January 2011

Lackey’s Lacking Season

By R.J. Anderson //

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Theo Epstein and the Boston Red Sox shocked the baseball world when they signed free agent starter John Lackey last offseason. Lackey’s first season in Beantown is categorized as a failure because of a relatively high ERA as he topped 4.00 for the first time since 2004. The perception and ERA seem to stem from a shoddy first half while his second half looked like typical Lackey:

First Half: 18 GS, 113 IP, 4.78 ERA, 1.48 SO/BB
Second Half: 15 GS, 102 IP, 3.97 ERA, 3.38 SO/BB

Taking either half as an indication of Lackey’s true talent would be a mistake. The narrative may suggest Lackey felt more comfortable in Boston over the second half or grew accustomed to the division, but more likely is that he benefitted from a weaker schedule. After making seven starts versus playoff teams in the first half, Lackey made three starts against them the rest of the way. That’s not to say Lackey’s performances did improve in a vacuum, they did, just that they may have been aided by the schedule makers.

One anecdotal aspect which may carry truth in Lackey feeling better about his curveball later in the season. Perhaps this is just another case of creating a story after the results, but Lackey’s hammer is his finest secondary pitch, so it would make sense if he struggled without a great feel for the pitch.

Heading forward, Lackey will continue to pitch in an offensive friendly environment against some of the best teams in baseball — and that’s just the division schedule. Still, most fielding independent metrics had Lackey outpitching his ERA last season. Usually, the peripherals will win out, so don’t be surprised if Lackey has a positively Lackey season once again in 2011.

David Aardsma, Brandon League and the Bullpen Handcuff

By Eno Sarris //

Fantasy football players are used to the concept of the handcuff. Because the running back position is highly volatile, fantasy players in that sport will draft both a team’s starting running back, as well as his backup. The most volatile position in fantasy baseball is the closer. Fantasy baseball players should consider the handcuff when it comes to their bullpen options.

Up in Seattle, David Aardsma has found success the past two years. Over that span, he’s struck out more than a batter per inning and posted a 2.90 ERA, while racking up 69 saves. Even with his sub-optimal walk rate (over four batters per nine innings both years) and flyball tendencies (35.1% GB career – spacious Safeco Field and Seattle’s great outfield defense have helped him immensely), he’s been dependable, for the most part.

Except that he’s also spent some time in the trainer’s room. He didn’t officially hit the DL last season, but he did miss two weeks with an oblique strain. Then, this off-season, he had hip surgery. The most recent report has him available in mid-April, but that’s an early prognosis. The surgery was a little more extensive than the M’s had hoped, and hip surgeries can be difficult. Aardsma is a question mark going into the season.

Cue the handcuff. Brandon League doesn’t quite have the strikeout rate you’d like from your closer (6.72 K/9 career), but he’s one of the most extremely groundball pitchers in the game (62.2% GB career), meaning he’ll limit extra-base hits. He also shows pretty good control (3.20 BB/9 career). League has improved his strikeout rate lately (9.16 K/9 in 2009). He also filled in for Aardsma last year, accruing six saves. His splitter is a plus-pitch and his fastball averages more than 95 MPH. He’s a strong handcuff.

The best way to take advantage of this plan is to identify places where the backup is a solid pitcher and the bullpen won’t disintegrate into an open competition once the closer goes down. Other handcuff options around the league include Florida – pick Leo Nunez and Clay Hensley late – or Atlanta – Craig Kimbrel is the favorite, but Jonny Venters lurks. In a way, though, the Seattle pen is ideal. You can stash Aardsma on your DL if you’ve got a spot there, play League early on, and take your time making a decision as more information flows in.  

As many as one-third of baseball’s closers lose their job to injury or poor performance every year. Waiting until late in the game and picking an iffy closer and his handcuff will net you plenty of saves, at a reduced cost. Steal the strategy from fantasy football, and reap the benefits. 

What’s The Value of HRs When Fewer Are Hitting Them?

