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The Z Files: Buying High

Todd Zola

Todd has been writing about fantasy baseball since 1997. He won NL Tout Wars and Mixed LABR in 2016 as well as a multi-time league winner in the National Fantasy Baseball Championship. Todd is now setting his sights even higher: The Rotowire Staff League. Lord Zola, as he's known in the industry, won the 2013 FSWA Fantasy Baseball Article of the Year award and was named the 2017 FSWA Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year.

For some, ďbuying highĒ involves going through the drive-through of their favorite fast-food chain, or perhaps heading into a convenience store to satisfy the munchies. Trust me, you donít want me mellowerÖ or hungry. But I digress.

Several years ago, I conceived the term ďbuying highĒ as it relates to fantasy baseball.

This is the time of the season everyone is looking to buy low and sell high. The idea is to take advantage of hot starts by exchanging them for a better player slow out of the gate. On paper, it makes sense. Truth be told, Iíve probably authored a few pieces with this theme over the years.

Hereís the deal. Yes, there are a myriad of leagues where this happens. I donít mean to disparage people playing in these leagues. After all, theyíre in large part responsible for keeping bill collectors off my back. However, I donít want to play in a league where you can deal Didi Gregorius for Carlos Correa. As such, given my druthers, Iíd prefer not to write a column discussing buy-low, sell-high targets. Donít worry, others will pick up my slack.

Instead, one of my favorite ploys is buying high. You and I both agree the player will slow down. The difference is the landing point, as Iím more optimistic where he ends up. Often, this can be leveraged to swing a deal.

On a recent SiriusXM show, Jeff Erickson and Chris Liss were discussing Patrick Corbin when the subject of dealing him for Dallas Keuchel came up. Jeff used it as an example of my concept of buying high.

A few weeks back in the NFBC Main Event, Keuchelís ADP was 66, compared to 214 for Corbin. Is it possible for a 16th rounder to be a better choice than a sixth rounder for the rest of the season? Is three weeks of a schedule crushed by a record number of postponements and historically cold weather enough to make the decision? You betcha.

This is more about Corbin than it is Keuchel, though Keuchelís low strikeout total and injury history play a part. It appears Corbin has decided to increase the use of his slider, despite the fact heís a Tommy John returnee and sliders are known to increase the chance of injury. It also helps that Corbinís sliders, yes, plural, are plus pitches. Add in the humidor reducing runs in the desert, and Iíll take Corbinís higher strikeout ceiling.

Hereís more players to consider buying high on.

Gerrit Cole, SP, Houston Astros: Part and parcel to writing a column of this nature is putting forth plausible scenarios. Chances are, most drafting Cole had an inkling this might happen. OK, maybe not to this extent, but some combination of moving to the best pitcherís venue in the league (in part because it increases strikeouts while reducing walks), enjoying better run support and heading to a team suited to maximize the efficiency of his repertoire, most notably his curve, rendered Cole a sneaky pick.

However, there are some focusing on Coleís bloated ratios last season who may look to get out before the regression they expect kicks in. Sure, Cole will regress. He wonít maintain a 47 percent strikeout rate nor a 100 percent left-on-base rate. But, if Coleís owner anticipates an ERA over 4.00, thereís plenty of room to swoop in.

Sean Manaea, SP, Oakland Athletics: The news came out as the 2017 campaign came to a close. Back in the spring, Manaea had been diagnosed with ADD. The prescribed medications had side effects, including loss of appetite. Over the course of the season, the burly southpaw lost 25 pounds, along with several ticks off his fastball. Though he righted the ship down the stretch, a horrible August bloated Manaeaís seasonal numbers.

Manaeaís appetite is back, but his stuff is still lacking, which is where the buy high window comes into play. His velocity is down, availing a talking point in negotiations. Manaeaís strikeout rate reflects the drop in velocity, though his swinging strike rate portends an improvement, tempered by the punchout-suppressing nature of OaklandĖAlameda County Coliseum. The lefty is sporting an unsustainably low .169 BABIP, especially considering an above average hard-hit rate.

