For Whom The Bell(inger) Tolls

With rankings season rapidly approaching, I decided to take a stroll down memory lane. As part of last year’s Top 500 coverage, I wrote this about Dodgers prospect Cody Bellinger, who checked in as the #49 ranked first baseman on the list:

“Bellinger spent all of 2015 in the hitter-friendly California League at the High-A level, putting up video game numbers in the process, hitting .264/.336/.538 with 30 home runs, 97 runs, 103 RBI and throwing in ten stolen bases for good measure. He also struck out a ton in posting a 27.6 percent strikeout rate. With a little more discipline, Bellinger could turn into a very, very interesting deeper league sleeper. If you’re digging this deep at first base in a dynasty league, this is the type of prospect you want to gamble on.”

I remember writing this, but I also remember not really being sold. Sure, I looked at Bellinger’s numbers before starting on the entry and I was impressed. That said, I wasn’t sure that he was too much more than a nice, young player that was feasting on lower level pitching. Or for a more generous interpretation, “a very, very interesting deeper league sleeper”.

Oh boy was I wrong.

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Using Strand Rates to Snag Value (Yet Again)

Last week I wrote about a few pitchers that could see serious regression in 2017 due to their inflated strand rates. As a follow-up, I wanted to touch on some guys that could see substantial improvement in their numbers if their ability to leave runners on base bounces back to around even league average. Without further ado, the thrilling conclusion to “Using Strand Rates to Snag Value”: Using Strand Rates to Snag Value 2: The Awakening (Ok, that may be overselling just a touch). Continue reading

Using Strand Rates to Snag Value

Here’s some dynamite analysis: a pitcher’s statistics will look better if he doesn’t allow runners to score (Thank you. Looking forward to my trophy for Achievement in Baseball). Ideally, pitchers would probably prefer to not allow base runners. However that would lead to perfect games that go on for infinity, so it’s probably unrealistic. The next best solution is to strand the runners that do get on. The league average strand rate for pitchers is 72.9 percent, a number that has remained relatively static since 2008.

Sometimes great pitchers can get away with higher strand rates without concern for regression. In 2016, Jon Lester led the league, keeping 84.9 percent of baserunners from scoring. Max Scherzer held the third highest rate at 81.7 percent. These two guys are studs and there is no real reason to believe that their ability to strand runners will plummet dramatically back to league average. Lester and Scherzer share the top ten with some other pitchers that don’t quite have the same pedigree. By invoking the ancient wisdom of Sesame Street and playing a game of “One of These Things is Not Like the Other”, it’s easy to bet on regression, both negative (and positive NEXT WEEK! MARK YOUR CALENDARS! GET EXCITED! Or you know, whatever. I don’t care. That’s cool.) when it comes to stranding runners on base.

Ian Kennedy

Lester, Scherzer, and Ian Kennedy, and led the league in strand rate in 2016. Which one of those names looks out of place? Kennedy quietly had a totally decent year last year, posting a better than average ERA (3.68) and WHIP (1.22). He was even better than average with his strikeout (8.49 per nine innings) and walk (3.04 per nine innings) totals. The problem, however, is that the rest of his numbers indicate that this is highly unsustainable.

Kennedy stranded runners at an 83.1 percent clip in 2016. His fly ball rate spiked by nearly 10 percent from his 2015 totals, settling at 47.3 percent, the eight highest total in the league. It could be argued that the Royals’ defense (a massive upgrade over the statuesque 2015 Padre outfield) and Kauffman Stadium played a huge role in turning those fly balls into outs. While that’s true, Kennedy’s home run per fly ball rate dipped to 12.8 percent, falling nearly five points from his 2015 total. He gave up significantly more fly balls, yet yielded far fewer home runs. Add his .268 BABIP to the mix, and Kennedy’s 2016 campaign appears to be more façade than for real. The 195.2 inning workload still has value in some places, but don’t hang on or look to acquire Kennedy with hopes of him repeating his 2016 performance.

Kyle Hendricks

Don’t get me wrong, Hendricks is awesome, and at 27 years old, he would typically be the kind of guy you would target in dynasty leagues. However his underlying numbers indicate that his breakout 2016 season might not be replicable. Hendricks stranded runners at an 81.5 percent clip, nearly 12 percent better than his 2015 totals. He has never been a big strikeout guy, hovering around league average fanning around eight batters per nine innings, which means most of his outs come from batted balls. He was also the beneficiary of a legendary, record-breaking season for the Cubs defense, as the team somehow held opponents to a .255 BABIP. Normally, it would be easy to predict that Hendricks’s .250 BABIP would regress closer to league average, but I guess that would discount the wizardry going on at Wrigley.