By Eriq Gardner //

When most competitors figure out who to draft in fantasy baseball leagues this year, they typically attempt to judge a player’s prospective stats. Will player X hit 35 HR this year or merely 25? How will player Y adapt to his new playing environment now that he is moving from a ballpark that favors pitchers to one that favors hitters?
But those questions aren’t the only ones that determine a player’s prospective value. A player can produce a carbon copy of last season and still hold remarkably different value from one year to the next. That’s because the value of accumulated stats is ever-shifting.
Let’s give an example by considering the shifting fantasy value of “Mr. Consistency” Adam Dunn. One will hardly find a better player in baseball like Dunn who reproduces his stat line from one year to the next. Check out his HR totals over the last six seasons: 40, 40, 40, 40, 38, 38.
In 2010, Dunn hit 38 HR, tabbed 103 RBI, scored 85 runs, didn’t steal any bases, and had a .260 average.
It was a nearly identical season compared to his 2009, when he hit 38 HR, tabbed 105 RBI, scored 81 runs, didn’t steal any bases, and had a .267 average. 
And yet, according to Baseball Monster, which tabulates the comparative fantasy value of players in baseball, Dunn went from being the 115th most valuable player in 2009 to the 57th most valuable player in 2010 in a standard 12-team 5×5 league. Quite a difference!
To understand why Dunn made a huge leap in fantasy value, without really doing much different, it takes an appreciation of larger macro-trends around baseball.
Last season, there was 4,613 HR hit throughout MLB. That represented a 8.5% drop in HR production from the 2009 season when players hit 5,042 HR. In fact, HR activity was at its lowest point since 1993. Maybe it’s a tougher performance-enhancing drug testing regime, or maybe MLB switched the type of balls they use, or maybe there’s a whole series of other, more subtle reasons. Whatever the reason, homers became a much rarer commodity.
This influences fantasy baseball.
For example, in 2008, the blog Rotoauthority.com did a study of the stats needed to be ahead in each category. According to Tim Dierkes, he concluded that 313 HR were needed to finish 2nd or 3rd in the HR category. If Dierkes did another study based on last year’s results, we’d bet good money that the threshold would be much lower. In one league we competed in last year, in a similar format to the one Dierkes studied, the team that finished first in HR slugged just 258 of them; the team that finished second in slugged only 218.
A season where it takes 300 HR to win is a lot different than a season where it takes 200 HR to win. In the former, Adam Dunn’s 40 HR bring his owner 13% to the needed total. In the latter, Adam Dunn’s 40 HR bring his owner 20% to the needed total.
If you can bank 40 HR from a slugger, that certainly takes on added value, especially considering that each HR also produces at least one RBI, a run, and a hit. 
But keep in mind that the threshold for players being merely average in the power category has also changed. Five seasons ago, players with at least 500 plate appearances averaged 20 HR. Sixty-eight percent of them fell somewhere between 8 and 32 HR. Last season, players with at least 500 plate appearances averaged 18 HR. Sixty-eight percent of them fell between between 8 and 29 HR. The difference between the haves and have-nots has shrunk. Hitting 22 HR now is akin to hitting 25 HR a few years ago.
Let’s assume these macro-trends in baseball continue, and consider the significance. 
For players who far out-slug the competition, these individuals have great value in fantasy leagues. But be careful about penalizing players whose production appears to have slipped a bit. Relatively speaking, they might be just as good as ever.

King of the Fantasy Shorstops: Troy Tulowitzki or Hanley Ramirez?

by Eno Sarris //

In a recent fantasy baseball industry draft put on by FOXSports.com, your faithful Bloomberg Sports correspondent had the third pick. Going into it, I figured I would be fine with either of the great shortstops at the top of the draft – a five-category offensive player at the most difficult position is a nice way to start your team. True to my preparation, Troy Tulowitzki went second and I quickly clicked Hanley Ramirez with a smile. What would I have done if I had been faced with the second pick, though?

