September 2011

More Rays Magic?

By R.J. Anderson //

With the rookie performances of Desmond Jennings and Jeremy Hellickson, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking every player promoted by the Rays will come out of the gates charging. Having a mindset like that makes outfielder Brandon Guyer and catcher Jose Lobaton, both September callups, interesting prospects to add for the end of the postseason. Are they worth your consideration?

Let’s start with Guyer. The 25-year-old product of the University of Virginia came over in the Matt Garza deal after having a breakout 2010 season in Double-A. In Guyer’s first exposure to Triple-A this season, he kept hitting—tacking a .312/.384/.521 line with 14 home runs to his résumé—and added a neat notch to his major league career when he homered in his first big league at-bat. The results in his 17 big league at-bats since have been less satisfying, as he has just two hits (both singles), but there is reason to believe better days are ahead.

Before displaying more power in recent seasons, Guyer used to receive a tweener label—i.e. his bat played better in center, but his glove did not—and he still has more speed than you expect, however he played linebacker for the Cavaliers football program and it shows. He brings that same tenacity from the gridiron to the ballpark too, as he throws his body around with reckless abandon. What makes Guyer’s power and speed even more tantalizing is how he hits for average too—with a career minor league batting average of .297—the only thing that stands between him and being a nice everyday outfielder is his plate discipline, which can still use a little more refining.

The Rays seem committed to giving Guyer as many starts in the outfield as possible, so he could make for a nice sneaky starter against left-handed pitchers.  The same can be said for Lobaton, as Joe Maddon recently announced Kelly Shoppach’s playing time will diminish to accommodate the Rays efforts in evaluating Lobaton.

Acquire off waivers in 2009, Lobaton is a switch-hitting catcher who has a strong defensive reputation. He came up through the Padres minor league system and even reached the majors in 2009 before being designated for assignment. Lobaton has never been much of a hitting prospect, with a career .259/.348/.410 slash line, however he hit .307/.417/.505 across 244 plate appearances in Triple-A and on rehab assignment in High-A that, when combined with his age (26), make you wonder if maybe something clicked.

The safe bet is to go against that idea, but still, the increased power production is a development worth keeping an eye on, and if you have no other choices, then Lobaton could provide a little value if he gets on a tear.

For more on late season additions, check out BloombergSports.com

Javier Vazquez’s Redemption Song

by Eno Sarris //  

He was done. Finished. His fastball lost two miles per hour in one year and he lost the plate at the same time. Even the fact that he was in the American League East only slightly mitigated the fact that the 35-year-old Javier Vazquez looked like burnt toast.

Maybe we labeled him too soon.

Of course, early this year it looked like he was still done. In the first month of the season, Vazquez was still averaging under 90 MPH on his fastball, and he even dipped as low as 87 MPH in his third start of the year. He had a 6.39 ERA in April, and a 5.67 ERA in May. After another ERA over five in June, his fantasy ownership sagged to a career low.

And then.. a day after he gave up seven runs in three and 2/3 innings… something happened. Take a look at his velocity chart for the year:

Would you look at that. His velocity is back to pre-2010 levels even. He’s been averaging 91.8 MPH since his 13th start. Look at what it did for his results:

First 13 starts: 7.09 ERA in 66 innings, with 45 strikeouts and 31 walks. 

Since: 2.35 ERA in 95 2/3 innings, with 86 strikeouts and 16 walks. 

That’s pretty stark. He’s been vintage Vazquez since June 11, and his velocity is a big part of this.

It’s not all poops and whistles, though. In the last three months, he’s allowed line drive rates over 24%, and 19% is average. That’s a lot of squared-up balls, and yet his BABIP for that time period was only .276. He’s also stranded more runners than the league average in those three months. Luck swung back with him once he had the gas again.