So maybe it is better to just call Hendricks’s 2016 campaign confusing. He doesn’t walk anybody (2.08 per nine innings, good for 12th in the league), so that’s good. But he also faces similar questions laid out above for Ian Kennedy. Hendricks gave up five percent more fly balls in 2016, yet lowered his home run to fly ball ratio by three percent, making it better than league average. His 3.34 DRA would also indicate that something has got to give. That said, even if Hendricks does regress slightly next season to an ERA in the mid threes, that’s still pretty good for around 200 innings of work. The problem is that for a Cy Young finalist carrying the “Cubs-tax”, you probably will have to pay a lot more to acquire a little less.

J.A. Happ

The curious case of J.A. Happ started with a promising young prospect in Philadelphia. He bounced around from Houston to Seattle to Toronto before landing in Pittsburgh. We all know the story from there. Pitching oracle Ray Searage got Happ to throw his fastball and sinker more, his changeup less, and before you know it, Happ was signing a $12 million per year deal with the Blue Jays. As a 34-year-old, owners might not be rushing out to acquire him in dynasty leagues, even though he has posted two straight seasons of decent production. I tend to agree with that sentiment.

Happ stranded runners at a rate of 79.7 percent in 2016. Like Hendricks, Happ is a low strikeout pitcher. Unlike Hendricks, Happ strikes out around one batter fewer per nine innings, and hovers right around 7.5 punchouts per nine. He also carried a .268 BABIP, good for 15th lowest in the league (tied with our boy Ian Kennedy). Without the Cub defense and positioning, it’s unlikely that number will hold in the future. Despite a very good 3.18 ERA, Happ’s DRA was a hefty 4.42. Combined with a slightly below average cFIP of 104, Happ’s overall totals appear to be propped up by smoke and mirrors. As mentioned before, you’re probably not knocking anyone over for Happ, as if he’s a 32-inch TV on Black Friday. However if you already have him on your roster, now might be the time to use his 3.18 ERA in nearly 200 innings as bait for a prospect (or two, if you’re good).

Follow Mark on Twitter @hoodieandtie

Turning into a Superstar: Justin Turner

In 2014 the Mets designated Justin Turner for assignment. Shortly before pitchers and catchers reported for the season, the Dodgers signed Turner to compete with Alex Guerrero and Chone Figgins for playing time in the team’s infield. Steve Dilbeck of the Los Angeles Times provided a perfectly lukewarm take on Turner, calling the signing: “Not great maybe, but in an otherwise stacked Dodgers lineup, (Turner is) something they can get by with if they have to wait on Guerrero.” Three consecutive 3+ WAR and .490 slugging percentage seasons later, Turner has long since shed the slight of being an placeholder. The Dodgers are still waiting on Guerrero*.

*Fine, not really. They released him in June and he signed to play in Japan, but it sounded so good and poetic right there.

Turner was fine, if unspectacular in three years with the Mets. In 904 plate appearances spanning 2011 to 2013, Turner slashed .267/.327/.371. He was a supreme contact hitter, putting balls in play on 93.2 percent of pitches in the zone and 88.3 percent of overall pitches, both well above league average. He walked at a 6.6 percent clip, which wasn’t ideal, but also only struck out 13.3 percent of the time, even further establishing his extreme contact tendencies. Turner’s biggest problem was that he didn’t hit for much power.

This doesn’t really look like the ISO heat map of a guy a team would be dying to keep around.

turner-1

The west coast brought sunshine, surf, and a brand new high leg kick at the plate. While the sunshine and surf may not factor in to Turner’s fantasy prospects, the leg kick transformed him from a supporting player to a leading man (because Hollywood, get it?). The uptick in production was gradual, but noticeable. In 2014, Turner slashed .340/.404/.493 in 322 plate appearances. It was the first time in his career that he had cracked even a .390 slugging percentage. His seven home runs weren’t spectacular, but the power totals were creeping up nonetheless, en route to a .153 ISO.

In 2015, Turner’s power numbers grew, as did his role with the team (and also his flowing, red locks). In 439 plate appearances, mostly as the team’s primary third baseman, Turner ripped 16 home runs, a career-high, and put up a .294/.370/.491 line with a .197 ISO. He continued his power spike in 2016, smacking 27 dingers and adding another career best .218 ISO.

