September is an exciting time in baseball. It affords us the opportunity to see many of the stars of the future, who are often promoted once rosters expand. Those prospects with enough offense to be viable in fantasy this season are likely long gone from the waiver wire, but offense is not the only way September call-ups can make a difference in fantasy. The defensive upgrades some call-ups provide can make a major difference for their starting pitchers, even over only a handful of starts. Four pitchers should benefit, in particular.
Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays
Marcus Stroman has had an exemplary rookie season, which our own Chris Cwik explained in a post yesterday. His 3.53 ERA trails only Mark Buehrle on the staff, and his 2.87 FIP leads the staff thanks to his impressive 7.6 strikeouts and 2.0 walks per nine innings. Even with the solid strikeout numbers, Stroman allows a lot of balls to be put in play on the ground. His 55.0 percent groundball rate leads the staff and is ninth highest rate among all pitchers with at least 100 innings this season. Unfortunately for Stroman, the Blue Jays have not been the ideal team for that approach.
For the season, the Blue Jays’ defense has cost them 29 runs according to Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). They have seen their share of trouble in the infield, where Jose Reyes has been the second worst defensive shortstop (-17 DRS). Second base has been a revolving door, but the only player who has exceeded neutral defense is the recently promoted Ryan Goins.
To say that Goins has exceeded neutral defense is an understatement. He has saved the Blue Jays seven runs this season in just over 300 innings. He also saved 12 runs in 2013 in even fewer innings. He has not yet played even half a season’s worth of innings in the majors, but his pace suggests he could be the best defensive second baseman in baseball. Stroman is the Jays starter with the potential to benefit most from Goins’ glovework, and Goins has started in six of their last seven games.
Mike Minor, Braves
Mike Minor had a rough start to the season, but he has turned it around of late. He had a 3.24 ERA in August and has a 3.38 ERA so far in September. Eno Sarris explained how the decline in performance of his changeup has led to many of his struggles earlier in the season. That has made it even more important for Minor to throw his plus curveball, which he does on 15.9 percent of his pitches this season, highest on the staff.
Catcher Evan Gattis has had a poor defensive season with -5 Runs Saved, and almost all of has been the result of his inability to block pitches in the dirt. That’s a bit of a problem for a curveball-heavy pitcher like Minor, and one that rookie Christian Bethancourt could presumably resolve. Bethancourt is known for his defensive abilities behind the plate and could be an asset for the Braves even he never learns to hit.
So far, Bethancourt’s two starts have come in Ervin Santana outings. That is not exactly bad news from fantasy. Santana has been a very productive pitcher this season with a 8.2 strikeouts per nine, a 3.76 ERA, and 14 wins, but he only throws his curveball 0.8 percent of the time and will be unable to benefit from one of Bethancourt’s biggest advantages over Gattis. Hopefully, Bethancourt will catch a few of Minor’s starts down the stretch as well.
Tyson Ross, Padres
Tyson Ross has quietly been one of the best pitchers in baseball this season. His 2.66 ERA is 10th best among qualified starts, and his 8.9 strikeouts per nine make him an asset in every roto category. But like Stroman, Ross has succeeded despite his pairing of a high groundball rate and poor infield defense. Ross’s 56.9 percent groundball rate is actually the second highest among qualified starters, but Jedd Gyorko has been tied for the fourth worst defensive second baseman with -9 Runs Saved and Yangervis Solarte has cost the Yankees and Padres eight runs spread across four different positions.
Call-up Cory Spangenberg is getting his first taste of the majors this September, so data on his defensive abilities is limited. However, reports of Spangenberg in the minors suggest that he has picked up second base well, and he would not need to be Dustin Pedroia to be an improvement over either Gyorko or Solarte.
Dan Haren, Dodgers
With an ERA north of 4.00 for the third consecutive season, Dan Haren may not be a fixture in fantasy lineups in shallow leagues anymore, but he continues to limit baserunners with a walks per nine of less than two for the fourth consecutive season. With the support of the powerful Dodgers lineup, Haren remains a candidate to spot start; he has 12 wins this season and has been able to take advantage of some weaker opponents, notably the Diamondbacks.
One call-up who should make Haren’s life easier the rest of this season is Joc Pederson. Pederson raked all season in the minors, where he went 30-30 with .303 average and .435 on-base percentage. Potentially more beneficial for Haren, Pederson is none of Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Yasiel Puig, or Scott Van Slyke. Those four players have combined to cost the Dodgers 23 runs in center field this season, and with Haren’s low 41.9 percent groundball rate and penchant to allow balls put in play, the addition of Pederson in center field should make a world of difference.
Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt