RotoWire Partners

Charging the Mound: Jonah Keri Makes a Guest Appearance

Jeff Erickson

Jeff Erickson is a co-founder of RotoWire and the only two-time winner of Baseball Writer of the Year from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. He's also in the FSWA Hall of Fame. He roots for the Reds, Bengals, Red Wings, Pacers and Northwestern University (the real NU).

Jonah Keri

Jonah Keri writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Tuesday, June 19, 2012 7:29pm
To: "Jonah Keri"
Subject: Charging

Liss is on vacation this week, though I suspect that traveling with an infant won't be quite the vacation he's used to. This week we ask author of The Extra 2%, Jonah Keri, to fill in for him. Thanks to Scott Pianowski for taking over for Chris last week. We look forward to Garry Shandling or some other guest host to take over next week.

Jonah, welcome aboard. God bless Jim Tracy for giving us an immediate issue to dissect, mock or perhaps praise. The Rockies, who have a starting rotation with a collective ERA north of 6.00, are moving to a four-man rotation immediately, with their four starters, Christian Friedrich, Alex White, Jeff Francis and Josh Outman, being limited to 75 pitches per start. The fantasy implications of such a move would normally be that the value of those starters are crushed, given the diminished likelihood that said starters would be able to go deep into a game with a lead, but it's pretty hard to crush the value of something already crushed. So I'm more interested in your take from a standard baseball perspective - can this possibly work? Should we be encouraging this sort of innovation? Is it a mistake to try this at the big league level without first establishing such a program in the minors? Will this make Tracy more or less likely to run out of pinch-hitters and relievers later in the game?

I want to spend the bulk of this, though, talking about some of the starting pitching surprises of the season, and get your take on them. R.A. Dickey is the obvious starting point. A few weeks ago Chris wondered whether or not Dickey's start was for real, following two brilliant starts against the Pirates and Padres. I leaned towards the negative on that, much to my chagrin. He's been on such a role lately - he hasn't allowed an earned run in his last five starts, covering 41.2 innings, striking out 52 over that span. If you're drafting today for the rest of the season, where does he slot among starting pitchers? Would you rather have Dickey or Felix Hernandez? C.J. Wilson? Dan Haren? James Shields? If he doesn't top any of these starters, how far down the line does he fall?

Meanwhile, Lance Lynn is starting Tuesday at Detroit. Once looked at as a temporary fill-in for Chris Carpenter, Lynn has more than capably taken over a spot in the Cardinals' rotation. It's not a surprise that he's been successful - he was a starter in the minors and once considered a pretty good pitching prospect, and he was a rock in the playoffs out of the bullpen. But this magnitude of success certainly couldn't have been anticipated. Does he fade over the second half, as the workload compiles? Where does he slot the rest of the way? He's almost certainly going to be at a cheap contract in most keeper leagues - if you're punting for the future, is he one of your targets?

Two more NL pitchers come to mind under this theme - the Pirates' James McDonald and the Diamondbacks' Wade Miley. Would you invest in either or both? How do the Diamondbacks keep Miley in the rotation and still make room for their top prospects, most notably Trevor Bauer? Or is it pretty simple for them to just jettison Joe Saunders?

You've been an active trader whenever I've been in a league with you. Is that still your managing style? What tips can you offer on emulating your trading success? Would major league teams benefit from trading more often and earlier? You spent a lot of time chronicling the Rays' success; I can't recall too many deadline deals they've made. Is this the year they'll be active in the trade market before the summer deadline?

The floor is yours, Senator. Thanks for jumping in this week.

-----Original Message-----
From: "Jonah Keri"
Sent: Wednesday, June 20, 2012 11:43am
Subject: Re: Charging

Hola Jeff, good to be here.

The idea of a four-man rotation absolutely has merit, in theory. The key is to have the right personnel. The 1993 Braves, with Maddux (27), Glavine (27), Smoltz (26), and Avery (23) could have pulled it off, and actually sort of did, getting 142 of their 162 starts from their top four. If I were to pick one team to try a four-man this year, it'd be the Nationals, who have four very good-to-incredible starts in Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, and Edwin Jackson, plus a punching bag at SP5. The problem with the Rockies doing it is that their starting rotation is terrible (which is the reason the bullpen was getting creamed in the first place), and the starter who was throwing the most innings was actually Jeremy Guthrie (even though he was unfathomably bad). Basically, teams that are already best off pitching-wise are the ones who could and maybe should take this kind of risk. But no one ever messes with a good thing. Instead, those with a bad thing grasp at straws, usually to no avail.One of my favorite things about baseball, as a fan, is how immensely unpredictable it is.

