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Sunday, May 09, 2010

Fantastic Thoughts: "Trade for Aaron Harang. No, seriously."

With approximated 20% of the season in the books, it's time to start sizing up your fantasy roster.  Many owners, at this juncture, make one of two mistakes:

1.) Because they are sitting at the bottom of the table, they decide to punt, either completely abandoning their team or, in keeper leagues, starting to play exclusively for next year.

2.) Because they've gotten off to a hot start, they superstitiously sit on their roster, denying any potential for improvement.

With so much season left, it's pretty much guaranteed that you've got a hot streak and a cold streak still in front of you, perhaps a prolonged one.  If you do get hot after a bad start and you end up finishing in second or third place, you're going to really regret unloading Placido Polanco for a prospect in May or sitting on Chris Davis when you could've picked up Brennan Boesch.  Similarly, if you blow that double-digit lead, your decision to stubbornly stick with Ben Sheets could really burn you.

At this point, you're looking for the classic "buy low, sell high" candidates.  Below, I'll provide you with some of my favorites, but first let me offer some strategies for identifying your own:

Batting Average on Balls in Play is the Hansel of statistics.  It's so hot right now.  It's main benefit is identifying "luck" on both sides of the ball.  If a hitter has a BABIP way higher than his career norms, he's finding holes at an unsustainable rate.  Everything is dropping in.  If his BABIP is unusually low, he's probably hit his fair share of "at 'em" balls and could be due for a hot streak.  For pitchers, the opposite applies.  High BABIP suggests bad luck, low BABIP suggests the potential for regression.

Fielder Independent Pitching measures outcomes that a pitcher can "control."  That is, strikeouts, walks, and homers.  The resulting number looks like a standard ERA.  So, what we can do is compare the FIP, which judges exclusively the pitcher, to the ERA, which is effected by several other factors.  Over time, these numbers will tend to move toward each other.  In 2009, no team had a separation between ERA and FIP of more than half a run.  So, when you see disjunctions of a run or more, you can assume that pitcher is getting burned either by bad defense or bad luck.

Game Logs:  
This is the most effective, but also the most time-consuming method for analyzing players.  At this point in the season, one bad week for a hitter or one bad outing for a pitcher can have a dramatic effect on their ratio statistics (AVG, OPS, ERA, WHIP, etc.).  It's impossible to check these for every player, but for those who you're considering adding, dropping, or trading, it's a must.

Another stat that goes both ways.  HR/FB works best for veteran players having out of character years because, like BABIP, it's most effective when judged against career norms.  For a hitter, a significantly higher HR/FB rate might suggest inflated power numbers, gained either by playing in homer-friendly parks or just catching some breaks down the lines.  For pitcher, a high HR/FB rate suggests, again, some bad luck or, perhaps, a flurry of unfavorable matchups.

As those who visit the Hippeaux consistently are probably already aware, this is probably my favorite catch-all statistic on both sides of the ball.  In the early going, a particularly high strikeout rate (for a hitter) worries me, because it means he has much less chance for positive outcomes (because getting lucky pretty much requires that you at least put the ball in play) and is thus more susceptible to extended cold streaks.  A low walk rate, although not as detrimental, also limits the opportunity for things like runs and stolen bases, so I'm particularly aware of it in relation to top of the order/speed type players.  On the flip side, a low strikeout rate limits a pitcher's ability to get out of tough situations and makes him more enslaved to his defense.  Therefore, it you're considering a low strikeout rate pitcher (there are plenty of good ones), you should pay close attention to the team behind him.  A high walk rate, particularly in combination with a low strikeout rate, makes run-scoring situations significantly more frequent.

Now, for the cast of the Bi-Lo All-Stars...

C: A. J. Pierzynski (White Sox)
Pierzynski is one of those boring, middle-of-the-road backstops who generally doesn't get drafted until late, but can be counted on for reasonably good stats: good average, double-digit HR, etc.  So far this season, he's batting .209 with just 2 HR.  Pierzynski is suffering big-time from a low BABIP (.202).  His career norm is a hundred points higher.  Moreover, because Pierzynski is somebody who puts the ball in play constantly (83.5% of the time for his career, 88.5% in 2010), this low average on balls in play is a particularly detrimental aberration.

1B: Derrek Lee (Cubs)
Lee is currently sitting on career lows in BABIP (.244) and HR/FB (9.8%), while his strikeout rate (22.6%) is right in line with his career average (23.0%) and his walk rate (15.2%) is actually a little better than normal (11.3%).  In other words, all signs point to Lee recovering from his slow start.  Many will recall than last season D-Lee also struggled mightily during the first six weeks (.198 AVG, 615 OPS, 3 HR) before catching fire for the remainder of the season (.332 AVG, 1056 OPS, 32 HR).

2B: Aaron Hill (Blue Jays)
There are those that might be getting the impression that Hill's '09 season was a bit of a fluke, but the truth is, besides missing several weeks with an injury, Hill has been quite unlucky, hitting only .193 on balls in play and managing only 7.7% HR/FB.  I do worry a bit that his line-drive rate is so low (8.5%), but that can probably be attributed to shaking off the rust following his D.L. stint.  A repeat 30 HR season may be a little far-fetched at this point, but 25+ from this point forward is still utterly achievable.

3B: Aramis Ramirez (Cubs)
Because A-Ram spent much of last year on the D.L., there may be those that are worried he's still fighting a lingering injury.  I tend to doubt that, considering how good he was in the final months of '09 (.304 AVG, 877 OPS).  So far in 2010, his HR/FB rate (5.5%) is ridiculously low, especially for a guy who's hitting 60.4% of his balls in the air.  His BABIP (.170) is also more than a hundred points below his career norm (.288).  He's striking out more frequently than normal (+8.1%), but everything else indicates an eventual return to All-Star form.