In three seasons with the Dodgers, Turner became a completely different hitter at the plate, a proclamation his ISO heat map would support.

turner-2

Sometimes when hitters experience a drastic surge in power, it comes at the expense of contact rates. Strikeouts swell. Batting average plummets. While Turner did see some numbers dip, the decline wasn’t drastic. He made contact on 84.4 percent of his swings, where league average hovers around 80 percent. His zone contact rate fell to 87.3 percent, but that places him basically around league average. His 7.1 percent swinging strike rate is still better than league average, as is his 17.1 percent strikeout rate.

So what does this mean? Turner sacrificed some of his elite contact skills for power, and somehow managed to do so without tanking his batting average in the process. Last season, seven third basemen hit at least .275 while also hitting 25 homers: Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant, Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado, Adrian Beltre, Kyle Seager, and Justin Turner. That may seem like a long list, but third base is pretty freaking loaded at the top. If you want to score near-top shelf production without having to pay top shelf prices, Turner might be the answer.

Also, just for funsies, let’s play Blind Comparison (2014-2016 Edition)!

Player A: 1763 plate appearances – .288/.346/.500, 84 HR, .213 ISO

Player B: 1383 plate appearances – .296/.364/.492, 50 HR, .196 ISO

Player A is Manny Machado. Player B is Evan Longoria. Just kidding. Come on, pay attention, it’s Justin Turner. Is Turner a better dynasty asset than Machado? Obviously that’s not the case. However the changes that Turner has made to his approach at the plate have earned him a spot in the conversation with some of the game’s top third basemen.

As one of the lone bright spots in the abyss that is the free agent class of 2016, Turner is going to get paid. However be sure to keep an eye on where he ends up, because it could cut into his production somewhat. For example, if Turner were to sign with the Giants (one of the teams rumored to be in the running), he could see a slight dip in power numbers. AT&T Park ranked last in the league for home runs for the third consecutive year according to ESPN Park Factors. However, the same could be said for any hitter that isn’t Giancarlo Stanton.

The good news is that Turner’s game should age well. Since he doesn’t rely on his speed for value, Turner could easily continue to be a high average and 25+ home run threat for the foreseeable future. That type of production would likely place him somewhere in the 6-8 range of hot corner rankings, which is quite a bit higher than he’s typically being valued by several outlets. Getting top level, or at least well above average, production for middle-of-the-road prices is a great way to achieve or maintain (Let’s face it, you’ve probably won before if you’re reading stuff like this) dynasty greatness.

Check out Mark on Twitter @hoodieandtie

What to do with Rich Hill?

Everyone wants a Carlos Correa. In dynasty leagues, twenty two-year-old superstars aren’t easy to come by. At the extreme other end of the spectrum sits Rich Hill, a soon to be 37-year-old starting pitcher. Yes, Hill is as injury prone as Wile E. Coyote. No, he hasn’t tossed enough innings to qualify for the ERA title since 2007. On the other hand, he has been really, really good. So what the hell should we do with Rich Hill?

At this point, everyone is more or less familiar with Hill’s comeback story. After failing to receive an offer from a major league team, Hill signed with the independent league Long Island Ducks in July 2015. Eleven innings and 21 strikeouts later, the Red Sox came calling with a minor league deal. By September 2015, Hill was back in the big leagues. He finished the season tossing 29 innings and striking out 36 batters with a 1.55 ERA and 0.66 WHIP.

Oakland scooped Hill up in the offseason, offering a one-year, “Prove It” deal for the southpaw. He proved it. In 110.3 innings (in Oakland and then in Los Angeles after the Dodgers dealt for Hill at the deadline), he struck out 129 hitters, en route to a tidy 2.12 ERA. In addition to posting spectacular strikeout totals for a starting pitcher, Hill also continued to develop his control, walking only 2.7 batters per nine innings, a number above league average. Hill post silly contact numbers in 2016, limiting the opposition to 6.3 hits (tied for second best with Jake Arrieta) per nine innings and a stingy 0.3 homers (best in baseball) per nine innings.

Still not convinced of how good Rich Hill was in 2016? His 2.12 ERA ranked second out of all pitchers with at least 100 innings. His 1.00 WHIP ranked fifth. Hill posted a 2.56 Deserved Run Average, good for fourth best in all of baseball, and his cFIP of 75 ranked sixth, ahead of nobodies such as Chris Sale and Corey Kluber. At this point, it’s pretty foolish to doubt Rich Hill’s skills.

