Time now to take our annual look at players on whom, as we measure it, fortune smiled or frowned last season. Our theory is that fortune, as is her habit, will turn that smile (or frown) upside down this season, and accordingly that forecasts for these guys based on last year’s stats will miss the mark.
What we do is simple, and readily undertaken by novices with just a few ingredients easily found around the house. We look for pitchers whose BABIPs and Home Run/Fly Ball Ratios weren’t aligned with their Hard-Hit Ball Percentages. We figure that a guy who didn’t get hit hard, but gave up a lot of hits and home runs, was unlucky, and that his luck will change this season. And also that a guy who did get hit hard, but…you get the picture. It’s not infallible—sorry about Luke Weaver, folks; we got burned too—but it works pretty well for something so straightforward. Last year, for example, it steered you toward Trevor Cahill and away from Dylan Bundy. Let’s see who it turns up this year.
Stephen Strasburg. There are two schools of thought about Strasburg in 2019. One school says that the 3 MPH drop in his fastball velocity after he came back from about two months on the disabled list with neck nerve impingement means he should be shunned. The other (which seems to include Strasburg himself and various other people affiliated with the Nationals, who of course may be whistling in the graveyard) is that he was being careful and holding back a bit, and that his success during September demonstrates, as Strasburg puts it, that his stuff still plays at 93 or 94 MPH if that’s as much as he can do. We are members of the latter school, and were thrilled to get him with the 74th pick in our first draft of the year. Nothing in that September performance (6 starts, 11.68 K/9, 2.60 ERA, 1.21 WHIP) looks suspect or flukish to us, and if that’s what the all-wheel-drive version of Strasburg consists of over a full season, we’ll take it. We acknowledge that there is, as always with him, an acute injury risk, but drafting in 14th position, as we were, we felt we had to take risks in exchange for upside.
Nick Pivetta. Because of the insane use of strikeouts as a standard Fantasy category—don’t get us started—an apparently durable young starting pitcher for a good team who can get more than 10 of them per 9 innings is going to attract significant attention, regardless of his past travails. As disgruntled Pivetta owners the past two seasons, we feel obliged to point out that (1) for a strikeout pitcher, he’s not the kind of guy who intermittently just blows the other team away (lowest Quality Start Percentage among NL ERA qualifiers last year), and (2) most of his starts just weren’t that, you know, good. Nonetheless, there’s reason to hope. First of all, as others have noted, his 2018 was better than his 2017, thanks, it appears, to an improved curveball. Second, he’s a groundball pitcher, and having Jean Segura rather than Scott Kingery at shortstop will help. And, more importantly for present purposes, he was probably the unluckiest starting pitcher in the majors last season—18th among qualifiers in HH%, but the worst BABIP and the 6th worst HR/FB. Even ordinary luck should bring his ERA down below 3.50, with plenty of wins and, of course, those strikeouts.
Alex Cobb. We are, as our regular readers know, unaccustomed to lingering in the Himalayan heights among players who will actually be taken earlyish in the draft, so before hypoxia sets in, let’s descend to the more familiar terrain of the reserve round. And there we find Cobb, who wasn’t quite as unlucky as Strasburg and Pivetta, but was close. Cobb’s average draft position is 539, and to the naked eye there’s a lot not to like about him from a Fantasy standpoint. He turns 32 this year, he’s coming off an apparently dismal 2018 (5 wins, 4.90 ERA, 1.41 WHIP), and he doesn’t get strikeouts. Plus he pitches for the Orioles, which makes the over-under on his win total something like 3 ½. And he’s owed nearly $43 million over the next three years, which means a trade to a contender isn’t going to be zipless for the Orioles. Yet there were still things to like about his season. He increased his use of his splitter, which is his out pitch, in the second half, and it was outstanding. And, as indicated, he was unlucky: we don’t see a big difference in Cobb’s granular stats between 2018 and 2017, when he had an excellent season with Tampa Bay that earned him that big contract in the first place. We predict that traded he will be, and will replicate or come close to replicating 2017 with a good team. Even if he lingers in Baltimore, he will be at least be a good deep-league bench pickup as a streaming option when he has an appropriate matchup.
Dereck Rodriguez. It pains us to say this, since he rescued one of our teams last year, but the luckiest starting pitcher of 2018 was Rodriguez. No one expected anything of him last year, and the market’s too shrewd to expect much this year (ADP 307), but even that much may be optimistic. You can dig beyond the things we’re looking at, and you’ll still find a lot not to like: velocity decline, a low spin rate, a decline in swinging strike rate that suggests people were figuring him out. If you want to construct a counter-narrative to this, we won’t stop you: even adjusting for good fortune, Rodriguez’s stats were reasonably solid until mid-August, when he stumbled over his own testosterone in a bench-clearing brawl and went on the DL for a while with a hamstring strain. It wasn’t the same after he came back. So if you think the hamstring is all better, even if the testosterone isn’t, be our guest and grab him, but we won’t join you.
Madison Bumgarner. Big deal, you say; I wasn’t going to draft Rodriguez anyway. Well, what about Bumgarner? Right, his days as a first- or second-rounder seem to be done. But he’s still one of the first twenty or so starting pitchers off the board. Even though he’ll pitch half his games in the run-suppressing environs of AT&T Park, we’ll let someone else take the risk. What leaps out about Bumgarner’s record since he returned from his pas de deux with a dirt bike in early 2017 is how very fortunate he has been. Over the past two seasons, 125 pitchers have thrown at least 200 innings. Bumgarner has the 10th highest Hard-Hit Percentage but is 21st from the bottom in BABIP and 30th from the bottom in HR/FB%. We say it evens out this year. (Actually, what we say is that he will finally face the heavy karma attributable to ruining our 2017 season, but we won’t insist.)
Jose Alvarado. Finally, here’s a relief pitcher—a closer, most people think, though manager Kevin Cash is noncommital—by whom we are underwhelmed. Alvarado certainly fits the next-elite-closer profile: 23 years old, 98 MPH fastball, tons of strikeouts, seemingly tremendous last two months. It could be that Jeff Sullivan is right, and Alvarado’s success is attributable to some magical new combination of cut fastball and curve, in which case the magic is presumably replicable this year. But we’re not going to take Alvarado where he went in our slow draft–in the 9th round, before Ken Giles, Wade Davis, Corey Knebel, and a bunch of other closers and closer wannabes–in light of his performance on the three stats we’re looking at. We will instead take, towards the end of the draft, Chaz Roe, whom we last week identified as a longshot candidate to close for Tampa Bay.
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.