What Happens In El Paso

Austin Hedges and Dan Vogelbach are raking in the Pacific Coast League causing fantasy owners to wonder: If it happens in El Paso or Iowa, does it stay there or translate to the major-league level? 

It’s easy to forget about Austin Hedges. Especially considering he wasn’t a coveted fantasy prospect to begin with. The poster boy for the “better real-life player than fantasy asset” label throughout his minor-league career, predictably his defense didn’t skip a beat with the transition to the big leagues last season. Per Baseball Prospectus framing data, he ranks among the best defensive catchers in the game. The problem, which rendered him completely useless from both a “real-life” and fantasy standpoint, was that he did his best Mike Zunino (sans power) impression at the plate in his Padres debut last season, hitting a paltry .168/.215/.248 in 56 games.

Hedges opened up the 2016 campaign at Triple-A El Paso, where he hit for a high average (.324 over 21 games) prior to his call-up the previous year. Still, he managed just 10 extra-base hits and two home runs during that stretch. The complete lack of power makes it even crazier that he’s re-writing the Chihuahuas record books with a home run binge for the ages right now.

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What Happened To That Guy?

When you have an underachieving hitter, you have one of two options, you either continue to start him and hope he turns around soon or you bench him for a presumably better option. After a week of strikeouts from Giancarlo Stanton I began benching him until I saw signs of life. Now he appears to be fine. With pitchers you obviously have the same options but the thought process is a little different. For one thing, you have a lot less of them. Secondly, a common strategy is to draft only one ace with the expectation that he’ll ground your staff’s ratios. But what if it’s your ace who’s struggling? For every Zack Greinke who bounces back for good, there’s a Matt Harvey who alternates awesome starts with getting shellacked by the Braves.

Jordan Zimmermann was not a pitcher that I was particularly high on coming into 2016. It was common knowledge that he had a declining strikeout rate that was never particularly good to begin with. However, he impressed right out of the gate as he was unscored upon in his first three starts with the Tigers. He ended April with a .55 ERA and 5-0 record. I was beginning to think that “Jeff” had not been so crazy when he offered Zimmermann to me for Xander Bogaerts. Of course it took me exactly zero seconds to decline the deal and I obviously haven’t regretted it.

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Villar you not entertained?

There are a few “Golden Rules” when it comes to prospecting in dynasty leagues. Foremost is TINSTAAPP, or There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect. Next is probably Bret Sayre’s saying: “when you’re betting on distant arms, go stuff first, stuff second, and everything else third when assessing future fantasy value.” Third might be to stay the hell away from catchers, first baseman, and back of the rotation starters. The final rule, at least in my mind, would be that prospect development is never linear.

The proverbial organizational ladder concept sounds nice: prospect gets drafted, adjusts to Rookie-Ball, is called up to A-Ball, adjusts to A-Ball, is called up to High-A, adjusts to High-A, gets called up to Double-A…and so on. In reality, things rarely turn out so smoothly. We experienced it with Lucas Giolito’s early season struggles, and Byron Buxton is currently demonstrating the unfortunate side of this concept. Talent often wins out, though, despite the many bumps in the road. It may not always be easy, but patience and the understanding that prospects won’t reach the big leagues without struggle can take dynasty owners far.

You’re probably wondering where I’m going with this. I brought up the non-linear side of prospect development because there’s a certain player this season that embodies this idea, both while in the minor leagues and the big leagues. That player, as you may have guessed from the title of this piece, is Jonathan Villar. Continue reading

Diagnosing K/BB Gainers

Even though we’re through a good portion of the baseball season, it’s hard to tell which statistics are noise and which are true indicators of what a pitcher is or has become. We all know how important strikeouts are—not only to a pitcher’s success, but for fantasy leagues as well. Walks aren’t quite as directly tied to fantasy baseball, but they impact WHIP and are also an important part of a pitcher’s game. Tying the two together in one statistic yields K/BB, an extremely useful tool to evaluate pitchers that has been proven to be an excellent in-season predictor for pitchers.
Given the usefulness of K/BB, I wanted to write an article centering around that statistic and several pitchers who are stand outs in that facet of the game. There’s a couple of ways to do this, but I decided to compare every pitcher’s mark from last season to this one. It’s always challenging to diagnose a pitcher who has been drastically different from the season before, and to figure out whether the exceptionally good or bad performance is real. K/BB isn’t going to tell you that on its own, but it’s a useful way to compare a pitcher’s season from the year before, and see whether what’s now going on is legitimate. So, here are the top-5 gainers with respect to K/BB.

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Using Statcast to Predict Improvement

My former nerd-hero was Nate Silver, a statistical genius responsible for many advances in projecting baseball statistics and political outcomes based entirely on data. In the last year, a new contender has emerged. The creator of baseball savant, Daren Willman, has given fantasy owners an incredible toolbox with which to evaluate fantasy baseball players. Combined with the availability of detailed information from Statcast, more informed judgments regarding a player’s future prospects are being made. Consider the following chart showing outcomes with exit velocity.

