Staff picks: second half

All stats updated at All-Star break

Pitchers to target

Cliff Lee

On the surface, Lee has been a colossal disappointment, with only one win and a 3.98 ERA to show for his 100 or so innings. Fear not, though, as the same Cliff Lee that’s always been exists in Philadelphia.

Sure, he rode a coaster of Phine Phortune to a 2.40 ERA last year (or more specifically, he road an 81.4 left-on-base percentage). But Lee’s groundball rates and control are consistent with his 2011 numbers, and his 3.00 FIP indicates better things to come. Some owners who doled out a fat sum to acquire Lee, like yours truly, have suffered through the uncharacteristic inconsistency and are reasonably frustrated.

Full disclosure: I looked into the trade market for the guy with the 10th-best FIP and fourth-best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the land and was almost tempted into jumping off the Cliff, so to speak. That would be self-mutilation (selling his best days short while suffering through his worst) and I don’t promote that. Buy the man, as he’ll be among the top five pitchers in the waning months of the season.
~Nick Fleder

Adam Wainwright

Adam Wainwright has not had the best first half for fantasy owners in his return from Tommy John surgery. Despite a respectable seven wins on the season, his ERA (4.56) and WHIP (1.35) are well off the league average (4.17 and 1.31, respectively), and his average fastball velocity is the lowest it’s been since he became a full-time starter in 2008. For all the negatives on the surface, however, there are ample encouraging signs for a strong second half.

Pitchers tend to have plenty of rust in their first few months back from Tommy John, but Wainwright has looked pretty sharp. His control is still as pinpoint as ever (6.6 percent walk rate, 6.8 percent career and 8.1 percent major league average) while his strikeout stuff, unlike Jordan Zimmermann‘s, is still there (22.3 percent this year, 20.2 percent career and 19.6 percent major leagie average). Even though Wainwright is leaning on the curveball and slider less than ever before, he is inducing a career high clip of ground balls (51.8 percent, 49.4 percent career).

Furthermore, Wainwright’s 2012 velocity (90.0 mph) is not too far off his career average fastball velocity (90.5 mph). Since June 1, Wainwright has a 41:9 K/BB ratio over his past 37.2 innings. Wainwright’s 3.08 xFIP, 3.33 FIP and 3.29 SIERA promise great things for those willing to buy low.
~Jeff Gross

James Shields

James Shields is an enigma. He does not walk anyone and has struck out over eight batters per nine each of the past three seasons. Yet, despite posting an xFIP of 3.55 or lower in each of the past three campaigns, Shield’s brilliant 2.82 ERA last season has been bookended by ERAs of 5.18 and 4.17. His problem has always been the gopher ball. The major league average home run-per-fly ball rate has historically been around 10-11 percent, but Shields’ 2010 and 2012 rates clocked in at 13.8 percent and 14.0 percent, respectively.

A lot of his 2011 success arguably could be the result of an increased groundball rate. After two disappointing season from 2009-2010 with career-low groundball rates, Shields upped the worm burn to 46.2 percent. His homer-to-fly ball ratio remained on the higher end of the league average at 11.1 percent, but fewer fly balls meant fewer overall home runs. That, paired with a stingy groundball rate, allowed him to beat out his peripherals last season to post a career year.

This season has seen Shields continue to struggle with poor home run luck on his fly balls (14.0 percent), but his groundball rate is a career high by a mile (53.8 percent). Shields’ strikeout rate has fallen off a bit since the beginning of June, but he is still racking up 50 percent-plus groundball outings with even stingier walk rates.

