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3 Burning Questions (Fantasy Baseball)

by Max Freeze | @FreezeStats | Featured Writer
May 9, 2018

The weather has finally jumped from one of the colder April on record to Summer in a matter of weeks (at least in the Midwest). We have witnessed our second no-hitter of 2018 from James Paxton against the Toronto Blue Jays. James “Big Maple” Paxton walked three while striking out seven in only 99 pitches! The AL West is home to both no-hitters of 2018, but neither of them is on the Houston staff that is on pace to be one of the best pitching staffs in the modern era. That may be motivation for an article down the road, but it’s a little too early in the season to start crowning the Astros. I’ll discuss one of those ace(s) later on, but first let’s look at two waiver wire pickups.

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Which Over-Performing Pitcher Are you Buying into?

Caleb Smith and Trevor Cahill are both performing at very high levels and their performance to date has been beneficial to fantasy owners. The sample sizes have been small for both pitchers, 24 innings for Cahill, and 32.1 innings for Smith, so of course regression is likely to set in at some point. Both pitchers sport strikeout rates north of 33% which even in today’s game is considered elite. That’s about where the similarities end as Smith is a 26-year-old former Yankees prospect with 53 Major League innings to his name; where Cahill is a 30-year-old journeyman starter/middle reliever with over 1,200 innings to his name. So, which pitcher should you be buying into?

Let’s check the comparison of these two pitchers in the limited data we have to date in 2018.

Name Team Season IP K% BB% BABIP LOB% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB w OBA
Trevor Cahill OAK 2018 24 33.7% 6.5% 0.283 79.2% 59.6% 26.9% 14.3% 14.3% 0.260
Caleb Smith MIA 2018 34.1 33.8% 12.0% 0.260 75.6% 31.6% 47.4% 19.4% 11.1% 0.272

 
Based on the wOBA for both pitchers, each has earned their superb numbers to date. Smith has been able to suppress his opponents BABIP by allowing a high percentage of fly balls which have a lower BABIP than any other batted ball (line drive or ground ball). He’s also been able to turn nearly 20% of those fly balls into infield fly balls which as we know are basically automatic outs. I’d argue that Smith’s BABIP should actually be a little lower based on the batted ball data. The issue with giving up so many fly balls is, of course, the long ball, something Smith has been able to keep in check at 11% HR/FB.

Looking Smith’s pitch mix (fastball, slider, change), his slider and changeup are very good. Both pitches induce a ton of swings and misses, nearly double the league average. Here’s my issue with Smith; it’s his fastball. Over the course of Smith’s short career (53 innings), when his fastball has been put in play, it’s elevated an incredible 85% of the time! Hitters are slugging .600 against Smith’s fastball in those 53 innings. How often does he throw that pitch? Nearly 60% of the time. Some of those numbers are inflated from a few poor innings in 2017, since then there has been some improvements early in 2018, but again, it’s a small sample.

Cahill, on the other hand, is the clear winner in terms of limiting walks and getting ground balls. These are two very different pitchers, but both do have subpar fastballs at about 93 mph. Cahill has decided to limit his fastball usage to only 7.6% (36% for the sinker) which has led to his success. His changeup has been nearly unhittable as it’s limited hitters to a 0.035 batting average and induces whiffs at nearly three times the league average. The change gets a ton of grounders as well, but not at the rate of his sinker which has a 72% ground ball rate. The sinker is not a strikeout pitch but doesn’t need to be as it limits damage when put in play. Don’t sleep on his curveball, it’s also been a solid secondary strikeout pitch as well.

Longevity is going to be the issue with both pitchers. Smith has never thrown over 135 innings and Cahill hasn’t thrown over 100 innings since 2014! Smith has the luxury of pitching half his games in the pitcher-friendly Marlins Park and even though Cahill gets to call the Oakland Coliseum home, Smith benefits more with his fly ball tendencies. That being said, I’m leaning towards the Cahill side even if you only get another 80-100 innings from him. With Smith, I believe the strikeouts will be there but I think he’s playing with fire a little bit. The free passes and fly balls could lead to some long, hot summer days where Smith gives up multiple homers and crooked numbers. He’s also going to be capped at around 150 innings. I’d rather have 100 very good innings from Cahill for 2018 than 150 up and down innings from Smith. If you’re in a keeper or dynasty league, however, you have to hold Smith. The strikeouts along with good secondary stuff may turn him into a fantasy number three or four in the coming years.

Ronald Acuna or Gleyber Torres ROS?
Both uber prospects got their call-ups at the end of April and neither has disappointed thus far. On the surface, Acuna is the clear winner in terms of fantasy upside with his combination of high-end power and speed. Torres however, is no slouch in either department but has been pegged as more of a moderate power/speed threat. That being said each has a couple of home runs and a steal as we enter the second week of May.

Update: You blink and Acuna hits another bomb; he’s now got three on the year.

