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May 1, 2013

Fantasy Freestyle

A Fast Start for Slowey

by Paul Sporer

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I planned to write about Kevin Slowey regardless of how he performed on Tuesday night. He is a longtime favorite of mine who has looked great early on with his best work coming in that Tuesday effort against the Mets, as he went eight strong allowing just a single run on four hits with eight strikeouts. He walked nobody. In fact, he has a 14-to-0 K:BB in his last two outings, spanning 14 innings. I won’t fault you for not remembering Slowey.

He was pretty good in his first “full” season with the Twins back in 2008, throwing 160 1/3 innings of 3.99 ERA and 1.15 WHIP ball, along with a sharp 5.1 K:BB. After that, it was a series of disappointments, as he was plagued by injuries and home runs. I remained enamored with the K:BB rates, though. From 2009-2011 (he didn’t pitch at the MLB level in 2012), he had a 5.01 ERA and 1.35 WHIP over 305 2/3 innings, but a sparkling 4.6 K:BB. If you played in any leagues with me, you remember Slowey as “that guy that Paul keeps taking and acting like he got one over on us with his last-round pick.” Like any great setup, I was just waiting for the payoff that was due to come five years later.

His Problems

The issue with Slowey back with Minnesota was that he couldn’t command his stuff within the zone consistently enough to have success. Combine that with his fly-ball tendency, and trouble ensued. Slowey was in the zone 52.3 percent of the time coming into 2013, the 29th-highest mark among starting pitchers. His fly-ball rate in that same span was the highest among starters. Mix that with his subpar command, sprinkle in the fact that he works at 89-90 mph from the right side, and you end with up with a 1.4 HR/9. He gave up three more walks than homers in those three seasons.

His Injuries

In addition to the home-run issues, Slowey was having trouble actually staying on the field to improve as a pitcher. Even in his 2008 season that went well, he missed time due to a strained right bicep—an injury that wouldn’t soon leave him. In 2009 he was cut down by a strained right wrist in early July and that eventually required season-ending surgery limiting him to three months. The 2010 injury was a strained right triceps, and then his 2011 barely got off the ground before the right bicep injury struck again on April 9. He was limited to just 49 Triple-A innings with the Indians organization thanks to a right lat strain that kept him out from mid-May through the end of the season.

His Rebirth

I was thrilled with the mid-January news that Slowey had signed with the Marlins. It was much better than the winter of 2011, when he was inexplicably traded to the Rockies before finally landing with the Indians. There wasn’t a worse match between player and ballpark in all of baseball than Slowey and Coors Field. Meanwhile, marrying Slowey and Marlins Park is as close to perfect as we can get given that the San Francisco Giants didn’t have an opening for him. AT&T Park is the only park tougher on home-run hitters than the new yard in Miami.

With the dismantled Marlins in the midst of a full rebuild, Slowey would get a real chance at a rotation spot, too.

I’m always careful not to pay much heed to spring training numbers and I caution others to do the same, but there are certain situations where it’s worth keeping an eye on someone’s progress—such as when someone is trying to win a job and or is returning from injury. Slowey fit both criteria, so I was pleased to see that he was handling the Grapefruit League in his outings, and he eventually won the fifth-starter role over prospect Jacob Turner.

His performance

The big outing on Tuesday pushed his season ERA down to 2.15, along with a 1.01 WHIP in 37 2/3 innings. Of course, he is 0-2, because why not? He has a 17.2 percent strikeout rate, a 4.9 percent walk rate, and most importantly, a 0.91 HR/9 rate. A big improvement has been his fastball against righties. He is working the outer third of the zone and avoiding mistakes on the inner third, where he was consistently beat in the 2009-2011 span.

His changeup appears to have to take a step forward in mitigating the effectiveness of lefties. It is used most sparingly among his four offerings, but it has yielded tremendous results so far, even with the lone hit against it leaving the yard. He has also shifted to heavier use of his 80-mph slider, a pitch he used just five percent of the time from 2009-2011, but now chooses over 15 percent of the time. The pitch is has yielded a .083/.148/.208 triple-slash line in 27 plate appearances, holding lefties hitless in 10 of them. Lefties have consistently been an issue for Slowey, especially with his fastball, so if the slider and changeup have legitimately improved and become reliable weapons against them, then this success has some real sustainability.

No, sustainability doesn’t mean holding these current ratios throughout the season. It just means that he can stay useful, perhaps with something in the mid-3.00s in the ERA department. The key will be what it has always been: avoiding mistakes in the zone that leave the yard. Hopefully that has you thinking “spot-starter at home” instantly, because that is the ideal deployment of Slowey going forward. For those of you who don’t have that kind of roster flexibility, then deep-mixed and NL-only leagues are the way to go.

Not only has Slowey shown that he is worth a look in standard fantasy leagues, but he also becomes an intriguing option for you daily fantasy players. His price on Tuesday night was basically half of what Yu Darvish and Justin Verlander cost, so I ran him out there in a few spots, using the savings to build a potent lineup. These under-the-radar arms are great for daily fantasy because you have a chance to get points that few others are getting. Sure, Verlander met expectations and rolled the Twins, but that likely just kept you at par with many opponents who also took him. Slowey was dominant and gave you an inherent advantage everywhere else throughout your lineup.

Finally, health will be the major hurdle for Slowey to clear, even more so than the home runs. Since he threw just 49 innings in 2012 and has never worked more than 160, it is hard to know how far the Marlins will push him. Keep that in mind as the season wears on, and look out for news tidbits on whether or not he will have any sort of cap. Might the Marlins also consider dealing Slowey at the deadline for a prospect if he’s still clicking on all cylinders? After all, what do they really need with a 29-year-old guy they signed on a one-year deal for $750,000? They can’t afford to spend that kind of cash on just one player!

Paul Sporer is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Paul's other articles. You can contact Paul by clicking here

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