Predicting the Quality Start

As you well know, fantasy formats have long been eschewing (and ridiculing) the use of the win as a category. It tends to still hold on rather stubbornly in standard Rotisserie 5×5 formats which are also widely panned (yet this author still clings to one of those teams annually). There are a number of logical swaps for the win, and one of them has historically been the “quality start,” which is what this post is all about.

The quality start has also been criticized as being rather useless inasmuch as describing whether a pitcher performed well nor not, and yet if you don’t want to get into weighted metrics in your fantasy league, it’s still preferable to the sometimes arbitrary assignment of wins (and perhaps more on point — the arbitrary lack of assigning a win).

Just so we’re operating with the same definition, in most fantasy circles the quality start still uses the John Lowe Philly Inquirer characterization as being a starting pitcher going six innings without giving up more than three earned runs. We can punch holes in that over beers another day, but that’s our baseline for a quality start going forward.

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The Fringe Five: Baseball’s Most Compelling Fringe Prospects

The Fringe Five is a weekly regular-season exercise, begun in April of 2013 by the present author, wherein that same dumb author utilizes regressed stats, scouting reports, and also his own intution to identify and/or continue monitoring the most compelling fringe prospects in all of baseball.

For the purposes of the column, generally, a fringe prospect (and therefore one eligible for inclusion in the Five) is any rookie-eligible player at High-A or above both (a) absent from a small collection of notable preseason top-100 prospect lists and also (b) not currently playing in the majors. Players appearing on the midseason prospect lists produced by those same notable sources or, otherwise, selected in the first round of the current season’s amateur draft have also, typically, been excluded from eligibility.

For the purposes of this edition of the Fringe Five, however, I’ve altered the rules for eligibility. Owing to lead prospect analyst Kiley McDaniel’s excellent and ambitious organizational prospect lists, which have appeared at FanGraphs all fall and winter, readers have access to useful reports on basically every prospect with a 40-or-better future-value grade. Rather than merely regurgitate McDaniel’s work, then, what I’ve instead attempted to do here is assemble a list featuring the 10-best actual fringe prospects — which is to say, the 10 most compelling prospects to have been omitted entirely from the numbered portion of McDaniel’s organizational lists.

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Japans’ Best, Now and Future

The 2014 season in Nippon Professional Baseball began with the assumption Hiroshima Carp pitcher Kenta Maeda or Orix Buffaloes ace Chihiro Kaneko, or both, would follow in the footsteps of Masahiro Tanaka and head to Major League Baseball via the posting system.

Things will be the same in 2015, since neither Maeda nor Kaneko was posted in 2014. This is the new normal in Japan. As respect for NPB, already considered the second best league in the world, continues to grow, so too does the reality that MLB teams will try to swoop in and snatch up top players.

Japanese fans take this in stride these days. Hideo Nomo was vilified for leaving in 1995, but Tanaka was hailed as a hero last year as fans beamed with pride because their best proved they could play in the world’s best league. You can’t fit every good Japanese player with an “MLB ship by” tag, though, because not every player harbors a desire to leave Japan. But for those who do the door is somewhat open.

Maeda (and/or Kaneko) is still expected to be among the next group of NPB players who make the leap. Going from NPB to MLB requires a number of adjustments, and the fact that not every player makes the transition successfully is also true of players from other parts of the world as well.

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The Importance of Release Point Consistency

How the Idea Transpired

Reddit user DShep: Darvish Pitch Selection

My idea for this post emerged from my adult baseball league. Most pitchers threw between 70-80 MPH, but their breaking balls were released from different release points or arm slots than their fastballs and were easy to distinguish. I struck out six times in 29 at-bats for the season. Of the six times I struck out during the season, three strikeouts were against the same guy in the same game – and he wasn’t even hitting 70 MPH. He had three to four different pitches, and they all released from what looked like the same point.

He was consistent with his release point regardless of his pitch selection, making it extremely difficult to predict what pitch I would be swinging at.

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Breaking Down Jung-Ho Kang

Jung-Ho Kang is coming to a Pirates game near you, and he better be on your radar as a baseball fan or fantasy manager. As with every foreign import, you have heard scouts and analysts weigh in on Kang, and you will continue to hear more reports as the season approaches. You may have heard his power will not translate to our game, that he may not even be a starter at the highest level of American baseball. I’m here to tell you that these reports starkly underrate Kang’s potential, and now you can cash in as a fantasy owner while everyone else follows the status quo. Kang has an elite swing that will allow his numbers to translate very quickly into Major League success.

Let’s jump right into some images. Here Kang is hitting a fastball out to just right of dead center field for a long home run:

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Breaking Down Steven Souza

When the Rays traded Wil Myers away, while getting Steven Souza back as the only replacement outfielder in the deal, the newcomer’s name instantly received a lot of public attention. While Myers had a down year for the standards set by his pedigree and reputation, being placed in the same conversation has made Souza’s expectations a bit higher for his new organization.

Souza now comes into Tampa Bay with a recent string of strong performances in the minor leagues, and is already being projected as a potential 20 homer-20 steal player in his first full season. But how much should we trust his skills, having spent parts of eight years in the minor leagues and not debuting until his age-25 season?

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Breaking Down Jedd Gyorko

Who is Jedd Gyorko? The Padre second baseman burst onto the scene in his rookie year 2013 season, providing power numbers that outpaced any reasonable expectations for a second baseman in this era of diminishing offense. Then 2014 hit, and Gyorko wallowed in batting average misery until finally succumbing to a stint on the disabled list for plantar fasciitis. After his time off. Gyorko put up respectable numbers for the remainder of the season.

As a relatively untested, young hitter, it’s natural to wonder how much of his production to date represents his talent level going forward. Has the league adjusted to Gyorko’s tendencies, with the second half of 2014 being the product of some luck-aided inflation? Or can we write off the first half entirely and blame the injury for his poor performance, with expectations of improving on his 2013 season being a real possibility?

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The Red Sox Will Be Just Fine Without An Ace

The last-to-first-to-last-again Boston Red Sox have completed yet another overhaul, importingHanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, as well as expecting full seasons from Rusney Castillo andMookie Betts, to reinforce an offense that sputtered to a 27th-overall wRC+ finish in 2014. But that’s nothing compared to the changes in the rotation, in which six of the nine pitchers who started at least 10 games last year are gone.

In place of Jon LesterJohn LackeyJake Peavy,Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster and Felix Doubront, the Sox head into 2015 with a rotation fronted by Rick PorcelloWade Miley and Justin Masterson, as well as holdovers Joe Kelly and Clay Buchholz. For a team that entered the offseason simply needing to find enough arms to field a team for the season, it’s an interesting collection of potentially useful arms.

That said, the idea of “Rick Porcello, Opening Day starter” isn’t exactly going to sell tickets, and that’s the main criticism leveled at Boston this winter: “Where’s the ace?!” Having whiffed on the chance to bring Lester back and so far unable to satisfy Philadelphia’s demands for Cole Hamels, the Red Sox don’t appear to have the guy needed to make a postseason run. Maybe they don’t, but maybe they don’t need to. Here’s why the Red Sox are just fine the way they are — for now, at least. Read the rest of this entry »

How The Phillies Can Maximize a Cole Hamels Trade

After stubbornly trying to hold on to the past long after their glory had faded, the Philadelphia Phillies have finally accepted reality, acknowledging that it’s time to commit to a rebuild and look toward the future. That process officially began when Jimmy Rollins, the best shortstop in team history, was traded to the Dodgers in December. Marlon Byrd soon followed him out the door in a trade to Cincinnati. Ryan HowardCliff Lee and Jonathan Papelbon are likely to follow, if the team can find any takers. It’s going to be a long season — or two or three or four, for that matter — in Philadelphia.

Sooner or later, star lefty Cole Hamels is going to be on the move as well. Because Hamels has by far the most value of any of the remaining Phillies, a potential Hamels deal is the most important thing GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has to get right in managing this rebuilding process. He can’t get this wrong, because a misfire here could set the franchise back even further — and potentially cost him his job.

No deal currently seems close, with various reports indicating that the Phillies are being “unrealistic with their expectations,” asking not only for multiple top-level prospects but also for a team to pick up most or all of the $110 million Hamels likely will be due. (Though Hamels is guaranteed only $96 million, it’s widely assumed that he will insist on his 2020 team option to be picked up immediately in exchange for him waiving his no-trade clause, pushing the total value to $110 million.)

The Phillies are a team that is rich in dollars and poor in talent. Major League Baseball has done its best to limit the avenues by which teams can acquire young talent. So why don’t the Phillies make the tough but necessary call to offer not only to eat some of Hamels’ contract, but a big part of it?

Here’s a look at the likely return the Phils will receive in exchange for Hamels and the best next steps for Philadelphia. Read the rest of this entry »

Why The Projections Don’t Like The Angels

Last year, the Los Angeles Angels won 98 games, the third-highest total in the 54-year history of the franchise. They earned it, too, finishing second with a plus-143 run differential and baseball’s highest runs scored per game (4.7). They had — and have — the unquestioned best player in the game in AL MVP Mike Trout, who is headed into his age-23 season, they found a surprising breakout pitching star in Garrett Richards and they built an outstanding bullpen on the fly during the 2014 season.

Despite a disappointing showing while being swept in the ALDS against the Royals, it was a successful year for the Angels, and their main competition, the A’s, followed up their season-ending slide with a series of difficult-to-understand moves that may have set Oakland back. On the surface, the Angels would seem to be poised for another successful run in 2015.

And yet the projections don’t quite see it that way. Steamer, one of the most respected projection systems, has the Angels as only an 84-win team, five games behind the Mariners in the AL West. Have the Angels really done anything to make themselves 14 wins worse than last year? Probably not. But the projections can’t simply be tossed aside as frivolous, either — and here’s why. Read the rest of this entry »

Atlanta’s Incoherent Offseason

After years of winning division titles — 14 in a row from 1991 to 2005 — it’s been something of a slow decade for the Atlanta Braves. They’ve rarely been bad, losing 90 games just once since the streak ended, but they’ve also won only two playoff games and zero postseason series in nine seasons. After a disappointing 79-83 finish in 2014, good for second place but also 17 games out of first, the Braves fired GM Frank Wren, a move that club president John Schuerholz admitted had been a consideration for several seasons.

A change in regime would seem to be the perfect opportunity to start fresh and re-position the organization toward a successful first season in its new suburban stadium in 2017, a goal that team officials have quietly admitted is important. With two star outfielders entering the final years of their contracts (Jason HeywardJustin Upton) and more holes than a team on a limited payroll could fill in order to put up a fight in 2015, a new front office with a little bit of creativity and without the baggage of the recent past could easily make moves to limit the rebuilding period and get a competitive team back on the field in Atlanta as soon as possible. After all, just look at what new GM A.J. Preller has done in San Diego in just a few months on the job.

The Braves traded both of those final-year outfielders, sending Heyward to St. Louis and Upton to the Padres. If, at the end of the season, you had known both had played their final games in Atlanta, you might have expected that a full rebuild was in the works. But that’s not what’s happened. The Braves have weakened their 2015 roster while failing to fully commit to a rebuild, and the moves they’ve made symbolize a team that can’t figure out what it is or where it’s going. Welcome to baseball’s most confounding offseason. Read the rest of this entry »

The Quietly Great Cleveland Rotation

Some of the traditional American League powers haven’t exactly had a banner few months as far as rotation strength goes.

The Red Sox couldn’t bring back Jon Lester and had to settle for midrotation guys Rick Porcello,Wade Miley and Justin Masterson. The Yankees lost out on Brandon McCarthy and might not have a single healthy, reliable starter. The Tigers (without Porcello) and Royals are still waiting to see what Max Scherzer and James Shields are going to do. The White Sox added Jeff Samardzija but still have huge questions after him, Chris Sale and Jose Quintana. The Athletics bid Samardzija farewell, the Rays dealt Jeremy Hellickson to Arizona, and the Rangers haven’t done much more than bring back Colby Lewis yet again and gamble on Ross Detwiler.

For many of those teams, there are more questions than answers. So in the meantime, allow us to present one possibility for the best rotation in the American League in 2015, a group of pitchers that probably didn’t come to the forefront of your mind. Let’s talk about the Cleveland Indians. Read the rest of this entry »

Reasons For Hope For Ryan Braun in 2015

There’s a pretty easy narrative to regurgitate about Ryan Braun. It goes something like this: After a disastrous 2013 that ended in July with a 65-game suspension for violating baseball’s performance enhancing drug rules, Braun came back in 2014 and had his worst full season, setting career lows in all three triple-slash stats, wRC+ and WAR. For many, it’s easy enough to connect the dots and leave it at that, arguing that Braun can’t perform when he’s “clean,” however you define that.

But coming back from PED suspensions hasn’t prevented Nelson Cruz or Melky Cabrera from performing well, and clearly Braun’s own actions have left him without the benefit of the doubt, which is no one’s fault but his own. But to merely take the 30,000-foot view and assume that Braun’s time as one of baseball’s best hitters is now over because of what’s happened over the past 18 months risks glancing past some very positive signs for Braun, ones that indicate he could still be a very productive player in 2015. Read the rest of this entry »

Yoenis Cespedes’ Name Value Exceeds His Trade Value

The Boston Red Sox have made two of the biggest splashes of the offseason so far by signing Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, and the only thing we know for sure is that they aren’t done. With potentially nine major league outfielders on the roster and a rotation that might currently feature Wally the Green Monster as the second best starting pitcher after the inconsistent Clay Buchholz, it’s clear that a talented-yet-lopsided roster still needs some work.

More than likely, that’s going to mean trading an outfielder. Maybe that will be Allen Craig or Daniel Nava or Jackie Bradley Jr., but the name that keeps popping up in rumors most often is Yoenis Cespedes, with the idea being that he’s be an attractive name and an established big leaguer who can help Boston land a badly needed pitcher. With Ramirez likely landing in left field and the trio of Rusney CastilloMookie Betts and Shane Victorino probably manning center and right, in some combination, Cespedes is now expendable.

Cespedes has name value, and there’s a whole lot of #narrative that says his departure from Oakland is what single-handedly sunk the Athletics’ season, even though we know that’s not actually true. His powerful throwing arm and Home Run Derby exploits could fill up the highlight films. As such, there’s a good chance Cespedes will be traded in the next several weeks. But when you look behind the headlines, what sort of player can another team really expect? And how much talent is that worth in a trade? Read the rest of this entry »

Yasmani Grandal, Catcher You Want To Have

When the Toronto Blue Jays made their somewhat surprising move to add Russell Martin, they didn’t just weaken the free-agent catching market. They decimated it. Sure, you could probably piece together a decent backup from guys like Geovany SotoNick Hundley or David Ross, but there’s no one close to being a full-time starter. Of the remaining free agents, there’s not a single one who’s even projected to manage even a lowly .300 OBP in 2015, according to Steamer projections.

That’s a considerable problem for some of the other teams that were expected to be heavily interested in Martin, like the Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers, because their paths forward are less clear now. In Los Angeles, A.J. Ellis is better than his .191 batting average would indicate, but he’s also nearly 34 and coming off several serious leg injuries. The Cubs might need to stick with Welington Castillo, who’s coming off a poor season. The Pirates will replace Martin with a trio of catchers more suited to be backups; the current Rangers starter is 30-year-old Robinson Chirinos, who has less than a full season of major league play under his belt.

It’s not a good time to be looking for a catcher, is the point, and the main trade options being talked about come with questions of their own. (Arizona’s Miguel Montero has had two consecutive bad years and is still owed $40 million; Houston’s Jason Castro followed up a breakout 2013 with an atrocious 2014; Atlanta’s Evan Gattis has excellent raw power but can’t really catch.)

