StrategyAugust 9, 2009

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Hot/Cold Week 19: Taking the Moral(es) Ground

By Ray Flores

Welcome back to another Hot/Cold, where unlike a fickle English summer day, it’s not too hot nor too cold, but it’s just not right either. Well, alright, it is right, because I’m back. First off, thanks to my Geordie pal, Chris, for filling in for me last week and he can revert back to the practice made famous in Newcastle, England about seeing a man about a dozen dogs. We’re in the thick of the dog days of Summer and it’s this stretch of the calendar year that I love most. Football (soccer) season is kicking off in Europe and last Saturday’s visit of FC Barcelona to L.A. has just whetted my appetite for the upcoming term. The funny thing about soccer season is there’s practically no difference between the preseason and offseason. (Oh yes, there’s the NFL and NCAA football seasons too.) In some years, the season ends on the last week of May and the preseason normally kicks off in mid-July and once you can sniff August, the new season is upon us.

As far as fantasy baseball goes, I’m personally relieved we’re roughly a month and a half from the regular season concluding. Yours truly is starting to see the light, with the trading deadline fast approaching in the majority of my leagues, and this week as well as next, I’ll try to look extra hard into my magic ball, as to which players you really want to have on board down the final third of the year.


Kendry Morales – Last 4 Weeks: 27/84 H/AB, 16 R, 9 HR, 26 RBI, 0 SB, .321 BA

It’s astounding to believe that the Angels have surged as one of the main players to wrestle home-field advantage for the playoffs with two of their best sluggers, Vladimir Guerrero and Torii Hunter, on the shelf for an extensive period of time. The Halos have benefited well from the heady hitting of Maicer Izturis and Erick Aybar, but the staying power in the Angels’ success has emanated from the bat of Kendry Morales, who has repaid the front office’s staunch faith in his skill set with 23 home runs in just 374 at-bats this year. At the beginning of the season, I would’ve said Kendry Morales was a Casey Kotchman-type who can spike up his home run total at some expense of his average. There were some initial doubts about him surpassing that 20-25 home run expectation because of his sub-par ISO in the minors in spite of hitting most of his games in a favorable ballpark. That said, the Cuban slugger was held back over his first few years with Kotchman. In general, Morales isn’t known to walk much but he excels in putting the ball in play and he’s managed a flyball rate in the 40% range in each of the last three years in spite of being a pedestrian line drive hitter.

John Lackey – Last 4 Weeks: 38.2 IP, 4 W, 30 K, 1.86 ERA, 0.85 WHIP

Another Halo who has earned his wings of late is John Lackey, who has really turned the corner since late June, in posting seven quality starts in his last eight outings, en route to a 2.47 ERA during this stretch. As you may recall, we determined that although Lackey was off kilter in the first eight starts of the year, his peripherals were quite stable, but his pitch selection was the main culprit for his early-season woes. We noticed that the Halos’ ace threw his slider much too often in accordance with his previous history (roughly 30 percent of the time) and that the usage of his curveball was about eight percent less than his norm. Since then, Lackey’s usage of his slider and curveball have normalized; “Big Bad John” has dialed in his slider 13.8 percent of the time (on par with the previous two seasons) and is throwing his curve at less than 27 percent. With a gradual return to his usually solid mechanics, Lackey has allowed just a .185 batting average and a 14 percent line drive rate in his last 58.1 innings. It’s also a welcome sight to see John Lackey’s fastball gain nearly a tick on average at 91.3 MPH while his outside swing percentage is still an improvement from last year, at 30.1 percent (a spike of about three percent). The buy-low window has well past, but Lackey could be a big-money starter down this last stretch and his price tag won’t be through the roof like this next guy…

Cliff Lee – Last 4 Weeks: 48.0 IP, 5 W, 37 K, 1.69 ERA, 0.88 WHIP

That sound of a cash register ringing was the sound of Cliff Lee, not Roy Halladay, making the move to a National League contender, and while he had enjoyed a fine follow-up season to last year’s Cy Young campaign, the move to Philadelphia boosts his stock even more. In switching leagues, one can expect an effect on Lee’s performance similar to the effect that a move to the more pitcher-friendly National League had on CC Sabathia; in his first two outings, Lee fanned 15 batters in his first 16 innings as a Phillie. For what it’s worth, Lee’s above-average outside swing percentage of 27.1 percent is still considerably down when compared to last year’s mark of 30.4 percent. A move to the National League inflated Sabathia’s outside swing percentage to career highs and likewise, an upward trend to last season’s 30 percent-ish mark is a good possibility for Lee (as well as a bit of a spike in strikeouts). The defending American League Cy Young winner has still sustained a paltry HR/FB rate of 5.3 percent with a 36.3 percent flyball rate to boot, which seemingly makes Lee’s homer-happy tendencies a thing of the past.


