A commentary about sports, media, and interpersonal relationships encountered throughout everyday life.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Fantasy Pitchers (Not Named Kershaw) to Consider

So Clayton Kershaw's first start went pretty damn well, as Life of Brian regular Mike Plugh pointed out on the comments page of last week's feature on the Dodgers' young starter. However, for those of us not looking to pick up the next big thing (cough-David Price-cough), I have looked through the ownership percentage page at CBS Sports and found a few guys that should definitely be considered for a roster spot in the upcoming weeks:

Jake Westbrook, CLE:  He went down with a rib cage injury after only 4 starts and was promptly dropped in a large percentage of fantasy league with little to now bench depth.  He's one of those guys that are good... but not good enough for a DL slot on a fantasy roster.  His ownership, at its peak, in Week 4 was 76% of CBS Sports leagues.  Today it sits at a lackluster 47%.  Again, he's not going to single-handedly carry your pitching staff, but for weeks like next week, when he's a two-start pitcher, he is a more than serviceable option in the deepest of fantasy leagues.  Just take a look at his first four starts:

April 3: 7.1 
IP, 6 hits, 2 ER, 1 BB, and 3 K's
April 8: 9.0 IP, 7 hits, 3 ER, 0 BB, and 4 K's
April 14: 6.1 IP, 7 hits, 1 ER, 3 BB, and 5 K's
April 19: 7.0 IP, 8 hits, 3 ER, 1 BB, and 4 K's

Now, after looking at those numbers take a gander at these:

May 8: 6.0 IP, 9 hits, 5 ER, 1 BB, and 5 K's
May 14: 6.0 IP, 6 hits, 2 ER, 3 BB, and 3 K's
May 20: 6.0 IP, 4 hits, 1 ER, 1 BB, and 7 K's
May 25: 7.0 IP, 5 hits, 1 ER, 4 BB, and 3 K's

The stats I places above are of a pitcher who, as of right now, is owned in 97% of CBS leagues.  Other than the 5/20 strikeout spike for our mystery pitcher, Westbrook looks like a pretty damn good option.  For those of you who are sitting on the edge of you seat wondering who this mystery pitcher is... it's none other than the Tigers' extremely underwhelming ace, Justin Verlander.

Jesse Litsch, TOR: His ownership exploded this week to a whopping 59%, despite only 29% of leagues starting him.  For that minority, Litsch has done nothing but pitch brilliantly.  Of his last six starts*, Litsch has failed to go 7 innings once (5.2 @ Minnesota).  During this span he sports and ERA of 2.08 and a .90 WHIP, which is insane.  I don't know how anyone is looking at these numbers and passing on this kid.  He doesn't strike anyone out (2:1 IP-K ratio), but he doesn't walk anyone either (9 walks in 69 IP...crazy).  Other than all of that... these numbers are in line with everything he's done throughout his career, so there's no fine print or "but" after his stat line.  Take a look at what I mean:

2006: 158.2 IP, 1.25 WHIP
2007: 187.1 IP, 1.25 WHIP
2008 (so far): 65 IP, 1.15 WHIP
2008 (on pace): 192 IP, 1.15 WHIP, and 3.15 ERA

That projection, to me, is a bit off.  I can't see a guy whose career WHIP is 1.25 shaving it down
 that much out of no where.  Nonetheless, those numbers indicate that Litsch is on pace to fall somewhere in between the 2007 numbers of Greg Maddux and Chien Ming Wang.  Wang's ERA is very low and Maddux's is high... but either way, these indicators are telling you to buy Litsch... and soon.

Jose Contreras, ChW:  Wait... let me make sure I want to do
 this...  Hmmm... 42.2 IP, 2.11 ERA, 0.84 WHIP in his last six?  Okay.  I'll endorse Jose Contreras as an undervalued commodity (as of now).  I mean, look at those numbers, that's absolutely filthy!  Obviously any fantasy veteran knows that he's not going to keep this streak up.  He's too old and been around the block too many times, plus he's a head-case.  However, don't let someone else in your league pick him up and use him against you (don't you hate when that happen?).  He's a decent start for next week and maybe the week after that... but don't ride him until he dies, because it could be swift and painful for both you and him.  I wouldn't put him in the same category as the two guys listed above, but he's definitely worth picking up if you have the available roster space.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Flavor (Hater) of the Week: Jay Bruce

Last week, Clayton Kershaw, considered by many to be the top pitching prospect in baseball, was the fantasy flavor of the week. Today the Reds made waves by bringing up the best hitting prospect in the minors, Jay Bruce. Upon his call up, Bruce was hitting .364 (Batting Average)/.393 (On-Base Percentage)/.630 (Slugging Percentage) with 10 homers and 37 RBI in 49 games at Triple-A. Immediately, my attention is drawn toward the miniscule differential between Bruce's batting average and OBP. 30 points? Is that it? I mean obviously this kid's knocking the cover off the ball in Triple-A, but I can't imagine that translating seamlessly in the majors... it hardly ever does. Which brings me to my problem with his OBP. Can the kid take a few pitches in the minors? He's not going to me getting a hit during every at-bat in the majors, so it's important that he have impeccable strike zone vision. I can't say that I see that through his numbers though.

