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Charging the Mound: What's Wrong With ...

Chris Liss

Chris Liss is RotoWire's Managing Editor and Host of RotoWIre Fantasy Sports Today on Sirius XM radio.

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).

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Tuesday, July 3, 2012 2:16pm
To: "Christopher Liss"
Subject: Charging - What's Wrong With Edition

Chris, I'm going to make this the "What's Wrong With" edition of Charging the Mound. I'll write about a few players that are performing well below expectations, and get your take on why they are where they're at and whether they are a good bet to rebound over the second half. We'll avoid any Tim Lincecum talk - that's been beaten into the ground by now. You can supply more names with your response.

What's wrong with ...

- Ricky Romero? After getting bombed again last night by the Royals, his ERA is up to 5.35, his WHIP is 1.486, his walk rate has spiked all the way to 4.74/9IP. Is he even usable in mixed leagues? Brad Evans just dumped him in Yahoo Friends & Family. The only league I own him is one where I'm basically stuck with him - AL LABR, where we can't bench a healthy guy.

- Ian Kennedy? It's a little weird talking about Kennedy as a disappointment following a good start, but he's still at a 4.20 ERA and 1.32 WHIP. Is this all just a BABIP-correction? His strikeout and walk rates are the same, his homer rate is a little worse, but he has a .338 BABIP against. I don't have him anywhere - it wasn't as if I purposefully avoided him in drafts this year, but I also didn't seek him out. I haven't watched him closely - is there anything wrong?

- Cliff Lee? For the longest time, we talked about Lee not getting any wins despite pitching pretty well. Lately, though, he hasn't been as sharp. In his last four starts his ERA has jumped from 3.18 to 4.13. Could all the innings that he's thrown the last few years started to take their toll? Or is this just a bad stretch that he'll snap out of? You traded him to me - was there something else you knew?

- Adrian Gonzalez? Is he hiding a shoulder injury? Why is he not hitting for power yet? Gonzalez has just six homers, he's hitting just .272 and he's walking far less than he did in the past. Would you buy lowest on him right now?

- Justin Smoak? We talked extensively about Smoak on Monday's show. Is it time to give up on him in mixed leagues? What do you think you can get for him in AL Tout?

- Brian McCann? McCann is hitting just .224 on the season and the Braves just dropped him down to seventh in the order. I thought that, even in a one-catcher league, I was getting a pretty good price on McCann by taking him in the 10th round in Y!F&F, but he's been a big bust. I would have been far better off taking a closer there and doing the catcher shuffle off the waiver wire, much as I did last year. For that matter, many of the big name catchers have been disappointments, too - Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana come to mind.

- Dustin Ackley? Sure, he plays in Safeco, so there's a ready explanation for him and Smoak, I suppose, but I thought he was the type of line-drive hitter that shouldn't get hurt too bad by the ballpark? Is it too simplistic to call this a sophomore slump? Or maybe expectations weren't that realistic for him anyhow? He's only had one stop where he put up killer numbers, and that was in the PCL. Otherwise, his minor league OPS was in the .770 range. Should we have checked our premise on him first?

Who else jumps to mind as big disappointments for you?

-----Original Message-----
From: "Christopher Liss"
Sent: Tuesday, July 3, 2012 5:09pm
Subject: Re: Charging - What's Wrong With Edition

I'll be honest - I don't have any answers about those particular players. Sure, I could look up their BABIP vs. career BABIP, speculate about nagging injuries, park effects, etc., but I'm just not all that inclined to do so. It's boring, and in the end, it's not usually actionable. Sometimes players just play badly for stretches and then play better for other stretches. It's not usually some hidden luck factor that will correct as soon as they stop hitting line drives right at fielders.

It's easy to understand how this would happen. The fiction is that a player is whoever he is (a .900 OPS guy, for example) in every at-bat, and luck, park and the opposing pitcher are the only things that change that. But that's plainly false as players get into grooves and slumps all the time. Anyone who has played sports at any level has experienced this. Sometimes you're seeing the ball well, sometimes you're not. Sometimes, you're guessing right, sometimes you're not. For pitchers, sometimes, their stuff is breaking and moving, sometimes not. Occasionally you need to tweak your mechanics or your swing.

The safe bet with ostensibly healthy players with good track records is that they'll bounce back. That covers everyone on this list except Smoak and Ackley. Kennedy is on the border, given his in-between sample size of playing well. Players who have played well in the past own the swing/delivery/repertoire that served them well before, and it's likely they'll find it again, barring injury.

Players like Smoak and Ackley who were merely prospects and who haven't had sustained success in the majors might or might not be able to make those adjustments. Playing at Safeco just makes it harder to get any confidence, so it's an added handicap for a young player. Still, I'd trade for either in AL LABR or Tout because they should come at a steep discount, especially Smoak who has been awful this year. But my mixed leagues, I've already cut Smoak. What's his upside in the second half - 12 homers, .260 average? I'd take that, but if that's the upside, and the downside is getting demoted, it's not like he's a major lottery ticket.

