Having attained our dotage, we’ve accumulated quite a collection of apothegms embodying the bitter wisdom we’ve acquired over the years. You reap exactly what you sow. Smart don’t count for much. If it’s misspelled on the menu, don’t order it. There’s no such thing as a quick trip to CVS.
To our collection we must now add: there are no safe relief pitchers. It of course happens—every ten minutes, it seems—that a starting pitcher you were counting on goes down, and you search among the baldies and retreads in the free agent pool for a starter to replace him. Contrarian as ever, we decided before the season that, as starters pitch fewer and fewer innings and get fewer and fewer wins, reliable non-closer relievers become viable alternatives to the Ian Kennedys and Derek Hollands of the world.
Thus, when we lost Joey Lucchesi in our NL-only league, and Sal Romano didn’t pan out, we did not despair. Instead, we cannily replaced them with J.T. Chargois and Paul Sewald. Chargois has great stuff and was moving up in the Dodger bullpen pecking order, and Sewald had an ERA below 2, a WHIP below 1, and 17 strikeouts in 13 innings. How bad could it be, we figured.
Real bad, as it turned out. In the week after we acquired them, they pitched a combined 8 1/3 innings, with a WHIP of 1.68 and an ERA of 7.56. A dead roster spot would have been decisively better. Hell, Derek Holland would have been better.
So we got to wondering: is there any such thing as a Hippocratic reliever—a guy who’s not a closer and isn’t going to be, but can be counted on to do no harm? The answer surprised us. A quiz for you: Identify every player who, in both 2016 and 2017, pitched 30 or more relief innings and had fewer than five saves but an ERA of 3.50 or lower, a WHIP of 1.25 or lower, 8.5 strikeouts per 9 or more, and has managed to do the same so far this year. That’s right, there’s the amazing Chris Devenski, but good luck getting him as a free agent. Anyone else? Exactly one guy: Pedro Strop.
If all relievers are shaky, we concluded, you might as well get a shaky starter. But it can’t be just any starter. First, to state the obvious, the guy has to be available, which means his stats can’t be so good that everyone’s noticed him already. Grab Zach Eflin if you can—we doubt it, if you play in the kind of leagues we play in. If you were sharp enough to get him in your draft, you deserve to win. We weren’t. On the other hand, the guy can’t be completely DOA. If you’re very lucky, you might get two or three consecutive quality starts from James Shields or Ty Blach, but we guarantee you’ll eventually be sorry. What you want are starting pitchers who probably weren’t drafted in your league, and who are now significantly outperforming their fantasy-relevant stats, which are poor enough that nobody wants them.
We see two such pitchers. They pitch for weakish teams—though the Pirates have hung surprisingly tough, haven’t they?—so don’t expect a lot of wins. But they’ll get you a few strikeouts—more than Strop or someone in his cohort would get you—and if their ERA and WHIP align with their underlying performance, you’ll be glad you got them. The first is Ivan Nova, owned, so we read, in 42% of CBS leagues. There’s not much to say about him, besides the fact that his granular stats indicate he’s having pretty much the same season he always has, but with a small increase in strikeouts and significantly worse results so far. We can’t account for the inflated ERA and WHIP, but we note that the 2016-2017 Novas were worth owning, and we’d just as soon have him now as, oh, Jake Odorizzi, Jhoulys Chacin, or Nova’s teammate Trevor Williams.
A more interesting option—assuming his sore back isn’t more serious than he or the Orioles are letting on–is Andrew Cashner. He’s owned in only 13% of CBS leagues. We know all the reasons not to like him, though if you want to refresh your memory, Jeff Sullivan will remind you. He pitches for the pathetic Orioles. He has the worst WHIP and the tenth-worst ERA among qualifiers. Yet he’s actually pitched pretty well. He hasn’t been hit hard at all and his average fly ball distance isn’t outlandish, yet he’s given up an unprecedentedly (for him) high number of home runs. It’s not because of Camden Yards, where he’s not giving up any more home runs than he is on the road. So maybe it’s an anomaly that will deanomalize.
More importantly, Cashner seems to be doing something right that he hasn’t done right for a while. We’ve found, unsurprisingly, that pitchers who suddenly start getting hitters to swing at and miss pitches out of the strike zone often show improvement in other areas as well. Cashner’s O-Swing rate is way up, and his O-contact rate is way down. And this may have something to do with the fact that, according to Cashner himself, he’s just now mastered his slider again after getting injured in 2013. Perhaps he’s figured out how to fool hitters the way he once did.
We concede that Cashner may just be a below-average starting pitcher on a below-average team. There are at least 80 starting pitchers in MLB that we’d rather have if we had a choice. But somebody—usually somebody else—already owns those guys. If the choice is Cashner vs. Holland vs. Strop, we’ll take Cashner.
Finally, on a related subject: our favorite article of the season so far is Dr. Meredith Wills’s microscopic (literally) deconstruction (literally) of the baseball (actually, a bunch of baseballs) in The Athletic in an attempt to explain the home run surge. She wound up with a plausible explanation not only for the surge but also for the rise in pitcher blisters. Comic relief is provided by the head of the blue-ribbon committee commissioned by MLB, presumably at lavish expense, to investigate this very issue. Said committee couldn’t come up with an explanation, but, said head acknowledges, that may have something to do with the fact that “[w]e did not take any baseballs apart.” They must have just stared at them intently.
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.