MLB Deep Dive – 4/7/17
The fifth real day of the MLB season is never fun for pitching, as every team is running out their back-of-the-order arms before resetting with their aces over the weekend. We’re stuck with a bouillabaisse of how-did-they-earned-a-spot-in-the-starting-rotation type pitchers on Friday, which once again forces us to take a much deeper look than normal. I’d say things could be worse, but that would make me a liar.
Francisco Liriano posted disastrous numbers in Pittsburgh last season before inexplicably turning things around when traded to the Blue Jays, where he was forced to pitch insider the hitter-friendly confines of the Rogers Centre. Liriano’s 2016 struggles were self-inflicted, though, as the veteran southpaw saw his walk soar while his HR/9 rate (1.44) was exactly twice as high as his previous two campaigns. Liriano allowed 20-plus home runs for only the second time in his career and finished with a career-worst 18.8 percent HR/FB as well.
Now for the positive: Liriano continued to strike batters out at an above average clip and averaged more than one punch out per inning last seasons. In eight starts with the Blue Jays, Liriano pitched to the tune of a 2.92 ERA with a 3.52 xFIP. He improved his K-BB rate to 17.3 percent and continued to induce ground balls at a healthy 52.2 percent clip. I’m expecting Liriano to regress back to the this season. He’ll never sport a sterling walk rate and will always allow more base runners than we’d prefer, but Liriano offers enough upside to like him on such a miserable slate.
Pitching at Tropicana field should benefit Liriano against the Rays. No team struck out more against lefties than Tampa Bay last season, while only six teams owned a lower walk rate than the Rays. They possess some power throughout their lineup, but this is a far from imposing offense overall. Liriano will have an opportunity to start 2017 season out on the right foot, and we won’t have much choice but to bet on him channeling his pre-2016 form this evening.
Mike Fiers will drive you crazy, especially when he isn’t collecting strikeouts. Last year Fiers not only saw his ERA balloon to 4.48 across 168.2 innings of work, but his strikeout rate experienced a precipitous decline as well, dropping from 23.7 percent in 2015 to 18.5 percent in 2016. Fiers’ K-rate fell four percent from 2014 to 2015, too, but 2016 was the first time he suffered a declining swinging strike rate (8.9% SwStr) since 2013. Unfortunately, Fiers’ DRA, which aims to isolate the pitcher’s performance from other run-causing influences, was 5.12, more than half a run higher than his ERA. As a result, the one-time high-upside righty is barely hanging onto a rotation spot in Houston.
Friday’s main slate is so devoid of pitching options that Fiers comes into play. The Royals aren’t the same team that for seasons struck out at a league-low pace, and the arrival of Brandon Moss won’t do them any favors in 2017. Moss struck out at a 30 percent clip against righties last year, which makes this matchup slightly more appealing. Moreover, Kansas City finished 28th in wOBA (.301) and dead last in ISO (.130) vs. RHP last season, finishing with a dismal, league-worst 84 wRC+ to boot. Making matters worse, Kendrys Morales is now in Toronto, leaving the Royals with a below average lineup at best. The Astros are -170 ML favorites against Jason Vargas, which should provide Fiers with a very realistic shot at earning the win if he can safely make it through five frames at home.
Mike Leake is Mike Leake, and for that reason I won’t spend much time discussing his lack of appeal. He’s a pure contact pitcher with virtually zero strikeout upside, but isn’t exactly proficient at keeping runners off the bases, either. Leake does garner an above average groundball rate, though, while limiting free pases and to some extent, home runs. He also starts half of his games at a pitcher-friendly venue, which is a small consolation for his below-average skill set.
The only reason I’m discussing Leake is due to his high win probability against a punchless Reds offense. The Cardinals are -166 ML favorites at home, and they should have little trouble hitting Amir Garrett, a 24-year-old left-hander making his MLB debut. Pitcher win points will be important on a night that’s completely devoid of talented arms, so a potential 6IP/1ER/4K/W line from Leake will likely take us a long way. I have him ranked behind Fiers for now, but do think he’s less of a risk to implode. Fiers offers more upside, but is one of the most untrustworthy righties in the game.