Acuña currently comes in as the 7th fastest average sprint speed per BaseballSavant while Torres is tied for 63rd. We all know about the power, Acuña’s home runs have been moon shots. That being said, you don’t have to hit the ball 450 feet to get one out. We’ve seen plenty of young prospects hit for moderate power in terms of production in the minors but come up and look like legitimate power hitters. Look no further than Torres’ teammate Gary Sanchez. In terms of launch angle, Acuña and Torres are just about identical at near 18 degrees. For Torres, I love that and he calls Yankee Stadium home for half his games. Yes, Yankee Stadium is better for lefties but this is an advantage for Torres nonetheless. That’s where the advantages start and end for Torres.

If I’m being honest, Acuña is an absolute beast for a 20-year-old kid. His 93.9 mph average exit velocity puts him in the top 15 overall ahead guys like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Jose Abreu. Acuña has also done the amazing by cutting his strikeout rate to 18.4%. The last time his K rate was that low was in Single-A. In this small sample, he’s clearly not over-matched by Major League pitching, he’s attacking them and succeeding. I’ve seen nothing from Acuna thus far that tells me he can’t hit 30 home runs as a rookie. I just don’t see that from Torres and we haven’t even discussed lineup placement.

Torres has been stuck between the 7th and 9th spots in the lineup, albeit in a very potent AL lineup. However, the production from the bottom third of the order is a hit to Torres’ upside and there isn’t much room to move up with Stanton, Judge, Gregorius (I can’t believe he’s in this category), and Sanchez in the middle. Acuna on the hand has already been moved up to the number two spot in the order sandwiched between Albies and Freeman. If I’m a betting man (and I’m not), I’d put bog dollars down on Acuna in this one. The steals might be lower than anticipated, but the power numbers should exceed the expectations. Torres will hold his own, but won’t be on Acuna’s level for 2018.

How high to too High for Gerrit Cole?

Clayton Kershaw is out for what may be three to four weeks but recent reports have said that he can begin throwing next week. What does this mean for the big four? Enter Gerrit Cole. Cole is doing his best to become a member of the elite group of pitchers that includes Scherzer, Kluber, Sale, and previously Kershaw. Yes, I’m dropping Kershaw out of this group for now due to both the injury and his very good, not great performance to date. Gerrit Cole is doing something he’s never done before to start the season; he’s second in the league in ERA at 1.42 behind teammate Justin Verlander and second in the league in strikeouts with 77, three behind Max Scherzer.

Speaking of Max Scherzer, I’ve heard this comparison recently and thought I’d take a look. Sure enough, both players we 1st round draft picks with sky-high expectations. Both had some success early, but struggled to be the real Ace that everyone anticipated. Fair or unfair for a 22/23-year-old, immense hype brings instant success expectations for fans. What struck me is the lack of high-end swing and miss stuff despite quality arsenals from both young pitchers. Scherzer enjoyed his breakout at age 27 with the Tigers where his K/9 went up nearly two strikeouts per nine innings. Cole is currently in his age 27 season and has by far the best strikeout numbers of his career. Let’s check the comparison between these two pitchers at age 26 and 27.

Before Breakout
Player Season Age K% FB% SwStr% FB/SI Velocity
Scherzer 2011 26 20.9% 39.5% 9.9% 93.9
Cole 2017 26 23.1% 33.7% 9.5% 96.2
After Breakout
Player Season Age K% FB% SwStr% FB/SI Velocity
Scherzer 2012 27 29.4% 41.5% 12.4% 95.0
Cole 2018 27 41.9% 43.6% 16.4% 96.6

 
I’ve included the fastball velocities for two reasons; the slight jump in velocity, but also the ability for both pitchers to effectively use the fastball up in the zone. Cole and Scherzer, as a result of the high heat, allow a high percentage of fly balls in an era where everyone is hitting the ball in the air. You have to execute with acute accuracy and also be damn good to succeed in this day and age, and these two certainly do. That combination helped vault these pitchers into the next level not only by getting swings and misses with the pitch, but also to help set up their excellent secondary pitches. In 2011, Scherzer’s fastball registered a negative pitch value on FanGraphs, it was his worst pitch. In 2012, it registered a positive value and took off from there to become the elite pitch we all know. Cole’s fastball last year while not terrible, was only slightly above average. This year, it’s the best fastball in the league per FanGraphs pitch value.

At this point, we have to expect regression because let’s be honest, he’s not Bob Gibson from 1968. What’s fascinating to me is that all the advanced metrics show that his ERA should be sub 2.00. That’s pretty incredible if you think about it. The way Cole is throwing right now, there’s no reason for me to not place him inside the top four starting pitcher for the rest of the season. Other candidates for the top four include Justin Verlander, Luis Severino, and Noah Syndergaard. The ability to have an elite strikeout rate while limiting walks along with sustained health is the key to this club. I’m a believer in Cole, his ability to deliver on those categories puts him at number four overall for starting pitcher for the rest of the season. I haven’t seen enough from any other pitcher this year to show me otherwise.

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Max Freeze is a correspondent at FantasyPros. For more from Max, check out his archive and follow him @FreezeStats.

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