Buoyed by the long, winding collective stroll through the charred aftermath of the fantasy landscape one day after the trade deadline, I figure I’ll use the pretense to talk about some of the players I acquired and fired in my own home league, in hopes that those of you playing in leagues with slightly later deadlines will be able to benefit from some insights on a few difficult-to-evaluate players. Let’s take a look at five on the move from one of my rosters.
Masahiro Tanaka (SP)—NYY: Tanaka is having one of the stranger seasons around, with all kinds of strange splits and, underlying everything, an insane home-run rate. His whiff and walk numbers are delicious, and he gets grounders at a good clip to boot. But, much like his fallen comrade Michael Pineda, the contact he does yield is hard contact. And that is, of course, particularly true in the air this year, where his average exit velocity rests around the 20th percentile and is home-run rate has pretty much single-handedly driven his avert-your-eyes ERA.
In one of the more fun social engineering experiments of the year, he’s dialed way back on his fastball deployment lately in favor of sliders and splitters. Throwing your best pitches more often strikes me as a non-terrible idea in general, and doubly so when your four-seamer’s getting rocked to the tune of a .414/.552 line and your two-seamer rolled at .359/.717. The 1.4 run gap between his DRA and ERA is the second largest of any pitcher to log at least 60 innings, and especially as an expiring contract acquisition (which this was) for a supporting (read: 5/6 starter) role, I don’t see a ton of downside in making a play for him on the cheap if he’s there. So far, so good, as yesterday’s outing against Detroit was one of his best.
Jon Lester (LHP)—Cubs: Look, it hasn’t been a great year for Lester. On the heels of logging a ninth-consecutive season of 190-plus regular-season innings (plus another 35 playoff-stressful frames in October) his velocity’s been down a bit all year, and he’s lost some of the life and late movement on his pitches.
And yet the jump in home-run rate he’s suffered doesn’t particularly jive with the contact he’s allowing. Out of 143 starting pitchers with at least 190 batted balls tracked by Statcast, Lester’s average exit velocity is fourth lowest on line drives and fly balls. He’s given up a lower percentage of hard-hit (95-plus mile-an-hour) contact than all but nine others among that sample. The curveball has been the biggest culprit, both in lost movement and effectiveness, so it should surprise no one that he has moved away from it rather dramatically of late in favor of more cutters.
Truth be told, I acquired him with an eye towards spinning him off, but I’m not exactly crying in my beer after that didn’t happen. For those with an eye toward head-to-head playoffs in September, the Cubs face a big ol’ slate of mediocrity, with the Braves (17th in team TAv), Pirates (18th), Brewers (12th), Mets (fifth, somehow, but also a train wreck), and Cardinals (13th) all on tap. He’s not a rush-out-and-acquire guy, by any means, but it’s entirely possible there’s a discount to be had for his services, given the downtick in performance to date. And given his reliability as an arm with as much experience as anybody at closing out a 200-inning campaign in a pennant race, it’s really not a bad time to inquire.
Nelson Cruz (OF)—Mariners: Cruz is 37 years old and has seen a topline decline in his home-run pace this year after launching 40-plus in each of the past three seasons. Thing is, the under-the-surface numbers don’t really support that downturn. He’s continuing to hit the ball as hard as anyone in baseball, with the fourth-highest average exit velocity and elite aerial contact to boot. He’s actually hitting more fly balls this year, just without the payoff of over-the-fence results. Cruz is seeing significantly more fastballs this season than he’s used to seeing, especially the elevated variety thereof. And there has indeed been some marginal tapering of his power production against high cheese, indicating that the bat might be losing a tick of speed through the zone, particularly the northern corners thereof. But damn, he’s still slugging .562 against four-seamers broadly (.579 career), and there's nothing remotely out of line in terms of contact rate or demonstrable changes to his approach to suggest ongoing regression.
He is, very basically, doing what he does. And given that, it kind of feels like there could just be a bunch of dingers left in his bat this season. He’s certainly not going to come cheap—per Mike Gianella’s most recent valuation update, his current pace is that of a $23 player—but he’s exactly the kind of mildly-underperforming veteran acquisition I like to target for a second-half run. And as a dynasty asset, he fits the bill of a classically underrated piece, where managers with itchy trigger fingers may look to get value while the getting’s good on an older player. If there’s suggestion that person plays in your league, and he or she may be more prone to move him in advance of his Age 38 season than his recent and current performance suggests they should be, I’d have no problem pouncing with an eye toward an open competition window next season.
Mark Melancon (RP)—Giants: I’ve grabbed Melancon as a throw-in in two leagues over the past couple weeks, including one in which he’s on an expiring contract and unable to be dropped for the remainder of the season. The theory: either he’s going to be healthy, in which case he’ll be closing, or he’s going to re-aggravate (or worsen) his elbow injury and get shut down and/or operated upon. His performance pre-injury suggested the results: his control and peripherals remained stable, but the fine command didn’t. That’s the kind of thing that results from an elbow injury and in more frequent mistakes getting elevated by hitters at inopportune moments. So it went for Melancon. And for the sake of save speculation, the hope is that it goes differently after rest and rehab. For dynasty purposes, while I’m not generally one to appeal to arguments about a player’s paycheck, the Giants owe Melancon a lot of money over a long time (as measured in reliever scales, anyway). If he’s healthy, he would appear on the surface to be the owner of one of the longer leashes in town, and thus worthy of longer-term speculation by a manager who sees his squad as being a year out from contention. Again, it’s all context-dependent here, but the injury uncertainty here makes him a potentially undervalued target for both re-draft and keeper formats, presuming you’re in a position to take on some risk.
Dinelson Lamet (RHP)—Padres: Can I admit something here? I kind of love this guy as a keeper-league investment. When I saw him in High A this past year he featured a bowling-ball sinker that bumped 96 and an above-average slider that flashed Warthanian traits in the high 80s. He also showed no changeup, underwhelming command, and no reason outside of the frame to believe there was much in the way of a starting pitcher in there. Since then he’s spent an awful lot of time building reps with the cambio, and while it isn’t a good pitch yet, it flashes evil movement while sitting 90. Tim Finnegan did a nice job breaking down the strengths and weaknesses a while back, and much of what he said then holds now.
Lamet was an older sign, and has been learning how to pitch professionally while much farther along in age than your typical Dominican IFA. And at 25, he’s far from a finished product. Lamet is another one whose giant whiff numbers have driven a pretty obscene DRA-ERA split (the second-widest chasm for any pitcher to log 50 innings, in fact) and he’s a guy that rebuilding teams would be wise to take a long, hard look at down the stretch. He’s about as well-positioned as any young starter to play the Robbie Ray v. 2016 role, and if the whiffs continue to hold after the league gets some more looks at him, other results be damned, I’ll be targeting him aggressively this off-season.