July 9, 2014
Don't Forget About Me
A couple weeks ago, we discussed some unexpected early-season fantasy studs and asked how they had fared since their brilliant starts to the season. An intrepid commenter suggested a follow-up article that highlighted some players who had accelerated their performance after spinning their wheels out of the gate. This is my humble acquiescence.
This article does not wish to suggest each one of these players has successfully shaken off his early-season blunders. Rather, the fact that some could legitimately revert and again become a fantasy wasteland makes this project a bit more interesting. The limited space makes it impossible to draw any definite conclusions, but I hope to bring up some interesting points to help give you direction as you consider your squad’s roster construction.
Brad Miller, shortstop—Seattle Mariners
Miller has become the internet’s poster boy for unheralded improvement this season. He’s hitting .207/.277/.336 on the year and is barely a top-30 fantasy shortstop, but the 24-year-old has begun to claw his way back to respectability. The improvements over the past month have been significant across the board--more base hits, more power, and better discipline.
Before jumping squarely on the bandwagon, though, it’s important for us to recognize whence this improvement has germinated. It’s not a simple increase across the board, as the overall numbers would lead to believe. Miller has done nothing more than rediscover his stroke against righties. He has still been a complete basketcase against southpaws.
Slash Line vs. LHP: .133/.198/.227, 4.9% walk rate, 37.8% strikeout rate
Slash Line vs. RHP: .238/.308/.381, 9.4% walk rate, 18.7% strikeout rate
At best, the recent improvement indicates that fantasy owners can feel more comfortable playing Miller against right-handed pitchers. Fortunately, that’s the fat side of the platoon, but it’s still a limitation on his overall profile. If you need more proof that he’s still struggling against southpaws, check out his line-drive rates by handedness:
Don’t pay too much attention to the March numbers, as the sample is literally one game. However, it’s clear that his line-drive rate has markedly improved against righties, which has led to a better batting average and is indicative of more consistent contact. On the other hand, his line-drive rate against lefties has sunk month-by-month. Match that with his brutal peripheral statistics against lefties, and he’s not startable right now against same-handed pitching.
To be fair, though, fantasy owners who invested in Brad Miller prior to the season will take any improvement whatsoever, even if it’s limited to right-handed pitching. The good news is that he displayed no platoon issues last season, which leads one to hope the ungodly performance against lefties could be just temporary.
Kole Calhoun, outfield—Los Angeles Angels
It seems out of place to include Calhoun on this list, as he has recently treated unsuspecting pitchers as his personal punching bag and has subsequently eclipsed the .300 plateau on the year, but many owners haven’t gotten over his brutal start. In fact, he’s only owned in 82 percent of ESPN leagues, which is rather reprehensible at this point in the season. He’s not only raking, but also batting atop one of the best batting orders in baseball.
However, owners shouldn’t go nuts to acquire Calhoun via trade and need to understand his overall value. His massive jump in performance is largely fueled by an unsustainable .403 BABIP and he’s not running on the basepaths. It’s slightly concerning that he’s OPSing over 1.000 and is only the 48th-ranked fantasy outfielder in the past 30 days, which stems from the dearth of stolen bases and relatively few RBI chances. Thus, even at his absolute best, he hasn’t been much more than a solid fantasy outfielder. Of course, if you’re a fantasy owner in search of batting average or runs and cannot afford to sacrifice power, Calhoun makes plenty of sense—just don’t expect his average to stay north of .300 in the second half.
Nick Castellanos, third base—Detroit Tigers
One of the most-hyped rookies coming into the 2014 season, Castellanos has made some noise in recent weeks. He’s hitting over .300 in the past month and even stole his first pair of bases in the majors. Still, one has to wonder where this recent uptick in performance actually leads because the increased batting average, heightened BABIP, and decreased strikeout rate haven’t been accompanied by more power —which is why Castellanos is only the 26th-ranked fantasy third baseman in the past 30 days. That strains the mind a bit. He’s hitting .300+ since the beginning of June in the Tigers’ batting order and has very little fantasy value to show for it.
In many ways, unless a significant uptick in power comes along, it seems the absolute best-case scenario is what Chris Johnson did a year ago, and even then Johnson barely cracked the top 15 third basemen. Unless Castellanos can churn out a few homers or suddenly become a base-stealing threat, he’s not offering much other than an empty batting average and a handful of counting stats. Even more, that heightened average is based on a .355 BABIP— something he hasn’t sustained since he was playing in High-A ball.
Dynasty leagues, sure. I’m still on board. In single-year redraft leagues, though, the hype is overblown until the 22-year-old displays another tool that can be useful in standard leagues. In fact, I’ve started to shop him in one of my redraft leagues while his perceived value is higher and I can still sell his upside. He might hit on the upside, but in a redraft league, I’m not banking on it.