Paul Goldschmidt [1B] draws an elite matchup with Josh Tomlin at Chase Field — that’s not too difficult to discover. Cleveland’s right-handed starter served up a whopping 36 home runs last year, 22 of them coming against same-handed hitters. His .356/.227 wOBA/ISO allowed to RHP was equally dismal, and while Tomlin should see some positive regression in the home run department this season, he’s still a pitcher who allows hard contact and ground balls at a below average rate. Tomlin limits walks, but he doesn’t generate enough strikeouts, and saw his swinging strike rate plummet to 7.4 percent in 2016. He also saw a big decline in the effectiveness of his curveball, which certainly contributed to his lack of whiffs. Goldschmidt is one of the league’s true elite hitters who finds himself in another position to excel on Friday night.
Kyle Schwarber [C/OF] hasn’t missed a beat since returning from a torn ACL/MCL that sidelined him for all but one game in 2015, having already recorded a home run, double and three RBI over his first three starts. Schwarber offers an abundance of power from the left side of the plate, and now across 229 plate appearances across right-handed pitching he’s sporting a filthy .400 wOBA and .266 ISO with a well above-average 43 percent fly ball rate.
Jimmy Nelson is set to toe the rubber for Milwaukee on Friday, and if he looks anything like he did in 2016, it’s going to be a long long night. Nelson not only allowed a .340 wOBA to left-handed batters last season, but managed to talk them at a 13 percent clip while serving up a 37 percent hard hit ball rate in the process. Among all qualified pitchers, Nelson finished with the ninth worst xFIP (5.37) and 14th highest hard hit rate despite having the 29th lowest BABIP against. According to Nelson’s xFIP, BABIP and BB-rate, he actually should’ve performed worse than he already was. I’m expecting Schwarber to see plenty of hittable pitches inside the homer-friendly Miller Park, and I’m willing to use him on FanDuel at an underpriced $3,400, and on DraftKings where he still has catcher eligibility.
Ryan Braun [OF] faces the one of the most extreme groundballers in Brett Anderson this evening, who’s returning from another lost season hoping to reclaim even a scintilla of his 2015 form. Anderson does a great job of killing worms, but he’s also very capable of serving up home runs in these hitter-friendly venues. Moreover, there’s no guaranteeing Anderson will be even slightly effective with the Cubs, and if his spring training numbers are any indication, this could be a long season for the 29-year-old southpaw. My only concern here is Braun’s flyball rate from last season, which was a paltry 25.7 percent vs. left-handed pitching. That being said, Braun owns an above average 36.1 percent flyball rate over his career, and is hitting balls hard to start the year. I’m a bit skeptical of this matchup, but there’s also a ton of home run upside here, and Braun has always excelled inside Miller Park.
Carlos Santana [1B] is a lovely pivot away from Goldschmidt in the same game, at the same park, against a worse pitcher in Shelby Miller. Arizona’s right-hander has deemed himself more mentally prepared for this season, and he can only improve from last year’s deplorable results, but this is still Shellme Miller, and shell him the Indians will do. In 2016, Miller allowed a mammoth .400 wOBA and .215 ISO to opposing left-handers, while sporting a 5.54 xFIP, 13.7 percent K-rate and 39.1 percent hard hit rate, good for fourth worst in baseball.
Santana is once again leading off for Cleveland, starting the season on a fiery note, going 5-12 at the plate with a home run, double, three walks and three RBI. He should continue to surge on Friday with the platoon advantage at a hitter’s park in Arizona. The run total in this game has moved to 10 and the Indians now own a slate-high implied total of 5 (O -121). The first base position is deep, but Santana shouldn’t be ignored in such a favorable spot. Edwin Encarnacion [1B] is also a clear top play against Miller, where his career 46 percent flyball rate should serve him well in Arizona.
Pitching is so dreadful on this slate that there are going to be more high-end hitters than we can discuss at length. Mike Trout [OF], Anthony Rizzo [1B], Chris Davis [1B – GPP], George Springer [OF] and Brian Dozier all make for viable options in the top tier. I’ll also highlight a few teams I like best for stacks tonight, as you’ll want to load up on top-tier bats with pitching being so disgusting.
