Each week I'll answer a handful of the most pertinent questions I've received during the week in an attempt to bring insightful fantasy analysis to the fore. Don't hesitate to e-mail any new questions you have and I'll do my best to get to them next week.
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I'm trying to evaluate John Lackey, who I can get pretty cheap 10-team AL-only league. I'm just trying to figure out what's wrong with him and why he's been so bad?-- Brett, Raleigh, N.C.
Lackey is on his way to a big victory total as he is 8-3 for the mighty Red Sox. However, his performance in the rest of the categories clearly isn't "Lackey-like." I've written about Lackey and his struggles previously, in fact I took an in-depth look at him about a month ago in an Impact Report.
Has anything changed since that point? He's gone 3-0, but he's allowed 33 hits in 26 innings while posting a 3.81 ERA, so there has been some slight improvement. Still, his overall production is woefully lacking in the strikeout category with a 5.05 K/9 mark, this after five-straight years over seven. He's also seen a significant increase in his walk rate, which is now 3.81 per nine innings, more than a full batter above his career rate of 2.71. One would assume that his "stuff" might be lacking, but his fastball speed is one tenth of a mph down from his career rate at 90.9 mph, and his pitch breakdown remains virtually unchanged (61 percent fastballs, 11 percent sliders, 23 percent curveballs, five percent changeups). However, he seems to be throwing a lot of "fat" pitches, if judged by the fact that batters are making contact on swings at pitches inside the strike zone 94 percent of the time, a career worst mark (89.4 for his career). In fact, batters have an 85.5 percent contact rate on all swings this season, a full five percent above his career mark.
So what would I do with Lackey? Given the totality of the data, it seems like Lackey is simply having trouble locating his pitches. That has resulted in a precipitous fall in his strikeout rate while his walks have skyrocketed. Still, given his track record of excellence, and the fact that his "stuff" appears intact, it would be advisable to buy low on Lackey if the opportunity were to arise.
Deal or no deal? I trade Colby Lewis and Brad Lidge in order to get back Clayton Kershaw.-- K.J., New York
Lewis was a hot sleeper pick coming into the season after a successful run in Japan. So far, he has made that prediction a reality. Lewis is 7-4 with a 3.07 ERA, and if that was all there was his owners would be thrilled. When you add in a superb 8.65 K/9 mark and a league average 3.17 BB/9 mark, his outlook improves further. When you notice that his WHIP is 1.02, well, Lewis has to be up for Out of Nowhere AL Hurler of the first half award. Wow is right.
Now before you anoint him the next Nolan Ryan, you should be aware that his left-on-base percentage of 79.1 percent is too high, and that his hit rate of .233 is far too low, so there is every reason to think that his ratios will increase as the season wears on and the temperature rises in Texas. There's also the fact that he has never had success in the big leagues previously, and that he has never tossed 180 innings in a season. However, after leading his Japan team in strikeouts in back-to-back seasons, clearly he has figured some things out.
Lidge is back to closing for the Phillies, and with Charlie Manuel's unwavering faith in him, you have to figure that every time Lidge is healthy enough to take the ball he will be given it. Thus far he has five saves in six chances, and his total of 16 punchouts in 11 innings is mighty impressive. Equally noteworthy is the fact that he has walked only three batters, leaving him with a fantastic 5.33 K/BB mark. He has been bit by the long ball with a 1.64 HR/9 mark, double his career 0.88 rate, but that's likely nothing more than some variance due to a small sample size, though it is worth noting that his 48 percent fly ball rate is an astronomical jump for a guy who is under 39 percent in his career. However, when you live and die by the slider, that is what can happen, because when it flattens out and hangs up in the zone it's really nothing more than an 85 mph fastball. One final note about that pitch. He has thrown an inordinate about of sliders this season, over 60 percent of his pitches, some 18 percent above his career rate. Is this another sample size artifact or is it a realization that his fastball has lost even more oomph (the last four years his fastball has lost a mph each season from 85 in 2007 to 92 this year)?
Kershaw is one of the more interesting pitchers in baseball. His K/9 rate of 10.11 leads the National League while his .210 batting average against is 6th best. On the flip side his 4.71 BB/9 rate is the worst in the Senior Circuit. Hence the problem; when he is on he dominates, but when he is off he throws too many pitches and fails to work deep into games, which is one of the primary reasons that despite a 3.33 career ERA he is only 20-17 in 68 appearances. His ERA is slightly elevated compared to last season at 3.24 (compared to 2.79), but his WHIP is only .06 higher. He's also continued a trend he started last year with a HR/FB rate of under five percent. And while we are talking about more than 260 innings at that rate, it will be awfully hard for him to sustain that level given that he has allowed about 43 percent of batted balls to go skyward since the start of last season. There's a little up, and a little down in his pitching line, but overall it's a pretty fair copy of what he did last season.