Pedro Alvarez, third base—Pittsburgh Pirates
The BP Bat Signal had begun to see an influx of questions concerning Pedro Alvarez and his slow start to the season. When the low-average power guy failed to eclipse the .700 OPS mark in the first couple months, people began to frantically raise red flags in a cold-sweated panic. Personally, I had begun to wonder whether the 27-year-old slugger had consciously begun to trade more contact for decreased overall power, as his ISO and strikeout rate had both fallen significantly. However, as we approach the All-Star break, Alvarez has compiled an intriguing five weeks. His average is beginning to climb out of the cellar, but his power has declined even more and his strikeout rate has spiked yet again.
Thus, Pedro Alvarez has seemingly enjoyed an offensive surge in recent weeks with an OPS back above .800 and a .286 batting average. As a fantasy owner, though, this isn’t exactly how you wanted to see him rebound. If you drafted Pedro Alvarez, you drafted him for the dingers. The fact that his power has declined even more and his strikeout rate is back close to 30 percent is concerning, as his entire fantasy value is thus tied to his batting average—which can’t touch .300 even with a .397 BABIP.
I don’t think the power is gone. He’s only 27 and has too much track record. However, this first half of the season has been tough, despite an overall third base ranking of 12th. The underlying numbers suggest the second half might see a drop off if the recent trends continue, and I’m particularly concerned about the 12 percent increase in contact outside the strike zone. Pedro Alvarez makes his money by crushing mistakes and hitting his pitches 400-plus feet, not by hitting pitches outside the strike zone that are much more difficult to drive. His 60.4 percent contact rate on pitches outside the zone is a career high, by a significant margin too.
Jake Odorizzi, right-handed pitcher—Tampa Bay Rays
Sometimes we get caught up in stats—I include myself in that generalization—and we forget that statistics are actually representational of physical things that happen on the baseball diamond. They show us where to look. Thus, we can see that Jake Odorizzi’s strikeout rate jumped from 18.0 percent a year ago to 26.7 percent this season; however, the payoff comes through determining why that strikeout rate jumped. For the right-hander, we turn to The Thing, a new split-fingered changeup that has completely transformed his arsenal on the mound. His swinging-strike rate jumped nearly four percentage points and we can easily see the impact his split-change has made to left-handed batters.
He now owns a better strikeout-to-walk ratio against lefties than he does righties, and he has no platoon split whatsoever (.697 OPS vs LHH, .684 OPS vs RHH). And for fantasy owners, it has transformed him from being fringe-relevant to a potential mainstay in fantasy rotations. It’s a complete shame that he’s only owned in 13.2 percent of ESPN leagues.
Much of Odorizzi’s struggles early in the year were BABIP-related, and since the BABIP has dropped to a more reasonable level, he has found much more success. In addition, the walk rate was too high early in the year. He struggled to command the strike zone, as his Zone% dropped significantly, but that should be expected for a young hurler who’s simultaneously trying to master a new pitch and adjust to the majors. However, he’s been working ahead in the count more as of late, which has allowed him to work out of the zone to continually rack up the strikeout totals.
There’s a lot to like about Odorizzi at the moment. He’s solved his platoon split and increased his overall strikeout numbers through the addition of The Thing, and he’s also begun to limit the walks. Accompany that with a lower BABIP, and the sub-3.00 ERA makes sense. However, he’s still a fly-ball pitcher and occasional home run issue will occur. Despite that, he’s potentially a mid-rotation starter who could offer plenty of strikeouts, and many people are still blinded by the 4.00+ ERA. It could be a time to swoop in and grab him.
Matt Garza, right-handed pitcher—Milwaukee Brewers
Throughout his career, Garza has shown that when he limits the long ball, he can be supremely successful. In the past six years, he’s posted an ERA lower than 3.80 just twice (including this year), and those were the only two years in which his HR/9 was below 1.00. Thus, it’s no surprise that Garza has dominated the opposition over the past 50 innings with a 0.18 HR/9. He’s carried the Brewers’ rotation, as the remainder of the group has largely struggled over the past couple months.
The recent success in limiting runs has belied the slightly-concerning decrease in strikeouts, though. His 18.4 percent strikeout rate is the lowest since 2010, and his swinging-strike rate is lower than it’s been since the same 2010 season (not coincidentally, Garza started throwing his slider much more often in 2011 and thereafter, which accounts for much of the increased strikeout numbers). It’s not an unworkable strikeout rate; however, it’s one that needs to be backed up with a good ERA and a low walk total to be useful. That’s been the case thus far. If the home-run issues return, though—and one would expect them to in homer-friendly Miller Park—his overall value will take a significant downturn. After all, he’s essentially been lights out these past five weeks and he’s only the 29th-ranked pitcher in the past 30 days, providing exactly as much value in strikeouts as Scott Feldman since the beginning of June.
Again, Matt Garza has been very good as of late. His profile is simply changing. He’s no longer the high-strikeout wild card who you pray can keep down the ERA. He’s a middling strikeout pitcher who needs to have a low ERA and low WHIP to be effective in standard fantasy leagues. And that’s an interesting metamorphosis he’s undergone in the past couple years.