StrategyJune 14, 2009


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Hot/Cold Week 11: The Sox’s Lester Fox

By Ray Flores

Welcome to another episode of Hot/Cold! This week, my shoulder and back are feeling Hot/Cold with a bit of Icy/Hot applied to them, but overall they’re still sore. Seriously. I normally make quick recoveries from serious injuries, but chronic neck and shoulder stiffness has been my bane in the past. After finally getting through that old struggle, it’s annoying to find myself uncharacteristically sore after my usual Saturday morning pickup basketball game at the gym. Feel’s like I’ve fired 200 jump shots — which would be a normal day at the office for Kobe Bryant. I estimate my current suffering to be similar to that felt by anyone unlucky enough to hear me doing my best Shoaib Akhtar impression. Thankfully, I don’t think anything is torn or strained, it’s just unbelievably sore — I’m sure it’ll be gone after a couple of days. Consider me day-to-day. Anyway, today we’ll be talking about Dallas, Huston, and San Francisco Liriano in this week’s Icy/Hot-inspired Hot/Cold.

Hot

Jon Lester – Last 2 Weeks: 22.0 IP, 2 W, 34 K, 1.23 ERA, 0.64 WHIP

It’s safe to say the ship has sailed as far as a buy-low window on Jon Lester goes. Over the past three starts, Lester has surrendered just three runs in 22 innings, striking out 34 batters — all without offering up a single home run. Aside from the anomaly of allowing ten flyballs in a complete game victory over Texas, Lester has maintained his knack of keeping the ball on the ground and limiting the line drives. The Red Sox lefty ace was bound to emerge from the bad luck that plagued him in previous outings, as his FIP remains less than a full run from his ERA to date (3.59 FIP to 4.76 ERA), and his groundball tendencies remain relatively strong (44.4% GB). Lester’s fastball velocity is still consistently clocked in the mid-90’s (average velocity of 93.2 MPH), and his key pitch, the cut fastball, is also up a touch in velocity, indicating he can sustain a very healthy strikeout rate. (If you’re wondering about the title, it’s a play on words associated with Leicester City Football Club, who are nicknamed “The Foxes”).

Ian Stewart – Last 2 Weeks: 15/49 H/AB, 13 R, 5 HR, 13 RBI, 1 SB, .303 BA

Ian Stewart has had to jump a few hurdles (no pun intended) during his quest for consistent playing time, and over the past two weeks he has rewarded interim Rockies manager Jim Tracy’s vote of confidence with five home runs and batting average just over .300 (lifting his season average to the .224 mark). Though he has shown a healthy BABIP in the bigs thus far in his career, Stewart’s extremely low BABIP (.237) recently could be an indication that he’s trying to stamp out his bad luck once and for all. Another reason to be bullish on Stewart is his improved plate discipline. He’s shaved more than five percent off last season’s strikeout rate (35.3% K in 2008 to 30.1% K in 2009) while also becoming more selective at the plate, reducing his outide swing percentage by six points (28.5% O-Swing in 2008 to 22.5% in 2009). During this current streak, Stewart has been trading line drives (12.8% LD) for more flyballs (51.4%), which could explain the career-high 21.4 percent HR/FB ratio. Even if his home run binge is destined to come down to earth, the inroads he’s made in being more selective should up his average as well as his line drive rate. Playing time shouldn’t be a pressing issue with underperforming Garrett Atkins mostly relegated to the bench by new manager Jim Tracy, which makes Stewart a highly recommended pickup — especially considering his dual eligibility at scarce 2B and 3B positions.

Adam Lind – Last Two Weeks: 20/48 H/AB, 10 R, 5 HR, 9 RBI, 1 SB, .417 BA

Shaking off a bit of a mini-slump, Adam Lind has been swinging a scorching bat lately. He has posted a .415 June batting average, highlited by a 5-for-5 game against the Angels and an excellent road series at Texas which included three home runs. The explanation for Lind’s fantastic season to date is quite simple: He is taking a lot more walks (a respectable 8.8% BB in 2009 from a paltry 4.4% BB in 2008), he has slashed his outside swing percentage by about seven percent (27.1% O-Swing in 2009 from 34% O-Swing in 2008), and is obviously seeing the ball exceptionally well, drilling a 24 percent line drive rate (a major factor in his total of 22 doubles). Lastly, Lind has markedly improved against lefties from his previous two seasons, averaging a more-than-respectable .323, eclipsing his 2008 mark of .253 and a sub-Mendoza Line performance in 2007. All things considered, Lind’s improvement can be attributed to factors that have been within his control, and while a 30 home run campaign might be a bit of a stretch, he is well on his way to a fine breakthrough season. We consider Adam Lind to be essentially a cheap version of Andre Ethier.

