by Eno Sarris //
The tale of two starters owned in about half of all fantasy leagues ends with a discussion on strategy. Derek Holland and Jeff Niemann may not be very similar in terms of their physical stature or the quality of their stuff, but the two pitchers have similar statistical profiles. Putting them in a position to succeed is very important to getting the best results from these two young starters.
Neither Holland nor Niemann have great swing-and-miss stuff right now. The average swinging strike rate in the major leagues is 8.6% this year, and Holland (7.2%) and Niemann (8.1%) fall short of that number. Their strikeout rates (6.84 K/9 and 7.14 K/9 respectively) reflect this reality. In the future, Holland has more upside, perhaps, as his 94 MPH fastball is three ticks faster than Niemann’s, and his four-pitch mix has gotten better whiffs in the past. But, right now, both of these guys lack the strikeout punch of an elite pitcher.
None of the rest of their rates are elite either. Holland has average control (3.07 BB/9, 3.11 BB/9 is average), gets groundballs at a slightly above-average rate (47.3% GBs, 44% is average), and has had slightly below-average luck (.310 BABIP, 70.3% LOB, averages are .292 and 72.4% this year). For the most part, Niemann’s story is the same. He has an average ground-ball rate (44.1%), and slightly above-average luck (.277 BABIP, 76.7% LOB). Right now, he’s showing an elite walk rate (2.11 BB/9), but he’s been limited to 98 1/3 innings this year and his career rate is much closer to average (2.90 BB/9).
If their luck stats regress towards the mean like they should, both of these pitchers are mid-to-high threes ERA pitchers. Even if one is 6′ 9″ and is nicknamed the Big Nyquil because of his slow pace and sleepy stuff, and the other is 6′ 2″ and has a suprising 94 MPH fastball coming from his left hand, there are similarities here.
By all accounts, if a 3.6+ ERA is above-average in real-life baseball, it is average in your regular mixed fantasy league. So you have two pitchers that have the upside to give you average production and the downside to actually hurt your ERA. How do you best use two dudes like this?
By putting them on your bench and using them in good matchups.
Holland has been a better pitcher on the road, showing better control and better results. Avoid Arlington, where he has a 5.32 ERA and a 1.63 WHIP, and he’s suddenly a much better pitcher. Niemann doesn’t have much of a home/road split, but he does face juggernaut offenses in Boston, Toronto and New York. Avoiding those teams would be the safe way to go. You mitigate your risk, and you improve the downside portion of the ledger.
If you have the flexibility to use a starter half of the time, you’ll get half of an above-average starter out of each of these two dudes by picking your starts well. Many fantasy teams make the mistake of holding too many bench position players. These players only contribute one or two starts a week to your team. Instead, your bench should be made up of pitchers like Holland and Niemann: pitchers that can easily be put in a position to succeed.
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by Eno Sarris //
Sometimes, you just like a guy. In the case of Jeff Niemann, there are things to like. He’s got a great nickname, for one. “The Big Nyquil” is big – six-foot nine – and owns a skillset capable of lulling a fan to sleep. His 16 pitches per inning in his rookie year, and his Trachsel-like pace on the mound, inspired the nickname, popularized by Rays blog DRaysBay.com.
As a fan of undervalued players, that’s good enough reason for this fan to follow Niemann, and even enough reason to draft him. Look how Niemann stacks up against the top 10 pitchers in baseball this year, in the Bloomberg Sports Fantasy Tools spider graph to the right. With his great start (and only 14 pitches per inning), is he worth more attention?
First, the role of luck in Niemann’s career should be charted. Take a look at his underlying statistics and the difference in ERA below. Pretty interesting that a pitcher could be so similar in two years and yet have such different ERAs, isn’t it? The fact that the two xFIPs (a number that strips out batted-ball luck and normalizes home-run rates, then produces a number on the ERA scale) are exactly the same gives you a clearer picture of Niemann’s true ability level.
This table seems to suggest that Niemann’s underlying game hasn’t changed much, so we should probably expect something more like last year’s surface stats in the future. In fact, with his strikeout rates declining, could we expect worse?
It’s not all bad with Niemann. He has increased his groundball percentage (from 40.5% to 45.6%). Unfortunately, thanks to work by Harry Pavlidis that published just last week, we can see that Niemann’s new groundball percentage is pretty close to the average groundball rate on all pitches in baseball so far this year (44%). So he improved… to average.
What about swing rates? Take a look at the table on the right, with statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.com. Almost every single swing rate is either the same or marginally worse this year. Batters are reaching at pitches about the same, seeing about as many pitches inside and outside the zone, and making contact just a little bit more this year. That last number is swinging strike percentage (or whiff %), and it’s below-average (8.5%). That’s why Niemann doesn’t rack up the strikeouts.
It’s fine to like a pitcher, whether for his quirks on the mound or aspects of his game. But when you are playing fantasy baseball, and you have a player that has secondary statistics that have remained static while their ERA has fluctuated, it’s best to trust the underlying numbers. As you can see in this case in particular, those secondary statistics remain more stable.
In the case of Niemann, they paint the picture of a mid-rotation major league starter, and a low-end option in most mixed leagues. If Niemann’s perceived value is that of a more elite pitcher, take advantage and sell high.
For more on Jeff “The Big Nyquil” Niemann and other surging pitchers, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools.