TDGX Player Notes: Shelby Miller, Ryan Howard, & Andre Ethier
One of the reasons I was so excited about Bret’s idea to create TDGX this year is that I knew the massively deep league structure would provide me with an almost endless supply of players to write about from the vantage point of someone with a vested interest in their performance. So every couple of weeks I plan to use this space to check in on a handful of players on my TDGX team in order to take a deeper look at their current performance trends. Hopefully this’ll be a helpful exercise for both owners of these players as well as managers who might (or might not yet) be considering acquiring or trading them.
Shelby Miller, SP StL
I invested heavily in Miller with my fifth round pick in TDGX, and his results thus far have been lukewarm at best. Making matters worse, all of that warmth is surface temperature. Underneath it’s cold. Ohhhh so cold. Miller’s 3.15 ERA is the province of a 95% strand rate and .237 BABIP – unsustainable numbers that have helped masked some pretty terrifying regression in his peripherals. His whiff rate is down to 6.8-per-nine, his walk rate has exploded to over five-per, and his FIP sits at an unsightly 6.09.
The slow start is somewhat puzzling at first glance, as his release points, velocity, and pitch movement all appear to be in line with his 2013 efforts. He’s throwing a few more fastballs and change-ups at the expense of his curveball, though nothing appears drastically out of line in his approach either. But then you check out the approach of batters against him and suddenly things start to make a bit more sense. The book was clearly re-written on Miller this off-season, as batters are taking their sweet ol’ time and waiting Miller out this year – and so far it’s working. Batters are swinging almost six percent less often all told, and in combination with Miller’s difficulties throwing first-pitch strikes it’s a combination that can logically explain at least a significant chunk of the ballooned walk rate (and correspondingly diminished whiff rate). This is good news, in the sense that what’s ailing him appears to be the product of league adjustments and approach as opposed to a mechanical issue or possible injury. The stuff’s fine, the results are not. And anytime that happens it makes for a potentially interesting buy-low target if his owner in your league is buying into the slow start. In tandem with how his season ended last year it makes for a nice lil’ recipe for a discounted price tag.
Ryan Howard, 1B PHI
If you drafted Howard this year, chances are you did so as something of a flier. Hell I reached for him at pick 312 in the 16th round of the TDGX draft as a CI power gamble. So far so good, though. And the small sample of April has offered some interesting takeaways that bear monitoring over the next months as you consider whether to buy, sell, or hold him for the duration of the season.
Perhaps most interestingly, Howard’s seeing a significant spike in fastballs to date. It makes intuitive sense: he’s 34, he missed huge swaths of the previous two seasons due to injury, and he has indeed swung and missed at what Brooks classifies as an “exceptionally high” rate against in-zone heaters. Yet he’s also shown a return to form with his batting eye in laying off change-ups and breaking pitches out of the zone. The pitches he’s chasing out of the zone are fastballs, and while he’s swinging through those at right around his normal obnoxious rate the decrease in his chase and swing-and-miss numbers on soft stuff has led to an overall decrease in his SwStr% and an almost-five percent jump in his Contact%. The sample size is tiny, but it’s also worth noting that his HR rate on fastballs is just a tick below his career norm currently – and significantly better than his combined efforts of 2012-13.
He’s also actually holding his own against lefties so far, which is a monumental victory in and of itself. Sure he’s striking out in over a third of his plate appearances against same-handed pitching, but when you consider that number was 43% for his combined 2012-13 efforts it’s a massive step in the right direction. His 119 wRC+ against southpaws is right there with his 123 figure against righties, and it offers a real, actual nugget of hope for his owners. Again, we’re talking about 31 plate appearances in 2014 against the fairer-handed, but it’s a start.
Howard’s probably not one for trade consideration right now unless you’re using him as filler to plug the hole that’ll be left in your leaguemate’s lineup after you take Goldschmidt or Votto off his hands. But it’ll be very interesting to see if the book starts to change on Howard over the next few weeks, and/or if he’s able to keep up his current performance against the en vogue approach against him. There’s nothing all that outlandish in what he did in April, and if he does show signs of maintaining there’s very legitimately 30-homer potential in his bat. A mid-.200’s average won’t kill you if you’re getting that kind of power in return, and given the acquisition cost Howard has the potential to be exactly the kind of player that helps win deep leagues.
Andre Ethier, OF LAD
The crowded Dodger outfield has been regular playing time hard to come by, and Ethier’s recent bout with the flu certainly didn’t help matters by costing him several additional games. You may recall I was quite bullish on Ethier heading into the season, and while I admittedly played up my enthusiasm for effect in that piece I legitimately viewed him as a fringe top 50 outfielder and strong target for an OF4 in deeper leagues. But the early returns are not at all encouraging. Ethier’s strikeout rate has ballooned six and a half percent above his career number, a figure driven by inflated O-Swing and O-Contact figures. He’s also putting the ball on the ground at an alarming rate, with exactly two grounders for every fly ball as of this writing and a spike of about 12% over his career groundball rate.
Now, at least some – and perhaps quite a bit – of this is surely tied to some early season statistical noise. He’s seen a dramatic spike in first-pitch strikes so far, and when hitters are behind in the count routinely there’s all the more opportunity for them to expand their zones and create weak or no contact. But given the particular situation where he’s already in a dogfight for playing time, there’s the very real danger of these early season tendencies evolving into self-fulfilling prophecy. As concluded in a previously linked study, strikeout rates for hitters do tend to be among the first stats to stabilize as predictive, and Ethier’s 24% rate is cause for some alarm. I wouldn’t go looking to unload him just yet, especially given the caveats noted above. But I would make it a point to pay close attention to his efforts over the next couple weeks as he pulls into statistically significant range.