Hey, Fantasy Baseball King here. In “Fire and Ice,” I’ll analyze the past 2 weeks’ performances, and using my best combination of statistical analysis, baseball knowledge, charm, and pure crystal ball wizadry provide you with a plan of action for the coming week.
Fire – But will they stay hot?
Jonny Gomes – Jonny’s set the baseball world aflame over the past week, raising his batting average from .227 on April 10 all the way to .268 on April 16. During that time span, he also smacked 4 homers, drove in 8 RBI’s, and helped Reds’ fans cope with the thus-far poor performance of Jay Bruce.
Analysis: Jonny Gomes has only had more than 500 at-bats in his career once (2010). In that season, he hit a useful but not studly .266/.328/.431 with 18 HR, 86 RBI, 77 R, and 5 SB. That was good for a 104 OPS+, which is actually less than his career mark of 110. Perhaps he is better suited as a part-time platoon player and occasional pinch hitter, getting 300-400 at-bats per season. Statistically, his best year was 2009, in which he hit .267/.338/.541 with an astounding 20 homers in only 314 at-bats. Notice an outlier there? His slugging percentage was 80 points higher than his career average. Now in 2011, his dash line is .268/.456/.683 (notice that nice outlier again). Of course, it’s early, so not much can be said about ratios. The important thing to do is see why they are what they are. In this case, Jonny Gomes is walking at an incredible 26.3% in 2011. His career mark is 9.6%. What do YOU think the chances are of him keeping this up? If he were 25 years old and coming into his own, I may buy a sudden increase in maturity. But he’s not; he’s 30, and simply put – he is what he is. Look for Gomes to finish somewhere around what he does every year, and what ZiPs predicted he would – .256/.335/.464.
Fantasy Baseball King’s Bold Prediction: .263, 22 HR, 70 RBI, 60 R, 8 SB
Jeff Francoeur – Ahh, good ole’ Frenchy. Once dubbed “The Natural,” great things used to be expected of Mr. Francoeur. But after 5 seasons in Atlanta, 1.5 in Queens, and a post-season run in Texas, The Natural was finally banished to baseball’s not-so-green pasture, Kansas City. There, he was expected to graze on the tasty grass until he eventually grew old, fell over, and ended up being served for dinner. But as he has done many a time before, Jeff Francoeur doesn’t like being told what he cannot do. Instead, he put together a 6 game hit streak from April 9 – April 15, raising his season batting average to .327 in the process and, once again, forcing baseball’s analysts to take a look and wonder.
Analysis: Oh Jeff, you’re so coy! You’ve done this before, haven’t you? No? Don’t try to deny it…in April, 2010, you maintained a beautiful .886 OPS and smashed 4 homers, and back in 2007 you got that April OPS all the way up to .908 while hitting 5 round-trippers. But in the end, you always end up being nothing more than Fool’s Gold. Why, some may ask, won’t 2011 be any different? Well, his BB rate, for starters, is an abysmal (even by his terrible standards) 3.4%, and his BABIP is .340 (41 points above his career rate of .299). This all but proves that Jeff Francoeur, despite having a broad smile and a rifle of an arm, is encountering a wonderful streak of good fortune. But lady luck won’t have his back all season, and there’s no reason at all to believe his numbers are anywhere near sustainable. They simply aren’t.
Fantasy Baseball King’s Bold Prediction: .273, 15 HR, 75 RBI, 70 R, 7 SB (while still refusing to take a walk)
Alexi Ogando – “Who?” the common fantasy baseball fan may have asked when first putting together his or her preseason draft lists. A converted reliever, Ogando threw all of 111.2 innings in the minors, but started only 3 games. His minor league numbers were incredible; he posted a 1.37 ERA while K’ing 12.6 batters per 9 innings pitched. Perhaps even more amazing, he did this while walking a measly 1.9 batters per 9 innings pitched. And yet, as relief pitchers often are, he was left off any and all top prospect lists. Still, his talent was obvious, and when the decision was made that Neftali Feliz would remain the Texas Rangers’ closer in 2011, a decision was reached that, if a SP could be transformed into a closer, then surely a RP could become a starter. Preseason predictions are difficult to analyze, as most analysts were betting on Feliz joining the rotation, and Ogando being a member of the Rangers’ bullpen. But the ratio predictions were still good, with ZiPs projecting a 9.15 K/9, 3.05 ERA, and 62.0 IP in relief work. As a starter, Ogando has astounded even his most ardent backers, posting back-to-back stunning performances against the Mariners and Tigers. Through his first 2 starts, he allowed only 4 hits in 13 IP and has yet to give up a run (neither earned nor unearned). Surprisingly, his K-rate has been low at 5.5, but cold weather could be to blame.
Analysis: Alexi Ogando is obviously a very, very talented pitcher. According to the stat-analyst gurus over at FanGraphs, “the 14.4 MPH separation between Ogando’s fastball and slide was the third largest gap in baseball [in 2010].” That brings to mind watching Stephen Strasburg mix in a 101 MPH fastball with a 95 MPH slider and 87 MPH changeup, or R.A. Dickey throwing knuckleballs anywhere from 55 MPH – 80 MPH. But the fact remains so blatantly obvious- this is a relief pitcher who has 3…yes, THREE career professional starts. I foresee the Rangers being very careful with Ogando (although I was surprised they allowed him to go 7 innings in his 2nd start), possibly pulling him after 5 innings in some games “just because,” or even occasionally skipping a start to keep his arm fresh. Whatever they choose to do, they’ll need to do something, as this is a fairly unprecedented decision. Although relievers have been transformed into starters in the past, they have always been eased into the role, not thrust head-first into the fire. Finally, despite it only being 2 starts, there are already signs of danger. His opponents’ BABIP is a miniscule .118, meaning that, although Ogando is indeed pitching well, he’s also enjoying a little bit of good luck. Expect some bumps in the road, but overall a decent season with a fair number of K’s seems to be looming.
Fantasy Baseball King’s Bold Prediction: 10 W, 3.45 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 140 IP, 125 K (Note: Since this was written, Ogando pitched against the Yankees Sunday night. He went 6.1 innings, giving up 6 hits, 5 ER (including 3 HR), while striking out only 1 batter. The disastrous evening raises Ogando’s 2011 season ERA from 0.00 to 2.33. The Fantasy Baseball King’s Bold Prediction remains the same.)
Aaron Harang – Blah. Could a more boring name have come up on this list? Well, like it or not, Harang is deserving. Perhaps, though, I’m being unfair. After all, Harang has an above average 102 career ERA+, has won 10+ games 4 times in his career, and was quite durable from 2004 through 2008. But Harang epitomizes the phrase “mid-rotation starter,” and in these days at age 33, that may be pushing the envelope. And yet, there’s simply no denying Harang’s great start to the 2011 season. He’s been simply dominant in a way that he only merely approached in his heyday of 2006-2007. Will it continue?
Analysis: The much cited ZiPs projected Harang to have a pretty decent season, but nothing particularly fantasy-starter worthy. 8 wins combined with a 4.23 ERA and 7.05 K/9 (original ZiPs pre-season projection) can only get a fantasy owner so far. But with Harang already almost halfway to his projected win-total, I’m seeing 2011 as a mini (and probably last renaissance) for the 33-year-old veteran. Benefiting largely from a .250 opposing BABIP (compared to his career rate of .308), and probably benefiting from getting 2 of his 3 starts against the basically punchless Giants and Astros, Harang is due for a return to Planet Earth. Still, if his health stays strong throughout the season, I foresee him sneaking by those ZiPs projections by just a tad. And after all, pitching in Petco (2 of 3 starts thus far have been at home) for half his starts certainly can’t hurt.
Fantasy Baseball King’s Bold Prediction: 12 W, 3.85 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 175 IP, 153 K
Josh Beckett – He is no secret to the fantasy baseball community. Having amassed 114 victories since his inaugural season in 2001, he’s been to 2 All-Star Games, finished 2nd in the 2007 Cy Young race, and led the league in wins the very same year. In short, he’s had a great career and several fantasy owners owe trophies due to his exploits. But injuries have often been a problem, and since Beckett became a full-time starter in 2002, he’s hit the magical 200-inning mark only 3 times. 2010 was no different, as Beckett started only 21 games, posting an awful 5.78 ERA along the way. Still, his SO/9 (8.2) and BB/9 (3.2) were extremely close to his career averages, so the fact that his opponents BABIP soared to .338 (career, .294) probably had something to do with the negative results…mixed in, of course, with the injuries. So fantasy owners have every right to keep expectations at bay when Beckett gets off to a fast start. The question will always loom– “When will a blister keep him out for a month?” Nevertheless, it’s impossible to ignore what he’s done thus far. He’s dominating hitters like vintage-Beckett, K’ing them at an incredible 10.35 per 9 IP while keeping the walks under control. His 2nd start of the season was particularly enchanting, as Beckett stepped into the limelight and mowed down 10 Yankee batters over 8 innings pitched, allowing only 2 hits and 0 runs in the process.
Analysis: Beckett is 31 years old, which is smack in the middle of the “end of prime, beginning of decline” period for players, particularly pitchers with injury histories. While it’s difficult to find much fault at all in his 2011 performance, it is necessary to point out that opposing batters are only managing a .217 BABIP against him. When taken in context with his career rate of .294, it’s obvious that Beckett is benefiting from some extra charm. Moreover, his K-rate is at an all-time high and, considering his velocity is NOT, and his control is NOT (3.15/9 walk rate compared to career average of 2.78), something seems amiss. Beckett is due for a regression but, much like Ogando and Harang, should have a good year. Pitching for the Red Sox only helps, of course, and if he can stay healthy, he could even remain dominant…just not Cy Young-quality dominant.
Fantasy Baseball King’s Bold Prediction: 14 W, 3.67 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 165 IP, 156 K
Ice – But will the ice thaw?
Carlos Santana – This was not how Carlos Santana’s season was supposed to start. Entering 2011 as a Top 5 catcher off the board, most analysts had Santana pegged for a huge season. In a 15-10 football-style game opener, the young catcher went 3-for-5 with a homer and 3 RBI’s, making those analysts look very smart. But the heat emanating from Santana’s flame has cooled, and his bat is as ice cold as they can possibly come. After an 0 for 4 performance against the Angels on April 13, Santana officially dipped below the dreaded “Mendoza Line,” and is mired in a 1 for 7 slump ever since.
Analysis: Young catchers are probably the hardest players to project. Yes, in my opinion, harder even than young pitchers. Not only do they have to learn how to guard the plate, but they must manage each pitcher’s different emotions, approaches, and temperaments, and on top of all that, do something with the bat at the plate. Perhaps that’s why so many top catching prospects (Ben Davis, Jeff Mathis, Jeff Clement to name just a few off the top of my head) fail. But let’s be fair here; Santana’s career is nowhere near its end. It has barely started! The man has all of 246 career at-bats in the Majors now, and in that sample size he’s managed a .244/.374/.416 dash line with 7 homers and 28 RBI’s. Not too bad, especially for a young catcher. Expectations were extraordinarily high, perhaps too high, entering the season. ZiPs had him at .248/.366/.425 with 16 HR, 70 RBI, and 70 R, which would easily put him in the top tier of offensive catchers. On the plus side, his BABIP is a paltry .211, which simply MUST improve, and he’s actually striking out less than ever (MLB and minors included). Remember, he’s also coming back from a horrible season-ending injury from 2010. His time will come, but it may not be now. I’d expect a definite improvement going forward, but let’s give him at least one full season before dubbing him the 2nd coming of Victor Martinez.