Andre Ethier – Last Two Weeks: 15/42 H/AB, 7 R, 5 HR, 8 RBI, 0 SB, .357 BA

Speaking of Ethier, he snapped out of a funk in a big way during last weekend’s series against the Phillies — coming through in the clutch with a walkoff two-run double in the opening game and two homers the following day, one of which was also a walkoff game-winner in extra innings. Ethier then proceeded to whack another two long-balls against the Padres last Tuesday to extend his June hitting streak — though that was snapped last Friday in an eyebrow-raising shutout loss to the Rangers. It took nearly a month for Ethier to make good on my buy low recommendation, but with the calendar dragging slowly towards Manny Ramirez’s return, Ethier rediscovered his stroke just as the vacuum left by Manny’s suspension threatened to suck the entire Dodgers offense down into darkness. Ethier has been lofting the ball in the air a good deal more (43.8% FB), yet maintaining a fairly good line drive rate of 19.1 percent — an encouraging trend which will help see the Dodgers through to Manny’s return, and possibly well beyond.

Cold

John Lackey – Last 4 Weeks: 31.1 IP, 1 W, 18 K, 6.61 ERA, 1.60 WHIP

To no real surprise, John Lackey has been sluggish (to say the least) since his return from the DL. However, last season’s shocking midseason fall-off (Lackey’s ERA ballooned to around 5.00 in the second half) could compound concerns about Lackey’s long-term effectiveness. Thus far, his line this year is in accordance with what he’s done in the past — in fact it’s arguably better, as he has yielded a groundball rate of 50 percent while holding his flyball rate to a scant 30.6 percent (albeit on a 12.1% HR/FB rate). There aren’t any big fluctuations in the way batters have hit him, even tending to swing at more pitcher’s pitches (64.3% outside contact rate). So what’s wrong with Lackey if all his rates seem stable enough across the board? There is one thing that jumps out at the seasoned observer: He has thrown his slider more than 30 percent of the time, a pitch which is clocking about two ticks slower than last year. Lackey may lack confidence in his curveball, since he’s gone to it less than eight percent of the time (norm is in the low-20’s). He has also strayed away from the changeup again, which on average has been three ticks faster than last year at almost 86 MPH. It’s probable that once Lackey becomes either more comfortable or fixes some nagging flaw in his mechanics, he will improve upon a lackluster 5.17 K/9.

Ervin Santana – Last 4 Weeks: 31.1 IP, 1 W, 21 K, 7.47 ERA, 1.85 WHIP

Lackey’s rotation mate, Ervin Santana, has also not fared well since his visit to the DL. Outside of a brilliant win during a near-complete-game duel with Justin Verlander’s Tigers, Ervin has proven to be hittable (yielding a 26.1 percent line drive rate). Santana is gradually building up his arm strength and regaining his timing, a readjusment period during which his offerings have dipped in velocity, especially his fastball (down to to 90.6 MPH from his baseline of about 94-95 MPH). Accordingly, location is of greater importance to Ervin, and he’s counting on pitching to the corners of the strike zone and the sudden-dip movement of his slider to generate swinging strikes.

Jayson Werth – Last 4 Weeks: 22/109 H/AB, 12 R, 2 HR, 7 RBI, 3 SB, .202 BA

Since May 19, Jayson Werth has been mired in a terrible drought, batting a paltry .189 with only one home run, four RBI, and a pair of stolen bases to show for it. Werth has continued his whiff-happy tendencies, with a strikeout rate just under 26 percent (albeit an improvement from last year’s rate of 28.5 percent), and an outside swing percentage on par with that of last season. The surprising thing we point out this week is Werth’s poor home splits — he’s hitting just .191 with a pair of home runs at cozy Citizens Bank Park. He has, however, packed the lumber on the road (a decent .295 average, six home runs, and 21 RBI). Werth’s success last year wasn’t dependent on the venue, since his home and road numbers were about the same, with a slight edge going to his road stats. It’s probably safe to expect better future success at home, and for Jayson to come up big against lefties as usual. As a matter of fact, Werth had a fantastic Saturday night outing, going 3-for-4 with a solo home run against the Red Sox.

Miguel Cabrera – Last 2 Weeks: 6/38 H/AB, 4 R, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 0 SB, .158 BA

Bothered by a sore left hamstring, Miguel Cabrera has also joined the ranks of those laboring at the plate. He finally snapped his dinger drought last Wednesday with a game-winning home run against the White Sox. M-Cab’s blistering hot early season pace has dissipated somewhat, but he’s still slugging a .327 average on the year. He has managed to cut down on the strikeouts in a big way (down to 14.7 percent), although his outside swing percentage still remains awfully high at 32.3 percent. If he lays off a few more pitcher’s pitches, he’ll lower that 48.6 percent groundball rate and up his power numbers.

