In terms of fantasy topics to discuss, I’ve been pretty unmotivated for the last month. I took to Twitter to solicit some ideas. Rather than letting myself procrastinate and become unmotivated about these interesting topics, I figured I’d knock a few out at once with some quick takes.
The re-emergence of Ben Zobrist
Or, conversely, the caving-in of the rest of the Cubs’ offense.
Sure, there have been bright spots: Javier Baez makes for a nice down-ballot MVP candidate, Kyle Schwarber is not a liability, and Jason Heyward is a non-zero with the bat for the first time since moving to Chicago. But for everyone else? Not so much.
First, Zobrist. Although I never publicly announced it, I snatched up a lot of cheap shares of Zobrist in deep leagues. Despite entering his age-37 season, I was reluctant to give up on a hitter with one of the game’s best combinations of contact and discipline. The speed left long ago, but with perpetually fringy power, he could put up another dozen home runs with solid runs and RBI totals. In other words, I didn’t buy the .251 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) last year as a true indicator of decline. He’s hitting over his head, the baseball gods having compensated him for last year’s bad luck. All told, he’s pretty much the same dude, and he should age as gracefully as anyone in recent memory. (His 3.1 WAR is 14th-best by a 37-year-old in the last 20 years, and definitely the most in part-time duty, with still six weeks to go.)
The rest of the team’s offensive decline could be attributed to the Cubs’ new hitting coach. Chili Davis was not too shabby a hitter in his day, and he holds a somewhat special place in my heart as an on-again, off-again Angel. It’s not wonder Zobrist has seemingly excelled under his supervision — the two are statistical carbon copies of each other, although Davis hit for more power. They are spray-to-all-fields kinds of guys, and the rest of the team seems to be following suit:
Russell 41% –> 28%
Almora 40% –> 37%
Zobrist 50% –> 47%
Happ 45% –> 38%
Heyward 46% –> 44%
Schwarber 45% –> 42%
Contreras 44% –> 39%
Bryant, Rizzo, Baez the only guys not with the program
— Ryan E. Brock (@RyanEBrock) August 14, 2018
Ryan’s Tweet was in response to mine that looked at Addison Russell’s decline this year. Power correlates moderately with a hitter’s pull rate (Pull%), whereas BABIP correlates moderately with a hitter’s oppo rate (Oppo%). The trade-off here — higher team average, lower isolated power (ISO) — seems fairly self-evident. It’s just a few percentage points here and there for each hitter (for Russell, it’s quite a few percentage points, but he’s the most extreme example), but they add up in aggregate.
Jack Flaherty: Staff ace, or Luke Weaver redux?
Are we about to experience consecutive years of young Cardinals’ pitchers overperforming their peripherals and trapping owners during drafts the following March? Weaver looked every bit the Cardinals’ heir apparent to Adam Wainwright’s throne, although I found reasons to doubt him that, in hindsight, seem prescient.
Weaver had the better Minor League track record, but Flaherty has been demonstrably better at the Major League level. It’s only 130 innings, but it should be enough to allow fantasy owners to rest a little more easily than with Weaver (although, ironically, Weaver’s disintegration might scare the fantasy community at large into being too bullish about Flaherty). Flaherty is still pitching over his head, though, with his 30.3% strikeout rate (K%) outstripping his 12.8% swinging strike rate (SwStr%) by a decent, but not substantial, margin.
It’s hard to believe the overall whiff rate remains this lofty, though. His sinker probably won’t continue accruing whiffs at a 9% clip, and only his slider grades out plus. That’s not bad, and he is throwing it more, which is part of the reason he has taken the proverbial next step this year. But between a little bit of regression here and a little bit of regression there — there, being the very low .214 BABIP on his four-seamer, which surely won’t stick in the long-term — he’s already looking like a bit of a trap play for 2019.
Still, 2019 Flaherty should be a better value than 2018 Weaver. I bet Flaherty falls outside the top-30 starters and threatens to turn a profit, but we’ll see. (Sorry, haven’t pondered next year’s top-40 starting pitchers too critically yet.)
