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Mound Musings: Two-Strike Studs

Brad Johnson

For more than 25 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.

As we progress through the season, most editions of the Musings focus on a fairly specific topic - maybe it's prospects, trade fallout, scouting reports or any of a number of things readers have asked me to discuss. Given that format, there are almost always things I would like to include, but they don't quite fit that week's topic, or they are jus brief snippets that don't require a full article. Therefore, I am going to take this opportunity to throw out a few rambling observations - food for thought if you will. Always remember, this is intended to be an interactive forum, I encourage comments and discussion, and I'll pretty much always offer an opinion! Let's get to it:

Something to watch for -
I'll begin this rambling edition of Musings with the answer to a question I see all the time. What do you look for when evaluating a pitcher? If you're not used to doing it, it can be challenging to watch a pitcher, and then decide whether he has what it takes to be a long term help in fantasy. I'd like to share a scenario I watch for all the time. It's pretty easy to determine velocity, even movement and repertoire when you watch, but how do you really judge some important other factors like mound demeanor, command and confidence?

Here's the scenario. It's the seventh inning, two outs, a runner on second and your pitcher is nursing a one-run lead. He gets the count to 1-2 and is preparing to deliver his next pitch. I love this situation. It often tells me a lot! I am now looking for about three tip-offs that go a long way in determining whether your man has what it takes to consistently help your team.

First, note his body language on the mound. Watch for an attitude of "you're mine now" as he looks in for his sign. Minimal fidgeting, standing tall and an almost arrogant expression are all positive signs. Next on the list is confidence. If your guy seems destined to throw only a fastball, or some other specific pitch, I get a little uneasy. If you see it coming, so does the hitter. The pitcher with promise could throw almost anything in his arsenal now, and make it a quality offering. Finally, critically evaluate the result of that next pitch. With command, your pitcher will throw a variety of pitches as this scenario repeats itself, and while that next pitch may or may not result in an out, they will almost always be somewhere other than the middle of the plate, and they will rarely be "easy takes" - pitches that the hitter can ignore from the moment they leave the pitcher's hand because it is clear the pitch won't be near the strike zone.

Virtually nothing will get a pitcher removed from my watch list more quickly than allowing solid contact with a two-strike count, especially at a critical point in a game. The good ones don't give up hits in that situation. In essence, they have the consistent ability to put hitters away when the count is in their favor.

Who are some of the best at this? This year (and not surprisingly most years) Felix Hernandez is the master. His batting average against with two strikes is an insane .100 (he's the only starting pitcher in the top 25) and his WHIP is 0.50. Yu Darvish is also consistently very good in these situations, which allows him to so frequently get out of trouble even if he puts a few too many runners on base. You can add Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale too - no big surprise with those guys.

But here are a few names that may not be so widely publicized and have shown a knack for putting away hitters. That makes them someone to watch in my scheme. Jake Arrieta (his numbers are actually very similar to Hernandez), Tyson Ross, Kevin Gausman, and Andrew Cashner all perform much better than league average when they have hitters in a two-strike count. Obviously there are other factors to consider, but this is a very useful angle when evaluating pitcher upside. And I'll leave this topic with one more little point to ponder - the top closers routinely outperform other pitchers in these situations. A reliever who excels here could be someone to watch if a closer's gig should appear on the horizon. One standout - consider the Yankees' Dellin Betances (.073 BAA with two strikes, third lowest).

Gloves on parade -
I have mentioned this before, but I am going to say it again just to underscore what an exceptional fielder can mean to a pitching staff. I offer as my case in point, Andrelton Simmons, who makes me light headed. Any pitcher he lines up behind moves up a notch and if the hurler is a groundball pitcher, move him up two or three. On Tuesday night, he turned an ankle, was on crutches Wednesday and could be on the shelf mending for a few days. Take him -- just him -- out of the lineup, and I would actually bump Atlanta starting pitchers down slightly. I was lucky enough to see Ozzie Smith play many times, and I thought no one would ever match his impact on a game with the glove. I'm having to reevaluate that stance these days.