Buy Low of the Week

Francisco Liriano – Last 2 Weeks: 16.0 IP, 0 W, 15 K, 4.50 ERA, 1.50 WHIP

In recommending Gil Meche, John Danks, and Ubaldo Jimenez as trade targets the past few weeks, my prescient streak benefitted many a Hot/Cold reader. Why, even Ricky Nolasco had a solid showing last time out against Toronto. Let’s see if this carries over to this week’s assessmnet of Francisco Liriano, who has crawled past the last couple of starts with just lukewarm results. The easy thing to pinpoint when it comes to Liriano’s troubles is his pitch inefficiency. In his past couple of outings, Liriano has gone six innings and hovered near the 100 pitch mark in each of them. In the three games prior to that stretch, he had gone only four innings in each contest, and also lived in the energy-sapping 84 to 93 pitch neighborhood. Liriano carries a BB/9 of 4.33, but the disparity between last season (where he handed out 32 free passes in 76 innings for a 3.79 BB/9) and his current 34 walks in 70.2 innings is actually a tad smaller than suggested on paper. Liriano’s batted ball rates are on par with last season, save for a higher HR/FB conversion rate (11.8%), and he is throwing a higher percentage of first-pitch strikes this year (an uptick of just under five percent). His outside swing percentage is consistent with previous seasons. If Liriano can harness better control of his offerings (all of which have gained a tick or two in velocity), he has good odds of improving his efficiency and perhaps his solid 7.9 K/9 rate.

Three I’m Buying

Dallas Braden – Perhaps “Diamond Dallas” is shouting from your league’s waiver wire, “Yo, it’s me, it’s me, it’s D-D-B!” — and no, the “B” is not a typo for you nostalgic Diamond Dallas Page and World Championship Wrestling boosters. Braden was profiled in yesterday’s Double Dipper as a lucrative two-start pitcher for the upcoming week, but he’s surely worth having on your roster as a back-end starter who’s making a habit of churning out quality starts. Where Braden excels over other waiver wire spot starters is his stinginess when it comes to walks. He’s making good on the solid command he promised as a prospect, with a mere 2.44 walks for every nine innings. While not exactly a top strikeout pitcher, over the past month “DDB” has struck out 27 batters in 39 innings, possibly due to his recent addition of a cut fastball (we might as well call it a Diamond Cutter to keep up with the DDP comparison). Also, Braden’s FIP stands at a 3.53 mark, which should indicate that any backslide in performance shouldn’t be a terribly serious one. Definitely a recommended addition beyond this two-start week.

Cole Hamels – The Phillies’ lone ace has performed in solid fashion to little fanfare, and two recent temporary lapses against the Nationals and Mets should keep his value fairly honest. Hamels’ average velocity is a bit down from usual, but he’s still upped his K/9 from the previous season’s 7.76 to a K/9 of 8.09 — foreshadowing a better surge while giving up just 12 walks in 62.1 innings to date. Hamels’ line drive rate is higher than usual at a touch under 26 percent, but that should go down as long as his health and effectiveness remain good.

Hanley Ramirez – Any time you have a first-rounder hitting for a .328 batting average, it’s an indication of a young star living up to his hefty price tag. That said, when it comes to Hanley Ramirez and his relatively drab April and June in the power department, many may have begun to doubt. The Marlins shortstop is stuck on eight home runs, and hasn’t gone “yard” since May 22 against the Rays. Nagging injuries have held Hanley in check of late, and while he has struck out less in comparison to last year (17.8% K in 2009 from 20.7% K in 2008), he’s also been swinging a bit more at pitches out of the strike zone. Curiously, Hanley has a very robust 22.5 percent line drive rate, and a flyball rate back in the low 40 percent range, yet only 10.5 percent of those flyballs have converted into home runs. At this pace, Hanley is headed for a 25/25 season, which is fairly disappointing given his past two tantalizing seasons. Chasing Hanley will likely cost a good deal in your league, but he might not be going for the customary arm-and-a-leg that, say, Albert Pujols would command. In short, Hanley shouldn’t come cheap in trades, but we think it’s worth shooting for a deal before he picks up the pace.

