June 2010

Is Francisco Liriano the Best Pitcher in the American League?

By Tommy Rancel //

Similar to the recently profiled Josh Johnson, Francisco Liriano captivated the major leagues as a rookie in 2006. As the understudy to staff ace Johan Santana on the Minnesota Twins’ staff, Liriano went 12-3 with a 2.15 ERA in 28 appearances.

In an unfortunate similarity to Johnson, Liriano blew out his arm, and would miss all of 2007. He tossed just 76 innings in 2008 and struggled in his full-time return in 2009. That said, he continues to parallel Johnson. This time, in a good way.

Through 14 turns in the rotation, Liriano is just 6-5. His 3.11 ERA ranks among the league leaders, but still doesn’t fully convey how well he has pitched in 2010. For that, we look to fielding independent metrics like FIP and xFIP. By now you know FIP and xFIP measure events a pitcher can control: strikeouts, walks and home runs. xFIP drills still further down by normalizing the pitcher’s home run rate to league average.

According to FIP, Liriano has been the major league’s best pitcher not named Cliff Lee. His 2.16 FIP in 2010 is even better than the 2.55 he posted as a rookie in ’06. Looking at his 2.99 xFIP compared to Lee’s 3.11, one could argue that Liriano has been the American League’s best pitcher.

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So how does arguably the best pitcher in the league have just six wins? Run support and bad luck are to blame.

Of qualified starters in the AL, Liriano owns the 10th-lowest run support, according to ESPN.com. For comparison, the Yankees have scored nearly twice as many runs when Phil Hughes toes the rubber as the Twins have Liriano pitches.

In addition to the lack of run support, Liriano has been one of the league’s unluckiest pitchers in terms of batting average on balls in play. The .348 BABIP carried by Liriano in 2010 is the third-highest in the AL; league average BABIP is .302. And while his personal BABIP has always been a bit above the norm (.316 career), his current total is by far the highest of his career.

The large BABIP number is a bit odd given the fact that the Twins employ an above-average defense, especially in the infield. I note the infield defense because 49.8% of the balls hit against Liriano this year have been groundballs, another excellent skill. Even in the absences of J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson, Minnesota’s backup infielders posted positive UZR (ultimate zone rating) marks*.

*Defensive statistics such as UZR usually take years of data to show true talent levels.

As noted, when looking at factors Liriano can control, he has done a wonderful job. His strikeouts per nine innings rate (K/9) of 9.71 ranks among the game’s elite. His walks per nine innings rate (BB/9) of just 2.43 suggests that his control is back to where it was pre-injury. The one category that may regress in a negative manner is home runs allowed (just two home runs allowed in 92.2 innings). But xFIP suggests that even with regression he is still among the game’s best.

Because his win total and ERA aren’t as fantasy friendly as some other starters, Liriano might be available in trade at a slight discount compared to his true worth – that of an elite starter. He’s been about as good as Ubaldo Jimenez, for instance, but with much less hype. If you own Jimenez and can land a deal that nets you Liriano and, say, a solid bat or half-decent closer, jump on it.

For more on Francisco Liriano and other underrated aces, check out Bloomberg Sports’ fantasy kits

Matt Wieters’ Disappointing Season

By R.J. Anderson //

To say Matt Wieters may have been a tad bit overhyped is more than fair at this point in the catcher’s career. Through the first 637 plate appearance of his career, Wieters slash line is a paltry .264/.322/.384. For the sake of comparison, Jason Kendall’s career line is .289/.367/.380. That’s counting some excellent seasons earlier in his career…but, still.

Everything about Wieters screams that he should be performing better than last year. His walk rate has increased nearly a full percentage point (from 7.3% to 8.1%), his strikeouts have declined (from 24.3% to 22.9%), and his ISO (slugging percentage minus batting average, an indicator of power hitting) has remained nearly the same (.124 to .115).

The elephant in the elevator is Wieters’ batting average on balls in play and batted ball profile. He’s hitting more groundballs than last year (roughly 5% more; or 47% total) and yet his BABIP has dropped nearly .100 points, to less .269 (league average is typically around .300).

