September 2010

Is Luebke Worth Keeping?

By R.J. Anderson //

Cory Luebke started this season on the bottom side of most top 10 prospect lists centered around the San Diego Padres. The former first round pick from Ohio State University will never awe onlookers. He throws lefty and – insert the jokes here – his velocity ranges from 87-91 miles per hour despite throwing from a 6’4″ frame aged 25 years. Two starts into his Major League career and Luebke is raising his stock along with eyebrows. In 11 innings, he’s struck out 10 while walking three. His ERA is a sparkling 3.27 and more than 10% of his pitches have resulted in whiffs. Optimism is running wild for the former Buckeye, but will it continue?

In order to predict success for new major leaguers, analysts will start at one of two places: minor league stats or scouting reports. Let’s start at the latter. Most call Luebke a back of the rotation starter. A fancy way of saying he’s a pitchability (think of Greg Maddux/Tom Glavine as the kings of the throne) type but lacks something — something usually meaning a great fastball or put-away pitch. If Luebke possessed dime velocity and penny command he’d probably have the tag, “Frontline potential”.

The stats are more kind, but support the backend suggestion. Luebke’s strikeout rates reek of modesty since reaching the upper minors (his strikeout rates straddled the line between six and seven per nine innings pitched throughout) His walks per nine innings rates were fine — sitting below three – albeit a necessity with the rest of his skill set, and his ability to get groundballs is admirable. Most people’s problem with Luebke will be multi-layered. First, can he sustain success with his arsenal against the best hitters in the world; and next, how will he get right-handed batters out? Lastly, how does four-eyed vision really work?

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The early signs are positive but unfulfilling in their infancy. Luebke stands to benefit from an elite defense playing within a pitchers’ paradise. San Diego is the place to be; a place where someone with Luebke’s stuff can become more than a backend starter or an afterthought thanks to the environment. The phrase product of the environment can reign true and may. That’s why Luebke is interesting for the 2010 season, but not a must keep. Not yet at least.

For more on sleepers down the stretch, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools.

 

Will Venable, Live from Petco Park

By Eno Sarris // 

Taking in a game at a new ballpark is one of those experiences that can take you back to being a kid again. Every corner is new, every angle needs to be explored, every dimension pored over. And that park will never be as vibrant, as exciting, and the grass will never seem as green again. It’s a great feeling.

Petco.jpgLast night, I was lucky enough to visit Petco Park for the first time, and even luckier to take in a game between a division-leading Padres team and a surging second-place Giants team. The stadium held up to inspection, as the beach in the outfield, the Western Metal building, and the many different layers combined to make an excellent modern collage of game-going.

The players were mostly veterans in the midst of a pennant race, but an exciting young player with power and speed stepped to the plate in the third inning against Matt Cain, waited out a pitch or two, and then deposited a 93 MPH fastball down the middle over the deepest fence in the park. Hitting a ball 400 feet in Petco can make people remember your name.

Will Will Venable live up to the promise of that deep home run? His main flaw was still obvious in the limited one-game sample: he struck out in his other two plate appearances and is striking out in more a third of his at-bats on the year. In fact, had Venable accrued enough at-bats this year to qualify for the batting title, he would currently be sporting the third-worst strikeout rate in the league. That will continue to work against his batting average (now .224, despite a fairly neutral .295 batting average on balls in play) if he doesn’t improve.

We’ve seen some players with power and speed and a high strikeout rate succeed – Chris Young and Mike Cameron come to mind – but Venable isn’t locked in at those rates just yet. He didn’t really show this problem in the minor leagues – a 20.1% strikeout doesn’t seem to predict a 30% strikeout rate in the major leagues. If Venable can make the strides that Young made when he cut his rate from 30.7% in 2009 to 23.6% this year, he should make similar strides in batting average. On the other hand, Drew Stubbs provides a foil in this matter – he posted a 27.3% strikeout rates in the minor leagues and 30.9% so far in the majors.

Unfortunately, with age comes wisdom, and we have to be realistic about Venable’s power, even as we hope he can beef up the contact skills. His isolated slugging rate (slugging minus batting average) in the minor leagues was only .152 – just about average for the major leagues. He’s edged that higher recently, but he’s still only at .169 for his career. That’s about the level of Adam Jones (.163 ISO this year) and Stubbs (.169 ISO this year), and not really in Young’s neighborhood (.202 carer ISO). One thing in Venable’s favor is that he’s put up this ISO despite a tiny 59 park factor for home runs by lefties in his home park. In that way, Venable is a more valuable commodity for the Padres than for fantasy owners.

VenableGrab.jpgOn the plus side for fantasy owners, though, Venable can definitely steal a base. He’s had an incredible 84.6% success rate on stolen bases in the major leagues, backed up by a similarly impressive 83.5% success rate in the minor leagues. He’s not a volume guy – he’s never stolen more than 21 in a given season – but he should continue to have success on the level of someone like Chase Utley, who has stolen 90 bases with an 87.3% success rate over 3600+ career at-bats.
 
Looking at Venable’s whole profile, we see a player who hasn’t necessarily shown the contact problems that Drew Stubbs has shown over his career, but does walk more (and strike out more) than Adam Jones and show similar power and speed. He does not really seem to have the power of Chris Young, and he has a power-sapping home park. He belongs in this group of young outfielders with power, speed and flaws.

If you’re in a keeper league, Venable and Stubbs are roughly in the same boat (even if you give Venable the higher likelihood of curbing the strikeouts): worthy adds for NL-only and deep mixed league formats, not worth the efforts in shallow mixed leagues or leagues that count on-base percentage and other, more sabermetrically-advanced offensive stats.

For more on this group of young toolsy outfielders and their keeper prospects, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools.

How to Make Enemies and Influence Standings

By Eriq Gardner //

By now, many competitors have fallen out of contention in your fantasy baseball league, and may be chasing other pursuits, like fantasy football. For those of us still in the hunt, things can get very competitive and best yet, very strategic.

In rotisserie-format leagues, teams are looking to gain as many points possible. But that’s not the only way to win. If you’re sitting in second place, a few points out of the lead, any point your top rival loses is just as good as a point you yourself gain. It’s the points differential that counts. Not the total number of points accrued.

There are a few ways to indirectly influence your competitors’ standings position.

First, make sure your other leaguemates (the ones who have no real shot) are still paying attention to the league. They may not have a chance at first place, but in particular categories, they may still hold the power to beat your rival. So do whatever is necessary to get them engaged again. Attack their pride. Make fun of them for finishing last. Whatever. The point is that under certain circumstances, the indifference of others can be costly.

Second, pick your battles. For example, you might have an equal shot at gaining points in runs and RBI, but if you’re chasing your rival in runs but not RBIs you may wish to focus on the runs category. The upside there would be +1 for you and -1 for your rival. It’d be worth putting all your eggs in that basket with a high likelihood of success, rather than spreading risk by chasing both with a 50% probability of gaining +1 in runs and a 50% probability of gaining +1 in RBI.

Furthermore, you may wish to push your competitor to chase certain categories. For example, steals or wins — two categories that least correlate to the others. If you pick up a speedster to create the appearance you’re going after your rival in steals, he may respond by likewise doing the same. Perhaps his focus on steals might hurt his standing in RBI, since players who steal a lot of bases often don’t drive in many runs. In other words, examine every angle when considering the impact of your moves.

Third, and this may sound crazy, but there may be a time when it becomes prudent to drop a star player. Let’s say you comfortably have the lead in saves, but your rival is in the midst of a heated battle in that category. Heath Bell does less good for you on your team than he might do on another team, so long as it isn’t your rival’s team. If you play in a league that’s paying attention, and your rival doesn’t have a high waiver priority, it could be beneficial to just drop Heath Bell and hope someone other than your rival, competing with him in saves, picks up the Padres closer.

Clearly, not all of these tactics are “nice.” They won’t win many friends. But hopefully, there will at least be respect earned from a hard-fought season.

For more on fantasy baseball wisdom, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools.

Jordan Zimmermann Returns

By Eriq Gardner //

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Many people are no doubt still mourning the loss of Stephen Strasburg as an exciting young pitcher this season and next. At some point, Strasburg will be back — and when he returns, hopefully he’ll perform as sharply as his teammate, Jordan Zimmermann, has pitched in the aftermath of Tommy John surgery.
Zimmermann’s rookie season may not seem so special with a 4.64 ERA and a 1.36 WHIP. But before he went down with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow midway through the 2009 season, he was being mentioned as a top prospect in the Nationals rotation. That year, Zimmermann struck out a batter per inning and walked fewer than three batters per nine innings. His xFIP, a measure of ERA stripped of defense and bad luck, was an outstanding 3.39.
Many forgot about him, thanks to the more than 12 months of recovery. But the evidence so far this season reaffirms the fact that Zimmermann is on the verge of becoming an excellent starter in fantasy leagues. On rehab, in 10 games in the minors this season, he posted a 1.59 ERA with 31 strikeouts to six walks in just under 40 innings.
On August 26, he was recalled to the Nationals rotation to make his season debut. It was a little rocky with five earned runs allowed in just four innings — but he also struck out four and allowed a single walk. Zimmerman followed up that performance with an impressive nine-strikeout shutout of the Marlins on August 31. His last start was shakier: 4 IP, 4 BB, 2 K, 3 R, 3 H.
Zimmermann’s fastball is down a tick from 93 MPH last season to about 92 this season, but it’s not something to be especially concerned about, especially considering the small sample set. What’s especially encouraging is that the surgery and long lay-off hasn’t eroded his ability to get batters to swing and miss. His last start did raise some concern about controlling the strike zone, though.
It’s possible that he goes into next season with a pair of seasons of 4+ ERA, a major surgery, and a lack of limelight due to his extended absence and last-place employer. But he’s an intriguing sleeper down the stretch of this season in deep leagues. And if you’re in a keeper league with some depth, he’s a must add.
For more on sleepers down the stretch, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools.

Who is Alex Sanabia?

By R.J. Anderson //

The name Alex Sanabia is foreign and unfamiliar to most baseball fans. The Florida Marlins drafted the 22-year-old (Happy Birthday, Alex!) right-hander in the 32nd round of the 2006 draft. Sanabia flew through the system, reaching Triple-A earlier this season and pitching extremely well. His complete 2010 stat line includes 16 minor league starts split between the upper minors with a 1.92 ERA in 98 innings.

How does he do it? With precision instead of flash.

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Sanabia’s fastball averages 90 miles per hour, a pitch he backs with a slider and change-up. Somehow, batters are swinging and missing about 8% of the time at his slow-moving, a roughly league-average rate. In the minors, Sanabia flashed excellent control, walking a little over two batters per nine innings. That ratio has made a seamless transition to the big league game — he’s at 1.88/9 IP through his first 48 big league innings. The string bean’s strikeout rate of 6.38 is very playable when he’s that stingy with free passes.

Still, it’s hard to feel comfortable with a soft-tosser who relies enormously on flyballs. Flyballs turn into extra-base hits and home runs more often. Although batted ball data is not always reliable when it comes to differentiating line drives from flyballs, what it tells us is that 22% of Sanabia’s balls in play are supposedly liners; 39% are grounders; and 39% are flyballs.

His 3.52 FIP (a stat that runs along the same scale as ERA, but strips out defense, batted ball luck, park effects, and other factors a pitcher can’t control) looks solid through eight starts. But Sanabia has yielded home runs on just 6.3% of the flyballs he’s induced, which means more long balls are likely to come.

You should also actor in that some might not be completely sold that Sanabia’s game will translate to the major leagues for a length of time. Perhaps it’s inherent scouting bias, one that says guys with Sanabia’s stuff is better suited for the bullpen. But the fact remains there just aren’t many skinny, low-velocity, high-flyball right-handed starting pitchers who survive long in the big leagues.

Add him if you’re desperate for a starter in your deep league playoffs. He’s not highly recommended for keeper leagues, though.

For more on Alex Sanabia and other starting options on your waiver wire, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools.

Danny Espinosa is a Sensation

By R.J. Anderson //

The Washington Nationals have played Ian Desmond at shortstop for most of the season. A high error rate notwithstanding, Desmond appears to be a fixture in the Nationals’ plan for the next three-to-five seasons. September’s roster expansion has brought it with the man who could be his double play partner for that time frame. But with Desmond battling injuries, Danny Espinosa has filled in at shortstop, instead of his projected position of second base.

So far, he’s been a revelation. Espinosa has gone 9-for-16 in his first exposure to the majors. He’ll likely remember his Labor Day performance for the rest of his life: two home runs (including a grand slam), and six RBI.

Espinosa played shortstop for Long Beach State University. In terms of recent infield professional production, not many colleges can match LBSU. Bobby Crosby, Troy Tulowitzki, and Evan Longoria represent the most recent of Dirtbag shortstops to make the leap from collegiate competition to the major leagues. Espinosa doesn’t carry with him quite the prospect billing that those three did. For one, he doesn’t have the build of those players, who each stand around 6’3″ — whereas Espinosa is listed at an even 6′. His minor league career comes up short by comparison too:

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Nevertheless, Espinosa figures to get regular playing time for the rest of the Nationals’ season, whether at shortstop or second base. Veteran Adam Kennedy, signed in the off-season, has underachieved, hitting only .252/.322/.336. Other Nats middle infielders, like the now-departed Cristian Guzman also failed to hit; the collective .679 OPS from second base ranks as the Nationals’ worst non-center field or catcher position.

Espinosa is no guarantee to outperform that during the final month, but it’s hard to see him doing much worse – especially if his early returns are any indication. The only question that remains now is whether this will be a flash in the pan or the beginning of a beautiful relationship. Either way, Espinosa is worth a long in keeper leagues. And if you’re trying to nail down a championship in your deep league this year, he’s also worth a shot.

For more on Danny Espinosa, check out Bloomberg Sports’ fantasy kits.

Brandon Allen: A September Sleeper?

By Eriq Gardner //

Brandon Allen had quite the debut with the Arizona Diamondbacks last week, hitting a go-ahead grand slam homer. 
Might the great game be a sign that Allen is ready to be contributor in the final month of the season?
Allen was picked in the fifth round of the 2004 amateur draft by the Chicago White Sox. His big breakthrough as a prospect came in 2008, when as a member of the Birmingham Barons, he led the Carolina league with a .527 slugging percentage. 
Going into the following season, he was ranked as the team’s fourth-best prospect by Baseball America, which remarked at the time that “the last hitter to show this much power at Birmingham was Chris Young,” who coincidentally is now Allen’s teammate and tied for 13th in the major leagues in homers.
In July, 2009, Allen was sent to Arizona in a deal for reliever Tony Pena. For a moment, the trade looked to be the ultimate steal for Arizona. Playing for the Reno Aces, Allen had a .641 slugging percentage. He was first called up to the majors last September, but didn’t fare so well. Allen hit four home runs in 104 AB, but struck out 40 times and suffered a .202 batting average.
The struggles probably cost him an opportunity to open the season as a starter for the Diamondbacks. Instead, the team signed Adam LaRoche and sent Allen back to the minors to work on his plate patience.
No one doubts that Allen has tremendous power, but the question has always been whether he would make enough contact. Scouts looking at his swing noticed some inefficiencies that prevented him from committing too soon to off-speed pitches.
Judging by Allen’s statistics at Reno this season, it appears that he made changes. Most noticeably, his walk rate hit a career-high level of 17.7%, which has paved the way to an on-base percentage over .400. Allen continued to hit for power, with 25 minor league HR this season, and even chipped in some speed with 14 steals. But growth in plate discipline is the best sign he may turn into a well-rounded contributor.
The most notable aspect of Allen’s major league debut this season for Arizona was not the grand slam, but rather the fact he got a start as a left fielder. Allen moved over from his natural first base position, and the start indicates the team may be comfortable enough with his fielding in the outfield. He’s received 11 plate appearances over five games so far.
With Justin Upton continuing to nurse a shoulder injury and with the below-average Gerardo Parra manning the other outfield corner spot, Allen looks primed to get plenty of playing time for the out-of-contention Diamondbacks. He’ll be hitting in a very hitter-friendly ballpark, so it’s easy to envision Allen having a hot month as he campaigns to be a team regular in future seasons. If you’re in an NL-only or deep mixed league, pick him up.
For more on other late season callups, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Kits

