Articles by Paul Sporer

Sporer covers pitching for RotoWire. He also writes for Baseball Prospectus and publishes an annual guide on starting pitchers. In his spare time, he roots for the Tigers.

Jeremy Hellickson is Becoming Relevant Again

It wasn’t supposed to go like this for Jeremy Hellickson. He came through the Tampa Bay Rays system as a blue-chip prospect, landing in the top 10 of industry lists ahead of the 2011 season after a top-20 showing the year before that. He proved him deserving of such high praise immediately with a Rookie of the Year campaign in 2011 that included 189 innings of a 2.95 ERA with a 1.15 WHIP. The skills suggested he was way over his head with just a 15% strikeout rate and 9% walk rate, but he seemed adept at inducing poor contact (.223 BABIP) and stranding runners (82% LOB) although, there was likely some luck mixed in, too.

When he followed it up with a very similar 2012 season (3.10 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 17% K, 8% BB, .261 BABIP, 83% LOB), he started to gain a reputation as someone who could out-pitch his base skills and many believed the 25-year old would still improve those skills to close the gap between his ERA and ERA indicators (4.44, 4.60 FIP totals in those two seasons). He did improve his skills in 2013 – albeit incrementally – with an 18% K rate and 7% walk rate, but the stranding and weak-contact pieces that we started to think might’ve been skills for him completely fell apart with a 66% LOB and .307 BABIP leaving him with a 5.17 ERA in 174 innings.

His chance to bounce back from the brutal 2013 was hampered by an elbow surgery that was originally supposed to cost him around a month or so of the regular season, but ended up pushing his 2014 debut to July 8th. The results were better with a 4.52 ERA in 63.7 innings, while the FIP continued to tick downward at 4.15. Interestingly, his FIP in the two awful results years (4.20 in 237.7 IP despite a 5.00 ERA) was better than what he did during his first two years (4.52 in 366 IP w/a 3.02 ERA). He was dealt to Arizona this past offseason in a move that barely drew any attention as Hellickson’s star has waned considerably.

It’s Time to Trade Jose Fernandez

We have had two massive Tommy John returns this year, first Matt Harvey back in April and more recently Jose Fernandez, who just completed his fourth start on Wednesday night. Expectations in the return from the surgery are generally tempered to account for the severity of the injury, but these two are bucking that trend. Harvey had an advantage over most guys with well over a year for his recovery. His surgery took place in October 2013 while Fernandez’s was done just last May.

Harvey’s season might be a worthwhile blueprint to get an idea of what Fernandez might do the rest of the way. Given what Fernandez has done thus far, maybe it’s not the extra time off that served Harvey so well and just the fact that he’s an amazing pitcher, much like Fernandez. Let’s stack the pair up through their first four starts:

Thru 4 Starts IP ERA WHIP K% BB% K:BB Velo-Pre Velo-Post
Harvey 26.7 3.04 0.94 29% 3% 10.3 96.7 96.9
Fernandez 26 2.77 0.96 31% 3% 10.7 96.6 96.7

Fernandez’s first four starts back have essentially matched Harvey and the excitement is similar to what it was for the Mets ace, too. Harvey didn’t stop there, through seven starts his ERA was down to 1.98 and he had a 26% strikeout rate with 56 in 54.7 innings, not to mention a sparkling 4% walk rate that gave him a 22% K-BB% (12% is league average for starters). We always hear how command and control are the shakiest elements in a pitcher’s game during the Tommy John return year, but through seven starts Harvey appeared to bucking that trend.

Then came the rough patch.

The Last Year – Home Runs

With some downtime on our hands, I thought it’d be fun to peruse the leaderboards for the last calendar year, spanning the second half of 2014 and the first half we just wrapped up, and compare them with the leaderboards from the end of 2014 in our pertinent roto categories.

Let’s start with home runs. In 2014, only Nelson Cruz reached the 40 plateau:

Num 2014 Total Team PA HR
1 Nelson Cruz Orioles 678 40
2 Giancarlo Stanton Marlins 638 37
3 Chris Carter Astros 572 37
4 Mike Trout Angels 705 36
5 Jose Abreu White Sox 622 36
6 Jose Bautista Blue Jays 673 35
7 David Ortiz Red Sox 602 35
8 Edwin Encarnacion Blue Jays 542 34
9 Anthony Rizzo Cubs 616 32
10 Victor Martinez Tigers 641 32

Miguel Sano Could Be Special

Every time it seems like all the potential impact talent has come up, some team calls up another intriguing rookie who could shift the balance of your fantasy league. Carlos Correa was up in early-June which seemed to cap off a significant wave of call-ups. Once we began catching our breath from that, we saw Byron Buxton and Francisco Lindor on consecutive days. And then we got Kyle Schwarber’s surprise six-day call-up (during which he admirably lobbied for more with elite play: .982 OPS, 1 HR, 6 R & RBI in 23 PA).

After all of it, Steven Matz was left standing as that one shining prospect for whom everyone wanted to save their FAAB. He made his scintillating debut on Sunday and that really felt like a cutoff point for impact minor league talent. I mean, who else could come up? Corey Seager is awesome, but where is he going to play? Joc Pederson put up a 30-30 season in Triple-A last year (albeit under different management) so maybe they’re comfortable letting Seager marinate a bit.

Is Stephen Strasburg Back?

It’s been an ugly season for Stephen Strasburg and perhaps even uglier for those of us with him on our fantasy teams. After all, the Nats are still in first place. The team where I have Strasburg is far from and I’m sure most of you are experiencing something similar. Alas, there may be some reasons for optimism within his two starts since returning from the DL.

The season got off on the wrong foot when the Mets of all teams battered him for six runs (three earned) in 5.3 innings on nine hits and three walks. Boston hit him even harder with five runs (all earned) on 10 hits. The success of his third start (against Philly) wasn’t enough to get him going and in fact it seems every time he has a good start, it’s followed by two clunkers. Eventually what we all suspected would happen, did: he hit the DL.

Gallardo’s Gone Gallant

With a quickly eroding strikeout rate that propped up his value in the first place, Yovani Gallardo had made a quick descent down the fantasy rankings heading into 2015. A torn meniscus in 2008 limited him to just 24 IP, but he returned with a breakout effort in 2009 which included a 26% strikeout rate in 185.7 IP. It might feel weird now, but his 3.73 ERA that year was solid better than average (110 ERA+). The strikeouts peaked that year, but lived in the 24-25% range for the next three seasons while his ERA generally stayed in the mid-to-upper 3.00s.

He’d become a workhorse. That’s generally the shorthand for a pitcher who logs plenty of innings and usually offers one standout fantasy category while also never really doing enough to be a superstar. From 2009-2012, Gallardo had a 3.68 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 25% K rate, and about 196 IP per year. From 2013 through last year, he was just a workhorse without the standout category. Innings were his only net value. He logged 373 innings of a 3.84 ERA in those two seasons.

Sonny Gray’s Slider has Made Him an Ace

Coming into the year I was cool on Sonny Gray at the draft table because of what I believed to be an inflated cost against what we had seen from him to that point. He was being priced as a top 20 starter and I thought he needed to actually improve upon his 2014, not just repeat it, to justify such a price tag. How’s top 3? Is that good? Does that work? Gray has pitched at an ace level through the first 14 starts of the season by recapturing most of the strikeout rate we saw in 64 innings back in 2013.

Gray had a 26% rate in 10 starts and two relief appearances with the A’s that year and the results were just as good with a 2.67 ERA and 1.11 WHIP. Last year he showed he can hold up over a full season with 219 innings and his 3.08 ERA and 1.19 WHIP were great, but a 20% strikeout rate kept him from the upper echelon of starters and made him more of a fantasy #2. That felt right. With his premium groundball rate (56%), he can afford to be a little lower on the strikeouts and still post tremendous results.