Fantasy Mailbag: Chance occurrence

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Each week I'll answer a handful of the most pertinent questions I've received during the week in my attempt, weak as it might be, to bring insightful fantasy analysis to the fore.

I should have picked up J.P. Howell months ago but instead I went for Leo Nunez. Where did I go wrong?--Drew, Atlanta

So much of a reliever's value is tied to opportunity that the main reason for their employment is the amount of saves they can rack up. It's exceedingly difficult to determine what is going on in a coach's mind and why or why not he chooses to go with this or that arm at the end of games. Remember, saves are opportunity-driven and sometimes have nothing to do with the skills that the pitchers bring to the hill. Therefore, it almost always makes sense to draft and target skills over opportunity unless you are talking about the locks at the position -- guys like Mariano Rivera, Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon, etc. (they obviously have the skills as well which is why they are so valuable on draft day).

Therefore, you went "wrong" by targeting what you likely perceived was a greater opportunity for saves when you selected Nunez over Howell. Throwing aside their save totals (Howell has 14, Nunez 13), let's examine their production this season.

Howell: 10.77 K/9, 3.43 BB/9, 3.14 K/BB, 0.78 HR/9, 1.55 G/F, 1.06 WHIP

Nunez: 8.26 K/9, 3.44 BB/9, 2.40 K/BB, 1.55 HR/9, 0.67 G/F, 1.24 WHIP

The walk rate is nearly identical, but it is clear that Howell's skills are far superior in just about every measurement you could think of with these two hurlers.

The pull of the save is very strong especially in-season when you need to make up ground in that category, but more often than not you will be better off if you target the skills and hope that the opportunity arises for your guys to be called on to close out games.

Is Billy Wagner worth picking up in a 15-team mixed league since I have a rather weak pitching staff?--Emmanuel, Monroe, N.Y.

Would I give up a year's salary for a three week vacation in Belize with Sofia Vergara?

Wagner threw seven scoreless innings on his rehab assignment, and his surgically repaired elbow seems good to go (in his first appearance for the Mets he picked up two strikeouts in a scoreless inning of work with an average fastball speed of 94.5 mph). Wagner doesn't figure to be anything other than a setup man at this point so his true value probably lies in leagues that count holds, but that doesn't mean he won't be able to post strong strikeout totals and ratios in limited innings. He isn't looking like a saves option at this point, though with J.J. Putz still sidelined and Francisco Rodriguez pitching poorly of late (6.98 ERA, 1.55 WHIP over his last 19 appearances), that doesn't mean he won't get a chance or two before the year is over. There have also been a lot of talk that the Mets are looking to move the fireballing lefty so perhaps Wagner will be moved into a situation that is even more fluid at the backend of a bullpen. Wagner may not have much value depending on how he is used and which team he ends up with, but I'll take my chances with a man who has struck out at least 9.96 batters per nine innings in 12 of the last 13 seasons while posting a 1.01 WHIP for his career.

Who the heck is this Julio Borbon kid and should I care?--C.J., Bogota, N.J.

Borbon has had about as good a start to a career as anyone could ever hope for. In 33 at-bats he has 16 hits, good for a .485 average. If that was all there was, that would be plenty. In addition, he has also scored nine runs in 10 games. If that was all there was, that would be plenty. Moreover, Borbon has swiped eight bases in 10 games. Wow it right.

Here are the concerns.

Borbon has nine strikeouts in 33 at-bats, an abysmal mark for a batter with little power. He does own a decent 0.53 BB/K mark in his minor league career, but his plate discipline bears watching (his lack of walks does limit his OBP potential). He does make great contact with a 0.89 contract rate in the minors, but that doesn't mean he will be a .300 hitter in the majors. The speed is legit, he swiped 53 bags last season and stole 25 bases at Triple-A this season before being called up, but at this point of his development that is really his only marketable skill from a fantasy perspective.

Borbon will continue to be in the lineup every day while he stays hot, but the team has a full boat of outfielders (Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Marlon Byrd, Andruw Jones and David Murphy) so his playing time will likely dry up when he hits a rough patch at the dish.

What is the deal with all these rules about innings pitched? I have both Mat Latos and Neftali Feliz on my club and I'm really nervous about the limits their teams are placing on them.--Sam, Coral Springs, Fla.

That's a good question, Sam. Back in the day when men were men, when their was no TiVo, home computers or the internet, pitchers regularly threw a ton of innings. The record for innings in a season is 680 by Will White in 1879. The modern day record, since 1900, is 464 by Ed Walsh in 1908 (he won 40 games with a 1.42 ERA in what had to have been a fantasy season that put his owners over the top -- wink, wink). Since 1950 the leader in innings pitched is actually two men, Wilbur Wood and Mickey Lolich, who each threw 376 innings in the early 70's. However, since 1980 only one man has thrown 300-innings in a season (Steve Carlton tossed 304 in '80). Since 1990, that number drops to 271.2 (Randy Johnson in 1999), and Roy Halladay's 266 inning season in 2003 is the most this decade. So yeah, the game has changed a bit.

What are the real world applications for 2009 for the two hurlers you mentioned? First, Latos will likely only make two more starts for the Padres. After throwing 56 innings last season, Latos is up to 109.2 innings this season between the minors and the majors, and the team is not going to allow him to pile up the innings after nearing a doubling of his IP total from last season. If he hadn't allowed 12 runs over his last two starts perhaps they would feel differently, but with the huge jump in innings and his recent stumble, it looks like his year is almost done.

As for Feliz, this is another situation of a team being exceedingly careful with one of their arms of the future. Feliz has been filthy this season with 17 strikeouts, a 0.77 ERA and a 0.34 WHIP over 11.2 innings (he hasn't walked a single batter while allowing only four hits). However, similar to what the Yankees did with Joba Chamberlain, the Rangers have their own set of "Neftali Rules" that will be in effect the rest of the way. Every time he throws an inning, he will get the next day off. If he goes two innings, he gets two days off. If he somehow throws 2.1 or more innings, we are talking three days off. Obviously if he continues to pitch as he has so far he should still be rostered in deep mixed leagues, but if you are in a league with daily transactions at least you'll know when to remove Feliz from your starting lineup.

Has Billy Butler finally turned the corner or has he merely been working on a hot streak at the plate?--James, Nevada

Billy Butler can hit. Just look at his minor league record that includes a .336 average and .977 OPS in over 1,500 ABs. In addition, Butler already has 1,221 ABs in the big leagues despite being just 23 years old. Regardless of what his production has been with the Royals, those are some pretty impressive facts that should be remembered.

As to whether or not he has "turned the corner" or not, that's not so clear cut. Butler is tearing it up in August hitting .342 with 17 RBI in 18 games and that run has pushed him to a .298 batting average with 14 home runs and 64 RBI on the year. Those are solid numbers but still well below the level of all-star status. The good news is that his SLG is currently .083 points higher than it was last season, and he has already surpassed his total of 11 home runs last year. On the down side he is striking out a bit more which has led to a merely average 0.51 BB/K mark that is slightly below last season (0.58). He also hits far too many ground balls to ever be a big home run hitter with a 48 percent groundball rate leading to a 1.42 G/F rate. He has upped his HR/F rate this season to 11 percent, but that is still barely better than average.

Butler is going to be a solid hitter for the next decade. He likely won't ever hit more than about 20 home runs or be a huge run producer unless he changes his approach at the plate, but he could be a .300 hitting corner infield option with a lot of value in mixed leagues for an awfully long time.