SS: Jose Reyes (Mets)
Mark Schruender beat me to this endorsement.  Reyes' overall numbers still look quite pedestrian (586 OPS, for instance), but he's stolen a base in each of his last three contests and has four multi-hit games in the last week, suggesting that maybe he's put the injuries of the last year behind him and gotten up to game speed.  His BABIP (.266) and walk rate (5.0%) have both been well below his career norms, but the main point is that April probably felt a lot like Spring Training for a guy who hadn't been on the field since May of 2009.

LF: Jason Kubel (Twins)
There were several strong candidates at this position: Carlos Lee, Juan Rivera, Juan Pierre, Kyle Blanks, etc.  I especially like Kubel, however, for a couple reasons.  First off, it's beginning to look like he, in the vein of Mark Teixeira and Ryan Howard, is just one of those guys who annually struggles out of the gate.  His career OPS in April and May is 706.  His career OPS from June forward is 857.  Everybody knows about Teixeira and Howard's splits, but many owners may not be aware of the same tendency in Kubel, making him an ideal trade target.  Also, this year, despite is slow start, he's showing improved plate discipline, walking 15.7% of the time, compared to 9.1% for his career.  If that trend improves once his bat heats up, it could lead to an even greater display of power.

CF: Julio Borbon (Rangers)
Borbon entered 2010 as one of the preseason favorites for AL Rookie of the Year and thusfar he's been just dreadful (501 OPS).  This can be attributed somewhat to the fact that the league is adjusting to him after seeing him hit .312 in his brief audition at the end of '09.  Borbon was a .300 hitter at every minor-league level, so I'm fairly confident that he's got what it takes to be a solid major-leaguer.  However, he has drawn just one walk in his first 97 plate appearances in 2010, compared to 15 walks in 179 plate appearances (8.4%) in '09.  Borbon still isn't striking out at an exceptionally high rate, so I predict that as he gets more selective, the result will be more solid contact and an improved BABIP (.231).

RF: Carlos Quentin (White Sox)
After a poor 2009 and a slow start, it would be easy to claim that his MVP-caliber 2008 was an aberration.  However, I'm not ready to shrug off a guy who is walking more often than he strikes out and hitting the ball in the air 60% of the time.  Quentin has the lowest BABIP in the major leagues (.160).  That's an unsustainable number, especially for a guy as selective as Quentin.  No major-league regular finished 2009 with a BABIP lower than .241.  Quentin's got a hot streak coming, and probably very soon.

SP: Edwin Jackson (D-Backs)
A week ago E-Jax got lit up by the Rockies and then the Cubs, surrendering eighteen earned runs in 6 2/3 innings of work.  A week like that is going effect his rate stats for the entire year.  The good news for you, however, is that he piled on those runs for somebody else, somebody who is now deeply frustrated with him, perhaps enough to unload him for next to nothing, or even drop him to the waiver wire.  In his other five starts, including his most recent against an excellent Brewers lineup, E-Jax is 1-2 with a very respectable 3.89 ERA.  Jackson has nasty stuff and almost every indicator suggests he's been massively unlucky so far.  There is a nearly two-run difference between his ERA and FIP, which is the third highest differential in the big leagues, and his .346 BABIP ranks him 13th among starting pitchers.

SP: Justin Masterson (Indians)
Masterson has the highest BABIP in the majors (.411) among starting pitchers.  He's also got the fourth highest strikeout rate (10.7 K/9), trailing only Tim Lincecum, Yovani Gallardo, and Brandon Morrow.  His FIP is 1.38 runs better than his ERA.  The defense behind him has been quite bad, surrendering five unearned runs in just six starts.  Basically, everything suggests that we should be talking about Masterson as one of the better young pitchers in baseball this year, instead of somebody who has yet to pick up his first win.  

SP: Aaron Harang (Reds)
Harang may be the unluckiest pitcher in baseball.  His K/BB ratio (4.5) ranks him seventh in MLB, alongside guys like Zack Greinke and Dan Haren.  In many ways Harang is having his best season since 2007, when he won 16 games.  His strikeout rate has gone up, his walk rate has gone down, he's inducing more groundballs, his fastball and slider velocity is up and his changeup velocity is down.  Basically, better stuff and better command: you would think that would lead to better results.  Unfortunately, he's currently 2-4 with a 6.02 ERA.  That's got to change, and his BABIP (.361), FIP (4.37), and HR/FB rate (16.7%) all suggest that it will.

SP: Josh Beckett (Red Sox)
In all likelihood, everybody is going to realize that Beckett has not been nearly as bad as his numbers suggest.  His ERA (7.46) is almost three whole runs worse than his FIP (4.47), the biggest margin in baseball.  He also ranks 7th in BABIP (.365) and has the fourth lowest strand rate (56.9%).  All these things suggest a natural improvement as the year progresses, although I would urge a little caution.  Beckett's walk rate has gone through the roof (3.51 BB/9 in '10 compared to 2.33 BB/9 in '09) and his strikeout rate has gone in the opposite direction (7.46 K/9 in '10 compared to 8.43 K/9 in '09).  Until these indicators improve (and there's a strong chance they will), I would still treat Beckett with some caution.

RP: Chad Qualls (D-Backs)

Owners tend to get frustrated with closer's who sport 6.94 ERAs, but Qualls FIP is 2.83 runs better than that.  He's got a 10.0 K/9 rate and a respectable 3.1 BB/9 rate.  That's actually quite good, even for a closer.  His biggest problem is that balls are finding holes (.461 BABIP).  As that happens less often, I expect Qualls will have no trouble keeping his job and piling up 30+ saves for a potentially competitive Diamondbacks team.

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