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Behind the Numbers: Answering the Mailbag

David Regan

David Regan

David Regan is a five-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner, and was named the 2010 Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year.

On Mondays, I answer the baseball questions in the Ask An Expert section section of the website. Most involve questions around whether a particular trade should be made, which player to pick up off the waiver wire, or when a particular prospect is going to get called up. Here are a few other common themes I've either seen in the queue recently or that have simply been on my mind.

Is Clayton Kershaw now the second best starter ... on his own team?

We'll try not to overreact to one terrible start against Arizona, as here are a few numbers on Kershaw so far this year:

11.3 K/9
1.2 BB/9
.419 BABIP
1.91 xFIP

That's the Kershaw of the last three years, if not better. He's also averaging 92.9 mph with his fastball, which is right in line with prior years. The concern though stems from Kershaw's last start in which he surrendered seven runs while retiring just five batters. Three of those five came via the strikeout, but it was still an ugly day, and coming off the back injury, I've seen owners making panic deals. According to FanGraphs, Kershaw averaged 93.3 mph with his fastball in the game, but Paul Goldschmidt and company were simply dialed in. I'm not so sure you can "buy low" on Kershaw right now, but this is why you don't draft a pitcher in the top three of any draft, no matter how he's done in recent years.



Meanwhile, Zack Greinke is pitching like a guy who will be competitive for his second career Cy Young, though it would be easy to make arguments for Adam Wainwright and Johnny Cueto. Greinke is 6-1 with a 2.03 ERA, 10.3 K/9, and 2.0 BB/9. Greinke though has tossed just 53.1 innings in nine starts for an average a shade under six innings. To be fair, one of those starts was impacted by rain, but Greinke has gone more than seven innings just once all year, while a guy like Cueto for example is averaging eight innings per start with a 1.25 ERA. Either way, Greinke and Kershaw are still one of the top 1-2 punches in the game, and if you're worried about Kershaw, don't (barring another poor start this week).

When can we expect Gregory Polanco in the big leagues and how will he do?

Soon and well.

Pittsburgh right fielders (primarily Jose Tabata and Travis Snider) are batting a collective .249/.309/.341 with two home runs (both Snider) through 43 games. Polanco meanwhile is batting .382/.444/.612 for Triple-A Indianapolis, including five home runs and 10 stolen bases. He's also hitting .500 in his last eight games, so he's obviously hot. Simply, if the Pirates want to upgrade the position now, they call up Polanco. If the focus is more on Super-Two arbitration status, they call him up in the first part of June. He's walking in 9.5 percent of his plate appearances and striking out at an acceptable clip of 16.9 percent, so there may not be the initial struggles that we saw with another Triple-A beast, Houston's George Springer.
Where will he hit in the lineup? Well, Starling Marte has already moved down in the order given his so-so .331 OBP, and while Josh Harrison's .407 OBP in seven games in the leadoff spot is nice, it's not sustainable. Simply, the leadoff slot is wide open for Polanco once the organization decides to promote him. If he's somehow still available, even in shallower leagues, I'd jump on him now and burn a roster spot for what would likely be at most, three weeks. He could compete with the likes of Billy Hamilton and Chris Owings for NL ROY honors.

Where is Chris Davis' power?

Yes, the Brady Anderson comparisons are already out there. Recall that Anderson, Steve Finley's brother-in-law, hit 50 home runs in 1996 before averaging just 17 in the five subsequent years before retiring the following season. Davis hit 53 last year, of course, but so far in 2014, he has just three in 104 at-bats. Applying the same AB/HR ratio (11.0) he showed in 2013 to this year, Davis should already have nine or 10 home runs on the season. Davis though has seen just 11.5 percent of his flyballs go for home runs versus rates of 25.2 percent and 29.6 percent the previous two seasons. That 11.5 percent compares more favorably to the league average, but elite sluggers have proven to be able to maintain high rates year over year, so this looks to be something more than pure HR/FB rate regression to the mean.
Clearly, the oblique strain suffered near the end of April has impacted his numbers, but at the time of the injury, Davis still had just two home runs. What else could it be? Davis is actually walking more and striking out less than last year, so that's good, but his flyball percentage has dipped from 45.7 to 35.6. Fewer flyballs leads to fewer home runs - pretty simple. All in all, there's nothing here to suggest that Davis is suddenly going to turn into a 17-homer a season guy. The oblique is healthy, he's getting his swing back, and the results will come.