Sell High of the Week

Huston Street – Last 4 Weeks: 12.2 IP, 1 W, 8 SV, 16 K, 1.42 ERA, 0.79 WHIP

Quietly restoring a sense of calm in the back end of the Rockies’ bullpen, Street has mastered a mechanical flaw, and since late April has trimmed his ERA on the year to 3.12. His WHIP has been just as good as during his Oakland heyday, maintaining a 1.08 in this category. Peering further into Street’s numbers, it seems he has benefited from a bit of luck, as his FIP stands at 4.20 with a strand rate under 86 percent. So far, Street has surrendered five home runs in 26 innings of work, almost on par with a career-high home run total set last year: Six (albeit in 70 innings). The Rockies’ stopper has allowed opponents to tee off 45.5 percent of his pitches for flyballs in play, while his infield flyball percentage is on a career-low pace of 6.7 percent. Make what you will of Street’s numbers, but we think he’s a guy you should consider trading away while his value is still above-average.

Three I’m Selling

Kevin Millwood – As is my personal credo, two starts won’t likely make believers of managers, but perhaps two months (actually a little over that) might. Kevin Millwood screams sell-high to us. He is sitting on an incredibly high strand rate (a bit under 86 percent), and his FIP is two runs higher than his ERA to date (4.71 FIP to 2.72 ERA). It appears Millwood has had a bit more success with more frequent usage of his slider, but he is also getting great defensive support to bail him out of high-pressure situations. The challenge in moving Millwood in your league will be his record of past mediocrity — expect many to be skeptical of his excellent start. The best way to trade Millwood is to package him with other viable players. This should yield some upgrades to your team.

Raul Ibanez – At the other end of the spectrum, it’ll be easier to move Ibanez than Millwood, due to his solid and steady production year to year. The trick is to move him for greater value, based on his current pace of production. According to Fangraphs’ updated ZiPS as of this writing, Ibanez is pegged for 106 runs, 39 HR, 129 RBI, 5 SB, and a .306 BA, which puts him on par with Ryan Braun’s projected performance. Ibanez hasn’t done anything extraordinary in his batted ball rates, except for the 23.5 percent HR/FB ratio on a 40-plus flyball rate percentage, which he’s maintained over the past two seasons. However, one value bonus Ibanez offers is his career year (back in 2006), when he slugged 33 home runs as a Seattle Mariner. Those numbers could bolster your case when persuading another manager to take him for a premium — as a kicker, throw in the fact that he’s slugged 13 of his 22 home runs away from Citizens Bank Park. The information best kept to yourself is where Ibanez hit a good chunk of those road home runs: Coors Field, Nationals Park, the Great American Ballpark, and Yankee Stadium, hitter’s launch pads all (OK, maybe not Nationals Park). Also it’s worth noting (quietly, to yourself) that six of Ibanez’s 22 home runs came against Washington pitching. Ibanez has homered twice at Petco Park and at Citi Field this season, but bear in mind the two home run game at Petco was during a day game, when the prevailing sea breezes haven’t yet kicked in to knock down those long flyballs, as is the norm during evening games. In short, there may be cautious owners who will balk at Ibanez’s age and rumors of him taking some performance enhancements, but there are also owners who buy into ballpark and lineup protection factors to a greater degree than they should. The latter group are likely to overvalue Ibanez for the numbers he’s put on paper.

Adrian Gonzalez – It took over two months for MLB managers to figure out that not pitching to Adrian Gonzalez greatly increases their teams’ chances of beating the Padres. Excepting his last two games, Gonzalez has sailed through an immaculate streak of multiple walks in June. “A-Gon” has walked 19 times this month — good thing too, since he’s also been limited to just a pair of home runs, a measly three RBI, and a batting average below the Mendoza Line. Gonzalez is on pace for a 45 home run season, but with opposing teams pitching around him, the prospect of topping 40 home runs might prove to be unrealistic. Still, you should be selective in shopping Gonzalez around: demand a second-round quality player at the least in a straight trade. If you feel confident in putting together a package deal that will net you a first rounder going forward, then all means go for it.

That’s all I have for now. Check back next Sunday for another Hot/Cold when my shoulder and back are bound to be less sore (thank heavens for Icy/Hot). Until then, be champions.

 
True to his name as The Artful Dodger, Ray Flores is a disgruntled Dodger fan, who is revered as a legend in his high school baseball playing days. Not only did Ray hit three home runs in a game, he scored a century in that game. As a result, PECOTA didn't just compare Ray to Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio, it also compared him to Jack Hobbs and Sir Donald Bradman. While being artful doesn't best describe him, Ray is a web developer, a part-time fantasy football blogger (the game actually played with feet), and "Chief Wikitect" of the Cafe's Fantasy Sports Wiki project.
 
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