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Generally, putting the ball on the ground means more singles and fewer extra-base hits. Yet, that doesn’t always hold true when the batter isn’t fast enough to beat out close plays for infield hits. Wieters has all of four career infield hits; that lack of speed, combined with an unhealthy dose of poor luck, have been the culprits.

The reality of the situation is that Wieters’ hype has caused fantasy owners to hold on a little longer than they should. In keeper leagues, he’s well worth a hold.

But standard 12-team mixed league owners can probably find better options elsewhere. To name two: Angels’ catcher Mike Napoli’s already reached double-digit home runs, and Miguel Montero recently returned for the Diamondbacks and is mashing, while hitting in the middle of the Arizona lineup.

For more on Matt Wieters and other catchers, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools.

David DeJesus’ Walk on Water Act

By R.J. Anderson //

Few major league hitters have been hotter over the past 30 days than David DeJesus. The Royals’ outfielder is hitting .442/.500/.611 during that time, with a walk-to-strikeout ratio just under 1.00 and a .500 BABIP. He’s right next to Aubrey Huff, Josh Hamilton, and Robinson Cano for the title of best performer of the past month.

For the season DeJesus is now batting .325/.394/.482; a career best line for the 30-year-old and a well-timed one at that. The trade deadline is a little over a month away. With contenders looking to stock their shelves for a playoff run, DeJesus’ name is bound to pop up more than normal. That’s especially true for clubs like the Atlanta Braves, who could not only use another outfielder, but a top-of-the-lineup bat too. Of course, whether the Royals choose to trade DeJesus is up in the air. They have some internal replacements and it seems like an obvious opportunity to make a deal, yet none of that has really stopped them from doing the unexpected.

DeJesus’ seasonal BABIP is a career high, which suggests that he’s not going to continue getting hits at this pace. He’s not hitting for much additional power either (his ISO – slugging percentage minus batting average – is nearly identical to previous years) so most of these extra hits have been singles. He’s not even walking that much more than normal (a whisker shy of 10%), although he is striking out at a career-low rate, but just barely (a little less than 14%).

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DeJesus has always been a consistent hitter; batting at least .285 every season but one since breaking into the majors in 2003. He’s also racked up at least double-digit homers each of the past two seasons and stolen a few bags here and there too.

While that consistency helps, DeJesus’ overall average package isn’t all that exciting for standard 12-team leagues; that most fantasy leagues don’t count defense creates an even bigger gap between his real-life value (substantial) and fantasy value. If you own DeJesus, consider selling high. His numbers stand a good chance of regressing, and the added risk of being him traded to the National League makes it a good time to cash in.

For more on the hottest hitters, check out Bloomberg Sports’ fantasy kits

(Video) Ballpark Figures: Hot Commodities

By Bloomberg Sports //

Ballpark Figures: Hot Commodities — Bloomberg Television’s Michele Steele and Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Analyst Rob Shaw discuss some sleepers in fantasy baseball.

Marlins’ Josh Johnson Is the South Beach Secret

By Tommy Rancel //

It is hard to be 6-foot-7, 250 pounds, and go unnoticed in any walk of life. It is even harder to be that large, in addition to being a highly successful athlete in a major city, and still go unnoticed. However, Josh Johnson of the Florida Marlins is all of the above, and barely generates a buzz on the national landscape.

The Marlins’ right-hander has been one of the National League’s best-kept secrets for a few years now. But in 2010 he is on the verge of breaking out. Johnson won 12 games as a 22-year-old rookie in 2006. Unfortunately, Tommy John surgery wiped out nearly all of his 2007 and 2008 seasons. Since his return, Johnson has been fantastic. Peter Gammons notes that since his full-time return in July of 2008, Johnson is 30-8 with a sub 3.00 ERA.

After going 15-5 last year, the Marlins rewarded their ace with a four-year contract worth $39 million. Looking at his 2010 season to date, there is no doubt they are glad they got the deal done when they did.

In 15 starts, Johnson is 8-3 with a 1.80 ERA. He has 98 strikeouts and just 26 walks in 100 innings. His FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), which measures home runs allowed, walks, and strikeouts, is an NL-best 2.56 – better than Ubaldo Jimenez, Roy Halladay, and Tim Lincecum.