James Shields – Last 4 Weeks: 31.0 IP, 0 W, 17 K, 5.23 ERA, 1.42 WHIP

It’s something of a cardinal sin to take a shine on pitchers who are likely to pick up wins because of the teams they play for, but rather it’s better to find innings eaters who are a virtual shoo-in to toss 200-210 innings at the least who can post svelte ratios and are likely to be in contention to be rewarded with a victory. James Shields may be a workhorse starter, who is on pace for 220-plus innings, but has suffered inconsistency in those innings and for what it’s worth, he has just six wins to his name in early August. Known as a master of the WHIP the last two seasons, the 27-year-old hurler has tossed a shocking 1.30 WHIP for the season, which is simply not sufficient for a #1-2 starter on a number of fantasy teams this year. Shields’ inconsistency can be due in part to two reasons: an increased line drive rate and a suspect away split. The latter isn’t the most pressing concern with Shields, given that he has reduced his road ERA (albeit on a marginal basis) from 4.82 last year to a 4.41 mark. What’s more telling is Shields’ line drive rate this year is at roughly 19 percent, nearly three percentage points higher to the previous two hallmark seasons. In only four of his last 11 outings has Shields allowed under a hit per inning and in his last three starts in particular, the Rays’ starter has allowed 10 walks in his last 19.1 innings. Shields can turn things around if he can keep his curveball usage to a more tolerable minimum, but in the meantime, he hasn’t lived up to the “Big Game James” nickname some were quick to attach him with (much to this Lakers fan’s chagrin).

Yovani Gallardo – Last 4 Weeks: 30.2 IP, 2 W, 34 K, 5.87 ERA, 1.53 WHIP

Almost a month ago, yours truly recommended shopping Yovani Gallardo for the kind of price tag dangled above a top ten starter’s head. Since then, the Brewers’ young ace has been decent at best, keeping in mind that the inflated ratios are mainly attributed to him being tagged for nine runs in the Dodgers’ 17-4 rout of the Brewers last Tuesday. For his latest run-in with inefficiency (15 walks in last 30.2 innings), Gallardo has still yielded a healthy K/9 and the window can still be open to obtain more than decent value out of Gallardo. One cannot rule out the possibility of Gallardo tiring down the stretch, especially when he’s a season removed from tossing a mere 24 innings. Sell if you can, but remain as selective as possible.

Aubrey Huff – Last 4 Weeks: 22/91 H/AB, 10 R, 1 HR, 12 RBI, 0 SB, .242 BA

If and when the notorious “Aubrey Huff, Why won’t you hit a Ding Dong” thread is stone cold quiet, that’s an immediate signal that the O’s first baseman is in desperate need of a slump buster, in a “What would you do for a Klondike Bar” way. Over the past two months, Huff has skimped on the ding dongs with only four round trippers in that time span. Huff has pounded the pavement with a 47.2 percent groundball rate, almost seven points higher than last season’s mark when he knocked in 32 home runs. For what it’s worth, Huff’s best month tends to be August (.324 lifetime, 54 HRs), but unless he can get into a groove in lofting more flyballs, it’ll be a while until the ding-dong bell rings.

Buy Low of the Week

David Price – Last 4 Weeks: 28.0 IP, 3 W, 22 K, 4.50 ERA, 1.39 WHIP

I’m gearing this week’s buy low tip for those owners in keeper and dynasty leagues, especially those who are in rebuilding mode, and perhaps there’s no better time to take advantage of David Price’s struggles taking to the fore. Aside from strikeouts, Price might not be a useful asset in other areas, but it’s noteworthy that the Rays’ talented hurler has settled in with just five free passes in his last 28 innings. Consider the recent inroads in Price’s commands as baby steps towards future success and if he can be less predictable in the way he mixes up his offerings, Price can be a wild card to make a positive impact on your team’s stretch run.

Three I’m Buying

Elijah Dukes – Sent down because of his atrocious plate discipline, Elijah Dukes is back up with the “Natinals” after a month in the minors. Dukes walked just 21 times in his first 211 plate appearances this season, but in Triple-A, the mercurial centerfielder took nine free passes in 80 plate appearances while smashing three home runs in 68 at-bats and swiping five stolen bases in six attempts. So far, Dukes has shown the willingness to take the walk, with three walks in 31 plate appearances since being recalled. Owned in just 18 percent of Yahoo leagues, Dukes’ upside warrants a flier.

Nick Markakis – There isn’t much to be left to the imagination for the kind of season that Nick Markakis is having: a steady season, but a year that otherwise lacks that “wow” factor. Lest we forget, Markakis tends to be a second-half hitter, with August being his most productive month considering the 20 home runs and .334 lifetime average he’s accrued in his previous three years. “Nick the Stick” has lofted a career-high 39.6 percent flyball percentage this season albeit at a relatively low 8.6 percent HR/FB rate, which can indicate a power spike is on its way; just two seasons ago, Markakis hit 13 home runs in August and September of 2007. A few weeks back, Markakis was traded for Yovani Gallardo in one of my leagues, which would stand out as the ideal buy/sell combination, in my humble opinion.