And sure enough, Davis hit three home runs in Tuesday's game against the Pirates. Beginning of a huge power surge?

Is Mark Buehrle doing anything different this year?

Buehrle is the only active pitcher to have made 30-plus starts, thrown 200-plus innings and won at least 10 games in each of the last 13 seasons. Pretty amazing accomplishment, but these days, no one drafts Buehrle thinking they got a steal and that he'll be one of their teams' rotation anchors, right? Well, Buehrle leads the majors with seven wins (7-1) in nine starts and his ERA sits at a sparkling 2.11. Digging a bit deeper, he's still Mark Buehrle, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but he's not a Cy Young competitor:

Year K/9 BB/9 xFIP
2010 4.2 2.1 4.49
2011 4.8 2 4.14
2012 5.6 1.8 4.17
2013 6.1 2.3 4.09
2014 5.3 2.7 4.17

The reason for Buehrle's early success boils down to one number: 1.

That's the number of home runs he's allowed in 59.2 innings in 2014. That equates to a HR/9 rate of 0.15 versus a career mark of 0.99. Just one of his 57 flyballs has gone for a home run this year. If we apply his pre-2014 HR/FB rate of 10.91 percent to that 57, we should have seen at least six home runs allowed from Buehrle so far this year. So all in all, no, nothing has really changed related to Buehrle's skillset. His 5.9 swinging strike percentage is the lowest it's ever been, and the home runs are going to come. Selling high wouldn't hurt.

Is Brandon Moss for real?

Not only has Moss been one of the league's big early successes, he's arguably been a top-five fantasy value. Not a top-five overall player, of course, but when one considers where he was drafted, Moss has provided an enormous amount of player value in the early going. He's batting .301/.391/.582 through 43 games, and while the .281 ISO is right in line with last year's .267, Moss' BA is 45 points higher this year than last. Part of that may be BABIP-driven, as that mark has risen from .304 to .330 year over year, but it looks to be more of the following:

Hitting versus LHP: It's only 25 at-bats, but Moss has started off 2014 batting .320/.393/.480 versus southpaws compared to last year's .200/.261/.649. With the trade for Kyle Blanks, the A's now have another first base option against left-handers, but one would think that Moss deserves at least a look at near-everyday playing time the way he's hitting.

Contact frequency: Good things can happen when the ball is put in play, and Moss is doing that more than ever this year. His 18.3-percent strikeout rate is a huge drop over last year's 27.7 percent and 2012's 30.4 percent. His walk rate is up to 10.1 percent, and Moss' 11.5 percent swinging strike rate is two full points lower than last year's mark. He's apparently seeing the ball better and hitting it where fielders are not positioned.

Moss has always hit for pretty good power, so we know the nine home runs are no fluke, but can he bat anywhere near .300? For the short term, sure, anything is possible. For the rest of the year, however, expecting much more than .270 from the 30-year-old may be asking too much.

Are Mike Olt, Jedd Gyorko and Travis d'Arnaud all victims of a poor BABIP?

Each is young, each has upside, and all three have failed to come close to expectations.

PLAYER AVG BABIP
Olt 0.176 0.158
Gyorko 0.154 0.178
d'Arnaud 0.196 0.218

Mike Olt -
At least for last year's Mendoza-like performance, Olt had the eye sight excuse. Olt said this spring that his vision problems were a thing of the past, but in hitting .176/.254/.451, it's hard to really be sure that's true. Sure, the nine homers in 102 at-bats are nice, but Olt has fanned in 31.6 percent of his plate appearances. The .158 BABIP is likely at least partially to blame for the .158 BA, but he also had a .209 BABIP for Triple-A Iowa last year. What's also to blame is Olt's very low 9 percent line-drive rate. He's hitting a ton of fly ball and 25.7 percent have gone over the fence. That won't be sustainable, so unless some of those flyballs turn into line drives, the average isn't going to shoot up with any sort of speed.

