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Fantasy Baseball Today
1413388043
by Al Melchior | Data Analyst

Kolten Wong could continue to swing a big bat into 2015. (USATSI)
Kolten Wong could continue to swing a big bat into 2015. (USATSI)

This postseason, Kolten Wong has all of five base hits over six games. He's made them count, though, as all have been for extra bases, including two home runs. That's not the type of player many of us expected Wong to be, but with his first full major league season with the Cardinals behind him, it's becoming apparent that we can expect more of the same in 2015 and beyond.

Based on his minor league numbers, Wong looked like a batting average-and-steals type, providing just enough power to be worth considering in mixed Rotisserie leagues. Wong didn't disappoint in the stolen base category, providing 20 of them over 113 games, but his .249 regular season batting average didn't fit the profile of someone with a history of good contact skills. A .305 hitter over his minor league career, Wong figured to fit the Howie Kendrick mold as a major leaguer, combining above-average contact skills with a penchant for high BABIP rates.

Instead, Wong is looking more like Brian Dozier. The 24-year-old hasn't translated his speed into a high batting average, as he notched only 14 infield hits over 402 at-bats this season, but he has provided more power than expected. Nearly all of Wong's power came after he returned from a midseason stay on the disabled list with a left shoulder injury. From July 6 forward, Wong banged 11 home runs to go with 11 steals. In other words, he went on a 20-20 pace for the latter half of the season.

Though three months of play doesn't constitute an ideal sample, the improvement has been dramatic enough to trust to at least some degree. Prior to his DL stint, Wong's flyballs travelled a mere 241.4 feet on average (per BaseballHeatMaps.com), but upon his return, he averaged 273.1 feet per flyball. That latter mark trails Dozier's 2014 average by just over two feet. Wong's .181 Isolated Power from the season's final three months actually bests Dozier's full-season mark by seven points, and that gap could have been larger if not for some apparent bad luck. This season, Wong was 2 for 77 (.026) on flyballs in play, so he missed out on some potential doubles.

My initial projection gives Wong 16 home runs and 25 stolen bases for 2015, and the home run projection assumes some dropoff from the pace he's set over the last three-and-a-half months. He has a legitimate shot to be a 20-20 hitter, though I've projected him for a .260 batting average. Even if he reaches that average and overshoots my home run projection, Wong won't likely be on a par with Dozier. He has yet to achieve a high walk rate, and between platooning and hitting lower in the order, he won't get as many at-bats or run producing opportunities as his Twins counterpart.

Still, Wong looks like far more valuable than the borderline Rotisserie option he appeared to be earlier this season. Given his upside and the thinness of the second base player pool, Wong will be a must-own in all standard mixed league formats and a legitimate mid-rounder in mixed Rotisserie leagues.

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by Al Melchior | Data Analyst

Evan Gattis is not an elite pitch framer, but if he were, would it have helped his pitchers in Fantasy? (USATSI)
Evan Gattis is not an elite pitch framer, but if he were, would it have helped his pitchers in Fantasy? (USATSI)

Though he's a long shot to win the award, Jonathan Lucroy has been getting some mentions as a National League MVP candidate, and his pitch framing abilities have put him in the discussion as much as his offense has. While Lucroy's Brewers missed out on the postseason, three of the four starting catchers remaining in the playoffs -- Buster Posey, Yadier Molina and Caleb Joseph -- are no slouches when it comes to framing pitches, bringing further attention to the phenomenon.

Lucroy's bat has made him a favorite in Fantasy, but should his pitch framing prowess matter to us outside the domain of baseball fandom? Early this season, it looked like he might have been having a profound impact on the Brewers' rotation. Specificially, Yovani Gallardo and Wily Peralta were conquering long-standing control issues and cutting back on walks. However, the catching tandem of Lucroy and Martin Maldonado hadn't done much for Gallardo and Peralta in 2013, and in fact, both pitchers saw their struggles with control reemerge at various points this season.

According to pitch framing data on StatCorner.com, the Brewers' catching corps totalled the second-highest number of extra strike calls in the majors, but neither they nor the leaderboard-topping Padres helped their pitchers to achieve a called strike rate much above the major league average of 17.7 percent (per Baseball-Reference). More to the point for Fantasy owners, neither staff was elite in terms of their pitchers' strikeout rates. And even the best (and worst) catchers in terms of pitch framing only get two or three calls changed above and beyond the major league average over the course of a game.

Before we completely dismiss the impact of pitch framing on pitchers' Fantasy fortunes, there is a trend that is worth noting. The Twins, Cubs, Rockies, Marlins and Braves had the most missed strikes among major league catching corps, and only the Marlins' pitching staff mustered a called strike rate above 16.8 percent. It's enough to make you wonder if Julio Teheran could boost his K-rate if he's caught by someone other than Evan Gattis, Christian Bethancourt or Gerald Laird, or if Jorge De La Rosa can become a strikeout pitcher again, should the Rockies replace Wilin Rosario behind the plate.

