“Its getting late early”
― Yogi Berra
The toughest part of fantasy baseball is understanding The When. When do you believe in a hot start? When do you believe a player is done? When do you sell high, when do you buy low, when do you pick up an unknown player, when do you move on. The When.
Yogi Berra (and experience) has taught us that it can get late early for your fantasy team, and now that we’re about a quarter of the way through the season, maybe some of you are feeling that way about your teams. The good news is that 3/4 of a season is a lot of time to make up a deficit.
And right now just happens to be when a couple important peripherals become stable for pitchers around the league. According to Baseball Prospectus’ Derek Carty, around 1/5 of the way through a season, a pitcher’s ground-ball rate and strikeout rate become strongly correlated with their rest-of-season ground-ball rate and strikeout rate. That doesn’t mean there won’t be fluctuation in the stats, or that the pitcher won’t regress some to their career means, but it does mean you can begin to believe a breakout to some extent.
Read the rest of his post on The When of pitcher peripheral stabilization — it’s eye-opening to see that BABIP takes eight years to become stable — but for fantasy players, it’s clear that ground-ball rate and strikeout rate are the harbingers of hope or heartache.
So who are our leaders and laggards in both categories? Let’s do strikeouts first. They may be fascist, but they are a direct category in pretty much every fantasy league out there. And since hope is more fun than the alternative, your qualified pitchers with the largest gain in strikeout rate so far this season:
There are some very interesting buy-lows at the very top of this list. Max Scherzer and Ivan Nova are probably available in your league, either by waiver or trade. They will likely put up a career high in strikeout rate this season, and once their BABIP turns a little, their ERA should start to fall in line with their ERA estimators. You might be able to get Jason Hammel from a non-believer, and his velocity and pitching mix changes seem to back up this assertion that he’s in the middle of a career year.
You’ll have a hard time getting Gio Gonzalez in any league, and you can see that Philip Humber’s loss in ground-ball rate has kept him too close to league-average to be a real boon, but look at everyone’s favorite knuckleballer, showing up here on this list. R.A. Dickey has three knuckleballs, a double-digit strikeout rate, and has had excellent control since he became the pitcher he is today. He’s useful in all leagues now, and there’s little reason to denigrate him anymore. He might be on your waiver wire, but shouldn’t be.
Now the laggards:
Derek Lowe was never about his strikeout rate, so maybe this isn’t the biggest deal for you deep leaguers and spot-starters out there. But Ubaldo Jimenez has lost velocity, lost his control, and has now lost more strikeout punch than anyone not named Derek Lowe. That’s something to be worried about.
You can choose not to worry about Brandon Morrow and Clayton Kershaw, since the rest of their line looks fine. And you can point out that the cases of Bartolo Colon and Hiroki Kuroda were reasonably predictable, considering their age and previous peripheral statistics. But the lefties on this list — Jon Lester, Madison Bumgarner, John Danks, and Wandy Rodriguez — they form a worrisome core. We’ve now seen Bumgarner show up (in a bad way) on three of our Roto Relevant Research pieces, so keeper leaguers in particular should be looking to sell. Danks wasn’t ever that good to begin with, and Rodriguez probably didn’t cost you much. But oh, Jon Lester. What has happened to you.
The ground-ball surgers!
More good news for Jason Hammel, and a couple of underlines on some good seasons from Jordan Zimmermann, Cliff Lee, David Price and Anibal Sanchez. Since ground balls don’t show up in the fantasy box score, just be assured that they should help keep their ERA low by suppressing fly balls and therefore home runs. We also see some mitigatingly positive information for Madison Bumgarner and Derek Lowe, but I’d still sell on the youngster and I’d still just keep the veteran as a spot-starter or deep league innings guy.
The buy-lows that this list reveals are James Shields, and… well. James Shields. Ervin Santana’s peripherals don’t line up otherwise, and Randy Wolf is not suddenly a ground-ball wizard. Matt Swartz, in his SIERA research, found that being average in ground-ball rate (always around 44%) was exponentially less beneficial than every standard deviation you get beyond average. You want to be excellent here, not just okay. So go get James Shields if you can. He’s altered his pitching mix, was always excellent, and now has a great ground-ball rate to boot.
And the ground-ball laggards.
How about this death knell for Ubaldo Jimenez? Nothing looks right for him now. Most of the other guys on this list got some good news in the strikeout category to offset this bad news in the ground-ball category, but Mat Latos is another negative case. At least his problems are not Ubaldo-ian?
There’s still time to fix your team. Remember that other saying from Yogi Berra, stiffen your upper lip, clear your heart and fix your eyes on the peripherals in your pitching staff listed here, make some moves, and you might find your fortunes turning.
“It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”
― Yogi Berra