Speaking of Jimenez, Johnson has 10 more strikeouts, 10 fewer walks, and has surrendered just one more home run than Jimenez, despite less than a two-inning gap between the two aces. Jimenez has grabbed the national spotlight – and deservedly so – but outside of wins and ERA – two metrics that rely heavily on outside factors – Johnson has been just as good, if not better.

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Currently, Johnson is doing something not even Jimenez has been able to accomplish. In fact, it has only occurred a handful of times in major league history. Greg Cote (via Rob Neyer) tells us that Johnson’s recent string of eight straight starts with one run or less allowed is just the eighth such streak in MLB history. During that stretch, Johnson is 5-1 with a 0.63 ERA.

Beyond the microscopic ERA, and the pace for 17-19 wins, Johnson is having a career year in several other categories. Going back to FIP metrics, Johnson is striking out more batters than ever, while walking fewer and allowing fewer balls to leave the yard.

His strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) rate of 8.82 is a half-strikeout better than last season – his previous career best of 8.20. His walks per nine innings (BB/9) rate of 2.34 represent a career low. He has allowed just four home runs in 100 innings, which puts his HR/9 (home runs per nine innings) rate at just 0.36, another career best.

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Despite the stellar marks in numerous categories, we know better than to completely take some of these metrics at face value. The strikeouts and walks are what they are, but in most cases, a low ERA is likely a product of defense and luck. Luck is also sometimes a factor in the number of home runs a pitcher allows.

It is true Johnson has been somewhat “lucky,” but not enough to discredit his fantastic start as anything but that. Johnson’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .270 is a bit lower than the league average (.302). If he regresses toward his career number of .301, he will allow more base runners, and in turn have a greater chance of giving up more runs.

In conjunction with BABIP, Johnson has stranded nearly 83% of his base runners (LOB%). The league average is around 71%. Career wise, Johnson owns an LOB% of 75.9. Again, there may be some regression here, but nothing too overwhelming. That said, in either case, even slight regression would raise his ERA.

As mentioned, Johnson’s HR/9 is 0.36. The league average is near 1.0. On the other hand, Johnson might not see much regression here. He has always maintained a lower than normal home run rate as evidenced in his career 0.62 HR/9. A key factor is the number of flyballs allowed, and the number that actually leave the park. We’ve talked about the value of groundballs before: More groundballs mean fewer chances for home runs to fly out of the yard. Johnson’s current groundball rate of 48.5% is nearly elite. For his career, just 7.6% of flyballs hit against him have gone for home runs. This year that number is down to 4.7%. Once more, you can expect some regression, but not much.

With a mid-90s fastball, and a slider that induces a whiff 16% of the time, there is plenty to like about Johnson. Add in the groundballs and the lack of extremely lucky batted ball data, and you have one of the best pitchers in baseball. If you already have Johnson, enjoy. If you don’t, he’s worth a big trade offer.

For more on Josh Johnson and other under the radar stars, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools.

(Video) Ballpark Figures: Stock Report

By Bloomberg Sports //

Ballpark Figures: Stock Report — Bloomberg Television’s Michele Steele and Bloomberg Fantasy Sports Anlayst Rob Shaw go over the Bulls and Bears on the Fantasy Baseball Stock Report.

How to Catch Up in ERA in Fantasy Baseball

By Eriq Gardner //

Let’s assume for a second that your team needs to improve in pitching for you to win a championship. You basically have three options:

  1. Hope your pitching staff gets luckier from here on out
  2. Hope your pitching staff improves via prospect call-ups or additions off the waiver wire
  3. Make a trade

Most owners will choose of the first two options. But maybe, you’re clear-headed and know that your current pitching staff just doesn’t have the stuff to improve. You don’t want to risk your season in the hands of a prospect. Maybe streaming is not very enticing either.  You want stability, so you start thinking of a trade.