Evan Longoria – Struggling with a right ring finger infection last month, the former Long Beach State standout batted .189 with five home runs. Although Evan Longoria seems to have those stretches where he’s either going yard or going down on strikes, he has cut down on his strikeouts by nearly two-and-a-half percent and clubbed a 45.3 percent flyball rate. If you’re looking for a power boost down the stretch, especially in H2H leagues, Longoria can be the ticket and besides, yours truly has a raw hunch that he’ll go on one good surge.

Sell High of the Week

J.A. Happ – Last 4 Weeks: 35.0 IP, 3 W, 29 K, 2.06 ERA, 0.94 WHIP

Since being promoted into the Phillies’ starting rotation, J.A. Happ has been quite the revelation, notably in the most recent month-plus stretch, which began with an impressive five-hit complete game shutout of the Blue Jays in the final week of June up until his last gem, a four-hit complete game shutout of the Rockies. Happ surely has the look of a diamond in the rough, but there are a few things to point at to believe that he’ll eventually walk off those happy trails. For one thing, Happ’s stuff doesn’t necessarily amaze, as he is drawing an outside swing percentage of 20.7 percent, nearly five points below the league average, but what he does well is jamming hitters into making contact outside of the zone for a 70.4 percent outside contact rate. Happ has remained as an extreme flyball pitcher, as 46.3 percent of balls in play were flyballs, in spite of keeping his HR/FB ratio under wraps with a solid 7.9 percent HR/FB ratio. While Happ’s control has been quite steady (2.90 BB/9), he is sporting a BABIP which is 50 points below league average and a gaudy strand rate of 84.3 percent. Our Cafe rankings aren’t quite keen on Happ, as he’s only cracked the top 50 starters just this past week, but if you can sell Happ to someone as the next budding under-the-radar ace, more power to you. That said, Happ’s recent performances make him a valuable throw-in in any of your offers.

Three I’m Selling

Max Scherzer – It’s to no surprise of mine that Clayton Kershaw has the highest P/PA (pitches per plate appearance) among all starting pitchers (with a cutoff minimum of 80 innings) and if not for the fine Dodger bullpen, I’d be more concerned that he and Chad Billingsley rank in the top 15 starters in P/PA. Among the top five in P/PA is Diamondbacks hurler Max Scherzer, who throws on average, 4.17 pitches per plate appearance and besides Russ Ortiz, Scott Kazmir, and Manny Parra, no one throws more pitches on average per inning than Max Scherzer (18.2 P/IP). It should be no wonder as to why “Mad Max” has only gone past six innings thrice in 21 outings this season. Because his name value is associated with a high strikeout count and upside, the perception of Scherzer to certain managers could be more favorable than his stats (or relative inefficiency) would otherwise indicate.

Russell Branyan – Arguably the best discounted power source this year, Russell Branyan has responded well to his first full-time gig for quite some time, as he’s on the verge of a 30-35 home run season. The power has been steady, but the average has started to plummet for the Mariners’ first-bagger, who happens to be a .234 career hitter. Without much to offer in terms of upside, save for the power at the expense of the strikeout and a lackluster average, now would be an opportune time to ship Branyan off to a manager who’s strapped for home runs and ribbies.

Chipper Jones – It could be tricky to sell Larry for a premium by the strength of his name value, but he can still command a more than useful piece for your squad. In a little over two weeks, Chipper Jones has smacked five home runs for a .294 average, which could boost the injury-prone third baseman’s stock a bit. If you happen to have hopes that Chipper can sustain a nice little spurt, he’s hitting a meager ISO of .195, the lowest it has been since 1997. Without the extremely elevated BABIP he has carried over the previous three seasons, Chipper’s value from his year-to-date production is uninspiring, but the prolific 37-year-old slugger has enough name value to net a lucrative package in return. In fact in our Cafe rankings, Russell Branyan is deemed to be three spots lower than the old Chipper off the old block.

That just about wraps it up for this week. Check back for another Hot/Cold and it’s a special deadline day edition, the final Sunday we’ll be throwing in buy/sell tips for the season. Until then, be champions.

True to his name as The Artful Dodger, Ray Flores is a proud Dodger fan, who tips his cap to the late Sir Bobby Robson, a true legend and ambassador for football (that game actually played with feet). While being artful doesn't best describe him, Ray is a web developer, a part-time fantasy football blogger (erm, yes, once again, the game actually played with feet), and "Chief Wikitect" of the Cafe's Fantasy Sports Wiki project.
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