One of my least-favorite things about baseball, as a writer/pseudo-analyst, is how immensely unpredictable it is. Chris, who shoots for lottery tickets more aggressively than any fantasy player I know, was right to go after Dickey after dominating two Little League offenses, because yaneverknow. And you were right to be skeptical, because Dickey had shown himself to be a merely good (not great) pitcher, and the Padres and Pirates are the Padres and Pirates. Thing is, knuckleballers are so rare (there are supposedly only about 70-80 pitchers ever who threw the knuckler as their primary pitch), we don't have much data on how their skills might evolve. And in Dickey's case, even the man himself doesn't have an explanation for his Koufaxian run: "The strikeouts, you can look at FanGraphs or PITCHF/x or whatever you do to figure it out." It's kind of glorious. And how you approach Dickey for the rest of the year should depend on your risk tolerance. A couple of the pitchers you named might be safer bets, given their longer track records of success. But if you need a massive performance from your pitching staff the rest of the year to win your league, Dickey might have more upside than any of those guys for the rest of 2012.

I own Lynn in two of my three leagues, and the only reason I don't in the other one is because the week he got FAAB'd, I sprung for a closer instead. Loved the opportunity he had in St. Louis, and he did have a track record of success both in the minors and early in his big league career. His results this year are supported by strong peripherals (K/BB rate above 3-to-1, more than a strikeout per inning, ground ball pitcher who keeps the ball in the park). But like you said, innings counts are always a concern -- you could say that about Chris Sale too. In a non-keeper league, I'd see if I could get 105-110 cents on the dollar for him right now. It'd be tough to trade for him in a keeper league, unless the guy owning him (who's presumably going for it now) shares the same fatigue concerns.

Love McDonald, we'd seen signs with him before, he's 27 now, breakout makes sense. Miley really came out of nowhere (I own him in two of my three leagues this year too -- 2012 is The Year of the Horseshoe); he's thriving on great control (1.9 BB/9 IP) and a flukishly low HR/FB rate (3.3%), despite a below-average K rate (6.2 K/9 IP). He's certainly better than Joe Saunders, but I'd consider shopping him if someone thinks they can ride his recent scorching hot streak. As for what the D-Backs will or should do, I never worry about teams having too much starting pitching. Someone will strain an oblique or one-up Clint Barmes' deer meat story soon enough.

The most important ingredient for being an active and successful trader is to recognize what the other team wants, and what it might be willing to give up. I make trades earlier than everyone else in nearly every league, every year. Why? Because people develop false confidence when it's April 17 and they're leading in homers and RBI, and a misguided sense of panic when they're dead last in saves or steals on that date. In an experts league, everyone has a vested interest in seeing their preseason projections pan out (and enough cognitive dissonance to believe in them even after the facts have proven otherwise), so this strategy's tougher to pull off. But in a home league, you can certainly approach with your Chris Perezes and Coco Crisps and pull off a big score for a slugger who's hitting a buck-fifty-five. My favorite trade this year was dealing Felix Hernandez and Ricky Nolasco for Jose Bautista in a 13-team mixed league...right before Bautista went crazy and Felix inexplicably started having problems. We're now in late June, but the general principle remains the same: People tend to overreact to where they are now, without projecting where they might end up if they just leave their team alone. Exploit that.

I have an article that'll be up at by the time this Charging conversation goes live which covers several teams' deadline needs; the Rays and their black hole at catcher is one of them. I could see them upgrading the position with a Nick Hundley or Kurt Suzuki or Ramon Hernandez, if not to replace Jose Molina than at least to upgrade over Jose Lobaton or Chris Gimenez. Upgrading a backup catcher seems like small beer compared to names like Cole Hamels and Zack Greinke potentially becoming available. But the Rays split their catching duties nearly 50-50, they're a good team that's not going to have many weaknesses after Evan Longoria and Jeff Keppinger comes back, and they'll be in a fierce battle for a playoff spot between the killer competition in the AL East and ascending wild card contenders like the Angels.

A few questions for you, mon frere:

Which other fast starters would you be selling? (I recently dealt Ian Desmond, to name one)

What the hell do you with Trevor Plouffe?

I ripped apart my corner infield situation in LABR-Mixed specifically in anticipation of Anthony Rizzo's feeling better about his July-August-September production this year than what he offered in 2011?

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Wednesday, June 20, 2012 8:01pm
To: "Jonah Keri"
Subject: Re: Charging

I remember Rany's article when it came out. I think you're right about having the proper personnel, and of course about the very nature of the Rockies grasping at straws. They just got more bad news today, with Tulo being out another six weeks at least. I remember when they were a franchise on the rise. I don't think all of their demise is Jim Tracy's fault, but he's part of the problem there.