Give me the free swingers -
I really do know the booming bats of some teams can be disastrous to your guy on the mound, but those booming bats tend to swing a lot, and there is benefit in that. I hate elevated pitch counts. Patient teams, especially those full of slap hitters make me crazy. They may need to string a few hits, and a few poorly placed walks, together, but they do it too often and your pitcher ends up with a 40-pitch inning and a six-inning outing. I'd much rather have my guys facing the Atlanta's or Miami's - teams full of players who come out of their shoes with every swing, but let me stay away from some of those "patient" teams like Oakland, or even Minnesota. Those free swingers do occasionally connect, and it hurts, but it's often of the solo variety and I never seem to feel the damage quite so much.

How good is he? -
I watched Clayton Kershaw's start against the Angels the other night and it reminded me of something that can be forgotten at times. The Angels are a tough team, and Kershaw clearly didn't have his best stuff early. The second and third innings were both frustrating and exhausting. However, he got past them, went seven innings (the tough times did limit how deep he could pitch in the game), and he left in line for a win, with decent, albeit not great, peripherals. The average pitcher, or even most slightly above average pitchers, would not have made it out of the third. He would have given you lousy stats, and getting into the bullpen that early could easily have lead to a loss for the starter. That is a big part of why Kershaw and pitchers like him are elite. They survive the tough starts, and they flourish most of the time. When they don't have their best stuff - it happens to every pitcher - they adjust on the fly and limit the damage. Sometimes they even find a pitch or sequence that is on.

There you have it - a few rambling thoughts on what to watch for, who to watch, and often overlooked factors when evaluating pitching for fantasy teams.

Some Notable Rotation Ramblings

Masahiro Tanaka threw (off flat ground) earlier in the week and it reportedly went well. He is hoping to avoid Tommy John surgery, which would at this point cost him all or most of next season. He's not out of the woods yet by any means, but it's possible he could return this season.

On Monday, Taijuan Walker was torched in a start for Triple-A Tacoma and there are mounting concerns regarding him. Management voiced displeasure recently, and there were whispers that the Mariners discussed him in trade talks. I am actually going to bump him down on my watch list.

One of the more surprising success stories would be Jacob DeGrom. He was just named NL Rookie of the Month for July, and his confidence on the mound is evident. Be aware, though, the Mets have said they want him to stay at no more than 185 innings this year, and he is likely to be shut down in September.

On the flip side, Matt Cain has been a huge disappointment, but at least we now have a reason for his struggles. He has had bone chips removed from his elbow and should be 100 percent heading into next season. I have a hunch he'll come back with a vengeance so add him to your draft day targets.

Pitchers displaying breakout numbers, and the skills to make those numbers last are a frequent topic here, but I want to add one more name to the list. The A's Sonny Gray has what it takes to be even better (despite a shaky start last time out). Just an FYI, he also fits the success in two-strike count angle (.148 BAA).

I have always seen promise in Brett Anderson, and he is even a consideration pitching in Colorado, but that guy just cannot stay healthy. He suffered from back spasms in his start earlier this week, and it sounds like yet another trip to the disabled list is in his future. I usually don't concern myself with injuries, but ...

Endgame Odyssey

The Rangers installed Neftali Feliz as their closer after dealing Joakim Soria and so far the results have been mixed. They are out of it this season and likely auditioning him for 2015 and beyond. I'm not completely sold on him. ... I love watching Trevor Rosenthal. His command can be a little spotty at times still, but he is nasty. ... Joaquin Benoit is holding down the end game spot in the Padres bullpen, but I still think there is a chance he could be dealt. There is no clear-cut heir-apparent, but I lean to Kevin Quackenbush or you long shot players might think about Casey Kelly. Maybe? ... Jenrry Mejia was being bothered by some back stiffness, but the Mets are saying there is no reason for concern so it may be a non-factor. ... Zach Putnam is close to returning, and so is Matt Lindstrom, so what will the White Sox do in the end game? While closer Jacob Petricka has done a respectable job, there is a good chance Lindstrom will get the chance to win his job back. ... Teams used to shy away from left-handed closers, but the list of successful southpaws is growing. Guys like Aroldis Chapman, Glen Perkins, Sean Doolittle, Zach Britton and Jake McGee are making a convincing case for pitchers on the left side being given equal consideration.