HR out of the
ballpark, which gives him two more than teammate Ryan Howard and
puts him on pace for 36. He also has a team-leading 32 RBI and 28 runs
scored, second on the high-powered Phillies offense.
Still, Victorino was drafted as a guy who
could go 12-.290-90-60-30 and right now he’s looking like a
35-.270-110-140-22 player. What in the name of Alfonso Soriano is
going on?
Here’s a graphical look at
Victorino’s season:
victorino1.png
Victorino’s
strikeout rate is up slightly, but he’s been the victim of poor luck
on balls hit in play. Despite possessing ample speed to beat out
infield hits, Victorino’s BABIP sits at .277, where league average
typically hovers around .300. 
His ISO is up,
from .153 to .244, but it appears he’s been the beneficiary of good
luck
in the HR department. Victorino is putting the ball in the air
more, increasing his flyball rate from 33% to 44%, but at the same time,
his fly-ball-to-home-run rate has rocketed from 5.5% to 13.3%.
As
for steals, this depends on one’s viewpoint. His speed indicators –
such as extra-base hits and his stolen base success rate — are all
fairly normal. He’s simply not attempting as many steals as he did in
prior seasons. 
After the Phillies acquired Placido
Polanco
in the off-season, manager Charlie Manuel slotted Victorino
into the seventh position of his batting order — bad luck since that
slot is not known to produce many SB opportunities. But then, Jimmy
Rollins
got injured and in a stroke of good luck for him, Victorino
got time as the leadoff hitter. Victorino actually hit .289 in the
leadoff slot compared to just .161 in the 7th slot, but he didn’t use
his time as Rollins’ replacement at the top of the order to swipe many
bases. Instead, he just knocked one ball after another over the fence.
On
Monday, Rollins was activated from the DL. For one game at least,
Victorino remained in the leadoff spot, with Rollins and his out-making
bat hitting third.

victorino2.png

What can we expect from here on
out?
According to all sensible projections
that adjust for the flukish good and bad luck that Victorino has
been seeing lately, he should be the same batter we expected all along.
(See the graph to the right.) Decent, but not great pop. Good speed.
Nice average. 
Of course, six weeks of very
strange numbers could mean there’s a reasonable chance that Victorino
ends up pushing that highly improbable 20-20 season. Go figure.
For more on
Shane Victorino, check out
 Bloomberg Sports’ fantasy kits. 

(Video) Ballpark Figures: Dose of Reality

By Bloomberg Sports //

Ballpark Figures: Dose of Reality — Bloomberg Television’s Michele Steele and Bloomberg Sports Fantasy Analyst Rob Shaw are talking some baseball. Today, they focus on the closers with interviews featuring Braves closer Billy Wagner, Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez, and Dodgers closer Jonanthan Broxton. Hear who the closers name as the game’s best in the business.

Colby Lewis: New Pitcher

by Eno Sarris //

We’ve talked in this space about different ways that a pitcher can improve his game. He can refine a pitch and increase his whiff rate on a specific pitch like Johnny Cueto, or alter his pitching mix like Mike Pelfrey. Usually that change happens right in front of our eyes in American baseball. In the case of Colby Lewis, we actually have a pitcher that seems to have done both by undergoing a sea change abroad.

Lewis left MLB for Japan after the 2007 season, following an ERA north of six with the Rangers and Athletics. He struggled to strike out batters at an above-average rate, couldn’t keep walks down (career 4.8 BB/9 before this year), and didn’t have a proclivity for worm-burning, as his career groundball percentage is below average (39.9%). There wasn’t much that suggested he was going to succeed in the major leagues other than his good minor league statistics (3.39 ERA, 1.185 WHIP, 8.7 K/9, 2.5 BB/9).

Then he went to Japan. In those two years, Lewis had a strikeout rate over one per inning, and walked a minuscule 1.16 batters per nine. His ERA was sparkling and under three both years, he led the Japanese leagues in WHIP one year, and he took the strikeout crown both years. You could say that he made good use of his time there.

