Mound Musings: It's a Trap!

Mound Musings: It's a Trap!

This article is part of our Mound Musings series.

The most popular question asked in the Comments section of the Musings each week amounts to: "XXX was just called up and he pitched great in his start, is he someone I should go get?" The reason it's a popular question is related to how hard it can be to sort through the pitchers coming and going, and trying to decided which ones can help you, and which ones will be a waste of a roster spot or worse. Complicating things, a lot of the call-ups do pitch pretty well the first time or two out, so you have to decide whether it's likely t last. Let's take a look and see if we can make the decision easier:

Two great starts, but I hear a ticking noise … is that a bomb about to explode?

You can usually see signs that suggest a pitcher could be very good at some point in the future, however reaching that point will often require many refinements and even the addition of skills before it can happen. For most fantasy players, the goal is determining where the pitcher is on that timeline, or whether they are actually on the timeline. Since so many things can change along the path – injuries being a big factor, but certainly not the only one – you do take a calculated risk every time you predict positive fantasy impact for a player. But, what about the guy who will probably never be a fantasy asset; at least

The most popular question asked in the Comments section of the Musings each week amounts to: "XXX was just called up and he pitched great in his start, is he someone I should go get?" The reason it's a popular question is related to how hard it can be to sort through the pitchers coming and going, and trying to decided which ones can help you, and which ones will be a waste of a roster spot or worse. Complicating things, a lot of the call-ups do pitch pretty well the first time or two out, so you have to decide whether it's likely t last. Let's take a look and see if we can make the decision easier:

Two great starts, but I hear a ticking noise … is that a bomb about to explode?

You can usually see signs that suggest a pitcher could be very good at some point in the future, however reaching that point will often require many refinements and even the addition of skills before it can happen. For most fantasy players, the goal is determining where the pitcher is on that timeline, or whether they are actually on the timeline. Since so many things can change along the path – injuries being a big factor, but certainly not the only one – you do take a calculated risk every time you predict positive fantasy impact for a player. But, what about the guy who will probably never be a fantasy asset; at least not over the long term. How do you identify him?

Most pitchers in the minor leagues today won't turn into top tier starters in the majors. In fact, most of them won't have prolonged careers above the minor league level. However, a higher percentage of those who do at least make it to the majors might enjoy some success when they first arrive. The trap is set. Let me describe it in a little more detail. A pitcher is called up to fill a hole in a rotation resulting from an injury. His numbers in the minor leagues were decent, but not overwhelming. After a couple of very good starts in the show, everyone seems to be jumping on the bandwagon, and no one can see the team taking him out of the rotation when everyone is healthy. You jump. He's on your roster. His first start in your rotation isn't great, but it wasn't bad. It was just an off night. He starts off well enough in his next outing, but in the fourth and fifth innings the wheels come off, and he gets battered. Damn! It gets worse. The next time out he doesn't make it out of the second inning. But, his next start is against a weak hitting lineup, he'll get it back together. It doesn't help – three-plus innings, seven hits, four walks, a pair of moonshot home runs, only one strikeout, and shower. The very next morning the team activates the injured pitcher, and your guy is on his way back to Triple-A.

Be honest. Raise your hand if that scenario has ever haunted you. A pitcher might make quite a splash when he first arrives, especially if he is aided by a very deceptive delivery that could take hitters a bit longer to figure out. However, it takes more than deception and luck to truly become a fantasy asset. Watch closely and evaluate the likelihood that any success will last, and if you don't see it happening, avoid him all together, or at least be ready to jump out of the fire very quickly. When you own one, the most dangerous part of this short term investment is not jumping off soon enough. Err on the side of caution. Hopefully you will get a couple of solid starts, and get out before the bomb explodes. Trade him – just be careful and don't lay these guys off on another manager too often or they might start avoiding your trade offers – or cut him loose. Keep watching for that arm who will be a long term asset.