The flip side, of course, is that if you have catching depth, you’re in a favorable position. If you need a catcher, you want to call the San Diego Padres, and you want to ask for Yasmani Grandal. Read the rest of this entry »

Now Is The Time To Trade Johnny Cueto

Back in February in this space, I wrote that the Cincinnati Reds needed to trade Homer Bailey for offensive help sooner rather than later. The reasoning behind that was simple — in 2013, the Reds had finished a middle-of-the-pack 15th in team wRC+, and their disappointing offseason had consisted of watching the very productive Shin-Soo Choo depart while importing only mediocre backups Skip Schumaker and Brayan Pena.

Instead, the Reds signed Bailey to a long-term contract and attempted to get by with what they had, ultimately winning fewer games than they had since 2008. Though it didn’t happen in exactly the way we might have expected — stars Jay Bruce and Joey Votto each had poor years, whileTodd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco carried the load — the offense was indeed a huge anchor, sinking to an 83 wRC+ that wasn’t just the second-worst in Major League Baseball, it was very nearly the worst in the last 50 seasons of Cincinnati baseball.

Nine months later, the Reds are again in a similar position. This team, as constructed, doesn’t look like a playoff contender. There are plenty of holes in the lineup and limited dollars to fix that. Once again, the most appealing Cincinnati trade chip is a top pitcher entering the final year of his contract. This time, the Reds can’t make the same mistake and stand pat. It’s time to trade Johnny Cueto. Read the rest of this entry »

Chase Headley, Potential Free Agent Bargain

Let’s start with a pretty obvious statement: Pablo Sandoval will get paid handsomely this winter.

There’s not much controversy about that remark, of course. Sandoval just put up three consecutive above-average offensive seasons that were nearly identical to one another — his wRC+ numbers were 118, 116 and 111 — and he’s valuable with the glove as well, along with carrying the “playoff-tested” label of having been a part of three World Series-champion San Francisco teams. Considering he just turned 28, it’s realistic to expect similar production from him for at least the next few seasons.
ESPN’s Keith Law suggested recently that Sandoval could get four to five years at $15 million per season, and FanGraphs’ crowdsourcing effort suggested something close to that, at five years for $80 million. Even those seem a little low, really. Either way, someone will pay for Sandoval’s youth and value on both sides of the ball at an important position.
There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. But with Sandoval taking up much of the air in the third-base room, have we forgotten about Chase Headley, this offseason’s other main free-agent third baseman? Headley isn’t the offensive force that Sandoval is, and offense is what gets players paid. But is it really so unreasonable to think he might actually be a better value? Read the rest of this entry »

Who Could Be The Next Wade Davis?

When we talk about the still-controversial 2012 deal that eventually helped the Royals make it to the World Series, it’s generally referred to as “the James Shields trade.” Shields has been a huge contributor to the Royals (Game 1 of the World Series notwithstanding), but it’s easy to forget that he wasn’t the only piece the team got from the Tampa Bay Rays for Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi and others. The Royals also acquired Wade Davis along with Shields, and Davis has been an enormous piece of the three-headed bullpen monster that has made late-inning comebacks against Kansas City all but impossible.

Davis didn’t start out as a relief star, however. In fact, he didn’t even start out as a reliever. After two mediocre years in the Rays’ rotation, Tampa Bay shifted him to the bullpen, and he responded with a successful 2012 campaign. The Royals put him back into the rotation in 2013, where he was again disappointing, but sent him back to the bullpen this year. It’s a trick the team had pulled last year as well, getting an outstanding relief season from Luke Hochevar after five uninspiring years as a starter. Kansas City’s American League Championship Series opponent, Baltimore, also had three quality relievers in Andrew Miller, Zach Britton and Brian Matusz who had been shifted to the pen after many failed attempts to master a starting gig.