Now that he’s back, he’s striking people out, not walking people as often as he did before, and has even become the subject of fawning love letters in the media. Okay, it’s not quite a love letter, but you get the picture. Despite his poor start on Sunday, Lewis is still striking out more than a batter per inning, and walking fewer than four batters per nine innings. The Bloomberg Sports Fantasy Tools spider chart shows us that his current walk and strikeout rates make him aLewisGrab.jpg more than capable fantasy as an SP2 in a deep league, or SP3 in a shallower league. The dot closest to him is Justin Verlander

First off, he’s been a little lucky, but not incredibly so. His BABIP will rise (.261 currently, around .300 MLB-wide), and he’ll strand fewer runners (78.1% this year, 70% across baseball). As more dinks and dunks fall into play, more runners will cross the plate instead of ending the inning on the basepaths. Lewis is also a flyball pitcher that is only giving up 0.88 HR/9 because of a slightly-generous 8.3% HR/FB rate. That number usually approaches 9-11% across baseball, so a couple more long flies could turn into homers soon, especially in the favorable hitting environment at Arlington.

All that said, Lewis’ xFIP (a number that focuses on strikeouts and walks and strips out batted-ball luck, and produces a number on the ERA scale) is still 3.99; that seems to be a good estimate of his true talent level. He’s obviously striking people out and has made real progress finding the strike zone.

Most of his progression came from altering his pitching mix to feature his slider. In 2003, Lewis used his fastball 74.6% of the time and his slider 2.4% of the time. FanGraphs tracks a stat called linear weights, which uses game states before and after a pitch to measure the effectiveness of each type of pitch. In 2003, Lewis’ fastball was ‘worth’ -25.8 runs. That number is legendarily bad, as Carl Pavano owned last year’s worst fastball with -23.6 runs and Zach Duke‘s -19.4 runs fastball was second-worst. Surprisingly for such a bad season, Lewis’ slider was still worth +1.2 runs that year.

After five years of featuring that below-average fastball and hiding his slider, which was the only pitch that was consistently positive by linear weights, it took two years in Japan for the light to go on permanently. Now that Lewis is back, he’s using the slider 30.3% of the time, and it’s his best pitch by linear weights (+7.8 runs). Altering his pitching mix has made all of his pitches more effective, as his fastball is finally a positive (+2.1 runs).

Lewis’ slider is his most effective pitch at getting whiffs this year (15%, 8.5% is average), and in particular it’s great low and away as Dave Allen showed on FanGraphs.com. Using Patrick Newman’s pitch f/x tracker for the Japanese leagues, we can see that he refined the pitch while in Japan. Take a look at the image below, which shows how often he threw the slider in a typical start (5/22/09 in this case, and the sliders are yellow).

LewisPFX.jpgThe biggest remaining question is which way Lewis’ walk rate will go. Obviously, he was having trouble in that category before he left for Japan, as his career rate suggests (4.86 BB/9). And then he dominated in that category in Japan, where the strike zone is called a little bit larger and walks are not as prominent in the baseball culture. For example, Patrick Newman had this to say about the Japanese strike zone:

“My (unofficial) translation of the official rule is “the strike zone’s
upper limit is the point mid-way between the batter’s shoulders and the
top of his pants, the lower limit is the bottom of the batter’s knees,
and covers the area over homeplate”. So that’s not too far off the MLB
strike zone. In practice, I have noticed that the umpires can get a
little generous at times.”

Of course we can expect his walks to come in closer to the major league average (3.59 BB/9) than his elite Japanese rates, but if he does only walk batters at an average rate, his strikeout ability will play well enough to make that work as a package. On the other hand, if the walk rate starts creeping significantly over 4 (and after his bad start Sunday, it’s at 3.68 BB/9), Lewis may have some trouble.