The middle tier of hitters on DraftKings is inflated tonight based on how cheap pitching is from top to bottom. As a result, I’ll be discussing some mid-range options that would be high-end plays on DraftKings most nights but don’t meet the qualifications on Friday.
Rougned Odor [2B] is one of my favorite overall plays on the night, facing Raul Alcantara inside one of the best hitter parks in baseball. In his Major League cup of coffee last season, Alcantara allowed a whopping nine home runs in only 22 innings of “work”, with five of them coming to left-handed bats. Maybe he’s improved, but this is not a spot for him to showcase any newfound developments. Texas owns a 5-run implied total at Globe Life, and they should have no trouble pouring the runs on Friday night.
Odor hit a very unexpected 34 home runs in 2016, and finished the year with an elite .247 ISO vs. RHP. His near 43 percent flyball rate vs. righties was a solid mark, and with Alcantara being a flyball pitcher, Odor should receive his fair share of chances to take him deep. I’m willing to pay a premium for him on DraftKings, as we don’t have to worry about being frugal, but his $3,300 salary on FanDuel is even more enticing.
Jake Lamb [3B] had a great night on Thursday against Jeff Samardzija, and he’ll draw an opportunity to replicate that production against Josh Tomlin, who’s as homer prone as they come. Tomlin lost his curve ball last year, which will really hurt him when facing left-handed bats, and although he allowed a below-average wOBA to lefties, I’d expect that to regress in 2017. Lamb offers plenty of power from the left side of the plate and owns a career .214 ISO vs. RHP, a number that spikes to .235 at home. Lamb remains very affordable across the board, is hitting in the middle of a potent D-Backs lineup, and has gotten off to a hot start in 2017. Count me in. David Peralta [OF] is a riskier play, but as we saw last night, he’s very capable of paying off a lower mid-range salary.
Francisco Lindor [SS] has gone hitless in each of his last two games after smacking two home runs in Cleveland’s season opener. Needless to say, I don’t expect him to expand that hitless streak tonight against Shelby Miller. As earlier noted, Miller endured one of the worst seasons we’ve seen in a while, getting rocked from both sides of the plate but especially by lefties. A .400 wOBA and .200+ ISO is not a recipe for success when pitching in Arizona, or when squaring off against this power-packed Indians club. A switch-hitting shortstop batting second in the order against one of the worst pitchers in baseball is enough to love him in all formats this evening. Jose Ramirez [3B/OF] should be one of the lowest owned Indians bats on Friday, making him that much more appealing in GPPs.
HONORABLE MENTION: Joey Gallo [3B/OF – GPP], Jonathan Villar [3B/SS], Miguel Sano [3B], Khris Davis [OF], Nomar Mazara [OF]
Chris Herrmann [C/OF], assuming he starts, should serve as one of the best value options on Friday’s slate, mainly because he’s eligible at a weak catcher position. Herrmann’s .338/.214 wOBA/ISO split in 140 plate appearances vs. RHP last season was solid, and although the sample is quite small, he’s hitting sixth in a Diamondbacks lineup that offers plenty of pop. Herrmann should see plenty of RBI opportunities against Josh Tomlin, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him rack up an extra base or two at Chase Field. I’ll have plenty of the lefty backstop if he gets another start.
Wilmer Flores [2B/3B] has smacked lefties around over the past two seasons, sporting a 400-plus wOBA and 300-plus ISO across 214 combined plate appearances since 2015. Flores is cheap on both DraftKings and FanDuel (almost minimum salary), and squaring off against Wei-Yin Chen, whose primary bugaboo is allowing home runs to right-handed bats. If you’re in search of an affordable infielder with plenty of pop when given the platoon advantage, Flores is your guy.
Rickie Weeks [OF] is not very good at baseball. I’m not telling you anything you didn’t already know. However, the 34-year-old righty could bat cleanup against the left-handed Liriano on Friday, and that would instantly put him in play at a minimum salary cost. Look, I don’t expect big things from Weeks, but he was robbed twice in his first start against the Yankees and only needs on hit to drop in order to pay off his salary with one swing of the bat. If you plan on loading up on high-end bats at every other position, you could do much worse than Weeks in the event that he starts.
HONORABLE MENTION: Mike Moustakas [3B], Marwin Gonzalez [1B/3B]
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