That said, there are still valid questions about Hill moving forward. For one thing, saying Rich Hill might be injury prone would be akin to saying Justin Timberlake might be the most successful member of N’Sync (Bet you weren’t expecting boy band jokes in this here sports article, huh?). Hill has dealt with a litany of injuries in his career, including Tommy John Surgery in 2011. Most recently, he suffered from the World’s Most Vengeful Blister, which cost him much of the 2016 second half.

If you like your glasses half full, it’s good that Hill’s most recent bout of injury wasn’t elbow or shoulder related. However, we’re still dealing with a 36-year-old pitcher that before 2015 only topped 75 innings in a season once since 2007.

So that brings us back to square one. How should we value Hill moving forward?

In part, it’s hard to value Hill because he’s doing something that starters typically don’t do. He’s throwing is curveball more than his fastball. His fastball definitely won’t be mistaken for Randy Johnson’s heater, as Hill hovers around 90 MPH with his four-seamer. However that pitch appears to have a little more giddyup (technical term) when a hitter is sitting on the breaking ball. In 2016, Hill threw 900 curveballs, good for third most in the entire league. Jose Fernandez led the majors, throwing 984 curves, but did so with over 1,000 more pitches. Of Hill’s 900 offerings, 21.2 percent were called strikes, and 10.4 percent of the pitches drew whiffs. Add in 17 percent of Hill’s curves that were fouled off, and you’re looking at a pitch that was a strike 48.6 percent of the time. Of the 17.7 percent of pitches that were put in play against Hill’s curveball, batters hit .185 and slugged .248.

So we’ve established that Rich Hill is not your prototypical starter. Removing the names from the numbers, Hill would likely be a slam-dunk, top-tier starter. However those are not the circumstances surrounding Hill. Not too many dynasty owners are rushing out to pay a premium for an injury prone 37-year-old hurler. It probably goes without saying, but if you’re rebuilding, Rich Hill is probably not for you (unless you’re looking to flip him, which the A’s showed can bring back a useful return).

Even still, Hill’s skill set is exactly one that owners covet when making a push for a title. If you have a contending team in the hunt for 2017, now would be the time to see if you could pry Hill away. In real life, Hill is going to get paid. As the shining star of the 2016 free agent pitching class, he is going to benefit much more than his age and injury history would otherwise suggest. At this stage, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see a team give Hill a three-year deal, which is probably matches his expected usefulness as a fantasy asset as well.

Since it will be hard to rely on Hill for a full starter’s workload, his fantasy value might be more similar to that of an ace reliever. According to BP’s Mike Gianella, Hill earned $22 ($14 in AL only and $8 in NL only) in 2016. This stacks up quite similarly to Andrew Miller ($24 in AL only) or Dellin Betances ($14). Miller is an especially close approximation, partly because he’s not a full time closer. Miller might pick up a save on occasion, but his value is mostly tied to rate stats and strikeouts. Similarly, it would be foolish to project wins for a starter (mostly because they’re unpredictable, fleeting, and stupid), but as long as Hill pitches he will produce solid ERA, WHIP, and strikeout totals, with a smattering of wins as well. By valuing Hill as an ace, non-closer reliever, you insulate yourself from paying ace prices while an ace return is still possible.

The bottom line: Rich Hill has been very good this season. Will it last? Who knows, but there’s enough uncertainty surrounding the lefty that you might be able to leverage it to create a good buying opportunity to keep your team’s window of contention open for the next couple years. Even so, as a wise man (and dangerous, mostly sociopathic, former science teacher turned meth cook) once said: Tread Lightly.

Follow Mark on Twitter @hoodieandtie

Betting on Bounce Backs Using BABIP (and Other Stuff)

Even though the smell of stale champagne and deep-dish pizza grease still lingers, it’s time to start thinking about next season. It’s what we do as dynasty owners. Combing through the stats to find under the radar or bounce back candidates is a great way to break the offseason monotony, and there’s no better time to start than immediately. Right now. Go.

This week, I wanted to hit on a handful of stats that can be predictive for positive regression in the future, while identifying a few players that could stand to benefit.

BABIP – Joe Panik

It’s easy to see a high (or low) batting average, quickly check a player’s BABIP and scream “REGRESSION”. Sometimes that is a perfectly reasonable reaction. Other times, it’s a little more complicated. Why do you have to go and make things so complicated (No Avril? Ok, cool, moving on.)?

Usually, hitters that tend to make a lot of contact have a better opportunity to sustain higher BABIP numbers. When scrolling through the contact percentage leaderboard, one name that stands out is Joe Panik. Panik made contact on 90 percent if his swings and carried a BABIP of .245. The league average is .300, so that’s pretty low. Additionally, only three hitters managed to draw more walks than strikeouts last season, Ben Zobrist, Carlos Santana (Smooth), and Joe Panik.

So we know Panik has a pretty good idea of what he’s doing at the plate (and I resisted a terrible Panik pun, so really we’re all winners). Also, he hasn’t shown a propensity to sell out his approach for the sole purpose of making contact. For these reasons, the .245 BABIP, leading to a .239 batting average, looks pretty suspect. Before the 2016 season, his previous low BABIP was .330. Now, Panik dealt with several injuries last season, which could have played a role in his low BABIP and subsequent batting average dip, but all signs point to him being right for Opening Day in 2017. In that case, he should be back to hanging around a .300 batting average, and being a very valuable dynasty asset at age 26.

Infield Fly Balls – Xander Bogaerts

A good rule of thumb: batted balls that you or I could easily catch are, um, less than ideal. Infield fly balls are basically free outs. Free outs wreak havoc on a batting average. Besides a strike out, popping a weak infield fly ball is the worst outcome for a hitter. In 2016, Todd Frazier led the league, with 18.5 percent of his fly balls never leaving the infield. That’s really bad (9.7 percent is league average), but it is understandable, in a sense. Over the last couple seasons Frazier has adopted more of an uppercut swing, resulting in more homers, but also lower batting averages, including last season’s .225 train wreck.

While Frazier’s league leading rates and effects can be explained, the runner-up, Xander Bogaerts, requires a deeper look. Last season, 17.8 percent of the fly balls hit by Bogaerts were considered infield flies (also bad #analysis). This number is a little more puzzling, as Bogaerts still hit .294 in his 719 trips to the plate. Also puzzling is the fact that in his previous two full seasons, Bogaerts never cracked an 11 percent infield fly ball rate.

Sure, Bogaerts may have tweaked his swing a little to unlock some power and launch a career high 21 dingers (chicks dig the long ball, after all), but that doesn’t really fully explain the spike in infield fly balls. According to Brooks Baseball, pitchers didn’t really change their approach to Bogaerts, focusing on working him low and away in the zone. In addition, he hit the ball harder in 2016 than any other year of his career, as evidenced by an above average 90-mph exit velocity (according to Statcast) on batted balls. If Bogaerts is seeing similar pitches, and hitting the ball harder, then it’s possible that his infield fly ball rate could be a one-year outlier. If he cuts some of these easy outs from his batted ball profile, Bogaerts should see a healthy bump in batting average, which could push him into the 2017 batting title chase, and more importantly buoy your rate stats.

 

DRA – Michael Pineda

Fielding and circumstance ruin everything. Luckily, in DRA, we have a statistic that relies on only a pitcher’s skill level and performance. In 2016, the starting pitcher that led the league was (drumroll, please) Clayton Kershaw, with a 2.03 DRA. Ok, maybe that was a bit anticlimactic. Maybe a little more surprisingly, however, was the fact that Michael Pineda finished sixth, with a DRA of 2.58, vastly out performing his lowly 4.82 ERA.

Fellow TDG scribe Nick Doran has already detailed why Pineda shouldn’t be slept on in the future (which is a great piece that you should read, I’ll hang out while you do). However the extent of Pineda’s low-key brilliance in 2016 can’t be ignored and I needed to touch on in again. Sure he gave up probably a few too many homers to be fully comfortable, as his 1.4 per nine innings is a little above league average. However that’s pretty much where his mediocrity ended.

Pineda fanned 10.6 per nine innings en route to 207 punch-outs in 176 innings. He ended the season with a 78 cFIP, good for sixth in baseball among qualified starters. The bottom line is that Michael Pineda is actually super good. And the better news is that it’s not immediately evident by his traditional statistics. For that reason, I agree with Nick 100 percent. It’s a good time to buy in on Pineda and be glad that you did.