In the meantime, Lewis is a hold in shallow leagues – you wouldn’t get much for such an unestablished non-prospect pitcher anyway – and a testament to the ability of pitchers to change. With that new focus on the slider, he’s practically a new pitcher.

For more on Colby Lewis and other surging pitchers, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools.

Plan C: The Phillies Turn To Jose Contreras to Close Games

By Tommy Rancel //

Several major league teams have switched closers this season due to incumbents’ ineffectiveness. The Philadelphia Philies, on the other hand, have made multiple changes at the closer spot because they can’t find one player to remain healthy at the position. With Brad Lidge on the disabled list, again, the Phillies went looking for a new 9th-inning man.

Lidge started the season on the disabled list with an injured elbow. He was activated on April 30th and appeared in four games, recording one save. He felt some soreness earlier this week, and now finds himself back on the DL with inflammation of that same pitching elbow.

When Lidge started the season on the shelf, the Phils turned the ball over to his set-up man Ryan Madson. To the naked eye, it appeared Madson struggled in the role with a 7.00 ERA. But much of that gaudy ERA stemmed from bad luck, as Madson allowed two home runs in just nine innings of work. Looking at his expected fielding independent pitching (xFIP), a metric that looks at walks and strikeouts along with a neutralized home run rate, Madson’s xFIP was a sparkling 2.79.

In his time as closer, Madson notched four saves. However, he had two blown saves in six chances. The latter of the two came against the San Francisco Giants. Madson was so frustrated after the game that he kicked a metal chair, injuring his toe. Madson needed surgery on the toe and currently sits on the 60-day DL.

With Lidge on the DL again, and Madson already there, the Phillies have turned to former starting pitcher Jose Contreras to close games – at least for now. Contreras has spent the bulk of his career in major league rotations. Of his 206 career appearances, 175 of them have come in the form of starts. The 15 appearances out of the Phillies pen this year represent nearly half of his 31 career relief outings.

Contreras spent most of 2009 as a starter, splitting time between the Chicago White Sox and the Colorado Rockies. He made 21 starts for Chicago before being traded to Colorado later on in the season. He made two starts for the Rockies before moving to the team’s bullpen. In recent seasons, Contreras was barely average as a starting pitcher. He battled injuries and ineffectiveness for the better part of the last few years.

However, at his listed age of 38, Contreras has re-invented himself as a very good relief pitcher. Since moving to the bullpen, Contreras has seen his strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) jump. Career wise, his K/9 of 6.70 is unspectacular, However, out of the bullpen, he has struck out more than a batter per inning.

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This season, Contreras has 18 Ks in 13.1 innings; a K/9 of 12.15. While the strikeouts have increased, the walks have declined. Contreras has shown decent control in his career with a walks per nine (BB/9) of 3.25. With just two walks in 2010, his BB/9 sits at 1.35 in the early stage of this season.

In fact, Contreras is the only relief pitcher to have an ERA below 1.00 and a K/9 above 12.0 so far this season. (min 10 IP)

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One potential reason for the increase in strikes is an increase in velocity. As a starting pitcher, a player must condition himself to conserve enough velocity and energy to throw upwards of 100 pitches on his day. As a relief pitcher, he can fire away as his workload goes down to around 15-20 pitches per night. In his career, Contreras has averaged 91.7 mph on the fastball. In 2010, he is throwing almost three miles per hour more at 94.6. He is also getting more swings and misses than ever, with a swing strike percentage of 14.8% compared to 9.3% in his career.

On Saturday, his 206th career appearance, Contreras did something he had never done in the major leagues; he saved a game. With Madson and Lidge unavailable, it appears that Charlie Manuel will give Ol’ Jose a chance to pad that career save total of one.

Given Contreras’ improved skills and the Phillies winning wins, the Cuban righty is worth grabbing in all formats. If you have a free agent bidding budget, invest the extra buck to get him.

For more on Jose Contreras and fill-in closers, check out Bloomberg Sports’ fantasy kits. 

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