Fantasy baseball waiver wire: A small change to his pitching repertoire is helping Trevor Bauer produce his best season yet.
Terry Francona surprised a lot of people, present company included, when he announced at the end of spring training that Josh Tomlin and Cody Anderson would open the year in the rotation, pushing Trevor Bauer to the bullpen. Bauer was a bit of a disappointment in his first two years as a full-time member of the Indians’ rotation, but, at just 25 years old, there was still plenty of time for him to be a reliable mid-rotation starter. At the very least, his ceiling was easily higher than that of Tomlin or Anderson.
Francona stuck to his guns, though, and Bauer began his 2016 season as a reliever. He made six appearances as a reliever before opportunity beckoned. Carlos Carrasco hit the DL with a hamstring injury at the end of April, opening up a spot in Cleveland’s rotation. Bauer slid into that spot, and when Carrasco returned it was the struggling Anderson, not Bauer, who gave way. Anderson is now on the DL at Triple A Columbus, while Bauer is on track to have the best year of his career.
This is a waiver wire column, so by now you’ve already figured out that we’re recommending Bauer as an add in all formats. He was great again in his last start, allowing one run while striking out nine in seven innings in a win over the White Sox. He now has a 3.46 ERA, 3.53 FIP, 1.25 WHIP and 69 strikeouts in 75 1/3 frames on the season. Bauer has made one key change to his pitch usage that can lay the most significant claim to unlocking his potential this year. He has switched allegiances for his go-to fastball, throwing fewer four-seamers and using his sinker as his foundation pitch.
Through the first two full seasons of Bauer’s career, he threw his four-seam fastball 43.3% of the time, while his sinker accounted for just 12.4% of his total pitches. There are competitive reasons beyond one pitch being superior to the other why you’d throw a four-seamer in this situation and a sinker in that one, but when the spread is that large, it’s clear that it wasn’t simply situational. Bauer was a four-seam guy who would mix in a sinker.
Despite preferring the four-seamer, Bauer was far more effective with the sinker. Across 2014 and ’15, hitters amassed a .284 batting average and .476 slugging percentage against Bauer’s four-seam fastball. During that same timeframe, he limited hitters to a .222 batting average and .318 slugging percentage on the sinker. He got 37 strikeouts with the sinker and 65 with the four-seamer, despite throwing the latter nearly seven times as frequently as the former.
Bauer hasn’t totally flipped the usage of his four-seamer and sinker, but he has come close. He’s throwing the four-seamer 21.3% of the time this season, while the sinker checks in at 31.3%. The most interesting development, however, might be that their effectiveness has flipped, too. Hitters have a .305 batting average and .410 slugging percentage against the sinker, and a .186 batting average and .279 slugging percentage against the four-seamer.
What’s our takeaway there? Bauer is having his best season yet, he made one major change to his repertoire and it seems the pitch that gained prominence because of the change is less effective. It’s certainly possible that throwing one fastball about 30% of the time and the other 20%, rather than a 10–40 split, is making Bauer less predictable. Whatever it is, nothing in Bauer’s peripherals suggests he’s getting lucky. His ERA and FIP are essentially identical. His strand rate (75.9%) and BABIP (.292) are in line with league average. Add that to his aforementioned career high ground-ball and whiff rates and it’s clear that whatever Bauer is doing this season, it’s working. Is the change to being a sinker-first pitcher responsible? The jury is out on that. Is Bauer a better pitcher this season? Absolutely.
Willson Contreras, C, Cubs
The Cubs dipped into their organizational depth over the weekend, plucking Contreras out of Iowa and bringing him to the big league club. Contreras, the top catching prospect in baseball, hit .353/.442/.593 with nine homers in 240 plate appearances with Triple A Iowa this season, earning a promotion despite the fact that the Cubs have two catchers, Miguel Montero and David Ross, locked into the 25-man roster. Contreras may not play enough to make a significant fantasy impact this season, but it’s also hard to imagine the Cubs calling him up just so he can spend most of his time on the bench. With his talent and the state of the fantasy catcher position this season, he’s worth a roll of the dice as we learn what the Cubs’ plans are for him.
Whit Merrifield, 2B/OF, Royals
It’s safe to say no one saw this coming, but you can no longer argue with the results. Merrifield, a 27-year-old rookie, is hitting .339/.356/.496 with a pair of homers, 10 doubles and four steals in 118 plate appearances. He hits at the top of Kansas City’s lineup, a great spot for any hitter, and has at least two hits in half of his 26 starts this season. Go ahead and jump aboard. Merrifield looks like a real fantasy asset.
Trayce Thompson, OF, Dodgers
Thompson has slowed down a bit since we featured him in the wavier wire column last week, but Dave Roberts said earlier this week that Thompson earned an everyday gig for the Dodgers. That’s great news for a player whose largest concern appeared to be playing time. Thompson’s power is undeniable, and he does enough in the counting stats to make up for his poor batting average. Those of you in OBP leagues don’t have to worry about his rates, given an 11.2% walk rate that has pushed his OBP to .342.
Melvin Upton Jr., OF, Padres
Speaking of doing enough in the counting stats, how about the season Upton Jr. is having for the Padres? Written off by the fantasy community long ago, Upton Jr. has been reborn since joining the Padres last year. Yes, the .250 batting average is bad, and the .305 OBP is worse. On the other hand, he has nine homers and 15 steals and could post the first 20/40 season of his career. The rates aren’t going to be good, but you can ignore them when Upton Jr. is providing your team with one of the best power/speed combos in the league.