But what kind of trade do you need? Most owners may have a vague idea they’d like to improve pitching, and will shop around for great pitchers on other teams who can be helpful in attaining the goal of improving pitching. But then again, why pay for Ubaldo Jimenez and Josh Johnson if you only need Ted Lilly and Hiroki Kuroda? Sure, you may accomplish your goal of upgrading pitching, but by sacrificing too much to plug the leak on one end, you may cause the dam to burst on the other.

Let’s assume team is targeting 1400 innings and has 850 left to pitch in the season. (Depending on your innings limit and your current pace, this might not be completely accurate, but should be close enough for this kind of exercise.)

Here’s a table showing how many earned runs you need to shave off from your current pitching staff the rest of the way:

So how do we save those runs? OK, here’s some ideas…

To save 8 runs:

Frankly, if you only need to diminish your team ERA by 0.05, you’re better off hoping the gods of fantasy baseball luck cooperate. Eight runs over 850 innings is simply within the margin of error of any projection.

That said, for the sake of fun, let’s take a look at some swaps that would yield 8 runs saved. To do this, we’re going to use ZIPS rest-of-season projections.

Eight runs is not a lot. It can easily (and best) be done by upgrading a closer. For example, going from Matt Capps to Brian Wilson or from Kevin Gregg to Heath Bell. Your trading partner may shrug off this exchange because he’s not giving up a ton of saves, but there’s an ERA benefit in making such a swap. If you’re doing well in saves you might also consider trading your back-end closer for an upgrade in hitting, and replacing one of your closers with a top middle reliever or set-up man. For example, going from Arizona’s shaky new closer Aaron Heilman to Luke Gregerson would do the job.

To save 16 runs:

If you want to diminish your ERA by 0.1 the rest of the way via trade, you can get creative with your bullpen by trading for two closers, or punting shaky closers and saves and going with middle relievers. More likely, you’ll be looking at the starting pitching market.

What kind of starters need to be exchanged to yield savings of 16 runs? You’ll probably need to upgrade two or three slots, meaning exchanging a #3 or #4 for a #1, like Ricky Nolasco for Cliff Lee or James Shields for Tim Lincecum. Buying those two pitchers would probably be expensive, though. So a better strategy might be looking to drop your #5 and acquire a #2 or #3: Getting rid of someone like Wade LeBlanc/Mike Pelfrey/Barry Zito/Fausto Carmona and trading for someone like Roy Oswalt/Hiroki Kuroda/Clayton Kershaw/Ted Lilly should be good enough.

To save 24 runs:

We’re now at the point where teams need to be looking at drastic upgrades.

To give you an idea, going from Paul Maholm to Cliff Lee saves just 19 expected runs. Going from Kyle Kendrick to Tommy Hanson saves 22 expected runs.

In other words, to diminish your ERA by .15, you probably need to trade for an ace and hope the acquired pitcher can get a little bit lucky the rest of the season.

To save 32 runs:

To diminish your ERA by 0.2 via trade, you’re probably looking at multiple player swaps. If you’re looking at the standings and see a gap this large,  you may want to consider combining some of the strategies outlined above.

For instance, when you ask for an ace pitcher in a trade, you may also try to press your trading partner to include a closer swap too. So for example, a trade might look something like this: Alex Rios and Matt Capps for Cliff Lee and Joakim Soria.

At a certain point, catching up in ERA is going to either be too difficult or too expensive. At that point, it might be a better strategy to look the other way by deciding to sacrifice some ground in ERA for greater potential gains in other categories. We’ll have more on that in a future post. 

To get more trading ideas, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools

(Video) Ballpark Figures: Fantasy Headlines

By Bloomberg Sports //

Ballpark Figures: Fantasy Headlines — Bloomberg Television’s Michele Steele and Bloomberg Sports Fantasy Analyst Rob Shaw discuss the day’s fantasy sports headlines. Shaw offers a Closer’s Report.

Aubrey Huff: Underrated Fantasy Slugger?

by Eno Sarris //

There’s a slugger in San Francisco hitting long homers into the bay in San Francisco these days. Aubrey Huff is a lot less surly than the last version, though, and looks to be underrated by the average fantasy manager.

How else would you explain that a player with 12 home runs and a sparkling .307 batting average is about half of Yahoo leagues? There aren’t many 30-home run candidates available on the wire.