He still has his old flaws, too. As a pitcher that gets his whiffs high in the zone, he’s a fly-ball guy that has been prone to bouts of gopheritis. Only once since 2002 has he managed to allow less than one home run per nine innings. Florida suppresses home runs, but only a little — StatCorner.com has it as 1% below average for home runs by left-handed batters and 5% below for righty batters.

It’s best to still be careful with Vazquez. Even with his old velocity back, his old flaws can make him a bad start in homer-happy ballparks. Considering his recent cryptic remarks about retirement, he’s not a good keeper in any fantasy format, either. But it’s clear that he’s got his gas back and can be a useful role player for any fantasy team down the stretch.

For more on Javier Vazquez and other possible free agents, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Front Office.

Brandon McCarthy Getting Better In Oakland

By Tommy Rancel //

Once a highly touted pitching prospect, Brandon McCarthy has battled with injuries throughout his major league career. A reoccurring shoulder injury forced him to miss the major leagues entirely in 2010; however, he has resurfaced better than ever in 2011. Now pitching for the Oakland Athletics, McCarthy is 8-7 with a 3.41 ERA. He has thrown a career-best 142.2 innings despite missing time earlier this season once again because of his right shoulder.

While a 3.41 ERA is pretty good in its own right, McCarthy has actually pitched better. According to FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) – a metric that measures things a pitcher can control without the influence of defense: strikeouts, walks, home runs – McCarthy has been a top-10 pitcher in the American League. In fact, his 2.77 FIP is actually better than that of Justin Verlander’s. That is not to say McCarthy is the better player, but shows he has been better than his win-loss record or ERA would indicate.

McCarthy’s 6.50 K/9 is slightly below the league average of 7.08; however, his 1.39 BB/9 and 0.50 are well above them. He has faced 577 batters this season and unintentionally walked just 21 of them or 3.6%. The league average for walks is somewhere near 8%. Looking at “luck” stats like BABIP (batting average on balls in play) and HR/FB (home run-to-flyball)rate, McCarthy’s  .304 BABIP is actually higher that the .291 league average.  It is also the highest rate on his team with a minimum of 90 innings pitched.

Although it does not appear McCarthy has been lucky on balls in play, his 5.6% HR/FB rate is extremely low. It is the fourth lowest mark in the AL; however, it cannot simply be dismissed at all luck. His home ballpark – The Coliseum- is among the most pitcher-friendly in the league. According to ESPN Park factors, the stadium is 28th in home runs this season.

McCarthy has also helped keep the ball in the park with a shift in batted ball data. A former flyball pitcher, his groundball rate is over 47% this season. A change in pitch selection is likely behind the change in profile.  His home run rate will likely regress over a longer period of time; meanwhile, remember the park factors and the groundballs before simply dismissing it as good fortune.

The lanky right-hander is coming off his best start of the season. This weekend, McCarthy spun a complete-game shutout of the Seattle Mariners. In the process, he struck out 10 batters without issuing a walk. Over his last two starts, he has 20 strikeouts and 2 walks in 17 innings pitched. Because of the time missed earlier in the season, fatigue not seem to be a concern with McCarthy. With the opportunity for a handful of quality starts down the stretch, he may be someone you consider adding to your playoff roster. Owned in less than 15% of leagues, he is readily available if you need him.

For more on late season additions, check out BloombergSports.com

Making September Lineup Decisions

By Eriq Gardner //

The final few weeks of the MLB season are upon us. No longer can we wait on a slumping superstar to get his act together. A shortage of games means there’s simply not large enough of a sample size to comfortably project that luck will regress to the norm.

As teams in leagues fight in close categories for those extra few difference-making points, this might be the time where conventional wisdom gets flipped. A hot bat might be better in one’s lineup than a big down-on-his-fortune name.

Here are some examples:

  • Progression over Disappointment: Alex Gordon over Andre Ethier: Since the All Star Break, Gordon has been one of the top 10 batters in the majors,with a .312 average and 9 HR and 8 SB. The Royals outfielder may be finally living up to his potential, and with the team being extremely aggressive on the basepaths, Gordon suddenly looks like a sleeper 25/25 candidate for next season. For now, he’s showing decent plate discipline and production across the board to make him a prime September contributor. Meanwhile, Ethier has been terrible with just 2 HR and a .255 BA in the second half. He’s been extremely unlucky as a nice 20 BB/29 KO rate these past couple of months will testify. But there’s no time to wait on whatever mystery ailments have been keeping him back.
  • Accomplishment over Gimpiness: Edwin Encarnacion over Alex Rodriguez: The aging Yankees superstar has been bedeviled by injuries this season, and still holds tremendous game-to-game potential, but with the Bronx Bombers virtually assured of a playoff spot, don’t be surprised to see A-Rod getting extra rest time down the stretch. Even if his nagging thumb injury clears, he will likely be pulled from any lopsided games, making it very tough to count on his at-bats for the final few weeks. Besides, his full season production in 2011 (14 HR, 57 R, 53 RBIs, 4 SB, .288 BA) isn’t that much different than Encarnacion’s (15 HR, 64 R, 44 RBIs, 5 SB, .273 BA). Of late, EE has been tremendously hot, with 9 HR, 4 SB, and a .300 BA since the All Star Break. In that time, he’s been quietly the #1 rated third basemen.
  • Ambition over Laurels: Jemile Weeks over Andrew McCutchen: Since being called up in early June, Weeks has been better than advertised. He hasn’t contributed anything in the power categories, but he’s certainly hitting (.297) and has been hot to show off his wheels. In the second half, he’s stolen nearly as many bases (14) as any other player in baseball and what’s especially encouraging is that his batting eye seems to be getting better and better. He was always a patient hitter in the minors so expect him to continue getting on base and trying to make the case he’s the A’s leadoff hitter of the future. Meanwhile, McCutchen is having a very fine season, and he will no doubt go into next season as one of the top few outfielders. A player whose long-term future continues to be bright. That said, his fortunes have mirrored those of the Pittsburgh Pirates. He’s slumping of late (.227 BA since the ASB with just 5 SB) and it’s hard to figure he’ll be a solid bet for runs and RBIs in the final month. Those in need of speed in the utility spot wouldn’t be faulted for starting Weeks ahead of McCutchen these final few weeks.

The Return of Strasburg

By R.J. Anderson //

Nationals manager Davey Johnson confirmed on Tuesday what many felt was a given over the last few weeks as he announced Stephen Strasburg will return to the Nationals rotation next week. Such a timetable gives Strasburg three starts before the season ends, but with the fantasy playoffs coming up, are those three starts worth gambling on?

As always, the answer depends on your team strength. If you have multiple frontline pitchers in place, then finding a roster spot for Strasburg might be more about preventing a competitor from grabbing the phenom than adding him with the intent to play him. Still, with a return start looming against the hapless Dodgers, you have to at least consider the option.

Rehab assignments are difficult to get a read on, and the statistics from them tend to be meaningless. Nonetheless, Strasburg’s rehab numbers are impressive: 14 1/3 innings pitched, 25 strikeouts, three walks, one home run, and 13 hits.  Reports from Strasburg’s first time back on the mound suggested his stuff was back and that he was throwing into the upper-90s with his fastball, so it isn’t ridiculous to think he could be able to contribute at the major league level right now.

There is some risk here, as any pitcher returning from Tommy John surgery is hard to predict, and it’s unlikely he would have replicate his impressive totals from last season (68 innings pitched, a 2.91 earned run average, and a 5.41 strikeout-to-walk ratio) over a full season, so imagine the volatility in asking him to do it over three starts. Even so, Strasburg is perhaps the only game changer left on the market, as he is owned in less than 60 percent of ESPN leagues, and if you want him for your own team, then grab him now.

For more on Strasburg and potential September additions, check out bloombergsports.com

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