Assuming the trend continues, expect his ERA to better resemble his xFIP and SIERA (3.44/3.45) in the second half. Whereas Max Scherzer’s inconsistency makes him a medium-risk, high-reward second-half play, I’d peg Shields as a lower-risk, almost-as-high-reward, stud-capable starter to pry away from an impatient owner.
~Jeff Gross

James Shields

Jeff has already touched on Shields at length, so I’ll keep it short. All of his components say he’s the same pitcher as last year. While last season’s .258 BABIP against was certainly lucky, this year’s rate of .335 is unlucky. He’s also stranding fewer than 70 percent of base runners. Unlike in 2010, he’s not suffering a case of gopheritis. See if his owner is fed up with him.
~Brad Johnson

Pitchers to avoid

Jeremy Hellickson

Behind the mask of a respectable 3.41 ERA (11 percent better than league average), Hellickson is having a miserable season. FanGraphs has him pinned as a sub-replacement level pitcher, and while Baseball Reference and THT’s Oliver valuations are, respectively, kinder (in that order), I’m apt to go with the first reading. The silver lining in his smoke-and-mirrors, red-flags-abound Rookie of the Year campaign last summer was his swinging strike rate, which has faded to mere respectability where it was once elite.

In fact, Hellickson is spinning four-below average pitches (per FanGraphs pitch values) and is generating far fewer swings in the zone when he even hits the zone (which, of course, is also occurring at a lower rate). The control remains suspect—his 1.60 strikeout to walk ratio, three hundredths lower than last year’s mark, will drop few jaws—and the home runs are crawling over the fence this year at a higher rate.

One of these days, one would suppose, Hellickson’s above-average strand-rate will fall—even though it’s consistently hovered around 82 percent, the Rays defense hasn’t always been below average per UZR—and so, too, will the dominoes that keep him owned in 73 percent of Yahoo! leagues.
~Nick Fleder

R.A. Dickey

There’s not much analysis to this. It’s not that I don’t believe in Dickey’s breakout first half. I don’t even expect a ton of regression in the second half. It’s just that I refuse to buy high on a pitcher who lacks a UCL in his elbow. And the corollary to that is that I’d be happy to sell high.

If you own Dickey, don’t force a trade just because I’m worried half of his arm is going to detach. But if someone offers you good value, especially in keeper leagues where his age might be forgotten, I’d urge you to take it. Likewise, if you have the chance to acquire Dickey and you’re not paying out the nose, it could make sense to take the risk.
~ Brad Johnson

Hitters to target

Anthony Rizzo

Call me a homer all you want. Anthony Rizzo is going to bash 15 home runs in the second half and hit close to .280 doing it. If you are in a keeper league, as I am, you need to pay a premium for this slugger.

Since his breakout with the Red Sox in 2010, Rizzo has shown a good ability to make contact for power. His strikeout rate in the minor leagues is just over 20 percent, which is miniscule for a player with a raw power score in upper 70s on the 20-80 scale. It does not hurt, either, that Rizzo has shown the ability to take a walk, although he is sporting just a two percent walk rate through his first 12 major league games.

Rizzo’s big weakness in the past has been his splits against lefties, but he held his own against them in the minors this year, and two of his four major league home runs have been against lefties this season, including one against the reincarnation of vintage Johan Santana.

Oliver’s MLEs for Rizzo this year peg a cumulative expected .315/.364/.625 triple-slash line with 25 homers over 310 at-bats. Oliver further forecasts Rizzo as a legit 30-plus home run hitter annually over the next six seasons with a respectable .270 bating average. Given that Rizzo is only 23 years old and starting to figure out lefties, I would take the over on that batting average.
~Jeff Gross

Ben Zobrist

Since his breakout season in 2009, Zobrist has offered fantasy owners five-category production at myriad positions. His perceived value is down yet again with a batting average that is teetering on the brink of painful. He’s no longer eligible at half a dozen positions, but he can still man second base or right field. A glance at his 5×5 stats might cause you to wrinkle your nose, but a closer examination reveals reason for optimism. His season BABIP is just .266. He’s hitting slightly more line drives than in the past and isn’t hitting more infield flies than usual.

With that in mind, a BABIP below his career .284 mark seems likely to bounce back. He’s also walking more than striking out, which has a lot to do with his reduced swinging-strike rate (5.5 percent 2012, 6.3 percent career) and he’s swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone than the past two seasons. I’m predicting roughly 45 runs, 10 home runs, 40 RBI, 10 steals, and a .270 batting average over the rest of the season.
~ Brad Johnson

Wil Myers

In a major league season whose “young ‘un” news has been dominated by the promotions and successes of top prospects Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Anthony Rizzo, the resurgence of the Royals’ Wil Myers has been an under-the-radar story. After an injury-plagued season of disappointment in 2011, a seemingly healthy Myers has picked up where he left off in 2010.