Jedd Gyorko -
Gyorko's 23 home runs gained him some Rookie of the Year votes a year ago, but he's failed miserably to follow up on a promising start. At .154/.211/.282, Gyorko could even be a candidate for a Triple-A stint at some point. With five home runs and just nine total XBH, even Gyorko's power is way down. His walk and strikeout rates are about in line with prior years, but the quality of his batted balls has declined:

YEAR LD% GB% FB%
2013 22.5 37.6 39.8
2014 14.8 44.3 40.9

Fewer line drives and more ground balls, and those ground balls are finding fielders' gloves. Of course, he's not a .154 hitter long term, but what is he? Gyorko batted .328 in his last extended minor league action (Triple-A, 2012), but he also hit just .262 in 149 Double-A at-bats that year, so who knows? I suspect he's more of a .260-.270 hitter in his prime, but that may not be this year. Just for context, assuming 550 at-bats this year, Gyorko is going to need to bat .274 the rest of the season to finish at .240. Unlikely. I'm pessimistic, particularly given that the Padres have the league's worst offense, so there's no one there to pick Gyorko up.

Travis d'Arnaud -
d'Arnaud is dealing with a concussion, so he's out indefinitely. He'll eventually return to a .196/.274/.314 batting line in 114 plate appearances. This is about what he hit last year in similar playing time, so the 25-year-old may already be at a career crossroads. Remember, this was once a guy who batted .311/.371/.542 and .333/.380/.595 in back-to-back minor league seasons (2011-2012), so the struggles are a bit puzzling. The strikeout (18.4%) and walk (9.6%) rates are in the acceptable range, but the plodding d'Arnaud is just not finding many holes. Assuming he comes back soon, I can see d'Arnaud batting in the .250 range with 12 homers the rest of the way, but not much more than that.

Closers in waiting

The question I'm probably most often asked is "Who are some non-closers that I should speculate on for future save opportunities?" The best setup guys aren't always the best guys to target, as they may have closer ahead of them who does just enough to not lose his job. So first look at opportunity (shaky closer, possible injury, etc.) as well as skill set (K/9, BB/9, WHIP).

Here are the top five guys, from most likely to least likely, that I would expect to see save chances as the season progresses:

Brad Ziegler (ARI) -
Addison Reed has a 26:4 K:BB in 21.2 innings, but he's also carrying a 4.57 ERA and has already allowed six home runs. Reed has posted back-to-back scoreless appearances, so his job is probably safe for now, but Ziegler is waiting in the wings. Ziegler has a 2.28 ERA and 1.06 WHIP and 11 holds, so he's clearly next in line.

Rex Brothers (COL) -
LaTroy Hawkins has allowed three runs in his last two innings and four in his last four, so Brothers could get an opportunity soon. Entering Tuesday's action, Brothers had a string of 6.1 scoreless innings with seven strikeouts, lowering his ERA to 2.84.

Jason Motte (STL) -
Motte was activated from the disabled list on Tuesday, and with Trevor Rosenthal's inconsistency, Motte could get a look at some point.

Jeurys Familia (NYM) -
Familia hasn't been all that great (6.9 K/9, 5.0 BB/9), but he is averaging 96+ mph with the fastball and the Mets have had a bit of a revolving door at the closer position. If he can put it all together, Familia could be the team's closer of the future.

Daniel Webb (CHW) -
With Matt Lindstrom on the DL with an ankle injury, the door is open for the likes of Scott Downs, Ronald Belisario, Jacob Petricka, and Webb to close out games. Maybe Frank Francisco even gets a shot. Webb has closer stuff, including a mid-90s fastball, but his 17 walks in 24 innings are the concern. Webb might not get first crack at the job, but with improved control, he could be a sleeper for saves this year.

You could also make arguments for the likes of Michael Kohn (if he can find some control), Justin Grimm, Cody Allen despite the two recent appearances, Kyle Farnsworth, Luke Gregerson, Jim Johnson, Jason Grilli, Steve Delabar and others.
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