Follow Mark on Twitter @hoodieandtie

Let’s Be Patient: Aaron Nola*

Aaron Nola was selected by the Phillies in the first round (seventh overall) of the 2014 draft, and immediately breezed through the minor leagues. As a polished college prospect, the Phillies were aggressive with Nola’s development. The right-hander never saw competition below High A. All told, he spent 164.2 innings in the minors, posting a 2.57 ERA with a 1.057 WHIP. His strikeout numbers weren’t dazzling (7.5 per nine innings), but his meager walk totals (1.5 per nine innings) more than made up for his lack of whiffs. Nola entered the 2015 season as the 60th best prospect in the league, according to Baseball Prospectus, and his production did little to dissuade anyone that, at the very least, the Phillies had a no-doubt middle of the rotation cog for years to come.

Nola got the call to the big club in July 2015 and posted solid, if unspectacular numbers from the jump. In 77.2 innings after his call-up, he was perfectly serviceable, striking out 68 batters, compared to only 19 walks. He posted a 3.59 ERA, but was probably even a little better than that number, as his 3.38 DRA might suggest. Again, solid, if unspectacular. While Nola showed signs of promise in his first stint as a big league pitcher, none of his skills seemed to translate into him becoming an elite pitcher. His ERA ranked in the top 50 among starting pitchers, as did his 47.6 percent ground ball rate. His 7.9 strikeouts per nine innings were slightly better than league average, and the same can be said for his cFIP of 91. None of this is meant to disparage Nola in any way. A slightly above average major league pitcher is super valuable. Mike Leake got five years and $75 million, after all.

Then a funny thing happened. In 2016, Nola decided to stop being slightly above average. In 2016, Nola decided to be awesome. Now, I know what you’re thinking, and no a 4.78 ERA isn’t awesome. I agree, but there are factors that point to Nola being a little unlucky with his earned runs. Let’s unpack that number a little. One adjustment that Nola seemed to make heading into 2016 was an effort to throw his sinker more. In 2015, around 23 percent of his pitches were sinkers. In 2016, that number jumped to 44 percent. The result: more ground balls. This season, Nola induced 55.2 percent ground balls, a number that ranked 7th best among starters. Ordinarily, this would be great news for run prevention. However, the Phillies were the 8th worst team in baseball according to Baseball Prospectus defensive efficiency.  Hitters posted a .334 BABIP against Nola, good for 12th worst in the league. In addition, his 60.6 left on base percentage (league average is 72.9 percent) was second worst in the league among starters, with only renowned hurler Tyler Duffey posting worse numbers.  So, yes, a 4.78 ERA isn’t great, but bad defense paired with a little bad luck does not help with rate stats. To further illustrate the puzzling nature of Nola’s season, he posted a 3.08 FIP and 2.35 (!) DRA.

While Nola’s rate numbers weren’t great, he made serious strides elsewhere. The “knock” on Nola coming out of college was that he just didn’t miss enough bats, a symptom that would keep him from ever being a truly top of the rotation pitcher. By adjusting his pitch mix (relying more heavily on his sinker and curve), Nola added nearly two strikeouts per nine innings in 2016. He struck out 4.17 batters for every walk issued, a rate that would include him in the top 20 of all major league starters (Just an aside that has nothing to do with Aaron Nola: Clayton Kershaw led the league with 15.64 strikeouts per walk. Second place went to Rick Porcello, with 5.91 strikeouts per walk. Good lord.). Nola’s new arsenal unearthed a 75 cFIP, a number that put him in elite company, sixth best in baseball behind only Kershaw, Jose Fernandez, Noah Syndergaard, Rich Hill, and Carlos Carrasco.

*Ok, if you’ve made it this far, you’re probably wondering when I’m going to address the giant 600-pound elephant in the room. Nola was shut down on July 28, and diagnosed with a sprained UCL. There’s really no way to spin that into a positive, that isn’t good. That said, it could help to explain Nola’s dip in production. According to Brooks Baseball, Nola’s average velocity began to fall slightly in early June, basically coinciding with his slide. In his first 78 innings before the decline, Nola posted a 2.65 ERA and 0.99 WHIP while striking out 85 batters and walking only 15. After June 11, he tossed 33 innings with a 9.82 ERA and 2.06 WHIP. He still struck out 36 batters, but his walk rate took a huge jump, ballooning to 3.82 per nine innings. On one hand, it’s another lively round of “Fun with Arbitrary Endpoints”. On the other, it’s a tale of two seasons: one healthy and one not, with the injury playing the major culprit in Nola’s rough patch.

Within the last week, Nola has started throwing again to test his elbow. The fact that those dreaded three letters still loom over his head, or more aptly, his elbow, makes him a very tricky player to assess heading into 2017. Time will tell whether the strain is a bump in the road or a major setback in his career. That said, Nola was starting to show ace-level skills early in the 2016 season and right now it’s unlikely he’s being valued as an ace-level pitcher. If you have the stomach for risk, and if you can weather the worst case scenario, now might be the perfect time to scoop up Nola in your dynasty league.

Follow Mark on Twitter @hoodieandtie

Let’s Be Patient: Michael Conforto

There’s a difference between patience and stubbornness. They say patience is a virtue. Patience, grasshopper, good things come to those who wait. It’s easy to say that we should all be a little more patient. But when it comes to the decision-making process for dynasty leagues, it sometimes feels like moves are often made from stubbornness. We see tantalizing raw skills or small sample “breakouts” and those are the only things that we remember. Why look at a strikeout rate over 30 percent when we can think about that 470-foot homer we saw crushed to dead center that one time? Patience can give us Anthony Rizzo or Gregory Polanco. Stubbornness typically gives us Domonic Brown and Jesus Montero. Ok, that might be over simplifying it, but still. I did, however, want to write about a few guys who had down years in 2016 that I think could still be really good in the future, as long as we (and in some cases their managers) can show some patience. Let’s be patient. Let’s start with Michael Conforto.

Conforto made his debut for the Mets in late July 24, 2015, a mere five days before the craziness that was the “Wilmer Flores Trade” or the “Wilmer Flores Cry-gate”, whichever you would prefer. At the time, his callup was seen somewhat as a move to appease the fan base clamoring for more offense, and to make up for the organization’s inaction before the trade deadline. Once Conforto got the call, all hell broke loose, deals fell through, and when the dust settled Yoenis Cespedes was patrolling the outfield with the Mets’ rookie. Oh, and they got Addison Reed too.

Conforto didn’t disappoint in his first stint with the big club. In his first 194 plate appearances, he hit .270/.335/.506, slugging nine home runs and scoring 30 runs. His 2.1 WAR ranked 45th among all second half hitters (Conforto was up for only 56 games), matching the total of Buster Posey and Carlos Gonzalez (Sure, WAR isn’t a fantasy stat. I just wanted to throw it out there to show how good he was). He struggled during the Mets’ run in the postseason, but the two homers he smashed during game five of the World Series (one of which was hit off of lefty Danny Duffy…foreshadowing) only fanned the flames of excitement for Conforto’s future.

Entering the 2016 season, everyone was saying the right things about Conforto and his development. A big priority for him, as a left-handed hitter, was to get better against left-handed pitching. Everyone, including the Mets’ manager Terry Collins, said that he would get the plate appearances necessary to learn on the job and try to become a hitter that wasn’t in need of a platoon partner (he got only 15 plate appearances against LHP in 2015, and was 3-14 with a walk). Conforto started the year off with a bang. Through the first month of the season he hit .326/.404/.593, with a .267 ISO. Then the wheels started to come off. In the 144 plate appearances since his hot start, he hit .154 with a .545 OPS. That’s, um, super not good. If 144 plate appearances sounds like a strange sample size, you’re right, it is, but it was used because after those trips to the plate, Conforto was sent down to Triple A.

The rest of Conforto’s 2016 season has been spent bouncing from Triple A Las Vegas to Flushing, and thus far, he hasn’t regained the clout and promise that he showed on the big league team last year. Sure Vegas is fun, but less so in the summer. And probably less so after you’ve had a taste of the big leagues as a star prospect and conquering hero. So what happened? How did we not see this coming? If a guy is that inept at hitting against lefties, shouldn’t we have known about it?

After combing through Conforto’s minor league numbers, there’s a chance his “can’t hit lefties” tag was more of a self-fulfilling prophecy than a real issue. Sure, it’s very typical for lefties (or righties for that matter) to struggle against pitchers from their same side, it’s how we have platoons after all. For Conforto, however, there wasn’t much evidence to predict that he would struggle to quite this degree. In 2014, his first taste of pro ball at Low A Brooklyn, he slashed .331/.403/.448 overall (186 plate appearances), adding a line of .324/.444/.378 against left-handed pitching (45 plate appearances). The following season, Conforto hit .264/.350/.425 against lefties in 120 plate appearances spread across High A and Double A. This season his struggles have continued against big league lefties, um, a considerable amount. In his 51 plate appearances he has five hits, good for a .106 average. There’s no way to spin it, it’s really, really bad. Still, 51 plate appearances of 329 total can hardly be considered regular at-bats. The last time Conforto received regular at-bats, regardless of the pitcher, was during his stint this season in Triple A.  His time in Las Vegas yielded .422/.483/.727 in 144 trips to the plate. Of those 144 plate appearances, 47 were against left-handed pitchers. His line: .487/.553/.780.