Last year, the contributions in the fantasy categories may have barely favored the Floridian. Tulo put up a .315 average with 27 home runs, 11 stolen bases, 89 runs and 95 RBI. Hanley hit .300 with 21 home runs, 32 stolen bases, 92 runs and 76 RBI. While the batting average statistic looks like a notch in Tulowitzki’s belt, Ramirez actually accrued 15 more hits than the Rockies shortstop. At issue was the fact that Tulowitzki was hurt for a month and only came to the plate 529 times, vs. Ramirez’s 619. Give Ramirez a tiny nudge for crossing the 600 PA threshold for the fifth time in as many years, and he gets the overall nod, too.

tuloramirez.jpgObviously, it’s close. Some of the difference will come from how you value stolen bases. Even coming off his peak (51 stolen bases in 2006-2007), Ramirez has averaged more than 30 per season for three seasons. While it’s tempting to pencil Tulowitzki in for 15 stolen bases or more next season, it’s worth noticing that his success rate is not impressive (62.6%). That means that he’s below the break-even point (you want to be successful at least two-thirds of the time, value-wise) and may get the green light less often. Two hand injuries in the last three years might also discourage his coaches from sending him.

So we turn to next year and the projections. Bill James has Tulowitzki down for a .296 batting average, 27 home runs, 11 stolen bases, 96 runs and 93 RBI in a virtual carbon-copy of his 2010 effort (though in 597 plate appearances). He has Ramirez bouncing back from a three-year decline in isolated slugging percentage, as he thinks the Florida shortstop will put up a .312 batting average, 25 home runs, 33 stolen bases, 108 runs, and 80 RBI (in 658 plate appearances). If these projections hold, Ramirez is an easy pick.

The last caveat is that the 26-year-old Tulowitzki is obviously on his way up, while Hanley Ramirez has shown a decline in some key statistics. After putting up .230 and .239 ISOs in 2007 and 2008, he has dropped down to .201 and .175 respectively the last two years. Some of it may be from some normal fluctuation in his flyball percentage – though he hit a career-low 32.7% of his contact in the air last year, that number was 41.5% the year before and 36.7% in 2008. It looks like his speed is a little more dependable than his power because of this oscillation. It’s also a little premature to assume the 27-year-old Ramirez is in a decline phase.

These two excellent shortstops will be leaving your draft boards early in the first round, and for good reason. A comparison seems to suggest that it’s a matter of taste: If you’d rather take a nudge in power and hope your shortstop continues to make an impact in the speed categories, Tulowitzki is your man. If you’d rather make sure to get close to 30 steals, and risk that the power is only OK rather than elite, then Ramirez is your man. You’ll probably be happy either way.

Who Will Emerge from the Crowded Jays’ Pen?

by Eno Sarris // 

What a week it has been for the Toronto Blue Jays. First, they traded Vernon Wells to the Angels for Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera, shedding Wells’ considerable salary. Then the flipped Napoli on to the Rangers for reliever Frank Francisco. Paired with the other pickups of the off-season, Francisco makes for a newly crowded bullpen. As always, for fantasy purposes the million-dollar question is “Who will close?”

The first reliever with closing experience acquired by the Jays this off-season was Octavio Dotel, who came with 105 career saves and a double-digit career strikeout rate (10.95 K/9). Given the state of the Jays’ pen at that time, our Tommy Rancel was right to name him the favorite for saves this season. His 4.09 walks per nine innings and some major struggles vs. left-handed hitters remained serious concerns, though.

Perhaps it was Dotel’s wonky control that led the Jays to go out and get Jon Rauch a couple weeks later. While he doesn’t own the same strikeout punch as Dotel (7.34 career K/9, and a slower fastball that hovers around 91 mph), Rauch had also closed before (47 career saves) and shown much better control (2.80 career BB/9). He proved himself as a capable closer in Washington and Minnesota before, so maybe he’d make for a good backup plan.

Now, enter Francisco to the discussion. He’s a little more Dotel than Rauch – he has shown a 10.01 K/9 and 4.03 BB/9 over his career – but like both he has experience in the closer role. Francisco is six years younger than Dotel, who has also lost at least three miles per hour off of his peak fastball speed, and he’s got more punch than Rauch. On the other hand, the former Ranger has only averaged 53 1/3 innings in his “healthy” seasons and lost all of 2005 to surgery. Will there be an open competition for the role?  