Fantasy Baseball King’s Bold Prediction: .265, 18 HR, 75 RBI, 71 R, 5 SB
Ben Francisco – From 2007 through 2011, Ben Francisco has played in 373 Major League games, but never accumulated as much as 500 plate appearances in a single season, so he certainly hasn’t been called upon to be an every day player…until this season. With injuries to the Phillies’ starting lineup, Francisco has been a permanent member of the everyday team, and up until recently, had performed wonderfully. In fact, if you had asked me last week, I may have put him in the “Fire” section of this column. But reality has sunk in and Ben has plummeted back to Earth. Since April 8, he’s gone 4 for his last 23 at-bats, all the while watching his batting average sink from .357 all the way to .275.
Analysis: What did anybody really expect? This is Ben Francisco, and there’s a reason he’s always been a platoon player. Now, that’s not saying he’s a bad player. In fact. Ben’s had an above average batting career, cobbling together a lifetime 105 OPS+. But he’s also a flawed player. He doesn’t walk enough to off-set his inability to hit close to .300, and doesn’t have enough power to justify his strikeout rate (2011, 20.8%; career, 20.4%). With Domonic Brown now on the DL, he’ll get continued playing time, and while he’ll have his moments, I wouldn’t expect much. In deep leagues, you could make a case to stash him on the bench for when he gets hot. But he shouldn’t be owned in the typical 10 or 12 Roto leagues.
Fantasy Baseball Kings Bold Prediction: .265, 15 HR, 64 RBI, 58 R, 12 SB
Daisuke Matsuzaka – (2 Starts) 0 W, 12.86 ERA, 2.71 WHIP, 7.0 IP, 14 H, 4 K Season Stats: Same
I used to live in Tokyo, so the term “Sekai-no aiisu” (Ace of the World) is one I’ve been aware of for quite some time. For now, let’s redistribute that title to Yu Darvish, and instead analyze just what’s happening to the former media darling and big-name starting pitcher, Mr. Matsuzaka. Battling back from an injury in 2010, Matsuzaka’s start to 2011 has been less than inspiring. In fact, it’s been visibly putrid. While going 5 innings and allowing 6 hits and 3 runs in his first start back could have been deemed “passable” considering his injuries, Matsuzaka’s recent performance against Tampa erased all hope that he was back to being Sekai-no aiisu. Allowing 7 earned runs on 8 hits, the former star didn’t even make it out of the 2nd inning. He is now owned in only 7% of all Yahoo public leagues, and perhaps, rightfully so.
Analysis: As a former resident of Tokyo, Japanese language speaker, and having worked for a Japanese corporation, I always take a special interest in the MLB players representing Nihon (Japanese for Japan). But truth be told, Matsuzaka simply has been a bad pitcher since 2009. In Japan, pitchers are overworked, often asked to throw 150+ pitches per game, and undergo full throwing sessions on off days. It’s no wonder then that the aces that do make it here (Hideo Nomo comes to mind) don’t last very long before succumbing to injury or simply failing to be effective. In Matsuzaka’s case, it’s been both. His K-rate has fallen off the map, to the point it’s threatening to go below 5 with another bad start (now sitting at 5.14), and he’s walking over 6 batters per 9 innings. ZiPs had projected a decent, but not great season for Matsuzka, but certainly that he’d at least be able to strike people out (they pegged him at 8.14./9IP) and win some games. There IS a silver lining here. Trust me, it took me a while but I finally found it! Opposing batters are hitting an otherworldly .407 against him with balls in play, something which, I hope, is not sustainable. Still, his career mark is .324, so even if/when it comes down, I’m not sure how much it will change the outcome of his performances if he can’t strike anybody out or stop walking the entire lineup. He had a tremendous amount of talent when he arrived Stateside in 2007. Unfortunately, I’m not seeing much of it left in the tank. Expect a good start here or there, but unless something changes drastically, don’t touch him.
Fantasy Baseball King’s Bold Prediction: 6 W, 4.75 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 135 IP, 98 K (Note: This was written before his Monday start, but nothing I said changes.)
Francisco Liriano – Well, it certainly hasn’t been pretty. And yet it we all thought it WOULD be so, so, so pretty. Liriano got some pretty hefty Cy Young support last season, and rightfully so. As such, analysts throughout the land pretty much unanimously pegged him for another big season. The signs of concern should have been obvious to us earlier, though. His September 2010 ERA was 4.59, which ballooned to 4.82 during 2011 Spring Training. But still, we remained optimistic. This was Francisco Liriano! He was supposed to be the next Johan Santana, but got derailed by injuries after his amazing 2006 season (12-3, 2.16 ERA). Still, he battled like a warrior and came back to become a legit frontline starter in 2010. So what’s going on that’s made it so bad that, in his last start, Liriano decided to change things up entirely by throwing underhanded the entire game? Yes, it was admittedly an experiment via the urging of his manager and pitching coach to get his control back, but still…is there any hope?
Analysis: I’m a believer. I’ll go out and just state it. You don’t even need to read the rest of my analysis. . . . Okay, yeah, you should. Liriano is having problems right now, mainly with control. While he’s never been capable of a great Greg Maddux impression, he got his BB/9 down to a very decent 2.72 last year. But now it’s ballooned to 5.65. While his K-rate is still respectable at 7.53, his stuff hasn’t been electrifying enough to overcome his wildness. Now, we’re still not in Oliver Perez territory, so all is well on that front. And now, the flash of light, the hope for you’ve been waiting for—- Francisco Liriano, much like his predecessor Johan Santana, is a notoriously slow starter. His career ERA’s in April and May are 5.23 and 4.75, respectively. After that, June, July and August are 3.27, 2.92, and 3.54. My advice is to sit him until he gets going. Maybe he just can’t pitch in the cold. I don’t know. But what I DO know is that he is still a bona fide stud, and will prove that come the warmer months of the season. Keep with him; you’ll be happy you did.
Fantasy Baseball King’s Bold Prediction: 15 W, 3.38 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 195 IP, 191 K
James McDonald – A big sleeper entering 2011, James McDonald has made 19 spot starts and appeared in many more relief appearance for the Dodgers and Pirates since he was 23 in 2008. Over that period, he put together a career ERA around 4.00, and struck out about 8.5 batters per 9 innings. He appeared ready for a full time gig after taking over in August 2010. From that point through the end of the season (11 starts), he won 4 games, had 3 starts lasting into the 7th inning, and struck out more than 6 batters 3 times (he struck out exactly 6 batters 4 times). He seemed primed to be a good, middle-of-the-rotation starter. Perhaps nothing special, but the kind of guy who could pull a rabbit out of a hat once in a while and be effective enough to help both the Pirates and fantasy owners. The Pirates have been gentle with him, pulling him after only 4.2 innings pitched in his first start (after 4 hits and 2 earned runs) and trying to ease him into the full-time role. But his next two starts proved to be disasters, and he now enters his 4th start sporting a filthy (not in a good way) 7.47 ERA.
Analysis: McDonald was always known as a strikeout pitcher. Sporting a fastball in the mid-90’s, he boasts 4 minor league seasons in which he K’d over 9 batters per 9 innings. He hasn’t been doing that this year though. With starts so far in St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati, it’s definitely possible that the cold weather is making him either hesitant or unable to throw his best stuff. His career ERA in April (8 games) is 7.80, but in May (5 games), 2.08, and June (3 games), 1.59, so there’s reason here for hope. Of course, it then blows up to 5.40 in July, so I’m not sure that time-based consistency has yet been established in McDonald’s game. Although he’s 26 years old, he’s only thrown 156.1 innings at the big league level, so he’s basically a 2nd year player. I wouldn’t expect amazing things out of him this year, but if you can start him in the right conditions (warm weather, struggling lineups or teams with free-swingers), you may be happily surprised by some nice outings and strikeout performances. Sit him for now until he gets things under control, but don’t jump ship just yet. If he continues to stink through March, put his breakout off another year.
Fantasy Baseball King’s Bold Prediction: 9 W, 4.35 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 135 IP, 98 K