After batting .343/.415/.731 with 13 home runs in 36 games at Double-A this year, Myers was promoted to Triple-A, and he has not stopped hitting. Through his first 50 games in the PCL, Myers is batting a robust .315/.395/.636 with 14 home runs.

Though only 22 years old, Myers has shown a veteran’s ability to command the strike zone with a career minor league walk rate of 13.5 percent and a strikeout rate right around 20 percent (strong for a slugger). Harper’s always gotten the bulk of the media hype as the up-and-coming young superstar catcher-turned-outfielder, but Myers is no slouch. Oliver pegs his combined Double-A and Triple-A MLE on the season at a very strong .282/.347/.575.

With Royals outfielders hitting a combined .253/.319/.368 and posting a cumulative +1.9 WAR (the worst mark in the majors), Myers might force the hands of the struggling Royals in the second half to serve him an extended cup of coffee. If so, you will want to pounce immediately. Players in deeper leagues would be advised pull the trigger early. You will be hard pressed to find a guy with Myers’ upside on the waiver wire in the second half.
~Jeff Gross

Chase Headley

Blessed with supreme talent and cursed with an unforgiving hellhole of a home to hit in, Headley’s been wrongly labeled as a middle-of-the-pack talent. In reality, he possesses 20/20 potential, hunky walk rates, and elite defense. His All-Star caliber potential is being well wasted in an ugly home park and in a last-place, going-nowhere-since-April organization in full-fledged rebuilding mode.

That is precisely why he makes for a perfect second-half breakout candidate. Throw out his home games in Headley’s career, and you have the following batting line: .299/.366/.445. This year, he’s hitting a homer every 25 or so at-bats on the road, which would make for a tasty 24 over a full 600 at-bat season.

The Padres represent one of the few sure-fire sales corps in the major leagues this deadline, and Headley’s a valuable chip who won’t realize his full value in San Diego. I’m giddy at the thought of young Headley in a Pirates uni (with Pedro Alvarez moving to first base, however far-fetched the idea is). Good storyline, meet good storyline.
~Nick Fleder

Hitters to avoid

Josh Hamilton

How does one sell “high” on one of the major leagues’ most fearsome hitters of the past few years when he is hitting .308/.380/.635 with more home runs in the first half (27 over 79 games) than he hit all of last year (25 over 121 games)?

Well, for one thing, since May 13 (the end of “the week that was”), Hamilton has hit .238/.327/.465 (.792 OPS) with nine home runs over 47 games (199 plate appearances). He is always an injury risk; despite being on pace to play over 150 games this year , he has played more than 133 in a season only once (2008). Furthermore, in the first half of the season, he has already likely done more than you expected him to do all season.

Do not get greedy. Ship him off for a better, more consistent player like Carlos Gonzalez or a long-term keeper like Mike Trout before anyone else notices he hasn’t been as good over the past 50 days as his full-season numbers indicate.
~Jeff Gross

Alex Rios

Rios has been bouncing between fantasy stalwart and black sheep for several seasons now. While there’s no reason to say that Rios will definitely fall apart in the second half, I’m very skeptical he can continue to be a five-category monster. Much of Rios’ success this season rides on a career-high 23.2 percent line drive rate. I’m not sure I believe that is anywhere close to sustainable. He’s posted rates of 16.4, 16.9, and 18.4 over the previous three seasons.

The good news is that Rios also is swinging and missing at a career-low rate of 5.1 percent. That’s a number I’m more willing to believe in, and it’s an indication that a subtle change MAY have been made that could also account for the line drive rate. Still, I’d happily bet on Rios not being a top-100 player in the second half.
~Brad Johnson

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Comments

  1. Jeffrey Gross said...

    Joel:

    I’d say so.

    And my god. Someone trade for Liriano please. I’ll have an article up about him soon

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