Perhaps owners can be forgiven for leaving Huff there – he had an underwhelming .241/.310/.384 line combined for the Tigers and Orioles last year. Moving to a park that suppresses home runs by 18.8% this year, he was an afterthought in drafts going into this season. Then again, Huff is a lefty, and according to Baseball Prospectus’ park factors by handedness, lefties slug .371 on average at AT&T Park, compared to .351 for righties (thanks to Bill Baer of CrashburnAlley.com for the nudge in the right direction). StatCorner.com muddies the water by pointing out that home runs have a mediocre 93 park factor for righties, but an even worse 88 park factor for lefties – meaning whatever extra-base hit lift lefties get comes from the huge gap in right-center, fueling a bump in doubles and triples. Either way, we should not have discounted Huff completely because of his move to his new park.

Amazingly, there was an outside chance we could have seen Huff’s power output coming. Huff has alternated from low-powered to high-powered performances his whole career. Look at the table on the HuffFlyGrab.jpgleft. It’s no clean-cut, easily explainable issue, but it’s clear that despite a general trend toward more flyballs, Huff has not had the corresponding trend toward a higher isolated slugging mark (slugging percentage minus batting average) that should have come along with that trend. After all, the batting line on the average flyball this year is .222/.217/.568, which produces an average ISO of .246, compared to groundballs’ .018 ISO. Another way of saying this is that Huff’s ISO has oscillated so much that it’s hard to discern a similar positive trend in that statistic.

Though weHuffGrab.jpg know that ISO doesn’t stabilize until almost a full season of data, we also know from Huff that his ISO has not stabilized over his whole career. Judging from the Bloomberg Sports Fantasy Tools spider graphs on the right, this looks like one of his more powerful years. 

In the years that Huff has had a .200+ ISO, Huff has averaged 27.5 home runs. A shot at that sort of power production this year is worth picking up in a league of any size. That he’s hitting in the middle of the order, and thus gaining plenty of RBI chances, only makes him more valuable. If Huff is available in your league, grab him immediately.

For more on Aubrey Huff and other surprising power options, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools.

Is Wade Davis Worth Waiting Out?

By R.J. Anderson //

 

In a past life, Wade Davis attempted to woo Lady Luck. Instead, he clearly offended her, leaving himself hexed for this one. At least, that’s how Davis must feel given his schedule of opponents this season. He started with consecutive games against the Yankees and Red Sox, and has since faced them both twice, along with Texas, the White Sox twice, and the Blue Jays.

 

Davis endured through a May 19 start against the Yankees, wielding an impressive 3.35 ERA at that point. His ERA now sits at 4.94. His cumulative statistics in those five starts in between:

 

25.1 IP

36 H

17 SO

6 BB

6 HR

22 ER

 

That works out to an ERA of 7.89. Simply put: that’s bad. His seasonal numbers suggest that he’s not quite as good as that 3.35 ERA reflected, but he’s far superior to the 7.89 figure. With top prospect Jeremy Hellickson tearing up Triple-A, the question might not be whether Davis is rosterable in fantasy leagues, but rather if the Rays will even keep him on the 25-man major league roster, let alone in the starting rotation.

 

Lately it seems Davis is on the right path. He’s struggled with his command at times, yet his June strikeout-to-walk ratio is an impressive 15:1. That includes two starts where Davis didn’t walk anyone. The home run bug he’s encountered could be tied partially to bad luck, but also to his predictability in pitching. Here is his fastball usage by count:

 

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Adding to the confusion is that Davis possesses what most scouting reports describe as plus breaking pitches. Yet, if one were simply to look at his usage patterns, it would seem he’s either uncomfortable throwing those pitches or simply doesn’t want to. Either way, it’s a problem. Part of pitching is having the upper hand when it comes to game theory. If the batter knows what’s coming, he better not know where it’s going, and if the batter doesn’t know what’s coming or where it’s going, then he’s probably not going to hit you well.

 

Expect a league average or slightly worse performance from Davis heading forward. In standard 12-team mixed leagues, that makes him a fringe starter at best.

 

For more on Wade Davis, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools

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