It may seem like Iím making a case to avoid Manaea, but itís all about expectations. Low strikeouts, more hits, thatís a bleak picture. However, Iím anticipating a return of velocity that generates more whiffs. Itís a leap of faith that he'll also continue to exhibit excellent control, but one worth taking. The key is it shouldnít take much to acquire Manaea, especially if the other party is unaware of the medication issues, now under control.

A lot of times, the best way to buy high is in a 2-for-2 deal with the buy-high target disguised as a throw-in to even the swap. For example, base the trade on your good pitcher for their good hitter, but ask to include a lesser hitter for their lesser pitcher to keep the rosters legal. In this instance, their balancing pitcher would be Manaea.

Matt Chapman, 3B, Oakland Athletics: Sticking with the Aís but moving to the hitting side of the ledger, when asked for a bold prediction in the spring, I said in a battle of Matts, Chapman would have a better season than teammate Matt Olson. This isnít a declaration of victory, as thereís 23 more weeks of production on the way. I mention it to set the scene, as I was higher on Chapman than most heading into the season, so my baseline expectation is likely higher than others.

Itís narrative, but Iíve always had a thing for outstanding fielders who need to improve contact to become better hitters. My contention is the skills supporting the glove work, like hand-eye coordination, reflexes and timing could eventually translate to the batterís box. Obviously, it doesnít happen all the time, but thereís ample anecdotal evidence for a numbers guy to have one soft spot for gut feel, not to mention a soft gut. But I digress.

To this point of the season, Chapmanís plate skills have markedly improved. Heís walking more while fanning less. As one may intuit from that combo, Chapman has been much more selective on pitches in and out of the zone. Last season, he saw 4.12 pitches per plate appearance. So far in 2018, thatís up to 4.48, allowing Chapman to pick out a good one, and hit it hard.

To buy high, I want a tangible change. With Chapman, itís his approach. Thereís no guarantee heíll sustain this level of patience. But, itís a chance Iím willing to take. Point out Chapman has never maintained a strikeout rate at this level, but you need power, so youíre willing to chance it.

DJ LeMahieu, 2B, Colorado Rockies: LeMahieu is perennially underappreciated. His primary contribution is in batting average, in a climate where everyone wants either power or speed. Whatís ignored is the ability to absorb the low batting average of those other hitters providing plus power or speed. LeMahieu chips in with runs and RBI, but heís never swatted more than 11 homers or swiped more than 23 bases.

To date, LeMahieu has left the yard five times. While still low, his fly ball rate is up. Heís pulling the ball more. Granted, itís early, and LeMahieu is on record as saying heís happy with his swing and has no intention on changing it. Still, heís not a small guy. LeMahieu is six-four and 215 lbs., so he has the frame to take advantage of Coors Field.

Approach LeMahieuís owner with the pitch that you're looking for help in batting average, downplaying the power surge. Youíll get the average, even if the power fails to subsist. And, if LeMahieu sticks at leadoff, you may even pick up some bags.

Tim Anderson, SS, Chicago White Sox: A common bond among the buy-high candidates is that I was optimistic on most of them in the spring, with Anderson no exception. Theyíre all in process of validating the allure drawing me to them. In Andersonís case, many were wary of poor plate skills; he fanned too much while being allergic to free passes. I didnít share that concern. Well, I did, but I suspected the White Sox would give Anderson a long leash, not worrying about the excessive strikeouts.

Sure enough, Anderson is still fanning at a high rate. However, heís also hitting homers and stealing bases, as expected. The buying high part refers to an elevated walk rate as Anderson is sporting, a rate nearly four times his career average. Perhaps itís circumstantial, due to facing some wild hurlers early on. Or maybe itís a conscious effort to get on base more so he can utilize his speed. For his career, Anderson is an eye-popping 33-of-36 when attempting to steal, including eight pilfers without being caught this season.

If you need stolen bases, offer power or pitching. Point out Andersonís still high strikeout pace and weak hard-hit rate, conveniently ignoring the added patience. Tell them youíre willing to absorb the low batting average. Who know, maybe youíll get aÖ wait for itÖ steal.