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 11.32.52 AM

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Off The Grid: Starting Pitcher Targets

At this point, everyone knows about Lucas Giolito. He’s great. The same goes for Julio Urias, Alex Reyes and Blake Snell. And you definitely should have heard some things about Tyler Glasnow by now (If you haven’t yet, you should probably do that now. I’ll wait). There are a couple reasons why you’re probably pretty familiar with these names. First of all, they’re all really good. Second, they’ve been entrenched on top prospect lists for several years now. As dynasty owners, especially in deep leagues, Top 100 lists are gospel. Most of the time, as soon as young players grace these lists, their asking price are higher than Snoop Dogg on April 20. This makes identifying unheralded pitching prospects hugely important to be competitive in dynasty leagues. By checking the box score and crunching the numbers, you could unearth a future big league starter at a fraction of the price of a top prospect. Since I’m a generous and benevolent stand-up guy, I’m going to help you get started.

Chad Kuhl, Pirates

Kuhl has managed to stay under the radar, not because of his production, but more likely because he shares a Triple-A rotation with Glasnow and Jameson Taillon (until recently). The six-foot-three righty emerged in the Pirates system last year when he fired 152 2/3 productive Double-A innings. Kuhl put up stellar rates (2.48 ERA, 1.14 WHIP), but his low strikeout tallies (5.95 per nine innings) seemed to cap his ceiling and thus he entered the 2016 season off the radar for many dynasty owners.

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Digging for Diamonds: Ockimey, Chavis, Demeritte, and Andujar

I previously wrote an article in which I described a method to identify future fantasy assets before they rise up prospects lists and become commonly known to other others using ISO, age, and draft position. Out of the six minor leaguers I identified, I believe that five have proven to be worthy pickups in reasonably deep dynasty leagues – Tyler O’Neil, Bobby Bradley, Derek Fisher, Cody Bellinger, and Jake Bauers – while K.J. Woods has certainly not. Perhaps Woods is afraid of knife wielding teammates and will regain the promise he showed last season. Perhaps he won’t, regardless, five out of six isn’t bad at all. The use of draft position was fairly controversial but in my analysis I found that the majority of productive major league hitters were drafted in rounds one through ten. So yes, if you restrict yourself to this range you might miss out on the next Matt Carpenter or J.D. Martinez, but you’re also cutting your universe of players to consider by about 75 percent. Due to the sensitivity of ISO to low batting averages with some power, I also incorporated wOBA to my criteria. This time, I looked for an ISO above .200, wOBA above .375, players younger than league average, and draft position in the first ten rounds. Restricting the list to full season A-ball, I came up with four intriguing targets.

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Turn Down The K’s: Joey Gallo & Clint Frazier

In this pitcher’s era, it is important to make sacrifices (I’m not talking about bunts. #neverbunt) for offense. The days of well-rounded sluggers seem to have gone the way of the snap bracelet and fanny pack. Strikeouts have increased every year since 2005. That same year, the average big leaguer hit .264, compared to a .252 league-average today. It has become more and more acceptable to tolerate a low batting average as long as there is power attached (or catching, see: Gomes, Yan or Vasquez, Christian). With this new approach to offense, those four to five category hitters are even more of an endangered species, which makes hitters that can limit their strikeouts even more valuable. Luckily for dynasty owners, this type of plate discipline is a skill that can be honed during time spent in the minor leagues (and sometimes even at the major-league level, what’s up Odubel Herrera!).

Several young studs have taken steps in the right direction to remedy, or at least curb those strikeout issues. Two in particular, Rangers third base farm hand Joey Gallo and Indians outfielder Clint Frazier have managed to build on their already highly touted prospect reputation by cutting down on the whiffs. By limiting strikeouts while still maintaining power, these sluggers could provide impact without torpedoing their batting average, making them well-rounded options for dynasty lineups.

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Numbers DO Lie: cFIP Edition

There’s a common phrase that says, “numbers don’t lie” – but in baseball, often times the exact opposite is true. Luck frequently comes into play, creating misleading numbers in small sample sizes, making bad players look great, and making great players look below-average. One of my favorite exercises throughout the season involves pinpointing short swings in good or bad luck, and consequently finding the under- or over-valued players whose stats aren’t telling the entire truth. For pitchers, a key stat to look at is cFIP, which is explained here. Noticeable differences through the first third of the season in cFIP and ERA should be treated as a potentially key indicator that the following six pitchers might just be something other than they appear.

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Early(ish)-Season Outliers

It’s always challenging to tell when it’s time to trust a player’s numbers. There’s a fine line between small sample size and real performance, but figuring out which side a player lies can be crucial to player evaluation. Since there’s no golden rule for how long it takes until certain numbers are trustworthy, fantasy owners often have to play these cases by ear. Some of the most extreme outliers on leaderboards present interesting examples of small sample size flukes versus sustainable performance, so let’s take a look at the best and worst in baseball in a few fantasy categories and evaluate how ‘real’ their placements are. Continue reading