In an ESPN Fantasy Baseball article, Will Harris notes that "it is too much to ask for him to duplicate Ryan Braun's improbable 2007 rookie season, if anyone has a chance to make that sort of impact this year, it's Bruce." I don't have any major qualms with this position, I only want to point out how out-of-nowhere Braun's rookie campaign was. Looking back at this minor league numbers, his batting average, like Bruce's, was in the high .300's. However, his OBP was always at least .600 points higher than his batting average.  Bruce's Single and Double-A numbers are freakishly in line with those of Braun, however his Triple-A numbers provide a clear differentiation:

Braun (in 34 games): .342/.418/.701

Bruce (in 49 games): ..364/.393/.630

It's uncontested that Bruce puts the bat on the ball more than Braun did in Triple-A, but Braun's recognition between balls and strikes is what made, and continues to make, him so dangerous. Let's face it, MLB pitchers are out to exploit impatient young hitters like Bruce. A young hitter should establish himself as a guy who's willing to take a few pitches and make the pitcher work for an out... not to just swing away because its worked in the past, that just doesn't work.

I think that Bruce is going to make an impact in the majors. He plays in a small enough ballpark and will definitely have some sort of protection in the line up, no matter where he bats. If Joey Votto is any indication of how a transitioning batter reacts in the Reds' line up when called up to the majors, Bruce should definitely be fine.

For fantasy purposes, it's difficult for me to recommend dropping someone for him. I like to see guys work for a spot on my roster before I dump someone proven for a rookie. Not only that, but outfield has been so incredibly deep this season, I would only consider a guy like Bruce in a really deep mixed league, or a league that requires that you start more than 3 OFs a night/week.

In the end, I'd sit on Jay Bruce. If someone picks him up... good for them. Let Bruce prove you wrong on someone else's roster rather than having you suffer through the growing pains of a young hitter. Try to remember that Ryan Braun doesn't happen every year... the odds are in your favor.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Clayton Kershaw: An Analysis

Yesterday when I logged onto Rotoworld, I noticed a short note coming from the Los Angeles Dodgers' official homepage: "Clayton Kershaw was pulled from his start for Double-A Jacksonville after just one inning on Thursday, suggesting that he's on his way to the majors." I was almost moved to pick this kid up for my team and ride him to the Promised Land. I have missed out, in years past, on the likes of Francisco Liriano, Yovanni Gallardo, and (this year) Edison Volquez. Of course, it was my own fault. I was slow to action and, as a result, I lost the opportunity to bolster my rotation for the second half of the season.

As of right now, I am still incredibly slow to act on this young man... but I am not so sure that my pensive approach is completely unwarranted. Let's take a step back here. Yes, Clayton Kershaw is better than Esteban Loaiza. Yes, despite his bad record in Double-A this season (0-3) his numbers (2.21 ERA in 36 2/3 innings) have been incredible. Yes, Joe Torre is his manager. Of those three yeses, Joe Torre is my biggest concern. It's hard to say if the way in which the likes of Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, and Joba Chamberlain were handled under the 2007 Yankees had a lot or a little to do with Torre... but, for fantasy purposes, I am sure that I don't want the 2008 version of any of those players.

Let's just take a minute and look at the comparables of a few of the young pitchers who have come up to the bigs over the past few years. For me, Innings Pitches is the most important category, as it demonstrates a potential innings limit any potential starter may see as a big league pitcher. There's no way a Major League franchise risks its future on a guy who has barely seen 100 IP in a season while on the farm. Here's a look at a few of the young arms of yesteryear:
Phil Hughes, NYY: In 2005, 85.4 Innings effective innings with 93 strikeouts and a 0.87 WHIP. So for as many batters as Hughes dominates in the strikeout department, he wasn't allowing terribly many base runners while on the hill either. In 2006, 146 IP, 168 K's, and a 0.87 WHIP, demonstrating, again, that Hughes was absolutely dominating from the full wind up. However, as Yankee fans remember from the 2007 version of Phil Hughes, he had difficultly pitching from the stretch. He was so dominating in the minors, that the scarcity of base runners handicapped his ability to perfect pitching from the stretch.