Pitch framing is probably far more valuable for real teams than Fantasy teams, but Teheran in particular provides a good example of why we may need to pay attention to it. In my last blog post, I was ready to flag Teheran as a potential disappointment in 2015 due to his underwhelming strikeout rate, but there may be more to his story than what we see on the surface.

1412875516
by Al Melchior | Data Analyst

You were probably pumped to own Adam Wainwright in Fantasy this year, but he is one of several pitchers with worrisome strikeout rates. (USATSI)
You were probably pumped to own Adam Wainwright in Fantasy this year, but he is one of several pitchers with worrisome strikeout rates. (USATSI)

Now that the 2014 regular season is in the books, we know that Major League Baseball has achieved its second straight season of offensive decline. Run-scoring was down again just as it was last year, and it's the seventh time it has fallen in the last eight years. Just about every conceivable rate stat for pitchers -- from K/9 to BB/9 to ground ball rate to ERA -- has improved.

The steady tilting of the game in favor of pitching means that the benchmarks for Fantasy relevance keep getting ratcheted up. In a 12-team mixed league, a pitcher with a 3.50 ERA and 1.25 WHIP probably did your team more bad than good, while the opposite was true just two years ago. Similarly, a K/9 ratio of 8.0 was above average for a standard mixed league pitcher in 2012, but this season, it was slightly subpar.

A number of high-end Fantasy pitchers, like Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale and David Price, achieved their highest K/9 ratios as starters this season. While each increase represents some level of improvement for the pitcher, it also reflects the increasingly favorable environment in which pitchers operate. Specifically, hitters are swinging more often and making contact less often.

A pitcher who is maintaining his stats is actually losing ground, and one who is declining a little is decidedly falling behind the pack. The fact that Adam Wainwright falls into this latter group gives me concern about his viability as a potential keeper or early-round pick in 2015. Even if Wainwright's nagging elbow issues don't scare you, his strikeout trend should worry you at least a little bit.

Though Wainwright remains very good at pitching with control and avoiding hard contact, he is allowing too much contact altogether. This season, his K/9 rate fell from 8.2 to 7.1, as his swinging strike rate dipped from 10.3 to 9.7 percent. Again, those may not sound like large declines, but in an era in which standing still means falling behind, Wainwright is in danger of failing to keep pace with other Fantasy studs. While he finished 2014 as the fifth-ranked starting pitcher in standard Head-to-Head and Rotisserie formats, he did so with help from a .271 BABIP and 78 percent strand rate that he probably won't match in 2015.

If we assume that Wainwright doesn't increase his K-rate but does experience BABIP and strand rate regression, there won't be much that separates his 2015 stats from Julio Teheran's 2014 stat line, other than the possibility of a better won/lost record. With 4.3 runs of support per nine innings this season, Wainwright was fortunate to post a 20-9 record, given the Cardinals' generally lackluster level of offensive production.

Wainwright still does enough things extremely well to warrant consideration as a No. 1 starter, but given his trajectory, I think he is more likely to perform like a solid No. 2 starter than like a true ace. He's far from the only Fantasy stalwart who has failed to keep up with the increasing pace of strikeouts, though, so here are a handful of other pitchers who may have less value next season than their 2014 rankings would suggest.

Julio Teheran: Wainwright may only be the equal of this season's version of Teheran, but that's a standard that Teheran himself could have trouble meeting in the future. The good news is that he will still be just 24 next season, but without improvement in a 16 percent called strike rate, he can't be counted on for strikeouts.

James Shields: Shields still munches innings, but since 2012, his K/9 ratio has dipped from 8.8 to 7.7 to 7.1. Innings and quality starts should keep Shields among the top 20 starters in points leagues, but in Roto, he's in danger of falling out of the top 30.

Doug Fister: Though Fister's first season with the Nationals had all the appearances of a career year (16-6, 2.41 ERA, 1.08 WHIP), owners shouldn't overlook a K/9 ratio (5.4) and swinging strike rate (6.7 percent) that were his lowest since 2010. His 84 percent strand rate masked the effects of contact pitching, and it eclipsed his previous career-high rate by nearly 10 percentage points.

Sonny Gray: Not a big strikeout pitcher in the minors, Gray surprised many owners in 2013 by notching 67 Ks in 64 innings. In his first full season in the majors, Gray posted a 7.5 K/9 ratio that could be a better indication of what's to come. He was able to maintain a lower-than-average ERA (3.08) and WHIP (1.19) because he allowed only 15 home runs over 219 innings, and a 58 percent ground ball rate helped him keep the ball in the park. He still allowed his fair share of deep flies, allowing the average flyball to travel 282.5 feet, according to FanGraph's Interactive Spray Chart Tool. Despite his ground ball tendencies, Gray could see his HR/9 ratio rise along with his ERA and WHIP. Both Gray's strikeout and walk rates were subpar for standard mixed leagues, and without improvement, he could wind up being a borderline option.

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