We are less than a week away from the most/least exciting day of the fantasy baseball season—roster expansion. On that magical day of September 1, Major League Baseball teams can expand their active roster by up to 15 players, giving chances to rookies and career minor leaguers to showcase their skills and audition for a spot on someone’s 2012 roster. It also gives teams a chance to rest their everyday players as they put their roster into cruise control in order to rest up for a grueling post-season.
The frustrating part about the final month of the season is that not every team treats it the same, and a call-up does not guarantee any playing time. Since I both follow and cover the Tampa Bay Rays, I am all too familiar with their policy of not using the full 40-man roster in September as they only prefer to call up players they plan on using and allowing others to rest up for the next season. Even when the team was not contending in September of 2009, they only called up players they could give playing time to and did not use the luxury of being out of contention to give more players a chance to play. Other teams will use the roster spots to add bullpen arms to the mix in order to rest up overused arms or even a third catcher to give the regular tandem a break.
Paramount to fantasy players over the final scoring periods is knowing just how helpful these September call-ups will be to fantasy rosters. Thanks to our great colleague Dan Turkenkopf here at Baseball Prospectus, we can take a quick look at the data from the past six seasons to see just how impactful these call-ups have been. A big thanks to Dan for doing the data mining that made this article possible because finding it in the freely available places on the series of tubes we call the Internet is tougher than finding the last time Hector Villanueva hit a triple. Without further delay, here is the kind of help that has been available since 2005 from September call-ups.
Playing time: Since 2005, just 69 September call-ups have received as many as 20 at-bats after their call-up and just three of them have received at least 100 at-bats: Nyjer Morgan had 107 at-bats for the 2007 Pirates, Michael Brantley saw 112 at-bats for the 2009 Indians, and Danny Espinosa saw 103 at-bats for the Nationals last season. 30 of 69 call-ups saw fewer than 30 at-bats after being added to the active roster, and the group of 69 players overall averaged just 26 at-bats.
Runs: Need help in this counting category? You may want to look elsewhere. Just 53 percent of the call-ups scored even one run. To be fair, among that group are National League pitchers, but even removing them does not greatly increase the odds. There has been but a dirty dozen players that have scored at least 10 runs as a September call-up with former Rays outfielder Fernando Perez leading the way with 18 runs scored, playing often in place of a dinged-up Carl Crawford down the stretch. Most recently, Espinosa scored 16 runs last season, but the rest of the membership in the double-digit club came from 2005 to 2007.
Home Runs: Espinosa leads the way here as well as he hit six home runs as the most productive player in last year’s call-up class. In 2007, both Daric Barton and Joey Votto hit four home runs, as did Lucas Duda last season and Ian Desmond in 2009, but that has been it. These September call-ups have done very little to help fantasy players with home runs down the final stretch.
RBI: This stat also does not see much help from September call-ups since so few rookies hit in the middle of the lineup upon their call-up. In fact, just eight players have driven in more than 10 runs during their September call-up, and Joey Votto led that bunch with 17 runs driven in during the 2007 season. Oddly enough, J.R. Towles drove in 12 during that same month, which pretty much matches the amount of runs he has driven in since that time. Did you know Josh Anderson was in that group as well? Me neither.
Stolen Bases: You do not even need all of the digits on one of your hands to count the number of September call-ups that have been a factor in this category; just four players have stolen at least five bases during their call-up. Jarrod Dyson was the most helpful in this category as he stole nine bases down the stretch last season, but Nyjer Morgan, Bernie Castro, and Fernando Perez are the only others to steal five or more.
Batting Average: For call-ups that had at least 20 at-bats, the group had a cumulative batting average of just .253. A few players saw a lot of playing time and actually helped fantasy owners in batting average.
- Michael Brantley – .313
- Nyjer Morgan – .299
- Joey Votto – .321
- Ian Desmond – .280
- Bernie Castro – .280
- Daric Barton – .347
- Steven Pearce – .294
- Josh Anderson – .358
- Adam Lind – .367
- Ryan Zimmermann – .397
- Josh Thole – .321
Each of these players had at least 50 at-bats in a September call-up and helped influence tight batting average races in fantasy leagues. In order to make a noticeable dent, 50 at-bats would be needed. While the players listed above did well, Danny Espinosa hit .214, Lucas Duda hit .202, Luis Cruz hit .224, Jarrod Dyson hit .211, Matt Antonelli hit .193, and Kevin Kouzmanoff hit .214. As such, playing a rookie in September can hurt you just as much as it can help you.
On the pitching side of the ledger, we are talking 36 innings of work or less as you figure a starting pitcher will get no more than six starts over the final month of the season. Wade Davis did outstanding in his stint in 2009, striking out 36 in 36.1 innings of work with a 3.72 ERA and 1.27 WHIP. Dillon Gee helped out last season with a 2.18 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in September while Francisco Liriano struck out 33 in 23.2 innings of work with a 1.10 WHIP (but a 5.70 ERA) in 2005. Pitchers simply are not going to get enough time in September to make a huge difference, and the ones that do have found mixed success.
Davis and Liriano are the only two call-ups to strike out at least 30 in the season’s final month, and only Shairon Martis and Brad Kilby join them as pitchers to strike out at least 20, which shows you the lack of help rookie pitchers are going to provide in this category. It only gets worse for saves as only four call-ups in the past six seasons have recorded a save (Jason Motte, John Axford, Jim Miller, and Vinnie Pestano), and none of them had more than one. Given the limited amount of work any of the pitching call-ups see, they do not have a dramatic impact on your ratios, so your best hope is going to be strikeouts and wins, but that will only matter if your standings are tight.
So which guys will help next month? It is really tough to say because for every Davis or Votto, you get a Bernie Castro and Brad Kilby. Look for teams that are comfortably ahead or comfortably out of the standings. Look for teams that have young starters they would like to shut down for the season or anyone that does a final waiver trade before the August 31st deadline. Maybe, just maybe, the Royals get some sense and move Melky Cabrera to free up playing time for Lorenzo Cain. The fact that the Rays pulled Matt Moore after just 84 pitches the other night may mean they intend to bring him up next month.
He is not on the 40-man roster, and they do not have an open spot on the roster, but there are a few candidates that could be designated for assignment to create room for the pitching phenom. He is just seven innings shy of equaling his 2010 workload (IP wise), and given the team’s preference of keeping pitchers from going more than 25-30 innings from one season to the next, it seems as if Moore has four or five starts left. The Rays need to go 25-11 over their final 36 to get to 94 wins, which has always all-but-guaranteed a playoff run. Since the six-man rotation went over like a lead balloon earlier this summer, any shot Moore would have at a promotion would involve Jeremy Hellickson being shut down. Hellickson is nine innings shy of equaling last season’s total, so he could easily complete his turns throughout September and call it a season.
If the Yankees do not finally promote Jesus Montero on September 1, he just may end up with more plate appearances in AAA than Desmond Jennings had with the Rays. They also have Manny Banuelos, who falls under the same situation as Moore in that he is not on the 40-man roster. Dellin Bentances, however, is on the roster, making his call-up more likely.
If you are hoping for September call-ups to be the difference maker in your league over the final five scoring periods, you may want to make alternative plans.