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Circling the Bases: Kelly Johnson and Ricky Nolasco

Ray Flowers

Ray Flowers

The co-host of The Drive on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio (Sirius 210, XM 87: M-F at 5-8 PM EDT), Ray Flowers has spent years squirreled away studying the inner workings of the fantasy game to the detriment of his personal life. You can follow Ray on Twitter (@BaseballGuys), he never sleeps, and you can also find more of his musings at BaseballGuys.com.

BREAKING DOWN: Kelly Johnson
.215-12-31-38-8 in 261 at-bats

Is Kelly Johnson the Mark Reynolds of second basemen? After all, Johnson is on pace to club a career best 27 homers while knocking in 69 runs, all the while struggling to keep his batting average above the Mendoza line. What gives with Johnson who, by the way, is still on pace to score 85 times while stealing 18 bags?

In three of the past four seasons Johnson has been an elite performer at second base. Just take a look at his 5x5 performances from 2007-2010.

2007: .276-16-68-91-9
2008: .287-12-69-86-11
2009: .224-8-29-47-7
2010: .284-26-71-93-13

What the hell happened in 2009? Let's just put it this way – he was horrible and even spent some time in the minors (injuries didn't help things either). However, he bounced back with a career best effort last season. Though most felt that Johnson would not be able to repeat his overall performance from last year, no one predicted the collapse in batting average, even with that sickly .224 mark in 2009 on his ledger. So what's gone wrong this season? A few things.

(1) Johnson has seen his big league average BB/K mark of 0.52 take a significant dip down to 0.30. Why is that? How about because he is literally striking out in a third of his at-bats this season (his career K-rate is about one on four at-bats at 23.7 percent). It's pretty darn tough to hit in the .280s if you are giving away a third of your at-bats.

(2) In addition to the Ks, Johnson is also limping along with a BABIP mark of .270, well below his career rate of .314. If he is going to be giving up so many at-bats without making contact, he's going to need to at least match his career BABIP mark if that average is to get up to where it rightly should be. It's not that his BABIP isn't a “fair” representation of his current performance, he's only posted a line drive rate of 15.5 percent, but the guy does own a career mark of 20.9 and has never finished a season with a mark below 17.9 percent, so one could assume with a reasonable degree of certainty that things will improve.

And that's really it folks. Johnson needs to make better contact and see his career rates return if he is going to bring that batting average back up. When I say “that's really it” that is exactly what I mean. Don't forget what I wrote at the start. Johnson is on pace to hit 27 homers with 69 RBI, 85 runs and 18 steals. Those are simply fantastic numbers from a second baseman – totals that not a single second sacker was able to match in 2010. If he can even get his average back up to his career .264 level, he's going to be a wonderful play up the middle.

BREAKING DOWN: Ricky Nolasco
4-3, 4.48 ERA, 73 Ks, 1.41 WHIP in 94.1 innings

Vexing is the perfect word to describe Nolasco. His skills remain top notch, yet somehow the fantasy production never seems to show up. There may not be a more confounding hurler in the league to roster. You look at the numbers and there just doesn't seem to be any way that he wouldn't be a top-25 fantasy hurler, yet somehow by the end of the year he rarely is. Consider the data points.

Since 2008, here is how Nolasco ranks amongst all pitchers who have thrown at least 500-innings.

11.27 base runners per nine innings. That's the 22nd best mark in baseball.

8.33 strikeouts per nine innings. That's the 13th best mark in baseball.

1.95 walks per nine innings. That's the 6th best mark in baseball.

4.26 K/BB. That's the 4th best mark in baseball.

Despite all of that terrific work, it should also be pointed out that Nolasco is also 56th in ERA at 4.34, worse than guys like John Garland (4.14) and Joe Saunders (4.20).

Further proof of the oddity follows. Over the last three calendar years Nolasco is fifth in baseball in xFIP at 3.23 behind only Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum, Dan Haren and Zack Greinke. So how is it possible that his ERA in that time is 4.34, 47th best in baseball?

I still say you hold on to Nolasco or you buy low if you can even though his last five starts have seen him allow 24 runs to balloon his ERA almost a run and a half (it was 3.04). The full batter drop in his K-rate (6.96) is also a concern, but there is no way he is going to continue to allow line drives at a 27.1 percent mark, so perhaps in the end it will even out.

But Ray, what gives with Nolasco?

Honestly, I don't have an answer. Normally I would say something like 'expect a regression to come given the skills that he possesses.' Do I say that – again – with Nolasco? I mean it's been three years since we say the “real” Nolasco (in 2008 he won 15 games with a 3.52 ERA and 1.10 WHIP). I'd say that Nolasco's skills say that he is closer to being the 2008 pitcher than the guy we've seen with a 4.74 ERA and 1.30 WHIP over his last 72 starts. But we're talking about 72 starts here. Not two, not 12, not even 22, but 72. Is it possible that Nolasco is simply the anomaly that defies explanation much like Jose Bautista is at the other end of the spectrum? With each passing start it's beginning to look more and more like he is that unexplained outlier.