German Marquez, the real deal
Well, I think he is. A couple of months ago, I did what I thought was a pretty cool thing and modeled starting pitcher whiff rates based on the movement and velocities of their pitches. Marquez, of whom I knew very little at the time, spat out a top-10 arsenal by whiff rate (and a middle-of-the-road ground ball rate (GB%)). Since then, he has posted a 3.65 ERA with a 50.8% ground ball rate (better than expected!) and a 20.9% K-BB differential, underpinned by a healthy 12.3% whiff rate.
He’s a Coors Field product, so he’s liable to underperform his peripherals. But I’m finding little reason to doubt what we’re seeing, which is a high-strikeout, moderately high-walk guy in an unfavorable home park context but can still perform well despite it. With two above-average breaking balls that comprise more than one-third of his total pitches thrown, he should remain effective. It would do him well to throw his fastball less often and lean on his curve and slider even more, but baby steps.
I like Tyler Anderson quite a bit as a rotation-filler in deep leagues, but I think Marquez firmly supplants him as the Rockies’ No. 2. Jon Gray is still the ace, and he’s going to be just fine, as anyone who held onto him after his demotion knows already. Just don’t forget about the Coors Field penalty, because FIP/xFIP/SIERA do not account for it, and it is very real.
2019 too-early marquee value picks: Pivetta, Castillo, Gray (and Godley, too)
Not much to say here other than stay the course through the end of the season (because what else are you going to do?). SIERA correlates strongly with ERA; Pivetta, Castillo, and Gray have all underperformed their SIERAs by canyon-sized margins. It should be noted, though, that they may all have some inherent flaws. Through 260-plus innings, Nick Pivetta has allowed a 16.7% HR/FB rate and .337 BABIP. Through 220-plus innings, Luis Castillo has allowed a 16.9% HR/FB rate. Through 238-plus innings on the road, Gray has allowed a .329 BABIP (and, unsurprisingly, his home BABIP in nearly as many innings is worse).
For these guys, these bugs may not be bugs at all but, instead, unfortunate features. Fastballs are bad-BABIP pitches, and Pivetta throws nearly 60% fastballs. Thankfully, Gray no longer throws 60% fastballs, but 50% is probably still too many for him, especially in a home park that plays up base hits. Castillo throws 20% sinkers, which are vulnerable to the long ball.
All of them have multiple above-average pitches in terms of whiff rate. They’re good pitchers, and Pivetta has me thinking about the significance of the number of above-average pitches in a pitcher’s arsenal (the more you have, the greater the margin by which you can outperform your whiff rate, maybe). What I mean is, Pivetta’s 11.9% whiff rate suggests his strikeout rate should be closer to 24%, all else equal. But all four of his pitches (he throws his change-up only 2% of the time, so I’m not counting it here) have been above-average by whiff rate this year, which suggests he has a surplus of put-away ammunition at his disposal.
Zack Godley gets his own blurb here, as he’s cut from a different diagnostic cloth than the other three. Godley was legitimately bad for the first three months before suddenly finding his control and delivering eight starts with incredibly solid peripherals (I wasn’t even aware of it until BaseballHQ’s Chris Blessing posted a Tweet about it). His velocity seems unchanged, and his release points have been all over the place, making it difficult to determine exactly what has fueled the resurgence. His pitch mix has changed a bit, but I doubt it made him magically find the strike zone again. Regardless, Godley is dealing now, and his year-long statistics completely betray his recent success.
* * *
My partner wanted to “write one sentence,” and I couldn’t not delete it:
How many whiffs do you have? This is always a good question to start with, especially when eating whipped cream because then everyone will ask you about your whiffs and you want to have a good answer to them. Do you like it so far? Do you also like making eye contact while whiffing? I would say it’s one of my best bits if I had to pick a best bit to whiff about. All this whiff talk is getting me hungry for whipped whiffs. Have you ever stopped to think about the calories in a whiff ratio pie? Me neither.