Let's hit your questions. I want to start with Trevor Plouffe, because he reminds me a little bit of how Ben Zobrist turned around his career. To be fair, Zobrist's skills were better than Plouffe's at the minor league level. But like Zobrist, Plouffe's power exploded in Triple-A after initially stagnating there, and usually I'm pretty wary of guys that do that without really showing signs of doing this before. But, he has a first-round draft pedigree, so maybe it was a case that the talent was there all along and it just took the right instruction for it to come out? A little less like Zobrist, Plouffe's position changes are more about him not being able to handle shortstop, rather than his versatility, so the comparison ends there. I don't have Plouffe in any of my 17 leagues (yeah, I know ...) - so I didn't learn my Zobrist lesson about taking a chance on these sort of breakout guys. I might consider "buying high" - pay the 105% premium on him, if the perception is that his owner thinks he's selling high.

As far as who am I selling now, is Bryan LaHair too obvious, too late? He's already getting benched against left-handers, and with Anthony Rizzo on the way soon, that's going to make it even more difficult to play LaHair regularly, even with the move to the outfield. While I don't want to worship the BABIP gods, it seems to me that with a .394 BABIP and 64% contact rate, he hasn't come close to hitting his batting average floor. Along those lines, I'd try to sell off Kirk Nieuwenheis and Chris Davis, too.

On the pitching side of the equation, I'd try to sell off the fast-starting closers - Chris Perez, Jim Johnson and Fernando Rodney. I know I should believe in all things Rays at this point, but I can't get my head wrapped around the idea that he's a strike thrower. How does a guy that walked more guys than he struck out last year turn it around and post a 31:5 K:BB ratio in 32 innings this year? Does the time you spent with the Rays give you any insights to their process of turning around a guy like him, or Kyle Farnsworth the year before?

Should I be concerned that I have both LaHair and Perez on my NFBC team, where no trading is allowed?

Finally, I think Rizzo will be better-suited to the conversion to the major leagues. One big problem for him last year was that he went from one of the most hitter-friendly parks in the PCL (and that's saying something) to the toughest ballpark in the majors. His highs last year might not have really been that high, and his lows probably weren't that low. The extra time at Iowa this year can only help. I expect far better returns this time.

-----Original Message-----
From: "Jonah Keri"
Sent: Thursday, June 21, 2012 1:28am
Subject: Re: Charging

I moved to Denver in January. It's been interesting talking to Rockies fans here. On the one hand, Coors Field is a terrific ballpark, perfect setting to watch a game when the weather's nice, which is every day here (Shhhh! We don't want too many people to know how great a city this is, we like having less traffic than virtually any other major city). People still like going to games, but no one has any faith in the team's management anymore, at any level. Yes, the Rockies have been plagued by injuries to Tulo, several pitchers, and others. But everyone has injuries. This has been a brutal season. And for fantasy purposes, we can now go back to treating Coors as a minefield for any visiting pitcher short of the true elites.

I like the idea of buying high on Plouffe, in that it's not really buying high, because whoever owns him has to be thinking about getting over on another owner by selling now. If both sides of a transaction can see the same inefficiency (or perceived inefficiency), no one's going to get screwed. I'm a bit like Liss in that I'll jump at players doing these kinds of things early, because every year a few of these out-of-nowhere stories stick. And what are you losing taking a shot? Plouffe is/was shortstop-eligible, and anyone with a pulse at that position have potential value. I will say that Plouffe is a reminder of how league rules can affect how you approach players like these. Of my three leagues, the one I got Plouffe in is an 18-team mixed that doesn't use FAAB, but rather just a straight pick up anyone anytime system. If you use FAAB, maybe you don't want to spec on Plouffe for a few bucks, especially if you broke the bank on a closer or something earlier in the year. And if you have rules similar to LABR-AL and LABR-NL, in which you can't reserve anyone unless they're demoted or DL'd, you might be even less willing. Maybe this is a lesson in being aggressive no matter how your league operates.

LaHair might be a bit too obvious, yes. Interesting to bring up LaHair, Davis, and Nieuwenheis as a group too. None of these guys were on fantasy radars in shallow or standard mixed leagues this year, so it's hard to say how much value you could get -- before or now -- for any of them. Maybe the more compelling test of will is having the discipline to sell high on a good or even great player who's performing above his already excellent standards. Matt Cain after the perfecto, Matt Kemp pre-injury, that kind of thing.

I think Rodney's for real. And yes, the Rays made a real, tangible tweak in his approach: They had him stand on a different side of the rubber. If they signed Rodney cheap this off-season in the hopes they might spot something, then made this change and got these results, that's impressive. If their scouting is so impressive that they can diagnose random crappy relievers on other teams and know exactly how to fix them, that goes beyond The Extra 2% to some Ninja level no one else can touch.

That seems like a rational diagnosis on Rizzo. I feel better about him now. The 2016 Cubs could be fascinating.