JaysPen.jpgThere’s one big asterisk that tilts the scale quickly towards Francisco. You want your closer to be able to get batters out no matter which side of the plate they call home. Look at the chart above, and you’ll see that both Rauch and Dotel see their effectiveness dive against lefties, while Francisco’s statistics are more stable.

Of course, Francisco’s health is an open question and the team will likely need to call upon more than one of these options during the course of the year. Going into the season, however, Francisco is the favorite for saves. Plan your drafts accordingly.

A Tale of Two Base Stealers

By R.J. Anderson //
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Rajai
Davis
and Coco Crisp entered the 2010 season as teammates on the
Oakland Athletics. The pair has since split up — with Oakland trading
Davis to the Toronto Blue Jays during the off-season — but still remain
two of the biggest basestealing targets for fantasy players.

Many aspects of a player’s game are analyzed when a player changes
teams. Where he fits in the lineup, how his offensive style will fit in
the park, and whether the new division includes an increased level of
competition. Rarely is team philosophy taken account. In Davis’s case,
how the Jays allow him to play on the basepaths is critical to how you value him in your draft. In 2010, Davis stole 50 bases — more
than Carl Crawford, Ichiro, and every American League player except
Juan Pierre. Meanwhile, the entire Jays team stole just 58 bases last season. The Jays only
had one player with double-digit steals (Fred Lewis)…and Davis just took his job.

Since the Jays’ offense was built around home runs, it’s hard
to say whether the team will pull the reins in on Davis’ running game or if the low stolen bases total was simply a result of the team’s makeup last year.
Davis is a very efficient thief (79% for his career), so there’s no objective reason to hold him back.

Meanwhile, the oft-injured Crisp remains an Athletic. The serial
stealer made the most of his 127 stolen base opportunities (defined as
a situation where the runner is on first or second with the next base
open) and attempted 35 steals. For a reference point, each of the 16
players with more steals each had at least 40 more opportunities.
Expect that rate to drop, as Crisp averaged about 29 steal attempts per
season when he was with Boston — and those three seasons came before
he hit the wrong side of 30. There could also be concerns about playing
time, as the Athletics have added to their outfield depth with the acquisitions of David DeJesus and Josh Willingham (not to mention presumptive DH Hideki Matsui).

Even with the questions about team philosophy, take Davis if you have to choose between the pair. He’s not much of an offensive player by real-life standards, but he should still give even your standard mixed league team a strong stolen base boost.

Kansas City Royals Buy Low on Jeff Francis

By Tommy Rancel //
 
Looking to fill a vacancy in their 2011 rotation, the Kansas City Royals signed former Colorado Rockies left-hander Jeff Francis.
The one-year pact comes with a $2 million guarantee and could be worth
$4 million with incentives. The signing comes with a small risk, but
could end up rewarding Kansas City for their minimal gamble.
 
Francis. 30, missed all of 2009 recovering from shoulder surgery
(torn labrum). He returned to make 19 starts (20 appearances) in 2010, going
4-6 with a 5.00 ERA. With a career 55-50 record, and an ERA that sits at
4.77, Francis is not coming to Kansas City to replace Zack Greinke‘s production.
But he could be a league-average or better starter for the Royals.
Though his ERA in over 100 innings of work last season was 5.00,
advanced metrics suggest his pitching performance was closer to that of a
3.75-4.00 ERA.
The biggest issue for Francis in 2010 was stranding baserunners. His
left-on-base percentage (LOB%) was 64.5%. The league average is
generally around 72%, and Francis’s career mark is 70.5%. With outside factors
such as defense contributing to a pitcher’s LOB%, it seems Francis was a
bit unlucky here.

Francis’ style is that of a classic soft-tossing left-hander. His
fastball tops out in the high-80s, and he doesn’t rack up a ton of
strikeouts. In fact, he has largely been below average in the punchout
category. What he does do well is locate his average stuff and generate a
lot of groundballs. In 2010, he posted the highest groundball rate of
his career (47%) in addition to regaining what velocity he had before
the surgery.

Since he has no one particular strength, Francis has to do a couple
of things well in order to earn a rotation spot in fantasy leagues.
Outside the main concern of health, Francis must maintain his stellar
history of keeping baserunners to a minimum with a good walk rate.
Moving from Coors Field for Kauffman Stadium could also have a positive
effect on his home run rate. With the potential for a positive ERA
regression, the one-time 17-game winner becomes a buy-low candidate at
the end of AL-only drafts. You can leave him undrafted in standard mixed
leagues.

Fantasy Spot Starter: Brad Penny as a Tiger

by Eno Sarris // 

Brad Penny once pitched in the American League, and the results were less than stellar. While it’s tempting to say his return to the harder league will go as poorly, there’s little black and white here. Let’s unpack what went so poorly for Penny in Boston, why he returned to grace in the National League, and what that might mean for him now that he’s a Detroit Tiger.

Penny had a 5.61 ERA in Boston and a 2.59 ERA in San Francisco in 2009 – and yet his performances were much closer to similar than would first appear in looking at ERA alone. In Boston, he struck out 2.12 batters for every one walk, and in San Francisco he struck out 2.22 batters per walk. He had an FIP (Fielding-Independent Pitching – a stat that runs on a similar scale to ERA, while stripping out defense and luck and focusing on factors the pitcher can control) of 4.49 in Boston; his FIP in San Francisco was a similar 4.35. The big difference was that Penny yielded a very lucky .211 batting average on balls in play while wearing black and orange, pushing his ERA much lower.

Oh, there was one difference worth mentioning. Penny had a 40.8% groundball rate in Boston, and a 53.8% number in San Francisco. As Penny’s strikeouts have tumbled over his career, his groundball rate has climbed – his three best years by groundballs have come in his last four years, for example. That went away in a short stint in Boston, but he re-found his ability to get grounders in San Francisco.

And he continued to coax ground balls in St. Louis last year, before a lat injury cut his season short. In those nine Cardinals starts, he managed a 52.8% groundball rate that would fit in with his recent work in the category. He did refine his cutter with Dave Duncan, and also threw far fewer four-seam fastballs than he had in the past. But let’s not count on the Duncan bounce lasting beyond the friendly confines of Busch Stadium; the Tigers’ curious roster could hurt his new team’s ability to turn grounders into outs as is.

Looking at some comparable American League pitchers given Penny’s statistical benchmarks, we find Fausto Carmona (5.31 K/9, 3.08 BB/9, 55.6% GB), Trevor Cahill (5.4 K/9, 2.88 BB/9, 56% GB) and possibly Rick Porcello (4.65 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, 50.3% GB). Those ERAs ranged from 4.92 (Porcello) to 2.97 (Cahill), but use FIP instead, and the range narrows to 4.11 to 4.31. The average FIP in baseball for qualified pitchers last year was 4.08.

The injury concerns are there, even if Penny lost most of the year to a non-arm injury. Given his mix of passable strikeout-to-walk ratios and good groundball rates, Penny should be able to approximate an average major league starter for the Tigers. From the list above, you can see that he might even luck into a stronger fantasy season. But his recent history also suggests that there’s no way you can depend on him. Put him in the leave-a-penny-take-a-penny tray on draft day in standard 12-team mixed leagues, and use him if/when you need him during the season. 

Jays Dump Vernon Wells’ Contract, Receive Value

By R.J. Anderson //

The Toronto Blue Jays’ offensive philosophy last season revolved around one concept: Hit home runs. On Friday, the team acquired catcher/first baseman Mike Napoli and outfielder Juan Rivera from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for outfielder Vernon Wells, plus Wells’ grandiose contract. Suffice to say, even after losing the 31 homers Wells hit last year, the Jays’ newest acquisitions can hold up their end of the philosophy.