Steve Pearce, 1B/2B/OF, Rays
We’ve seen this sort of season from Pearce before. Two years ago, he came out of nowhere to put up a .293/.373/.556 line with 21 homers for the Orioles, having previously never played more than 61 games in an MLB season. He fell off a cliff last year, but is raking once again, slashing .337/.410/.556 with nine homers in 188 plate appearances. We knew he could crush lefties, and he’s doing that this season, hitting .383/.473/.766 with the platoon advantage. The better news is that he’s also hitting well against righties, totaling a .319/.383/.487 line in 133 plate appearances. That success against righties, as well as his positional versatility, should guarantee Pearce a regular spot in the Rays’ lineup.
Mallex Smith, OF, Braves
The only question for Smith will be whether or not he can get on base enough to take full advantage of his speed. Despite hitting just .241 with a .314 OBP, Smith already has 14 steals in 188 plate appearances. It took him a while to find his timing in the majors—Smith leads the league having been caught stealing seven times—but he has been successful on his last eight attempts and hasn’t been caught in nearly a month. Smith stole 57 bases between Double A and Triple A last season. He could be looking at a 40-steal season as a rookie.
Albert Almora, OF, Cubs
The Cubs promoted the talented Almora when Jorge Soler went on the DL, and with Dexter Fowler now dealing with a hamstring issue, the rookie could be in line for more playing time than expected. He has hit well in his first two weeks in the majors, going 9 for 25 with four doubles. It was his bat that kept him in the minors for three full seasons. The Cubs always knew that Almora’s glove was major-league ready, and he has proved that over the last two weeks, playing plus defense at all three outfield spots. The bat came around this year, with Almora hitting .318/.335/.444 at Triple A Iowa before his promotion. If Fowler does have to go to the DL, Almora could play mostly every day for a couple of weeks.
Alex Bregman, SS, Astros
It’s only a matter of time before the Astros call up Bregman to The Show. He’s hitting .309/.412/.585 with 14 homers at Double A Corpus Christi and really has nothing left to prove at that level. The Astros might want to get him some seasoning at Triple A before bringing him to the majors, but he’s going to be in Houston at some point this summer. He’s a shortstop by trade, but could easily slide over to third, which would be an immediate shot in the arm for a team that has gotten nothing out of its third basemen this season. Bregman will be relevant in all fantasy formats when he gets to the majors and is worth stashing now in leagues that allow it.
Tony Cingrani, RP, Reds
It’s never easy for Cingrani, but he’s getting the job done well enough to secure ninth-inning duties in Cincinnati. Over his last 12 appearances, he has allowed five earned runs on 11 hits and seven walks, but has saved four games while blowing just one opportunity. It always seems to be a high-wire act, but the Reds aren’t likely to make a change any time soon. If you do add Cingrani, just make sure you don’t flip the Reds game while he’s on the mound. Just check the stats later. There’s no need to run up your stress levels.
Jerad Eickhoff, SP, Phillies
We went deep into the weeds on Eickhoff on Saturday, detailing the increased usage of his slider over the last month and how that has helped him find a new level of success. The 25-year-old has 73 strikeouts in 85 innings to go along with a 3.49 ERA, 3.91 FIP and 1.21 WHIP. That will play in any fantasy format. He has 122 strikeouts over the first 136 innings of his career, which translates to an 8.1 K/9. Again, that looks awfully nice sitting on the waiver wire. Eickhoff has a nice ceiling, but even his floor makes him someone who should be owned across the board.
Tyler Glasnow, SP, Pirates
Juan Nicasio and Jeff Locke have ERAs near 6.00, and Gerrit Cole is on the DL. The Pirates aren’t going to be able to keep Glasnow in the minors much longer. He threw six no-hit innings in his last start, fanning six batters while taking a no-decision. He also walked six, giving him 42 in 77 innings on the season. Glasnow is going to have to sharpen his command, but there’s no doubt that his stuff is ready for the majors and instantly makes him one of the five best pitchers in the entire Pittsburgh organization. Glasnow, who’s widely viewed as a top-10 prospect in baseball, has a 1.75 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 92 strikeouts with Triple A Indianapolis. You’ll be fine dealing with the walks if he can strike out batters at something close to that rate when he gets to the majors.
Archie Bradley, SP, Diamondbacks
Bradley has been undone by one bad inning in a few of his starts this year, but he has shown enough promise to make him an intriguing player in all fantasy formats. The 23-year-old former top prospect has 39 strikeouts in 35 innings. In his most impressive start of the year, he held the Cubs to one run in six innings, striking out 10 while walking three. It’s not going to be a totally smooth ride for him the rest of the season, but it’s easy to see that the good far outweighs the bad. If Bradley can find that level he was at against the Cubs consistently, he’ll be a real weapon in all fantasy formats.
Kyle Barraclough, RP, Marlins
Barraclough has 50 strikeouts in 27 innings. That really does say it all. He may not close for the Marlins, but it’s easy to find a spot on your roster for someone with that sort of strikeout rate. Barraclough isn’t Dellin Betances, but he’s closer than you might think. Don’t worry about the fact that he’s setting up for A.J. Ramos. Just add him to your roster, plug him into your lineup and watch the strikeouts roll in.
Alex Reyes, SP, Cardinals
Reyes could very well be the next big pitching prospect we see make his major-league debut. The Cardinals are still getting him stretched out after he missed the start of the season due to a suspension, but they have to like what they’re seeing. In 26 innings, Reyes has a 3.46 ERA, 1.35 WHIP and 45 strikeouts against 13 walks. His stuff is absolutely electric, and there’s a chance he could one day have the best curveball in the majors. It could already be in the top 10 or 15 on the day he’s promoted. Reyes is in a position to contribute the rest of the season, and he has thrown more than 100 innings in each of the last two years. In other words, once he’s stretched out, he shouldn’t be looking at any innings restrictions that would limit his fantasy value. As is the case with Bregman and Glasnow, Reyes is worth adding and stashing now.