We’ve got lots of guys to talk about, so let’s get right to it. Check out the start of last week’s article for an explanation of what we’re doing and how we do it. The pitchers are listed in descending order of likelihood that they’ll do what the stats we’re looking at suggest they’ll do. In other words, we list unlucky guys in ascending order of our pessimism about our optimism, and lucky guys in ascending order of our pessimism about our pessimism.
UNLUCKY STARTING PITCHERS
Kyle Freeland: Hesitant as we are to recommend, and for that matter to draft, Colorado pitchers, we are making an exception for Freeland, whose 2018 was unquestionably the best single season ever by a Rockies pitcher. The only thing that went wrong for him last year was that he was suddenly unable to get left-handed hitters out. Since he’s never had that problem before, we envision that he won’t have it again, at least not this season.
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Now it’s time for a Birchwood Brothers tradition: identifying players who, their stats suggest, have either been lucky, and thus ought to be eschewed, or unlucky, and thus ought to be swallowed. We are no-trade-league guys. Some years ago, though, we were sucked into the black hole of a league that not only permitted but virtually demanded trading, and were fortunate to survive our resulting passage through the fabric of space-time. In that league, we were offered a mid-season trade for a pitcher that looked pretty good on its surface. But we wondered whether this guy’s success was significantly a function of his good fortune, and came up with a down-and-dirty way of finding out. It worked in that particular case—the guy had been lucky, but not long after we turned the trade down, both his luck and his pitching went bad. And the following preseason, we tried the same thing with the previous year’s full-season stats, and in the fullness of time found that it worked pretty well there too.
Quick: Has Abraham Almonte caught on with a Major League team, and if so which one? No peeking. (If your counter-question is “who’s Abraham Almonte?”, then you have our permission to peek, but we like to think we know our readers, and we like to think that, for our readers, “Abraham Almonte” is as familiar a name as Mike Trout or Volodymyr Zelenskyy.)
The answer to our question, happily for all of us Abraham Almonte fans (which we actually are, for an assortment of reasons), is that he’s a non-roster invitee of the Milwaukee Brewers. This is, frankly, not a comfortable spot for him to have landed in, since the Brewers are so deep in organizational-depth outfielders that he may have trouble making even the AAA roster. But if the Brewers jettison him, we figure another team will pick him up, and that—just as the Braves did last season—New Team X will find a way to use him in the majors.
Buoyed by the welcomes we received upon our return to Fangraphs this season and the compliments extended to us last week, we now fearlessly resurrect what was, from 2015 to 2019, an annual Birchwood Brothers feature: a consultation of the Holy Quadrinity. For newcomers, and for that matter oldcomers: years ago, Bret Sayre, then of Baseball Prospectus, posited that “the three skills that are most important to the art of pitching [are] getting strikeouts, reducing walks, and keeping the ball on the ground,” and that pitchers who can do those three things, as betokened by their above-average numbers in those categories, are worth the attention of those who ponder such matters. He called this approach The Holy Trinity.
Then we came along and, like John Calvin standing on the shoulders of Martin Luther, suggested a variant of Sayre’s approach. We call it the Holy Quadrinity, which admits only pitchers who are in the upper half of two categories (strikeout percentage and soft-hit percentage) and the lower half—in other words, the better half—of two others (walk percentage and hard-hit percentage). We figured this approach wouldn’t turn up much interesting stuff—that the guys who qualified would be the guys who had good seasons by any metric you cared to use. And there were a lot of those guys. But we were surprised to find how many not-great-season (and, occasionally, not-good-season) pitchers this approach identified. Moreover, and more importantly, although the Quadrinity isn’t infallible, it points you more often than you’d expect in the direction of moderately-priced or even cheap pitchers who go on to have better seasons than the market expects.
Back for the third and final segment of our spin through the underrated, underused, and underperforming, in search of candidates for your, and our, deep-league drafts. The numbers in parentheses are NFBC Average Draft Positions.
Milwaukee: This is a real good team, but its players are by and large underrated by the market. If you need an instant draft strategy, you could do worse than just draft the best available Brewer. Our favorite may be Keston Hiura (443). We’re not sure what happened to him the past two years, but one thing that certainly happened is that he got unlucky, by virtue of his low BABIP and HR/FB while sustaining a (relatively) high hard-hit percentage. What won us over was the precipitous drop in HR/FB (26% to 10%) coupled with a big bump in average fly ball distance (171 feet to 189 feet). We expect that anomaly to correct itself. We also note that JC Mejia (750) did nothing wrong last year except accede to Cleveland’s attempts to make him a starter. He was superb as a reliever in both Cleveland and the Dominican, and may have a future as a multi-inning guy.
St. Louis: This is a rather thin team that nonetheless offers very few late-round bargains. As long as you don’t fetishize strikeouts, Dakota Hudson is certainly worth getting earlier than ADP 433. Likewise Jake Woodford (748), who, but for one atrocious outing against Minnesota, pitched pretty well.
Cubs: Even if they don’t trade Willson Contreras, Yan Gomes will play enough and hit enough for you to take him before his ADP of 361. We wouldn’t say we actually like Jason Heyward (705), but he should remain in the lineup all season, and figures to have what has become his typical season; .240 or so, 10 home runs, 5 stolen bases. You could do worse than have him around as a plug-in when an A-Team outfielder goes down. And we are baffled as to how Brad Wieck can be at ADP 750 after his 17 scoreless innings last year. Yeah, he was hurt, and his control’s a problem. But he’s apparently healthy now, he gets a ton of strikeouts, and he has a legitimate shot at winding up as the team’s closer.
Pittsburgh: Not many guys on this team excite us. Anthony Alford (569) won’t hit more than .240, but if he plays every day, as Roster Resource indicates he might, he could well hit 15 home runs and steal 15 bases. Also here is Greg Allen (718), who has long been one of our favorites, though our love has gone largely unrequited. It’s easy to imagine him beating out Alford for the left field job or Ben Gamel for the right field job, and hitting about .250 with a ton of stolen bases.
Cincinnati: There are an awful lot of question marks on this team. Can Jesse Winker stay healthy? (Doubtful.) Is Eugenio Suarez done for? (Wish we were confident of a comeback, but we’re not.) Is TJ Friedl really a major league caliber center fielder? (He looks more like a bench player to us.) We’ve been looking, so far in vain, for complete and accurate information about Nick Senzel’s health. If in fact he’s healthy, he might be worth getting at ADP 470. It also appears to us that Vladimir Gutierrez just wore down towards the end of the season, and that his good three-month run before that makes him a solid pickup at ADP 598.
Arizona: Contemplating this team fills us with lassitude—so much so that we can’t get a clear take on them. We can imagine them winning, say, 85 games, and we can imagine them being even worse than they were last season. One guy we like is Christian Walker. He’s got a doctor’s note covering both 2020 and 2021, when his power just disappeared. We can envision it returning, and the possibility that it will makes him worth getting at ADP 445. We can certainly all live full and productive lives without acquiring any of this team’s pitchers, but the chance that new pitching coach Brent Strom, dear to our hearts as one of the few guys in uniform who’s decisively older than we are, can work his accustomed magic might make it worth your while to get, say, Luke Weaver (456), Merrill Kelly 켈리 (466), or Caleb Smith (647).
Dodgers: The only guy we see who’s not obvious is Alex Vesia (708). It’s possible Kenley Jansen will re-sign with the Dodgers—that’s what he did last time he was a free agent—but having watched his walk-heavy high-wire act last year, when he was erratic and, we think, very fortunate to post the numbers he did, we’re not so sure that, at 34, he’ll keep his balance for another season. Yes, we know that Blake Treinen is here, and that he was magnificent last season. But we also know that he’s had a career-long tendency to follow magnificent seasons with decidedly non-magnificent ones. So we can imagine Vesia taking over as the closer pretty early in the season. If only the obvious Dodgers will do for you, there are Edwin Rios (599) and Matt Beaty (643), whom you might obtain on the theory that they will replace injured guys, play a fair amount, and hit a little.
San Francisco: We have spent more time than we should have trying and failing to ascertain what “procedure” Tommy La Stella had on his Achilles tendon. We are, unfortunately, connoisseurs of Achilles surgery, and we know that there are some procedures that leave you good as new and some procedures that leave you unable to manage anything more demanding than over-40 slow-pitch. If La Stella had the former sort, he may well be ready to rock, and if so, he will lead off, which makes him worth getting at ADP 535. As for pitchers: we are forced to admit that Sammy Long (645) had never even creased our consciousnesses before we did our preparation for this season. But now that he has, we are intrigued enough by his minor-league record to put him on our list of possible late draftees.
San Diego: We can’t explain why Austin Nola is at ADP 350, since he will start and is an above-average hitter for a catcher. He was hurt most of last year, but he’s not notably injury-prone, so we regard him as a bargain. We also think that Ha-Seong Kim 김하성 isn’t as bad a hitter as he appeared to be last year, though he may not get a chance to prove it if no one gets hurt. But someone will, so ADP 379, in light of his multi-position eligibility, is an okay price, though not a wonderful one.
Colorado: It looks to us like Elehuris Montero (724) is a better hitter than Colton Welker (696), and thus should be the first guy called up when a third baseman is needed, but it’s not clear that the Rockies share that view. The danger of getting a Rockies closer is that even the really good ones are likely to blow up in a couple of games and impair your ERA and WHIP. Nonetheless, we were satisfied owners of Daniel Bard last season, and won’t mind getting Carlos Estevez (484) in the 30th round or so. However: Robert Stephenson (694) came around really nicely last season. We think he’s a better pitcher than Estevez and might even emerge from spring training, assuming there is one, with the closer’s job.
Let’s return without delay to the task at hand, which we began last week: our attempt to identify at least one lightly-regarded (cheap or reserve-round) player who might do something this season, assuming with unwarranted optimism that there’s a “this season” that isn’t next season. This week, we’ll look at the AL West and the NL East. The numbers in parentheses are NFBC Average Draft Positions for all drafts.
Angels: As we mentioned in our first article of the year, we like Michael Stefanic (not taken), who could be in the lineup if either something ill befalls David Fletcher or the team doesn’t sign a free-agent shortstop. He’ll hit .270, possibly with a bit of power. And we are struggling to overcome our repeated disappointments in Justin Upton (586) over the years. It’s not clear that he’s got a significant role on this team, but we can imagine him getting the same 250 or so PAs he got last year before he got hurt, and hitting about the same (14 HR, .247) minus some age-related decline, which makes him worth getting at ADP 586.
True story, or at least a story that was presented to us as true: A movie is shooting on location near where one of us lives, and a call goes out for extras to be in the crowd scenes. Except they’re not called extras nowadays; they’re “background talent.” And a guy we know, an aspiring actor, signs up. And the time comes to shoot a scene with a crowd in the background and the stars in the foreground, and our guy is there in costume, jostling with the other aspiring actors to be in the front of the crowd. The crew is setting up the cameras and lighting for the scene, using stand-ins to calibrate things, when there’s some sort of contretemps, and one of the stand-ins stops standing and walks away. The director, or whoever’s running the shoot, looks around, sees our guy, and notices he’s of about the same size and shape, and wearing about the same costume, as the stand-in. So he beckons to our guy, who winds up standing in for the stand-in, and whose reward is to be front and center in the crowd scene, in which position the camera dwells on him for, oh, half a second. And now, our guy’s forever enshrined in whatever the digital equivalent of celluloid is.
We were going to write about how all the various statistical projection systems that people, including us, use (or, in most cases, including ours, borrow) to project statistics produce pretty much the same result, in terms of suggested draft position or dollar value, because by definition all projection systems base their projections on what the player being projected has done in the past, and everyone has access to the same statistics from seasons past. And then we were going to note that the most important thing about any given projection by any given projector is playing time, so that the projections for established players who are likely to keep their jobs throughout the season are pretty similar, whereas the projections for non-established players vary more widely. And then we were going to explain that we don’t have much to say about established players that other fantasy writers don’t say, and in fact we probably have less to say, because by and large they’ve looked at at least as much data as we have, and often more. And we were going to explain further how our thing isn’t to project our own performance stats but rather to project playing time, in the belief that, as Bill James, the Odin of Sabermetrics, and many others have said, if you get the playing time right, most of the time you’ll get the projection right.
Now let’s have a look at the team we drafted in The Great Fantasy Baseball Invitational. The background: In 2018, our Fangraphs colleague Justin Mason was divinely inspired to organize a competition for members of what is amusingly called the Fantasy Baseball “industry”—a term that invariably induces in us visions of our fellow stat geeks wearing coveralls and carrying lunch pails as they troop into factories belching smoke (the factories, that is, not the fellow nerds). That first season, which we missed, there were 195 teams. Last year there were 315, and now there are 390, with owners drawn from corners of the internet both proximate and remote. We’re divided into 26 15-team leagues, each of which plays a season using NFBC Main Event rules: snake draft, standard 5×5 Rotisserie, 23-man starting lineups, 7-player reserve roster, weekly pitcher substitutions, twice-weekly hitter substitutions, weekly in-season FAABs. The goal isn’t so much to win your own league as to finish at or near the top overall.
Last year—as we lose no opportunity to remind our readers—we did pretty well, winning our league and finishing either 7th or 9th overall, depending on which set of results you’re looking at. So, having come that close to immortality in our first crack at it, this year we have set our sights squarely on Valhalla. Read the rest of this entry »
Now let’s try to identify hitters who in 2019 were lucky or unlucky, and consider what to do about them in 2020. We use the same factors we discussed last week in our look at lucky and unlucky pitchers, but we invert them. Thus, a lucky hitter is one with a high 2019 BABIP and a high HR/FB ratio but a low hard-hit percentage, while an unlucky one had a low BABIP and a low HR/FB ratio but a high hard-hit percentage. This method didn’t cover itself with glory last season—it got the unlucky guys mostly right, but was 0 for 3 on the lucky ones—but It’s had better success in the past. Let’s take it out for one more spin: Read the rest of this entry »