WHO AM I?

I have a better ERA than Matt Latos (4.06), Yovani Gallardo (4.11), Ricky Nolasco (4.48), Chad Billingsley (4.65) and Ubaldo Jimenez (4.68).

I have a better WHIP than Jordan Zimmerman (1.12), Cliff Lee (1.14), Matt Cain (1.14) and Tim Lincecum (1.22).

I have more wins than Bartolo Colon, Scott Baker, Wandy Rodriguez, Hiroki Kuroda and Lincecum --- all who have five.

I have thrown at least 185 innings in nine of the last 11 seasons. Only two men in the game can better that run, and they each have 10 such seasons (I'll tell you who they are below).

I've won at least 11 games in 10 of the past 11 seasons. Only two other men can match that – CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte.

I have the fifth best ERA in baseball the last 11 years (minimum of 1,500 innings). The only pitchers with better marks than my 3.43 ERA are Johan Santana (3.10), Roy Oswalt (3.18), Roy Halladay (3.29) and Randy Johnson (3.34).

BY THE NUMBERS

.325: The batting average in 83 at-bats for Juan Rivera when he is playing first base this season. He also had three homers, 13 RBI and 12 runs scored during that time. In his other 137 at-bats he is batting just .204 with two homers and 11 RBI. Anyone in Toronto paying attention? For his career Rivera has hit .268 as a first baseman (127 ABs), .268 as a left fielder (1,470 ABs), .403 as a center fielder (129 ABs), .287 as a right fielder (762 ABs) and .267 as the DH (359 ABs).

0.85: The WHIP of Justin Verlander through 16 starts. Since the majors went to divisional play in 1969 there have only been two men who have posted a WHIP of 0.90 or better in a season in which they made 15 or more starts. You might have heard of them. Greg Maddux pulled off the trick in 1994 and 1995 (0.90 and 0.81) while Pedro Martinez set the single season record in 2000 (0.74).

3: The number of seasons, if he keeps up his current pace, that Johnny Cueto will see his K/9 rate, BB/9, HR/9 and his BAA will go down.

K/9: 8.17, 6.93, 6.69 and 6.04
BB/9: 3,52, 3,20, 2.71 and 2.52
HR/9: 1.50, 1.26, 0.92 and 0.50
BAA: .264, .262, .257 and .207

3.39: The ERA of Yankees' ace CC Sabathia. Why is that significant? How about because it would be his worst mark since 2005. Here are his ERA marks the past five years: 3.22, 3.21, 2.70, .3.37 and 3.18. His current WHIP is also a solid 1.24, but that too would be his worst mark since 2005 (1.17, 1.14, 1.11, 1.15 and 1.19).

10.64: The worst single season ERA in the history of baseball (minimum 50 innings pitched). If you don't know who it is you'll likely be floored to learn that the answer is the best pitcher in baseball – Roy Halladay. Not only does Halladay own a career mark of 3.29 while currently working on a fourth straight season under 2.80 (he's currently at 2.56), if you add together his yearly ERA since 2008 you end up with a mark of 10.57, slightly below his mark from the 2000 campaign.

14: The length of the hitting streak of David Ortiz in his last 14 games played at Fenway. Ortiz has one fewer RBI, 13, than games played in the hit streak while he has hit .491. That's only part of his success this year of course, since he has 17 homers, 48 RBI, 47 runs and a .323 batting average. He's also currently sporting a 1.006 OPS, the 7th best mark in baseball. For a guy who hasn't even reach .900 the past three years, that's pretty darn impressive.

24: The average number of homers for Wily Mo Pena, per 500 at-bats, during his big league career. Pena, who has 77 homers in 1,590 career at-bats, last saw work in the bigs in 2008. However, he was just called up by the Diamondbacks to be used during interleague play because he was flat out demolishing hurlers in the minors. In a mere 237 at-bats at Triple-A Pena had bashed 21 homers while knocking in 63 runs. Pena also scored 52 times and was batting .363, numbers that would easily win him minor league player of the year if he could keep them up.

I AM...

I'm the Braves Tim Hudson.

The two arms who've tossed at least 185 innings in 10 of the last 11 seasons are Mark Buehrle and Javier Vazquez.

Ray Flowers can be heard daily on Sirius/XM Radio on The Fantasy Drive, 5-8 PM Eastern, on Sirius 210 and XM 87. Ray's baseball analysis can be found at BaseballGuys.com and his minute to minute musings can be located at the BaseballGuys' Twitter account.