Francisco Liriano, MIN: Here's Liriano's IP over his minor league career:

2001: 71
2002: 80
2003 (Injury Shortened): 9
2004: 156.2
2005: 191.1

Here's the next extreme. Liriano was making steady progress in '01 and '02 before his injury shortened '03. Then, out of no where, he was somehow allowed to throw 150+ innings a year after coming off an debilitating injury (which is ridiculous when looking at these numbers, but I digress). In 2005, the Twins saw Liriano nearly throw 200 innings in Double-A, Triple-A, and the Majors. In 2006, we all saw what happened, Liriano threw 121 innings, and blew his arm out. Obviously, Liriano's 2006 injury, as well as the injuries to high-profile prospects like Mark Prior and Kerry Wood (years ago), has led to a different approach for some organizations when dealing with pitching prospects, a la 2007 Yankees.

Yovanni Gallardo, MIL: To me, Gallardo was dealt with the best of these three prospects. In 2004, he threw 26.2 IP. In 2005, Gallardo took a huge leap with 121.1 IP for Single-A West Virginia. In 2006, between Single-A and Double-A he, again, increased his workload with 155 IP. In 2007, as we all remember, he threw a combined 188 IP between Triple-A and MLB. Gallardo received the most pampering and, therefore, provided the Brewers with a dominating ace that only a freak injury could snatch away.

And now, we return to our old friend Clayton Kershaw. Which of these three paths will he follow? Let's take a look:

In 2006, Kershaw threw 37 innings in the rookie league. In 2007, between Single and Double-A, Kershaw threw 122 innings, a huge increase over his rookie league campaign. Thus far in 2008, he's thrown 43.1 innings, striking out 47, with a 1.09 WHIP. Looking back over the last three years, the only Hughesian WHIP he's ever maintained was in the rookie league, after that he's allowed enough base runners to work on his pitching from the stretch.

However, the Liriano/Prior/Wood problem, as we've seen last year with the '07 Yankees, is something that is usually fresh on Joe Torre's mind. Hughes, Kennedy, and Chamberlain were all kept on a strict innings limit and, in 2008, the Dodgers have announced that they do not want Kershaw throwing more that 25 innings a month. Torre has shown in seasons past that the front offices' wish is his command when it comes to decisions such as this one.

Does your team really need a guy who, at most will be throwing 5-6 innings a start. Remember how frustrating Felix Hernandez was two years ago when Seattle placed the same inning limitations on him? Combine these inning limitations with the fact that Kershaw is a strikeout pitcher and his fantasy owners will be lucky if he makes it out of the 4th inning for each start.
It's a shame that this is the situation, but if I were the Dodgers, I'd look to the way in which the Brewers managed Yovanni Gallardo and deal with Kershaw in this same way. For me, I passed on Kershaw for this year and picked up his compete antithesis: Jake Westbrook, and innings-eater.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Carlos Quentin: 2008 Surprise? Not According to the Numbers

It's incredible how out-of-no-where Carlos Quentin has been in 2008... or has it? Last year, Quentin was receiving the same hype leading into 2007 that Hunter Pence received going into this season. In 2005 Quentin knocked out 21 home runs in Triple-A Tuscan on the Diamondbacks' farm, all the while batting .301 with an OPS over .900. After that season, scouts and fans alike were drooling over this 23-year old's potential. Baseball Prospectus said Quentin's 2005 numbers were a true testament to his ability, as he was fresh off Tommy John surgery in the previous season. BP's 2006 projection: 15 homers, .268 BA, and a OPS over .800. Not a bad projection for a rookie outfielder in a then-empty D-Backs line-up.

Baseball Think Factory's ZiPS projected Quentin to knock out 15 home runs, bat .269, to the tune of a .778 OPS. Again, not too bad a projection for a guy who, up until that point, had never seen a major league pitch. As it turns out, Quentin received little time in the Majors in 2006. His combined numbers between Triple-A and the MLB: 18 homers, a .276 BA, with a .912 OPS in Triple-A and a .872 OPS in the Majors.

While the batting average was not fantastic... let's be honest with ourselves, that's pretty damn impressive for a rookie. Combine that with the .872 OPS, and you have yourself a nice looking prospect.

In the 2007 edition of Baseball Prospectus, the projections were on the conservative side (not that I am ever expecting Matthew Berry-esque projections from the folks at BP): 18 homers, .285 BA, and a .872 OPS. Essentially the BP team was expecting more the same from Quentin in the OPS department (more slanted toward the OBP than the SLG%) with an increase in BA. They didn't really offer an explaination, but they didn't really need to either. Quentin was, at best, going to be splitting time with guys like Chad Tracy, (an unproven) Eric Byrnes, Scott Hairston, and two high-end prospects named Justin Upton and Chris Young. Essentially, Quentin's talent was going to be strangled by platoons in

Ron Shandler, more-less, sided with the BP experts: 20 homers, .275, and .841. For Shandler, however, Quentin's "power may arrive before [batting average], but both are on the way." So, depending on which book you place your trust in, Quentin was either going to see an increase in batting average (BP) or power (Shandler).

