Birchwood Brothers 6.1: Antipasto Salad

Hello again. We are the Birchwood Brothers, back for our sixth season at the old stand. We’re still real-life siblings, still geriatric, still tireless seekers after the Fantasy Baseball dispensation, still reporters, via Rotographs, on the progress of our quest, and still the top finishers among Fangraphs writers (and 7th overall of 315 teams) in last season’s Great Fantasy Baseball Invitational, where the elite meet to tweet and compete. It’s been a tough few months on the sidelines, as we have struggled unsuccessfully to care the tiniest bit about Bang on a Can or the Jeter Apostasy (though we’d like to know the apostate’s rationale, if [s]he had one). But now it’s time to contemplate truly important matters, like who will comprise the Dodgers’ eight-man starting rotation or who will play right field for the Mariners.

If you’ve joined us in the past, you know that we are the detritivores among Fantasy Baseball pundits. Where others concern themselves with, say, whether the Blake Snell of 2020 will be the Blake Snell of 2018 or the Blake Snell of 2019, or whether Aristides Aquino should go in the 5th, the 8th, the 11th, or the 14th round, we trawl contentedly on the bottom, among the 4th outfielders, backup catchers, 6th starters, utility infielders, and setup guys—the ones who’ve drifted down to or near the reserve rounds, and who—if we’re right about them—will pay fantasy dividends in excess of what, for example, Jose Abreu will be worth if he hits 40 home runs rather than the 30 everyone projects for him. Sometimes we’re right about our guys, sometimes we’re not, and some seasons we’re righter than others, but it’s a harmless pursuit, and we amuse ourselves, and occasionally our readers, doing it.

In the next couple of weeks, we’ll do a sweep through all of MLB, trying to identify at least one cheap player per team who has a shot at paying lavish dividends. But for the moment, let’s concentrate on a new but already-familiar baseball phenomenon—the opener, or, as we Italian-Americans prefer to call him, the antipasto. As we wandered, lonely as clouds, through the roster of the Detroit Tigers—who, by the way, are a very interesting team, though they may be just as bad this year as they were last—the perennially-disappointing Daniel Norris caught our eye. For most of the season, Norris was dreadful, but take a look at his last eight “starts.” In each of them, he pitched exactly three innings. Obviously, he got no wins or saves, but his other stats were excellent: 24 IP, 16 Hits, 3 Walks, 6 Earned Runs, 23 Strikeouts.

This got us wondering: suppose you projected an antipasto to do over the course of a full season what Norris did for the last six weeks or so of 2019. Would you rather have that guy in your day-to-day lineup than a sixth starter? The answer is, decisively, yes. As we calculate it, using the Birchwood Brothers’ top-secret valuator–which is essentially indistinguishable from everyone else’s top-secret valuator—Norris times four would have earned about as much as Jake Odorizzi or Mike Minor. That’s as in Mike Minor, the guy who attracted four votes in the Cy Young balloting.

Or let’s approach the math from a different angle. The question before the bar is whether your starting lineup is better off with an antipasto who has Norris’s stats than it is with a typical sixth (or, a fortiori, seventh) starting pitcher. Using the current NFBC Average Draft Positions for Draft Champions (i.e. 15-team, 50-round) leagues, we identified the 76th- through 90th-ranked starting pitchers. We took the 2020 stats foreseen for those guys by Ariel Cohen’s nonpareil ATC projections, and averaged them. We found that the typical SP6 is projected to pitch about 140 innings and get about 8 wins with 135 strikeouts, an ERA of 4.40, and a WHIP of 1.32. It appears to us that substituting Norris for that guy on an average Draft Champions team will cost you 3 standings points in wins and one point in strikeouts—but will lower your ERA enough to gain you three points and lower your WHIP enough to get you another three or four. In other words, you’re better off with Norris, and you haven’t had to use a pre-reserve round pick to get him.

We know what you’re saying, which is something like “if we knew ex ante that Norris or someone else would have a full season like that, we’d draft him in the 16th round or so. But we don’t.” True, and we’re not suggesting that you draft [insert name here] in the 16th round, or before the reserve round. What we’re suggesting is that, if you play in a deep league, along about the 25th or 30th round, Insert Name might be a more useful selection than, say, Kevin Gausman or Jordan Lyles.

But whose Name do you Insert? You will not be stunned to learn that we have some thoughts. We found three starting pitchers who last season (1) were way better their first two times through the batting order than their third, and (2) were good enough those first two times, and got enough strikeouts, to make drafting them a possibility on the chance that they’ll be used as multi-inning antipasti. Those pitchers are:

Elieser Hernandez, Marlins, NFBC Average Draft Position 543. (FTTO/STTO: 10.4 K/9; 1.11 WHIP; 4.08 ERA. TTTO: 3.5 K/9; 1.55 WHIP; 7.84 ERA). Hernandez is an extreme fly ball pitcher, and he’s always going to give up home runs. He’ll probably give up more this season, what with the fence retraction in Miami. The question is whether he gives up anything else. He succeeds, when he does, by striking out the guys who don’t hit home runs, and apparently, when he doesn’t strike them out, they get hits. His hard-hit percentage stays about the same no matter how many times through the order he goes, but his BABIP goes from .240 to .316.

Vince Velasquez, Phillies, NFBC ADP 507. (10.3/1.16/4.18 vs. 5.1/2.76/10.95). With Velasquez, you can account for the different outcomes readily enough. First two times through, he’s hard-hit 44.2% of the time with a BABIP of .271; Third time through, it’s 60% and .417. Whether this is because of a decline in velocity, a change in pitch mix, a question of familiarity’s breeding contempt, or something else, it’s happening, and (we posit) won’t happen if you stop him after he pitches three innings.

Tyler Mahle, Reds, NFBC ADP 377. (9.6/1.20/3.58 vs. 5.8/1.85/12.88). When Mahle is on, he throws a split-fingered fastball and a curve that induce ground balls in great profusion, plus a respectable fastball that can strike guys out. When he’s off, he doesn’t and doesn’t.

We know what else you’re saying: How do I know these guys will be succulent antipasti rather than overcooked linguine? In other words, even if I think they’re projectible to Norris-like seasons, how do I know they’ll be used as three-inning openers rather than dollar-short starters? You don’t, of course. That’s why they’re reserve-round picks, and why you’re not counting on them for anything. But their upside is significant, especially when you consider that they’re all still young and that they (or anyway Mahle and Velasquez) were, within living memory, elite prospects. Maybe it will turn out that they can do for five innings whatever they’ve been doing right for three. And wouldn’t you rather take a chance on them rather than suffering through another season of the uninspired and uninspiring chicken parm that is Rick Porcello or Zach Davies?

We hoped you liked reading Birchwood Brothers 6.1: Antipasto Salad by The Birchwood Brothers!

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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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A whiff of Birchwood in January is a surer sign of an early spring than anything the groundhog will do. This will be a good year.