Birchwood Brothers 2.1: We’ll Never Be Royals

The woods decay and fall. Man comes and tills the fields and lies beneath, and after many a summer dies Abe Vigoda. But…we’re still around! We’ve worked hard this winter, pumping irony. We’ve added five pounds of muscle—well, one of us has; the other has added ten pounds of fat—so we’re in the best shape of our lives. This season, we’re going to run more. We’re also going to walk more. Especially, though, we’re going to sit semicomatose in front of our computer screens more, burning up even more irreplaceable hours than we did last year. Yes, once again, we’re taking our two-man submersible deep into the sunless sea of fantasy-relevant stats, and, as before, when we resurface, we’ll show you our specimens.

We’re the Birchwood Brothers, honest-to-God siblings, aggregate age 124 years, lifelong stat geeks and baseball fans, unregenerate fantasy baseball addicts, and spare-time would-be craftspersons of lapidary prose. Like you, in all probability, we’ve got better things to do than this, but that doesn’t mean we do them. Having attained mediocrity in last year’s National Fantasy Baseball Championship Main Event, we’ve decided to seek new challenges. The Main Event uses a snake draft; this year, we’ll be joining the NFBC Mixed-League auction, where we figure to be even more overmatched. As an aperitif, yesterday we started an NFBC slow-draft league—15 teams, no in-season transactions, as much as 8 hours to make each pick, 50 rounds or Ragnarok, whichever comes first. We’ll also be playing in the Bluefish Blitz league, whose rules have so little in common with anyone else’s that we’ll have to prepare for it all over again. And somewhere, we’re going to find a fourth league that suits us, and if we can’t find one we like, we’ll start our own.

We invite you to join us for the season and observe (and jeer at) us in our misguided folly. Each week—and more often than that, probably, in the run-up to the draft—we’ll check in with our latest nuggets of research and reflection, and you can assay them. Sometimes, they’ll be the results of microsurgically-precise statistical investigation. Sometimes, on the other hand, they’ll be the results of crystallomancy. Most often, they’ll be somewhere in the middle: attempts to put a particular handful of stats into some coherent narrative context with predictive power. Last year, we got some right (Ender Inciarte); we got some pretty much right (Carlos Beltran); we got some wrong (Melky Cabrera, though more fool you if you take him this year), and we got some humiliatingly wrong (T.J. House). On the whole, we don’t think we did appreciably worse than most other folks who publish this kind of thing, so we’ll try again.

Today’s suggestions occupy the middle ground between rigor and intuition. We start with some not-too-obscure stats: (1) the Kansas City Royals ranked 24th in Quality Starts and innings pitched per start last year; (2) by any metric we can think of, the Kansas City Royals have, and for several years have had, the best (all right, best or second-best) and deepest bullpen in baseball; and (3) the Kansas City Royals won the 2015 World Series. The Royals have demonstrated that you don’t need fancy, expensive, A-list starting pitchers if you have a good enough, deep enough bullpen, and you deploy it early enough to matter. So now, everyone who can afford to imitate them is doing so. The Astros, with a much-better-than-average bullpen, trade for Ken Giles. The Yankees, with a much-better-than-much-better-than-average bullpen, sign Aroldis Chapman.

We can quibble about whether these moves, and others like them, are cost-effective, or even rational, but that’s not the point. The point is that teams are stockpiling lights-out relief pitchers and deploying them more aggressively. Last season, the MLB innings-per-start reached its lowest point since 2007. We predict that it will get even lower, now that guys like Andrew Miller and Pat Neshek will routinely pitch the 7th rather than the 8th inning. And we think, moreover, that managers will be unafraid to use these relievers earlier, and accordingly yank their starters earlier–even unto the sixth inning. So starting pitchers who couldn’t go six innings in the first place now won’t be asked to, and their records will be better across the board. They’ll get fewer strikeouts, probably, but that should be more than offset by better ERAs, WHIPs, and, we suspect, Wins. (If your league uses Quality Starts instead of Wins, you can probably ignore everything we say here.)

