Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Some Thoughts on Matt Harvey's Bounceback Outing

 Matt Harvey has struggled mightily, but he just put together a great start yesterday. Here are a few takeaways. I also posted this on the Rotoworld Forums:
Just got done watching the whole start (doesn't take very long when he faces 2 over the minimum)

My takeaways:

Fastball/changeup location was great. Curveball location was a little inconsistent. He missed up with the curve a few times, but they weren't total hangers. They had the same drop, just didn't start out as low as he wanted.

He attacked hitters with confidence and really trusted his stuff. Only went to a 3 ball count twice.

Changeup was nasty.

Velocity was up, and he maintained it throughout the game as well as when going from the stretch.

He kept the ball on the ground very well. Which meant when a ball was hit hard (only a couple times) it didn't do any damage (0 XBH)

His body language was excellent, even when he was in a bit of trouble. In the 7th inning, he walked Eaton (who had a great AB, Harvey didn't pitch too him poorly Eaton just did a great job), and then got a groundball from Abreu that wasn't hit very hard and could've been a DP but found a hole. I feel like Harvey from earlier this year would've started to melt down here, and I especially felt like Warthen coming out coupled with action in the pen would've shaken his confidence but instead he was smiling during the mound conference. He then caused Frazier to yell at himself on multiple occasions during the AB while getting him to pop-out with three straight fastballs on the hands and then getting a groundout from I don't remember who. In the dugout afterward he was enthusiastically high-fiving teammates. Dude was fired up. Loved the body language, especially considering how poor it's been this year. He was really feeding off the crowd (the same crowd that had been booing him earlier this year). It was really fun to watch.

I haven't watched enough Harvey prior to this season to say whether he looked like his old self, but I will say that he looked like AN ace.

Up the Middle: Middle Reliever Leaderboard and Notes

A week ago, I put together my rankings of the top 10 middle relievers to roster for ERA/WHIP/K. I'd like to update and expand those rankings in the near future, but I feel like not enough has changed to make a re-rank worthwhile. Instead, I wanted to give you a leaderboard that contains the stats I use to evaluate RP, and give some notes on some RP. I am a believer in riding the hot hand in the middle reliever department (because of the volatility at the position), so the linked leaderboard is for the month of May only.

RP Leaderboard for May

Top 30 non-closing RP by K-BB% in May:
1. Michael Feliz
2. Andrew Miller
3. Dellin Betances
4. Sean Doolittle
5. Addison Reed
6. Seung Oh
7. Luke Hochevar
8. Michael Tonkin
9. Koji Uehara
10. Tyler Clippard
11. Felipe Rivero
12. Vidal Nuno
13. Ian Krol
14. Kevin Siegrist
15. Junichi Tazawa
16. Ryan Buchter
17. Kelvin Herrerra
18. Jim Henderson
19. David Phelps
20. Chris Capuano
21. Tyler Thornburg
22. Shawn Kelley
23. Jake Diekman
24. Trevor May
25. Tyler Lyons
26. Will Harris
27. Tony Sipp
28. Scott Alexander
29. Louis Coleman
30. Cam Bedrosian

Good lord, Michael Feliz had a monster month. 51% K rate and zero walks! That's nuts! At this point, I think that for exclusively ERA/WHIP/K, I'd only want Betances and Miller ahead of Feliz. He has immense upside.

Alex Colome is expected to lose the closer job soon and would've ranked 5th

I excluded Ross Ohlendorf, who would've ranked 28th, because I'm not entirely sold that Cingrani is the closer

Could Tonkin figure into the closing situation in Minnesota eventually?

Tyler Clippard seems to be back to his former studly ways

Addison Reed doesn't seem to get a ton of attention here considering he ranked 5th above and is locked into the 8th for holds

Kyle Barraclough ranks 5th by K% and ia getting 2 strikeouts per inning but drops to 46th when sorting by K-BB% because of his horrific walk rate (22.6%)

Matt Bush has been good, but hasn't quite lived up to the hype. He ranks 37th.

Brad Hand missed the list by one spot (31st), but was 2nd in baseball in relief innings, so could give a higher quantity of good innings, if slightly lesser quality. His strikeouts carry him (13.5 K/9), and the innings help improvr the raw K numbers. That's assuming he continues pitching well and throwing tons of innings.

Hector Neris ranked 10th in my rankings a week ago, but was 68th by K-BB% this month. His performance has gone downhill, which really goes to show the volatility of these guys.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The State of Streaming SP: Week 9

This blog is evolving. Early on, I was doing a "Pitching Matchups" series every day. After a while, I shifted that to a daily post with vulture saves, streaming starters and some miscellaneous bits. What a I've discovered is that I really don't have the ability to do daily analysis while still giving my complete effort into the weekly breakdowns and the buying and selling posts.

After some thought, I came up with an idea: what if I provided the same info about streaming starting pitchers, but provided it ahead of time, so you can plan out your starts and which streams to target? The catalyst for this idea was my own team: I was going to fall two starts short of our weekly games started limit, so I needed to stream two starts. The problem was that I didn't know whether the best stream on any given day was likely to be one of the two best options for the week.

Out of those two issues, this series was born. So, without further ado:

Top Streams for Each Day

Nathan Karns (SD) - Grade: A
Ervin Santana (@OAK) - Grade: B

Jake Peavy (@ATL) - Grade: B
JA Happ (vs NYY) - Grade: B
Jon Gray (vs CIN) - Grade: B+
Tyler Duffey (@OAK) - Grade: B+

Matt Cain (@ATL) - Grade: B
Sean Manaea (vs MIN) - Grade: B+

Matt Moore (@MIN) - Grade: B+
Chase Anderson (@PHI) - Grade: C

Eddie Butler (@SD)- Grade: C
Doug Fister (OAK) - Grade: C

Chad Bettis (@SD) - Grade: A
Junior Guerra (@PHI) - Grade: B

Jon Gray (@SD) - Grade: A+
Wily Peralta (@PHI)- Grade: D

Top Streams for the Week

1. Jon Gray (@SD) - Grade: A+

You might notice all three projected Rockies starters for their weekend series in Petco are listed. Padres at home against a right-handed pitcher is one of my favorite streaming targets, and I think Gray and Bettis are two of the more skilled pitchers who are widely available, with their ownership percentages driven down by their home stadium, which of course means nothing with regard to their road games.

2. Chad Bettis (@SD) - Grade: A

See above. Bettis more skilled than most unowned pitchers, but is on wires because half his games are in a ridiculously hitter friendly environment. This game, however, is in a pitcher-friendly environment against a team that struggles mightily against right-handed pitching.

3. Nathan Karns (SD) - Grade: A

I really didn't mean to pile on the Padres like this, but they'll be a frequent streaming target. The combination of a pitcher-friendly home stadium and ugly lineup (especially against right-handers) makes them an easy target.

4. Matt Moore (@MIN)

I wish this game was in Tampa, but it's location doesn't change the fact that the Twins can't hit lefties, and Moore has electric stuff.

5. Sean Manaea (@MIN)

Literally everything I just wrote about Moore applies to Manaea. Lefties with plus stuff against a Twins lineup that doesn't hit well against lefties.

Two-Start Pitchers of the Week

1. Jon Gray (vs CIN and @SDP)

I wrote in depth about Gray a few weeks ago. I firmly believe he's an undervalued arm. A guy with a 3.10 xFIP facing two of the teams in the bottom 3 by wOBA against right-handed pitchers is a no-brainer. Only downside is the first start is in Coors, but the second being in Petco takes a bit of the sting off that.

2. Nathan Karns (vs SDP and @TEX)

Karns has taken a nice leap forward with his changeup, which is now getting a 20% whiff rate, and the Rangers have struggled to hit changeups this year. He also faces the Padres, and though he doesn't get to face them in Petco like their weekend opponents, he gets to face them in his equally pitcher-friendly home stadium. He's actually been pretty solid this year, posting a 3.53 ERA and 51 K in 51 IP.

3. Tyler Duffey (@OAK and vs TB)

I think Duffey is a little underrated, and he'll have a good chance to prove it, facing the Athletics who are a top tier matchup and the Rays who are certainly not a lineup to fear.

There you have it. That's your first weekly "The State of Streaming" article. Hopefully you find it helpful and can use it to plan out any spot starts ahead of time.

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Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Reinvention of Richard Hill

Blind player resumes is such a common thing in fantasy analysis, it's almost a cliche. But there's an old cliche about cliches: "They're only cliches because they're good." So let's kick off this breakdown with some blind player resumes that you probably know the answer to if you read the title of this post:

Pitcher A:
1.97 ERA, 10.49 K/9, 2.70 BB/9, 48.5 GB%, 10.8 SwStr%, 2.57 FIP, 3.23 xFIP

Pitcher B:
4.72 ERA, 8.62 K/9, 4.34 BB/9, 35.1 GB%, 8.6 SwStr%, 4.42 FIP, 4.45 xFIP

Which pitcher do you want?

Don't think too long, because, as you might've surmised, both pitchers are Rich Hill, the 36 year old breakout who's current run of dominance resembles the best stretch Max Scherzer has ever put together.

In 84 career starts, Hill has ten games with double-digit strikeouts. Five of them have come in his last 14 starts. In the last calendar year, only Clayton Kershaw and Jake Arrieta have lower ERAs than Hill. Only Kershaw has a lower ERA and a higher K/9. That from a guy with a career 4.72 ERA over 70 starts from 2005-2013. That from a guy who bounced up and down from the minors more times than I can count.

What's been behind the amazing, late-blooming renaissance?

(Unlike most of my breakdowns, I'm not comparing Hill's 2016 to his 2015. Instead I'm comparing his 2015-2016 with the rest of his career. For our purposes, "Old" Rich Hill is from 2005-2014. "New" Rich Hill is from 2015-present.)

First, he's managed to improve in all four of the "Holy Quaternity" stats (K%, BB%, GB%, PU%). That's not easy to do; when you improve your walk rate, your strikeout rate usually falls as well as you pound the zone and get more balls in play. When you increase your grounder rate, it usually means you're lowering the launch angle of balls hit against you, thus eliminating some pop-ups. Usually, you make trade-offs within the four stats. So, obviously a pitcher improving in all four catches my eye.

To validate K rate spikes, I first look at where the extra strikeouts are coming from; what's driving them, in other words.

For Hill, I believe that answer is multi-faceted. First and foremost, he is getting ahead in the count far more often. "Old" Rich Hill got to two strikes on 54% of batters he faced. "New" Rich Hill is doing so on 64%. This is partially supported by a two percentage point increase in first-pitch strike percentage. I suspect it is also supported by a decreased Contact% (if one of the first two strikes is put in play, he can't get to two strikes).

Once he gets batters in a hole, he's also been more efficient at sitting them down: "Old" Rich Hill converted 40.7% of his two-strike counts into strikeouts. "New" Rich Hill is converting 45.9% This also is supported by the drop in Contact% as well as SwStr%. I believe it is also supported by a Fool% (percentage of pitches that are in the zone and taken plus percentage of pitches that are outside the zone and swung at) that has improved from 30.0% to 33.1%. It's interesting to note that Hill's pitch mix with two strikes has hardly changed; he still has about a 40/60 fastball/curveball split with two strikes.

Last but not least, it's impossible to ignore the improved whiff rate as a source of additional strikeouts. "Old" Hill had a 8.6% swinging strike rate, whereas "New" Hill has a 10.8% rate. Obviously, more swings and misses leads to more strikeouts, since the vast majority of strikeouts are of the swinging variety.

In the past, Hill could rely on his curveball for whiffs but his fastball wasn't good for much of anything. But now, he's getting a ton of whiffs on his fastball: it's 12.4% swinging strike rate is nearly double the league average, and it's whiff/swing ratio is the best in baseball, and by a wide margin: his 35.59% ratio tops David Price's second place mark by a whopping six percentage points, which is about the same as the difference between Price and fourteenth place Noah Syndergaard, or the difference between Syndergaard and 45th place Cody Anderson.

How is a pitch that averages 91.5 mph getting more than 1 1/2 times as many whiffs per swing as a pitch (Syndergaard's fastball) that averages 99.3 mph? And whatever skill allows it to get such gaudy whiff rates, why is it just now appearing?

I had a few hypotheses, and to examine them, I put together the following table of info about his fastballs over the years:

There's a handful of interesting observations we can make here. Obviously, there's the aforementioned spike in swinging strikes. There also appear to be three distinct periods, which I separated out. I think of them as "The Four-seam Period" (2007-2009), "The Two-seam Period" (2011-2014), and "The Reinvention Period" (2015-2016). 2010 is an outlier, mostly because Hill only tossed 32 fastballs that year.

In the "Four-seam Period", Hill was throwing a four-seam fastball, obviously, and was getting very good vertical rise, but mediocre horizontal movement. In the "Two-seam Period", that was reversed.
 He got plenty of arm-side run, but his vertical movement was below average.

Now, however, Hill is combining the two, throwing what PITCHf/x classifies as a four-seam fastball, but that has similarities to two-seam fastballs or sinkers (it's most comparable pitches are Santiago's sinker and Miley's two-seamer). He's combining above average vertical rise (40th out of 103 qualified pitchers) with elite horizontal fade (3rd).

Not only is more movement a good thing by itself (as long as you can still control it), but the direction of Hill's added movement is in the exact opposite direction of his curveball. Hill's fastball has some rise and great arm-side run, while his curve has the 12th most vertical drop among qualified pitchers (second only to Kershaw among left-handed pitchers) and is tied for the 12th most glove-side break (1st among left-handers). All told, Hill's "new" fastball is getting over two feet of separation from his curveball (meaning that if he threw his fastball and his curveball at the same initial trajectory, their movement would have them crossing the plate at two separate points over 24 inches apart - second most in the game).

Changeups and other off-speed pitches are often evaluated by how distinct they are from the pitcher's primary fastball. Obviously, if the batter doesn't know what direction the pitch will move in, it becomes extremely difficult to hit. Given Hill's heavy curveball usage (over 50% of all his pitches), I would argue that his fastball should be evaluated in comparison to his curveball, since his curveball, not his fastball, is his primary pitch (or, at least since the beginning of his renaissance). Not only is Hill using his fastball more and more like a change of pace from his curveball, but it's becoming a better, more distinctive change of pace.

That's been a key for Hill. Check out this chart that plots his fastball/curveball separation against the swinging strike rate on his fastball:

While improving the separation from his curveball has been a big part of his improved fastball results, I believe the pitch has also gotten better in isolation. It's been shown that fastball spin rate correlates with swinging strikes. Look at how Hill has gradually increased the spin rate on his heater through the years:

That, too has had a correlation with his fastball whiff rate, though we sort of have a chicken-and-the-egg dilemma: did his spin rate cause the increase in whiffs, or was it the change in movement? Then again, didn't the spin rate change influence the change in movement?

While Hill's fastball has been the most enigmatic part of his mid-thirties breakthrough, I'd be remiss if I didn't devote more attention to his devastating hook. Observe:

As I mentioned above, he gets the most glove-side run on his curve of any left-hander, and the 12th most vertical drop of all pitchers (only Kershaw gets more drop among left-handers). It gets the 10th most whiffs per swing of any curveball, and the 5th most grounders. It also gets the 9th most pop-ups. It's been worth 4.8 runs above average, which is good for first in the American League (5th in the MLB).

Verdict: Hill features one of the best curveballs in the game, and has plus movement on his fastball. He's also seemingly figured out the perfect way to use the fastball to complement the curve. Moreover, his fastball is seemingly a different pitch from his pre-breakout fastball. As such, it's mostly safe to ignore the "old" Rich Hill and focus on the new. Obviously, some regression should be expected, but now's your time to buy while his owner might think he's still a small sample fluke. He's easily a top 30 SP going forward, with top 15 upside. Not bad for a 36 year old Quadruple-A player.

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Buying and Selling: Nola and C-Mart

Stats for this post were pulled prior to yesterday's games, in which both Nola and Martinez pitched. My opinion of either player has not changed, although another rough start from Martinez may have lowered the price and pushed the needle towards "buy".

Aaron Nola
If I wanted to be lazy, I could point you to his 2.53 xFIP (3rd in baseball behind only Kershaw and Syndergaard) and just leave it at that. I won't do that, though. Let's take a look at what's driving that number:

He's 14th in baseball in K% and 9th in BB%; only the aforementioned Kershaw and Syndergaard best him in both categories. He's also 7th in GB%, putting him once again in the elite company of Kershaw and Syndergaard as the only pitchers in the top 15 in K%, BB%, and GB%. Pitchers with that combo are rarely unsuccessful. The lone flaw in his "Holy Quaternity" stats is his lackluster pop-up rate; only 0.6% of his batted balls are pop-ups. That flaw is easily forgiven for a pitcher with his elite stats in the other three.

His K and BB rates are driven by plus numbers in SwStr% and F-Strike%. He's using his curveball mostly for whiffs and his fastball to get ahead. Both pitches get groundballs at well

I was asked recently if I think Nola can continue to excel with only one good pitch (the curve). My opinion is that it's not just one good pitch; it's two good pitches and a great one. His changeup is getting good whiffs, his sinker is getting a ton of looking strikes (and grounders), and his curve is great by absolutely any measure. He also has elite command.

There has been a significant amount of coverage of Nola on FanGraphs, all of which was excellent (as FanGraphs usually is). Here are some links for further reading:

Aaron Nola's Sinker and the Looking Strike by Alex Chamberlain

Aaron Nola Has Baseball's Best Curveball by Jeff Sullivan

The Phillies are Curveballing Their Way Into the Future by August Fagerstrom

The Change: Early Starting Pitching Omnibus by Eno Sarris (contains sections on many different pitchers; scroll down to the section labeled Aaron Nola)

An Obligatory Look At Philly's Trio of Young Arms by Alex Chamberlain

Verdict: BUY(!)
I simply don't have enough good things to say about Aaron Nola. Buy him while you still can.

Carlos Martinez
There was a lot of hype coming into the year on Carlos Martinez. He was an already extremely talented hurler, and it looked like he finally found that elusive third pitch to be able to stick as a starter.

His strikeouts have dried up this year, falling to a career worst 17.9%. The rest of his profile looks the same, but his xFIP is all the way up at 4.30. The key to figuring out Martinez is going to be figuring out what's going on with the strikeouts. Where have all the strikeouts gone?

The first thing I'll point to is his SwStr% and Contact%, which are both career worsts. He's not missing bats anymore. All of those missing whiffs have been on the changeup; it's SwStr% has been cut in half. But the changeup has identical movement and velocity differential to last year. What's going on?

As I suspected, his location is off. Last year he did an excellent job locating it low and away to left-handers (the ideal changeup location). This year he's leaving it up and/or over the middle - hitters aren't going to miss that.

Verdict: DEPENDS
Losing swinging strikes is never a good thing, especially when you're giving back the improvement that was supposedly the key to becoming a star. However, it's very encouraging that his changeup has the same shape and characteristics, so if he can figure out the location of the pitch, he could right the ship. I know you probably wanted a more concrete answer, but I think it comes down to this: if you can get him for a price that bakes in the possibility of his changeup not returning to form, go for it. He has tremendous upside and is seemingly a tweak away. On the other hand, if you can sell him for a price that doesn't acknowledge the possibility that his changeup won't be fixed, by all means pull the trigger because there is risk here.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Pitcher Breakdowns Daily - May 25

Welcome back!

Stream of the Day
Pitchers must be owned in 30% or less ESPN leagues to qualify. The formula for the Super-Pseudo-Scientific ERA projection machine (SPSEP) is Pitcher's Steamer Projected ERA * Opponent wRC+ by Pitcher Handedness / 100 * Park Factor

1.  Junior Guerra (@ATL)
SPSEP: 2.67
The Braves offense is so futile. SO futile. Guerra is an interesting arm as well, racking up 11 Ks against the Cubs in his last start.

Vulture Saves Watch
From the Twitter account @VultureSaves, which I operate.

1. Justin Wilson, DET
Grade: C
Francisco Rodriguez has thrown back to back and 3 of the last 4 games. He's questionable.

2. Xavier Cedeno, TBR
Grade: C
Alex Colome is questionable, having thrown back to back days including 2 IP today.

3. Bryan Shaw, CLE
Grade: D
Cody Allen pitched back to back days, and is probable.

Top 10 Middle Relievers to Roster for ERA/WHIP/K

I'm a huge fan of the strategy of rostering elite middle relievers/setup men for help in ERA, WHIP and K. I'm especially fond of this strategy in leagues with innings limits (because great middle relievers are very efficient on a per inning basis) or GS limits (because relief innings don't count against the GS limit). Some analysts even encourage rostering multiple of these guys to "create" an ace.

There are places on the internet that rank middle relievers for the purpose of potential saves down the road, and there are places that rank them for holds leagues, but I've never found any sites that rank them solely for their ERA/WHIP/K contributions. That changes today, with my top 10 middle relievers for ERA/WHIP/K list:

1. Dellin Betances
2. Andrew Miller

These two are just way ahead of the pack in this department. The only hard part about this is separating the two of them. If we were factoring in save potential and holds, Miller would get the nod as he's the clear handcuff to Chapman, but for solely ERA/WHIP/K the margin is razor thin. I anticipate similarly ridiculous ERAs, Miller to have the slightly better WHIP and Betances to have the slightly better K/9. The deciding factor was Betances' likely heavier workload. He's led the AL in bullpen innings two in a row, and that both mitigates Miller's likely WHIP advantage (since his will be more heavily weighted) and amplifies his K advantage, while also giving his ERA more weight.

3. Shawn Kelley
4. Kevin Siegrist

These two actually have identical K-BB% numbers (33.9), which, as you can imagine, made them exceptionally hard to differentiate. Typically, I'll lean towards the guy with the better K% - strikeouts are their own category, and a high K% can make walks less painful - but in this case I felt there were some other indicators pointing toward Kelley. His SwStr% is substantially higher, for one. Also, Siegrist is giving up too many flyballs for my taste - homers can really screw up these types of guys.

5. Michael Feliz
I really wanted to rank this guy higher, but I think I need to see a bit more longevity in his recent run before I move him up too high.

He gave up 10 runs (9 ER) in his first two big league outings this season, but has been unbelievably dominant since:

6 G, 11.2 IP,  0.77 ERA, -0.19 FIP, 14.66 K/9, 0.00 BB/9, 0.26 WHIP, 50.0 K%, 0.0 BB%,  17.9 SwStr%, average fastball velocity of 95.4.

His fastball velocity is also trending up:

(earliest) 91.5. 94.6, 93.6, 93.7, 95.6,  96.3, 96.9, 96.4 (most recent)

Over the last 30 days he's lead all RP in K% and is one of only six qualified RP to not issue a single walk.

The Astros are not hesitant to use him for multiple innings, so he could put up lots of innings to amplify the effect of those superb ratios (a la Betances).

6. Seung-hwan Oh
7. Nick Vincent
8. David Hernandez
9. Kelvin Herrerra
10. Hector Neris

Honorable mention:
Will Harris

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