Now, I don’t believe that Michael Conforto is a true talent 1.333 OPS guy against lefties. That said, I don’t really believe he’s the .324 OPS guy that he has been thus far in his major league career, either. Factor in the wrist injury he played through early in this season, and I might be willing to give Conforto a mulligan on 2016. He might never be an above average regular against left-handed pitching, but I’m also not sure we have enough information to know that (66 plate appearances against lefties for his career). It’s reasonable to imagine that he could do enough not to be phased out completely against all opposing lefty starters. For fantasy purposes, this is likely the lowest Conforto’s stock will ever get, which makes him a tasty option to target this offseason. With the opportunity, he should turn into the plus hit (.260-.280), plus power (20-25 homers) player that we expected heading into this season. With Alejandro De Aza coming off the books, Cespedes having the ability to opt-out at the end of the year, and with Jay Bruce and Curtis Granderson only having one more year left on their respective deals, the Mets could toss the keys to Conforto  very soon. He is only 23 years old, after all. Let’s be patient.

Follow Mark Barry on Twitter @hoodieandtie

The Next Next Big Things: Hitter Edition

Now that the clock has struck September, many of us are faced with the unfortunate reality that this just isn’t our year. Luckily in dynasty leagues, that old adage will always remain true: “There’s always next year” (technically in any league, and life too for that matter, most of the time. Fine, nevermind). While our competitors are still wasting time on boring stuff like, um, competing for this season’s championship, we can get a head start uncovering some gems to get us back into contention. Here are a few names that have shown some intriguing skills in 2016 while remaining somewhat under the radar on a national level. So let’s pour one out for the 2016 season (but only one) and get back in the game.

Luis Urias, 2B Padres

The Urias buzz has been slowly building, and for good reason. The dude can hit. Signed as a free agent out of Mexico in 2013, he established himself immediately as a batting average asset, hitting .310 in the Arizona League as a 17-year-old. Urias’s excellent batting average can in part be traced to his knack for putting the ball in play at alarmingly high rates. Even at age-17, he walked more than he struck out (18:13 in 179 plate appearances). In fact, Urias has continued this trend in every stop in his career, save one. In 1004 career minor league plate appearances, Urias has walked 8.4 percent of the time, compared to a meager 7.0 percent strikeout rate (or roughly 2395 percent lower than Mark Reynolds). The following season Urias showed no signs of slowing down, as he was promoted through the ranks, hitting .299 in 268 plate appearances spending between Low A Tri-City and Single A Fort Wayne.

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The Next Next Big Things: Pitcher Edition

As dynasty owners, we treat Top 100 lists as gospel. Every year, we pour over these lists and try to make roster moves accordingly. And every year, whether it is through call-ups or just erosion of skills, these lists change dramatically. To try to stay ahead of the curve, and more importantly ahead of your fellow owners, it’s important to try and project who might be the next to see their stock rise as a prospect. It’s always fun to have a farm system chock full of Top 100 guys. It’s even more fun to snag these prospects before they break out, ensuring bargain basement prices.

Yohander Mendez, LHP, Texas

It must be nice to be able to trade away Luis Ortiz and Dillon Tate and still be able to feel good about your future pitching. For the Rangers, Mendez allows just that. Signed as a 17-year-old out of Venezuela in 2012, Mendez has already shown skills that make his $1.5 million signing bonus look like a flat-out steal. While the lefty’s combo of high strikeouts and low walks has been on display since he signed (and probably before then, I’d imagine, but I can’t prove it), the team handled Mendez with kid gloves, not allowing more than 46 innings until his 2015 run in the Sally League.

In 2015, Mendez started to creep onto the radar as a prospect to watch with a stellar performance in Level A ball. In 66 1/3 innings, he fanned 74 batters, while issuing only 15 free passes. The Rangers continued to heavily monitor his innings, however, as Mendez only made eight starts in his 21 appearances. Those eight starts were enough to create some buzz for him, and he entered the 2016 season as the eighth best prospect in the Rangers’ system, according to Baseball Prospectus.

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