The poster boy for this scenario is Kyle Hendricks—who, allow us to note modestly, we urged upon you last season as a fine pitcher, but a guy who “can’t pitch six innings” and, as the post-season approached, wouldn’t be asked to. But since everyone seems to think the Cubs will go undefeated this year, we eschew Hendricks as too obvious, even though the usual crickets are chirping “sleeper” in the meadow. We’ve been looking instead for 2016’s season-long Hendrickses: starting pitchers who will benefit from being removed, unprecedentedly, from successful outings before they decompose in the 6th inning, and will accordingly be more valuable than people think they’ll be. The criteria: starting pitchers who (1)in ten or more appearances last season, were dreadful in the 6th inning; (2) were worse, as bad, or almost as bad in five or more appearances in the 7th inning, suggesting that the 6th inning performance wasn’t a blip; (3) were pretty effective in innings one through five (which lets out Kyle Kendrick); and (4) figure to have better bullpens shoring them up than they had in 2015, either because their teams have upgraded or because they’ve found their way to better-bullpenned teams (which lets out Chris Tillman and Tyson Ross).

Here are the results, in ascending order of sleeperhood. The numbers after the names are these guys’ combined 6th and 7th inning ERAs and WHIPs; their overall ERAs and WHIPs; and their Average Draft Positions in the NFBC drafts so far this year:

Hisashi Iwakuma, Seattle. 5.04/1.48; 3.54/1.06; ADP 140. He’s not a secret, obviously, but we’re wondering whether people should like him even more. Will his bullpen be better, though, what with Carson Smith’s departure? Yes, we think. Fernando Rodney’s gone, for one thing, and new closer Steve Cishek recovered his mojo with St. Louis last season. As Fangraphs’ Jeff Sullivan noted in November, new arrival Joaquin Benoit, though he’ll turn 39 this season, can still throw hard and get guys out, though perhaps not as well as Smith did. He should be fine pitching the 7th or 8th. Most importantly, future closer Tony Zych is back. We see three solid late-game guys rather than two, and thus an overall upgrade.

Mike Fiers, Houston. 4.82/1.53; 3.69/1.25; ADP 209. Yes, he threw a complete-game no-hitter last season. It was the other 29 starts that were problematic. Neshek-Gregerson-Giles should help.

Nathan Eovaldi, Yankees. 7.83/2.22; 4.20/1.45; ADP 340. Eovaldi’s a TJ survivor, and got shut down late last season with elbow inflammation, so who knows how he’s feeling now, much less how he’ll feel in a few months. Supposedly, his short-windedness wasn’t attributable to the elbow. He’s shown more stamina in the past, and he’s only 26. But if the Eovaldi we saw in 2015 is the Eovaldi we get in 2016, Aroldis Chapman has to help, unless New York City dismembers him first.

Wade Miley, Seattle. 7.23/1.77; 4.46/1.37; ADP 393. Last season, Miley was with the Red Sox, whose relief pitching wobbled even when Koji Uehara was healthy and toppled when he wasn’t. The Zych/Benoit/Cishek combination will be an improvement.

Mat Latos, Wherever, maybe. 8.66/1.59; 4.95/1.31; ADP 441. We dispraised Latos loudly last season, and though we were uncouth, we called it right. He’s a free agent now, and most of his starts last season were with Miami, which had a deep and decent enough bullpen once it survived the trauma of Cishek. One reads, though, that the teams now courting Latos are the Orioles, Brewers, Pirates, Rays, and Royals. All but the Brewers (including, we insist, Tampa Bay) should help if Latos has anything left.

Chris Bassitt, Oakland. 4.90/1.47; 3.56/1.27; ADP 511. Oakland had the worst bullpen in the majors last season, and Billy Beane spent the offseason repairing it, perhaps at the expense of plugging the many other holes in the team’s hull. This could be a real deep bullpen, what with the return of Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, John Axford, and (especially) Liam Hendriks, who, we predict, winds up as the closer. Bassitt is the most obvious beneficiary.

See you next time, possibly with a report on the early phase of our slow draft. If we have anything to say in the meantime, about the slow draft or anything else, we will say it @birchwoodbroth2 on Twitter.

The Birchwood Brothers are two guys with the improbable surname of Smirlock. Michael, the younger brother, brings his skills as a former Professor of Economics to bear on baseball statistics. Dan, the older brother, brings his skills as a former college English professor and recently-retired lawyer to bear on his brother's delphic mutterings. They seek to delight and instruct. They tweet when the spirit moves them @birchwoodbroth2.

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6 years ago

This is the same Michael Smirlock discussed in this article, right?

6 years ago
Reply to  Brandon

probably. so who cares?

6 years ago
Reply to  Brandon

Quick comment on this. If it is this person then don’t place your money with him to invest. That person did their time and that’s what we ask of them as a society. From the day they are free they should be treated like everyone else.

And it’s a damn fantasy baseball article.

a eskpert
6 years ago
Reply to  Brandon

Which is also this changed, repetent, and rehabilitated Micheal Smirlock: