It’s been awfully hard to focus on fantasy baseball this summer thanks to the return of a particular MTV reality television show (Jersey Shore 2) and the arrival of Guy Fieri’s “Celebrity Grill Master Challenge” on the Food Network. Watching Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal fire up the grill and smoke teriyaki-glazed salmon isn’t just the best hour on television (especially when Kid Rock shows up), it’s a life experience.
With the All-Star break rapidly approaching, most fantasy owners are keenly aware of their respective teams strengths and weaknesses. Identifying those key areas for improvement is the easy part. What separates fantasy owners who go on to make the playoffs from those that fade down the stretch is determining which key pieces to unload and which potential second half breakout candidates to target and acquire via trade.
Today on Baseball Prospectus, my colleague Mike Gianella takes a look at which players fantasy owners should consider putting on the next bus out of town. What follows are five potential second half breakout candidates fantasy owners should be investing in right now.
After missing nearly the entire 2015 campaign after tearing his ACL in spring training, Stroman beat the odds and made it back for a series of September starts in which he dazzled fantasy owners by racking up a trio of shutouts victories while striking out over a batter per inning. His furious finish not only helped lead many savvy fantasy owners to a title (and caused Nick Shlain to simultaneously combust), but it also poured gasoline on the offseason hype machine last spring. He didn’t disappoint, either. Stroman (and his nasty slider) emerged as a legitimate Cy Young candidate last year, but has gotten off to a less than stellar start in 2017.
It’s easy to point to an inflated .336 BABIP (nearly 40 points above league average) as the primary culprit for his lackluster performance, but the usual elite ground-ball rates we’ve been accustomed to seeing throughout his career haven’t been there this season. According to the standard we have been using to evaluate past pitcher performance for years at Baseball Prospectus, Stroman owns a 3.69 Deserved Run Average (DRA), which is nearly a full run less than his actual 4.63 ERA this year.
After a brief disabled list stint last week, reports surfaced that Stroman began working with veteran reliever Yusmeiro Petit (who the team traded for from San Francisco during the offseason) at Triple-A Buffalo on improving his curveball, a pitch he has used less this year than in the past. There might not be a better mentor on a curveball than Petit, who has posted some of the highest whiff rates in baseball on the pitch in recent years. If Stroman is healthy and has an improved weapon at his disposal, look out because we could see something special over the second half.
One of last season’s biggest surprises as a rookie, he went 11-7 with a 3.37 ERA and 112 strikeouts in 131 innings (22 starts). He excelled in the spacious confines of O.co Coliseum as an extreme fly ball pitcher (46% fly ball rate), but has failed to repeat those stellar numbers over the first half of 2017. A spike in home run to fly ball ratio has resulted in a bloated ERA, but if you dig a little deeper at the next level of batted ball data, you will see that a rebound is in the cards for Nolin.
One of the biggest keys for any starter, especially a fly ball machine like Nolin, is to keep the ball in the park and limit the damage extra-base hits lead to. According to Baseball Heat Maps, he’s given up 60 fly ball hits. However, the average distance of those is just 262 feet, which ranks 182nd out of 200 starting pitchers this season. That means that Nolin is giving up an extremely low percentage of long fly balls, but the ones that he’s allowed have done some serious damage. If he can limit the mistake pitches, which opposing hitters have crushed, there is enough compelling evidence that he’s due to cobble together a string of quality starts soon. He’s not an ace, but Nolin is a fantastic buy-low opportunity for fantasy owners at the moment.
Bob Dylan once wrote, “the times they are a’ changin.” Fantasy owners who were late to the party on Mazara prior to last season and missed out on an opportunity to acquire one of the games premier young hitters in dynasty formats, never heard that song. After a slow start to his 2017 campaign (.264 average with eight home runs and one steal), which has been impacted significantly by a lingering hamstring injury, there may be a chance for fantasy owners, especially those in re-draft formats, to take a run at trading for the 22-year-old stud.
As a rookie last season, Mazara slugged 24 home runs en route to winning the AL Rookie of the Year award. His average batted ball exit velocity a year ago was over 93 mph, which was the 18th-best mark in baseball. We’ve seen the negative impact injuries can have on batted ball exit velocity, and Mazara has been no exception. So far this season he’s seen a steep decline in his exit velocity, especially on fly balls and line drives. However, over the last two weeks, he’s seen a sharp increase in batted ball exit velocity, which could be foreshadowing a monster second half power surge.
Fool me one, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me a third time and well, you must be Yelich. He’s failed to break out in each of the past two seasons, failing to develop into the potential .300 average, 15-20 home run, 25-plus steal fantasy monster we all envisioned when he was an elite prospect earlier this decade. Just because he’s 25 years old doesn’t mean he can’t still evolve, which is exactly what seems to be happening in Los Angeles.
Yelich has quietly changed his batted ball profile, reducing his ground ball rate to below 60 percent for the first time in his career. As a result, he’s traded in a bit of average for a bit more pull power. His 10 first half home runs have him on the precipice of the highest big fly total of his career. If you go back to Michael Brantley’s stellar 2014 MVP caliber campaign, his power breakout (in which he hit 12 first half home runs) didn’t happen until he was almost 27-years-old. Even if Yelich has burned you in the past, he’s worth targeting again because the underlying statistics back up his power outburst.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but cFIP loves Salazar. Like really loves him. If you’re not familiar with cFIP by now, you should, because it’s an advanced predictive pitching metric (developed by Jonathan Judge), which can be used to forecast future pitching performance. Salazar was one of cFIP’s darlings over the past two years, ranking among the top 10 starters in the game, during that span. Yet his surface stats haven’t lived up to that hype, until now.
Over his last four starts, he’s increased his ground ball percentage above 50 percent and as a result, lowered his home run rate during that stretch to less than one home run per nine innings for the first time in his career. Salazar has been one of the most polarizing and enticing fantasy pitching propositions over the last few years, but he may have finally solved his biggest issues. Don’t be surprised if his second half performance finally enables him to finally pry the ace label away from rotation-mates Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco.
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