Well, well, well. What do we have here? A Francisco Liriano sighting you say? Holy moly! Three starts, three wins and 26 strikeouts over 18 innings and the entire Fantasy community is running to the waiver wires faster than a fat guy grabbing seconds at the Chinese Buffet.
Liriano represents what you might call my Fantasy Baseball “drug of choice.” After owning him during his breakout ’06 campaign I was hooked. I wasn’t able to get my hands on him after his return from Tommy John surgery in ’08, but grabbed him on a bunch of teams heading into ’09. Needless to say, most of those teams behaved much like junkies. They wallowed around in the gutter.I swore off Liriano until last season. His strong spring had me jonesing for another fix. I grabbed him late, after a disappointing ’11, only to have him post another pathetic campaign. Low and behold he is back in the limelight. He has fooled me twice; the question now is: will he make it three times?
First let’s start with who he has faced; the Mets, Brewers and Cubs. These teams rank 23rd, 18th and 24th in scoring while also ranking in the bottom half of the league in strikeouts. So, quality of opponent definitely comes into play here. Another factor to take into consideration is his move to the NL. Many of these guys haven’t even faced Liriano and his wicked slider yet, so he is definitely at an advantage.
Now for the good – so far he is throwing first pitch strikes 56.6 percent of the time. Not a stellar number, but above his career average. He is generating swinging strikes at a 17.2 percent clip. To put that into perspective, that number is highest among any starting pitcher and fourth best in the league. The other nice number is the 3.0 walks per nine innings he has posted. Every season he has struggled that number has been above 4.28.
So what do I expect moving forward? Success in the near term, with a few rough outings mixed in against some better hitting squads. It will take the league a bit of time to dial him in, but I expect it to happen in late July/early August as he approaches 20 starts. My advice, if you own him, is to hold tight for a month and then deal him. If he is on your waiver wire, grab him now while he is hot and employ the above strategy to trade for a player you can use prior to your leagues trading deadline.
Last season, Cliff Lee was one of the unluckiest players in baseball. Over 30 starts he posted a 3.16 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 8.83 K/9, yet somehow only managed to win six games. This season he has won five of his first 10 starts, but hasn’t been nearly as good as he was last season. To the common fan’s eye, everything looks good. He has a 2.48 ERA and 1.02 WHIP. The underlying stats are a point of concern though, and suggest to me that he is in for a bump upward in both stats. For starters, his K/9 is down to 6.81. While a few nice games can easily bump that number up, I don’t see it coming. The average velocity of his fastball is down 1.3 MPH from last season and opposing hitters are swinging and missing just 7.7 percent of his offerings, which ranks him 69th among qualified starters. For a guy turning 35 in August with 1,925 career innings under his belt, we may very well be seeing the beginning of his downfall. Hopefully, it’s a slow fall from grace.
Jered Weaver appears set to return to the Angels rotation early next week against the Dodgers. He actually broke his non-throwing elbow dodging a line drive off the bat of Mitch Moreland on April 7. Talk about your freak injuries right? Prior to his injury he carried a 4.91 ERA and 1.36 WHIP over his first 11 innings pitched. Had he suffered an injury to his throwing arm I would be a little more encouraged, but the fact is there was nothing wrong there and he was averaging just 85.5 MPH on his fastball. There are 375 pitchers who have thrown at least 10 innings this season, Weaver ranks 368 and down 2.3 MPH from last season. He has never been an overpowering guy, but this rapid decline is worrisome. I predicted him as a bust to start the season and continue to stand by that prediction. He needs to pitch nearly flawless every time out to put up numbers like we are used to seeing from him.
The Indians Justin Masterson has teased us in years past. Back in 2011, he appeared to turn the corner as a pitcher, posting a 3.21 ERA over 216 innings, only to fall back to Earth last season. This year, however, he looks like a totally different pitcher. His secret so far has been his slider, which has been downright filthy. Last season, he struck out a career-high 159 batters. This year, he is on pace to punch out 256. His bug-a-boo throughout his career has been left handed hitters, who have hit .292 against him and posted a .358 OBP over the last three seasons. This year, those numbers sit at .226 and .319 respectively. This is obviously the key to his success this season, and the use of the slider against them has been the key. His breakout looks legit, folks. I have traded for him in a few leagues and anticipate a career season across the board.
Josh Willingham went yard twice on Thursday night against the Tigers, giving him eight long balls on the season. Unfortunately, that has come with a .212 batting average. For his career he is a .259 hitter. He also has never hit below .246 in a season in which he played at least 100 games. His rough start is curious. He is striking out in a career high 26.9 percent of his plate appearances, but at the same time walking in a career best 15.8 percent of them. He is averaging a career high 4.35 pitches per plate appearance as well. I see a combination of poor luck (.253 batting average on balls in play) combined with being a little off. His line drive percentage is at a career low 12.1 percent while his pop-ups stand at 25.0 percent. For his career, those numbers are 18.8 and 12.8 percent respectively. Now that he is showing signs of life expect these numbers to stabilize, making him a fantastic buy low candidate to grab.
Cards rookie Shelby Miller has been fantastic so far this season. Over his first nine starts he has a 1.74 ERA, 0.93 WHIP and a K/9 of 9.79. His weapon of choice has been the fastball, which he has thrown a whopping 74.8 percent of the time. Only Bartolo Colon and Lance Lynn have thrown a higher percentage. Heading into this season his minor league numbers suggested he had the ability to be a front line starter. His 11.1 K/9 over 383.2 innings screamed it, in fact. My worry here though, is his ability to finish out the season. He has never thrown more than 150.1 innings in a season. This year he is on pace for 201, just in the regular season. With the Cards looking like they are going to be right in the thick of the pennant race, I just don’t see them skipping him in order to keep him fresh as the season rolls along. Because of this I feel a fade coming, most likely sometime in August as he reaches those uncharted territories. If you own him in a re-draft league you would be best served dealing him prior to the All-Star break because of this.
Success in Fantasy baseball relies heavily on knowing when to buy low and sell high on the trade market. Now that we are past the quarter mark in the season, trading a guy while his value is at its season high for something you know your team can use is paramount. One guy I am selling if I own him is Joe Mauer. For his career, he is a .324 hitter, so when people see his .339 average there really aren’t any red flags that go up. I, however, see that his BABIP is at an unsustainable .433 mark. While he is making solid contact, Mauer is also swinging and missing more pitches than at any point of his career (6.9 percent) while also seeing a drop in contact percentage to a career low 82.2. All of these factors signal a likely drop in his precious batting average in the near future. Trade him off now before the fall starts and thank me later for recommending it.
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