When pitchers are no longer asked to pace themselves for a six- or seven-inning outing, and can instead go all-out in shorter stints, the benefits are obvious. Velocity often increases, as it did for Davis and Britton. An ineffective secondary pitch, such as Miller’s changeup, can be discarded. This isn’t a new idea — even the great Mariano Rivera was once a middling starter — but it’s one that has yielded incredible success in the right situations.

So with that in mind, who might be the next Davis? Let’s identify a few starters, not older than 30, who have struggled in the rotation but remain good candidates to be successful relievers. Obviously, a Clayton Kershaw or David Price would be great in the bullpen as well, but they’re more valuable as starters. We’re looking for someone like Davis, who might not be equipped to help a team in the rotation but could be a lights-out reliever. Read the rest of this entry »

Can The Cardinals Count On Adam Wainwright?

Adam Wainwright is slated to start Game 5 of the National League Championship Series for the Cardinals on Thursday, which would normally be music to the ears of St. Louis fans. Wainwright has been one of the best pitchers in the game for a decade. He is probably on his way to another top-five Cy Young Award finish, and in terms of WAR, he already is one of the five best starters in the storied history of the Cardinals franchise. In fact, if he were to post another typical Wainwright season in 2015, he will jump to No. 2, behind only the legendary Bob Gibson.

But the 2014 postseason hasn’t gone so well for Wainwright. In Game 1 of the NLDS, the Dodgers pounded him for 13 baserunners and six runs in 4 1/3 innings, a performance that was overshadowed by Clayton Kershaw‘s late collapse. In Game 1 of the NLCS, Wainwright allowed nine baserunners over 4 2/3 innings in a game the Cardinals would lose 3-0, the first time in his career he has had back-to-back starts of fewer than five innings.

Two lousy starts against teams good enough to make it to the postseason would generally be considered merely a blip when compared to Wainwright’s long, successful history. But this might be different. Wainwright, who missed all of 2011 after Tommy John surgery and skipped a start in June due to what the Cardinals called tendinitis in his elbow, is on record as saying that his elbow is “not 100 percent,” even telling reporters “my arm doesn’t feel great” after the NLCS loss.

Wainwright is going to start a pivotal game Thursday, and Cardinals manager Mike Matheny is saying all the right things about trusting his ace. But really, how worried should the Cardinals be? Read the rest of this entry »

The Real Problem With The Detroit Bullpen

For the fourth consecutive season, the Detroit Tigers are AL Central champions, but this time around, it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing toward another title. Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera have had down years, at least compared to their previous greatness. Injuries suffered by Jose IglesiasAnibal Sanchez and Alex Avila, along with the trade of Austin Jackson, have tested the team’s depth. The defense hasn’t been a strength, particularly at third base (Nick Castellanos) and right field (Torii Hunter). And shortstop has been a trouble spot all season.

Despite all that, they managed to hold off the Royals by a single game, thanks in large part to the continued excellence from Max Scherzer, surprisingly great years from Rick PorcelloJ.D. Martinez and Victor Martinez, and the acquisition of David Price. But as the Tigers prepare to travel to Baltimore to meet the Orioles in the ALDS on Thursday, one big question hangs over them: When will first-year manager Brad Ausmus‘ seemingly questionable bullpen decisions cost Detroit a playoff game?

That’s an issue that has taken on a life of its own over the past few weeks, as Ausmus has stuck with his season-long plan of Joba Chamberlain in the eighth inning and Joe Nathan in the ninth, despite the consistent struggles of the 39-year-old Nathan and the presence of July trade acquisition Joakim Soria, who was a star closer in Kansas City before undergoing Tommy John surgery. Soria was in the midst of a rebound season with the Rangers when he was traded, and he has appeared in 13 games for the Tigers. Only one of those appearances was a save situation, and even that was just because Nathan was unavailable, having thrown 42 pitches in the previous two days.

Ausmus’ strategies are easy to question. But what never seems to come up is this: The Tigers’ bullpen has generally been awful no matter what Ausmus has done. Maybe the issue is less with the managers’ deployment of the relievers and more with the simple performance of the players in uniform? Read the rest of this entry »