- Tristan H. Cockcroft, Fantasy
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I love a good garage sale.
It may be other people's junk, but as the saying goes, sometimes -- sometimes -- hidden beneath is treasure. (No, please don't take this as an invitation to offer me your collection of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" place mats, or your stockpile of VHS workout tapes. Seriously, I'm not interested.)
Many a time I've unearthed a gem: Like the 5,000-count box of 1976 Topps cards a guy just wanted out of his garage because he needed the space; like the signed Al Hirschfeld print sold because its prior owner had no idea nor cared who he was; like the $1 1977 New York Yankees world champions plaque that a guy at a card show later told me he'd sell me (his; I still had one) for "only" $150. Heck, my desktop printer came from a garage sale, only because its previous owner had bought an extra and then decided he didn't want two.
No, none of these finds come even close to that of a Renoir painting -- yeah, that really happened -- but they're items I treasured, items in which I saw hidden value where others could not.
It's a similar endeavor in fantasy baseball leagues when you're sifting through the trade market. Besides filling needs, you're attempting to find value where others might not, an exercise we've for years called the "buy-low trade." The idea is to identify players with low perceived values, or at least beneath the player's true value, whom you can acquire on the cheap.
So as we go garage sale-ing, if you will, the following five pitchers are the treasures I'm most seeking in trade. They are the players I think will provide you more than 10 spots in additional value beyond their perceived price tags.
And I'll stress that if you own any of these pitchers, close your garage door before I -- or any rival fantasy owner -- stops by. Come to think of it, perhaps that's why I'm so much more interested in attending garage sales than hosting my own; who wants to give away their treasures anyway?
Is there something in the cheesesteaks that makes pitchers inexplicably unlucky in the win column? A year after Cliff Lee won six games, the fewest by any 200-strikeout pitcher in baseball history, teammate Cole Hamels finds himself on pace for only five victories … to go with 195 whiffs.
Hamels has seven non-win quality starts, a pace of 18; Lee had a major league high 15 last season. (As an aside, James Shields is currently the major league leader with 10; Hamels ranks second.) And while Hamels' ERA (4.56) and WHIP (1.28) aren't as sparkling as Lee's were on this date a year ago (3.18 and 1.05), Hamels' peripherals suggest that he's dealing with all sorts of correctable bad luck.
Take a look at his stats in some key categories:
2013: 69.1 LOB%, 90.9 AVG fastball/cutter mph, 27 Miss%, .161 WHAV
2012: 78.1 LOB%, 90.4 AVG fastball/cutter mph, 28 Miss%, .172 WHAV
2011: 78.4 LOB%, 90.6 AVG fastball/cutter mph, 26 Miss%, .169 WHAV
The most noticeable decline in Hamels' game this year has been his control; his 7.5 percent walk rate (as a percentage of batters faced) and 2.89 walks per nine innings ratio are his highest since his rookie year of 2006. That said, he has but four walks in his past five appearances -- those resulting in a 3.1 percent rate and 1.23 walks-per-nine -- so the case could be made that Hamels is already back on track. His one win and 5.22 ERA in those games, however, probably much more likely caught his owners' eye. Chances are his owners are losing their patience, even if to date he remains owned in every ESPN league.
Hamels' numbers from 2010-12 were remarkably consistent, and if his perceived value has suffered from either an unexpectedly ordinary start to 2013 or something as silly as a "Cliff Lee comparison" -- same team, so same bad wins luck -- then it's time to pounce. I don't rank him as this because his market price has slipped beneath this, plus the walk rate warrants watching, but Hamels has an outstanding chance at ranking one of the 10 best fantasy starters from today forward.
Justin Verlander will get all the press for having a FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching score) more than a run lower than his ERA, but Bailey's differential in those categories is similar -- and he's without question the buy-low candidate of these two. Why? Simple: Verlander is too obvious a name, with too lengthy a track record of success, for any of his owners to doubt him.