What happened? Both were wrong. Quentin suffered a torn labrum in the early goings of 2007 and never really got back on track. Both his power (9 homers) and batting average (.258) fell and left both our experts turned off (BP: 11-.263-.788, Shandler: 12-.262-.754). What both sources may have dismissed as 'fluke' was Quentin's SLG% of .400 in 2007...

Now, obviously, hind-sight is 20-20 and Quentin, after being dealt from the D-Backs (who had no room for him anyway) to the Chicago White Sox, is absolutely raking. As I am writing this, he just hit his 12th home run of the year, putting him on a pace for more than 40 in 2008. His OBP is in David Ortiz's realm at 1.004 and he's hitting over .300 while batting 2nd in a potent White Sox line-up.

Quentin went through, what I like to call, the "Hank Blalock Effect (named after Blalock who, after being hyped like nobody's business in 2001, failed to meet expectations in 2002-- Only before breaking out without warning in 2003 after he was left on the scrap heap by fans and analysts). Is Quentin going to keep this pace up? Probably not. But it's still great to see him rising like a phoenix (no Arizona pun intended) this season for both White Sox fans and for fantasy baseball owners. Like Blalock in 2003, it's going to be hard for this guy to keep this pace up... but that doesn't mean you shouldn't enjoy it while it lasts.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Review: Big Papi

When you sit down and think about the most lovable players in the Major League today, you can't make it through the Top-Five without mentioning David Ortiz.  I just finished Big Papi: My Story of Big Dreams and Big Hits (St. Martin's Press, 2007), a book co-authored by Ortiz (with Tony Massarotti) which details his journey from the make-shift fields of the Dominican Republic to the big stage of the Majors.

Every baseball fan knows about David Ortiz's rise from relative obscurity on the Minnesota Twins' bench to the clean-up spot of the World Champion Boston Red Sox, but Big Papi provides a look into the emotional roller coaster that each MLB player takes a ride on at some point in their careers.  For instance, Ortiz's first taste of Major League action came when he tried out for scouts of the then-expansion Florida Marlins in the Dominican Republic.  As Ortiz was unaccustomed to playing baseball on a regular basis (his only experience at this point, as a 16-year old, was playing with the neighborhood kids in his town), he injured his wrist and, as a result, became an unattractive option for the Marlins.  

After this immediate let-down, Ortiz was signed as a 16-year old by the Seattle Mariners.  During his time with the Mariners, Ortiz recalls seeing evidence of Seattle's willingness to rush young talent to the Majors through the arrivals of Ken Griffey Junior and Alex Rodriguez.  In some cases, the Mariners' hyped talent was traded for proven veterans rather than called-up to Seattle.  In 1996, Ortiz was one such expendable commodity as he was shipped to the Twins as a "player to be named" for Third baseman Dave Hollins.  Though Ortiz was upset to be leaving the Mariners, he recalls that he was also excited because he was "wanted."

In 1997, after not making it past Double-A with the Mariners' organization, Ortiz blew through the entire Twins' Farm System and got the call to the Majors for the first time in his career.  Once there, however, Ortiz was constantly tinkered with by coaches and managers (specifically Tom Kelly), who wanted him to go the other way and hit line drives rather than do what he does best: mash.  As much of a problem as Ortiz had with the Twins front office and management, he recalls having a great bond with his teammates.  Specifically, Tony Massarotti details his relationship with Torii Hunter, a teammate of Ortiz's both in the minor and major leagues.  

In the "Stepping Out of the Box" chapters, authored by Massarotti, the book takes a different tone.  The most comparable sports work that I can relate it to is the style that Buster Olney writes Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty.  The behind-the-scenes approach to Ortiz's years in the Minnesota Farm System, the Majors with Boston, and in the front offices of the 
Twins and Red Sox really do a great job filling in the specifics of Ortiz's (at times) vague descriptions of events and details.

One event that Ortiz does shed a great deal of light on is his release from Minnesota.  According to Ortiz, it was Pedro Martinez, formerly of the Red Sox, who convinced Theo Epstein to bring Ortiz into the Red Sox organization.  Not only did Pedro help bring Big Papi to the Sox, but he also fought with former Boston skipper Grady Little about inserting Ortiz into the line-up whenever he toed the rubber.

As Ortiz points out so many times in Big Papi, it's hard to imagine what things would have been like had he not spoken to Pedro on the night of his release.

In the end, Big Papi is a quick, easy read and is definitely something to consider during the Summer month while baseball is in the air.  After reading the book, I can't help but feel bad for David Ortiz when thinking about the two MVPs (2005 & 2006) that he lost out on virtually due to his standing as a Designated-Hitter.  The book gives an honest representation of one of the most likable guys in the game, no matter what team you pull for.