Napoli alone creates an interesting dilemma, as the Jays already have two backstops under contract. Although Jose Molina possesses a strong defensive reputation, the real subplot is how this affects prospect J.P. Arencibia. Napoli is a lower-variance hitter and more expensive, meaning he should get the lion’s share of playing time. The keys to Napoli’s down season in 2010 (he still managed to hit .238/.316/.468) are a low BABIP (.279 while his career norm is .293); a decline in walk rate; more strikeouts (thus lowering his on-base percentage); and the Angels’ obsession with Jeff Mathis. To their credit, Napoli did play more games than he ever had before, though that was due to Napoli taking the place of injured first baseman Kendry Morales

Moving into an offensive environment like Toronto should only assist in Napoli’s power production. That’s saying something for a guy with 66 home runs over the past three seasons, despite playing catcher and only once receiving more than 450 plate appearances in a season. Given his eligibility at catcher and the odds that he’s going to hit 25-plus home runs next season, he immediately becomes an excellent fantasy option in all leagues, doubly so in leagues that value on-base percentage and/or slugging percentage over batting average. Meanwhile, drafting Arencibia in anything but a keeper league will become determinable once new manager John Farrell’s usage strategy becomes evident.

Rivera’s health is always in question, but if he can rack up 500-plus plate appearances, he’s a good bet for 15-to-20 home runs. He’s not one for walks (although he has improved in recent years) or strikeouts, and his batting average seems to fluctuate more than normal (Last four years: .252, .287, .246, .279). He’s a fine late-round outfield pick in standard leagues that use five outfielders and a utility slot.

What is interesting is what will happen with the rest of the Jays’ first base/outfield/DH options, as Travis Snider and Adam Lind could see their playing time suffer a bit. Without knowing Farrell’s intended usage, it’s difficult to peg the exact draft stock for any of those involved. So hold out as long as possible, and when in doubt, be conservative in your estimates.

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Tampa Bay Rays Sign Manny Ramirez

By Tommy Rancel //

After watching several key players leave via free agency, and a few others moved in trades for prospects, Andrew Friedman surveyed the market and decided it was time to play. What else would you expect from the guy who is quoted in Jonah Keri’s upcoming book, The Extra 2%, as saying “I am purely market driven. I love players I think I can get for less than they are worth.”

Signing arguably the greatest right-handed hitter of his generation to a one-year deal worth $2 million is right in Friedman’s wheelhouse. Sure, a 38-year-old Manny Ramirez is not the same Manny who dominated the American League for more than a decade. But for the bargain basement price of $2 million, the Rays are not paying him to be that guy. Better, that same 38-year-old Ramirez is still very productive.

Ramirez battled leg injuries and a hernia injury last year that limited him to just 90 games. However, he hit .298/.409/.460 and had a 141 wRC+ (an offensive stat from fangraphs.com which measures runs created by a hitter; a wRC+ of 100 is average). When he was in the lineup, he was still a near-elite hitter.

Though his home run power is not likely reach the 37 he hit in 2008, he still has enough power to belt 20-plus home runs and produce 20-plus doubles, if given 500 plate appearances. He continues to have a fantastic batting eye, which will help keep him on base nearly 40% of the time–huge in leagues that count OBP, but also helps with runs scored in standard 5×5 leagues. Batting in the middle of a lineup that features several other high-on-base hitters – including the newly signed Johnny Damon – he’ll have plenty of chances to drive in runs too.

By moving to designated hitter full-time, the concerns about Ramirez’s injuries should be eased a bit. He underwent hernia surgery in October and has been working out in Arizona in advance of spring training. (Peter Gammons Tweeted that Ramirez is in excellent shape.)

One of Andrew Friedman’s goals this off-season was to find a middle-of-the-order bat to replace Carlos Pena and team up with Evan Longoria in the heart of the Rays’ lineup. Ramirez might not replace all the power lost by Pena’s exit, but along with Matt Joyce, the Rays now have adequate pop surrounding their franchise player.

The age and injury concerns – along with the potential for Manny to be Manny – are understandable. That said, no one is counting on Ramirez to carry a lineup – real or fantasy. As an OF4 or Utility option in standard mixed leagues, Ramirez should provide plenty of value, considering the price tag should be a mid-to-late round pick.  If you show the patience of Andrew Friedman on draft day, you too will love getting a quality player for less than what he is worth.

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