Warning Signs that Your Guy Might Be a Ticking Time Bomb


  • Repertoire: This is top of the list. At the major league level a pitcher really needs at least three quality pitches he can throw pretty much any time. Less than that allows the hitter to sit on a particular pitch – most often a fastball – and hitters at this level can hit the fastest fastball if they are looking for it. Additionally, the pitcher is going to need something more difficult to hit when facing batters of the opposite hand. That's usually a good change-up. Remember, they need to be capable of throwing the full repertoire in pretty much any count, and they need to be able to locate the pitch consistently. If they can't, it's only a matter of time.
  • Stuff: This one seems pretty obvious. While it's not mandatory, an upper 90's fastball and a sharp-breaking curve or slider can compensate for a lot of other weaknesses. Keep in mind, the pitcher has to be able to throw them consistently for strikes, but he can get by on quality stuff with spotty consistency for awhile. Sometimes a pitcher can do well without high-end stuff, but there is always some other factor like deception (see below), or exceptional command of the strike zone, but that is rare, especially earlier in a pitcher's career.
  • Deception: Lack of stuff can be somewhat offset by a deceptive motion, albeit the compensation is usually temporary. Hitters are accustomed to pitches leaving the hand from specific places. Decisions regarding swinging at a pitch are split-second, and any delay in that decision is costly. Therefore, when a pitcher has a herky-jerky motion,  displays an arm action that delivers the ball from a non-traditional release point, or somehow hides the ball longer than usual, the hitter may have difficulty reading the pitch. Just beware, even though this can be an advantage for a time, hitters learn, they adjust, and they can become comfortable with the delivery fairly quickly. It could be a couple of games or a few innings, so don't count on deception alone making a pitcher successful.
  • Pedigree: If you haven't been able to observe the pitcher, start here. It is very rare for a late round draft choice to become an elite pitcher in the major leagues. It happens occasionally, but it is more likely to be tied to long term development after turning pro. I frequently see pitchers with exceptional pedigrees (first round draft choices, etc) who don't fulfill their promise but it's far more surprising to see a late round choice make it big. Don't ignore a late bloomer, but set your bar higher with them, and expect better repertoire or stuff than you otherwise might.
  • Growth: Even if the pitcher was a higher round draft pick, you want to see signs of improvement in their minor league career. When you examine the minor league numbers, look for consistent advancement from level to level. They might initially struggle when they move up, but they should show the ability to adjust, and as they become more experienced, you should see the peripherals improve. Finally, take age vs. level into consideration. A player who performs well against older competition gets a bump up in value, while a player who only pitches well against younger hitters should be viewed with increased skepticism.

Some Notable Rotation Ramblings:


  • Let's look at an example – Carlos Rodon. Very good fastball, excellent slider, adequate improving change. Check. The fastball is mid-high 90's and the slider is his best pitch. Check. Not especially deceptive but he doesn't have to be. Check. High first round pick sailed through the minors. He just needs to throw strikes.
  • Now one a little less obvious – Lance McCullers. He has an electric fastball and a very good breaking ball, but his change is inconsistent. Since he can't always throw all of his pitches for strikes – his command is very erratic – he probably needs seasoning. He's young so he has time, but not yet.
  • Some pitchers make it relatively easy to guess whether it's going to be a good game or a bad game. Case in point; Yordano Ventura. His stuff is truly electric, but he tends to get over-amped on the mound. When he is relaxed and his motion is more free and easy, good things almost always happen.
  • One of the pitchers I have been anxiously awaiting, Patrick Corbin, has had his rehab slowed. He hasn't pitched since 2013 having had Tommy John surgery last year, but I loved what I saw at the time. They aren't calling this a setback yet, and they will be cautious when he returns, but he's intriguing.
  • As rugged as I think Aaron Sanchez would be as a closer, he does enough to tease the Blue Jays with his upside as a starter. He has the stuff to be a very good starter, he just needs to believe it himself and throw strikes consistently. The secondary stuff is coming, be patient owners.
  • One of my favorite kid arms, Julio Urias of the Dodgers, is going to get about a month off beginning later this month. He is having eye surgery that is not considered serious. The Dodgers wanted to limit his innings, and this should help, but it may also hurt his chances of making a second half debut.

Endgame Odyssey:

It is shaky days in more than a few bullpens right now. In Miami, Steve Cishek has been a disaster, and it finally got bad enough they decided to give him a break from closing. Since he did the job for a long time, they will likely give him a chance to reclaim the gig, but A.J. Ramos is the guy to own for the foreseeable future. The ugly peripherals caught up with Addison Reed in Arizona, but his fill-in may be a bit less obvious. Brad Ziegleris still probably a slight favorite, but fireballer Enrique Burgos (the darkhorse candidate who has considerable closing experience in the minors and has logged a couple of saves recently), Randall Delgado (he's struggling), and Daniel Hudson (he may be ticketed for starting fairly soon) could still get their chances. Like Cishek, Reed is very likely to get another shot, especially with no one else having a clear claim to the job. And, we're not done yet. Neftali Feliz is walking a fine line in Texas. He may not be completely out yet, but the Rangers are trying to shake things up and he could easily get caught in the net. When the change happens, Shawn Tolleson makes the most sense. You could add Fernando Rodney to this list if he didn't consistently get the job done no matter how many people he puts on base along the way. His job is safe as long as there are arrows in that quiver. Did you acquire Kenley Jansen? You win.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brad Johnson
For more than 30 years, pitching guru Brad "Bogfella" Johnson has provided insightful evaluation and analysis of pitchers to a wide variety of fantasy baseball websites, webcasts and radio broadcasts. He joined RotoWire in 2011 with his popular Bogfella's Notebook.
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