Fluke watch (potential closer edition): Evan Meek and Brandon League

The closer is a hard role to predict for fantasy, and it’s not helped by the fact that certain pitchers, whom you pick up to get saves, are kicked out of the closer role mid-season, leaving a fantasy player in a bit of a bind. So today we’re going to look at two guys who may be closers for their teams this year: Seattle’s Brandon League and Pittsburgh’s Evan Meek.

League is a fascinating pitcher because he has one pitch that should be a plus pitch, his fastball, and a splitter that is actually a plus pitch (he might also have a slider, but it’s hard to separate from the splitter and it’s used infrequently, so I’m not going to mention it here). As a result, he’s likely to get some save opportunities next year. Unfortunately, he’s probably not a good bet for fantasy.

League’s fastball has amazing movement and velocity: the pitch averages 95.4 mph with a great amount of tail (horizontal spin deflection of -10.7 inches) and a ton of sink (as much as a Brandon Webb fastball). Naturally, we’d expect it to have amazing groundball numbers, as well as a pretty good strikeout rate.

Well, this is only half right: against right-handed batters, League averages a 7% swinging strike rate (slightly above average for a fastball) and an amazing 66.4% ground ball rate. However, against left-handed batters he has a poor swinging strike rate (3.2%), and his groundball rate is only 44.8%. Thus, the pitch is actually a bad pitch against left-handed batters. And of course, this pitch is the most frequently used pitch (around 75% of the time) against these batters, resulting in League having bad splits.

League’s splitter is great vs. both types of batters, but it’s not enough to compensate for the fastball’s poor performance against lefties. And, historically, the groundball splits have been the same for League, though the swinging strike splits have not always been there. Thus, as a closer, you have the problem of being pretty weak against lineups filled with lefties (hello, Yankees!), and unlike a starter, it’s hard for a fantasy owner to manage a player around that problem.

Thus, even if he’s made the full-time closer of Seattle, I’d avoid League as your source for saves.

Meek is also a fascinating pitcher with odd pitching splits, but in such a way that make him a much better bet to be a successful closer, if given the opportunity, than League. Like League, Meek has two pitches that look like they could be plus pitches, a fastball with a good amount of cutting action and velocity, and a slider with solid horizontal movement.

Meek’s fastball is thrown around 75% of the time against both types of batters and averages a velocity of 94.5 mph. As mentioned, unlike League’s pitch, which tails in on same-handed batters, Meek’s fastball cuts in the other direction, away from those batters. The pitch does not have a great amount of sink.

Despite the lack of sink, the pitch is amazing at getting ground balls against left-handed batters (70.3% of the time). The pitch doesn’t get a good amount of swinging strikes (only an average rate of 5.8%) against these batters, but the ground balls make the pitch amazingly effective. Against right-handed batters, the pitch is amazing at getting swinging strikes (12.2%!), but is an extreme flyball pitch (30.3%). Thus, the pitch is once again pretty effective.

Meek, using this pitch in addition to a very good slider, is able to a very good pitcher. Now the groundball splits are not surprising, as they appear to have been there for Meek in 2009 as well. In 2009, the swinging strike splits (better vs. RHBs than LHBs by a lot) were not, so this could regress. Regardless, it’s a good sign that Meek is able, unlike League, to get out left- and right-handed batters, even if he does so via different ways.

It’s not clear how much either of these guys will close next year, if at all. Meek however, is the better option to keep track of just in case—though, keep in mind that Meek has a potential rival for the closer spot in Joel Hanrahan. Still, just remember, while League’s stuff looks electric, he has issues getting out left-handed batters. Meek has no such trouble.

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  1. Nick said...

    Good piece as always. Just a question – where do you get your raw numbers from, like the swinging strike rate and groundball rate? I figured it was Joe Leftkowitz’s but the numbers don’t match up, unless you are going by career rates?

  2. Josh Smolow said...

    Nick, I download my own pitchf/x data with an R Script.  I then reclassify every pitch as the proper pitch type…if you simply use the raw data, you end up with mis-classification screwing things up. 

    I then use a formula to calculate the ground ball and swinging strike rates. 

    May I ask what numbers seem off to you?  GB rates should be the same (or near exact) unless there’s clear pitch classification problems, though swinging strike numbers might be a tiny tiny insignificant bit different.

  3. Josh Smolow said...

    That’s because you’re misreading the number.  The Swing-Miss % column is tabulating the # of whiffs per SWING, not the swinging strike rate. 

    You can calculate the swinging strike rate from that Lefkowitz page by multiplying the swing-miss column by the swing column (Remember these are decimals when you do the multiplication of percentages).  (Also of note is that he’s got fastballs mistakenly classified as two different pitches, when it’s one crazy fastball.)

  4. Nick said...

    Ah okay thanks for the clarification. I had a feeling I had the 2 mixed up. My apologies, I’m still very much a nooby with Pitch F/X, but I’m learning.

  5. Josh Smolow said...

    Not a problem.  The terminology for that particular statistic is not consistent among people, so it’s an easy mistake to make.

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