Jay Bruce: Power Upside on Your Waiver Wire

by Eno Sarris // 

If you took a look at Jay Bruce on August 26, you might not have come away very impressed. He had a .265/.333/.430 line that morning, with 13 home runs. Even looking for power alone, you might have been forgiven for moving along to another player on the wire. How could someone with 13 home runs this deep into the season be a power pickup?

What a difference a few days make. Starting August 27, Bruce has gone eight for his last 15 with five home runs. Now his current line (.274/.343/.464), with 18 home runs, looks a lot better. In case you are in one of the 36% of Yahoo fantasy leagues where Bruce is a free agent, it’s worth unpacking his upside a little further.

In the minor leagues, Bruce had a .243 ISO (isolated slugging percentage, or slugging minus batting average); that number would rank in the top 20 if he had put that together in the major leagues this year.

One of the reasons we use ISO instead of straight slugging percentage is shown when you delve into Bruce’s history in the major leagues. His .462 slugging percentage doesn’t look that great given his position – even the average right fielder this year has put together a .448 slugging percentage. But Bruce is a moderate flyball hitter (43.2% this year), and flyballs tend to produce low batting averages on balls in play. Sure enough, Bruce has a mediocre career BABIP (.287), and that’s one of the reasons his batting average is a little low (.253 career). So instead we use ISO, to tease out his power and avoid dealing with all the singles. Bruce has a career .209 ISO in the majors, which would rank him between David Wright and Andre Ethier on the leaderboard right now. That is decidedly above average.

This year, Bruce’s HR/FB percentage is 12.3%, down from 16.8% in 2009. There is little reason for a young, developing player’s HR/FB to go down. Just take a look at Ethier – who has kept his HR/FB around 14 and 15% the last three years after debuting around 9% – for an example of your typical power progression. 

Bruce has a .190 ISO so far in 2010, but of course a week ago that was .165. And last year, it was .246. We know from past research that ISO is one of the last statistics to become reliable, and it usually does so around 550 plate appearances. Bloomberg Sports Fantasy Tool projects Bruce for a .212 ISO going forward as the year-to-end projections below show.

BruceGrab.jpgThere are few men on the waiver wire that can provide pop like Bruce can in the final weeks of the season. If he’s out there in your league, pick up him up right away. If you are thinking of trading for him in a keeper league, do it soon, before he hits another strong week (or another year of development) and his owner decides not to trade him away.

For more on Jay Bruce and other power options on your waiver wire, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools.

Rays Call Up Desmond Jennings

By Tommy Rancel //

Although he was just called up to the big leagues for the first time
on Wednesday, Rays fans have had Desmond Jennings on
the brain for a while. Even before his breakout minor league season of
2009 – in which he hit .318/.401/.487 with 52 steals and 92 runs scored -
Jennings was regarded as the stallion-heir apparent to Carl
Crawford
in the Tampa Bay lineup.

After his fantastic ’09 campaign – including being named MVP of the
Southern League (Double-A) – Jennings went from the 80th-ranked prospect
according to Baseball America to the 6th-best prospect overall. He was
invited to his first big league camp this spring, but a wrist injury
wiped out most of that audition, as well as the first part of his minor
league season.

Once healthy, the 23-year-old played in 109 games for the Triple-A
Durham Bulls. His numbers were not as impressive as they were last
season, but he still hit .278/.362/.393. At this point in his career,
Jennings has not shown much power (29 home runs in 420 career minor
league games), but he still projects as a top-of-the-order hitter,
blessed with blazing speed and advanced plate discipline.