So do you do the deal? Kershaw is clearly the best arm in this deal, and his ability to dominate from start to start is virtually unmatched. Lewis is a bit of a wild card despite his impressive start, and Lidge continues to lose fastball velocity while at the same time showing a growing propensity to end up on the shelf. If you have enough relievers to make up for the hit you'll take in the save category, I'd do this deal.
I'm nervous. I picked up John Axford in my NL-only league, thinking I could get a bushel of saves. Now I hear that Trevor Hoffman might reclaim the 9th inning role. Should I be nervous?-- Joe, Florida
When Hoffman was doing his batting practice machine impersonation early in the season, the Brewers thought it wise to call up fireballing youngster Axford, and he has certainly performed admirably. In his 15 appearances Axford has a 2.50 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, a 10.50 K/9 rate and an impressive 2.10 GB/FB ratio. He's also picked up three victories along with five saves as he hasn't blown a single chance to close out a victory (no blown saves). You'd think a performance like that would lock you into the ninth inning, but when you're on a team with the best closer in the history of the National League, that position will be seriously challenged.
The 42-year-old Hoffman has an ERA of 9.00 through 22 innings, but over his last nine appearances he has emerged unscathed eight times. More recently, over his last five appearances, he has allowed only four base runners while striking out four batters. Is he all the way back to being a lockdown 9th inning option? Probably not, but with his track record of excellence the Brewers are clearly considering what to do with the 9th inning. Manager Ken Macha told the Associated Press on Tuesday, "We'll play it out, we'll see," Macha said. "I'd feel pretty good about him coming in now." Does that mean he's ready to hand the reigns back over to Hoffman full-time? "That's all going to work itself out. I'm not worried about it. Both of them are pitching well."
Obviously this development means both hurlers should be owned in all NL-only leagues. You have to love what Axford has done, especially considering his frequent bouts of wildness, but it appears that the Brewers might still end up with a chance to hear "Hells Bells" when Hoffman enters the game in the ninth inning to protect a lead.
I'm in an NL-only keeper league. There are no contracts or limits to how long you can protect a player. I was recently offered Justin Upton for Roy Halladay. I feel good about my pitching, and Upton is such a talent. Should I take the deal?-- Chris, Connecticut
Talk about a blockbuster.
Halladay has a 2.43 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP this season, but somehow he is 8-6 this year with five loses in his last seven decisions (thanks a lot anemic Phillies' offense). Clearly, Halladay has been everything that the Phils hoped for when they signed him to a 3-year deal this offseason. Dating back to the start of the '06 season, Halladay is first in wins (77), complete games (34) and innings (1,045.1), while he is second in base runners per nine (10.34), and K/BB (4.55). For good measure he is also fourth in ERA at 3.03. Obviously, you would be hard-pressed to find a more consistently-excellent pitcher in all of baseball, so if you are considering moving him in a keeper league you have better be getting quite a talent in return.
Upton is such a talent. At 21 years of age, Upton went out and hit .300 with 26 homers, 86 RBI, 84 runs and 20 steals in a wonderful all-around fantasy campaign. This season he is on pace to surpass his homer and steal totals, he has 13 and 11 through 69 games, and he is also well on his way to besting his runs total from last season (he already has 45). However, his average has dipped to .259, his OBP is down .026 points, and his SLG has tumbled .073 points. The main culprit this season has been a profoundly poor strike out of 35 percent -- that's one K per 2.86 at-bats. When you strikeout that much your production will vacillate wildly, so it's actually rather remarkable that he has been as productive as he has been thus far (his K-rate last season was a more manageable 26.0 percent). On the plus side his line drive rate is down 2.2 percentage points from last year's 18.9 percent mark, so if that number climbs as the season progresses Upton's average should continue to climb to the point of respectability, but he'll have to curtail those swing and miss ways.
So, do you hold on to one of the top-5 starters in the game, or do you take a chance at one of the top-10 all-around talents at the dish? Given that there is no limit to how long you can protect a player, I think the call here is easy. Take the deal and accept Upton. Halladay has been remarkably durable in his career, but he is 33-years old and few pitchers in recent memory have posted 220-plus innings year after year as they approach their mid 30s. If his career follows the normal path, we could start to see a slow regression begin to creep up at any moment. As for Upton, he is 22-years old and is still learning the game, a scary statement to make given his exploits to date. If his career follows the normal path we are looking at a player with at least another 10 years of peak performance, and that is more than enough for me to swing things in favor of the swinger from the desert.
Ray Flowers is Managing Editor for Fanball.com Owners Edge and RotoTimes.com. His work can be found weekly, exclusively at the home of fantasy baseball: Fanball.com. To e-mail Ray a question for next week's piece, drop him a line at email@example.com. You can also follow Ray's thoughts at the Baseball Guys' Twitter page.