Bailey, meanwhile, has never been a fantasy ace at any stage of his career, but his peripherals say that he has pitched like one. He has the majors' ninth-best qualified FIP (2.56), and the 11th-best qualified xFIP (3.05), the latter correcting for what has been an unexpectedly low 0.43 home runs per nine innings ratio by the right-hander. Bailey also has struck out as many batters (83) as he has pitched innings (83), his 9.00 K/9 ratio is the highest at any career stop (10 or more starts) since he had a 10.19 mark in 13 turns in Double-A in 2006.
Like Hamels, Bailey has suffered from oddly poor luck -- especially because his Reds rank among the top 10 teams in baseball in runs scored -- as he has five quality starts in which he failed to notch a win, in four of those pitching seven innings or more. Keith Law's No. 9 prospect entering his rookie year of 2008, Bailey has finally emerged as a potential front-of-the-rotation starter, thanks to his addition of a two-seamer, and he's an excellent bet at ranking one of the 25 best starters in fantasy moving forward.
Go ahead, say that Tillman has already realized his expectations as a mini-breakthrough player for 2013, and that there isn't much room left to grow.
Two things were behind Tillman's 15-start resurgence the final three months of 2012: He recaptured his fastball velocity (average of 92.3 mph), and he continued to perfect a cutter/slider to deepen his arsenal. Granted, Tillman's fastball velocity has slipped to 91.8 mph on average this season, but I ask: What if he's one of the many pitchers who gains velocity as the summer progresses? To that end, he has averaged 92.5 mph with the pitch in his past four starts combined, during which time he has a 9.53 K/9 ratio.
Tillman's 20.2 percent ownership in ESPN leagues shows that he still has his share of skeptics, but his career arrow is pointing upward. In his price range, he has about the best odds of a top-25-starter season.
Phil Hughes, New York Yankees
Wow, a Yankees player might have low perceived value? Believe it.
Fantasy owners generally shy from Yankees pitchers -- ask Hiroki Kuroda's doubters during the 2012 preseason a little bit about that -- because of their bandbox home ballpark, and Hughes' career 1.79 homers-per-nine ratio at Yankee Stadium give them every reason to do so. He is a frustrating pitcher to own because of his gopher-itis, but at the same time, he continues to make small advances with his command and he has plenty of motivation -- he's a free agent at season's end.
Hughes' 3.65 K-to-walk ratio is his best in any of his seven big league seasons, and his miss rate on swings has risen again this year (21 percent), after taking a significant step forward last year (20 percent, up nearly 6 percent). Barring his signing in San Diego, Seattle or with the New York Mets in 2014, Hughes will never contend for an ERA crown. However, he is edging ever closer to a strikeout-per-inning average, and if he can keep his ERA beneath 4.00 he'll be a top-40 starter going forward.
I've routinely been questioned for my generous ranking of Reed this season -- he was my No. 10-ranked pure relief pitcher entering the year and has landed within my top five in this space -- which hints that fantasy owners don't truly appreciate what's developing in the ninth inning in Chicago this year.
Reed is fourth in the majors in saves (19), eighth among pure relief pitchers on our Player Rater and he has a 2.17 FIP that ranks 13th among qualified relievers (and that includes middle relievers). A strikeout artist during his college and minor league days, Reed has seen his K's return this season, his K/9 rebounding to 10.50 after a disappointing 8.84 showing as a rookie in 2012. He has done this in large part thanks to improved command of his slider; he has thrown it for strikes 12 percent more often and generated swings and misses 7 percent more often.
Reed's early-career issues follow the classic pattern of a young prospect working through adjustments, unsurprising for a fly ball pitcher who calls a hitter-friendly ballpark his home. His mistakes are more magnified as a result of U.S. Cellular Field's confines, but as he progresses he's likely to only improve his ERA contributions, the one thing holding him back from clear top-five closer potential in fantasy. On skills, he has a chance to get there … this year.
Best yet: You might get him for scarcely the price of a top-10 closer.
TOP 150 PITCHERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 150 pitchers are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued. For starter- or reliever-specific rankings, see the "Pos Rnk" column; these rankings can also be seen split up by position.
16mMichael C. Wright