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Despite the lack of power in Durham, Jennings still scored 82 runs in
100 games. His OBP (.362) wasn’t fantastic, but it was still above
average. He walked nearly 11% of the time and struck out in less than
17% of his plate appearances. Once on base, he swiped 37 bags in 41
attempts (90% success rate).

As a September call-up on one of the most talented teams in baseball,
Jennings probably won’t rack up many at-bats over the next 30 days,
unless the Rays unexpectedly clinch a playoff berth very early. His
value to the Rays, and potential fantasy owners, will be tied to speed
and baserunning ability. Similar to Fernando Perez in 2008,
Jennings is likely to be the Rays’ primary pinch-runner and a part-time
defensive replacement.

In his MLB debut on Wednesday night, Jennings went 0-3 with two
groundouts and a swinging strikeout. We did not get a chance to see him
glide around the bases, but we did get a chance to see his speed out of
the box and his trained batting eye.

Jennings had four plate appearances, but officially only had three
(4th inning appearance negated by a B.J. Upton caught
stealing). Overall he saw 19 pitches (14 officially) and worked three
full counts. In his final at-bat, Jennings came up with the bases
loaded. He grounded out on what amounted to a swinging bunt. On the
other hand, had the force play not been on at home – and a slow runner
in Dioner Navarro at third – Jennings would’ve been
easily safe as he burned through the chalk on the way to first base.

If you have the need for some steals and runs, then Jennings is worth
a spot in (really) deep mixed and AL-only leagues. They will come
sporadically, but he should provide a handful of both. If Jennings is
available in your keeper league, though, jump on him immediately.

For more on Desmond Jennings and other September call-ups, check
out
Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy
Kits

Hawpe in St. Pete

By R.J. Anderson //

In a purely subjective sense, Brad Hawpe is the tailor-made contrast between fantasy and real world baseball values. Hawpe’s talent cavities have always included rambunctious defensive play – even on the quietest of balls – and an inability to hit as well on the road as he did at home. This leaves a general manager – particularly one in the National League – in the awkward position. Choosing to either hang onto Hawpe with the hope that he’ll steal Rickey Henderson’s legs or explaining to the ownership and media why he couldn’t recoup the standard fare for hitters with Hawpe’s numbers through a trade.

Dan O’Dowd held onto Hawpe for seasons but recently decided to release him. On Friday, Hawpe found a new home. The Tampa Bay Rays signed the southpaw to a minor league deal with the idea that he will eventually come up within the week and take over as the left-handed designated hitter. Is Hawpe worth the fee to acquire him in American League only leagues? Maybe.

Most starting pitchers are right-handed, meaning Hawpe may receive 60-65% of the Rays’ designated hitter plate appearances in September. Throughout Hawpe’s career, his line versus righties is a robust .290/.387/.507 with 94 home runs in 2,452 plate appearances. The concern is not over whether Hawpe has hit, though, but rather will he continue to hit now that he is out of Coors Field and into the American League East. Since both franchises are relatively new, the amount of players with significant playing time with both is limited.

Nevertheless, here is a table detailing how those players performed after trading their Coors for a glass of Tropicana’s finest:

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The only player to improve both his batting average and AB/HR is Greg Norton. One has to suspect starting, even if only as a designated hitter, had to be an easier role for Norton to stay fresh and focused than coming off the bench in a pinch hitter role. Suffice to say that history is not on Hawpe’s side and those odds are only worsened when expanding the scope beyond the Rays and onto the entire American League East. Garret Atkins is the most recent case of failure and the last success story might be Mark Bellhorn way back in 2004 – and make note that Bellhorn’s abbreviated Colorado performance was Coors-worthy for an entirely different reason.

The Rays will stick with him despite going 0-4 with four strikeouts in his debut.  A streak of such ineptitude just means that someone is likely to break it. The odds are just too great. Just please, please do not make a “Hawpe and pray” joke if you decide to add him.

For more on Brad Hawpe and other late season additions, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Kits. 

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