Pitchers are even more Jekyll and Hyde. Ubaldo Jimenez, Francisco Liriano and Clay Buchholz were all unfathomably bad in the first two months, and they're all pitching well of late (until Buchholz got sick). I'd definitely be buying Romero right now and anyone like him

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Tuesday, July 3, 2012 8:10pm
To: "Christopher Liss"
Subject: Re: Charging - What's Wrong With Edition

But it is actionable - every day in our leagues. We always have the choice to trade for and trade away these players. Is it my understanding that you would trade for all of these players like Gonzalez, given the appropriate discount? Or would the discount not be uniform from player to player? It's not that I disagree with you that players sometimes just slump or streak, and in those cases there's no other underlying cause. Is it enough to use a portfolio approach and trade for them all at X%, figuring that you'll win out in the balance? Can you make enough of these sorts of trades/decisions to make your correct percentage profitable?

OK, seeing as how this line of discussion might be hitting an impasse, I'll open up one other topic. I just finished a midseason update of the RotoWire 200. The ranking of players like this in a set of overall rankings is hell enough, but it's really difficult midseason. So much of midseason value, at least in roto leagues, is contextual - how much is each stolen base worth to you in your league? How bunched are the particular categories?

Moreover, how much do you weigh current performance against preseason expectations, and against a player's previous track record? When we talk about whether we believe in a particular player, you really are put to the test when you have to put him up against other elite players, especially vs. those at his same position. Two players that have been among the top starting pitchers, Jason Hammel and Kyle Lohse, I've left out entirely. Was that in error? What would you do with someone like Chris Capuano, who has both great rate stats and has benefited from enough run support to notch nine wins? I tend to give more credit to hitters off to big starts than pitchers. I think that the highest-earning hitter so far that I left out was Juan Pierre, and he registers somewhere around #75 overall among the hitters so far.

Where would you slot the following fast-starters:

- Mark Trumbo

- Edwin Encarnacion

- David Ortiz

- Jason Kipnis

- Chris Capuano

- Chris Sale

- Lance Lynn

- Matt Harrison

Who did I leave out that belongs? Who would you downgrade in a big way?

-----Original Message-----
From: "Christopher Liss"
Sent: Wednesday, July 4, 2012 1:11am
Subject: Re: Charging - What's Wrong With Edition

Yes, the discount would be roughly uniform based on their initial value and how far they've plummeted. I really don't have a preference between Justin Upton and Adrian Gonzalez, for example. They started in the same place and have both been about equally bad. I'll let other people analyze their ground ball and fly ball rates as if that's some magical indicator of what's to come. I'll just take whichever one is cheaper as both have track records that virtually ensure a bounce back at some point. And you'll almost always make a profit over the long haul buying underperforming talent. Of course, no one will sell you Gonzalez, Lee or Upton at much of a discount, so you'll have to target the Romeros whom you can get for cheap.

I'd buy into all of those guys except maybe Lynn who's getting a little exposed. And you can buy those guys high because their owners will probably be eager to sell at such a big profit. Few of those players will keep up the pace, but there's no reason to think they'll abruptly stop performing. It's time to have Encarnacion above Ryan Zimmerman, ARod and probably any other third-base qualifying player not named Jose Bautista, Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Beltre or David Wright. Where it gets tricky is if you're offered Mark Teixeira for Mark Trumbo. I'd take Teixeira, incidentally, but I'd have a tougher time between him and Encarnacion. I just looked at the RotoWire cheat sheet, and we have those three in order at first base with Encarnacion No. 7, Trumbo at No. 8 and Teixeira at No. 9. Adrian Gonzalez is No. 6 for what that's worth.

I'd certainly sell R.A. Dickey as a top-15 starter. He's a great story, but it's hard to see anyone sustaining that level, and when it goes it could happen quickly. Gio Gonzalez is another player I'd happily deal if he's fetching top-15 starter value. At the very least, the WHIP isn't likely to stay this good.

Bottom line - it's not to say I don't have my hunches on certain players, or that it's not worth doing midseason rankings - it's certainly a worthwhile exercise and entertaining reading. But individual players are unpredictable over half-seasons, and so you'd probably do better to get odds on your bet by paying less for the same payoff. That means you don't worry about who people think is going to bounce back. In fact, you should do the opposite and buy the guys on whom people have given up - provided they still have jobs, are ostensibly healthy and not 40 years old.

I'd even deal a solid player, say Alex Gordon, for Lincecum - even after today's disaster. Maybe Lincecum is battling an arm injury, but then again look how horrible Ubaldo Jimenez, Francisco Liriano and Clay Buchholz were for a month and a half.