August 26, 2016
As we head into the homestretch of the season some of you are angling for a title run, or a challenge for the money, or waiting in vain for your one-category “Perfect Games” league to get more interesting. I, however, play in at least two full keeper leagues in which mine eyes are affixed squarely upon the great horizon beyond 2016. And that means using this time of the year to start searching for potentially undervalued acquisition targets, either for your end-of-year FAAB queue or your off-season trade list. So let’s start in a basic and logical place with some pitchers who have performed much worse than their underlying metrics suggest they should have performed to date. Below is a table of the hurlers with the biggest gaps between their DRA and ERA. I’ve isolated guys who have performed at least a run and a half worse by ERA than their DRA suggests. And for the sake of weeding out some additional riffraff I’ve limited the pool to those arms who have performed as at least a roughly league-average level.
So without further ado, here’s our list:
Nola’s injury was annoying for many reasons, not the least of which how it cut him down before the inevitable positive regression kicked in. I mean, there had to be positive regression en route, right? After dominating through his first dozen starts, Nola’s BABIP expanded like a second inflationary epoch. Some of the poor results were earned via harder contact, some more were earned via Philadelphia’s poor infield defense, and the rest were, well, it’s probably safe to say they were bad luck. His left-on-base rate was literally the worst of any pitcher in the majors, which…well, that’s how you end up deserving to give up two and a quarter runs-per-nine less than you did.
Depending on the medicals, there may just be an opportunity to buy on the cheap here, as the elbow uncertainty and dive-bombed performance before the shutdown may open the window with the manager who employs his services in your league. There were no other red flags in his profile – no drastic changes to velocity, movement, arm angle, facial hair…all that changed was poor location and poorer results.The injury gives some cover and explanation to Nola’s command issues after the calendar flipped to summer, and health-permitting I’ll remain firmly on-board into next season.
Perdomo and Duffey are both interesting, insofar as they are young, frustrating, and show just enough flashes of quality stuff that you want to believe. Perdomo hadn’t toed a high-minors rubber before this season, and while the topline ERA would seem to confirm that inexperience, the 23-year-old has flashed some whips, including a curve that generates plenty of out-of-zone whiffs and a sinker-split combo that has fueled the second-best groundball rate of any pitcher who can match his 105-plus innings this year. That hasn’t been necessarily a good thing this year, with the Padres’ porous infield defense behind him, but it’s a solid skill set at large, and given the performance this year he seems a decent bet to get more opportunity in the rotation next year. He’s an interesting deep-league name to monitor down the stretch. Duffey’s bugaboo continues to be the home-run ball, but if he can manage to keep his pitches from finding seats, there’s still a nice skill set here: he limits walks reasonably well and induces an above-average number of out-of-zone offerings at his solid-average curveball to help drive his strikeout totals. Both guys pitch in solid ballparks, and with a step forward in consistency offer the potential to graduate into mixed-league relevance next year.
Gray and Pineda are two theoretically higher-end options who just haven’t put it together this year at all. I tapped Pineda as my pick for a second-half buy, but while he’s been better, he’s still falling victim to ill-timed long balls and poor performance in higher-leverage situations. He seems to have settled in as that frustrating time of pitcher who misses plenty of bats but gets hit annoyingly hard when he doesn’t. As long as he limits free passes it can work as a mid-rotation option in standard medium-depth leagues, but the safer valuation at this point is one that keeps expectations for aggregate value in check, particularly for head-to-head formats where he can blow up your spot in any given start. Gray is another one whose strand rate has been atrocious, and he’s paired that with a bunch of homers, a few too many walks, and a few too few strikeouts to offset them. He has struggled to generate the same plane on his pitches, with a lower arm slot that has left his fastball in particular significantly more vulnerable to hard contact. The release point has recently started to wander back up towards 2015 heights, however, and he’ll be a guy to watch closely down the stretch. As things stand, he’ll likely be an annoying “hold” in dynasty leagues, as the trade value just isn’t there to dump him for pennies.
Nicasio looked like the latest and potentially greatest Pirate reclamation project after he dominated the entire state of Florida during Spring Training, and he managed to carry over his success through April. The wheels started coming off in May, however, and he’s been working on his sunflower seed-spitting in the bullpen again since the end of June. And frankly, it looks like his best fit; his four-seam fastball has induced a top-10 rate of whiffs-per-swing this month to drive an overall strikeout rate north of a dozen-per-nine since he moved to the bullpen. Let’s just hope for the sake of those of you in Holds leagues that he stays put, and let’s move on, shall we?
The final two names, Wade Miley and Robbie Ray, make for fun bedfellows as exact polar opposites on the excitement scale. I don’t know if there’s a more boring fantasy option to discuss at any depth than Miley, and unless you play in an AL-only with a good bit of depth, his skill set – in Baltimore, no less – is not one you’re really trying to retain as one of your off-season priorities. About the best thing we can say in Miley’s favor is that he’s as durable as they come, so for the above-referenced leagues there’s a measure of relative certainty there that’s, well, sort of comforting? Kind of? He has struggled all season to keep his sinker down, and batters have hit .367 and slugged .663 against it – outlying figures compared with his .296/.491 career line. Maybe if he figures out that pitch again he goes back to being an SP4 instead of an SP5, but that’s realistically the range we’re talking about here.
Meanwhile, Ray’s combination of strikeouts and peripheral inconsistency combines to fashion him as a logical early clubhouse leader for most popular sleeper of the coming winter. In addition to the delicious strikeout totals, Ray has shown an impressive ability to adjust to minimize his weaknesses as the season has progressed. Here are his batted ball results by pitch type:
And here’s his pitch deployment by month this season.
More of his awesome four-seamers and sliders, less of his terrible sinkers and changeups: that’s the good stuff. The slider has been a particularly devastating pitch, with the 10th-best whiff-per-swing rate, and he’s thrown it roughly 70 percent more often over the last two months than he did across the two months prior. He gives up a lot of hard contact, especially on the ground, and with Arizona’s defense literally the worst in baseball, that’s been a bad combination when batters have managed to put wood on the 24-year-old’s offerings. The team-defensive and park contexts may be the most pressing concerns at this stage of the game, because it sure looks like this kid’s growth and development have taken legitimate and significant steps forward this year. It’s unlikely he’ll be available at any kind of a discount this offseason, but he certainly looks like someone capable of sustaining quality performance going forward.