6 Players to Buy/Sell (Fantasy Baseball)
It’s time for another installment of pitcher buy/sell, and this time I promise there are absolutely no Cubs. We do have one Phillies starter to buy and one to sell, but we begin with the Dodgers left-hander whose breakout 2017 season helped lead me to a fantasy championship.
Players to Buy
Alex Wood (LAD)
Wood almost made my “buy” list a couple times before, but this week he officially makes the cut and earns my full endorsement.
Wood is an interesting case because there are some aspects of his performance that scream “buy” and others that scream “sell.” A Wood pessimist could point out that his velocity is nowhere near where it was when he was dominating at this time last season, his strikeout rate is down for the second year in a row, and his BABIP allowed and HR/FB rate allowed thus far are both below what he typically permits.
But I believe the pros on Wood outweigh the cons. Thanks to his elite control, Wood has one of the best strikeout-to-walk ratios in the game. He has a proven track record of inducing a lot of ground balls, which should keep him from surrendering too many home runs even as his HR/FB rate normalizes. He also pitches in a pitcher’s park in the more pitcher-friendly league, is very unlucky to be winless despite not working deep into games, and has been victimized by a 61.3 percent strand rate that is sure to improve over time.
While it’s true that Wood’s velocity is down from the early part of last season, it is right in line with the rest of his career. He has a 3.28 ERA in 650 career innings as a starting pitcher, and at this point, that is about what you should expect from him going forward.
Nick Pivetta (PHI)
Pivetta’s 4.15 ERA may not look like much, especially coming off of a rookie season where his ERA was a cringe-worthy 6.02. But he has had poor batted ball luck, even for a ground ball pitcher, surrendering a BABIP in both 2017 and 2018 that was/is among the 10-highest in the league.
Meanwhile, it’s still early, but Pivetta looks to be a better pitcher than he was last season. He has drastically reduced his walk rate from his rookie year, a trend of gradually improved control that Pivetta also displayed in both Double-A and Triple-A. Hitters are also squaring up the ball much less against him this season, as his hard contact rate allowed has dropped from 35.5 percent last year to 24.5 percent this season. His velocity has been steadily increasing, too.
Pivetta shouldn’t cost much to acquire, and he’s performing like a pitcher who should have an ERA in the low-to-mid threes.
J.A. Happ (TOR)
Happ isn’t exactly a sexy name, and he could even find himself on the waiver wire in a lot of 10- and 12-team leagues now that his ERA sits at 4.80. But if you can’t get him for free, he’s a nice target to buy low.
Happ is coming off of three straight seasons in which his ERA was 3.61 or better, so he’s proven to be a very reliable fantasy starter in the past. While he used to be a mediocre strikeout pitcher, his K/9 rate jumped to 8.79 last season, and this year it’s spiked to 11.80 — a figure largely supported by his 11.7 percent swinging strike rate.
He’s been undone to this point by a whopping 22 percent HR/FB ratio, which is more than double the rate he typically allows. Happ is not only missing more bats, he’s also generating more ground balls. So he should be allowing fewer home runs, not more. Pitching in the AL East is never easy, but Happ has the tools to get the job done. Expect to see major improvement on that bloated ERA soon.
Players to Sell
Carlos Martinez (STL)
This one is assuming that Martinez makes a quick return from his strained lat muscle, as the Cardinals are reportedly hoping. It rarely makes sense to trade a player when they are on the disabled list, but trading them soon after they return from the DL is often a good idea because other managers might discount the risk of the injury recurring. In Martinez’s case, there are other reasons to consider shopping him upon his return.
Martinez’s strikeout rate and swinging strike rate are down from last year, and his walk rate is up. But rather than pay for that loss of dominance and control, Martinez has benefited from the lowest HR/FB ratio in baseball, even though he isn’t allowing any less hard contact. Martinez’s numbers have also been fueled by a low .237 BABIP allowed and high 82.8 percent strand rate, both of which are very unlikely to continue, particularly for a ground ball pitcher like Martinez.
Martinez is certainly a good fantasy pitcher. Although he has more value in points leagues, he’s been a top-120 overall player in standard 5×5 leagues for three years running. But right now his numbers look like those of a true fantasy ace (1.62 ERA, 1.08 WHIP). A closer examination of Martinez’s performance throws cold water on the theory that he’s taken a major step forward this season, but that’s something that most managers in your league probably don’t realize.
Jake Arrieta (PHI)
Arrieta’s numbers looked to be on a steady decline from his 2015 peak, but he’s bounced back in a big way so far this season, at least in terms of surface stats (2.59 ERA, 1.06 WHIP). But a quick look under the hood reveals some warning signs that he could falter going forward.
Arrieta’s K/9 rate has plummeted to 5.83 this season, his swinging strike rate is just 6.3 percent, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is less than 2-to-1 (that’s not good). Meanwhile, while Arrieta’s ability to get ground balls should keep his home run total manageable, he’s currently benefitting from a HR/FB ratio that is close to half his usual rate. And while he has been able to give up consistently low BABIPs over the years, he is due for at least some regression there as well.
Perhaps that’s all happening because he is intentionally pitching to contact more often. The Phillies remarkably have four of the top six pitchers in baseball in terms of limiting hard contact — with Arrieta at the top — so I suppose it’s possible we are seeing a team-wide pitch-to-contact strategy that is paying off. But I don’t have much faith in that approach over the long haul. The bet here is that Arrieta’s walks and lack of strikeouts catch up to him eventually. That’s the big difference between Arrieta and his teammate Pivetta, who’s inducing soft contact while also throwing more strikes and missing more bats.
Kevin Gausman (BAL)
I may live in Maryland these days, but I haven’t trusted an Orioles starting pitcher since Mike Mussina. I’ve never bought into the hype behind much-ballyhooed Orioles starters like Chris Tillman and Dylan Bundy — and the same goes for Gausman.
With his shiny 3.18 ERA, there could be some Gausman believers in a lot of fantasy leagues right now. But there’s little reason to think Gausman is suddenly a better pitcher than he was when he put up a 4.68 ERA last year. While he has done a pretty good job limiting walks, his strikeout rate has plummeted to the level you’d expect from a soft-tosser. He’s riding high on a .275 BABIP allowed that is 36 points lower than his career average, even though he’s giving up more hard contact than he has since his rookie year in 2013. He’s also benefitting from an unsustainable left on base percentage that is among the 10-highest in baseball.
Given my long record of doubting Orioles pitchers, I don’t own Gausman anywhere. But if I did own him, I’d be selling hard.